Apr 302016

Previous Episodes:

I’m going to start this recap by stating that I’m ditching my usual in character with digression format. This entire post is more or less one big digression, as I felt that very little actually happened in the game. And frankly, I just need to work out what went wrong in my head. My apologies if that makes this less interesting, but it’s my hope that my rambling might be helpful to someone else.

To begin, it should be stated that due to time constraints, we had a shorter than normal play session yesterday. Which is usually fine, cutting out an hour can be done if I have a little time to think about it. But that’s in a normal session. But what happened in this session was far from normal. I’ve mentioned in past posts that my players were really getting into the show behind the game, providing meta commentary on what was happening in the game. Which was really interesting and I was willing to see where it went. Turns out, it went in places that really killed any sort of investment I had in the story I was trying to craft.

Things almost immediately got off to a rocky start. Due to missing last week, we sort of skipped the recap part of the game this session. Which was a mistake, as I had intended for this game to pick up right where it had left off. Instead I had one character in L.A., shooting a music video. Another character had magically jumped to a base and was working on his car. Suddenly I was dealing with a time skip, which I managed to do by having the mother and Molly stay over with Ace. Which worked, but it had killed my first idea, which was the mother was going to tell them that she’d barely gotten away from the commune as it was being attacked. It was my intention to start the session out with some higher stakes and a bang, just to build some excitement.

But players do things you don’t expect and I can hardly fault the players for wanting to explore their characters. Any GM who’s run long enough learns to roll with the punches, and a more low key start was fine. My players rolled with my really fumbled way to bring them together again (bless them for that – it was NOT my best work by far). And so the characters made their way to the surf commune to see what was happening. There was a token amount of investigation, but then the players went on what must have been a 20 minute side digression about the actors playing the characters, and how they went on to do other things in other shows. It was very creative and entertaining, but it once more killed any momentum I had at all.

I was able to sort of pull things back on track by having some Street Thunder thugs attack on motorcycles and RVs, machine guns and chains in hand. I hope that maybe threatening the folks of the commune and the characters would pull folks back in character, but instead the fight ended up being nothing but full on slapstick. There were attacks with weights that were just painted frisbees. When David’s car was attacked, it wasn’t actually his car, it was some beater they had to burn up. And so what I had hoped would ratchet up the tension instead turned into Monty Python and the Bumbling Gangers of Ineptitude.

Now, during this fight I did make an interesting discover. I started tossing out “DvD Commentary Aspects”, and the players really ran with it. Throwing a free weight at a guy was easy because it was actually a painted frisbee. The car wasn’t damaged because it wasn’t actually the real car – it was a stunt car. That part? That part is just a great example of the Fate Fractal in action. The show that was the game was suddenly taking on traits like an actual character. I actually think that you could very easily use the Fate Accelerated rules to stat the actual show up as a character. Just use approaches (or Roles) like Budget, Effects, Actors, Makeup, Crew, and so on. Then you could let the players as a whole use the show character to create advantages for the player characters. It’d be very meta, but it’d work seamlessly.

But, for this game, the commentary only served to kill any sort of tension I’d hope to build. This is the point where the game had jumped so far off the rails that I had kind of just given up. I tried to keep going, but my heart wasn’t really in it. The heroes were harassed by Drake Falconsteele and Detective Dan O. Lord, but then we got on another tangent about how those actors went on to other shows as well. I tried again to bring the game back by having an earthquake start, but even I was starting to describe things in terms of the show (the camera was shaken).

The earthquake opened up a crevasse that had some underground caves. During my prep and thought earlier in the week, this was supposed to be the magic moment (hah!) when the group first encountered something truly supernatural. But the mood for such a reveal just wasn’t any sort of right and instead I just got derailed. Instead of these terrible zombies rising out of the surf, remnants of a long sunken Spanish Galleon, the first thing that popped into my head was a big dragon. Which of course looked cool, as the prop guys were established as being great. But then I figured that was silly, so it ended up being an illusion. Which made no freaking sense. But I had looked at the clock and realized that time was running out due to all of the tangents, and so I had to cut that fight.

The heroes made it through the caverns and to a big chamber with lava. I hadn’t planned for lava at all. It was supposed to be a room quickly filling with sea water. But a player had established that they had some cool lava effects and declared a detail, so I rolled with it. And my big scary cultist who was supposed to be this big mystery about why he knew ace? It wasn’t him, it was some totally old stuntman who had also played three parts in the episode already. I tried insisting that he was in a robe and you couldn’t see him, but was kind of shouted down. And so I pretty much just threw the fight and let the heroes roll over it, as at that point I was just tired of playing along and knew there would be no tension at all.

I think that’s the moment that really broke me for this game. When things get this silly, there’s no coming back from it. You can’t have things get this weird and then try to pretend that this game is anything remotely resembling serious. And to be clear, I was complicit in some of the meta commentary. It was funny and it made me laugh. But it really wasn’t anything like what I had wanted to run when I started this game. I had envisioned a grounded, more low key game. I wanted something close to Simon & Simon or Magnum P.I. But what we ended up with was the Adventures of Bad Acting and Terrible Scripts. Which can be great fun once in a while, but it’s not remotely what holds me attention as a GM.

