Actual Play – Vanguard (5/29/2016)

unknownarmiesGM: Todd Furler
Players: Myself and five other KublaCon attendees.
System: Unknown Armies

Two games with Todd in one weekend? Huzzah!

Game pitch

In 2046, Mars Station Courage became the first crewed station on Mars. Their original mission was to pave the way for human colonization. Their new mission: To survive. (This game was first run in 2005. I’m bringing it back in honor of the movie The Martian.)

What Rocked

As Todd said at the beginning of the game, Mars was really trying to kill us and we felt it in every moment of the game. Between concerns of supplies running out, parts malfunctioning, and radiation poisoning, we were all in a perpetual state of survival.

From Paul Tevis I got the term “Conservation of NPCs” which means always using an existing NPC when give the option. It prevents the GM from having to make more characters, but more importantly it builds on the existing relationships between characters. Well, Todd has done conservation of NPCs like nobodies business in this game. It make sense, you’re stuck on Mars, there aren’t many people to talk to, but still, he does it very well.

What could have improved

I wasn’t really sure what to do with my character (Fez) for much for much of the game. I talked to Todd about it at length and it doesn’t sound like that character was difficult for others to play so I think it was more a matter of my uncertainty or the player dynamic at the table. The other five players were having a blast though, I just couldn’t quite figure out how to engage with them.

Actual Play – In a Handbasket (5/28/2016)

Unknown Armies 3rd EditionGM: Todd Furler
Players: Alexis George, George Duryea, Sean Nittner, Theresa Giannetti, Chris Ory, Badger McInnes, and another gentleman I didn’t catch the name of.
System: Unknown Armies, 3rd edition.

The Blurb

Kublacon has their event listing page down right now, so I took this from the Gen Con listing, which I assume is the same pitch:

For years, Police District 12 was largely peaceful. But recently, something has been turning the people against the cops. They’re up to something. They’re out to get you. You can feel it.

You’re damn right something has changed! There’s no respect any more! No god damned respect! – Daniel Leahy

The Play is the Thing

As usual I don’t want to give away spoilers for Todd’s games. If you read this and you’re excited about them, he’s running both this game and Vanguard at Gen Con and at Big Bad Con this year (shil shil shil). 

Some things I can say about the game though:

  • Leahy is just as much of a chauvinist jerk as Todd sells him as (he was my PC in the game).
  • The character backgrounds should be read carefully and quietly. I had something of a giggle when Theresa started reading some of her character’s background outloud and I think I saw a blood vessel burst in Todd’s brain. Great stuff, but let it come out in play. At least some (if not all) of the character have something you’re rewarded for revealing in game!
  • The pairings between three cops, a woman in lockup, and two bibliomancers is just great. Personally I got to terrorize my partner, antagonize the hell out of a detective, and generally be blissfully unaware of the bibliomancers who were up to all sorts of shenanigans.
  • Asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” is a delightfully terrible idea.

Some thoughts on 3rd Edtion

3rd edition does two things that were very notable to me. I’m sure there is more, but this is what stood out.

Identities instead of Skills

UA has always has a freeform skill design so that you can make a skill like “tractor racing” or “xenomorphic rhetoric” and be all set. It does put some onus on the person creating the skill to define how it works but that free form design is much of what makes each game or setting unique. Todd has been famous for using this model to really give you a feel for your character. For instance, in the Vanguard game (which he ran with an earlier edition) my character had a skill called “Pop you one”, and another that all the of the Astronauts had called “The Right Stuff”.

Identities take this a bit further and give the character two (possibly more) defining characteristics that covered a penumbra of effects. For instance, my character had and these identities

  • Because I am a beat cop, of course I can – fix your parking ticket, reasonably request entry into most places, find my way around town.
  • Because I am an alpha male, of course I can – take control of a situation, break up a bar fight,  chat up a girl.

Each identity also had abilities you could use it to substitute for and features, or special uses of it. For instance the alpha male ability could terrify someone enough that it would induce a stress check against violence.

This isn’t novel but I do think the format works very well for Unknown Armies. You’ve got a statement that looks a lot like a stunt from Fate Accelerated and then you’ve got a range of effects that explain the general by way of the specific. Feels like a mash up of Fate and Dogs in the Vineyard with just enough crunch to satisfy the gamist and just enough leeway to make a narativist happy too.

