Friday, 20 March 2020

Plot Elephants

Sometimes when you play a TTRPG someone introduces a seemingly small element into the plot that ends up changing the game and unintentionally grabbing a lot of attention to itself. They are Plot Elephants, because you just have to acknowledge the elephant in the room when it appears.


Let's talk about some examples.

DnD's Amulet of the Planes


Amulet of the Planes is an artefact that lets you transport yourself and nearby creatures to another Plane of Existence you know. If you fail a roll, everyone gets scattered across that Plane and possibly every other Plane. So basically you have a pocket device from Sliders with notable chance to scatter the entire party across the multiverse each time you use it.

It is a powerful artefact, but one with a pretty high chance of throwing en entire adventure haywire. So either you make the point of  avoiding using it, figure a way around its limitations, or YOLO it and ravel in the chaos to the GM's dismay. It's not really the type of artefact you just go "oh cool" and forget on your inventory sheet.

Taking20 listing Amulet of the Planes as a campaign-breaking item
"It doesn't matter what your campaign was about, it is now a plane-hopping campaign"

Exalted's Dragon Kings


In Exalted there is an old race of creatures called the Dragon Kings. They are creatures of perfect resurrection - their souls retain the memories of all of their previous lives when they are reborn. Couple that with them being one of the most ancient races of the setting and being heavily intertwined with the highest deity of the setting and his Exalted heroes, introducing a Dragon King into the game opens up a large can of worms.

Dragon Kings!

First of all, they have been around when the land was ruled by titans and a lot of them would probably have first-hand experience of their cruelty and how the world was put together. This history goes strongly against the cosmology put forth by the biggest faction of the setting, the Realm, but also many other players like Autochtonia, etc. They have dangerous knowledge.

Secondly, they've lived through multiple apocalypses and many of them could know of a number of ancient tombs filled with treasure and weapons from the height of the Deliberative. If anyone would know where some mad warmonger keeps their stash of doomsday weapons, it would be these guys.

Thirdly, depending on how you play them, they might be a terrible influence on some of the Exalts, particularly Solars. Our GM likes to portray them as sycophants, and there is no easier way of making a character do horrible things than to inflate their ego with flattery and tales of how they once were the rulers of the world. If their word was law and they could do no wrong, how can this time be different? They deserve to subjugate their enemies after all...

During the Congenials Season 1 Episode 7 our GM introduced a ghost of one of the Dragon Kings as a story hook for one of the players and it absorbed most of the attention from the party. The Solar wanted to cleanse its soul right there and then, the Alchemical wanted to extract the heretical history out of their head and mess with its reincarnation so they'd have a knowledgeable companion, and the Dragon King wanted to whisper honeyed words into the Solar's ear. That character alone sparked a large deal of debates for the players, both in character and out.

SWN's True AI


In Stars Without Number Revised the players can choose from a few key character classes - Warrior, Expert or Psychic. These are all pretty standard and pretty balanced between one another. However, in the Deluxe edition, you can also pick a fourth option - to play a True AI.


In SWN, a True AI is not just a normal robot like R2D2 or C-3PO (that would be a Virtual Intelligence character "race"). A True AI is Ultron:

True AI in a nutshell

Straight away at character creation you can take the murderbot frame (Omen) and be able to rip and tear way above your weight class and tear through even ship hulls:

This is your starting PC.
Yes, the one in the background that looks like
Michael Bay's Megatron

If you have a ship with the correct modifications, you can run it by yourself by level 2. If you had a hacker in your group, by level 3 they are outclassed by your innate hacking skills. At the same level you can control almost 3000 drones and it only gets crazier from here. By the time you're at level 9 you can teleport, rewind time, dictate how events will unfold in the future, and retcon almost any level of preparation out of your hat ("why yes, I did bury a spare spaceship with months of life support and power armour on this desert planet for this exact eventuality"), so you're outclassing a lot of psychics (oh, and unlike them, your powers can't be countered or detected by psychics).

All the while you have a lich-like phylactery which makes you a lot more immortal than anything in the universe, and you can swap your shells to get high bonuses to specific things ("need a medic? I can be a medic in 5 minutes. Need a mechanic? I can be one as well").

In-universe, the value of a True AI far exceeds what any player or even entire planets could earn, and they are also extremely dangerous if they turn malicious. Heck, in-fiction True AI have to have breaks on them to dumb them down to human-level thinking. Otherwise, these "unbreaked" AIs turn extinction-level-entity very rapidly.

So the moment a True AI gets introduced into the game, you're dealing with a large elephant that needs addressing. If it's a PC, they can make the game interesting very quickly (especially since SWN encourages the GMs not to "keep the PCs poor" and so on). If the PCs find a True AI, they can get either very rich, or very dead, depending on how things roll. Heck, RollPlay's SwanSong was a game about dealing with unbreaked AIs and the nightmare even one of them can be.

EvWoD's Ceasing to Exist Approach


In Exalted vs the World of Darkness Sidereals have a Charm called "Ceasing to Exist Approach". It lets your current self stop existing while you take on the life of any person you want, whether they are human or supernatural. The past reweaves your new existence into itself to fit you, so if you are a vampire prince's daughter you have the backstory to back it rather than appear out of thin air. You also get a lot of dots in Backgrounds, meaning you can have a lot of potential influence as a character - you could be a high-ranking member of the vampiric society and a millionaire at the same time, etc.

The thing is, when you end this power and go back to being yourself, that other story doesn't vanish, just the person goes missing. Suddenly the prince's daughter is missing, or a politician is nowhere to be seen, or what have you. Their stuff is also there, and since you know their bank account passwords or could arrange some other transfer to your old self, you can bootstrap a lot of interesting stuff to yourself. You could for a moment create a Bruce Wayne-like figure in your town, complete with an Alfred, tell them what's going on, then come in as yourself and enjoy your life of luxury and a hyper-competent and loyal butler.

So the Charm is very powerful, but also has strong drawbacks that have vague consequences. You could use it to bypass a lot of problems ("our target is locked up in his doomsday bunker? Good thing he was his loyal butler by his side! Disappears!"), which can make the game a bit boring and very frustrating for the GM. It's also a very expensive Charm, so it's a Plot Elephant - either the game is about hopping identities and you make the investment, or you just spend a good chunk of XP on something you don't want to use or can't utilise.

Sidereals Ceasing to Exist everywhere...

Conclusions


When introducing elements into your game that are very strong, have a lot of knowledge to share, or have the chance to derail the plot, you should be prepared for what you're getting into. Once a Plot Elephant is in the game, your whole game could revolve around it, or be shaped by it. This of course can make for some excellent stories and even entire games, but if they weren't meant to be the focus, they can take away from everyone's enjoyment. Teleporting someone into the Elemental Plane of Fire might be a fun joke once and getting your party back together from across the multiverse might be an interesting story, but both can be frustrating the second and third time around...

Respect and acknowledge the elephant in the room...

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Levels of Trust in RPGs

When you start playing tabletop RPGs with new people you quickly start figuring out the level of trust that's the norm in the group - how much can you trust those people not to screw you over given the opportunity. Taking a more conscious look at it might help start a conversation about what is the expected gaming etiquette.

Trust Level 0 - the weak are meat



At Trust Level 0, everyone is always on guard and looking for a way to got one over the other players and NPCs. You can expect stuff like mind control, mind reading, vampiric blood bonds, actively stealing from one another, backstabs, betrayals, or even stuff like murdering another PC and stripping their corpse of anything valuable. The GM might also be in on it, using cheap tricks against the PCs, trying "gotchas" to get them poisoned, mind controlled or the like.

Metagaming is the norm - any information you have about the other characters can and will be used against them, and metagrudges will be held - "you killed my previous character, now his son is here to avenge his father".

Generally, this is the sort of stuff you see on /r/RPGHorrorStories. Games filled with munchkins, murderhobos, minmaxers, metagamers and everything in between, because the weak are meat, and the strong do eat. But there is hope on the horizon if the players grow tired of this type of gaming...

Trust Level 1 - Mexican Standoff / Mutually Assured Destruction



At Trust Level 1, the players along with the GM are at a Mexican Standoff or a Mutually Assured Destruction. They don't want to be the ones to start descending to Trust Level 0, but they don't trust others not to screw them over if given the chance. There is still plenty of distrust around, but at least the bullets and the missiles are not actively flying.

