An Advent Kind of Blue

This time of year it’s all go! Sunday evening it’s our church carol service and I’m just settling down to do some video editing and talk crafting with Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ smoothly spinning from the record player. Seems the right vinyl of choice having sneaked in a chapter or two over breakfast of Andrew Cartmel’s second Vinyl Detective book, The Run Out Groove. Hopefully it will keep me mellow whilst I try and work out why my video editing software on my Chromebook which uses the new Linux app facility, doesn’t have any sound in previews despite the fact that rendered videos do – not so helpful for getting the edit just right.

Tonight, it looks like we’ll get to squeeze in a fourth session of Mutant Year Zero (if you include character generation). Probably shouldn’t – don’t really have the time and am fighting a cold which needs to be gone ahead of the relay of talks and services in the week ahead – but really want to keep some sort of momentum, having stumbled a bit recently. Which reminds me, I must try and write up some reflections soon on the previous session which took the PCs out into the Zone for the first time.

Boy that trumpet sounds good…

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Exciting Mutant Year Zero news!

As you will have gathered from my previous posts, I’m a fan of Free League (Fria Ligan’s) Mutant Year Zero tabletop rpg. It will come as no surprise then to gather that I’m excited by their Twitter post today – I’ll be backing as soon as it drops!

Mutant Year Zero Campaign – Part 2: Life in The Ark

In the previous post I reflected from a GM’s perspective on the joy of character creation in Mutant Year Zero (MY0) and how through this quick process not only do you quickly develop flavoursome characters, each with their own genre defined niche and relationships between them, but also a description of the place they live, The Ark, and a host of characters to be found there and a sense of some of these wider relationships. All good so far. But how does this play out once the dice start hitting the table in anger. I pleased to report once again on the whole it does so brilliantly!

Coming from a Pendragon background (now being distributed by Chaosium) I was pleased to see that the game utilises a regular cycle for a game session, a bit like Pendragon’s once scenario per game session/year finishing with a Winter Phase. In MY0, each session begins with an Assembly. This is where the players get to do some meta-gaming and decide what projects the inhabitants of the Ark are going to be involved in to develop the Ark, with each player nominating a new project should they wish to. For us this was partially done in character and partially in a more out of character strategic way. As the game is played out, characters can contribute to these tasks, which over time improve the development stats of The Ark, which brings in game bonuses. In our first session, the players decided to develop some Cropland (food being an urgent need!), construct a Museum (to develop Culture & Technology) and fashion a Statue (increase Culture).

After the Assembly, the GM draws a threat card. These cards describe a threat to the life of The Ark in a general way, with more detail being given for the GM in the rule book. The draw can be on the table in full view, or can be done by the GM in secret. I’m tempted in the future to do it at the time and in full view so that the players can play more of a part in generating the narrative as to what the threat actually looks like, with the group creative process being something I really relish and enjoy as a GM, but for this first session, I drew the card beforehand so that I wouldn’t need to be worrying about the mechanics and working out the ‘plot’ on the hoof. The card I drew was ‘Threat: Missing Person’, with some suggestions as to who they might be and the impact and implications for the members of The Ark.

So who has gone missing? With part of the impetus to MY0 being the Elder becoming frail and unable to care for and guide The Ark as he has done in the past, so that the occupants have to decide how to survive for themselves as their ‘comfortable’ life begins to crumble, I decided to force the issue. The Assembly ended abruptly with the a Chronicler bursting in an announcing that the Elder had gone missing.

And so with the draw of one card, the projects chosen by the players and the web or relationships and tensions generated by character creation, there was plenty to play with and for! Quickly different agendas emerged. Rebeth the Enforcer PC and his slave Dink went off to claim some land on the outskirts of the Ark to start preparing it for planting. Our Gearhead ‘K’ helped out by putting together a plough for them to help speed things up. This of course wasn’t as straight-forward as they hoped, with tension arising between them and Jonat’s, Johammed’s Enforcer (head of the Olders) which ended in a brawl. Despite Rebeth being taken out by Jonat’s parasitic mutation, they managed to roll six points worth of successes towards the goal of twelve points needed to complete the Cropland project, a good solid start.