2016-05-28 15.14.34

When an identity didn’t apply, you could roll one of the 10 base abilities (heath, dodge, status, etc) but that gets into…

The way stress checks work

This feels like it needs some work still. I’m not sure if it will get it, but wow, was there a lot of confusion in the game, and I can imagine a lot of confusion happening at a lot of tables.

Okay, here’s the short primer.

See all those dots (most of them not filled out) with the row headers of Helplessness, Isolation, etc? Each of those rows governs how well you do at using two abilities as well as resisting a certain flavor of stress. So let’s break that down by way of example by looking at the last line on my sheet Violence (vs. isolation). Here are four things you can gleen from that row:

  1. When rolling the “up” ability (Connect in this case), you find the rightmost filled in dot (in my case the 3rd dot) and go look at the percent values along the top of the matrix. In this case that is a 50. Which means if Daniel tries to connect with someone one and has to roll, he’s trying to beat a 50%.
  2. When rolling the “down” ability (Struggle in this case), you find the rightmost filled in dot (which will be the same as the “up” ability, so 3rd again here) and look at the percent values along the bottom of the matrix. In this case, Daniel has a 30% in his struggle ability.
  3. When faced with a stressful situation (i.e. one that requires a stress check) you look at the “vs.” value. So, if Daniel needed to make a stress check vs. Isolation, this is is the row I would look at. Like the “up” skill, you follow to the rightmost filled in dot, and use the value at the top of the matrix. In this case Daniel has a 50% chance to succeed at a stress check vs. Isolation. And here’s where it’s easy to get mixed up. You don’t roll violence to resist against a Violence stress check (that’s Helplessness above). This has several very intentional effects. It means, in this case, as Daniel becomes more hardened against violence, he becomes worse at resisting stress caused by isolation, but not worse at resisting stress caused by violence. He also becomes better at the “down” ability, which in this case is struggle, and worse at the “up” ability connect. It’s an elegant concept but the user experience trying to navigate all of that is a challenging one.
  4. Already explained some but when you succeed at a stress check, you mark the leftmost unfilled circle in the category that you were resisting, which is isn’t the one you were rolling. So for instance. If Daniel makes a stress check against isolation (currently rolling at a 50 or lower) and succeeds, he would be rolling based on Violence, but he’d fill in the hardened dot for Isolation (the 2nd row). Extrapolating a bit, you can see that Daniel has a few hardened dots filled in on the Violence row, which means he succeeded on a few stress checks using Helplessness (the first row). Similarly if you fail, you also check the failure boxes on the column that you failed test in. You can see Daniel already has one box checked in Helplessness, which means he failed a roll in on the Isolation (vs. helpessness) row.

Here’s my thoughts on all this:

It’s confusing. Even as I write this up, I find I have to keep referencing the sheet to make sure I’m using the right terms and not mixing up row for the row that you roll versus. What’s even tricker is that the roll you row isn’t the row you mark hardened dots or failure boxes in either. I found it easiest to think of it as a game or Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock. Each ability has another ability that it trumps (or in this case rolls vs.). I still think this could have been made more clear though if the layout was circular in design rather than rows like War of Ashes or even more directly like they did in Big Bang Theory.

Opposing Abilities

Also when I map it out like this I noticed that we don’t have fiver interlocking rows. We have two sets of interlocking rows. Unnatural and Self are totally cut off from Helplessness, Isolation, and Violence. So, we don’t even have the opportunity to create a grid like this without changing one of those. Blerg.

The other issue I have is that I feel like failed checks just got left out of the new design. They are still there, just like they were in previous editions, but both graphically and mechanically they look like vestigial remains of a bygone edition. The don’t do anything to the characters (except act as an abstract sanity hit point system) and they don’t fit in the design.  I’m not sure how they should be integrated, but right now it just feels like they were left over and nobody knew what to do with them, even going so far as to unfortunately mark the section “stupid weak failure” on the sheet.

What Rocked

Okay, back to the actual game at hand!

Theresa came from a dungeon crawling background (maybe even one that involved giant flying reptiles) and had never played a game like unknown armies before. It was like Christmas for me watching her read her character sheet and then play in this very different game. I do not denigrate the crawl, but I do love it when folks try out something new!

Our bibliomancers were just awesome. Reading case files right out of Ursula K. Le Guin novels, turning cheap halloween costumes into completely authentic disguises, and otherwise doing magic that was perfectly flavored to both the setting and our game in particular. I thought it was even cooler when things didn’t go well for them and the kid gloves came off!

