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My brother and I had a weird ritual when I was in high school. On Easter, we would stay up until my niece fell asleep, hide eggs for her, and then watch the Blues Brothers. There was something oddly comforting about watching an obsessed pair of ex-cons on a crazy quest as they traveled cross country and ran into various obstacles, including homicidal ex-girlfriends, the police, and Illinois Nazis (which I probably would have hated even without watching this movie, but it was nice to have the validation in place).
Proving that there is a gaming experience for just about any pop culture memory you might have, Trouble for Hire is a game that deals with completing not quite legal missions while on a road trip, with gonzo events following hot on your bumper. There is a LOT of inspirational material listed, but if you never thought you would find a game that would help you capture the feel of The Blues Brothers, The Cannonball Run, Pulp Fiction, or Death Proof, you may want to keep reading.Kicking the Tires
This review is based on the PDF version of Trouble for Hire, which comes in at 123 pages. This product is most definitely in color. There are some seriously bright 70s and 80s inspired color schemes in this book, including some enormous block letters for the chapter headings.
There are a few symbols to call out rules or just random facts to help reinforce the themes of the game, as well as big, bold, red sidebars to call special attention to various topics. Many of the actual character illustrations are restricted to simpler pallets to convey the tone of the image being presented. There are also some photographs of various southwestern United States locations as well. Its contained chaos selectively harnessed to convey a specific feel, and if you are familiar with the source material, it creates some serious resonance.
There is some violent imagery, as well as some nudity, so if those kinds of images are problematic for you, it is something you may want to know up front.Introduction and Spirit and Setting
The first two sections of the book introduce the concept of the game, and what tropes and genres that the game is hoping to invoke. This is where we are introduced to the #HTP symbol, which is placed in the text when the book is specifically addressing rules and how they are engaged, and #DumbFact, which is put in the text when something is being conveyed that may give you some useful trivia for the overall tone of the story, but isn’t all that important to the game itself.
The game isn’t a broad game that deals with a larger genre. There are a limited number of roles that players will take, but the overall story is about a particular smuggler who takes dangerous jobs. He goes on road trips to complete them, and bad people and people from his past show up to complicate the job.
We get a section on the protagonist of this series of stories, and some details on his car. At this point, you may be wondering what kind of game this is. You don’t learn that quite yet. It’s a storytelling game that will detail the jobs that Ruben Carlos Ruiz takes, and the challenges that develop along the road as he works as a smuggler, courier, or wheelman.
This text is written in a very conversational tone, and in a tone that is in keeping with the source material. For example, when the game posits that you might ask when the game takes place, it then scolds you for asking a stupid question. More broadly, the game is billed as presenting “Post-Western” stories, stories where the protagonist would have fit in the Old West more than modern times, and never really has a place in polite society. It also mentions that even if you are portraying stories set in modern times, it is perfectly in keeping with the tone for everything to look like something out of the 70s until you introduce a modern element.The Rules
This section dives into the mechanics of the game, but also early on jumps ahead of a debate that might be had about the game. There is a sidebar where the text indicates that this isn’t a roleplaying game, but it is a game that role-players might enjoy. I’m going enter my own opinion here and say that, if you consider a game like Fiasco a roleplaying game, this is definitely a roleplaying game, but let’s look at the mechanics so you can make your own decisions.
Each player in the game gets currency, called RPM, that they can spend to trigger effects from the sheet for various roles in the story. Once 10 RPM has been spent, the scene progresses, and everyone picks a new role. The player that is running Ruben may have to roll to resolve challenges, but the other roles in the story don’t resolve challenges, they only present them or help Ruben resolve them. There are also themes, which award RPM to players when they introduce the theme into the action they take on their turn.
The roles in the game include the following:
- Ruben Carlos Ruiz (the protagonist)
- Los Campanero (Ruben’s sidekick)
- La Villanos (the antagonists of the story)
- The Editor (a role that allows twists to be introduced and that can introduce narration and scene cuts)
- The Road Through the World (the various things along the way between point A and B)
- Los Espectadores (bystanders, characters that may be caught up in the story without being for or against Ruben)
- The Rider (a friend, mentor, rival, or wildcard from Ruben’s past—she is presented as a force of nature that could be anything from Racer X to Yoda to Ruben—if Racer X or Yoda rode a motorcycle topless)
- La Extrano (supernatural or unexplained events going on in the story)
Each adventure will have a plan. The plan has mile markers that show when the story progresses, but only in broad strokes. For example, a mile marker might just say that in this phase of the game, we find out something new about what Ruben is hauling, and what that thing is or how it is found out is left open to the players.