As well as fashioning the plough, ‘K’ took it upon himself to investigate the Elder’s disappearance, gradually piecing together which of the Chroniclers had been caring for him, had seen him and when.

Toad, our party’s Fixer, decided that the chaos caused by the disappearance of the Elder gave him the perfect chance to wrangle some deals and take advantage of folks being distracted. He persuaded Sixter the Fixer to aid him in creating the Statue within which they could have a secret compartment in which they could hide away their own stashes of goods to keep them safe, got Milex the Fixer on board with the concept of the Museum, and sought an audience with both Marlotte (Boss of the Youngers) and Johammed (Boss of the Olders) to support him in building a Statue of them. It is unclear how he was going to pull off double-crossing them in this way, but with the Elder going missing, he switched, with their approval, to the Statue being dedicated to The Elder so that found or not, he would constantly be standing over them, reminding the people of The Ark of his protection and compassion. Through this, one success was achieved out of the four required for the Statue.

All of this took place amidst the heightened tension in The Ark. Marlotte failed to get her people organised in responding to the Elder’s vanishing, Johammed, however, managed to organise a number of search parties. And it was one of these searching along the riverbank next to The Ark, that noticed the snag of white cloth on the Elder’s window, white like the long coat he always wore. The session ended with one search party planning to cross the river at that point in a boat, to see if he had been snatched and stolen across the Thames.

The session cycle ends with the players awarding themselves XP through the answering of questions regarding the activity of their characters such as did they perform a day’s work towards a project in The Ark and did they sacrifice or risk something for their PC buddy. This is a neat way of reinforcing the relationships and projects etc. that are used to create and drive the feel and genre within the game, meaning that decisions taken count mechanically as well as narratively.

And so the background drawn up in character generation, the projects opted for within the Assembly, and the random Threat card quickly and easily created plenty of plot potential and tension for the players and GM in a session that was just under four hours long. This is something as a GM who is never ready and enjoys winging it, I really appreciated. It was easy to come up with colour and detail on the fly with the setting and characters providing plenty of inspiration and details (such as a list of NPCs) to work with. This is not to say that I didn’t have concerns that emerged during gameplay, I did. Firstly, the different personalities, niches and objectives of the players and their characters quickly split the party. I don’t think it detracted from the fun and it did enable us to develop a broader sense of the setting and relationships than if they’d focused on a single area and worked together, but it is one to be aware of going forward and monitor. The other concern grew out of the realisation in play that each skill is very specific in order to feed into and develop the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting and so might not necessarily be what you’d assume the title suggests. Also the Stunts they award, bonuses won by achieving more than one success in a roll, are again very specific, and so we were regularly opening up the rules to check them out, which did hold up the flow a little. I hope these will gradually lodge themselves in our minds over play so it’s less of an issue. (I’ll describe dice rolls with more detail another time, but these too help drive the narrative beyond just dictating whether you are successful or not.)

All in all, it was a highly enjoyable first gameplay session, successfully giving a greater sense of what life in The Ark is like and who the personalities there are. It also opened up all sorts of potential avenues for the characters to explore and exploit going forward, and the big question: where is the Elder and what will they do without him if he is not found?

Oh, and I almost forgot, the final act of the session is to roll 1d6 to see by how many The Ark’s population dropped during the game in addition to any in game losses. By the end of the first evening, the population had dropped from 200 to 199. Not a great change, but enough to warn the players that this is a fragile situation…

Mutant Year Zero Campaign – Part 1: Reflections on Character Generation

As noted in my last blog post, I’ve recently started a Mutant Year Zero (MY0) campaign with my regular gaming group. This is something I’ve wanted to do for sometime having backed the game when it was kickstarted (I’ve backed everything else by Free League since, so impressed was I by the product and their campaign).

As a GM I have a preference for rules-lite narrative systems with scope for lots of player input. I’m also terrible at getting everything prepared before a session, something I’ve come to embrace rather than get frustrated by, realising part of the reason for my lack of preparation is that I enjoy the creative tension and revelation of a world and story emerge through play and laying my ideas with those of the players and the rules and seeing what happens. Part of the reason for backing MY0 was the suspicion that it would not just tolerate my preferences, but would actively support them. But does it live up to these expectations? So far, superbly!