As mentioned above, I had a lot of fun being the worst cop ever for most of the game. I also got to feel a personal sense of redemption that by the end of the game I not only went out on my own terms, but I never shot anyone (which is more than I can say for my fellow officers!). Most of this however was due to the wonderful roleplaying chops of my two foils Tom (played by George) and Jim (played by Chris).

Some of the twists in the game were just heart wrenching. Like, yeah all sorts of badness of course, but there were some moments of personal pain that, augh… so good.

What could have improved

I think there is a fear of short circuiting the game, ending it too soon, or not playing “right” that can prevent people from diving into something 100%, and worse that causes one character to try and stop another from doing something foolish. It’s totally natural, in life we do it all the time. Of course you don’t leave your hand on the hot plate, you pull it away. But in games, you have a chance to find out what happens if you don’t. All I’m saying is follow Winston’s advice, if someone asks if you are a god, you say, “yes!”

This was a good for me, bad for others scenario. The game was scheduled online for 3PM, but in most of the printed materials at 6PM (both of which were in the same time slot, so it could legitimately have been either). It was also moved to another location, and the White Wolf game that was running in the new location had also moved to another room. All of this without any total confirmation about what was supposed to be when and where (different sources saying different things). The end result was we had a lot of people showing up for a different game, we had a lot of people showing up for this game, but three hours after it started, and the game we actually played was more full of crashers (myself included) than it was folks who were signed up to play in it (most of them arriving just before 6pm). That didn’t affect the game experience much, but it did make for some disappointed folks. A hiccup in the system.

As mentioned pretty exhaustively above, I do like a lot of what was done in 3rd edition, but the advancement in elegance game at the cost of clarity. I doubt much can be done about that now, but if it there is a chance to change the character sheets before the book is printed, I’d encourage it.

Narrative Control – Episode 78 – Pillars of Prep

Hi, and welcome back to the show! This episode I have two phenomenal GMs, Leonard Balsera and Todd Furler, on to talk about the rationale for running games either with low/no or very high prep, as well as their techniques for doing so.

Host: Sean Nittner

Guests: Leonard Balsera and Todd Furler

[00:26] Intro to the Show
[01:06] Introducing my guests Todd Furler and Leonard Balsera
[02:10] Todd and Lenny represent pillars of best practices for different methodologies for running games.
[03:10] Why choose one method or another? Reasons for high prep. Todd’s answer.
[09:33] Reasons for low/no prep games. Lenny’s answer.
[13:50] What the GMs get out of it.
[16:55] How it all happens? What are the techniques each GM uses?
[48:17] Dodging pitfalls. What to do if you find yourself unprepared in a low prep? How do you prevent high-prep games from railroading players.

Direct Download: NC_Episode_078.mp3

Actual Play – The Harvesters (5/25/2014)

unknownarmiesGM: Todd Furler
Players: Shawn Endresen, Tracy Pinkleton, Chris Vincenti, Jessie Stavely, Chad Lynch, Sean Nittner, and William Lee.
System: Unknown Armies

I was very excited to play in another of Todd’s games. Karen had played in it on Friday and enjoyed it quite a bit, plus I had just been recording an episode of Narrative Control with Todd about game prep, so I was extra enthusiastic to see what he brought to the con.

Two things gave me pause though. The first is that Todd started the game with a disclaimer that their would be depictions of torture in the game, though he did keep his promise to only leave them “on screen” as long as they needed to be to drive the point home. The second concern was gaming with my ex-wife and two of her close friends (who are also friends of mine, but since the divorce we haven’t seen each other often). Both of these ended up working out fine. The torture was never gratuitously graphic and Jessie and I, though we didn’t interact much in game, played together just fine.

Game Description

Yesterday, you were just a regular member of the working throng. Today, you have to kill or be killed. This is a dark tale of psychological terror & body horror for mature players.

Places you can still play The Harvesters

August 2014

GenCon – Friday 12PM –

GenCon –  Friday 6PM –

November 2014


The play is the thing

Some of Todd’s games make you wonder “why?”, some of them make you question beliefs, some of them evoke sadness. The harvesters was a demonstration is helplessness. Of course we weren’t, not completely, but there were long periods in the game where all of us looked to each other with absolutely no idea what to do…and predictable things came from that. We turned on each other (in lieu of someone we face that deserved the blame) and we started asking ourselves questions like just how awful of things would we do in order to regain our safety an autonomy.

