Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Beast: Session One

This chronicle needs a name. I'd use "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," but that's already taken. Hmm. As you'll see, the game is doing what I wanted; characters are getting established in their neighborhoods, events are unfolding slowly. It's clear from last night's session that I'm probably gonna need to have a man with a gun kick the door in at some point, but I actually have an idea on that. I think Roots in the Community hits the note I want.

Anyway! Our story begins on May 22, 2009. It's Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and folks are gearing up for a little break. Miriana Kyle is packing up her car to go camping. John Dawson is coaching his Little League team. Tyler Townsend is closing up his curios shop for the weekend. Maia Wallis is getting ready to go out.

All of them are doing normal things. All of them have monsters in their souls. For the moment, all of their Horrors are Sated.

Tyler leaves the light in the display case on as bait, and goes to the hookah bar across the street. He waits for a while, and sees a slim figure in a hoodie walk by his shop, stop, walk up to the door, try it, take a picture with a cell phone, and then walk away. Tyler tails the individual to an apartment a few blocks away, and notes the number. Maybe this person is just interested in buying something. Maybe Tyler will have to punish a thief.

Dawson finishes up the practice, noting which parents are there cheering for their kids and which ones stay on their cell phones the whole time, ignoring what's going on. He doesn't need to feed right now, but he notes which of his charges might need to get lost for a few hours at some point, just enough to make their parents take notice.

Maia goes down to 4th Street, where crowds are already drinking and partaking of the hip new restaurants beginning to spring up (this trend continues, by the way; Cleveland has a fun food scene). A young man named Ryan approaches her - suit and jacket, tie tucked into a pocket, obviously a young capitalist type. She flirts and accepts his offers. She doesn't know yet if he's going to be her next boyfriend; it depends on what he needs to learn. They eat and flirt, and then head over to the warehouse district to go clubbing. Maia notices posters on the wall with a picture of a woman in a top hat, and the words "DOCTOR BONES - I CAN HEAL YOU" underneath, along with some tear-offs with a phone number. She grabs one.

Miriana hears a knock at her door. Her neighbor, Elle King, asks if she'll come over and discuss something with her. She agrees, and Elle asks for her help in finding homes for her cats (she has...more than a few). Miriana agrees, but asks why she's getting rid of them. Elle says she doesn't want to, but at her age (82) it's good to plan. Miriana gets the feeling something else is going on, but she agrees to help out. She goes home and makes some calls, lines up some no-kill shelters who will take the cats, and as she does, she realizes that Elle looks healthier than she's been in a long time. Musing on that, she goes back over to Elle's and tells her what she's learned.

Tyler goes over to John's house and watches the Indians game with him, drinking beer and chatting. They talk about John's Little League team and any Beast-related actions John might be; Tyler points out that the kind of trauma John inflicts doesn't always have the intended effect of bringing families closer. John agrees, but at least it gives them the chance.

Maia and her new beau Ryan are waiting to get into a club, and hear sirens. As they watch, they see a man round the corner on foot, fleeing a squad car. Maia surreptitiously trips the guy, figuring he'll just be arrested, but the cops jump out of the car and immediately taze him, and then whack him with nightsticks a couple of times. Maia, outraged, films it, but the cops don't take much notice; they cuff the guy and toss him in the car. Maia expresses her feelings to Ryan, but he shrugs it off. Probably a drug dealer, he says. So what. Maia realizes this guy might actually be something of a schmuck, and is cheered by that thought.

The night progresses. Tyler and John continue drinking and chatting. Miriana builds a fire in her yard and watches for Elle's lights to go out. Maia and Ryan get to the club and dance, and Maia sees her friend Mikhail (a Ventrue). They chat a bit; Maia mentions what happened with the cops, and Mikhail points out that the Cleveland PD has a horrible track record with violence against civilians, one of the worst in the country. They part ways, and Maia goes back to dancing.

Back in Parma, Elle spends evening on the phone with various people, laughing and occasionally crying, and then goes to bed. Miriana breaks in (not that the door was locked) and snoops a bit. She finds a stack of papers on the desk, including a will, and letters to family and friends. Elle is definitely putting her affairs in order, but she seems so hale and healthy - even her arthritis is clearing up. She finds a tear-off slip of paper next to the phone, and takes it back to her house to call it.

