The Game Mechanic: Mixed Company.

Image courtesy of BarefootLiam-Stock.

I play with a fairly mixed bag of psychotic cats individuals: a few old hands clashing with the newer generation of gamers, while those with a foot in either camp watch with bemusement from the sidelines. While there are no real edition wars to speak of at our table, the difference between those who have been running in a system for a few versions and those who have just arrived to the campaign can become fairly weighty over time.

After the jump, we are going to examine how we can help bridge that gap during game, as well as helping to run a better game for people who might have conflicting concepts of what they want from the table.

Continue reading “The Game Mechanic: Mixed Company.”

GM Essentials: How to keep a handle on clues, communication and collateral damage.

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This plan is flawless, I tell you! Flawless! (Courtesy of Corbis Images)

Regulating the flow of information can be one of the most difficult parts of running a game. Give the party too much information, and you’ll spoil the ending for the clever players or risk entire portions of your plot being bypassed altogether. Conversely, if you are too vague, stingy or incomprehensible with your clues, you’ll wind up with a group of bored, frustrated players who are probably going to find the next available suspect and cram them into a industrial mixer full of borscht until they start coughing up some information.

Contrary to the title, this article is really for the benefit of your players. Treating them with fairness and delivering information with clarity are two very important steps to running a successful game, and after the jump we’ll look at a couple of common pitfalls in this neck of the woods and get a better idea of how to avoid them.



Continue reading “GM Essentials: How to keep a handle on clues, communication and collateral damage.”

Hooks, Lines and Secrets

Over the past few months, I’ve been getting a lot more involved with my fantasy campaign setting project, working title Kingsmead. Getting into the setting meant thinking about the tools that a GM uses to set his scenes and engage his players, especially with my need to run a few playtests of various bits and pieces. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about my own take on the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is the well known idea in writing that if things come in threes then the reader more readily consumes it, and this is for some reason more satisfying. I then fiddle it to apply to the writer as well. I’ve found that using the Rule of Three really helps to effectively flesh out the my ideas quickly and effectively, and gives me an easy framework to write around.

Most elements that I add to the story, setting, adventure and so on carries with it three parts of information in three categories. These categories are plot hooks, secrets, or lines of description.

Lines of description can be told to players, describe physical features or characters or buildings, they can be three adjectives to describe the characters personality or specific feel of a scene as a shorthand for the GM, or they can be important facts that everyone would know, such as the teachings of a particularly popular deity.

Ulf Hunter is an older man with cropped grey hair and the build of a bear. Everyone in town refers to him as ‘Pa Hunter’ or ‘Old Man Hunter’. Boisterous, loud, sometimes grumpy.

Hooks are the plot hooks that quests can arise from. The setting itself has plot hooks, the various locations have them, even specific buildings. Most named characters have either three plot hooks or an elaborate hook that covers three smaller points. Any of these can be dropped into the players laps as rumours or passing conversations, to be recalled to later if needed.

Ulf used to be an adventurer decades ago, along with his wife and brother. Sometimes found late at night or early in the morning passed out drunk on the temple steps. He blames himself for his sons accident a few years ago.

Secrets are much the same as plot hooks, but requires some digging or chance encounter by the players to uncover. This requires the players input on many levels, as I try and make the secrets slightly less detailed (group storytelling being what I love). If the player happens to be in a certain place at a certain time, they learn the edge of the secret, and it then becomes more of a plot hook. Having the players have a secret of their own also adds to this, when coupled with a character background that I can lift a couple of ideas from that become plot hooks if and when the player notices.

Ulf used to be a very religious, pledging to a martial religious order. He is celebrated in the bard song ‘Ulfrik and Therese’, along with his wife. Told his son he threw his old sword down the well immediately before the accident.

The combination of the different levels of secrecy is what I think makes the technique effective, and I’m really looking forward to running a full game and finding out reasons my players think he gave up his religious calling and adventuring life.

What System Are You Really Running?

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It’s been a while (too long) since I’ve found the time to post in my usual Thursday morning spot. What made me carve out some time today was an odd thought that occurred to me recently. I’ve been putting in a lot of work on my multi-system campaign setting, Sand & Steam. Due to a promise made to a friend, I’ve been concentrating most of my recent work on Fate. You see, I have a Fate Sand & Steam adventure to run at DC Gameday in a little over a week. I have only little experience with Fate, but since it is one of the systems I’m going to use for Sand & Steam, I figured that things would work out.

Things are, indeed, working out. My odd thought happened as I was exploring the Fate mechanics in more detail. It occurred to me that I have been running Fate for quite a long time without having even known it. And I’ve never run a game of Fate before in my life.