For every other detail in the game, I can only recommend that you play it yourself. And if you do, be nice to Julie. Her boyfriend has really put a number on her.

Thoughts on the Game

Unsurprisingly the game lived up to my expectation of excellence in Todd’s games (no pressure here Todd). It’s also one that engaged more of the UA mythos than I’ve been able to recognize in the past (though that could just be because I’m not familiar with the parts of the setting he’s used in the past). That was a little bit exciting when, after the game I realized, oh yeah, I know what that is!

Todd also employed an unreliable narrator during certain parts of the game. Namely what was on screen wasn’t the whole story, until it was seen again. That was a neat trick that helped make a reveal without us feeling like we had been “duped” for not getting something in the past.

Todd’s characters, even the powerful ones, are all painfully human. They just want what everyone else wants. Safety and security for them and the ones they love. That is hard to fight without becoming a monster yourself.

We “lost” the adventure in some sense of the word, but it really didn’t feel like “winning” would have been any better. It was disturbing, mournful, and creepy. Awesome.

Actual Play – Fallen Sons (10/6/2013)

unknownarmiesGM: Todd Furler
Players: Sean Nittner, Mia Blankensop, Matt Steele, Zed Lopez, Joe O’Neil, Shawn Endresen
System: Unknown Armies

Game Description: A town must determine how to respond when a hate group announces they will picket the funeral of a favorite son. Players will be exposed to the rhetoric of a real-world hate group.

Todd, at my request, ran Fallen Sons, the transcendental sequel to Thy Will, which I played six years ago and still remember as a favorite.

I was excited for several reasons. To play the sequel to a personal favorite game. To play with Matt Steele, a friend and personal favorite gamer, and to play with Mia, who was leaning a new system, and hadn’t played with Todd before.

The game did not disappoint. I had heard that it dealt with really heavy issues, specifically hate crimes, which it did. I also heard that the supernatural elements were both familiar and extremely alien, which they were.

Thoughts on this game

I left out the actual play report because Todd may run it again and I want to avoid spoilers.

The only downside to this game for me was being really frazzled by running the con (and proposing the night before) so I just don’t feel like I gave it my best shot.  Nothing terrible, just more distracted than I would have liked.


Actual Play – The Skunky Bottom Boys in ‘Damn the Torpedoes!’ (5/24/2013)

hollowearthexpeditionGM: Todd Furler
Players: Sean Nittner, Karen Twelves, Adam Breindel, and Tom Epperly
System: Hollow Earth Expedition

A game run by Todd Furler has yet to leave me anything but delighted after play. Karen and I arrived at Kubla sans-kids on Friday night. They were arriving Saturday morning so even though my plan this year was to investigate board games at KublaCon, I gave myself Friday night to indulge in some some awesome RPG action.

The shuffler gods were kind and both Karen and I got into Todd’s game!

The pitch

Todd started with his normal opening discussion about what we’re doing when we sit down to play, which I documented in the Furler Method. After we were all suitably acquainted, he introduced the Skunky Bottom Boys, a family (a very large family) that spawned several generations but few gene pools.

Character pictures were laid out on the table, with each option having two pictures (one for each gender) and two potential archetypes. Here was the character I picked:


Each gender had both archetypes available, and notably, none of the character had names, that is because it wasn’t until after we picked our characters that Todd presented us with the Clowper family tree…with all it’s eccentricities. Barnaby Clowper was the progenitor of the line, but even his relationship (Married to Vicki until she died and then marrying Alvinia Farris, who loeft Eugine Farris to be with Barnaby) was complicated. From there it became a giant trail of half-sibling spouses, first cousin brothers, and and aunt-mothers.

Todd asked us to pick a character in the bottom two rows (the two most recent generations) and then figure out the specifics how how they were actually connected. I picked Hamish, who we decided was married to Vicki, who had left Karen’s character Leo. Adam played Leo’s significantly older brother Ismael. I believe, if I got this right, I was also both of their Uncle. Tom played Jubal, our cousin for sure, maybe more. Leo was sure that Vicki was still his lady, she just had to come around, never mind that Vicki and Hamish had a daughter who was already married. Witness the insanity:


The Play is the thing

I don’t want to talk too much about the game specifics, since Todd will surely run this game (and probably other Skunky Bottom Boys games) in the future. There are some great non-plot elements I can discuss though.

