Another year has passed, and a chance to review the games I played and the great things I did in them, as well as to preview what I hope to play (and GM) in the year to come. This year was a relatively quiet one in gaming, actually, possibly because business travel for me interrupted a lot of gaming opportunities and possibly also because, by the standards of the two previous years, gaming has been a little bit low key in 2017. Besides a few minor side sessions, 2017 has been about playing in one major Shadowrun campaign, and running the new Mutant system. But playing, particularly, didn’t reach the heights of the previous two years. Here’s a brief review.

Undriel: The Gaelic high fantasy that floundered

I started the year playing a series of adventures in a world called Undriel, a classic fantasy setting with a Gaelic twist, which was run using a home-brew system our GM developed based on World of Darkness. I was officially very resistant to playing in World of Darkness rules, which I have had bad experiences with and really don’t like, and flat-out barred using the standard magic rules of e.g. Vampire: The Masquerade, which I think is a terrible system. The magic system we came up with was quite flexible, however, and I liked my character quite a lot: Xenobia the unwilling necromancer, a young noblewoman who was accidentally infected with necromantic powers by a dark ritual gone wrong. I enjoyed playing her as a creepy girl aiming to do good, but the system didn’t work as I expected (WoD, natch!) and for some reason this campaign floundered after about session 5 or 6, only 2 of which I joined for reasons of travel. I think in truth that all the players carefully avoided further participation in this because we all just did not like the system, and the Gaelic twist on the fantasy world meant we had to know too much detailed mythological background to figure out what was going on. So this campaign died in the arse somewhere around April, quite stillborn but sadly not especially mourned.

Shadowrun: Continuing the New Horizon campaign with magic

After Undriel failed a different GM stepped up, to run a short and low-demand Shadowrun campaign. This was a continuation of our excellent and wonderful New Horizon campaign, a classic cyberpunk setting run in Cyberpunk (which is an awful system). The New Horizon campaign was amazing, and featured probably my all time favourite PC, The Druid (aka Drew), a rifle-toting teenage girl with psychopathic tendencies, and we were all eager to run a continuation. The New Horizon campaign ended with our characters waking a dragon and bringing on the Awakening that heralds the opening of the sixth world, and the shift from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun. So our new, 2017 campaign was set 50 years or so later, in the ruins of New Horizon, in a world of magic and assault rifles and metahumans. This Shadowrun campaign has been a lot of fun, with nine sessions completed in the second half of 2017 and a lot of tense and fun adventures featuring a fairly tight-knit and well-functioning group. My character, Jayden, is a bit boring compared to Drew but he is a highly effective melee combatant and I have really enjoyed playing a character who is competent and completely comfortable in his world, without any of the psychological baggage that made Drew and Xenobia a little bit thorny for the other PCs to be around. Shadowrun New Horizon hasn’t had as many memorable moments as the original New Horizon Campaign, even though it’s run by the same GM, but this is partly by design: After a couple of high-tension high-stakes campaigns, he consulted with us and we all agreed we wanted something more low key and traditional, just a bunch of guys and girls running in the shadows and getting by as best they can. It’s been a good chance for us to explore Shadowrun pretty much as it’s written, in a Hong Kong-type setting with our GM’s flair for exceptional settings and tense scenarios but without the demands of an over-arching story. We’ve all been enjoying it and we expect it to continue into 2018.

Mutant Year Zero: A startling new system and a fun world

For the second half of the year I have been GMing a short campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system by The Free League. As I stated in my review of the game, I have been really stunned to find this system which is light, highly playable and extremely flexible, and has made GMing fresh again for me. It’s a simple system that really finely balances risk and reward, and seems to have been really popular with my players. On balance over the past couple of years I think the game I ran that my players enjoyed the most was Flood, a post-apocalyptic waterworld setting run in Cyberpunk where the low-tech setting made the terrible system almost bearable, and I really really wish I had known about Mutant when I ran that campaign, because I think this system would have made it even better. Instead I’m running a campaign set in post-apocalyptic London, with the PCs doing nothing more really than exploring the area around their Ark and slowly uncovering things about the ancient world and the history of the Ark. I expect this to only run for one or two more sessions, but the players all seem to have been really enjoying it and they all really love the simplicity and elegance of the system. I can’t say that the Mutant campaign has been a masterpiece of GMing on my part but it has flowed smoothly and the system has inspired me enough that I (and I think my players too) really feel like I’m there, crouched around the trashcan fire after the fall of the world, when I break out those dice.