Our opening session was character generation. I brought to the table playbooks for each of the Mutant roles, a couple of sides of A4 with the options laid out so the players could select a role, tick which options they wanted including role-specific talents, draw random mutation cards and distribute a few points amongst their stats. Nothing terribly novel here, all simple and quick, although I love the roles which are very genre specific, each with their own clear niche (Enforcer, Gearhead, Stalker, Fixer, Dog Handler, Chronicler, Boss & Slave). What made it shine for me, however, was the way it hardwires relationships and setting generation right into the character sheet. Each player describes their relationship to the others. You can do this through your own descriptions, but the book also lists options for each character type which are full of flavour, creating friendships and tension. For example, the Stalker role (a scout-type character) has:

  • [PC name] walked with you in the Zone and lived.
  • [PC name] is a pompous idiot. If he gets in your way, he’s going down.
  • [PC name] might actually understand you. Do you dare to open up?
  • [PC name] is a danger to everyone. Keep your distance.

Straight off there’s plenty of colour as the PCs are connected to each other. In keeping with the post-apocalyptic genre, this creates a disfunctional band of characters thrown together with their own agendas, with the desire to survive maybe being the main thing that binds them.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve described the PC-PC relationships, you then define your relationships with NPCs. The rules provide options here, with each player selecting an NPC they hate and an NPC they need to protect, for example, again from the Stalker:

You hate:

  • The Stalker Yassan, because he went deeper into the Zone than you.
  • The Enforcer Jonats, who killed your only friend.
  • The Chronicler Astrina, who won’t leave you alone.

You need to protect:

  • The Gearhead Pontiak. A pain in the neck, but without you he’s dead.
  • The Slave Eriel. No one deserves a life in chains. Especially not her.
  • No one. If they can’t protect themselves they deserve to die.

By the time the players have all done this, they will have created for you not only a cast of NPCs but also defined their relationships with them, again full of tension and concern, with each statement raising all sorts of stories and questions to be explored.

The fun continues. Having generated our motley band of characters, character generation continues with the group generating The Ark, the place they live in this violent rot-infested world. Using the maps that come with the game, we decided to base our campaign in London, and the players opted to live in the decayed palace of Westminster, influenced no doubt by a real-life connection. Using this insider knowledge, we drew a rough map. Within minutes we knew where the fading Elder lives, hidden away under the care of the Chroniclers. We had two main living areas for the Olders and the Youngers (inspired by the Lords and the Commons). One faction, the Olders, sees survival coming through holding onto the values of The Elder and staying in the Ark, the other, The Youngers, can only see there being any hope if they head on out to explore the Zone, if only to bring back resources to The Ark. Put this with the web of relationships made earlier and there is plenty for the GM to riff off which the players have already bought into. Stats are also assigned to The Ark, which the PCs can develop in projects they take on in play, a nice little metagame which adds further to plot generation. From this it was quickly clear that food will be an immediate driver – they haven’t got any!

All in all, in under an hour we went as players and GM from having nothing to having five well defined characters, a web of relationships, and an Ark full of intrigue and decay. So far, all I could have hoped for!

To finish, I asked an extra pair of questions of the players (inspired from our experience with Microscope in the past).

  1. Tell me one thing about the Ark
  2. Share a rumour you’ve heard about The Zone (the world outside the Ark)

Maybe I’ll post some of their answers another time, but these too were rich in potential. We’re going to have fun!

Back to the Blog – Catching Up

Just realised that I haven’t posted here at all this year! Useless. Must get back to it.

Much of my posting this year has been on our church website: www.wormleyfreechurch.org.uk This has been significantly redeveloped over the year and now features much of my faith based online writing. It seems pointless to copy it here – hence some of the silence.