Karen and I had a great time playing rivals. As Hamish was the “daredevil” I constantly was doing crazy things (like firing a harpoon gun with myself attached to the harpoon) and there were plenty of opportunities to leave me for dead. Leo generally felt favorable to those outcomes. It was awesome.

The characters each have one over the top special ability. Leo, the “Moonshiner” could, unsuprisingly make Moonshine. But he could make other things as well. Oh man, the things he made were awesome.

Todd did some things with the timeline that make it possible for us to do some really great reincorporation. I loved talking to Ishmael about his heirloom knife that he loved and cherished, and how he’s never let that go, when I already knew he was going to lose it.  We had the same references to things found in the in the distillery. “… pickled eggs…. no… baby alligator in a jar… no….” came up over and over.

Thoughts on the game

If it wasn’t clear before, each character had two archetype options. So when I picked mine I could go with Tough Guy or Daredevil. I chose the later.

I sure hope Todd runs more Skunky Bottom Boys. The characters were a hoot, the setting (1940s just before America enters the war) is ripe with pulp opportunities, and the shared profession of the Clowper family (maritime salvage) is a treasure trove of awesome adventuring ideas.

So much more I want to say, but don’t want to give out spoilers. For the folks that were in the game “Fucking-<name of fish with a cartilaginous skeleton>-<local area network>-<memoir written by Frank McCourt>!”


Actual Play – Ashes of Innocence (2/19/2012)

GM: Todd Furler
Players: Sean, Donnamarie, Rian, Carly, Ishtar, Tom,  Adrian Anderson
System: Unknown Armies

This was a messed up horror game. I wouldn’t say that most of Todd’s Unknown Armies are really “horror”, I’d call them suspenseful or thrillers, but not horror. Todd describes them as episodes of the Twilight Zone, were normal people experience something where reality suddenly takes a sharp left turn.

Well, some episodes of the Twilight Zone are apparently more disturbing than others…

I played Lauren Markowitz, a teenage girl with all the normal kinds of issues surrounding a 15 year old whose mom just remarried after a divorce to a man with two kids of his own. Actually, I’d say that of ALL the characters, my horrors were the most mundane, but they were still awful. Deliciously awful.

Todd had some very interesting perspective on family relationships. He noted a few things in the very beginning, as he was actively trying to get players to walk away from the game if any of this upset them.

  1. When we encounter something we don’t like, we can either try to change it, deal with it, or leave. In a family change is often impossible and leaving isn’t an option, meaning we were going to spend most of the game (and we did) just dealing with problems that were never going to be solved.
  2. Unknown Armies has a rule for how your characters become inured to the terrors they experience. In a nutshell, when you encounter something that freaks you out, if you manage to keep your calm, you start becoming “hardened” to that kind of experience (e.g. violence or helplessness). If you fail to keep your wits, you starts cracking along the edges. One of Todd’s rules in this is that you never get “hardened” to family issues.  So, if we experienced “helplessness”, like having to sit at the table eating dinner when the other kids go to go have their damn tea parties (“So unfair!!!”), even if we made the roll (which I was very happy I didn’t) we don’t get hardened to that kind of horror. It will piss us off just as much the next time it comes up!

Thoughts on the game

Carly, the young woman playing my character’s mother had it rough! First off, Todd had all sorts of hell for her to deal with and then I just added more to it. I mean heaping tablespoons of teenage angst and rebellion. I commend her for a) staying in character and b) not feeling too picked on. It wasn’t personal, she was just the one to bear the burden.

Todd had two characters with special rule about how they could interact. Because of this I wasn’t able to interact with them at all during the game, my character didn’t even know of their existence. Everyone once in a while I would do something that was relayed to them, but from my perspective they didn’t exist. I think this played out well in our game and it makes me wonder if this would be a good way to handle Upstairs/Downstairs games like a riff of of Downton Abbey, where some characters are simply unaware of others. Hmm.

There was one point were Todd was getting pretty close to pushing one of my buttons regarding violence against children. I think if it was another GM I would have probably call to cut the scene. In this case Todd asked us to trust him in advance and I did, and it worked out just fine. Yay, trust exercises!