I am blessed with really damn good players. They’re attentive, they’re always willing to pitch in, and they have creative characters and ideas. You couldn’t ask for a better group of folks to play with. But all of those good qualities can also combine to create a runaway juggernaut of gaming that I can only try to guide. And I know had I actually talked about how this was bothering me earlier, the group would have immediately started to bring things back. But I was curious as to what these changes meant and I wanted to explore a new style game. Only to realize way too late that it’s a style of game that I only enjoy once in a while in a convention style setting. They’re great palette cleansers, but they don’t have enough on them to interest me for more than a session or two.

A big part of me wishes I would have stuck to my guns at the very beginning and insisted that we play the game at the Bad Dudes & Ladies level. I should have stated that I wanted grounded characters and that the Gonzometer was going to be very low. But the players tossed their enthusiasm behind the higher gonzo settings and it’s a foolish GM who ignores what makes his or her players enthusiastic. And so I ran with it, ultimately to the point of making myself uncomfortable and uninterested in the game. But that happens. The only way to figure out if you like something is to give it a good try. And for me, the more gonzo and meta style games just don’t have enough in them to interest me for very long.

I’m very grateful that my group agreed to take part in this playtest and did their best to throw their full attention and enthusiasm into this thing. I knew at least a few of my players were really struggling with Fate and I hope that this helped them understanding. And I really do like the original characters that came out of this game. I think, in another style of game, I’d really enjoy running for them again. It was a great game to visit, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

As a final word, the actual system itself is incredible. Shadow of the Century is now definitely in my top 3 variations of Fate and I’ll be grabbing extra copies of this one. Throughout this entire playtest we have very, very few mechanical problems. And those we did have were mostly related to legacy language that just hadn’t been changed in the playtest document. And even if you don’t dig the 80’s, this version of Fate has so much you can steal. Montages, Roles, the idea of “Gonzo Roles” adding extra trappings and effects to skills. I’m particularly interested in taking the final version of Shadow of the Century and tweaking it to run Shadowrun.

I’m grateful that Evil Hat allowed us to play in their under construction sandbox. It was just an awesome experience, even if I didn’t end up digging where the game ended up. And to be clear, any problems I have with this game were the result of situations, not the rules or the group itself. It just turns out that I don’t really like my games to get too meta or silly. But I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun finding out I didn’t enjoy something. So, thanks to the folks at Evil Hat for providing us with so much fun. This has been my favorite and best playtest experience to date.

Mar 082016

One of the things I really love about Savage Worlds is Hindrances. Nothing can define a character more quickly or thoroughly than a few well chosen Hindrances. For example: Vow (Rid Gotham of Crime), Quirk (No Guns!), Heroic = Batman. Sure, Batman would also have tons of skills, the Filthy Rich Edge, and gobs of Combat Edges. But the real core of the character isn’t all of that, it’s those three Hindrances. They’re what make Batman tick, and when things get tough they’re also the thing ensuring that old Batman always has plenty of bennies to use when things get tough. I think we’d all agree that Batman without those Hindrances is just a boring old Rich guy beating up thugs.

Now, I can hear you saying “but wouldn’t the rest of the Justice League also have Heroic? And don’t most of them also have a Vow against killing?” I hear you, and you’re absolutely right! those Hindrances are less about the characters and more about the genre or style of game the GM would like to run. In which case, you can actually end up with some characters that start looking a bit similar as the players all build characters to fit in the game. Which is great, but it can also cramp your style. Because if I’m building someone like Superman, you could easily argue that he has both Code of Honor and Heroic. But both are major hindrances!

To me, the answer has been something I like to call Genre Hindrances. When I start a new game, I think about the kind of characters I’d like to see and the play style I want to encourage. I then look and see if that maps to any of the existing Hindrances. If I do find one or two that fit the style I want (such as Heroic in a supers game), I do something special. I offer all players the option (no one must take the Genre Hindrance!) to take the Genre Hindrance as a bonus Hindrance that doesn’t count against the 1 Major, 2 Minor Hindrance limit. If the characters do take the Genre Hindrance, they don’t get additional points. Instead they get a genre appropriate reward. By default, the reward I offer is 1 additional Edge, and the player can ignore any non-Legendary rank requirements for that specific Edge. But there’s no reason you couldn’t grant other bonuses.

I’ve been using this little Setting Rule for years now, and I’ve always been happy with the results. Depending on the group, either I get a full buy-in or at most one or two abstainers. The players are happy, as the extra reward is balanced by a Hindrance they were likely going to play up anyway. I, as the GM, am happy because I now have another method of handing bennies to the players and I get the types of characters I want to see for the story I want to tell. It’s a win-win situation all around.

In closing, here are a few ideas for Genre Hindrances and their rewards.

