Friday, 3 June 2011

MAID: Thoughts and Musings

It's been over a year since I last ran MAID, so my impressions are a bit hazy at this point.

The randomness can bring fresh and unexpected results, which in turn requires some thinking on your feet as a GM. Unless you and your group are very high energy and really into the genre, though, the default mode of play - the "Favour Race" where you just try to curry favour with the Master by performing tasks around the Mansion - can get stale rather quickly. I think my players preferred having meaningful objectives, and weren't of a mind to go into detail roleplaying tasks such as getting the Master out of bed, serving breakfast, drawing the bath, and other minutiae of servant life.

The inter-character competition wasn't a favourite with my groups, either. Our first game had an infiltrator out to assassinate the Master, and our third game had a maid motivated by revenge against the Master. My players are, by and large, happier with games where the whole group gets along and works towards a common cause. This came through a bit with MAID; the first game was just frustrating, although the third game played out quite nicely with revenge served at the very end of the storyline. Maybe it's just a matter of familiarity and forming a suitable attitude.

The general way of thinking for a lot of players seems to be "if my character is disadvantaged, especially if someone in the group causes that disadvantage, it damages my fun because I want to succeed and prosper through my character." With games like MAID (and also FATE, Smallville, and to a lesser extent Tenra Bansho Zero, all of which I'll discuss later), if you approach them in this frame of mind you're unlikely to enjoy yourself. Rather than vicariously experiencing your character's success or failure and becoming annoyed at the lows, the priority shifts. You use setbacks, complications and consequences as opportunities to roleplay intense emotions and define your character - show how they deal with adversity, demonstrate something about them as a person, and really get into the characterisation. Use conflict to ask questions about their personality and beliefs - is this worth fighting for? Is it worth dying for? Is it not as important to them as you first thought?

Of course, this sort of expression is not for all games; a group running a straight-up dungeon raid is likely to roll their eyes if one of the players is constantly expressing angst over the slaughter of innocent humanoids... But if the game is about drama and the free expression of characterisation without regard for group stability, then an appropriate approach is essential. This is why a discussion of the game and expectations of play should precede each new campaign, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

I also think that in games with secrets and rivalry, it is useful for all of the players to know what's going on, even if their characters don't.  This was a bit weird to start with, coming from a viewpoint of "I only want to know what my character knows" and trying to cut down on exposure to out-of-character information, but MAID pretty much demands that you be able to hold both in-character and out-of-character knowledge in your brain while keeping them separate. It also encourages players to act on out-of-character knowledge to put their characters in awkward situations, or to make life difficult for someone else, so they can play up their secrets and expose themselves to adversity. That sort of fourth-wall-breaking attitude is difficult to embrace when you're used to playing the game as a simulation of a world rather than an emulation of a narrative structure.

Anyway, a lot of this musing congealed much later on in 2012. MAID opened the door for me to try out new GMing techniques and group dynamics, as well as exercising advice such as "talk about preferences and expectations before the game." It hasn't always worked that well as sometimes players seemed uncomfortable or unfamiliar with articulating their gaming preferences, but over the course of the next few campaigns, I learned more about what sort of games and techniques my players do and don't enjoy.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

MAID: A Space Oddity

Since my players felt that MAID one-shots were somewhat insubstantial, I decided to try a short mini-campaign with most of the first group. The Mansion was a space station called Neo-Elba in orbit around a desolate world. The Master was an exiled war criminal; the self-styled His Royal Highness Emperor Shardin I - a 21 year old member of the Imperial Household who had been imprisoned in Neo-Elba with a small staff after a failed coup attempt. However, his ambition still burned strongly, and he planned to return and claim victory using his military might and spiritualist powers.

His Royal Highness Emperor Shardin I

By this stage, I had a pretty good handle on how to get characters that weren't just a random jumble of stuff. Rolling five or six attributes and keeping two or three allowed people to pick combinations that were thematic or appealing, while still throwing out quirky and unpredictable options.

  • +Andrew played Betty, a nymphomaniac ghost who was physically unable to consummate her desire for the Master.
  • +Melysa played Kei Okami, a princess sharing her relative's exile because she had been tainted by lycanthropy during the coup, for which she blamed Shardin.
  • Rohin played Burinko, a vampire albino catgirl.
  • John played Susan, a bandage-laden mummy with an overactive imagination and a history of tragedy in love.