I’ve also been beavering away on the DMin. This consumed much of the period between Easter and the summer holidays as I carried out the practical research – preaching a series of nine sermons back to back prepared with Anna Carter Florence’s approach to preaching – accompanied by a questionnaires, interviews and focus groups. I’m now diving into the long process of transcribing everything and writing it up. Whilst transcribing the interviews reveals all sorts of fascinating thoughts and trends, it is also a slow boring process!

Gaming-wise, the highlights this year so far have been:

  1. Glorantha. My regular group have been playing a Runequest/Heroquest hybrid game set in Glorantha. We’ve come back to this a few times over the last few years, and it’s been a real blast! Gundrig Gorpslayer, the Mostali, has become a river-voice and dreams of collapsing tunnels on trolls. Quite a contrast to the online forum based RQ game I’m in where Grundar the Praxian Rhino Rider trades with trolls and worships Argan Argar as well as Orlanth and the Raven Spirit.
  2. Running Pendragon at Continuum. Recent years I’ve run a variety of games, but this year, other than a Torchwood Heroquest game, I majored on Pendragon, finally finishing off a Fen-based campaign which I have run over all my Continuum visits (although only really I have known the games have been connected) leading up to the defeat of Hereward the Wake by Arthur’s men. The final game saw him finally defeated, slain by the PCs in a confrontation that saw their heroic deaths too. A totally majestic and fitting climax. A wonderful experience and my first TPK. Having been out of Pendragon for a little while, this really ignited my passion for it again.
  3. Running Mutant Year Zero. For a long time I’ve had a hankering to run a proper campaign again for my regular group after finishing the Great Pendragon Campaign with my more sporadic group, for now any way. I backed MY0 in the Kickstarter and was hooked immediately, subsequently backing all their other games. This is the first chance I’ve had, however, to get a game going. We’ve had three sessions so far, character/Ark generation and two sessions of actual play, the first Ark based, the second in the Zone. It has proved to be worthy of the expectation, and I’m absolutely loving it. I’ll blog some ‘actual play’ notes soon.

But I can’t finish this blog without a tribute to Greg Stafford, the man behind both Glorantha and Pendragon. Here’s what I’ve written elsewhere:

The King has set sail over the lake to Avalon.

I got to know Greg through Pendragon. I’d just got back into gaming after a break of too many years, and discovering Pendragon, lapped it up. Greg emailed the Yahoo Pendragon group saying he was looking for someone to help him put together a website. No one else offered and so I found myself tentatively saying I knew a little bit of html and could give it ago if no one else came forward. And so it was that I found myself working with my gaming hero for many years on his original weareallus.com website and then gspendragon.com along with the original Round Table forum before it moved across to its current home with Nocturnal. Through this, I also got to work on a few projects with him, which was a privilege, wonderful watching this creative genius at work. Greg also supported a group of us who set out to run Pendragon scenarios at Continuum and a few other cons, ‘The Pendragon Eschille’, and regularly dropped in for a Skype chat, battling mightily with the many tech issues we encountered on the way. It was great getting to know him – he was always generous, patient and passionate.

Although good ‘virtual friends’ we only met once, at the last Continuum he came over for. He had long promised to run a game for me if our paths crossed, and so I seized the opportunity. A group of us rolled up characters. Mine was Sir Dafyd. We rode out on a quest from the GPC. The quest opened with a quick encounter. Dice were rolled. Possibly the first were by Greg against Sir Dafyd. In full view, as is traditional in Pendragon. Rolled up, dismounted, unconscious, out of the game, all within five minutes. Still, I got the pleasure of watching the rest of the game unfold, the only standard game I’ve ever played in rather than run. A treasured memory, along with my copies of KAP & the GPC, which he signed afterwards.

Thanks Greg, proud to have been one of your household knights!

 

 

Tear Down the Wall!

Church newsletter article 10.12.17

This will be one of the last newsletters of the year, a year in which the news has been dominated by borders and boundaries: Trump’s promised wall between the US and Mexico and the banning of visitors from Muslim countries, missiles fired across the border from North Korea, the Brexit debate and questions of the nature and location of the border between the UK and the EU, especially the thorny question of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This week the nature of borders and capitals reared its problematic head in the Holy Land too, with the proposed move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the recognition of that as being Israel’s capital city. What does this mean for the Palestinians who find their boundaries being squeezed? It has been a year of us vs. them and who’s in and who’s out. So often the divisions have seemed stark and irreconcilable and the debates and discussions impossible.