  • Occult Investigators: Curious Hindrance;   d4 Investigation and the Connections Edge.
  • Heroic Fantasy: Heroic Hindrance; One Combat or Arcane Background Edge.
  • Cyberpunk Bandits: Wanted (Corporation) Hindrance; $1,000 Starting Funds.
  • Four Color Supers: Heroic Hindrance; +5 Power Points.


Sep 212011

A short post to get me back into the swing of things. Also inspired by the new Kirby Krackle song Booty Do Math.

This post is inspired by a few friends who started running again after a long absence or for the first time ever. I’ll start by saying that the guys have been doing a great job. No major complaints from me and certainly nothing that can’t be solved with experience. But the one thing I’ve noticed in newer GMs is the tendency to call for dice rolls when they’re not really necessary. Which is a damn shame, because sometimes the dice can get in the way of good storytelling.

There are several books that have good advice on this subject (the best in my book is anything by Evil Hat, especially Spirit of the Century) but in my mind it’s really simple to determine. If your players have suggested via background or play that a character should be great at some non-critical (and combat is almost always critical) task then just let them succeed. If you have a character raised in a nautical culture don’t make them roll to navigate in calm seas. For that kind of character such rolls should always succeed. Just like the accomplished surgeon should never have to roll when lancing a boil. Or a soldier shouldn’t have to roll to identify a common firearm by sight.

Really this is a corollary to my “Rule of Awesome.” The Rule of Awesome is simple: “If an action would look awesome in a movie it should almost always succeed. If a roll is called for, make the difficulty low.” Or in other words, always err on the side of awesome and epic and damn what the dice would say. We’re playing games here, and at the end of the day games should be fun. And what’s more fun than succeeding at the things your character should be awesome at doing?

Mar 192011

Yes, advanced dungeons and dragons. The old one, by Gygax (or the 2nd edition by Cook if you will).
Although Runequest and Rolemaster are games we play more, I do have a soft spot for the original AD&D. I think it has a lot of scope and potential, and people usually respond to it very well, once they are at the table.
So since I am bored, here’s a few different musings on running AD&D games. These are things more specific to AD&D, than broad, generic gaming advice.
1: What do I roll for this?

Its a common complaint that dice rolls are all over the place, but in a lot of ways, that can be a strength. As the GM, you have a lot of options available to you. Some ways to have a player resolve an action can be: An ability check. A straight percentage chance. A saving throw. Use the “spell learn” or “bend bars” rolls. etc etc.There’s a lot of mechanics in there, and they can be used for a lot of interesting results.
2: Say no to skills.

Skills have been standard in RPG’s since Traveller and Runequest. For AD&D, I’d stay clear of them.Look at the character and judge the situation. A ranger should never be rolling dice to see if he can find shelter, and a cleric knows about ancient religions. No hero should roll dice to ride a horse.When you factor in race, class and their background, you’ll know if they can do it or not. Bring out the dice if the situation is truly challenging.
3: Dont roll dice constantly

Rolling dice can be fun, but it can also break the game if everything comes down it.If you look through the AD&D rules, dice rolls are not actually all that common. The implication is certainly that they are rarely rolled, unless the rules specifically bring it up.There’s really two paradigms here: Roll often or roll rarely. A lot of games assume that you’ll roll dice frequently, and that you’ll have a high chance of success. For AD&D, I find it fits the game better if you roll fairly rarely, and with average or even low chances of success. The player should in most cases have a chance to solve the situation without resorting to dice. Think of them as the saving throw. Your plan didn’t work out, so we’ll give you a chance to bail.
4: Thief skills.

A few simple pointers: The thief should never be punished more than another character would, just for attempting his skills.The thief should never be punished simply for being a thief. Examine the situation. If any character could attempt it, the thief can roll for his thief skill to do it faster, better etc. If he fails, he still gets the same chance everyone else would get.
5: Hit points.

Yes, hit points are a mess. They still are. That being said, exploit the fact that they don’t all represent physical punishment in your descriptions. A 5 damage hit when the fighter is at 30 HP is a staggering blow he barely parried. The same hit when he is down to his last 8 HP is a deep gash in his arm, with blood flowing everywhere.”Hitting” does not mean you wounded them until the very end. Until then, you are just wearing down their defenses.
6: Saving throws.

Same deal. Let the players determine how their character resisted. A fighter might just shrug off the spell through determination, while the magic user knew intricate counter measures. As saving throws are based on threat, not defense (reverse of post-AD&D editions) use the freedom.

7: Morale.

Whether you use the morale checks or not, the GM should always play creatures intelligently. Nothing saps suspension of disbelief faster than the heroes murdering 20 goblins, and the last 2 obligingly march up to get killed, just for the chance of inflicting 3 more HP of damage.When intelligent creatures are cut down, have them retreat, surrender, negotiate, etc. If the world seems to be a living, interesting place, the players will invest more in it, and may keep themselves alive longer.

8: Dont fudge dice.

