Sunday, June 30, 2013

Black and White

The lake looks weird, doesn't it? Like there's some kind of fog covering the surface. It doesn't seem to bother the ducks.

So why don't you try touching the surface, see how it feels?

Sure, and what if that stuff is toxic or something? Maybe I better tell someone.

Who? And what are you going to say? Help me, there this kind of weird fog on the lake?

Yeah, maybe not. Okay, I'm going to touch it. Just let me hold onto the tree here so I don't fall in...


We used the first warm day of spring to play a game suggested by Matthijs at Norwegian Style. The original idea was to go out with three people who take turns to play. One players has an encounter with the supernatural, the second player is the guide who asks questions and the third is there as an observer.

We chose Hamburg's biggest cemetery because it's huge, very park-like and not as overrun as the public parks. It took us a while to get started, but a partially frozen lake inspired a journey into another land. A land where everything was either black and white - the gravemarkers all a pure white, everything else, trees, flowers, grass, black or a dark shade of grey at most. No sound to be heard except our own footsteps. No-one around. Someone had to have been here and not long ago because there was a touch of colour, two red candles burning on a grave. It was clear that our time was limited from a hourglass suddenly in our possession. Turning it over stopped the sand, but when held upright again, a big chunk of sand fell through all at once.

Some more exploring brought us to a ring of old gravestones arranged in a circle. We stepped into the circle only to discover that the moment we turned around, the circle has closed itself. And our time was running out. When the last grain of sand dropped to the bottom of the hourglass, the ground gave way beneath us and the next thing we knew, we were floundering in the icecold waters of the lake, back where we started.

This was our first experiment with this kind of freeform roleplaying and it turned out brilliantly. We didn't really plan anything, just went outside and waited for inspiration. Since my friend came up with an idea first, I acted as the guide and merely asked questions or suggested things to do or try (we didn't have a third player).

Someone at the Story Games forum has told me about the concept of Derivé, a journey through a (urban) landscape, subconsciously influenced by the surroundings. This is very close to what we did here and we lost ourselves so much in our imagination that we needed to just sit and slowly come back to reality after we were done.

It was actually the first time since my childhood that I went outside and, armed with nothing but my imagination, played a game of make-believe. It worked every bit as well as it did back then.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Have you ever felt that our lives are not...real? That there's something going on? Didn't something strange happen to you lately? No. Hm. Okay, please hear me out before you call me nuts. People have disappeared from my life and no-one but me remembers them. I had this colleague and one day she didn't come to work. No-one noticed. It's like she has never been there. No - she did not just move away or get fired. It's like someone erased her and I'm the only one who notices. Oh, and the people I ask didn't even remember us talking about it five minutes later.

This was the opening for a freeform game I played with a friend. I had no idea where it would be going or even if it would work when I came up with it and I was rather nervous when we started, but it worked out beautifully.

In the game:
We talked for a while about how such a thing can be possible - always assuming that I'm not just completely bonkers and then I started having serious deja vu, like we had done and said this all before. The feeling went away after a while, but we both were suddenly missing people in out lives. Friends we share, people we hang out with - only one of us remembered them. It was ridiculous and we laughed, but there was no denying that this was happening. And then we forgot. What did we talk about? I don't know, roleplaying and stuff, the movie we'd be watching later. Stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Out of the game:
We played the game as ourselves, no characters. I inserted the start of the game into an ongoing conversation, although we later agreed to have some sort of start and stop signal next time (like a coin one player hands to the other). We never really went out of the game while it lasted and we managed to arrive at the same points without talking about it, like when we suddenly both had caught whatever was happening or when we ended the game by forgetting all about it.

We played this game right in the heart of Hamburg, visiting a couple of landmarks on the way and ending up taking the old Elbtunnel to get to the other side of the river. That was not actually planned, but it was a lot of fun to do. Here's our route. With hindsight, the tunnel was a great way to work towards the end of the game and a nice metaphor. When we arrived on the other end, we pretty much just sat there, looking out over the river towards the city for a good ten minutes, not talking. The view there is gorgeous and one of my favourite places to see Hamburg.

The game was inspired by a short story by Neil Gaiman, Goliath. I thought about a couple of other things to do during the game, like pointing out buildings that have not been there yesterday. Or using a tablet/phone that for some reason or other has the ability to show only people that are real, instead of all the people that are just illusions. That would have been a different game, though, maybe I'll try that when I get another chance. This time, we explored how we would deal with it if something like that happens - would we even care if someone told us as long as we did not actually remember the people who are gone?

