From the Vaults: Oxford in the Larger World of Roleplaying

628x471As the Archivist, I have a box full of old editions of the Nightflyer back when it was a print magazine. While I was organising and clearing out excess copies, I started reading them and found some very interesting articles. As I thought the society might appreciate seeing what people thought was interesting and important in past years, I’m going to be posting some of these ancient articles over the next few weeks. First up: a depiction of OURPGSoc’s characteristic roleplaying style from 10 years ago.

By Hanbury Hampden-Turner, Michaelmas 2004.

One thing that several visitors to Oxford have mentioned is that they do (or do not) appreciate the ‘Oxford style’ of roleplaying. It should first be pointed out what an achievement it is to get such a distinctive group of people together that such a description is possible. Many clubs and groups don’t seem to have much in common with each other, and it’s common to get a society without any common identity at all. At least part of this must be down to the Oxford society game, an institution that, whatever its faults, means that large numbers of members role-play with each other in the same game every year. That’s not common in the wider world, and leads to a far greater cohesiveness than we would otherwise have.

But it has other effects as well. One of the most popular comments, for good or ill, is that Oxford people are loud! The set up of the society game means that influence is roughly equivalent to how many people listen to you, and being confident and boisterous is far more common that it might be in a tabletop. In one of the Oxford-Cambridge joint games the players were city leaders discussing the defence of the city against a threatening horde. One of the Oxford players asked if he could make a speech, and his Cambridge referee agreed. His comments as to what dice he might roll were made to an empty chair as the player climbed up onto the meeting table, sword drawn, and started to roar about pride, guts and glory.

All of which made him a target. Out Cambridge colleagues were carefully and methodically working behind the scenes, trying to intrigue, support and counterplot, and setting yourself up as a n obviously influential figure was to their minds a recipe for disaster. Most of the memorable performances that day were from Oxford, but the careful behind the scenes plotting was dominated by Cambridge. In the end their characters probably achieved more, and our characters were more distinctive personalities. Our Cambridge hosts, much to our surprise, declared the former to be a more important measure of skill at the game.

A judgement I suspect most of us would disagree with. But it must be admitted that Oxford players make notoriously bad co-conspirators. Keeping one eye on a good story, and one eye on a good portrayal of an often badly flawed character, an Oxford player often ends up with characters that effectively self-destruct. In the Thieves’ Guild society game, a secret PC conspiracy called the Chimera came to light when one of the members made a full public confession and then committed suicide during a meeting. Suddenly the hunt for the rest of the members of the conspiracy was on. As one player said to me, “yes it’s very dramatic, but you can see why my character didn’t join them, now can’t you?” I would suggest that there’s no point having secrets unless they come out, and no point having a conspiracy unless it is uncovered, but others might argue that there is no point having a plan at all unless, at least on some level, you want it to actually succeed. Is it better role-playing to contrive to fail? As one player of a detective memorably said: “I don’t really investigate anything, I just lead the police around until we find out whose turn it is to confess this week.”

While the commitment to the plan might be in doubt however, the plan itself is another matter. Oxford plans are marvelous creations, intricate, detailed, and above all unusual. Above all, that is, including such minor details as practicality, realism, and downright good sense. One vampire game I played in had a character arrange for a hoax fight in an alleyway, to draw in a passer-by, to mug him, to get his driver’s license, to visit the police yard, to claim a clamped van, so he could drive it around. This plan was explained to me while the player was sitting in the minivan we’d hired that evening for less than thirty pounds. In all the society games I’ve seen, more characters have died from exploding food than in combat. Again I think this makes for far more interesting games, but it can be a problem. Some genres rely on a clean, simple and fast flowing style. Gangsters probably shouldn’t be getting into the rival gang’s nightclub posing as health and safety inspectors, and elder vampires should be fearing bands of desperate or vengeful kindred, not vanfuls of thirsty transgenic mutant fanged ghoul ostriches.