A woman answers. Miriana stalls a bit, and the woman asks if she needs a doctor. Miriana arranges to meet her near a homeless shelter downtown. When she meets Doctor Bones, she realizes immediately that she is some kind of supernatural being, but not one that she has met before (to Miriana, she kind of smells sweet and floral). They talk, and Bones talks about how people have a flow of energy through them, like light, but injury and sickness acts like mirrors, reflecting it out of its intended path. She can correct that. Miriana, noting that this sounds a little New-Agey, asks if there's a cost. Bones says there isn't. Mirana asks why she does it, then. Bones says, "because I can."

That seems kind of suspicious, so Miriana heads back to Parma and drops in on John and Tyler, and tells them about what she saw. Maia rolls in short after and she and Miriana note they both have Bones' number, so they decide to meet her the next day. For now, though, it's late. Tyler swings by his shop on the way home and sees someone has broken in and stolen a brass spyglass in the front display. Perfect.

He visits the presumed thief, and sees her on the phone. He knocks on her door, but she tells him to go sleep it off somewhere else (he doesn't say why he's there), and he decides to wait and hit whoever she fences the object to.

The next day, he waits until she leaves and trails her to a dive bar. He watches her sell the spyglass to a man, and then Tyler waits and tails him. This guy notices him, though, and leads him into an alley to warn him off. Tyler tells him to give back what he took, the man says he bought it and refuses to give it back. He pulls out a sap.

Tyler, in no mood to fuck around, uses his Dragonfire Atavism and sets the guy alight. He runs a little ways before he remembers to stop, drop, and roll, and Tyler picks up the bag and leaves. Unfortunately, his Horror isn't interested in this meal (player failed the Satiety roll and took the dramatic failure), so Tyler is even hungrier now. Fortunately he knows someone else to punish.

Meanwhile, John does a little digging. He uses the cell phone number to look up who Doctor Bones really is - her name is Grace Macintyre, and up until a couple of years ago, she was a teacher at Cleveland Clinic and a respected doctor. Then a former patient kicked in her office door and shot her in the chest. The article says it was a "miracle" she survived. John knows better; he met Alistair Hodge once, and knows a few things about Sin-Eaters.

Knowing that these folks help people pass on, the Beasts feel a little better about Doctor Bones. They go downtown and meet her again, and John confirms upon seeing her that she is, in fact, a Sin-Eater (Maia has never met one). They talk a bit, and Miriana reveals that she's not a normal person (but doesn't get into the specifics). They ask about Grace's intentions, but she says that when people die and leaves ghosts, they are typically consumed by negative emotion. Wouldn't it be better to put some things in order before it reaches that point, free of injury or illness? The Beasts are OK with that, and John and Miriana start the process of establishing Family Ties with Grace (it takes some time; they get one roll per day).

Meanwhile, Tyler goes back to the thief's house. She's on her couch, smoking a bowl. He breaks in and hits her with the You Cannot Run Nightmare, and then grabs her head and carves a T into her cheek (for thief). Hungry and pissed off, he spends a Satiety to inflict the Fugue Condition on her, as well, grabs the money she got, and leaves, his Horror happily feasting (he's up to six Satiety; didn't quite crack out of Sated).

He goes downtown and meets up with the others for lunch. It's a nice day for it.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Movie #315: Jewel of the Nile

Jewel of the Nile is the sequel to Romancing the Stone (we'll get R eventually), and stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Spiro Focas, and Avner Eisenberg. It's so 80s it hurts.

Jack (Douglas) and Joan (Turner) have retired to a life of sailing around the world, following their pulpy adventures in the first movie, but Joan is dissatisfied and Jack is stubborn. Joan, stuck on her latest crappy novel, gets an invite from Omar Khalifa (no reference at all to Momar Gadaffi) to write his biography. Turns out he's about to take over...Africa, I guess? He does that by kidnapping a holy man named "the Jewel of the Nile" (Eisenberg), who I guess is supposed to be Sufi. In the mix is Ralph (DeVito), Jack's frenemy out for revenge and profit.