Personal policy and some GMs hate this, so use if you please.All dice rolls I make are plainly visible to the players. If they know you will save them, the dramatic tension goes out of the scene. A little fear never hurt anyone in a game.On the flip side, don’t make impossible situations. Most fights should have alternate solutions, ways to improve the situation etc.Make them work for it.

Aug 302010

I’ve been running quite a few games lately and the one common theme between them all is outlandish actions.  We’ll be in the middle of a combat or negotiation and one of my players will invariably ask “can I blow up the car with a shot?” or “can I convince this villain that my spellbook is really just a book of Orcish mating rituals?”  They’re actions and suggestions so off the wall and awesome that I have to stop and sputter a bit.  And after thinking a bit I smile, say yes, and sometimes call for a roll.  Because some actions are just so awesome that they have to work.

These outlandish actions have only enhanced my games, but it’s taken me a long time and a lot of mistakes to get to the point where I can say yes.  When I was younger and less experienced I’d often just blurt out “No!”  The actions didn’t fit into the rules, or they seemed stupid, or I couldn’t think of how to make them work.  These days I’ve loosened up a lot and my games are far better for the change in attitude.

These moments now fall into my “rule of cool” philosophy (I know I’m cribbing this name from somewhere – probably an Evil Hat game – forgive me if I don’t cite the original source).  In essence this rule boils down to: if the action is outlandish and increases the fun at the table it’s going to work.  In some cases I might call for a roll, but if I do I always make sure that the rule is something that the PC is good at, because they should probably succeed at such a task.

For a lot of new GMs this sort of thing can really throw you for a loop.  It seems really cool (or really stupid) but you don’t know how to fit into the rules you’re using.  My personal suggestion is to just let it work outright or let it work with a common roll.  Now, this only applies if the action is going to make things more fun for everyone.  If the action really only serves to make one character better then it’s probably fine to say no, or yes, but…  To really qualify for the Rule of Cool your action has to really make things better for everyone at the table or at least make everyone at the table go “awesome!” or break up into laughter.

That’s the Rule of Cool in a nutshell.  It’s made my games a lot more fun and helped my players feel more empowered.  Hopefully it can do the same for yours.

Jan 012010

I’ve been playing and thinking about superhero games quite often as of late and it got me to thinking about how different systems ensure that everyone at the table has something fun and unique to do in and out of play.  It’s not something most of us think about very often when rolling dice around the table, but I feel that solid niche protection between characters is nearly essential to ensuring that everyone at the table has a good time.

To my mind games break down into three broad categories of niche protection.  You have strict niche protection, also known as class based RPGs.  Then you have semi-rigid niche protection, common in a lot of White Wolf games (via the Clan/Auspice/Tradition style breakdown). Finally you have no niche protection, which is common in most point-based games and a lot of superhero games.

Now there’s a lot of wiggle room within these broad categories, but for the purpose of this little thought exercise I’m going to stick to generalities within the three categories and how they relate to game master and player enjoyment.  Over the next few days I’m going to examine each type of game and talk a bit about the common problems and benefits of each game style and how to use them to the fullest.


Strict Niche Protection (I.E. Class Systems)

It’s no surprise that class-based game systems offer the greatest degree of niche protection (to a certain extent).  In games like Dungeons & Dragons (of which I am a big fan) you have a narrowly defined area of expertise at which you excel and then a broad area of minimal competence or outright restriction.  To take a very obvious example fighters aren’t going to be tossing around fireballs and wizards aren’t going to be hewing through monsters with huge weapons (exceptions, of course, exist).  In a lot of respects this is actually a good thing: if you’re the only wizard in the party you pretty much know that you’re the boss when it comes to arcane magic.  They party is going to look to you when such problems occur and you’re always going to have something that you’re the best at doing.

The downsides are also just as obvious – sometimes there are going to be things that your character should be able to do that the rules don’t support.  If my fighter happened to be a member of the thieves guild chances are he should know how to pick locks – but some games won’t let you do this (though many others do allow for this sort of customization).  The cost of having a defined area of expertise is that exceptions and corner cases tend to very difficult or outright impossible to model sensibly.

There’s also the problem of class duplication – in class based games two members of the same class sometimes end up looking very similar.  Some systems are better at dealing with this than others but at the end of the day there is at least some degree of sameness between characters of the same class.  Ironically this actually leads to the very problem that class based systems are meant to prevent – characters that don’t have their own shtick.


Maximizing the Strengths

If you’re using a class-based system you obviously want to play to its strengths as much as possible.  You can do this by choosing a system with a broad spectrum of classes or niches to give your players a great deal of choice while still retaining a solid set of niches for your players to fill.  For me this system is D&D 4e, but it could be any other class based game with good deal of selection.  You want your players to point toward a class and say “that is my character exactly!” if at all possible, or at least offer enough selection that a class can be molded to fit with little work.

Beyond selecting an appropriate system you also want to make sure that everyone selects a class that compliments but does not overlap with an existing class (save for the generalist, which I’ll cover just a bit later).  This is best accomplished by setting aside a full session for character creation or using some other method to ensure that everyone knows what everyone else is playing.  This way you can avoid the “party full of thieves” problem that can crop up when you create characters in a vacuum.