New in the Archive: Unframed – the Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Improvisation is a crucial skill for a GM: whether you prefer to preplan you sessions in exhaustive detail, or to make it up as you go along, you’ll need to know how to take in the player’s input, keep the game moving, and react to the unexpected curveballs your players throw at you. Unframed is a book designed to teach you those skills, bringing together essays from GM and game designer legends to give readers tips on story planning, NPC roleplaying, and how to adapt to player’s preferences. It’s an entertaining and interesting read, with something interesting for novices and experienced GMs alike. I’m going to be posting more articles on GMing soon, but for now here’s a free excerpt:

Improvising Dialogue Sequences by Robin D. Laws

Robin D. Laws’ newest roleplaying game is Hillfolk, in which you weave an epic of dramatic interaction in an age of hungry empires. Previous RPG designs include The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Feng Shui, and HeroQuest. His fiction projects include eight novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. He comprises one-half of the Golden Geek Award winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at

As a GM your most extended exercises in off-the-cuff invention occur during dialogue sequences. Internalizing the simple structure behind character interaction in fiction, scripted and improvised, allows you to sharpen these scenes, making them fun, memorable, and rich in story opportunity.
Petitioner and Granter: Understanding the Scene
A simple structure powers scenes of any character interaction in drama, fiction, cinema, or TV. One character wants something from another character.

  • Wash wants Zoë to show that she cares more about him than she does about Mal.
  • Cersei wants to reestablish her position of superiority over Tyrion.
  • Loki wants Thor to let him out of his cell.

The first character makes a petition of the second character, hoping to get that thing. That makes the first character the petitioner. The character hearing the petitioner has the power to grant this request. That makes the character the granter—although granters refuse requests as often as they grant them. In the above examples, Wash, Cersei, and Loki take the roles of petitioner, while Zoë, Tyrion, and Thor are the granters.

(If this all sounds familiar to you, you perhaps recognize it as the heart of my game Hillfolkand its DramaSystem rules engine. The terms petitioner and granter come from The Conversations, a book-length interview of the legendary film editor Walter Murch by novelist Michael Ondaatje.)

Roleplaying dialogue scenes work the same way. The only difference is standard to RPGs, in that they frequently feature an ensemble of protagonists. Often they’ll make joint petitions of a single character, speaking en masse. Slightly more rarely, they’ll be petitioned as a group, acting as a granter together. Often, you as GM will make a petition in a two-hander scene (one featuring two characters), your NPC and one PC. The PC may then take the petition back to the rest of the group and they’ll debate what to do about it.

The first step, then, in sharpening your improvised dialogue scenes is to identify the petitioner and granter. Thankfully this is a simple call—if an NPC proposes something to the PCs, the NPC is the petitioner and one or more PCs acts as the granter.

  • The March Warden (an NPC) asks the PCs to clear the great swamp of encroaching orcs.
  • Euston Chau (an NPC) asks Dominic (a PC and his wannabe son-in-law) to have Mr. Bright (another PC) committed to a mental institution.
  • The Mugwump (an NPC supervillain) tells Redblade (a PC vigilante) to lay off, or he’ll reveal Redblade’s secret identity.

Petitioning is active; it seeks to overcome the granter’s resistance to put a new story point in motion. Assuming you’re letting the PCs drive the story, they’ll be making more petitions of your NPCs than vice versa.

  • The PCs ask the old hermit they encounter out in the great swamp if he’s seen any orc activity.
  • Dominic asks Euston’s chief security officer why he cares so much about Mr. Bright being sent to an institution.
  • Redblade pressures the gatekeeper of a criminal dark data network for access to the Mugwump’s file cache.

Identifying the petitioner helps by requiring you to pin down what the scene is about. When you’re playing the petitioner, you usually know that from the outset. (Sometimes you’ll shift your NPC’s goal in response to what the player says, which is good. But you still know in the first place what the character seeks, and you still know even if that changes in mid-scene.)
When you’re playing the granter, you find out what the scene is about partway through, when the players make clear their requests. You know your NPC is being petitioned, and immediately or gradually come to understand what the petition is about. When you figure it out partway through, it’s often because the players are also trying to work out what they want from the character. Expect this to happen when you introduce a new NPC without establishing right away what her role in the storyline might be.
When a roleplaying scene seems shapeless, it’s usually because neither you nor the players know what its purpose is, and are muddling around trying to find it. With the petitioner’s goal identified, you see how it can proceed to a resolution.