The plan might also spell out that some roles aren’t available in a story, or that those roles aren’t available until a certain mile marker. So, if a story isn’t about the supernatural, La Extrano isn’t a valid role for the adventure. If Ruben meets up with a character that counts as a sidekick at the third mile marker, the plan may say that Los Campanero isn’t available until after Ruben meets that character.
Players can spend RPM to trigger challenges, frame the situation, and then Ruben’s player will describe how they plan on overcoming the challenge. Ruben’s player will then roll two dice, then picks one die to be the results die, and the other will get measured against the chart for the Kick dice selected. The Kick dice have a separate set of “extra” results that happen, separate from the success or failure of Ruben’s actions. The Kick dice include:
- Wild Card (the default if nothing else applies)
- The Driver
- Los Campanero (only available if the sidekick is part of the story and contributed in some way)
If Ruben doesn’t quite get the job done, he might have to pay out RPM, or take a consequence, like a hard jump to a new scene, injuries, or finding out that previously established facts aren’t actually true. The consequence is set by the player that introduced the challenge.
The game also includes the Three Lights. This concept is both a reward mechanic and a built-in safety mechanic. There is a green light, a yellow light, and a red light in play in the game.
- Green Light—Keep doing what you are doing, and cash this in to pay up to 3 RPM
- Yellow Light—We introduced concepts I don’t want to delve into too deeply, let’s keep any future references off screen
- Red Light—I don’t want this content in the game, we shouldn’t use it anymore from this point on
Any player can pick up one of the lights and use them, but if you pick up the green light, you can only use it to award another player for the direction they have taken the game. Once they have it, they can spend it or award it to another player. Yellow and Red lights are always available to anyone that feels they need to use them.Adventures
This section goes into greater detail on how to create your own adventures, getting your friends to play, how to hack the game, teaching the game, and advice for play.
While I have sometimes seen a game go into detail about searching for online groups or visiting an FLGS or conventions, I don’t think I’ve seen many discuss the broader topic of picking out which friends would be likely to play this game and why it might appeal to them. For example, the text discusses the reasons that Role Playing Gamers, Film Enthusiasts, and Actors, Writers & Creative Types–as discreet groups–might find the game interesting.
The section on hacking the game delves into what roles might not make sense in other genres, and how the individual roles might look in other settings.Appendices
This section includes Characters You May Meet, Locations Out West, Adventures, and Inspirado. Characters you may meet include NPCs you can plug in and use in specific roles (other than Ruben and the Rider, who are who they are). Locations Out West have some noteworthy places to use for proper locations in various adventures. Adventures are more fully detailed scenarios that can be played out. Inspirado is a list of the various movies and media that inspired the game and its tone.
There are some colorful extras detailed in Characters You May Meet, from recurring perennial screw-ups, to creepy federal agents, to roadhouse owners, to scary criminal bad guys. While many are specific characters made to fit a mold, it is interesting to note that when dealing with some archetypes, the text introduces them, but doesn’t fully endorse using them, such as The Roadside Mystic, which is discussed as a trope, but not given an actual example character.
The Locations Out West section gives some example locations that might come up in the game. Some of them are very broad, just suggesting the types of locations that are appropriate for the kind of story being told, such as “a field of shipping containers.” Others are specific, notable real-world locations, like New Idria, California, a ghost town that doesn’t show up on most GPS.
The sample adventures include:
- Delivering a package for a washed-up porn producer while dealing with a crazy rival courier
- Kidnapping a pageant queen while dodging a federal agent
- Dodging cartel agents while delivering Canadian weed to Texas
- Participating in an illegal road race
- Working for a witch to dig up something valuable that’s been buried since the prohibition
- Doing a job for a vampire casino owner
Some of the elements in the above jobs reflect some of the inspirational material, at times in ways that may not mesh well with the table. As an example, the pageant queen is specifically described as morbidly obese, and I’m not sure what that would bring to a story given the context of the job. Other elements are going to depend on exactly what kind of criminal activity the players are going to be comfortable portraying.On A Mission From God The game provides a tightly focused package for telling very specific stories, with lots of room for variation within that prescribed band. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
I really like the pacing of this game. I like the mechanic of using the currency of action to pace how quickly the story progresses, and I like the ability to match die results in either succeeding at an action or causing secondary effects.