Minimizing Weaknesses

As mentioned earlier, class based systems do have their weaknesses, but with a little work you can overcome nearly all of them pretty easily.  The biggest weakness is that of class and ability duplication.  In a perfect world everyone would choose a different class but we all know that the world isn’t perfect (even our game worlds).  When you do get duplicates you can either try to differentiate them with crunch or with fluff.

Differentiating duplicate classes with crunch is usually the more difficult proposition.  Yet it can be accomplished, especially if the system you’re using has rules for multiclassing (or something similar).   After all, a Fighter/Cleric and a Fighter/Wizard are going to feel pretty different from each other.  Obviously you’re not going to be able to use this all the time, but it can help quite a bit.

If multiclassing isn’t attractive or unavailable, start looking at hyper-specialization.  If you have duplicate classes chances are that the basic are covered, so go right ahead and encourage the players to really specialize in one very narrow spectrum of the class.  If you have two fighters encourage one to go sword and board and the other to go with a big two handed weapon.  That way the two characters still feel a bit different, even if they aren’t all that different mechanically.

The other option is using background, characterization, and other “fluff” to make the characters distinct.  If both your fighters want to play guys in plate armor, a heavy shield, and a longsword you’re obviously going to have to do something to avoid the “we’re twins!” problem.  Perhaps one fighter is a noble knight all hung up on chivalry and honor while the other is a mercenary who works for the highest bidder.  Now you have a situation where two contrasting personalities share largely the same abilities, which can lead to a fun sort of “friendly rivalry” as each character attempts to show the other the error of his ways.

The other problem that is likely to arise is that of the “special snowflake” character.  Some players just have a very specific idea in mind for their character and sometimes the classes don’t cater very well to that idea.  If this happens you don’t really have a whole lot of solutions.  Either the player needs to adjust his character so that it fits within a certain class or you have to find a mechanical representation that works.

About the only other option is to take an existing class and “reskin” it enough so that it works for the character concept.  This obviously works better in some systems than in others.  Mostly this is a thematic change, where you take the raw mechanics and graft on new “special effects” to the existing class.  You can also take a class and make minor tweaks if you know the system well enough, such as changing a fire caster to a cold caster by changing a few damage types.  It’s not always recommended and it’s definitely a more advanced option, but it can work.


Attack of the Clones

So what happens when you have an entire party of adventurers all filled with one character class?  Obviously this isn’t going to happen very often but when it does simple reskinning and different personality types aren’t really going to give you enough differentiation between the characters.  This is the time where you have to start looking at your campaign itself and where you might have to bring in a few optional rules to make things interesting.

The first step is going to be working heavily with hyper-specialization.  Hopefully you have a robust enough system that each class has at least a few different options within the system itself.  If you have an entire team of priests perhaps each one of them worships a different god with a different set of divine abilities.  If you have that group of thieves perhaps each one of them specializations in a certain area of crime.  Break out all the extras for that class that you can and encourage the players to use as many optional extras as practically possible.

Then figure out why this group is together and form a story around their similarities.  The easiest example is that of a thieves guild, but anything will work.  The key here is to focus the game entirely around problems that can be solved by the class features of everyone present and then overwhelm them with so many problems that no one character can possibly solve them all.  Going back to the thieves, perhaps they have to break into a house covered in traps, with dozens of locked doors, and very alert guards.  Some of them are going to have to sneak in, some are going to have to disable the traps, and some are going to be unlocking doors.  Instead of giving everyone something different to do give them so many of the same thing to do that they all have to work together.


The Generalist

When discussing class based games there is one final exception that needs specific mention: the generalist.  This is the character who’s shtick is actually being the “jack of all trades, master of none.”  This is a class based upon being the second best at everything and they’re generally thrown in as a “fifth wheel” character.  How do you cater to a character that is by definition a lesser copy of everyone else?

The answer lies in how you design your games and encounters.  If you have a generalist try to set up situations where one character class isn’t quite enough to get the job done.  Perhaps the door is both locked and trapped and they have to get through it quickly.  Normally the thief could do both jobs but when time is of the essence the bard can step in and help out, effectively doubling their manpower for a short time.  Generalists also shine when the skills of an absent party member are needed, as they can step into that role for a short time and perform admirably.  Sometimes you can manufacture this yourself by splitting the party but at other times this will arise naturally – which is all the better if you have a generalist character in your party.

But playing second fiddle the entire time isn’t very satisfying, so you’ll want to come up with situations that require a broad area of skill to accomplish.  This is far easier said than done and I’ve never really mastered the art of doing this beyond a few specific circumstances.  The one saving grace is that even generalist style characters generally have one narrow area of expertise not covered by everyone else in the party, so you can sometimes play to this when you want to shine the spotlight on a generalist character.


Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember when using a class based system is that communication is the key.  Players have to communicate with one another when creating their characters and the GM and players have to communicate with one another to ensure that everyone is getting equal spotlight time.  After all, classes are only unique if they’re the only ones at the table at any given time.