The big misunderstanding throughout the movie is that the "Jewel" is a literal jewel, rather than a man, and that actually becomes a plot point when Joan refuses to tell Jack the truth because she thinks he'll hit the road if there's no profit, which isn't terribly charitable of her. The group goes through various misadventures until the Jewel returns to his people, Omar gets knocked off a building into some fire, the Flying Karamazov brothers, inexplicably playing Arabs, juggle some knives, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This movie is a really good example of "ah, fuck it, let's make a sequel, we've got all this coke." The plot is pretty thin, the notion of the "Jewel" being a holy man is kind of interesting but it never really goes anywhere. Jewel doesn't have anything deep or interesting to say, he just does a couple of magic tricks ("miracles") and all the men in Kadir worship him (the women are apparently there, judging by the screams, but are never shown). There are some fairly significant plot holes, and Omar's obviously never read the 101 rules of being an evil mastermind, but hell, at least Whodini is on the soundtrack.

Joan doesn't quite get damseled; she gets captured and otherwise inconvenienced a lot, but no more or less than Jack, so it's got that going for it.

My grade: D
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: John Carter

What Do Characters Do?

I hear this question a lot during game design. In a lot of circles, it's kind of a gold standard - what do characters do? It's a shorthand way of asking what the point of the game is, I think, or a way to encapsulate the play experience in an easy sentence.

I think it can be a useful question, but I also think that not every game is set up to answer it. Interestingly, the games that I hear it about the most often (World of Darkness games, because those are the games I spend the most time working on) are some of the games that the question isn't terribly useful for.

I started running the World of Darkness with Wraith: The Oblivion, and one of the issues I had was "OK, what does a session of Wraith look like?" It wasn't that I didn't know what characters "did". I got that from the text; characters could do any number of things. They could interact with their Fetters, pursue their Passions, or they could become involved with the politics in Stygia if messing with the Skinlands wasn't their thing (I very rarely dealt with Stygia politics, for the record). Finding things for the characters to "do" wasn't hard, but figuring out how to start, and what might happened within a session wasn't immediately intuitive.

Some of that is because the two RPGs I started with (Marvel Superheroes and Chill) were very genre- and mission-focused. Marvel was a superheroes game, and I was playing it in elementary school and high school, so we were doing basic comic emulation. Lots of fights, lots of grandiose scheming by villains. Transitioning to Chill was kind of strange because when I started, I wasn't as familiar with horror, but Chill had an awesome bibliography/filmography section, so I wasn't hurting for reference.

Plus, both of those games had something that later games really don't - prewritten scenarios out the wazoo. Chill included at least one in every sourcebook, and Marvel had all kinds of "modules" published. Sure, they were usually written with particular heroes in mind, but that was easy enough to fix (one of the reasons I didn't buy more books for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, despite being a big fan of the game, is that I don't have any interest in running or playing established comic characters), and some of the best ones focused on a sub-genre (street level, cosmic power) and let you use your own characters. Chill, meanwhile, showed good use of timelines (as in, how things progress if the characters don't get involved).

Getting into the World of Darkness was jarring, then, because it gave me a much more intricately imagined world, but asked me to populate it and decide what was important. Where the games I'd been running were plot-focused, now I was being asked to make the games character-focused. I didn't know it, but this was part of a larger evolution happening in RPGs, moving from the "go out and kill things and get XP and gold" mindset of Dungeons & Dragons into the "tell a cool story" mindset of later games.

Bringing this back to the question of what the characters do, I think that question is actually more useful for XP-focused games like D&D or mission-focused games like Chill. Both games are about the events that happen to the characters, rather than the characters themselves (and yes, I'm aware that either game can focus on the characters, but I'm talking about the games as presented in their books).

World of Darkness games, generally, ask for a more character-focused experience, and as such I think "what do the characters do?" isn't as useful a question. I saw someone on a forum recently posit that Changeling: The Lost has trouble with that notion, because the answer to the question is "hide from the Gentry." That's a really reductive analysis of Changeling, but it does kind of highlight what I'm talking about. You can cook any World of Darkness game down to a one-sentence mission statement to answer the "what do they do?" question, but it rarely provides enough of a hook to get players involved, at least in my opinion.

Let's take Vampire, for example. Vampire has, in most of its incarnations, been a difficult game for players to wrap their brains around, because vampires are monsters. So, "what do vampires do?" Vampires feed on people, and they play politics.

Now, I've run a lot of Vampire over the years, and those statements don't even come close to covering what I've seen players do in the game. They feed, sure, but that's an atmosphere-establishing scene at best. Playing hunting and feeding scenes was fun when we first started playing Vampire (back in 1997 or so; remember I started with Wraith), but after a while you just start abstracting feeding scenes because they just take a bunch of time if you play through them. That's interesting, though; it's an answer to "what do characters do?", but the novelty wears off.