This Trust Level is less about actively fighting other players, but more about keeping things secret and keeping your guard up. You still pass secret notes to the GM, you still go off to roleplay away from others when you have something you need to do in secret, etc. Metaknowledge is still valuable after all - stock up on those nukes in case the cold war goes hot.

If things stay calm and no incidents happen, things can move to the next Trust Level.

Trust Level 2 - Deescalation



At Trust Level 2, you have a group that actually starts to open up and lower one's guard. The players learn that you don't need to keep everything a secret from one another, that there is no active threat of someone screwing you over, etc. There is a general understanding that you shouldn't be using your powers against one another, and even the GM doesn't try pulling anything dirty on you.

At this Trust Level you can still see players try to metagame the game, but mostly by reading the GM - "Me and my friends are invited to another party? I remember the last time we had a party it turned into a few people getting murdered. I'm taking all of the NPCs I care about and hiding in my panic room until it's over!".

If things continue the way they do, things should quickly turn into...

Trust Level 3 - Everything in the open



At Trust Level 3, the group finally starts to really trust one another. People don't mind doing anything secretive out in the open and they know the other players won't betray them. The GM plays fair and doesn't wish for your PC to die.

At this Trust Level, a bit of meta-trust begins to form. If the GM assures you there is nothing to worry about something, you trust their word and go along whatever they were planning. If they put your character in a vulnerable position (capturing you, stealing from you, etc.), you can expect everything to return to normal sooner than later. You can even expect them to go out of their way to save your ass if things don't go the way you planned - if you surrender to your enemies, you can expect a way to get back into the game, but maybe with a hefty life debt to repay...

This Trust Level is a good plateau for most groups, where everyone gets along and there is no (undeserved) PVP, but there is still further one can go.

Trust Level 4 - Trust Fall



At Trust Level 4, things begin to horseshoe a bit. While at Trust Level 3 you knew other players wouldn't do anything against you, on Trust Level 4 you once again encourage other players and the GM to do bad things with your character. Once again things like mind control, mind reading and so on are on the table, but this time with a strong understanding that it's not a malicious action between the players.

This Trust Level allows you to roleplay those various aspects of the system and the setting with the focus on making a good story, rather than getting one over the other players. When a GM NPC mind controls you, you jump at the opportunity to cross the party in good faith. When it would be cool for another player to betray you, you encourage them. It's all about having fun and trying new things, even if that's something your character wouldn't like to experience.

Why is trust important?


Some of you might be wondering why is trust important in the game. After all, roleplaying a paranoid person should be equivalent to roleplaying someone trusting, right? Well, there are a few things to it.

First of all, short-term stress can be fun (roller coasters anyone?), but a prolonged stress just induces anxiety and other negative feelings. At low Trust Levels, you might not be looking forward to your game, but feeling stressed about the prospect of spending another long evening worrying. It's not a fun space to be in repeatedly.

Secondly, being paranoid eats away your time. You spend hours worrying about stuff, both in-game and out, and you waste a lot of game time preparing for something that might not come. Recently I've listened to the first episode of Congenials, wherein one player spends over half an hour just setting up plans to secure a safe storage facility for loot they might be getting from some ancient tomb. This was despite them already having an okay storage facility operated by the Guild. But because the player was paranoid of that security not being enough, they spend that extra half an hour lining things up, only for the party to end up not taking the loot from the tomb in the end. So not only was that preparation needless in the end, the GM is not the kind of person to steal stuff from the players, so it was double unnecessary in the end.

Thirdly, having to devote so much resources to protecting yourself means you don't get to explore some weirder character options. Maybe you have an idea for a character that's pretty weak and can't defend themselves, one that's so far from being min-maxed anyone could take them in a fight. At Trust Level 0, they would probably be killed for their starting gear, but at Trust Level 3, you could actually have fun with them.

Lastly, it can be frustrating for a GM to deal with paranoid players. It might be a funny to joke about not wanting to go into the creepy mansion that's obviously haunted, but if that's the encounter the GM prepared for the evening, that's where the characters should be heading. It's not fun trying to wrangle and herd the cats that don't trust the GM not to walk them to their doom. Same about players that take half an hour to cross an empty hallway because they have been conditioned to expect traps, and same with ones that don't want to engage with your plot mcguffin because "never use unidentified magical items, they might be cursed".

Because of all of these reasons, and probably many more, building a level of trust in your group is important. It makes the game more enjoyable and saves you time.

Conclusions


There are different levels of trust you can have in a tabletop RPG, with different behaviours being the norm from both the players and the GM. If you find yourself wanting to play at a higher Trust Level than the one you're stuck in, talk to each other about it and maybe you can start de-escalating the tensions until you reach your happy level and enjoy your game more.

Monday, 9 March 2020

ExalTwitch - an Exalted Podcast Review

I’ve spent the last few months listening through a few of the Exalted RPG Podcasts / Actual Plays and I figured I’d share my thoughts on them with you. There is a good deal one can learn from them, whether you’re making your own actual plays or just gaming in general.

In today's episode, I will cover ExalTwitch.

Disclaimers


There are a few important disclaimers to get out of the way before we start.

First of all, I understand this was a fan project and should be judged accordingly. I am thankful for the effort the cast has put into entertaining us with their stories, but there will be some criticism of the podcast present.

Secondly, any criticism made against the characters portrayed or how the game played out should not be held as criticism or insults of the game master or the players. Not everyone is perfect and sometimes something doesn’t work out or falls flat in execution. It’s important to keep the art separate from the artist and focus on the former without being disrespectful to the latter.

Thirdly, since I’m also a part of an RPG Actual Play Podcast that features Exalted games, I might be biased towards one interpretation and way of handling things in Exalted that might not agree with how others view and play the game, that’s to be expected. That and some might see criticising other podcasts a conflict of interest or something, so here is your disclaimer.

Finally, there will be some spoilers for the show, it would be rather hard to discuss some things without that...

Overview and minor things


ExalTwitch is an Exalted actual play hosted by @JonVerrall. The game features a set cast of three PC Exalts and can be generally divided into two phases - early episodes focusing on the Circle’s adventures in Nexus, and late episodes that explore more of the world.

The series takes the form of Twitch streams (VODs are available here), each about 3 hours in length.

The cast consists of professional actors, streamers, etc. which lends itself to some solid voice work.

Player Characters


http://www.rpgclinic.com/exaltwitch:characters

Unlike Swallows of the South, ExalTwitch features a fixed cast of characters:
Jorek - an Eclipse merchant prince and deal broker
Rey - a Dawn fighter from the pits of Nexus
Valeria - a Zenith healer and orator
They are also joined from time to time by She-Who-Knows-Ten-Thousand-Things, a Lunar scholar

General Plot


The plot of the game, as mentioned earlier, can generally be split into two parts - the earlier parts of the game that is mostly spent in the city of Nexus, and the later parts where the party starts travelling the world in their efforts to advance the metaplot.

As mentioned before, there will be some spoilers ahead for what’s going on in the game, but the main focus is on highlighting the kinds of things you can expect listening to the podcast.

The early game is focused on the protagonists going about their business in Nexus as a freshly reincarnated Solars. Rey cares for her ailing father as she fights in the fighting pits, striving to improve the fighting conditions there. Jorek strives to improve his position in the Guild to be able to leverage it to help the people of Nexus. Valeria tends to the sick and tries to win over the hearts of the masses to convince them the Solars are not Anathema. Early on the group also finds their old manse and set it up as their base of operations.

Early plots include confronting local Abyssals, Dragonblooded, Sidereals, as well as facing off against an Exigent of Discord who aims to spread the disease targeting the rich. This part of the series gets capped off with a Dragonblooded army, along with an airship, threatening the safety of the city. After that has been dealt with and Nexus suffering enough collateral damage, the game transitions into “the metaplot” phase.

During the second half of the series, probably to avoid stagnation, the party leaves Nexus intermittently to explore the wider world. They travel to the Wyld to get directions to a Yu-Shan gate, visit Chiaroscuro to rescue someone to secure the service of the aforementioned airship, they go to Yu-Shan to turn their Abyssal ally (Three Fates Shadow) back to a Solar, confront the Deathlord behind all the Abyssals they fought. After all of that, they visit Mahalanka to learn of a prophecy they are a part of that will determine the next ruler of Creation, which involves taking over the Imperial Manse. The series ends with the Solars and their allies entering the Manse and undergoing its trials.

