Saturday, July 20, 2013

About Golden Age (My RPG in Progress)

This post is eventually going to be the "About This Book" page for the RPG I'm currently working on with Michael Strauss. Both of us have some prior freelance game-writing experience with White Wolf, but this is our first time designing a whole game on our own. He's handling the most of the rules and systems, and I'm taking care of the setting and flavor. Even though I should be packing for Pennsic right now, I got very inspired tonight and thought I should indulge that while it lasts. I also think I'm going to have an easier time writing the book once I've laid out exactly what my goals are. I really like the new open development model that White Wolf and Onyx Path have been using, so in the spirit of that, I'm sharing this with the world at large. I hope you enjoy.

Golden Age is a role-playing game about angels, demons, magic, myth, politics, and peace in the Middle East. Please be aware that this is a game for mature, responsible people. While we make every effort to be tasteful, this book does not pull punches when dealing with sensitive issues such as slavery, cannibalism, prostitution, ritual sacrifice, or religious zealotry. This is because the real, historical Middle Ages contained plenty of each, and because this game is designed to work well as a horror game if you so choose. If reading this book makes you want to do anything violent or dangerous, put it down and seek psychiatric help immediately.

Golden Age is also a role-playing game with an important message. We have chosen the Golden Age of Spain as our historical setting because scarcely anyone alive today can remember a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims could peacefully coexist in the Middle East. Few seem to be aware that southern Spain in the Middle Ages was host to kingdoms in which rabbis and imams studied each other's scriptures while philosophy, science, and the arts flourished. It would be a gross oversimplification to say it was an entirely peaceful time, and the idea of religious tolerance was foreign to the medieval mind . . . but for the most part, the people of that time and place still seem to have done a better job of tolerance than we often do today.

Golden Age is an alchemical game. Alchemy in the Middle Ages concerned itself not with literally turning lead into gold, but rather used that idea as a metaphor for the Great Work of perfecting the self. An alchemical game is a game designed to make the player a better person, not by some arbitrary external standard, but in whatever way or ways that player finds most compelling. Most often, this involves learning something new, changing your own outlook or personality, or using the game as a way to let go of something that's been bothering you. Experienced gamers will already know what we mean here, because they've likely had alchemical experiences in games before.

Golden Age is a game about the occult. In his groundbreaking study of role-playing games Shared Fantasy, Gary Alan Fine found that up to thirty percent of gamers have an interest in the occult. That's a cause of RPGs including so much magic and mythology, not an effect of it, so we make no apology for being interested real-world magical practices ourselves. Part of the alchemical intent of the game is to allow players to learn occult basics such as tarot, the Tree of Life, the four elements, and the signs of the zodiac simply by playing the game over time. If that doesn't interest you, don't worry, because you'll forget the parts that bore you anyway. Just in case it needs to be said, this book will not enable you to accomplish cartoony feats like floating in the air or throwing fireballs, so if that's what you're after, please do us all a favor and go talk to a shrink instead.

Ultimately, this game is whatever you make it. It can easily work as a geopolitical game, a mystery / horror game, or a high fantasy game, and probably also in other styles we haven't thought of. It also can work just as easily as a tabletop or a live-action (LARP) game, though for live-action we obviously recommend using the tarot system rather than dice. Part of our motivation in designing it was to steep it in a mythology that gets very little screen time in fantasy gaming or literature. To our knowledge, no pen-and-paper RPG based on Middle Eastern mythology has ever been widely published until now. There have been several games about angels or demons, but none of them have included playable races like djinn, ifrit, ghuls, golems, dybbuks, Apkallu (fish-people), or Bouda (were-hyenas). Most of the fantasy out there has traditionally stayed reasonably close to Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, with elves, dwarves, halflings and the like. Quite a lot of it is excellent, but we wanted to break new ground. We've always found the mythology and magical lore of the Middle East to be fascinating. It's certainly every bit as rich as the myths underlying more standard fantasy settings, as you will see below.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I See What You Did There... (Or: Why Dystopia Rising Rules)

Dystopia Rising, where have you been all my life?