Gaining RPM specifically when you introduce themes from the story into the game is a great way to mechanize recurring elements. I love the way that the safety tools are integrated into the mechanics of the story by turning them into traffic lights and fitting the overall theme. The game provides a tightly focused package for telling very specific stories, with lots of room for variation within that prescribed band.You Boys Drank $300 Worth of Beer
The genres that serve as an inspiration to the game have lots of problematic elements, and while the game itself has built-in safety elements, and even addresses the problematic content of those foundational stories in various places, the example roles and stories still include elements that could easily be used in a manner that is less than sensitive. It’s a very careful balance between risk and reward, trying to call back to certain tropes while not letting them devolve into something less healthy for storytelling.
The discussions about elements found in the inspirational media aren’t shy about pointing out what’s wrong with things like racism or cultural appropriation, but because of the overall conversational, generally humorous or sarcastic tone used throughout, some of that frank discussion may have less impact than it should.Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
I can’t help but compare this game to Fiasco, and in that comparison, I think this game holds up well in that company. It’s telling a narrower band of stories but provides more tools for pacing, themes, and the ability to turn the dials to make humor more or less of an element in the individual game session.
The biggest downside to that is that narrow band of stories has a lot of baggage that must be carefully navigated to keep the content from becoming overly exploitative. Because of that, people that might enjoy the pacing or the mechanical twists might still want to be sure they know what is part of the overall package before they dive into playing the game.
What are your favorite games for telling crime stories? What are your best practices for keeping gritty or controversial content safe at the table? What is your favorite movie and why is it Blues Brothers? Let me know in the comments below!
No matter how much you love gaming, inevitably there may come a point when you just don’t have the creative juices flowing to make the magic happen at the table. Sometimes it’s life — for example, you just got laid off, or you have a new baby, or there’s another major shift going on. Sometimes, it’s just a slump, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint a reason. It just happens.Weathering the Low Tide
Lack of creativity is hardest when you’re GMing the game. Even if you’re a mostly reactive GM and not doing much planning outside the game, you still have to have that creative energy available to be with your players and keep them acting and reacting to what you do at the table. When the juices aren’t flowing, what do you do? I have a few thoughts to hopefully get you out the other side, but mostly, remember that you are more important than the game. If you need time, take the time.At the Table
Be more reactive. Don’t try to force as much planning — give yourself a starting point and see where the story goes. Source the table for details, big and small. Get your players being active and proactive, then just keep things rolling. Take a side quest break to a game that gives you better mechanical support for this style of play if you need to. Play something really silly where you can use off the wall brainstorm style thoughts to solve real world problems, like floating a car over a chasm with the help of a single helium balloon (if you’re playing Crash Pandas, it just might work).Play the Game
Group creativity is easier than lone creativity. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailSee if you can play instead of run. I am very lucky — my standard local group is nearly all GMs, and fantastic ones at that. We pass the hat around as we want, so it’s easy to make sure I’m a player instead of the GM when I need more recharge time. Playing as a character usually requires less prep time, less out of game creativity, and functions in a supported story way where you rarely have to come up with something on your own. Group creativity is easier than lone creativity. The more reactive you can be, the less proactive creative spoons you have to generate to play a successful session, and as a player it’s very easy to be reactive to the world and people around you.Set Small Goals
Set yourself some small, accomplishable goals — and then achieve them. Whether that’s writing 200 words of plot, just doing the outline (or part of it), creating one NPC, finding one good name, break the larger task into smaller ones that you can do in pieces so that they don’t require as much sustained mental energy. Do one a day, or one at a time.Do Something Else
Do something else that gives you spoons or inspires you. Watch your favorite movie or read your favorite book (or a new one). Paint. Write. Dance. Walk in nature. Cook. Take the pressure off of yourself to come up with a brilliant idea and let your mind do other things. Worst case scenario, if nothing comes, play board games that week instead.Take a Break
If nothing is really getting you started again, take a break. You are more important than any game. If they’re not feeding you good feelings, they’re not fulfilling their purpose in your life. Take some time and come back to them when they’re calling you again — we all know they will. That siren’s song doesn’t stop. If you want to browse the internet for more tips on getting out of the dark well of no ideas, I also liked this one.