GMing in 2018: Coriolis and a real high fantasy campaign

Our other regular GM is moving away from Japan in mid-2018 and I am hoping to be able to take over the core GM role for our group for the foreseeable future, which I am hoping will give me the opportunity to run a long, detailed campaign of the type I haven’t run for years. After Mutant finishes I intend to stick with a similar system by the same company, Coriolis, and run a short campaign in that setting until I take receipt of the Forbidden Lands RPG, which is currently in production stage. That is Free League’s attempt to merge the system used in Mutant: Year Zero with a high fantasy setting, and everything I have seen in the reports on the kickstarter suggests it is going to be an awesome high fantasy system that – for the first time in years – makes me want to GM high fantasy.  I am hoping to take that and make it our group’s primary campaign setting for at least the next year and hopefully longer, running the kind of sprawling, 1st level-to-lordship fantasy campaign that historically has only really been possible in crappy systems like D&D. My whole group have been wanting to run a high fantasy campaign but we just can’t get into any of the current systems, and Forbidden Lands offers the real possibility of a setting and a system that finally work. So having played Coriolis to adapt to a richer version of the Mutant: Year Zero system, we will switch over to a full fantasy setting and get to grips with the kind of fantasy role-playing we’ve all been yearning for for years.

That’s my 2018 Big Plan!

Playing in 2018: Muskets and Magic

I have joined a second group which is running a GURPS-based muskets and magic setting. I haven’t started playing with them yet but I’m hoping it will prove to be an excellent addition to my gaming in the new year. I haven’t played GURPS before, it looks complex and fiddly but viable, but the setting will be very similar to the Compromise and Conceit setting I was GMing when I first started this blog. I’m hoping that will provide not just a refreshing setting and a chance to play in a world I only ever GMd in the past, but also a chance to meet new players, new GMing styles, and new ideas. Hopefully this will mean that 2018 brings with it a whole bunch of fresh new game worlds and experiences.

Real life in 2018: Less business, more exercise

I have been making adjustments to my work life in 2017, including scoring some big successes, and I am hoping that in 2018 I will do less business travel, spend more time in my home, and have more time for both gaming and blogging. This blog has taken some hits in 2017, with posting dropping down to fortnightly or even monthly at times, and I have been less enthusiastic about it at times than I would like. Next year will be 10 years since I started the blog, which has held together over that whole time, and I’m hoping that in 2018 I will be able to pick up the posting a bit and get back to where it was at a few years ago. I have also discovered a much better kickboxing gym in 2017, where I am slowly recovering my love of kickboxing, and I’m hoping that in 2018 I will be exercising more and regaining the fitness that drained away slowly over the past few years. So overall in 2018 I’m hoping for less exotic destinations in the real world, and more exotic destinations in my imaginary life – which is way more interesting, anyway, than traveling for work.

I hope you, my reader(s), who have patiently stuck by this blog over these past few years, will get to see more gaming reports and more interesting worlds in 2018, posted more regularly, and hopefully follow my players as they grow from first level adventurers to mighty heroes, in a fantasy world worth adventuring in. And I hope you too get to enjoy a rich and varied imaginary world in 2018, with large dice pools and mighty deeds. Bring it on!