Let me explain.

One of the hallmarks of the Fate system is the collaboration between the players and the GM. In fact, there is a nearly 50/50 split between the players and the GM when it comes to who has narrative control. Through the use of Aspects, players can define things about the game world, or the narrative, that were not true before they made their declaration. I think this is awesome, and it is something that I have been doing with my Pathfinder group for as long as we have been together. I’ve told them numerous times, “If you make something up in the world, I’ll use it and run with it. This is as much your game as it is mine.” That’s an idea that is codified and built right into Fate.

My use of skills is also very Fate-like. Ever since I played D&D 4e, I have liked skill challenges. However, I do not like the rigid structure that has there being key skills that can only be used so many times, and higher DCs for skills that may not apply. What I like to do with skill challenges is have the players pick whatever skills they want to, and justify to me how that skill is applicable. Some are obvious, others are not, depending on the situation, and the results are often awesome. I ran a skill challenge in a Pathfinder Sand & Steam game at GenCon which involved the PCs avoiding a beating by some thugs during a theatrical production in a fancy opera house. It was great. We had PCs swinging from chandeliers, we had PCs bluffing with their combat skill, and generally playing to the crowd for support in the fight. It was one of the best skill challenges I have ever run.

All this is to say: be aware of what system you are really running. Not that you need to stick to the rules as written explicity (gods know I don’t), but if you take the time to examine other rules systems, you might find actual, codified rules that support the way you already run your game. Now that I have firm examples from reading and working with Fate, I have a better idea of how to keep doing what I’ve been doing with players having narrative control, or malleable options in skill challenges. Every GM tweaks the rules to suit their style, but that tweaking shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Do some reading and see what else is out there. You might find that the game you run is not the game you think it is. And that’s a good thing.

Treating In-Game Relationships with Respect

I was reading through my RSS feed today when I came across this post over at More Than Dice. Go ahead, give it a read.

Done? Great. Let’s talk about why I found it interesting.

If you’ve been keeping up with my posts about the campaign I’m running with my home group (The Winds of Change), then you’ll know that one of the characters in my game had the potential for a relationship to start during the third session of the game. What made this event more interesting than most are the following facts:

1. The player in question just went with it. The entire thing happened out of the blue (as you might imagine things like this would in a gaming session), and that is made more interesting because of fact 2…

2. The character is male and is played be a female. This might not seem interesting at first glance. The twist that makes this worth taking note of is that the NPC who instigated the relationship is also male.

As noted in the article I linked to, real, well as real as in-game relationships can get, are not that common in tabletop RPGs. The common trope is the one found in the Dead Alewives D&D Video. The barmaid at the tavern becomes just one more notch on the bedpost. As well, I cannot think of a single instance that I have ever heard of of same-sex relationships being explored and role-played out during a gaming session. Well, let me rephrase. I have not heard of any same-sex relationship that have been explored and role-played in a game sessions that have been handled in a mature manner. Relationships like that are, more often than not, the subject of jokes between players or comments hidden half-behind hands.

In fact, when the possibility of the relationship came up, the rest of my group, including at least on person who is an advocate for the rights of same-sex couples, cracked jokes about the homosexual nature of the character. I wasn’t terribly surprised; I’ve made similar jokes myself. It’s a common-enough thing in many circles. What set this apart from the moments where inappropriate jokes are cracked was the possibility I saw that this could be something worth exploring. The PC and the NPC in question set a time for their first date and, in preparation for that, I firmly asked my players to leave their jokes at the door.

All of that happened in the third session. Due to schedule conflicts, both in-game and out-of-game, the date did not happen until the eighth session, which happened this past Sunday. I’m going to give a full recap of the session soon, but I wanted to give this section of it the attention it deserved.

One of the things that might make group pause at the idea of exploring in-game relationships is that amount of time that it can take. Think about it. How much time does a real-world relationship take? You date and write to each other, you talk on the phone, you meet respective families… it all takes time. And the thought of taking even a small amount of game time (which can be hard enough to come by) to explore the intricacies of relationships can be very off-putting. The good news is, I found what I think was a good way of handling that time.

Dates are, in most cases, a series of one-on-one events where two people can spend time getting to know one another while enjoying each other’s company. This means that, if a date is played out explicitly, it’s going to be one player and the GM, talking to one another. To get around that, I brought in the rest of the party. The other thing a date has is interactions between the couple and the people at whatever location they take the date. To that end, I asked my other played to take the roles of the NPCs that the couple would interact with.

