Hello, Namegivers! Karol back with some more thoughts and ruminations on the Fourth World. The past couple of years have seen a lot of changes and challenges, not only the difficulties of COVID making convention life impossible but also long, hard looks at why and how we, as game designers and developers, do the things we do, and what we could do better.
If that sounds vague, that’s because it is! There are a lot of dimensions to this. There were social issues that led to self-reflection and re-evaluating some of our assumptions. The forced indoor time also meant learning new platforms and services we might not have otherwise tried, with learning curves and speed bumps on the way. That indoor time also meant we had a lot more opportunity to come face to face with those game systems and settings we’ve had on our shelves but not given a close look before. As we come out of quarantine into a new world, I thought I’d reflect on some of these lessons I’ve learned from “the pandemic year.”
Obviously, we all experienced pandemic-related issues and other social concerns that I’m incredibly ill-equipped to describe with any real insight. That said, it spurred some intense conversations among developers, and it was interesting to examine Earthdawn through some different lenses.
One of the first things that drew me to the game was the rich world it created, and the way it took a lot of tropes and twisted or undermined them to create a rich, complex, and messy setting. As I’ve aged as a consumer and creator of content, I have come to appreciate messy situations. The idea of orks forming a nation to live outside the cycle of oppression they had experienced at the hands of the Therans (and their own neighbors!) was exciting, for reasons I couldn’t verbalize easily at the time but that I think are especially salient today. And I hope I can do justice to the forward-thinking spirit FASA had (and continues to have) as I contribute.
When I was younger I loved swashbuckling heroics and the protagonist cleanly winning the day, and that’s still fun! But I’ve found that messy situations with no easy solutions make for fantastic character development. They challenge your players to explore parts of their characters that might not otherwise come up, and a well-placed mess can lead to some exciting turning points, while supplying fodder for future adventures as your table deals with consequences.
That said, a lot of things can veer into uncomfortable territory, or there might be disagreements over how to resolve or address them. This is where one of the biggest evolutions in my running style has come in: a serious focus on table safety. Things that are comfortable to address with your home group might not be for others, and it’s always important to make sure everyone at your table is feeling safe and heard when you play.
I’ve seen what happens when someone is not feeling safe but also not comfortable expressing themselves about it around strangers, and so table safety’s been a concern for a while. It was only during quarantine where regular gaming happened online or with complete strangers that I started to regularly implement table safety tools. I’ll be kicking myself for a while that it took this long, but I’m really happy with how it’s made for a smoother gaming experience for everyone. If nothing else, I can’t recommend lines, veils and x-cards enough for making sure you and your players are empowered up front to tackle difficult issues and concepts at the table. If you are a GM and especially if you’re running tables at conventions, they’re an invaluable resource and framework.
I probably dug my teeth into only a few of the many technical solutions people came up with to bridge the distance between us when we were stuck isolating. The biggest is obviously virtual tabletops, and while I’m going to be an old curmudgeon and say that I don’t find they replicate the in-person experience perfectly, they’ve also been a godsend for keeping games going when we desperately needed the distraction. I’ve had different experiences with different platforms and definitely have my favorites, but when it comes down to it, support for the games you want to play is the biggest factor. I will say that when it comes to voice or video solutions, I’m still an old man who sticks to Google or Discord tools, and they still work great!
One of the more exciting things about quarantine was experimenting with tone-setting tools such as shared visuals, audio and even video that supplements the feel of your game. Immersion is important, and establishing tone is a big part of that, but when you’re playing online engaging your players with interesting audio cues or background music is a huge boon to getting that tone right. I got to see some very cool uses to help make up for not being in the same physical space together, and they’re ideas I’ll be carrying forward with me in the future.
Finally, I’ve experienced a lot of design mechanics just by picking up books I normally wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to read, and been really inspired through this. Some are minor tweaks, like letting rolls ride to help keep the action in a scene flowing, while others have made for more enriching stories, like fail-forward mechanics that introduce new complications instead of simply telling your players “nope, that just doesn’t work.”
The biggest thing I’ve come to enjoy is going to sound silly in retrospect (I feel silly even typing this!), but it’s clocks. I can’t stop thinking about these, because they’re just such an easy and versatile way to track progress of seen or unseen things, and introduce an element of pressure in an easily digestible way. Your players are in a chase scene? Set up a clock. Being hunted by a hidden foe? Clock. Probing the defenses of a place before a heist in various ways? Clock! Working on a long-term project in the background? Better believe that’s a clock. I know it sounds silly, because it’s something we’ve all done, but naming the thing’s allowed me to play with it in a lot of interesting ways, and it works as both a planning element and a spontaneous element in a way that’s clear and fair to everyone.
Thanks for following me on this ride through Pandemic Thoughts! It was a strange time for all of us, and I’m glad we made it through. I’d love to hear more about how you’ve grown as a GM or in your own game design, development, or even playing!