Another inspiration was the blog Norwegian Style and a game suggested there of just going outside and encounter the supernatural. The idea of just going somewhere and playing there comes from that blog post. We also did the actual game the post described, but that will be another post.

This game was very personal and my absolute favourite part was the way we created the story with unspoken agreement.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Last Train Out of Warsaw

September 17, 1939: the Germans are advancing on Warsaw and a crowd of people hope to escape on the last train that leaves the city, taking them to the Rumanian border. There will not be room for many of them and the train carries a secret as well - all the gold of the Poland’s National Bullion Reserve, which must not fall into the hands of the Germans.

This is where Last Train Out of Warsaw (link will open PDF) starts, a game for up to eight players and one Guide. The characters are ready-made, with short descriptions, a couple of things in their possessions and a couple of secrets and goals. The game is diceless and relies heavily on creativity and storytelling, especially cooperative storytelling. Everybody gets to add something to the scene if they feel like it.

Usually, there are ten scenes and every players has his turn during each scene. That rule went out of the window immediately and we all described the scene together, what everybody was doing. It worked well for the rest of the game and we all had great scenes. People with less experience in that kind of game or roleplaying in general may want to use that rule, though. I think our way added nicely to the feeling of chaos and unpredictability that the setting has.

Here are some things that happened:
- upon discovering an abandoned pub when looking for food in Pilava one of the players deadpanned: 'Pavel Kovalski, fourth-generation pub owner, had suddenly decided that living to see a fifth generation was more important that staying a pub owner'

- the train goes way too slow due to the weight of the gold and the train personnel starts to get suspicious, which leads to a couple of awkward scene between them and the two officers who accompany the train (ostensibly to ensure the safeness of the civilians). The Fireman has no qualms at all to more or less subtly threaten the Adjutant with violence to get the truth, especially after he picked up on the fact that the man is far from brave during an aerial attack on the train.

- the train stays hidden for almost twelve hours near an abandoned mine, where the Engineer had already hidden once before from the Germans during WWI. He is recognized by a young man from a nearby village - the Engineer's unit had plundered the village to stay alive. That scene almost ends in violence.

- the Pretty Girl discovers that something is hidden under the floor boards of the train and she gets caught by the Quiet Man (one of the officers). This scene does end in violence and the Quiet Man takes her into one of the buildings around the mine and shoots her. A little boy seems him take her there, but the Quiet Man is not so far gone that he would shoot the child, he merely knocks him senseless and binds him so that the child can escape later.

- Lublin is on fire. The tracks are destroyed, but railroad workers rebuilt them, right in front of the train. A group of passengers, young men, wish to leave the train and the Adjutant tries to make them stay. The Fireman steps between them and in the end the Adjutant is knocked out by one of the men who do leave the train and stay to fight.

- the tracks are barricaded by a couple of tree trunks, a brightly coloured wagon and a truck and people are waving for the train to stop (the Pretty Girl's family, but we don't know that). Engineer and Fireman decide against that, they let the train run at full steam and the Adjutant, only just come around again, is conscripted to help shovel coal. They manage to break through, but the Engineer is badly burned by hot steam. He dies with the knowledge that he has done his duty to his country.

- at a small station, the Russians have already arrived. Again, the Fireman (who now has to drive the train) decides against stopping. Unfortunately, the Russians have an anti-tank gun and open fire on the train. The first shell removes much of the second carriage, the second one hits the first carriage, but it's a dud. The Quiet Man grabs it and throws it back at them, neatly rolling it under the truck the gun is mounted on. There, it explodes and the train escapes further harm.

- upon arrival at the Rumanian border, there is a small problem: the Rumanians will allow the civilians into their country, but since Poland no longer exists, they cannot allow the train (and thus the gold) to cross the border. The Quiet Man solves that problems by removing and painting over any signs that the train is Polish and he and the Rumanian officer agree that neither of them has seen a Polish train. And so the gold is brought to safety. The Quiet Man, having done his job and having sacrificed too much for it, then commits suicide.

The Conductor was, we all agreed, the best character - think Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Give him a Polish railway uniform, a whistle and have him try desperately to maintain order and, above all, a proper timetable while around him his world collapses into chaos. Whenever the train stopped or departed, even when it was in the middle of nowhere, the Conductor loudly announced it and advised everyone to get on board, close the doors, keep their pets on a leash and their tickets ready.

We played, with a small break for dinner, for twelve hours. It was a lot of fun to watch the characters come to live and to see the story unfold, with each player adding something to each scene. It was the kind of game that stays with you, I know I needed a couple of days to sort through all of it. It was at times a harrowing experience, especially the first scene and the on in Lublin, driving through a city at war, with the knowledge that everyone who helps us escape will stay behind.