How about "play politics?" First of all, that doesn't tell you much on its face. It's not like "play politics" is an activity with much definition. Vampire: The Masquerade had a particular feel politically because the characters were all Camarilla (I mean, Sabbat games could be political, but the politics tended to be different and involve more beating people with shovels). Requiem, on the other hand, brings in different covenants and asks the group to figure out what's true in a given area. In both instances, though, "play politics" is a very general thing, and the specifics, the answer to "what do the characters do?" need to be determined in play.

I think that's actually the crux of it. The relevant question for a lot of games, World of Darkness in particular, isn't "what do the characters do?" but "what do these characters do?" That might seem like a cop-out, but I think it focuses the attention on the parts of the game that need it. It tells you that it's not enough to make characters and drop them into a setting and let them go. You need to create enough of the setting that they have something to interact with.

This is why I like games that include collaborative setting creation. Dresden Files RPG has a really good city creation system, but most Fate games actually fall into this category, as do *World games and a lot of the indie stuff I enjoy. It's not just because it takes some heat off the GM, although I definitely do appreciate that, too. It's because if the players help create the setting, they know it. They're already hooked in. They know what there is to know. The alternative is to be told, either in a big infodump at the beginning of a game (which the players promptly forget, in my experience) or to be told during play (which leads to awkward moments where characters don't know things they should know, because the players haven't been told).

I've always been of the opinion that RPGs are best when the players become involved, when they make decisions about the setting and the world, and when they take their characters and apply them to the setting, rather than having the setting happen around their characters. I think if you look at the design work I've done (curse the darkness, Promethean: The Created, Demon: The Descent, and now Beast: The Primordial), it's always been a priority for me, even if I haven't articulated it as such. Get the players involved. Make the game about these characters, rather than any given group of characters. That means giving more weight to the setting and the themes of the game. Maybe the question is better phrased as "what is there for the characters to do?"

Beast: The Primordial - The Skull Beneath the Skin

I'm running this game at GenCon, so if you're one of the six people playing, or you're thinking of, like, subduing them Hitman style and disguising yourself as one of them, don't read this.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Movie #314: Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire is a drama starring Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jay Mohr, and Bonnie Hunt. It's got some sports in it.

Jerry Maguire (Cruise) is a sports agent and kind of a sleazeball. He has a bit of a breakdown and writes a "mission statement" that encourages fewer clients, less money, and is, obviously, immediately fired. He tries to take his clients with him, but his even sleazier protege Bob (Mohr) snakes them, leaving him with only Rod Tidwell (Gooding Jr.), a football player who...is good but loud-mouthed, I guess? The only employee who follows Maguire out is an accountant named Dorothy (Zellweger).

The movie follows Maguire's attempts to get Tidwell a better paying contract and his relationship with Dorothy and her young song (Jonathan Lipnicki). He marries her for convenience, and then realizes he actually does love her, and has the sweet speech that ends with her saying "You had me at hello."

But really, what makes the movie work is the relationships, and that's kinda what the movie is about - Maguire, and Rod, Maguire and Dorothy, Rod and his wife Marcee (Regina King), Dorothy and her sister (Hunt), and so on. Cameron Crowe plays with light and focus, too, to the point that when Maguire and Dorothy are together and happy, they're glowing. It's a sweet movie.

What's funny is, I saw it years ago, and I remembered the mission statement and I remember Tidwell's "injury" but almost nothing else. I still couldn't tell you why Tidwell is suddenly offered a big contract - because he...scored in an important game, I guess? I don't understand sports at all, really.

Anyway, Gooding Jr. won an Oscar for this role, Cruise was nominated, Zellweger got her career on track, and so it's kind of a notable movie in that respect. Also Patton Oswalt has a funny routine about it.

My grade: B+
Rewatch Value: Low

Next up: Jewel of the Nile

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Monsterhearts: Season Four

So, right off, we had to do a little retconning; we pretty much forgot that last season was senior year, but we never really addressed that at all, so we did the simplest retcon we could, and said that it was actually junior year (meaning season one was freshman, not sophomore).

With that in mind, some changes since last season.