Paradiso starts tonight!

paradisoA catastrophic apocalypse swept away The World That Was, leaving only those that sheltered in the eight domed cities. As centuries passed, the other domes were forgotten, only rediscovered 30 years ago as the domes’ residents started exploring the world outside their sanctuaries. Now, the construction of an amazing railway has brought the domes closer to each other than ever before, and rumours of ‘paradise’ seem almost within grasp. Will you join those meeting on the railway, as they decide the fate of the world?

Paradiso is the society game for Michaelmas 2014/Hillary 2015, and its wiki can be found at To make a character, come along to the first session at 7 PM tonight in the Oscar Wilde Room, Magdalene College, and the GMs will be happy to help you. If you can’t make this meeting, don’t worry – email the GM team at and they’ll guide you through making a character.

That is not dead which can eternal lie…

Cthulhu-1000x540With the new term, the Nightflyer is coming back into action! This week I’ll be putting up articles on new books in the archive, discussions on roleplaying, and a few gems from the old print Nightflyer, but for now I thought I’d welcome our new freshers and ask the readership what you’d like to read about on this blog:

  • Thoughts on roleplaying theory?
  • Stories of people’s experiences in games and at LARP events?
  • In-character fiction?
  • News about new RPGs for sale or being kickstartered?

Let me know in the comments!


Tabletops for Week 8

Today is the last tabletops session of the term, and my last as TABLO! Come along to the Harris Seminar Room at 2PM today to play:
New World of Darkness, run by me:
It’s graduation day at the Stevenson School for Gifted Children. You’ve gone up on stage to get your diplomas, local celebrities have made speeches, parents have told you how proud they are, all that kind of thing. Now the school’s grounds are full of marquee tents, loud music, food and celebration, but you can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with the school today…
Star Wars: Edge of Empire, run by Owen:
The Bothan Connection:  Jovel Nial is a thief and murderer!  Join a posse that has banded together to track down the elusive Bothan slicer on her homeworld of Bothawui, whether for revenge, a snazzy ship or the sizeable bounty that’s been put on her head.
Hope to see a lot of people there!

- James

Tabletops for Week 7

Come along to the Harris Seminar Room for 2PM today to play:
New World of Darkness, run by Ellie:
‘Congratulations! You are a winner of our 8th annual raffle competition to spend a week in a five star hotel courtesy of Vali enterprises. Please join us at the Angrobad Luxury Hotel on the 20th of June in Mellomkollen national park, just north of Oslo. We are very much looking forward to seeing you there!’
Torchbearer, run by James:
It’s a hard life, adventuring. You were just resting up in the remote village of Skogenby after another badly-paying job when someone ran into the tavern calling that Jora, the village elder’s youngest daughter, has disappeared exploring somewhere even you would worry about entering. As eyes turn to you, some imploring and some looking pointedly at the bill, you know it’s time to pick up tools and go dungeoneering.
Star Wars: Edge of Empire, run by Owen
Down and Out on Ord Mantell: You’re being chased through a junkyard by a giant, ravenous Rancor beast who is apparently rather hungry. Good luck!

Tabletops for Week 6

Come along to the Harris Seminar Room in Oriel College for 2 PM to play:
New World of Darkness run by James:
You’ve never been out in the city at the stroke of midnight before. To be honest, you didn’t mean to be now. But you couldn’t find your keys, got lost on your way home, or ran out of gas, and now you’re about to see another side to the city.
Star Wars: Edge of Empire run by Owen:
A Waltz in the Clouds – join a ragtag team of scoundrels in a daring heist on Cloud City, Bespin.
Call of Cthulhu ran by Ellie – Brief to follow.
Hope to see lots of people there!