We skipped one scene. The train is supposed to be stopped by bandits, but the Pretty Girl's player added a similar scene before that. Having read what is supposed to happen in that scene, I'm fairly glad we skipped it. The bandit WILL bring the train to a stop, their barricade is much more substantial. And then then bandits will start to take everything away from the passengers, will threaten them and maybe kill people who resist. And they will choose some women to rape. I really would not have wanted that sprung upon me.

I'm not at all concerned when it comes to violence during a game and my characters often use violence themselves. But rape is different. It's too often used anyway as shorthand for 'something the female character experienced to give her more depth' or 'yeah, those guys are really evil'. And although I don't worry about being raped when I leave the house or live in fear of it all the time, it's nonetheless closer to what I experience in daily life than, for example, seeing someone shot.

I had actually no idea that this would have been an issue for me. So far, the topic has never come up in any of our rounds. But when I read the scene, I knew right away that this would have been a problem, at least when done without a warning. We're going further and further in the Jeepform/Nordic Larp direction with our gaming and there is a good reason why those games always have a briefing and debriefing to avoid exactly such things.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lady Blackbird

Lady Blackbird is scheduled to marry Count Carlowe, but she has no intention of doing that. Instead, she has hired the crew of the Owl, a small but fast skyship, to take her from the her homeworld Ilysium to the far side of the system, where her former lover, the pirate king Uriah Flint, has his hideout.
Unfortunately, the Owl was captured by the Imperial cruiser Hand of Sorrow and it's only a matter of time until they are all arrested for various reasons. They have been taken to the brig of the cruiser, to await their fate.

This is the starting point of Lady Blackbird, a science fiction/steampunk setting that is best played with a lot of creativity and love for storytelling. There are five ready-made characters who have a handful of special abilities and gifts. Of the sixteen pages the rulebook has, the rules take up half a page.

The job of the GM is to ask questions, whatever interests her or what she thinks will make the stories interesting. If the characters want to do something, it's best to says yes and then introduce an obstacle (like guards, a sky squid, a fire breaking out ect.) or ask a question like: 'do you think the ship takes damage during that manoeuvre' or 'does this spell come with any side effects' or 'any rumours about this place you have come across'. The story is built from what the players answer and what they do, they have a great deal of control over their situation and the world they play in. As a GM, it's very hard to plan anything, but it's an excellent chance for improvisation. And you can steer the players gently in the desired direction with your questions.

I'm running a game of Lady Blackbird at a German RPG forum. We only just started, but I'm enjoying myself immensely already. My players have come up with very nice back stories and ideas that have a lot of potential. They have also, five posts into the game, already started to bicker among themselves and have kicked down the door to their cell, making a lot of noise in the process.

Lady Blackbird is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 license and there are a lot of hacks out there, different settings and more stuff people have come up with. And this is exactly why I love Creative Commons. if people like your stuff, they want to create new things from it. So let them and take pride in it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Biodiversity Portal

Got some time on your hands? If you like biology and maybe always wanted to work in a museum, get a look at all those cool things they keep behind the scenes, you now have the virtual chance.

The Biodiversity Portal is a project by the Atlas of Living Australia, an organisation of Australian museums and university. They gather as much information about Australian fauna and flora as possible. Part of the process is digitalising and transcribing field notes and collection labels and that's where you come in. No background in sciene is needed, just the ability to read some really ... creative handwriting.
Here is a list a list of all the projects that need volunteers right now, more projects will be added. So go register, read the tutorials (seriously, read them!) and then chose a project to work on.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The SCP Foundation

Secure. Contain. Protect.

The job of the SCP Foundation is to protect the public from object or creatures that are a threat to humanity. We attempt to capture those things, keep them in a secure place and attempt to understand them, often risking and losing the lives of our agents. You have never heard of us, be thankful for that.

But since you have gotten this far, here is a choice for you. You can work for us and get a look at all those files you seem to find so interesting. Or you can take this pill and never remember any of this. Think about it.
Still here, I see? Welcome aboard, then. Someone will be around shortly to take care of you. In the meantime, here are some files. Read them to get a basic understanding of what will be your job from now on.



I came across the SCP site a couple of days ago and I can't seem to stop reading. There are almost 2000 files there and a lot of extremely creepy stuff. Some are funny and some are funny and creepy at the same time. I mean, 237 cakes that reproduce every 24 hours unless eaten?
Apart from the fact that it's just plain good reading, there is a lot here that could be used for a horror RPG. Have the characters come across one of these artefacts or maybe add some urban legends just for flavour.
if you feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer mass of files, I suggest starting with the most highly rated of each object class.