I originally intended to run the campaign over four acts, with each act in a different genre - a primitive world, a fantasy world, a horror world, and finally a sci-fi world. I ended up cutting out the horror arc, partly because I couldn't think of anything particularly exciting for it, and partly because the story to that point offered me a better alternative.

Despite being stuck on an immobile space station in orbit around a derelict world, HRH Shardin I had not been idle. His "military strength" lay in the fact that he'd built a warp drive into the station, linked to the fusion reactor. To generate the extra power required, he was using the water in the outdoor swimming pool as a source of deuterium.


Yes, that's right - I rolled up a space station with an outdoor swimming pool. I decided that the station was toroid, and the pool was a sphere of water in the centre, held in place and kept liquid by a force field.

In addition to that, the station was armed with several remote-control battle drones, and Shardin had been working on an ultimate weapon - the "God Cannon!" This was the main driving force for the game - the Cannon required three powerful spiritual items to power and complete it. Using his power as a spiritualist, Shardin would home in on each one and then warp the whole station to the appropriate planet, sending the Maids down to find and return with each artefact.

The first world was a primitive jungle planet, and I pretty much ripped off Avatar for most of the look and feel... which most of the players hadn't seen at the time! The maids were warped to the surface while Shardin stayed behind. They fought some alien beasties, and were then mistaken for sky gods by the natives. It turned out the artefact was underneath the natives' tree home, so the maids asked to speak to the tree god. They got as far as the god's chamber, where they saw the artefact was a medium-sized statue of strange bluish-black stone. The natives realised something was up as the maids tried to make off with the statue. The maids asked Shardin to beam them up, but he couldn't get a lock on them that far underground, so they had to fight their way out a bit. Finally, the maid with the statue drank a potion that increased her size 20 times, and she bust out the side of the tree. With her now massive strength, she easily fought off or ignored the natives, striding off across the jungle with the statue until Shardin could warp them all back to the station. One of the maids (Susan I think?) also ended up with two or three alien "dogs" as loyal pets.

I have a hazy recollection that the station was attacked by pirates or parasitic aliens or both, but I don't remember the specifics... Also, Betty attempted to seduce the Master on more than one occasion, but was either shut down as though he hadn't noticed, or was unable to follow through because of her lack of physical substance. Over the course of the next story arc, Susan began a physical relationship with Shardin, much to Betty's disappointment.

The next world was a fantasy kingdom, which was being ravaged by a legendary creature known as a Dai-Tora (Great Tiger). Shardin declared that the heart of the Dai-Tora was the source of spiritual energy he needed. Unable to pinpoint its location from space, they were forced to track it across the countryside by following the trail of burned villages. Some flattery managed to persuade Shardin to accompany the maids this time. After various trials, including competing in a pit fighting competition that was broken up by the local knights, and having to deal with the locals despite being a group made up of a vampire, werewolf, mummy, and ghost, they eventually confronted the Dai-Tora - an enormous flaming black-and-red tiger at least ten metres at the spiked shoulders, with an appetite for destruction! They fought valiantly, but the beast was ferocious and it looked as though they may not prevail. In one final gamble, Betty used her ghost ability to possess the monster, beating it on a Will roll. While in its body, she made it lie down so the others could kill it and remove its crystallised heart.

Back on Neo-Elba, the God Cannon only required one final component! Shardin came to Betty, and told her that she was the most important person on the station to him - for her recent demonstration of spiritual power had convinced him that she was, in fact, the third component of spiritual power needed to complete the God Cannon. Shardin also put the moves on the ghost-maid using his power as a spiritualist, and Betty was convinced to serve her Master for all time as part of his greatest weapon.

However, the Imperial Fleet had noticed Neo-Elba's disappearance, and had been tracking them down! As the armada approached, Shardin and the maids scrambled to defend the station and finish the God Cannon. Betty fused with the weapon and Shardin unleashed a wave of destructive energy, annihilating the fleet. As he stood on the bridge, laughing in triumph, a single shot rang out. Kei finally got her revenge, felling the evil Emperor with her sniper rifle. Somehow (was it Betty's love? Susan's use of the spiritual binding ritual she'd used on Betty? Burinko's use of a World-Changing Song? Shardin giving up his own power as a spiritualist? I don't recall), Shardin's soul was also bound to Neo-Elba, and he and Betty were able to be together for eternity. The others left, although I can't remember if they decided to live on the fantasy world below or go off to find new jobs in the Galactic Empire...

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

MAID: The Awakening!