Highlights


Early Nexus stuff


The game early on had a pretty nice focus on one place in Creation and characters having lives there. This let the players make plans for what their characters wanted to accomplish and then pursue those goals to drive the game without having to worry about the global metaplot or anything.

The game also glossed past some problematic old materials for Nexus (no Solar tombs, no all-powerful Emissary, etc.), so it was interesting to see a more down to earth place be the centre of attention for the game for awhile.

Engaging with the community


ExalTwitch, perhaps more so than other Exalted actual plays I’ve come across so far, started getting really good at engaging its community. Between fan recaps, showcasing fanart, shouting out to the game’s developers when they were in chat, letting watchers vote on the play of the game down to inviting one of their mods to play in the actual game, the show certainly was able to engage its audience and let people have fun together.

Clear mechanics explanations


ExalTwitch, possibly due to its nature of being a live stream, did not shy away from the complex Exalted mechanics, and even made sure to explain things like charms, combat mechanics, etc. as they would come up to make sure the viewers were all caught up. The series is probably the best way to see Exalted mechanics in action.

Limit meant things


Some Exalted games omit Limit, while some players try to game the Limit mechanics. This wasn’t the case in this game - the players were pretty eager to engage with the mechanics and play them out to their full extent, putting themselves and what they care about in jeopardy along the way.

Repository of Secrets


During the game the GM wanted to let the players interact with some old or distant NPCs. I think the first time the opportunity was hinted at but not picked up by the players when they went into the Wyld, but later it was used in full force when they were introduced to the Repository of Secrets in Yu-Shan. It was a simple concept really - something akin to a holodeck that allowed you to interact with any non-god that ever lived at any point in their lives. While it could’ve been really easy to game, the players didn’t go for the powergaming option, instead opting to have some intimate conversations with various people they’ve met in their lives. It was a really great concept and an opportunity for some good character moments before the game started heading for its endgame.

Intimate relations and sex positivity


Sex is of course a frequent occurance in many Exalted games, so too did ExalTwitch feature a number of intimate relations. They were done pretty tastefully, and the Red Rule was explained on a few occasions, so everything was good. Not much to add there.

The game is also very sex positive with a good number of sexual encounters that were handled tastefully.

Good NPCs


The series featured a good roster of NPCs, both allies, friends and enemies. Pretty much everyone had a clear motivation and a good way to get them to ally with the players’ cause. A lot of them also came with their own themes, which is a bonus.

Some of my personal favourites were Klem the resentful river goddess, Eyes Alight the Sidereal with a crush and Heffump the Dome guardian, a big lovable giant of an elephant.

Also, a special shout out to the GM for imbuing one of the artefacts, Jorek’s Heart’s String bow with enough personality that Jorek started basically falling in love with her. It really takes something to make an artefact that’s got this much personality! Ship that JoHeart! ;)

“They tell you”


One problem with introducing Sidereals in Exalted is that they can have some insight into the game that you don’t, either as a player or as a GM. This perhaps was doubly so a problem when building a large part of the game around a prophecy that’s apparently very important. ExalTwitch handled that in a pretty neat way.

Whenever the players would ask Sidereals about the future, or the Sidereals would otherwise talk about things that weren’t certain, the GM answered with “They tell you”. This simple answer didn’t dismiss the question or come up with some lame excuse as to why they can’t tell the PCs something, while also giving the GM and the players freedom to play the game out nondeterministically.

The same answer was also given when one would ask a Sidereal a name they’d forget soon afterwards, etc.

Good use of music


Throughout the series the use of music was pretty much on-point. Every important NPC had their own theme that would noticeably trigger when they’d enter the scene and so on. Also, their intro music of “Worlds Collide” was really fitting for the game and got me pumped for every episode. Pretty good all around!

Final visit home before the end


Before the last part of the game, the characters had one last chance to visit Nexus and enjoy it, seeing all the changes they’ve made to it. It was part victory lap, part nostalgia and part a way of saying goodbye to the series as a whole. It was a really nice episode to have before the game ended. I would recommend everyone to steal this idea for their games! ;)

Criticism


ExalTwitch was not a game without its flaws, or at least things that I didn’t enjoy while watching the show. Some of them will be down to personal preference, understandably.

Familiarity with Exalted


The first notable problem that stood out was that the players were not too familiar with Exalted. The GM is a veteran of the game, I think one player was a bit familiar with the previous edition of the game, but that didn’t stop a few niggles from cropping up. You notice this especially when it comes to talking about Yu-Shan as “heaven” and the gods. The players, especially early on had a big reverence when they heard of these concepts, treating them akin to their judeo-christian equivalents or at least the greek Olympians, while in the setting they are much less impressive and more human-like.

Similarly, there were some offhand remarks about the history of the world that perhaps painted a simpler picture of the events. “Look how big Creation was before the Solars destroyed it”, “Scarlett Empress killed the Solars”, “Deathlords were never human”, that re-Exaltations and reincarnations are basically the same thing, someone is born destined to be a Solar, etc. Perhaps they were hard to catch in the moment, but it felt that explaining a few of these things to the players would’ve been more useful to get the bigger picture and maybe see things from another side.

Abyssals


The game also didn’t have the best portrayal of some of the non-Solar splats.The Abyssals, since they are death-aspected, are throughout the whole game treated as “broken”, evil and in need of fixing because the first Abyssal circle they ran into were their enemies. It would seem that the characters didn’t notice the hypocrisy of wanting the Solars not to be considered “Anathema” and yet failing to understand the heroes of the underworld. That or maybe it was simpler for the game, I’m not sure.

One way or the other, simplifying an entire splat to just being “the bad ones” made the game feel a bit reductive, rather than allowing for the exploration of different points of view and what have you.

Lunars


Lunars fared a bit better, but they could still rub some people the wrong way. The first Lunar introduced was Speaks-Of-Silence. She had an affinity for a fox shape, and when she transformed back into human form, she tended to be a naked redhead with hots for some of the PCs. It didn’t help that she was a Lunar Mate of someone in the circle, but for a long while it was a question of “who would get her” essentially… Now this could be a set up for something straight out of /r/RPGHorrorStories, but luckily it didn’t go there.

For a moment there was hope yet. When the players stopped by a Lunar moot and was told Speaks-Of-Silence was busy in a meeting, Jorek said something along the lines of “that’s okay, she will see us. She is my Lunar Mate you know, that should mean something!” to which the NPC Lunar essentially replied “you know, some of us would consider the whole ‘Lunar Mate’ thing a slur, you shouldn’t be throwing that around so casually”. But that was the last time that potentially problematic notion would be mentioned. Next Lunar that became an important part of the party, She-Who-Knows-Ten-Thousand-Things, was also a Lunar Mate of the Circle, this time of the Abyssal they wanted to fix, Three Fates Shadow. She was from the First Age, and basically ended up snuggling Three Fates into a Resonance coma… So yeah, not exactly the most novel representation of Lunars…

Moderate railroading


A bigger problem with the game in my eyes would be its moderate railroading. Early parts of the game seemed more player-driven, where they would pursue their goals in Nexus. This might’ve made things a bit stale after 20+ sessions understandably, but some things still felt a bit forced.

A good part of the game from when the party needs to leave Nexus followed a plan dropped by one of the NPCs - the player characters ought to go to Yu-Shan to confront the Bronze Faction Sidereals to stop them. To do this they had to go to the south edge of the map, encounter a Lunar moot consisting of about 10% of all Lunars in Creation, go into the Wyld, confront a Fae queen so they would give them a map to where they can find a gate to Yu-Shan, which was floating above the Blessed Isle. By the time they get there through some sidequest, their original goal has shifted to “we have to go to Yu-Shan, so that we can take our Abyssal friend, Three Fates Shadow, to the Unconquered Sun, so that he can fix her and re-exalt her as a Solar”. That whole plotline took about 20 episodes (one third of ExalTwitch runtime) from when the Circle leaves Nexus to when they get their ally “fixed”.

The first part feels especially contrived. I won’t fault the GM for essentially removing other Yu-Shan gates from other places the players have visited (Nexus, Chiaroscuro) since sure, getting to heaven can be an interesting journey. However, the party not getting that information from say, their Sidereal ally, two gods they have a good connection with, their old Lunar mate, 30 other Lunars they run into, from their Abyssal ally that has some memories from the first age, etc.