Fortunately, my group are almost all actors, and they took to the idea like fish to water. The scene was a gala at the Sea Lord’s palace and as I introduced NPCs, I indicated to my players that they should improvise the parts of these NPCs. This kept everyone involved and kept the scene from becoming solely about the player whose character was on a date. As an added bonus, the players got to voice one of the villains that they were hunting, which was awesome.

Now, that takes care of the logistical side of things in terms of running that game. But why would we even want to explore depth that can happen in a relationship? For me, the answer was simple: to let my PCs have an opportunity to grow and change. That kind of change happened due to the date scene, and I could not have been happier with how it went. I was worried as to how to bring the date to  a meaningful ending. The player handed the ending to me on a silver platter when it was decided that the couple would walk home from the party.

During the entire date scene, I didn’t want to force any romantic interaction. This was partially because it would have seemed just that: forced. As well, the player in question is my sister and even though we both have enough acting experience for it to not be awkward, I didn’t want to push things. So, how to make that interaction seem natural?

I decided that they would get jumped by a mugger on the way home. It worked out perfectly. The PC got to be the hero and, overcome with emotion, his date looked him in the eyes and kissed him. From there, the NPC invited the PC back to his place. Then, we closed the scene. As the rest of the session went on, the PC that had been on the date was different. There was real character development that had taken place. Until the NPC had been saved from the mugger, the PC had been inwardly-focused. Following that, the PC acted with care towards the people around himself. It’s hard to describe in text, so just listen to the audio when I link to it.

Now, after all of the exposition about what happened, what can we take away from this tale?

1. Set up your expectations in advance

If one of your players wants to explore an in-game relationship, then make sure that all the players and the GM are up for it. One ill-timed joke can ruin what could be an awesome experience. If you determine that it’s not for your group, then abide by that decision. If you have a player that is really insistent about the in-game relationship but the group wants nothing to do with it, role-play it on the side.

2. Don’t force it.

Just like in a real relationship, you can’t make things be the way you want them to be all the time. Part of GMing is knowing when to time things. Use that timing to decide when to move things along and when to hold back. If you’re having trouble with it, break into metagame discussion and talk with your players about how things should go.

3. Do your best to include everyone

I don’t mean polygamy. You’ve got a whole group of people sitting around the table, so if you decide to explore an in-game relationship, don’t forget the rest of the players. Asking them to voice NPCs might not work for your group the way it did for mine, but you definitely need to make an effort to keep everyone involved.

My final point is this: the acronym we use for our hobby is RPG. Role-playing game. If you have a character that has a relationship as part of their role, then I encourage you to take the time and explore it. It can add a lot of depth to your PCs and to your game sessions in general.

Plus, us GMs need someone to kidnap for our plots.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, GMing, advice, relationships[/tags]

To a Few Players, but Really, For Everyone

To: My players
cc: Every player in the world
From: Your GM
Subject: Seriously, come on, guys

I love you guys, I do.  You make me laugh.  You bring my ideas to life.  Without you, none of these adventures I dream up would see anything but the inside of a notebook, or the inside of my head.  But GOD you can be frustrating.

First, roll your dice on the damn table in front of everyone.  If I see you roll your dice, then immediately pick them up again and pour over your character sheet, what do you think I am thinking?  For the love of all that is holy, stop fudging your rolls!  See, failing a roll is not the end of the world.  I will NEVER have you make a roll that says “Succeed, and you save the world, fail and it burns.”  Furthermore, you are disrespecting all the preparation I do for an adventure.  Even if I am improvising a lot of the session, I have drawn up some stats ahead of time, and balanced them for the group to make them challenging, but not certainly lethal, and to do that, I have carefully considered the probabilities of success and failure inherent in the system.  You don’t have to connect with every hit, or block every blow.  If you come through an adventure unscathed, either I have not done my job of creating a challenge for you, you have been lucky beyond reasonable expectations, or you have been cheating.  Stop it.  Furthermore, I might be field-testing a new system, trying to fine-tune it’s balance.  If you fudge even ONE roll, it throws off my entire sense of what I need to change and what’s about where it should be.  Don’t do that to me, please.

And please, please, be a man.  If you take damage, deal with it.  You are NOT invincible, and every warrior worth his salt has scars.  Don’t bitch when enemies attack you.  Don’t bitch if you are suffering penalties.  Don’t bitch if everything didn’t go as you planned.  Don’t sigh heavily or sulk.  Don’t say things like “not like it will matter,” or “well, I’m dead,” after making a roll.  It makes you sound like a whiny little kid.  You don’t know what I rolled, if you’re taking damage, or what is happening next.  Suck it up.

