[Deathbird Black] The story behind the game

Started by Baxil, February 13, 2011, 12:47:29 PM

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So Deathbird Black won a Ronnie, and the discussion thread barely has time to hit the forum before there's six replies.  Eek.

Before I start responding there to any of the points brought up ... I got drawn to The Forge by the competitions and have largely been lurking.  So I feel like I should start off by posting here with my gaming background, because that strongly informs DBB's design choices, and might help us figure out which points of contention are in my blind spots and which are just play-style collision.

I'm happy to tackle discussion/questions here, but the intention is as something of an infodump to inform the Ronnies feedback.

* * *

I inherited my older brother's Original D&D boxed set in the mid-1980s and devoured it, but never played D&D until much later.  My first campaign was in grade school, with a similarly precocious kid who lived two doors down.  The two of us played GURPS fantasy, co-GMing for each other and managing a stable of 6+ characters each (which I loved), and tabletop wargames (which I hated, even though it was the same experience with 1/10 the bookkeeping ... it was competitive instead of cooperative and he routinely whipped me).

So yeah, I was That Gamer as a kid.  I got better.

A succession of mostly mainstream, mostly crunchy games followed throughout adolescence and college - D&D2e, (Palladium) TMNT, MS&PE, some point-buy supers game, more GURPS.  In junior high I also met a kid whose imagination rivaled mine.  He was into Talislanta, but I never once saw a rulebook; we instead shared what was something in between kids' freeform games and a homebrew LARP.  I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile those two sides of the gaming coin (and I was either lucky or prescient, in choosing tabletop gaming buddies who stepped up to join me).  It mostly came out in backstory, in-game fiction, setting design, and lovingly detailed plot in games like D&D that really weren't designed to care about such things.

Then college.  I was starting to worm my way into gaming groups there when Magic: The Gathering hit and everyone went a little crazy.  By the time RPGs were cool again, I had graduated, moved in with non-gamers and hit a dry spell.  Except for a burst of excellent D&D3e and RIFTS campaigns in Seattle (again, I was lucky enough to find players and GMs who played my preferred plot-rich, high-characterization games), pretty much nothing till I moved here ~6 years ago.

My current gaming circle is a wonderful bunch of guys and gals, and games have been uniformly enjoyable, but it's all been with broken systems (White Wolf) or systems stretched beyond their strengths (D&D).  It's become constraining.  For example, I own a copy of Baron Munchhausen (and play it at cons with a few Internet friends), but nobody here is comfortable enough with freeform creativity to touch it with an 11-foot pole.  Even Once Upon A Time was getting a hesitant reception - and yes, I'm aware of its design problems, but when your goal is deprogramming the pernicious mainstream-RPG habit that players don't have permission to narrate outcomes, it's a hell of an approachable pure-narrative game.

So I've been trying to expand my friends' horizons, but it's been a slow process, only really taking hold in the last year.  I talked four players in the core group into letting me GM a game of Fantasy Flight's Fireborn.  (It's different but familiar - kind of like Exalted with a combo-based combat system, and some cool/strange mechanics like flashbacks into the dragon character you're reincarnated from.)  Switching to that entirely unfamiliar system was a smashing success, and with that foot in the door I've finally been pushing out into indieland.  I got a number of them to play some Game Chef 2010 finalists with me, and (literally two weeks ago) just started a Dogs in the Vineyard mini-campaign.

I should add one thing: almost from the beginning, I've carried around my dog-eared original copy of TOON.  I don't run it often - on average, less than once a year.  But it's my clinch game.  Low-commitment, newbie-friendly, hilarious.  It even saved one of our campaigns a few years back.  One player asked us if his friend could guest-GM a session; said friend was frighteningly bad, players were pitted against each other unexpectedly, and there were bad feelings all around to the point where a few people were ready to walk from gaming for a while.  So after he was politely disinvited, I cajoled everyone into a game of TOON.  We picked up the mangled campaign right at the clusterfsck where the last session had stopped, but under anything-goes TOON rules. Their job was to undo the disastrous interference of the bad GM, and inflict creative harm on the bad-GM's NPC standin.  Smashing success!  It was a needed reminder that gaming is about fun, godsdammit, and that we were supposed to be getting together with fun in mind.

That's the sort of game I want Deathbird Black to be: the amazing change of pace.  The eye-opener.  The communal ass-kicking gasp-for-breath laugh-fest, best enjoyed in sporadic binges so that it's fresh again every time you take it back out.

And the guy creating it?  I game because I like to dance with my muse.  I game for Story Dice - for exploring the forces shaping the SIS not under anyone's conscious control.  (While I'm in there, I enjoy problem-solving and being surprised by who my character is.)  Some of the ritual of the Deathbird scenes came from that impulse.  Sounds like it struck a chord.

I also carry one habit from my childhood gaming.  I get a little OCD, especially about GMing.  I like to play hard - to put together the best goddamn game I can.  I overprepare, I obsess, I micromanage.  You can get some sense of this in the Fireborn campaign site, or the fact that I write 13-page fake government reports as random player handouts.  This, um, kinda comes through in my game design too. 

I see here - and I heard in the Mom's Basement podcast - several people commenting that DBB is too prep-heavy, or overly rules-laden.  And I'm all, "What?  This skinny, 14-page-double-spaced thing?  I was kicking out unnecessary shit left and right!"

So I'll work on that.  And I'll break here, because I'm sure anyone else here would have been done six paragraphs ago.  ;-p


Argh, one crucial point about my current situation got taken out in editing.  I live in a town of ~10,000 in the rural mountains east of Sacramento, California.  We're about 50 miles from the nearest gaming store and there aren't any organized roleplaying events I'm aware of out here.  I've met about 15 local gamers, roughly in two groups (with some branches and dropouts), and ... that's pretty much it.