I have posted before on my opinion of why women don’t play RPGs very much, and recently there is some debate doing the rounds on RPG blogs about this topic. Debate about this topic seems to founder on two rhetorical points, viz:

  • Women are biologically different to men so won’t ever get into RPGs (or, in a softer form, it’s going to be hard to design imagery for RPGs that can appeal equally well to men and women)
  • Changing the way RPGs are presented so that it appeals to women too will render the RPGs shit, because it will involve changing their content for reasons of political correctness rather than style

The former objection is common throughout the blogosphere, it appears, e.g. in comments on this question of Trollsmyth’s about how to sexualize men; and the latter is put particularly forcefully by Zak at Playing D&D with Porn Stars. The former is a debate I don’t want to enter into on this blog, as I feel it’s been done to death over the last 70 years. But the latter I think is not a problem, because changing the representation and culture of a hobby does not require that its fundamental content be changed. I have an analogy from my experience in kickboxing that should help to illustrate how this works.

Kickboxing has been slowly opening up to women over the last 10 years, and in fact not just to women, but widening its scope to include just generally people who aren’t crazy thugs. To do this, they’ve had to change the culture of kickboxing, but unfortunately the sport is always going to attract crazy thugs, because it involves hitting people, and you can’t change that element of the sport. So instead of changing the sport itself, the martial arts association connected with the sport in Australia attempted to change the culture of the sport – that is, the way it is run, the way it is presented to the public, and the teaching methods and club environment so that people could train safely and would be willing to enter a world that has long had a bad image. This wasn’t just being done to encourage women to join – there was an increasing fear that bad behaviour by some trainers was bringing the whole sport into disrepute, and also a recognition that while it retained a certain culture, the sport would remain a niche hobby for a few people.

So, first of all the martial arts association introduced a training accreditation program. This is entirely voluntarily, but after a few bad scares, a lot of schools, scout halls and other hire venues have starting shying away from non-accredited coaches. This accreditation program holds the teachers who do it to a higher standard than used to be expected of a martial arts club, and this higher standard works primarily to make the sport more appealing to a wider range of students, as well as enabling current participants of the sport to lengthen the period of time they are able to continue participating, diversify their skills and enjoy a wider range of activities. The main changes are:

  • Teachers have to learn first aid
  • Teachers have to not only learn, but also encourage, safe training practices amongst their students – wearing of appropriate safety gear, use of proper scientific warm-up and cool-down regimes, and awareness of how different people (e.g. beginners) need to have different training regimens
  • Clubs need to be clean and hygienic, with proper toilet facilities, segregated changing rooms, and education in hygiene for all participants
  • Teachers need to learn to understand what bullying is, and to stamp it out both in their own practice and in that of their senior students
  • Teachers need to have some rudimentary idea of how people learn, what sorts of things need to be done to encourage or discourage a good education, and how to help people enjoy the sport
  • Teachers need to understand that different people have different reasons for wanting to participate, and treat students accordingly
  • Teachers need to understand sexual harrassment and the kinds of activities that make women uncomfortable in a training venue, and try to eliminate this behaviour from their club

The result has not been just that kickboxing has grown fast amongst women, but also that the general quality of kickboxing has improved rapidly over the past 10 years, so that now Australia performs above its weight on the world stage. Lessons in how to do this have been learnt from rugby and Australian Rules Football, both of which have a strong and loyal female following in Australia, and a surprisingly large number of female participants, even though they are the quintessence of contact sports. Nothing has changed fundamentally about the sports themselves; all that is different is the way that they are presented and the culture that surrounds them.