The railroading was doubled-down when it was time to start wrapping the game up. Instead of the players deciding their characters will just go to the Blessed Isle and take over the Imperial Manse to turn the tide in their favour, they had to resort to a First Age prophecy by the Entropy and Weaver gods, which pieces were meticulously gathered back together over thousands of years to amount to “the NPC you have with you is important, after he makes a speech on the Blessed Isle, you’ll get into the Imperial Manse, and whoever turns it off decides the next person to rule Creation”. It felt rather contrived, especially when in the execution it meant that turning off the Imperial Manse meant the Fae would enter Creation, everywhere, at the same time, instantly apparently.

She-Who-Knows-Ten-Thousand-Things


On a somewhat related note, another thing that bothered me was the character of She-Who-Knows-Ten-Thousand-Things. I understand that putting one of your biggest fans and hardest working mods into the game was a cool thing to do, and I get that the character is a reference to Wan Shi Tong from Avatar, but the character rubbed me the wrong way for a few reasons.

First of all, the way the character was often portrayed, being bubbly, very talkative character that tends to prattle on about random things, made them a bit overwhelming in the game. It was a similar problem Goldie from Swallows of the South brought with her. That didn’t help when she almost instantly went for her old mate - the normally very quiet and low-energy Three Fates Shadow. I’m not sure if this was a bleed of the player’s fascination with the Abyssal character (aka “fangirling”), or was this something extrinsic to that, but it was a bit jarring. A bigger problem with the character was some of the exposition given, namely - dropping that the Great Curse was an actual, factual thing that afflicts Solars. First time it was missed by the players, but after it was dropped for the second time it was used as an excuse for character actions - “it’s okay you murdered a relative of mine in blind rage, turns out they were someone pretending to be them all along and you weren’t yourself, there there, everything is alright”. Having that certainty that there is something wrong with the characters and yet not even considering that they might want to fix that as well felt a bit like missing the point of the Curse.

Empty space


This one is a problem that plagues many Exalted games - the vastness of Creation and moving between landmarks. As mentioned before, the group had to trek from Nexus down South to get information from a Fae. It is rather unclear how far they had to travel, so let’s assume they took a straight line to the border of the map:

Nexus sitting at V-10, Gem at L-18

This would mean they had to travel about 4000 miles to get to where they needed to go, and that was on foot without much extra help. That’s like walking across Canada and then some. Understandably, it was more of a quick travel, skipping pretty much anything in between save for a Lunar moot by the Wyld. Afterwards, they pretty much walked straight back to Nexus.

Adding to the absurdity was an encounter they had with a small army… from Gem. Those guys were trekking to this spot so they could recruit the Lunars. They have been marching for over half a year across the desert South. Granted, they were guided on this journey by a Sidereal, but it’s still a weird thing to encounter.

Of course, this is generally what happens in a lot of Exalted games - sometimes you want to go to a given landmark to do a certain plot, and the sheer land mass between two points on the map gets glossed over, or you want to name drop some place of note without realising it’s so far away it would be irrelevant… #JustExaltedThings

Fae and the empty Wyld


Speaking of the journey South, let’s talk about the Fae and the Wyld. Leaving Creation, even with a Fae guide and a Lunar by your side could’ve been a good opportunity to flex the weirdness muscles and highlight how alien the place could be. What we got instead was a brief description of a weird landscape, and then the party had an audience with the Fae queen. During that excursion, the party had met a total of two Fae - their guide and the queen. That’s it. No court of weird creatures, no weird games, no nothing. It was honestly pretty disappointing, especially that it was supposed to be a high point of a 3-4 episode questline.

Some of the things the queen fae said was also weird. She apparently enjoyed conflict, so Valeria offered to spar with one of their NPCs for her, to which she replied “you are already scheduled to fight with him in Nexus. I can watch that fight from here, so you’re offering me nothing”. Interesting to know Fae have such good scrying powers to be able to see things from 4000 miles away.

Moving on. The next Fae the group encounters is keeping an airship aloft, and Jorek spends some time feeding her emotions and learning some powers from her like the Eclipse he is. This would be fairly unremarkable, if the next time they meet Fae (for those counting - after meeting a total of 3 named NPC Fae and seeing some hobgoblins milling about) the Eclipse wouldn’t be facing them off when they invade Creation after the Imperial Manse got turned off. At that point the Eclipse decided that “you know, Fae are people too, and they deserve to live in Creation like we do, I would like to make truce with them” which was a really weird thing to be focusing on at the end of the series. But oh well, Eclipses be Eclipses and players be players…

Fast Travel through Yu-Shan


Speaking of under-utilising a location, let’s briefly touch on Yu-Shan. It’s the home of the Celestial Bureaucracy and the golden slums. An island in its own pocket dimension the side of the Blessed Isle. Normally you could get lost in the place for days on end just taking it in, but instead we once again got some fast travelling to do. Here is what happens between players entering Yu-Shan and getting an audience with the Unconquered sun: They meet a god trying to extort money from them, then a lemonade stand god, then a god that is their ride. They spend a literal in-game minute travelling at break-neck speed and they visit a Sidereal and her Repository of Secrets. Then they take the same ride and arrive at the Jade Pleasure Dome another literal minute later. They meet one god that gambled his money on the Games, one guardian god of the Dome, then they meet with a god helping them cleanse and they meet their golden daddy. So that’s six gods and one Sidereal between entering heaven and getting what they came here for.

I understand this was a culmination of a 20 session mission with 10 sessions left to go, but the way the location was presented was a bit underwhelming all things considered.

Redemption of Three Fates Shadow


Another part of the story that felt a bit off was the Abyssal redemption storyline. I get it, it was an important quest for one of the players, the NPC had a long history with the characters, and with Exalted when a character wants something bad enough they should be able to achieve it. Let me break how the plot went down though.

First, Three Fates Shadow was a part of an Abyssal Circle that were the big baddies of the first half of the series. The only reason she was allowed to live was that she never attacked the PCs, and in the end she decided to abandon a mission from her Deathlord and hang out with the players. That was still in the first half of the game. After that, the party essentially discovered she was a former member of their Circle, have met up with her Lunar Mate, and around that time the characters became dead set on “fixing her”. I think the first attempt was telegraphed by the GM when they were still in Chiaroscuro - “she became an Abyssal when she was in a very vulnerable and her soul was the most malleable in time of great weakness, dot dot dot”. I’m not sure if the players just didn’t give the GM the satisfactory answer there, but she just ended up going into a coma, being half-alive, kept alive by Valeria’s ongoing commitment of Essence. Then she had to be dragged to Yu-Shan (despite warnings that it was taboo), undergo a cleansing ritual with the rest of the circle before being allowed to see the Unconquered Sun. Part of the cleansing involved the PCs declaring what would they sacrifice in order to earn the audience with their god, and a die roll to determine who would have to make the sacrifice. Turns out, nobody had to make an actual sacrifice (the Abyssal was chosen, but since she couldn’t speak, she didn’t offer anything), and after the characters insisted that all they wanted was to “redeem” Three Fates Shadow, the Unconquered Sun re-Exalted her.

This rubbed me the wrong way because things didn’t feel earned. Sure, you had a strong start with the NPC being well fleshed out, wanting to go the distance to get fixed, etc., but then the culmination of that was very transactional. “Hey Sol, we were stopping by Yu-Shan and we had a problem you need to fix. We were willing to pay for this, but turns out we were lucky and the bill was zero”. Perhaps it was easy for the characters to state what they would’ve sacrificed (and the GM did state if the characters didn’t offer enough she wouldn’t be redeemed), but a more interesting question would be “what have you done / sacrificed so far?”. This would reframe the problem from being more christian-style “god forgave my sins so everything is alright” to more of a greek-style “I have undertaken these twelve tasks to earn forgiveness”.

I get it that the series was wrapping up by this point, so plots needed to get wrapped up. Perhaps telegraphing earlier on that the players should do something for the character to be redeemed by actions (their own, or the PCs’), not third party services. Alternatively, Sol could’ve forgiven her for “turning away from him”, but she would still need to undergo a quest to redeem herself.

Perhaps the most dramatic options that would probably be mood killers due to how long it took characters to get to Yu-Shan would be for the Unconquered Sun to state it’s beyond his power to alter the Exaltation, especially one within a person. Alternatively, Three Fates Shadow could’ve offered her life so that her Exaltation would be purified, showing that it’s not a step to be undertaken lightly. A thematic cop-out would be to state that the characters have everything they need to fix the Exaltation themselves, but if that was telegraphed very early, it might’ve worked the best. “The Unconquered Sun is not here to fix all of your problems, there is a reason why you were chosen - you have the power to fix everything yourself, you don’t need him”.