I really, really dislike DundraCon’s proliferation of nicknames. I blame the system here. When you reg there is a line for your nickname. Most people want to fill out most lines on forms. We’re programmed to complete that kind of stuff. I takes tremendous willpower to leave that line blank. But if you don’t, if you enter anything in that line, it goes with you through the whole con. So, in this case “2 Shotgun Kid” was about 20 minutes late for the game. I’m sure he had reasons, but nobody had any idea who he was or how to get a hold of him. And because that was his name on his badge, that’s all I remember as well. Todd got everyone’s actual names for his personal logs, but I couldn’t remember them.  Not. A. Fan.

Max Rocks. Just saying.


Actual Play – The Search for the Soul of the Earth (2/18/2012)

GM: Todd Furler
Players: Alan Hodges, Gil Treviso, Kevin Beagle, Aaron Beagle, Sean Nittner, Larry Lynch-Freshner, Thomas Fraser
System: Hollow Earth Expedition

Todd is a fantastic GM, and this was a fantastic group of players. As first official game at DundraCon, I couldn’t have asked for more.

Because this is a game Todd will run again at KublaCon (and I’m working on shipping him out to Big Bad Con as well) I won’t give away any plot elements of the game. Play in it and find out for yourself. You’ll love it.

The Furler Method

I feel like Todd’s approach to GMing should be captured, analyzed, documented and then disseminated for other GMs to learn from. His approach is very different than mine, and very different than other GMs I admire (see the “Rigney’s Rules”) but that doesn’t make them anything less than awesome. So, while I don’t have perfect memory, I have played in half a dozen of Todd’s games, so I’m going to try and cobble together my collective memories of the games and start on a prototype document of the “The Furler Method”. Todd, if you read this, and have the time, please add in anything I missed, and/or correct any errors I’ve made.

The Setup

When you arrive at one of Todd’s games you see a character tent in front of every seat. He always assures you not to worry, sit down anywhere you like, as where you sit doesn’t affect what character you play.  The character tents are card stock letter size pages folded in half. On both sides there is a picture of the character, their name and traits appropriate to the game. In Hollow Earth, it was a quote from the character or a short descriptor.  In Unknown Armies it is four short statements about the first impression the characters give off in their four status (body, mind, soul and speed). The characters photos are rarely (if ever) celebrities so there is no association with other movies, shows, music, etc, but they are generally very evocative of what kind of person that character is (or at least appears to be on the surface).

There is also candy on the table. Jolly Ranchers specifically. Along with note pads, pencils and dice appropriate to the game.

Todd has a GM screen up, though I’m not sure why. I’ve never seen him make a roll in a game, though I have seen him refer to notes on occasion. The fact that he uses a screen is often easy to miss because he spends most (if not all) of the game standing up. So it is still very easy to engage with him.

The Pitch

Todd starts every game greeting the players, getting their full names (which he records), and introduce himself. He confirms that we’re all here to do the same thing (play in his game) and gives some cautionary information (where water is, where the fire exits are, when we’ll take breaks, how long the game will last, etc).

He then introduces his gaming style, which is modeled after a movie, and includes all the (desirable) tropes of filing a movie. Specifically his goal, for running a successful game is that at the end of it everyone at the table will push back away from the table and say “I’d pay money to see that movie in a theatre”.

Depending on the genre of the game, he states goals for the movie we’re all shooting together. For instance, in Hollow Earth expedition he requires that we all had a bias towards action and that we leave the audience constantly on the edge of their seats worrying about the safety of our characters. In the Unknown Armies game (a horror game) he required that we all work towards making a serious horror film.

Todd is both the producer and director of the movie. He will open and close scenes, he will give the players assignments (like “we need to see your character show off his amazing aviation skills here”), and he will determine what makes the cut and what doesn’t. As he said it he pays for the movie reel by the inch, and he’s not paying for fluff, tangents, or references to other movies.

The players are the actors. They are given an assignment of a situation, and told to describe how that looks to the camera. He often tells you “don’t tell me what you do, tell me what the camera sees.” When that authority is passed to the players they are granted quite a bit of license to place just about anything else in the shot. They control their character, but also (so long as it is not completely objectionable to the other players) all the other characters, the set, the props, much of the action, and all the camera effects.  The players are encouraged, even required to say what’s going on, what kind of music should be playing, and how the audience should feel about the action taking place.