Obviously role-playing has different conditions for the admittance of women to these sports, and different things need to change; and there is no teacher-student dynamic or central association to change them or influence an overall culture (which doesn’t exist, in any case). But I think the general lessons are the same. When the Australian martial arts world started down the road to opening up their sport to women 10 or 15 years ago, many people said it was a waste of time, because women are not designed for this kind of sport, they are biologically unsuited, and “feminization” of the sport will weaken it overall, or drive away men. Many even claimed that people cannot truly learn to fight if the bullying and macho practices of the past are eliminated. However, the exact opposite effect has been observed. These improvements in the style and manner of teaching have widened the available pool of talent from which fighters are drawn, and the general quality of Australian kickboxing in the last 10-20 years has improved enormously. Not only that, but the increase in popularity and wider range of available class types has ensured that teaching kickboxing is now a much more viable business prospect than it was 30 years ago, ensuring more stable, more professional and better equipped gyms that are better able to subsidize the development of fighters through the funds of more casual students. In fact, had Australia not gone down this path our kickboxers would have been left behind, as the Dutch and Japanese professionalized their own kickboxing worlds and began to demand higher and higher quality of training and preparation from their opponents. And, of course, with the penetration of the art into the middle class and its popularization amongst women it has become big business, which further guarantees its viability as a hobby. So much so that, if one visits a K-1 tournament in Japan now, one can be a witness to the charming spectacle of lines of pretty young women crying and screaming the name of their favourite fighter at the end of the tournament – a sight that 20 years ago would have been impossible to imagine.

There’s no reason to suppose that the fundamental violence and adventurism of role playing needs to change for it to attract women, anymore than happened in kickboxing. What needs to change is the culture around the hobby, and the image that is presented to its potential entrants.

Video of my kickboxing fight is here, at blogger… WordPress don’t allow it. The first video is very small and hard to see but the second one is clearer.

On Friday night I had my first ever amateur kickboxing fight, in a ring at a summer festival by the beach here in Beppu. I was up against a local pimp, who is the same age as me but perhaps 5 kg heavier, and from the same gym as me. I think he lied about his weight because there is another chap in the gym who is REALLY scary who he would have fought if he were heavier. I was the 7th fight out of 10, in the main bout section of the evening, so my bout had ring girls and fireworks. I even had a boxing/K-1 style entrance with my own song (Shared Creation by Garden of Delight).

The ring girls were supplied by my opponent – he works with them.

Anyway, I lost the fight, due to a combination of a) only doing 4 weeks of half-arsed preparation, including a total of 3 rounds of sparring training 4 weeks ago b) being shorter and lighter than him and c) not really wanting to be there in the first place. I’m not sure why I agreed to do a fight or why I decided to only train twice a week and not do special sparring sessions, knowing I’d be up against it on Friday. But that’s what happens when you aren’t really into the thing in the first place, I suppose! I’ve been kickboxing for 15 years and turned down opportunities like this before, and I think I just felt like I had to do it, so accepted my teacher’s offer of a place in the festival without thinking too much about where I’d be 6 weeks later… then took 2 weeks off, and then started training…

Anyway, the details of the fight go something like this:

2 x 2 minute rounds
1 minute rests
Full protective gear (helmet, shinpads, 12 oz rather than 10 oz gloves)
Maximum of two standing 8 counts
Knees allowed but not to the head
No elbows
i.e. kickboxing rules, though often kickboxing rules don’t allow knees. Incidentally, I’ve seen a “no-knees-to-the-head” bout go wrong, with one woman deliberately kneeing the other in the head and getting a knockout. It’s very easy for that to look like an accident, and the referee has to decide whether to award the match over a mistake – that woman was not popular with the crowd, but I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a repeat performance by my opponent. In the ring you do rely a bit on your opponent’s good manners, but I think me and my opponent get along okay usually…

Also, the refereeing was conservative, so the ref stopped fights before he allowed anyone to get knocked out – no bloodbaths to be allowed.