Sola


The next part of the story that felt a bit cheap was Sola. She was a young girl in care of an NPC in Chiaroscuro, the party’s Twilight circlemate - Quiet Word. After some interactions with the new NPCs, an Abyssal shows up and starts causing trouble. During the ensuing fight a Deathlord appears in a cloud and blows up Sola’s tower with a lightning bolt, killing her in the process. It’s a bit of a tragic death, but they learn that apparently “she was fated to death at birth”, and only through the Twilight’s effort she was able to live this long. The Zenith commits her body and learns that she knew the Twilight wasn’t her biological father. The players don’t date break the news, so that’s good on them I guess.

After the battle with the Abyssals, the players learn of a golden box in possession of the Twilight that he wasn’t able to open, but with their powers combined, they got inside. Inside there is a letter from the girl’s mother, explaining that Jorek, the PC Eclipse is the girl’s father, which sends the Twilight into rage. Luckily he gets subdued and later in the session was killed by a Sidereal, so there is no need for the two fathers to reconcile their issues. It felt a little cheap, but it was still okay.

Next we see Sola is in the Repository of Secrets where Jorek spends some time having an emotional moment with her simulacrum. It’s a touching and emotional moment (especially since the Eclipse is really concerned about his legacy and sees her as a legacy he won’t have), and if her story ended there that would be a good high note to end it on. But things kept going.

Fast forward when the Circle is fighting the Deathlord, the Gentle Father, who is obsessed with the notion of family. He wanted his Abyssals to kill an important person from each of the PCs, and so far he only got Sola killed. Then when the fighting starts, he pulls the ghost of Sola to fight Jorek, with the explanation that “Zenith committing a body only stops them from raising as a hungry ghost”, as per the letter of what’s written in the power. This felt quite cheap. The Deathlord eventually gets killed (although since nobody had Sorcery and no Ghost Eating Technique available, rules had to be bent a bit, but whatever, it worked).

Now if that wasn’t enough, a similar thing was pulled once again. When the PCs are in the Imperial Manse, a mysterious Abyssal named Requiem also joins in. Soon enough she fails her trials and Jorek decides to abandon his attempt in order to save her. It’s a bit of a contrived final appearance for her. That is until a bonus episode of ExalTwitch that was recorded the following year, where she is back and alive at Jorek’s side, implied to having been “redeemed” like Three Fates Shadow, essentially breaking one of Exalted’s core rules of “death is permanent, you can’t bring people back to life”…

Quality of life issues


While the show kept a pretty good production value, there were some things that were a bit bothersome.

First was handling high-pitched sounds. The crew used glass beads to track their motes of Essence, which while being a nice concept were really jarring to hear at times. You’d often have a good deal of glass beads being moved back and forth and the glass-on-glass sounds and other related noises picked up REALLY well on the microphones, which at times could get headache inducing. The dice suffered from a similar problem (due to how much you roll in Exalted), although thankfully the sound they made was a bit less grating.

Secondly, some of the show used high-pitched music. This once again picks up really well on the microphones. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it wasn’t for one thing - Three Fates Shadow had a high-pitched theme. Because she spoke very softly, whispering her lines, and became a mainstay NPC, this created two problems. First, especially during her early appearances, she would get drowned out by her music. Secondly, if she was the focus of a scene for say, half an hour, you would get headaches from her theme due to how grating high-pitched music can get after a while.

Lastly, the cast would often start their stream while eating, which can be a bit off putting for some viewers. Luckily the food was usually some cleaner food you could eat without creating much of a mess, so it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

Conclusions


In general, ExalTwitch is a pretty good Exalted podcast. It doesn’t wow you with funny voices, but the whole cast is consistently decent to listen to. The show is perhaps the best way to experience Exalted rules being played by the book without rolls or other things being edited out.

The show could’ve perhaps been improved by better communication between the GM and the players as to the larger-scale expectations, goals and telegraphing things earlier, like a more heroic way for Three Fates Shadow to get “redeemed”, bigger emphasis on players’ agency in the process, etc. I know it could be a bit of breaking the kayfabe to have a bigger, meta-discussion while streaming, but maybe it would improve things.

One way or the other, it’s still a good actual play to recommend that stays pretty good from start to finish.

Related links


Monday, 2 March 2020

Swallows of the South - an Exalted Podcast Review

I’ve spent the last few months listening through a few of the Exalted RPG Podcasts / Actual Plays and I figured I’d share my thoughts on them with you. There is a good deal one can learn from them, whether you’re making your own actual plays or just gaming in general.

In today's episode, I will cover Swallows of the South.

Disclaimers


There are a few important disclaimers to get out of the way before we start.

First of all, I understand this was a fan project and should be judged accordingly. I am thankful for the effort the cast has put into entertaining us with their stories, but there will be some criticism of the podcast present.

Secondly, any criticism made against the characters portrayed or how the game played out should not be held as criticism or insults of the game master or the players. Not everyone is perfect and sometimes something doesn’t work out or falls flat in execution. It’s important to keep the art separate from the artist and focus on the former without being disrespectful to the latter.

Thirdly, since I’m also a part of an RPG Actual Play Podcast that features Exalted games, I might be biased towards one interpretation and way of handling things in Exalted that might not agree with how others view and play the game, that’s to be expected. That and some might see criticising other podcasts a conflict of interest or something, so here is your disclaimer.

Finally, there will be some spoilers for the show, it would be rather hard to discuss some things without that...

Overview and minor things


Swallows of the South is an Exalted podcast hosted by @MonkipiQuinn. The game features a shifting cast of Exalts and could generally be divided into two phases - early seasons with Godwin, Ajax and Ariston having adventures in the town of Djao Wei, and late seasons where Golden Might of the Dawn, Ashen Mask and Rizzo travel the world looking to acquire artefacts to stop Ray of Morning Sunlight from enacting his sorcerous workings.

The series takes the form of an audio-only podcast that has been truncated to 30-60 minute episodes devoid of much out of character talk, counting dice, etc. While early episodes do suffer a bit from lower audio quality, most of the series is not only a treat to listen to, but also an actual play that respects your time.

From what I understand the cast consists of professional improv / voice actors, which enhances the experience. The players also voice some minor NPCs throughout the series, which adds to the charm even further.

Player Characters


https://swallowsofthesouth.com/about-the-characters/

The game had a shifting cast of players and characters. Here are the most important ones for reference:

Godwin Corelli II - a Zenith performer and a musician, son of Lucinda Corelli, the titular Swallow of the South.
Ajax Ford - a Twilight investigator, living in the shadow of his parents, heroes of the city of Djao Wei
Ariston - a Twilight occultist and healer, an exiled nobleman of the mer-people
Rizzo - a Zenith sorceress, often seen with her wolf, Qui Gon Gin ‘N Juice
Golden Might of the Dawn (or just Goldie) - a Dawn fighter, a very bubbly and upbeat character, travelling with her familiars - Believing (a mouse), Loving (a bear) and Mercy (a lion)
Ashen Mask - a Night smooth talking thief and scoundrel

General Plot


The plot of the game, as mentioned earlier, can generally be split into two parts - the earlier parts of the game that is mostly spent in the city of Djao Wei, and the later parts where the party starts travelling the world in search for powerful artefacts to stop Ray of Morning Sunlight from enacting his sorcerous workings. Of course, things tend to weave in and out a bit with the group leaving and coming back to Djao Weir multiple times and the idols appearing throughout the story.

As mentioned before, there will be some spoilers ahead for what’s going on in the game, but the main focus is on highlighting the kinds of things you can expect listening to the podcast.

Highlights


High production value


Swallows, perhaps out of all the Exalted podcasts I listen to, has the highest production value. The podcast features good quality audio, the voice talent for a lot of characters, PC and NPC alike, is very good, etc. However most importantly perhaps, the episodes are edited down to 30-60 minutes to respect your time, cut out table talk, dice rolling, counting, etc. Kudos to the team for going the extra mile for everyone’s enjoyment!

Good content disclaimers


The podcast creator is very diligent about giving content disclaimers for more traumatic topics that appear in the show, which is a nice touch for those that need it.

Good NPCs


This podcast features a very colourful cast of named NPCs, and a swath of unnamed mooks that still bring fun when they’re around. It’s fun to hear the players lend their voices to some throwaway characters for the fun of it of course, but some of the normal NPCs just steal the show.