A small and quirky example for me was that our movie was taking place in 1941 and we weren’t certain at first if it should be in black and white or color. We decided it would start in black and white and then shift to color at a certain point in the film. As I was playing a robber baron character who was impossibly rich and wealthy, I stated that when the film changed to color my character was in a charcoal suit, had salt and pepper hair and grey eyes. The rest of the movie was being filmed in color, except me, I wouldn’t have any of that nonsense. My character remained in black and white.

The far more common case was that we narrated the amazing dangers our characters faced and then the last moment desperate gamble they would take to barely dodge a fatal encounter.

Finally Todd encourages players to use all the collective knowledge at the table to frame the most interesting scene possible. He specifically encourages meta-gaming if it would make the movie more enjoyable. The example he gives is that if Player A’s character knows something, Player B should feel totally at liberty ask Player A if he or she can let it slip so that Player B’s character can overhear, should it make the story more exciting or interesting for them to know.

Our characters

After the pitch was made Todd will tell all the players about the characters as well as a bit of background about the game. He’s very conscious to leave out specific details. We know about the game, probably less than you would about a moving having seen the trailer, but perhaps as much as you would get from a teaser.

Players choose characters in the order that they arrived at the table and generally speaking the last two or three are asked to negotiate who gets which character so that nobody is stuck with only one choice.

Once all the character tents have been selected, Todd hands out character sheets which have one page of our character “stats” and one page (or more) of our background and relationships with other players.

This is the one area where Todd’s sensibilities and mine are divergent.  While Todd never takes players aside at the table, the character sheets often contain secrets. Sometimes they aren’t secrets because anyone is trying to hide them, sometimes they are just things other people don’t know. But there are also some big whoppers in there too. And this is where we have a philosophical divide. While Todd encourages players to reveal their secrets in game (else what is the point of having them) I find that two things happen:

  • The players sometimes don’t. In our game for instance Larry was playing a character that did something none of us understood and it was never explained why. I don’t know in Larry’s case the motivation for keeping the secret. In fact, I should have stuck around the game later on to talk to him about it. Regardless, six out of the eight people at that table (including Todd) had no idea what was going on with his character and thus we couldn’t play off it.
  • If the players don’t know about characters secrets they can’t build suspense around them. So, let’s say the player knows that his character’s best friend is actually having an affair with his fiancée (not in this game, just an example).  That player can spend the entire game pushing that envelope that he might find out. He can keep showing up early from work, creating either  hilarious escapades (if it is that kind of movie) or terrifying near misses (if it is that kind of movie) and constantly keep building the tension. If they didn’t know, all that happens is at the end they find out, but it’s the same time the audience finds out, so there is no build up. And that’s assuming we don’t have the case above where the player with the secret never reveals!

Todd goes over the characters sheets bit by bit to explain both where to find things on your character sheet and how the game works. As he reviews skills, stats, etc, he also explains how the dice mechanics work, what currencies are in the game (e.g. style dice) and what kind of flags your characters have (e.g. obsessions and stimulus in Unknown Armies, motivation and flaws in Hollow Earth Expedition). This is the part where the gamey bits are explained, like what you would roll to leap off a crashing zeppelin and onto a passing fighter plane, for example!

The game is the thing

Once the players have been acquainted with Todd’s expectations, the characters and the system, the game proper starts. Todd opens the first scene and then puts it to the players to introduce their characters to the audience.

I can’t really go too far into game play specifics without revealing the story, so instead I’ll point out some of the principles I see Todd exhibit in play of pulp action (defining these principles as such  inspired by Apocalypse World):

  • Promote the protagonists as imminently competent.  Todd is always framing the success and failures of the PCs from the perspective that they should be able to do anything they set their minds to, it is only circumstance that prevents them from achieving their goals.
  • Cut to the important actions. Todd will often allow a lot of action to take place without any roll or dispute until it comes to the pivotal action that determines the protagonist’s outcome. He doesn’t want the player concerned with whether they can do all the prerequisite steps to make a cool thing happen, he just wants to find out of the final stroke is a home run or a foul ball.
  • As for the action that he wants to see. As noted above, Todd will often tell players “This is where we need to see this specific thing from you” and coach them into bringing that to light.
  • Rejoice in the success of the protagonists. Todd will shout, cheer, yell “yes!” when our protagonists succeed in something larger than life that improves the movie. He is a cheerleader of good play.
  • Immediately clamp down on play that is not suited for the game. Diverging slightly from the pulp references, in our horror game, early on there was a case where to the players started a comedic exchange that was not fitting with a “serious horror film” and he immediately told them to stop it and reminded that they had agreed to make a serious horror film with him.
  • Provide incredible leeway to the players to frame a conflict or action in the way that would best serve the story.  Questions like “how many enemies are surrounding me” are generally met with answers like “how many does their need to be for the story? You tell me.”
  • Todd always allows players and option to “cut” any scene. This is his approach to lines and veils. If anyone is uncomfortable with the content, they can cut a scene and then the table will collectively negotiate whether or not that scene can be finished with any necessary provisions to make the player comfortable or whether we just need to move to the next scene.