Erika is dead, of course. Genesis went home to the ocean. Ash returned to the land of the dead. So, starting senior year, we get this lineup:

  • Briar remains the Chosen. She and Austin spent some time in Europe this summer.
  • Rook is back from his sojourn being dead, and is celebrating life like whoa; he's now the Nymph (with thanks to +Jeremy Kostiew). 
  • Cassi is overjoyed to have Rook back, and has attached herself to him as the Mortal. 
  • Skylar is still the Ghost. Still dead.
  • Miguel, whom we've seen a bit before, joins us as a PC - the Unseen. Turns out that the Unseen's sex move allows his lover to see him, and Miguel's lover for a while was Dora. But now that Dora is gone (off at college somewhere), Miguel is just...easy to miss. 
  • Romy Barnett is a transfer student. He previous high school kicked her out when she flipped out and broke a desk. She's the Shadow, and the little voice in her head is Mikaela, her twin who died at birth. 
We start off in Mrs. Law's home room class. Cassi and Rook are sickeningly sweet, Romy is confused by the inside jokes and references, and Austin and Briar are sweet but kind of low-key. Miguel sits on the radiator, since he only gets a chair when someone's absent. 

Mrs. Law is also the drama teacher, and the students talk about what play the drama club is going to put on this year. They talk about classes, and Romy gets drawn into the group. Miguel uses his she's not there move to be noticed, and joins the conversation briefly.

Austin says that they should give Romy a "Perdido 101." He tells her about Pi. Briar tells her never to go to the basement. Her Shadow, of course, immediately urges her to do exactly that. The others offer their little tidbits, mostly useful stuff about the school mixed with supernatural weirdness. 

The students go about their day. Rook, Cassi, and Romy are in an Ecology class that does field trips most of the time, so they're looking forward to that. Mr. Glick, in Drawing and Drafting (which they're all in except Briar), asks after Genesis, and Skylar sheds a tear as he says she's "gone home." 

They wind up back in Mrs. Law's class for drama, and she tells them they should be doing a musical, but they don't have the money. Rook suggests raising funds, and Cassi calls her mom and manipulates an NPC to get her to pay the rights fees. Her mom agrees, provided Cassi check in with her at night - she worries about Cassi doing too much. The students look over the list of shows that the board has already approved, and they decide on Into the Woods.

After drama, it's lunchtime. Cassi and Rook slip off to a closet near the drama room to have sex. Rook uses horny reward, giving Cassi a String on him, but then since Cassi is the Mortal, it triggers his Darkest Self...which means he wants nothing but more sex, and Cassi acquiesces (this relationship is going to doom everyone). They hear footsteps outside the room, and Rook tells Cassi to go invite whomever it is; she declines, but kisses him and distracts him. 

Miguel, meanwhile, goes into the teacher's lounge and listens to Mr. Squires (history teacher brought in from the local community college) and Mrs. Law talking about students. Mrs. Law mentions that Cassi probably wants to play Cinderella, but she has someone else in mind for that (provided her choice can sing). Miguel takes a String on Mrs. Law. 

Meanwhile, Skylar, Briar, Austin, and Romy go to lunch at Pi. They talk some more about their town and the weirdness therein. Romy finds these people friendly, but odd. Skylar and Briar get up to use the bathroom, and Romy follows, listening in. She hears them talking about her, and about someone who died. Mikaela suggests that they must have killed someone - maybe this "Genesis" person they've mentioned - and put her in the basement. She also suggests Romy his on Austin, but Romy feels it's too early for that kind of thing. 

They notice her in the bathroom and leave, but Skylar slips back in and hears her talking to Mikaela (but of course, can't hear the Shadow). He zips out and talks with the others, saying that Romy was talking to someone in there, but used plural first person pronouns ("we"). Austin points out this isn't the weirdest thing they've ever seen. When Romy gets back, Austin suggests they should all go catch a movie that night, Romy's choice. She decides on Book of Life

The students regroup, and Cassi and Rook make out in the hall in full view of everyone, resolving Rook's Darkest Self. They have study hall last period, and ask to go outside. Mrs. Law agrees, and they sit under a tree and chat. Miguel tries to use she's not there again, but fails, and becomes his Darkest Self. He sets one of the branches on fire, and though it is quickly extinguished, Mrs. Law gives him a detention. 

The school day ends, and the students head home before the movie. It's senior year, they're happy, Cassi is back to being her bubbly self, Rook is alive, and all is well. 

Don't listen to the whispers. 

End credits: "Everybody Talks," Neon Trees.