Let’s start with the secondary roles. I really liked Ru of the Resplendent Lacquered Wood, the god of the Smiling Eyes District, all meek and frazzled, Shermie the immortal sorcerous frog the PCs loved to abuse, Believing the familiar mouse, who started off as a brave scrappy character and over time picked up bad attitude from other NPCs and started embarrassing everyone with his foul language, and finally Yorglip the “hot goss guy”. The last one was introduced as a throwaway NPC in the north that trades the PCs some gossip, but he was played with such intensity and commitment to the role that it became one of the crew’s favourite recurring NPCs.

For the bigger NPCs that I enjoyed, I would have to name Forlorn Aria and Seven Symphonious Cords.

Aria was introduced as the queen of the river pirates which Godwin managed to hit off with, romance (despite her having a partner already), and convince to join the PC’s side. She and Godwin then became the Lovers of Djao Wei (rulers and liaisons to gods), which came at a price of a curse. When Godwin turned out to not be too interested in politics, she had to take the burden on by herself. Later when Godwin tried patching things up after a longer hiatus, she just gave him a deserved cold shoulder and explained why she wasn’t interested in him anymore. That and a few other things where she was sticking up for the interests of her people in contrast to what the PCs were focusing on really made her come across like a fleshed out character that lived her life independent of the PCs and their plots.

Seven Symphonious Cords was introduced as a local crime lord - running a gambling parlour, dealing in looted idols, etc. The PCs didn’t trust him one bit even before he turned out to be an Abyssal, but they had to rely on his help to fight off the Realm’s army. He wanted to create a permanent shadowland in the city so that the ghosts could easily interact with the living and offer them the knowledge and culture that would otherwise be lost to the ages. The PCs didn’t like the sound of that, they didn’t want to disrupt the local culture and didn’t like the idea of ghosts. This default negative attitude towards the Abyssals seems to be the norm for a lot of Solars in games (as we’ll see more of that when I take an in-depth look at ExalTwitch…). However, kudos to the game master for actually putting more depth to the character, despite the PCs’ hostile attitudes. Later on in the game the characters learn of his strong positive intimacies towards the city (which were actually hinted at seasons earlier but nobody picked up on them due to their animosity towards him...) and that he wants what is best for it. Because of that, despite their old prejudices against him, the PCs put him forward to be the successor in ruling the city, making Aria step down from her position.

Those two character arks really stood out to me, despite being so low-key in the grand scheme of things.

Calling out a bad influence


Throughout the series the character of Godwin was a bit of a shitty person (more on that later). He was also a musical prodigy with a famous musician for a mother, so he was the only character with a fan cult.

This isn’t unusual in Exalted games and is even a default for Godbound (a system that’s basically Exalted with serial numbers filed off we used for many of our games). Between the various games I’ve played and listened to I’ve come across some 20+ different cults like that, while Swallows was probably the only game to call a PC out for possibly being a bad influence on their people, which was refreshing!

The game didn’t dwell on it and Godwin being a bad influence on the cult was explicitly called out only long after the character retired from the game, but it was still a neat titbit to give the GM props for.

Lunch at Madam Fey’s


Halfway through the first (proper) season of Swallows we were introduced to a fun segment called “Lunch at Madam Fey’s”. It was a more free-form recording where the PCs got to hang out with an NPC in a tea house and goof off. Those interactions were non-canon, but still fun to listen to, also serving as a warm-up for the crew before the recording proper.

Unfortunately, a good number of them, especially early on, devolved into Godwin getting drunk and arguing about putting the alcohol on Ariston’s tab, which often overshadowed whatever interesting guest they might be having that day. This happened on more than one occasion, to the point it was getting tiring...

Standing up to OPP


During the run of the game some shady things from OPP came to light, and to Quinn’s credit he didn’t stay quiet about them, instead addressing them clearly during an intro to two of his episodes. Being open about such things and standing up for the developers is both commendable and rare, especially since it could threaten the future of the series. I respect that a lot.

Wrapping up the game rather than dropping it


From what I understand, towards the end of the game the main players that have been around for the whole game had to drop out in rapid succession, which threatened the future of the series. Luckily for us, the podcast managed to find some replacement talent that turned out to be really good. It’s really good to see a creator deciding to create a satisfying ending to the game, rather than letting it fizzle out and stop midway through a story.

Criticism


Swallows of the South was not a game without its flaws, or at least things that I didn’t enjoy while watching the show. Some of them will be down to personal preference, understandably.

Godwin


Swallows of the South is not without its faults though. A good deal of them unfortunately seem to revolve around the character of Godwin. I would like to once again remind you that my critique of characters and their actions should not reflect on the players portraying those characters. Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes we try playing a character one way that comes off different from what we had in mind, etc. With that out of the way…

The game started with a prelude where we met with Godwin, Ajax and Rizzo. Unfortunately, Rizzo’s player had to leave the show for a long time, so some other characters had to be brought in - Flowing Delta, a Dawn mercenary, which eventually got replaced by Ariston for a longer period of time.

This lead to a problem. Godwin seemed to be buddies with and trust Ajax and Rizzo, and the other characters that were brought in were treated by him as “outsiders” - people that weren’t originally part of the group. Flowing Delta helped them do a run for a split of profits, and Godwin repeatedly was trying to change the payout split. Finally, when Ariston joined the group, Godwin wouldn’t trust them for a long time and repeatedly insult him due to being “a fish person”, repeatedly getting drunk on his tab at “the tea house part of the episode” (to the point it became the main focus of multiple tea house sessions, detracting from anything else that was going on), etc. Heck, in the second episode of Ragaras and River Pirates when the Realm soldiers evict Godwin’s entire neighbourhood Ariston takes not only Godwin in, but also Godwin’s neighbour and crush Lucy, along with her entire family into his house and Godwin still has the audacity to complain about the house not being to his liking. In general, the character came off as a bully, which isn’t fun to listen to for seasons at a time…

Beyond that, some of Godwin’s character beats feel like they are from someone newer to roleplaying. First one comes during the Ragaras and River Pirates season he fights a Ragara Vijay, a Dragonblooded that came to essentially take the town over, called Godwin an anathema and set fire to the city. After the fight, he just sulks and mopes dramatically over it, how now he’s a killer and nothing is the same, and he keeps bringing it up for seasons on end.

The second questionable thing comes when Godwin decides to become the ruler of the city. In the story that involved the two current Lovers of the city to step down, for Godwin and his partner, Forlorn Aria (a former pirate queen that was the town’s enemy and then rescuer) to take on a few years of a curse for the Lovers breaking their curse, and then taking on the duties as the Lovers. However, as it turned out, Godwin wasn’t a very politically minded person, so that plot didn’t amount to much and Aria had to take over governing the city herself...

Some small payoff did come from all of that during Homecoming season when people became fed up with Godwin’s whinging. His former partner gave him the cold shoulder for making her break up with her old partner and getting roped into being the Lover and having to take on all the responsibilities herself, Tougi the Lovers’ advisor tears him down for the failed political stuff, and he finally gets punched by Ariston for calling him a fish person one too many times. Kudos for that at least, even if it took a few seasons to get there.

Not engaging other peoples’ philosophies


Exalted is a game that in theory can lend itself to debating about different world views and philosophies. Swallows did present a few of these problems to the players - the Realm wanted to force the city of Djao Wei to open its trade routes, Seven Symphoneous Cords wanted to integrate ghosts into the city, Ragara Samir and his people helped to rebuild the city and build schools, Bull of the North was locked in an ancient war, and Ray of Morning Sunlight had some qualms about Sol Invictus and his responsibilities to Creation. All of these could be an interesting excuse to engage with the different worldviews and re-examine one’s own assumptions, but most of them boiled down to the players declaring one side as being in the wrong and not engaging in their way of thinking.

This is perhaps the way with a lot of Exalted games, but at the same time it’s very reductive. Heck, as mentioned before, this way of thinking made the PCs not realise Seven Symphoneous Cords had the city’s best intentions in mind until the last season of the game because “he’s an Abyssal and a crime lord and ghosts will ruin Djao Wei’s culture”.