As a final point I would like to state that not all game systems work for all players.  If you’ve tried a class based game and found it too rigid or unappealing, there are many other systems out there to try.  Perhaps class based games aren’t for you and all you need to do is go looking for a system that does work for you.  There’s no reason to keep using the same system if it doesn’t work for you.

Sep 302009

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

I always find my best inspirations for blog posts after I have played the worst RPG scenes.

This is a problem that plagues online roleplayoing, but I think it also ventures heavily into tabletop gaming across all genres of games – how do you make your game work for your group as a whole?

Lets go backwards on this a bit and look at the most basic question: why should you run for every player you have?  I swear it seems such a simple, stupid question but time and time again groups form where the ST/DM/GM gathers a big group of players and then proceeds to lead only for his or her best friends leaving the other players feeling useless.  The why is tied inextricably in the basic goal of roleplaying: fun.  Very few players find it fun to ride along on the coattails of others, and usually they are the sort of players who gain more fun by spectating rather than playing anyways.  Most players find it fun to affect the game and in return be rewarded for their actions.  Even in a game where there is a strict rank whether this is military or nobility – no one like to have thier options in a RPG limited solely to what someone else tells them to do.  We play RPGs to make choices and see how those choices affect the outcome.  No matter whether this is how does your combat strategy stack up against the DM’s baddies to how does your social manipulation scheme affect the plots of the ST’s villains.  So if you plot adventures that only appeal to a portion of your players – or worse can only be solved by a portion of your players the neglected players will start to resent the game and get very bored very quickly.

That is not to say that personal storylines or highlighting a character is a bad thing – as long as it is something that is shared equally among the playerbase.  The storyline that deals with a paladin fulfilling an oath to his order one session, afterward the fighter making a drunken bet and dragging his party into a monster-hunt; and then a gang of old enemies catching up with the rogue the next is cool.  The game where each and every problem is only solvable by some obscure spell your wizard possess while the rest of your party is getting mutilated and and doing zero damage is fundamentally broken.  Honestly – if you are running a tabletop game and you decide that you enjoy running for only a portion of your players and therefore favor them suck it up and either A. split the group or B. find ways to enjoy and/or run for your other players.

And if you’re running an online chat game, and you favor your friends exclusively you should probably admit that you’re not cut out to be a good GM and step down.  Period, end of story.

So now that the problem is defined, how do you kep your game running smoothly?  First – live by this rule: interested players make a more interesting game for all involved.  It takes some work, but in my opinion finding out what trips your players triggers is well worth the effort because once they are interested they will be giving both feedback and energy – and oftentimes story ideas through their play.

2. Give them what they want.  Some DMs I know specifically put something in every adventure for every character, some are more loose about it and just give open ended situations that are well suited for a variety of players – however you care to do it, make sure there are plenty of opportunities for everybody to think up solutions and act upon them.  This leads directly into …

3. Think before saying ‘No.’  Sometimes we trust our friends but don’t trust the new guy – so we’ll buy the wildly creative plan our best bud throws out but immediately shoot down the solution presented by the new player.  You know what?  If you trusted them enough to let them in your group give them a chance.  If everything goes to hell, kindly stop the session and either teach them the game or don’t invite them next time – on the flip side if they are wildly creative and make it work everyone might just be sold on the story and be thrilled with it.  I find too many GMs say ‘no’ too often and yet when you say yes not only do players feel like they are empowered in the game but they have more fun and are encouraged to be more creative.

4. If you have a railroader, stop them – even if (or especially if) it is you.  Some people feel that everything needs to go their way.  Some players like to order everyone else around and some GMs will force players into their tightly preplanned storyline.  But control isn’t fun.  No one likes playing out orders – people go to work to do what they are told.  They roleplay to have fun and explore the boundaries of their creativity.   So if you have a player who likes controlling everyone else, tell them to stop – trust me, even if the others aren’t complaining they will thank you.  And if it is you as a GM controlling them too strictly, start coming up with open-ended problems for them to solve.  This has the added benefit of taking stress off your shoulders.

5. If you are running a story based game, find out about all the PCs backgrounds and bring them into play.  If you are running a strategy or combat based game, find out each of the player’s tactical strengths/weaknesses and bring them into play.  Challenging each person individually or bringing up secrets of character’s pasts is a good way to get that player involved and tied to the other players in the game.

6. Personal SL are great.  Personal SLs that affect your entire group but can only be solved by one PC suck.  No one wants to stack dice and twiddle thier thumbs while waiting for one PC to finish defeating the big bad that only he or she can defeat.  Either run personal SLs on the side or make them so every player can get involved.

If all else fails, admit your strengths and weaknesses as a GM and run for only your close friends and let someone else run for everyone.  Because the game is fun, but sitting around watching someone else have fun isn’t.