Round 1: We started off pretty equal but he signalled his serious intentions early with 3 really savage kicks to my legs, none of which I managed to block. When the third one came in I realised that I had to pick up my game or I was going to be a Technical Knock Out (I’ve seen this a few times at K-1, where a man’s legs give out and the fight is over). Did I mention 3 rounds of sparring 4 weeks ago? I was running primarily on my memory of serious sparring years ago! So I picked that up, and after that his kicks didn’t land. I delivered some vicious blows in return (and oh what a satisfying sound that is) and in the second half of hte round I heard the commentator (our sensei) saying how I am renowned for my strong punching, and realized that I hadn’t really tried any, so I closed in and boxed him into a corner, landing a nice hard right at some point that rocked his head – he didn’t like that, and pushed his way out of the corner with a series of ferocious kicks and punches. For some reason my usually tight guard was loose, and his punches were coming straight down the centre, which doesn’t usually happen to me in sparring at all – I don’t know what I was thinking[1]. I must have tightened up at some point though because I don’t have any facial bruising, though this could be because he moved to hooks, all of which I defended against. I copped him with a few nice hooks actually, he didn’t seem to be able to defend punches at all. But because he was tall, and using front kicks effectively, it was hard to move in and land punches, and everything was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to work out ways around his guard – typically against a taller man you have to work the outside, or duck and weave, and did I mention I only did 3 rounds of sparring preparation, against a shorter man? Also bobbing and weaving is a very bad plan when you’re in a fight where knees are allowed, so one of my two main range-closing tactics was out of whack.

Round 2: So round 1 ended probably with him slightly up on points, but it was a good showing by both sides. Round 2 went pretty much the same way for the first half, with us exchanging heavy leg kicks, and I think all of mine landed actually but I checked most of his. I also got in a good middle kick that slipped half under his guard, but when you have a savage bastard trying to rip your head off you start thinking conservatively about middle kicks. Every time either of us hit each other you could hear it all the way across the beach, I think. I certainly heard it. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse in the last half of round 2, because at about the 1 minute mark I managed a fairly solid series of boxing combinations, and in his desperation to get away he delivered a vicious knee to my stomach. I took it without being winded, even though it was a few inches from my solar plexus, but it was followed by this tiny moment frozen in time, where we looked at each other and both simultaneously realised that I don’t have any defences against knees. The next 20 or 30 seconds were spent with him trying to get in close enough to land some solid knee strikes, and he succeeded at least twice, and they FUCKING HURT, and I realised that this was not going to keep up, so I had to start backpedalling and trying to hold him off with kicks, while he hunted me down. There was no getting around this – it wasn’t a matter of me doing anything, because I don’t know how to defend against knees (I’ve done maybe 8 rounds of training with knees in the last 10 years), and he knew it, and every time he threw one I was going to cop it. As a sign of how tall he is, today my upper chest is hurting from the knees that landed on my ribs. I managed to get him in a clinch and nearly threw him despite his bigger size, but kubi zumo (neck wrestling) is also not my area of expertise and I only did that out of desperation. So the last 30 seconds of both rounds won him the fight, and the last 30 seconds of round 2 sealed it. I did think about mentioning a no-knees rule when the fights were organised, but didn’t. Oh well, silly me. How was I to know that being kneed in the chest by 75kgs of enraged pimp would hurt?

But, on the bright side, I didn’t suffer any standing 8 counts – maybe the first fight of the night to get through without standing 8s – and I landed some decent blows myself, and I think if I had been fitter and had some more sparring preparation under my belt, I probably would have given him a really solid challenge. Unfortunately, that “I don’t want to be here” feeling that pervaded the last 4 weeks kind of prevented me from putting in a decent showing. I have only myself to blame though – I could have turned up on two of the last 4 sundays for example, and done an hour of decent sparring each day,  and probably would have been a lot tighter on the night. Today my left leg is sore from those missed checks, and my chest aches, but I am otherwise in good nick and feeling very relieved that a busy period of my life and a stressful fight are out of the way.

It was not fun! But it was a good experience that I almost certainly won’t repeat. I don’t recommend it to any of my readers either. Once I figure out my partner’s snazzy phone, I’ll put up some video. It actually looks quite good, though I’m not recognizable in amongst the helmet and the sweat and the flying limbs, but I think I look reasonably professional. I hope my readers wince watching it as much as I did when it happened.

fn1: actually I was mostly thinking nothing. I was nervous and flat before the fight started and then everything was going so fast that I didn’t get to think much at all, bar the crystallized moments of the emergencies. Usually when I spar it takes me a few rounds to get into the groove, and I didn’t have that luxury this time around!