I've been LARPing (live-action role-playing) since I was 17 years old. Most of that's been in LARPs based on the Storyteller System games by White Wolf - Vampire and a little Changeling, usually with the Camarilla (now known as the Mind's Eye Society). Along the way I've been to regional and national events, met some fine actors without a single second of formal training, and come to think of LARP as an immensely powerful tool for personal transformation. I've been picking away for the last few years at a book on what my friends and I like to call "alchemical gaming" - the practice of creating a character around issues you'd like to work on and/or things you'd like to learn more about.

Many gamers do this already, whether on purpose or by accident, but I think better results would be possible with a formalized system. I've personally spoken to a lot of gamers who've told me that working on their social anxiety is much easier when they're in character, since playing someone else makes it feel safer if you (metaphorically) fall on your face. If you intrude on a conversation or say something inappropriate, there's far less at stake if others badly of your character than if they think badly of you. If you're trying to learn to be more confident or outgoing, it's easier to "fake it till you make it" as someone else than as yourself. In psychology, this is known as successive approximation.

I'd only just completed a very rough draft of the alchemical gaming book when I made it to a Dystopia Rising game for the first time. What I discovered is a game that left me feeling more fulfilled than any LARP I'd preveiously been to, largely because it's build from the ground up for alchemical gaming. I have to admit, coming from the nonprofit LARP background I did, the idea of a for-profit LARP company gave me pause at first. But from what I understand, Dystopia Rising was in many ways built to address some of the longtime shortcomings of the Camarilla. And they deliver a truly kickass product. I've personally never seen so much attention to detail regarding props, costuming, and makeup, not even at most regional and national events I'd attended in the past. (The Grand Masquerade being the notable exception, but that was heavily subsidized since it was a promotion for the World of Darkness MMO.) And staying in character for a whole weekend straight allows for an unprecedented level of immersion.

What amazed me most was how many talented people I've run across at DR. At first I thought it might be a coincidence that every other person I meet seems to be a game designer or a singer or a poet, but as I said above, the game system is built to encourage creativity (and to appeal to those who already like to create). If you play an Entertainer and perform in-character, you can get the mechanical benefit of restoring someone else's Mind points even if your performance wasn't that great. And in order to teach someone a skill, you have to be able to talk somewhat authoritatively about how that skill works for 15 to 30 minutes. That usually requires real-world research into whatever your character is supposed to be good at, which is information you're probably going to remember later.

Before I had been to a boffer LARP, I had concerns about being forced to play a character that's physically similar to myself. After all, when you simulate combat with rock-paper-scissors instead of foam weapons, you can play a character who's strong and fast even if you're a scrawny weakling. But if you want to be strong and fast at a boffer LARP, you need to get that way for real. And that's not a bug, it's a feature... just like how if you want to have some awesome item, you have to actually take the time to make it yourself (or get someone to make it for you). I can't begin to tell you how sick I was of seeing item cards pinned to someone's lapel saying "I look this way" or "I'm carrying this item", in lieu of actually having the right costume, prop, or makeup to make the card unnecessary.

In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World, which has rapidly become my bible for revising the alchemical gaming book, Jane McGonigal explains that most people are far more inclined to improve themselves for the sake of being better at a game than just because it's a good idea. And it's true - when I think about exercise, the idea of being able to be better at running away from zombies excites me  a whole lot more than "being in shape" or even "having an easier time getting a date". This is because, as McGonigal says, games are defined by being something we choose to do, unlike the everyday realities of life that we didn't choose. And this is why I have to applaud the folks at Eschaton Media for creating a game system that naturally tends to herd its players toward testing their limits and learning new things, without it really even being that noticeable unless it's already what you're looking for.

I'm currently working on my own game system built around teaching people about peace in the Middle East and also some basics of occultism such as the four elements and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, set in medieval Spain and featuring angels, demons, flesh-eating ghuls, djinn, werehyenas and other Middle Eastern mythological creatures as playable races. I can only hope the educational parts come out as subtle and effective as the ones in DR. It's also my hope that I might find some Dystopia Rising players who are interested in testing Alchemical Gaming once I have the system complete enough for playtesting. I could also really use anecdotes about how a character has helped you to become a better person or to work on a long-standing issue, and maybe a collaborator for the book who has background in both LARP and either counseling or psychology. If you're interested in helping, please contact me either here or privately.