Why am I writing this? Because this week I need to remember that in the midst of all the upheaval of life, I don’t have a lot of creativity left, and that’s okay. It’s going to come back; in fact it’s very close. My desire to game and participate is not lessened, but I can’t wait to give it my 100% again. And sometimes in the interim, I just need to be one of three silly raccoons all trying to race a car through the streets of LA.
What are your favorite tips and tricks for getting your mojo back? What’s your favorite low energy game to run or play?
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Today’s post is a very personal one addressing self exploration through role playing. This is about a positive life change discovered through roleplay that I’d like to share.
One of the golden rules of great game groups is to encourage each person to bring their personality and unique ideas to the game. As a dominant player (who basically thought my ideas were the best) this was a hard lesson to learn but infinitely valuable to enhancing my enjoyment of games. Additionally, when I bring more of myself to my role I am more fulfilled by the experience. Through play, each person gets to highlight what is important to them and their character. In many ways, role playing can be a window to the soul.
Sometimes the things explored through roleplay and the lessons learned have ramifications that reach far out into a person’s life. Roleplaying, and my character Harrison in particular, helped me reach a literally life changing revelation.Recognizing the Gift.
There are numerous skills I have refined through roleplay: speaking up, long term planning, problem solving, thinking outside the box. All of those are great, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. It’s self-discovery time.
At the beginning of 2018 I played in a Tales from the Loop game as Harrison, a 14 year old trouble maker, who I played only a half dozen times. He was a boy becoming a man who was struggling to find his place in the world. I wrote more than 100 pages of fiction and backstory about him. That amount of devotion to a character had never happened before and I realized I had to understand what was going on. Why did I *need* Harrison so much? Harrison was the tipping point in a major self-revelation that literally changed my life.
In role playing games I play as a fictionalized version of myself, sometimes my idealized best self, sometimes leaning deeply into my flaws and touching on the mixture of hope and tragedy that is the human condition. My characters have been tall, short, caucasian, people of color, human, daemon hosts, fat, thin, straight, gay, bisexual, happy, lonely, rich, starving, religious, agnostic, and many other things. But my favorite characters have shared one trait since I started playing at 6 years old, they’ve been male.
What I’m here to say is: it wasn’t just my characters who were always male. It was me.
Hi, I’m Wen and I am a transgender man.
Role playing has been the place I have been my fullest self for the last three decades. I can walk up to any game table, introduce my character and have them accepted for who they are without question. I was accepted as *who I was* without question. That is powerful beyond my ability to express. It vented steam I didn’t know was otherwise building up in my head. Roleplaying kept me safe and gave me the outlet I needed until I was ready to face myself.
For a long time I’ve said that the highest function of role playing is the ability to create empathy through game play. What I missed was that role playing can foster deep self-exploration, the ability to not just understand or empathize with others, but to know yourself. As such, role playing as a hobby and my characters, including Harrison, have always been extremely important to me. In some ways my characters were more “me” than I was allowing myself to be.
Many players don’t need roleplaying in the way I have. Not every role player will have a revelation like mine. However some of us do. I think this is important to highlight because it is one of the reasons that a player’s agency in their character can be so extremely important. When you play, keep in mind that you never know how close a person’s character may be to their sense of self. Removing agency in the character may feel violating to the player in ways you don’t understand. Regardless of the circumstances, to keep your players trust, don’t compromise anyone’s agency in their character without their enthusiastic prior consent.What Can We Do Next?
For readers wondering if there is anything you can do to make life better and easier for transgender people like me, the answer is an emphatic: Yes! I’m writing this section of the article with our cisgender audience in mind, but everyone is invited to read on. These are my personal opinions and learnings but I think they are a good starting place for being an informed friend and ally.
I’m still me. While your perception may have shifted, at my core I am still the same person, and that is true of all transgender people. If you were acquaintances or friends before, there is no reason that should change. As a gamer, if your friend brought a character of a different gender to the table, I imagine you’d say okay and move on with the game. Follow that same model in real life. There isn’t any reason people should act differently (read: uncomfortably) around one another. Focus on what you have in common, just like always, and you’ll be fine.
Honest communication and education demystifies being transgender. If you don’t know what I mean when I say “transgender” or “trans” read this (for a quick refresher on terms look here). Start by doing some reading and branch out from there. Ask questions in good faith and clearly express the desire to listen, learn, and understand individual people’s perspective.