And be ready.  I might be running a game with 7-8 people in it, and with that many people, things get hard for me.  I have 8 people to keep track of, plus all the NPC’s, enemies, and so forth.  I can do it, I’m a highly trained professional, but you need to work with me.  When your turn comes around, be ready to tell me your action, roll your dice, and give me the results.  See, if every player takes about 30 seconds for a combat action, the round takes about 4 minutes, give or take.  If every player takes 2 minutes, the combat round takes 16 minutes.  Now, combat rounds represent a few in-game seconds, so let’s try to make them move along, please.  This isn’t rocket science, it’s basic arithmetic.  If you have questions, you may ask them, but the point is, don’t waste my, and your fellow players’ time.

And don’t destroy the mood.  See, I work hard to maintain the tone that I want out of the game.  That’s not to say there won’t be some comic relief in a serious game, but I swear, if you keep spouting one-liners during combat with untold horrors, or swaggering about cockily while in the depths of hell, I can’t be held accountable for my actions.  If I’m trying to cultivate a feel of desperation or panic, and you’re yelling things like “This is how we do it in my town!” there is very little I can do to bring the tone back down to where I want it.  I don’t want to invent sanity mechanics just to bring you under control, but I’m thinking about it.  I think long and hard about the feel I want my game to have, and I work to bring that to the players, so they can experience the atmosphere I had in my mind when I came up with this adventure.  I promise, if you stop and think for a second, it’s fairly obvious that an adventure that centers around the struggle for survival in a collapsing city is not the time for cocky catchphrases.  So shut up.

And one more thing.  Cut down on the tangents and cross-talk.  You’re welcome to enjoy yourselves, but when I am talking, or when another player is talking, discussing WoW in depth, or quoting the latest internet short is disruptive.  This ties in to the whole “ruining the mood” thing, and the whole “be ready” thing, and if there was only one thing I could get you to remember, it would be this.  You’re here to play a game, not talk about WoW or quote Monty Python.  If that isn’t why you’re here, go away.  I am serious.  If you cannot refrain from inane comments, don’t bother to show up.  So guard your tongues, and play the game.  I am pretty sure, nay, I am certain that you will enjoy a game more than you will enjoy 4 hours of quotes, memes, and MMO theory.

Mati out.

[tags]Role playing games, roleplaying games, advice[/tags]

DO’s and DON’T’s for Players and GM’s Alike

DO know the rules.  It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure the game runs smoothly.  If you are a player, know what is applicable to your character.  This goes double for a new system.  Make note of important source-book pages, or type the rules up and keep them with your character sheet, so you aren’t constantly wasting time delving into the books for the information you need.  If you are the GM, know the rules that apply to your players, and others besides, but don’t be afraid to alter rules that don’t make sense, or don’t suit the game.  The most important thing is, if you alter rules, be consistent.

DON’T argue.  If you are a player, and you feel the GM has made an error in a ruling, bring it up only once.  If the GM does not change his ruling, let it go and roll with it.  If you are the GM, don’t get drawn into an argument with your players.  Make a ruling, and stick to it.  Don’t allow yourself to get bullied into changing your ruling because of a player’s whining.

DO take notes.  Not pages and pages of them, but write down important names, places, and events.  It is difficult to get immersed in a game if a player is giving an impassioned speech to “What’s-his-nuts,” or the GM forgets the name of an NPC he invented on the spot.  Taking notes also eliminates questions like “Wait, what’s this place called again?” and phrases like, “That guy from that one time.”

DON’T be an attention-whore.  This covers a lot of kinds of behavior.  Don’t be a comedian.  This is not to say that you can’t say funny things, but hunting constantly for a punch line (which usually isn’t funny) makes you look like you can’t be happy unless people are looking at you and laughing.  Don’t be overbearing in your role-playing.  If you are in a leadership position, fine, but you don’t always have to have the last word, the witty comeback, the big speech, the loudest battle-cry, or all of the screen time.  Don’t discard people’s ideas because you didn’t think of them first.  If you are the GM, remember that this is their story as well as yours, and make sure to strike an enjoyable balance between a plot-driven and character-driven story.

DO know your group.  If you are the GM, understand that some systems and some settings just don’t appeal to everyone.  If you have a fairly rowdy group, running a gritty horror game will be frustrating for both GM and players.  Know how much your players like to lead and be led.  You are there to run a fun game, and you don’t do that by running something your players actively hate.  As a player, know your GM, and be ready to try something new.  If you’ve been playing D&D 3.5 for the past year, and the GM wants to run a short arc of Feng Shui for something different, make an honest effort to work with the style and atmosphere the GM is going for.  Odds are, you’ll enjoy yourselves once you get into the groove of a new game.

DO comment, and stay tuned for more articles.

[tags]Role Playing Games,Advice,rpg[/tags]

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