Aug 122009

Tonight I had the final and epic battle of a short 3 adventure campaign I ran for my regular group and a long lost gaming buddy who returned to us for a limited 3 month run.  I’m happy to say that things went smoothly, everyone had a lot of fun, and the good guys won out in the end.  Yet when I think back over tonight I’ve come to realize that the most memorable battle for me wasn’t the final encounter with the nasty evil menace, it was one of the previous encounters.  The reason it sticks out in my mind, at least to me, has to do with the fight environment.

The more interesting battle took place in a temple that was built deep underneath a lake.  It was filled with air, but the bottom level had the corners open out into the lake and channels of water that flowed around the room.  Every round one of the channels would fill with water and try to wash away whoever was foolish enough to stand in them.  It featured enemies who could swim and who understood the terrain.

This area forced the players and characters to think about where they moved and opened up some interesting tactical considerations and roleplaying moments.  The poor swordmage got pushed into a channel of flowing water by the tail slap of a lizard man, but she managed to escape thanks to the quick thinking of her friends.  That was interesting.  It was dynamic.  It was memorable!

The final battle, in contrast, took place in the village where the nasty monster from beyond the stars crawled out of the well.  Sure, it had a lot of interesting things in the environment to use, but none of the players were forced to interact with them, or even encouraged.  The fight was tougher, sure, but it was less interesting because the environment was so darn passive.

These days I think that an environment that changes the field of battle and provides interesting ways to use it is far preferrable to stagnant and passive environments.  Especially in a game so tactically crunchy as 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.  I’ve stopped thinking about the battlefield as a passive place and started treating it more like a monster or active participant in a fight.  The terrain should move, or provide new options in a fight, or even just provide some really interesting set dressing.

Sure, this concept isn’t new to roleplaying and I’m sure that a lot of you out there have done this for years.  I’ve done it myself once in a while, but this is the first time since I started running games where it’s in the front of my mind.  And let me tell you right now, that’s a really good thing!  It’s made my fights more interesting and memorable and really forced me to think about how the players might actually move about a space.  It makes things seem more real.

So, the next time you’re planning that epic battle for your group, sit down and really thinkg about where it’s going to take place.  See what you can do to make the battle more interesting by spicing up the environment.  You might be surprised what a difference it makes!

Aug 012009

As this is my first post, I decided to go for something that might tell the reader who the heck I am and what my insights on roleplaying are.  I can tell you to start that my tastes run both very similar and very differently from Save, Runequester and Javier.  Part in parcel that’s because I’m one of the rare, the proud, the gamer chicks.

Now let me also lay it down that I don’t play CtD because of any inherent love for lovely elfin chicks or fluffy bunnies.  I have been a longtime ST and I don’t like running stories with ranbows and prancing ponies.  I do run storylines pulled from the old fashioned myths with burning people at the stake and having gang members shoot PCs down.   So why would I be so devoted to Changeling the Dreaming, a game stereotypically know for all of those things?  Why stick with a system burdened with outdated, clunky combat rules?

It all has to do with the basic theme and mood of the game.  I, for one, agree with Save that for the most part I like embodying the hero in my games.  That is because to me, the game is not just a fun pastime spent getting treasure and killing things; but it is a change to tell a story with friends.  If I wanted to kill things and get XP and treasure (which I will grant can be hella fun) I would play a video game.  If I want to share a story, I will play a RPG.

So what compels me about telling stories with Changeling?

1. The ability to play with both past and present.  I’m a sucker for the ‘past lives’ thing in an RPG.  I love having PCs discover their past, deal with thier past lives, have that shape them or being something they act against.  The clash of who you were, who you are and who you would like to become is a dramatic question I find compelling.  It invites a second layer of characterization for the player to contemplate – and great story opportunities of discovery.

2. The ability to ‘awaken’ to magic.  At base I am a positive person and I like my games to be in general positive.  Dungeons and Dragons is at heart (no matter how you play it) positive: I start out a normal person (or dwarf or what have you) and through experience and work adventuring I become someone who is powerful  perhaps heroic, perhaps rich, or whatever else the player decides.  Changeling is, too.  There is nothing inherently angst-ridden about waking to a world of magic.  It can be confusing and startling.  It could be horribly painful, traumatic and/or destructive to the psyche – but it doesn’t have to be.  I like having the choice to play a character who is, at heart positive.  Having a group that doesn’t feel the need to sit around angsting about the horrible trauma thier PCs have been through.  This is what set me off about large parts of the new world of darkness.  For me, the ability to play a normal person who grows to become something different and more interesting without having to die, be maimed, enslaved, tortured ect ect is a strong appeal in a game.

3. Human vs. supernatural halves.  I like the pull of ‘one side vs the other’ contained in one psyche.  I like having players facing decisions and saying “well the fae half of me wants to do this, but the human half would rather not” or comparing fae morals to human morals.  It creates tough choices in a game, and tough choices are fun because they prompt action and conflict, which lets the players create a story to be resolved.

4. The ability to bring in anything you can imagine. The dreaming is a wonderful place.  shaped and influenced by the dreams of humanity, if you’re feeling like a dark and resonant game your PCs could travel through a reflection of their city where the ghosts of people killed by domestic violence walk around showing their bloody wounds.  Or if your group craves something light and shamelessly fun, you could have the action heroes of the lastest summer blockbuster manifest and wreak havoc.  The best thing is both are not only supported, but encouraged by the setting.