Large fetch quest


The core narrative of the game was ultimately a large fetch quest to find twelve magical idols. Personally I’m not a fan of such rigidly defined goals for Exalted games, but it’s an understandable way to keep the players moving in a cohesive direction if they can’t direct the story themselves. Especially seeing how Godwin handled the plotline of becoming a Lover and not having a follow-through, this might’ve been the best approach. This structure was also helpful with the changing cast of characters. Obtaining individual idols was also often an interesting set piece to a season.

But with all that being said, the very large number of idols (twelve) meant the crew wouldn’t interact with all of them before the game had to end. A few of them have been a bit rushed along to arrive, and about half were in possession of Ray at the end of the game. Moreover, it turned out that it didn’t matter whether the party had just one of them or half, the final ritual started as soon as they brought the idols close to the final showdown (which I understand was more interesting than it not going through, but still!).

So overall this plotline lead to some interesting moments, even if the overarching goal was a rather boring concept.

Spanky


Sometimes shows put out a more goofy episode out and that’s fine. Swallows did release a Halloween special during their run of the series which was played using the Dread system, while still being canonical to the main game. The episode was focused on a group of characters being stalked by one of the main antagonists of the series, Meijin “the spider lady” (guessing a Getimian Exalted). One of the characters there was Spanky the Butcher, portrayed by a guest to the show. Since the episode was a bit more light-hearted and even goofy, the character wasn’t too jarring there. However, that wasn’t all we saw of Spanky.

See, Spanky managed to survive the scenario and secure one of the idols the main group was questing for, so it was bound to either get picked up by the PCs, or by Ray. The former was picked, so it was time for Spanky to make a guest appearance during one of the normal episodes.

What followed was about half an episode of the regular group interacting with someone that came off like a mix between Borat and Edgar the Bug, one or two intelligent doors and a joke “riddle” thing that was just nonsensical throughout. That whole sequence was rather bizarre and rather tonally out of place for anything save for say, a Fae trying to pretend being a butcher and failing at it (Spanky was in fact a human and a Sidereal).

Golden Might of the Dawn


Another character I had problems liking for awhile was Goldie. She is a bubbly, cheerful and talkative person, but often her presence can be smothering, and the pure goodie-two-shoes demeanour is similarly a bit much at times. Adding to that the fact that her player is a lot better versed in Exalted than the rest of the players (GM excluded), her presence is overwhelming at first. I personally came around to her after her trials in the Temple of Mars during the Bellow of the Bull season, but she wasn’t without fault after that.

One thing that was a bit annoying later on was the phrase “I’m everyone’s type” when Goldie was referring to her superhuman appearance. She used that phrase against a PC saying she’s not his type, and later on it was again used when she learned that Tauia the Sidereal she had a crush on had romantic feelings for another Sidereal instead of her. That phrase and way of thinking just rubbed me the wrong way, being a very mechanical-focused way of viewing the world and all that.

Another of Goldie’s shortcomings, being a bigger topic, perhaps deserves its own section...

Directionless resentment of Sol


From what I’ve heard, a lot of Exalted games have a complicated relation with the character of Sol Invictus, being the big and important sky daddy everyone wants to come down and fix everything.

The central conflict of Swallows is built around Sol’s bastard son Ray resenting his father for abandoning him and his mother and generally turning his back on Creation. Goldie similarly despises him for similar reasons and for exalting her into an army-slayer.

At the end of the game the party had a chance to discuss all of this with Sol, but it ended up being more of a directionless resentment of him rather than much else. Goldie wanted Sol to fix Creation and right all the wrongs, but that would infringe on the free will of the people. She wanted him to stop crime, but Ashen Mask the party’s Night Caste and lovable scoundrel wasn’t too keen on that. Goldie wanted Sol to deal with the Realm, but that would once again impose on the free will of the people, plus the whole situation is very messy to begin with. She wasn’t happy that she got Exalted, but at the same time she used her power to save more people than she killed. This went on for a good chunk of the episode until things pretty much settled on Sol focusing a bit more to weed out corruption in the Celestial Bureaucracy and being more responsible about the bastards he leaves in Creation.

Despite having a good deal of issues with the Sun, the group also wasn’t interested in replacing him themselves. That would at least be an interesting twist, but the idea didn’t get too much discussion. It was quickly decided that Ray shouldn’t replace Sol, and that nobody else should replace Sol because no one person should hold that much power.

We generally discussed the topic of Sol Invictus in our Offtopic, and in general our opinion was that a lot of players want him to care and “come fix Creation”, but in reality that would be a boring story and a game-ender (with the entire setting being “fixed” there is no need for heroes anymore, now is there?). It’s much more interesting to engage with the approach that Sol is fixing Creation by sending his Solar Exalted. After all, the Celestial Exalted own Creation.

But yeah, all in all, the discussion with Sol was a bit underwhelming, which was a pity...

Anachronisms


Another thing that might put people off this series would be the anachronisms. During the early parts of the game, the game had a more carefree attitude (heck, that’s why the game is a sex pun…), which resulted in the players making a few random quips and running gags that don’t really fit into the framework of Exalted. The biggest of these was a repeated and big threat the players would use on their enemies of “I will give you a 1 star review on Yelp!”. This would come up again and again for a long time. Some other ones include talking about Earl Grey Tea, M&Ms, Skittles, etc.. Luckily these became less prevalent during the later seasons, but we were stuck with Qui Gon Gin ‘N Juice until the very end…

Adherence to Exalted


While the GM appears well versed in Exalted, the same can’t be said for a lot of the cast from what I gathered. Only when Golden Might of the Dawn joins the party over half way through the series do we see a player with actual Exalted experience and it does show at times.

One thing I noticed missing from the game mechanics-wise was the Limit system. I think it was mentioned a total of two times in the whole campaign, and I'm not sure if any character suffered a limit break (Ariston lashing out against Godwin would be the strongest candidate, but it wasn’t ever stated explicitly). It’s an interesting part of the game that can lead to neat story twists when used correctly, so it’s a pity we didn’t see it much in the show.

Other than that, the rest of the game was pretty faithful to Exalted.

Conclusions


Swallows of the South is a pretty good Exalted actual play, provided you can excuse the rocky start. It is very pleasant to listen to due to the extra effort the crew took to edit the episodes down. It is often light-hearted and even comedic, but at times can veer back into more serious territory.

The game’s strong suit are the range of NPCs that inhabit the world. You have a number of one-off gag characters you’ll remember (like the fish food store lady, or Chickadee the quail egg selling ghost), some well defined support NPCs (Ru of the Resplendent Lacquered Wood, Yorglip), and a number of important NPC movers and shakers with well-defined personality, aspirations and goals (Aria, Cords, a lot of the Dragonblooded enemies, etc.).

If you want to see if the podcast is for you, try having a listen to the “Ashen Mask and the Dream-Eaters of the Hidden City”, or the “Bellow of the Bull” seasons to get a taste of what the late-game quality is like before you go back to the beginning.

Related links

Monday, 20 January 2020

What do you do? What do you want to accomplish? Why do you do it? Three core questions for PC actions

A good part of any RPG session revolves around character actions, asking questions like "a goblin jumps out of a bush with a sword, what do you do?". However, what might be overlooked at times is that there is more to character actions than just what they are literally doing, often it's more important to ask the players what do they want to accomplish, as well as why are their characters doing something?

In general, any action would focus on "A character does an Action because they want to achieve an Outcome in service of their Goal or Belief". An Action is what the character does - "I punch him". An Outcome is what the character wants to accomplish - "I want to intimidate this guard into running away by punching him". Their Goal or Belief should be guiding their actions - "I need to get to the palace to do X, therefore I will intimidate this guard into running away by punching him".

The problem arises when there is a disconnect between these parts. When a pacifist gets the case of a goblin brain and decides to kill someone for no reason, when the characters get too caught up in the turn-to-turn action and lose sight of why they are doing something, or when a desired Outcome is not communicated clearly and say, instead of rolling to intimidate with punching you break out the combat rules to track individual HP, the session can start suffering for it.

In a good deal of older games, it's up to the GM and the players to figure these things out and call for rolls appropriately.

There are some games that focus on the Outcomes more explicitly, such as Burning Wheel or Mouse Guard, where both sides in each conflict have to explicitly state what they want to achieve if they win. Similarly, many Powered by the Apocalypse games like Fellowship codify actions into Moves that provide the players with outcomes that can guide them into choosing the correct Action to take.

Few games that I've come across seem to focus on asking the characters "why do you do it?". Often they come up in a form of characters having explicit beliefs that should be invoked and challenged regularly, such as in the case of Burning Wheel or Star Trek Adventures. These either give mechanical advantage to a roll, or give the character XP for reflecting on them after they are challenged in pursue of their immediate goals.