Advent seems a good time to reflect on these stories and situations in light of the Christmas Story. This story is all about such questions and debates. Today the Palestinians might feel they are living in an occupied land, then it was the Jews under the Romans. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of the census, a count of the people to see who was in, and by implication who was out. Wisemen come following a star, crossing borders of geography, ethnicity and religion to visit a new king. Can you imagine the response from Herod (picture Trump receiving them…)? The next scene makes it clear, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are fleeing across the border to Egypt to escape the threat of murder.

Who is in and who is out? Who belongs? And who does not? Place the past and the present on top of each other, do they sound that different?

There is another story of boundaries, the boundary between God and us, the wall erected between us and Eden comprised not of brick but our anger, selfishness and suspicion that says we’re doing life our way not yours. This story doesn’t end in firm positions, hard ball negotiation or red lines draw in the ground, but through God sending his son to cross the boundary, to see through our eyes, to walk in our shoes, becoming one of us, entering our world and speaking our lingo, so that in turn we could see and hear and understand his. This is not ultimately a story of us and them or in and out, but a story of reconciliation. My hope and prayer is that next year our story might begin to reflect this story instead…

Book Review – Doctor Who: Harvest of Time by Alastair Reynolds (4/5 Stars)

Before reviewing this, I must be honest and confess up front that I’m a bit of a Whovian, growing up with the mighty Tom Baker, and following every incarnation and companion since on screen. I’m also a great fan of Big Finish’s brilliant Doctor Who audiobooks, which I can’t recommend enough.

So what did I make of Harvest of Time? I didn’t come to it expecting it to be a piece of high class literature, rather fun escapism, also Who doesn’t shy from taking on moral and ethical issues. This was certainly the case here with questions of power, personal sacrifice, honesty, trust and interpersonal relationships examined. Contemporary concerns around the environment also hold a central place.

The plot was fun, a classic tussle between the Doctor and an alien invasion of earth with a bundle of twists and turns thrown in for good measure. It was the interplay between the two main protagonists (trying to avoid spoilers if I can) that made it more than just a Who versus the Alien of the Week story. Really well portrayed I thought other than one gripping scene where the Doctor faced a choice about how to respond to his opponents plea, which I felt although a great idea could have been played out a little deeper (as between The Doctor and Davros in the Genesis of the Daleks).

What particularly impressed me was the way this felt like a Classic Who episode rather than one of the modern new Who shows. These have a different pace to them, a sense of side rather than relentless action, which was carried off neatly here.
For fun Who action? Definitely recommended!

(Copied from my Goodreads account)

Back to the Books

Having got my research application sent off for ethical approval, it was good today to be able to turn once more from form filling to reading and thinking. Started to read through The Mission of Preaching: Equipping the Community for Faithful Witness by Patrick Johnson. Very promising start, looking forward to working through the rest of it.

Whole Life Preaching

The DMin thesis I’m working on, arose out of the impact London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s (LICC) Life on the Frontline had on me and our church. At the course’s heart is a very simple thesis, how can we resource the church to fulfill its every day mission serving God where each person spends most of their time, which for many who be at work. What does it mean to be a teacher for God, a rubbish collector for God, a parent, accountant, volunteer or friend? As they neatly put it, don’t ask what new members of the congregation can do for the church, but what the church can do to resource them.

On the back of that, I started looking around for homiletical approaches that specifically seek to support that view of frontline mission. I quickly discovered Anna Carter Florence’s Testimony Preaching, which claims to equip congregations to share their experiences of God in their daily lives by the preacher modelling this through sharing their experiences of God in the text and life. My research question is simple, does it work?

In light of this, I was delighted to be at the launch of LICC’s new resource, a suite of videos and handouts entitled Whole Life Preaching. I’ve not had time to work through all of them yet, but the taste I have had suggests they will be really useful for me as a preacher, and hopefully for my research too! Based on previous experience with their materials, I recommend then to you.