Wrap up

In the end Todd asks for the ending credits of the movie, allows for players to wrap up any small, unresolved bits, and then closes the game asking “was that a movie you would pay money to see?”

Thoughts on the game

I have never had so much fun playing a callous robber baron as I did this weekend. Edgar Richmond was a big picture guy with other people to handle the details. To that effect I ordered zoos and museums built in my name, gave my assistant impossible tasks and then told her not to bore me with the details when she asked how they would be accomplished, and generally assumed I could get anything I wanted with the judicious use of money and haggling.  Alan Hodges played my incredibly competent but totally deferential assistant Stacy and together our dialog and antics had me cracking up through most of the game. That relationship was absolutely hilarious.

While nothing Todd presented was really a huge shock, it was totally unexpected and an absolute blast to play through.

The player quality at the table was just top notch. Everyone there was fantastic. At one point Gil’s character (the geologist) told this totally ego boosting lie to me, that I fell for completely and it was the motivation for so much of my character’s actions through the rest of the game. That was awesome!

Actual Play – Collision on I-81 (5/28/2011)

GM: Todd Furler
Players: Duane O’ Brian, Sean Nittner, Michael Wilson, Travis Smalley, plus two.
System: Unknown Armies


Collision on I-81
Game system: Unknown Armies
Start time: SAT, 9:00 AM
# of Players: 6
GM / Judge: Todd Furler
What’s supposed to be a simple week of training starts off with a horrific car accident. And things get worse from there. CHAR: Provided LVLS: Normal folks

Getting to the game

This game only happened by the narrowest of margins for me. To get in I would have had to sign up Friday night (which I didn’t). I looked at the schedule for Saturday noon games and nothing looked at all interesting, so with 15 minutes before Todd’s game started I rushed up to the room and crashed the game.

A major downside to this was not being ready to game. I.e. I hadn’t showered or changed clothes with is a total gamer hygiene snafu. Luckily my lovely family brought me some essentials (breakfast, a clean shirt, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste).

When I arrived, I was first in the waitlist but people in the game were showing up and filling the seats. A single player, a friend of Michael Wilson sent text to bow out and I was in! Awesome

The Setup

Todd opened up the game, introducing us as a group of engineers (and their supervisor) that worked together for a firm and were being sent off for some regulatory training. One the drive, however, we got in an accident, the Collision on I-81. Out of nowhere another van appeared and our vehicles smashed into each other. The other vehicle got the worst of it, several were injured and one died. Luckily we were mostly just startled but otherwise okay.

The characters were a fun group. Bill, our boss, had the exterior of being a caring guy, but had some skeletons in his closet. Seth was the newbie that wasn’t technically qualified for the job. Amanda (my character) was a really good natured woman who wanted to prove herself. We also had the frat boy, the family guy and my favorite (Michael’s character) the ice queen that gave up having any kind of personal life for her professional career.

The game is the thing

As Todd may very well run this game again at Gen Con, I’m not going to write anything about the story, suffice to say, it was a great one.

What rocked

Todd always does a fantastic job delivering a game full of people that are very real and very diverse. I love his portrayal of NPCs.
The plot never required our characters to give up on our previous beliefs about the natural world (as many games that incorporate supernatural elements do).

The player character interaction was great, particularly between Dwane and Travis and Michael and me. Michael and I had a great scene where his character snubbed my so hard, the character relationships really changed, which is something I love to see.

I had two epicly bad rolls (I think 99s both of them) that created some amazing twists in the game, both involving car accidents. Todd did an amazing job of making those horrible failures push the story forward.

Todd Furler! Awesome GM.

What could have improved

It seemed like there was a lot more about the characters that could have come out in the course of a longer game. With four hours (which is my preferred length btw) and a lot of story bits to experience, I left wondering a lot about the other characters. Given out particular ending, I doubt we would ever had found out.