I purchased MAID: The Roleplaying Game in early 2011, and ran a few games that year. Technically that means it wasn't part of my dedicated year of gaming exploration in 2012, but it was, I think, the first non-PowerFrame game I'd run since the late 1990's. I also hadn't done any GMing for a while, so I figured it would be a good exercise in flexing my creative and improv muscles.

On my initial read-through, I thought the random tables for character generation were funny and flavourful, and provided plenty of opportunity for zany combinations. I've never been a huge fan of random chargen, but given the game is designed for short, one-off stories and over-the-top zany action it seemed like a good fit. I've never had a huge maid fetish, and only knew of the anime genre by reputation, but our first game led to me buying the Black Butler anime, and MAID could definitely be used to run a game based on it!

I'd been doing a lot of reading on different ways of roleplaying, having recently read Ron Edwards' GNS essays on The Forge. My gamer friends and I have always been, by that definition, pretty hardline simulationists, and it took a lot of brain-bending to wrap my head around some of the concepts. MAID was my first attempt at running a "story-game", and to be honest I don't think most of my players were in a great position to appreciate it - some more so than others. It was just too different a style of play - things like: all the players know all of the characters' secrets, but play to dramatic irony by setting up situations where you make things awkward for another PC even though your character has no idea; or the idea that failure is grist for the drama mill, rather than winning at all costs; or that due to random chargen the PCs could be of disparate power levels - all of these things went against our previously established, long-term style of play. While I made an effort to discuss different approaches, I think that long-held gaming habits die hard. Also, not everyone enjoys all styles of play, and some players would soon make their preferences clear.

First Contact

The first Mansion was randomly determined to be on a remote island in the Mediterranean during World War II. The Master was an ageing and eccentric semi-retired military officer. The staff included a double-Shadow Butler played by John, who was secretly a cyborg with machine-guns built into both arms, and a Maid whose mission was to assassinate the Master, played by +Andrew! There were three other Maids, but they weren't particularly vital to the outcome of the game.

This was my first time running a "story game," and I could have handled the assassination plot better. While the butler managed to foil an external assassination attempt (enemy on the roof armed with a bazooka!), after a couple of failed attempts the traitorous maid eventually managed to access the armoury, get a gun, and shoot the Master. As it was approaching the end of the session, I ruled that the Master died and the assassin succeeded at her goal. However, the rules-as-written don't allow characters to die so easily. It seemed like the assassin would just keep making attempt after attempt on the Master's life, and the other characters would try to stop her, until she eventually succeeded. It wasn't until later that I realised how to approach the situation differently.

For starters, the assassin's player should probably be playing up the moral conundrum - they are motivated to kill their target, but can they actually go through with the act? The other players can play to this by making friends and forming strong bonds with the assassin so that when the moment comes to pull the trigger the assassin gets to express a difficult crisis of conscience. At the very least, we should find out why she's so hell-bent on killing the Master. Maybe the friends she's made and the goodwill she's experienced will be able to overcome the hatred in her heart. Maybe the Master will explain everything as a misunderstanding, or apologise for the hurt caused in the past. However, this sort of roleplaying requires a different mindset. It's not about winning or succeeding at your character goals, it's meant to be about expressing character and drama.

Oriental Adventures

My second game of MAID lasted one or two sessions. The Mansion was a family estate in Ancient Japan. The Master was a six year old blond samurai lordling and vampire. The staff were all Maids; a Christian who fought by summoning creatures (Rohin), a blue-skinned alien with piercings (+Paul), and an Onmyou mystic (Barb).

The Littlest Vampire

The group for this game involved two players from the previous game (Barb and Rohin), and one new player (Paul). I think the game went a bit better because some of the players had played before. Much of the game revolved around finding a suitable source of blood for the young Master to feed upon. The Onmyouji managed to capture a deer in the woods... but the Master fell in love with it instead, and kept it as a pet. As the search for blood continued, a group of ninja attacked the mansion and were fought off by the maids. The last one made it into the building, and was defeated in front of the young Master. At least one ninja was captured and put into the dungeon, where he began a new career as the Master's living food supply!

I had material lined up for a second session, but we never got around to it. The little Master, ashamed that he'd been unable to protect himself or help out during the ninja attack, was going to start dedicated sword practice so he could help protect the Maids and himself. A wandering beggar was going to arrive, but actually be a member of the extended family in disguise, looking to protect the young lord from those who meant to usurp his position.

In the next post: before the end of the year, I attempted to run a longer game of MAID, rather than a throwaway one-shot.