You will also often see the difference between Action and Outcome focus when comparing lighter systems with something more crunchy. Comparing Exalted with Fellowship for example, in the former you can attempt to dodge or parry an attack, while in the latter you would Overcome it, aka avoid the damage by whatever narrative means you need. Similarly, in Exalted you can try hurting someone with Brawl, Archery, Melee, or even Athletics, while in Fellowship you would just Finish Them with Blood to kill them. The former focuses on the Actions, while the latter - on Outcomes - "I don't want to be hurt", "I want to hurt them".

While often things are very simple - "I want to kill the goblin, because the goblin wants to kill me and they are what stands between me and the loot" - when things get muddled it's often good to pause and make sure everyone is on the right page before going deeper into the weeds.

If you are a GM and the players seem to go off the rails in some weird way, maybe it's time to ask them those magical questions - "What do you do? What do you want to accomplish? Why do you do it?". It can help players ground themselves and explain their logic so that the adventure can resume with everyone knowing what's going on.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

The game is not about that - iHunt, money, and mechanic as a metaphor

Recently, my group and I ran a one-shot of the iHunt RPG. It's a game about being a monster hunter in the gig economy. You're perpetually poor, and hunting monsters for cash is the preferable alternative to getting evicted. The game requires a bit of a cognitive shift from your traditional games, which is what we are here to talk about today.

This post is based on a preview version of iHunt, so final mechanics might change.

Our interview about the game with Olivia Hill

During our first session, one of the PCs got shot with a bullet and was in need of medical attention (you are playing fragile humans after all). When discussing our options, one of the players started solving the problem by trying to pin down some numbers - "how much did we earn from killing that vampire?", "what's the standard rate for a vampire? Is that even listed in the book?", "how much does a hospital visit cost?", "how much does a street doctor charge?", etc. However, as we found out, the game (at least in its current, preview state) didn't have any of those prices listed, because that's not what the game is about.

iHunt is a game about being a poor person that turns to hunting monsters to make ends meet. Money is always fickle and doesn't stick. You might earn $10k in a day, but that's cash, not wealth, it's a windfall that comes and goes. There is a reason iHunt and FATE in general doesn't have a space on your character sheet to put your gold pieces in - the game is not about that.

Now, this was frustrating for the player. The game is about playing a person that cares about the money, but the game does not care about the money. You may want to get invested in the character getting ahead and lifting themselves out of the rut they're in, but by the dint of what the game is about, your character will never get out of their hole as long as they are a character. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a motivation to go iHunting.

The mechanic of how money is handled (or the lack of said mechanic) is one of those rare "mechanics as a metaphor" moments, where a mechanic exists not only to serve a purpose, but to convey a deeper message - "money is fickle, it comes and goes". Heck, later in episode 2 we came up with something similar - when a player sold some extra stuff they stole for cash, they didn't just add some numbers to their gold coin total (since again, the game does not track that), but instead they receive a temporary bonus in form of a FATE Aspect. The character was now Flushed with Cash, which they could tap into to get a temporary roll bonus in the future, after which the Aspect would fade, just like that extra cash in your wallet.

Both of those mechanical ways of dealing with money conveyed a message that was congruent with what iHunt is about - money is fickle, it comes and goes.

Sometimes playing games like this requires one to unlearn some tropes one picked up from other games. Going from D&D into iHunt (or many other games) one might start asking "what's your alignment?", "how much can I carry?", "where is the gear list?", "what damage bonus does this weapon have?", "what's my AC?", "what are my saving throws?", "how do I level up?", etc. The answers to all of them would be "the game is not about that. Unlearn what you have learned and see the world from a new perspective".

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Talk about your game and communicate with each other!

In the vein of the last post, let's talk about another important thing that doesn't seem to be hammered in often enough - communication. RPGs are a social activity. It's a shared story you all weave together. It's not something owned by any one person, everyone at the table is contributing (no game, asides the worst case of railroading, is owned by the GM!). So if you have a cool idea about what should happen in the game, here is a magic trick - talk with each other about it.

The GM is not a psychic, they can't read your mind to know exactly what you want out of the game. Better yet, give them wholesale ideas they could use. Telling your GM "hey, I want to get rich" is nice to communicate your character's desires, but giving that GM a plan to heist a bank, complete with some NPC ideas, what security they might have and other plot hooks takes a load off their shoulders. Mind you, you should keep things concise at least in the pitch stage, since few people have the patience to read multiple pages of stuff, but a brief summary to get the ideas across might just do the trick.

Even if you don't give the GM the complete adventure you want to have, sometimes discussing how the session goes might still be helpful. Sure, sometimes you want to be in the dark about some things, and that's a good rule to keep in mind if that's what you're going for, but sometimes knowing a bit of what's coming up can help you strategise and get over bumpy parts of the adventure.

(I know it's not for everyone, but sometimes even if you know what the adventure will be, it can still be fun to play through. Heck, once we ran Storms of Yizhao, didn't like how it turned out, workedhopped a fix for the adventure, and then ran it one more time knowing the ins and out of the module while still having fun)

This can go both ways too - perhaps the GM has prepared an adventure for the players that requires a bit of buy-in ("Hey, I have 'Fane of the Night Serpent' adventure module. Heads up - this module expects you to sell yourself into slavery as the main way of getting in. Everyone cool with that?"). Communicating that clearly up-front can save some cat herding during the actual game itself. And hey, if players have some issues with the premise of the game, you can discuss it ahead of time and think of a solution before investing half a session getting to a point of contention and dropping the adventure altogether due to some disagreements.

Communicating outside of the game can also help you facilitate the Watsonian vs. Doylist decisions. Me as my character might not want to get beaten up and put into jail, but me as the player might be totally on board with that situation because it sounds fun to roleplay.

In general, talking about what you as the player or the GM want out of the game in general and any particular session in particular and agreeing on what's the best plan is can ensure people get the most fun out of the game.

It's good to let people know what you'd like to see happen, and also raise any concerns about some problems you might be seeing. It's good to address those early on before they snowball into something more toxic if left unaddressed. Maybe the party is turning into murderhobos and you don't want to have another one of those games, or maybe they aren't murderhobo enough and you're not having fun with your chaotic evil death knight. Communicate about those issues when they come up, otherwise you might be left stewing for awhile while nothing gets fixed. GMs and players aren't psychic, talk with them.

Similarly, make sure to clear some major twists, reveals and wacky ideas you have with your GM ahead of time if you have any doubts they might work. One fun story about that in our game is when we played AMP Year One. One of the characters was a super strong soccer mom that lost custody of her kid after getting into an accident. Since the PCs started working with a criminal organisation, they decided to pull some strings and surprise the PC with getting her full custody of her child. Spoiler alert, the PC surprised the entire group, GM included, by revealing her character was repressing that her kid died in that accident, so whoever the poor kid was that the NPCs have brought in wasn't her child. It was a fun moment and a fun twist, but yeah, clear such things with the GM ahead of time ;) . Other things that need to be communicated - clearing up any wacky rules / power combos you want to use to some great effect that aren't obvious, or could be interpreted in different ways. You don't want to spend a whole session or two building up to a crescendo that fizzles out because the GM interpreted a rule differently than you.

The same communication advice can be applied in the other direction as well - if a GM has an idea for something interesting to do with a character that might be risque or imposing something about their past or present situation, it might be worthwhile to check with the player ahead of time. Introducing a new relative, some friend, a new detail about their past, putting them in danger seemingly out of the blue etc. would fall into this category. Of course, you don't have to reveal every upcoming twist (one of our favourite examples of a cool twist the player did not see coming was Boundless Jurisdiction checking up on his husband in Gangs of New Gloam, not realising how he has moved on...). How often you check in will depend on your mutual trust and preference in the end, understandably.

So yeah, all in all:

  • Nobody is psychic, don't expect people to know something you don't communicate clearly
  • Talk about expectations, hangups, problems, etc.
  • If buy-ins for adventures or some obtuse adventure moon logic might be an issue, best communicate them ahead of time
  • If you have some cool ideas of what could or you'd like to happen, let them be known
  • Clear important things with your GM about your character's backstory, important twists, and any weird things you are basing your plans on
  • Clear things with your players about new things you want to introduce to their backstory
  • In general, communicate with each other!