5. At base, the game supports humans.  Call me crazy, but I really hate games that say ‘humans are crap, lets kick them around.’  Now, having human and non-human options is not the same: humans in DnD are not enslaved and oppressed by the other races, they are just as viable as anything other race to become adventurers.  But some games (I would argue that the infamous Wraethu and the new game Changeling:the Lost) at base put humanity is a very bad light.  I don’t want to play a game that tells me ‘there are big bad things that are better than/control normal humans.  So you have to serve them/get changed by them, be one of them to be something.  Yes, CtD focuses on characters that are humans who awaken to a fae soul, but I like the blend of human and fae – I ike the idea that fae need to interact with humans for glamour and for sanity.  And at base the dreaming is crafted from the dreams of humanity – humans shape the fae as much as fae shape thier dreamers.  I can get behind that.

Jul 242009

So 4th edition D&D has been out for a while, there’s a steady stream of books out for it, its received quite a bit of acclaim and popularity, and the inevitable question has risen a few times: Why am I not playing it ?

So to address these in a manner that illuminates my playstyle and preferences, something that any gamer could do well thinking about occasionally, here are the reasons I have chosen not to play D&D 4, after giving it a few tests after it came out.

Unlike a lot of people I am not viewing this in comparison to 3.5 (which I hate like the plague) or AD&D or the classic D&D games. I evaluated it in comparison to other fantasy games on my bookshelf, some old (Runequest), some classics with recent editions (GURPS, Warhammer) and some bleeding edge (Burning Wheel, Heroquest, Reign)

1: Classes.

I realize picking on D&D for having character classes is a bit unfair, but it is the nature of the beast. I dont mind having a template that gives me direction when I create the character, but as the game goes on, I want to be free to develop my character in the direction I choose, rather than a pre-determined set of options.

2: Levels

This is the bigger pet peeve. As a player, I find level based advancement absolutely choking. I despise having to wait another 3 sessions to advance my character, as it prevents me from reacting organically to what happens in the game. Whats worse is that a level structure means there is only a finite amount of chances to make those changes. I can endure character classes if they are done in an open and entertaining fashion, but level based play is a killer for me these days

3: Character focus

I am lately finding myself wanting games that put the character to the forefront, their beliefs, their wants, their goals and desires. And to have mechanics that back that up. Burning Wheel, FATE and Heroquest are all good examples of this. D&D has traditionally never done this and the 4th edition is no exception.

There are two views of mechanics and roleplaying. One view is that the mechanics should stay away from the roleplaying, while the other is that the mechanics should support or encourage the roleplaying. D&D falls in the former school for sure. As does a few other games I enjoy, including my beloved Runequest, so its not inherently a killer in itself, but its a factor.

To me, it is completely uninteresting whether your character can swing a sword, hit 2 enemies in one blow and then leap 3 squares. What is interesting is that he has a burning passion for avenging his father, and that passion compels him in the game.

4: Simulation

Rules should simulate reality or setting to a certain extent. With 4th edition, D&D has really moved to the end of the Game axis of the game-simulation graph. This obviously resonates with a lot of people, but it makes the mechanics appear arbitrary and uninsteresting to me. Simulation does not have to entail realism. A superhero game is highly simulationist for example, as is Bunnies&Burrows.

5: Handling time

I was shocked to discover how long 4th edition combats take. I had chalked this up to our inexperience when testing it, but reports from friends and various actual play reports online confirmed that the game is indeed designed to have all combats last around a 1 to 1.5 hour time frame.

I only get to game face-to-face 2-3 times a month, due to work and family constraints, so I can’t in good conscience devote that much time to every single battle we have, unless its an epic conclusion. Rolemaster and GURPS both move faster than this, at an equivalent number of combatants, and with similar amounts of record keeping, and they are both renowned as “crunchy” systems.

6: Cost

I have a reasonable hobby budget, but I prefer spending that on miniatures. There are very few roleplaying games I invest a lot of money in. D&D has a basic start up cost exceeding 100 dollars, simply for the 3 core books to play. If I want a setting to play in, thats another 35 dollars, and this still only gives me a handful of character classes.

Throw in another 35 dollars when we get tired of what was in the players handbook (and an active group will cycle through the 8 or so character classes pretty quickly). This is more than I’ve spent on most of my wargaming armies, and I can’t justify spending that amount of money on a game that I will only play occasionally, at most.

WOTC has set an extremely high cost of entry for their game, which boggles my mind. For the same cost, I can obtain the core books for 3-4 other games, and have a far wider variety of material to play with.

So those 6 reasons comprise my main reasons for passing on this game. I bought 2 of the books, I tested it, I came to realize that it will not fill any lack in what I am looking for in a roleplaying game, and I passed the books on to a friend who will find far more benefit, value and enjoyment in them, than I ever will.