Transitioning 101. There are several kinds of transition, not every transgender person transitions in every way. A transgender person’s identity is valid regardless of a person’s ability or desire to do any of these steps. Safety comes first and each kind of transition has its own risks and costs. Internalize this fact, accept it, and please don’t judge one another about it.
- Social transition can involve several possible steps like coming out to friends, family, and coworkers; using a different name, pronouns, or titles; and updating gender expression through clothing, hairstyle, make up, etc.
- Legal transition can include a name change and/or updating gender markers on legal paperwork like identification cards and passports. Rules typically require some form of “proof” which may take an extended period of time to obtain.
- Medical transition can include hormone therapy, voice therapy, hair removal treatments, and surgeries. Rules require varying degrees of “proof” before medically transitioning, which may take months or years to obtain. If you aren’t in a relationship with someone where you already discuss deeply personal medical matters or each other’s genitals it isn’t appropriate to ask about medical transition. If someone wants to talk to you about it let them bring it up. That’s just common courtesy.
Pronouns: He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs, Name Only. Together we can normalize offering and asking for each other’s pronouns. If cisgender (non-transgender) people normalize this practice people who are trans (or non-binary or genderfluid) won’t effectively have to “out” ourselves every time we meet someone new.
- Start by offering your own pronouns and then asking other people’s pronouns when you meet. Opening that door for people to walk through who may not identify exactly as they appear on the surface is one of the best gifts you can give.
- Offering your pronouns in online spaces like on your social media pages, dating profiles, or email signatures also normalizes the practice and makes written communication easier. If you can take 5 minutes to do that now, that would be awesome! (Ex. He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs)
- When asking for someone’s pronouns you can leave out the word “preferred” as in “What are your preferred pronouns?” It’s extraneous. To me saying “preferred” implies that you are humoring me instead of simply respecting me. That’s not everyone’s take, but if someone wants to let you know that their pronouns are preferred, their response can simply be “My preferred pronouns are…”
- Respect a person’s name and pronouns. If a person uses a new name, use that and don’t refer to them by their birth name (often called a “dead name”). When someone calls me “ma’am” I respond with “It’s sir, thank you.” Typically people take that in stride and carry on, you can do the same. If you slip up, correct yourself and move on. If you make a big deal about apologizing it is going to make everyone uncomfortable. If you are trying to get it right no harm, no foul, I forgive you, the end.
- Help others to get it right. Be clear and be consistent, but don’t make a scene. I’m okay with folks correcting other people on my behalf, that takes some of the weight off my shoulders and spreads it around. It helps me to maintain my dignity and self-respect. Ask your friends if it is alright if you do this for them too and respect their decision.
- Some people do not use pronouns. In that case specifically use their name or other descriptors, honoured guest, my friend, the author.
- They/Them/Theirs can feel awkward in the singular form. The Associated Press Stylebook adopted it in 2017, we are living in the future, so this is your opportunity to be a strong ally and accept change. If needed, you can read more about it here.
Be a Visible Ally and Back it Up with Your Actions. Your words matter. Your actions matter. Your votes matter. Visibility matters (that’s why I wrote this post). It is important to nurture and embrace diversity in all spaces, including gaming spaces. Wear your rainbow colored shirts, pronoun pins, and Ally ribbons at conventions and game stores. I can’t tell you how happy I was that I could always pick at least one person in the crowd wherever I was at Gen Con 2018 with a rainbow shirt on. Listen and act in good faith. If you made it this far, you’ve already taken the first step, cheers! If someone tells you their experience and you aren’t transgender, listen, believe, and value their experience. Finally, human rights need to be inclusive of people of all genders and sexual identities. However those rights are called into question and potentially being eroded even as you read this. This is the time to unite, stand up for each other, and keep each other safe by working together as allies and friends.Final Thoughts.
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to share my experience, and I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this article. I cherish games and game players. I believe role playing as our common bond is a powerful force to unite people, I’ve always found my best friends through the hobby. I’ll always love and adore my characters, but now that I am myself all the time my characters have less of a burden on their imaginary shoulders. Roleplaying did its job shielding me for a long time, but it is a relief to be myself full time now.
It’s good to know you as myself beyond the game table.
Special thanks to: Deanna, Chelsea, Ang, Senda, Rob, John, and Camdon for their advance feedback; to my game group Quincy, Derek, Jake, Senda, Camdon, and Brett; and to the creators of Tales from the Loop for unexpectedly laying the groundwork for my exploration.
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