Putting on the gamer hat today – hold on.
So I ran a one-shot adventure of 7th Sea for my friends the other day. It was lots of fun, but it also drew attention to certain problems and challenges inherent in the one-shot format of role-playing games. See, unlike a session within a longer campaign, the one-shot has certain restrictions, chief among which is the fact that the entirety of the story needs to be completed within a single sitting. This, among other things, makes the art of the one-shot an aspect of game-mastering I have yet to…well…master.
Problem the First: Pacing
Telling a complete story with five of your friends fleshing it out and landing it all within a 5-hour window is a lot harder than it sounds. Try as I might, my one-shots always, always run long, and this is as much my fault as it is the players. See, I want to tell a complete and interesting story. I put in sub-plots and multiple, complex villains. In my head, it’s all paced like a screenplay – three acts, a couple action sequences, and one big finale. Should work fine, but it doesn’t. The players are always tugging off on various subplots, things always take longer than they should (I should learn to stop asking players to dictate what supplies they purchase – utter waste of time), and combat always takes too long. Despite my claims and assertions that the game will run long, somebody inevitably has to leave early, which is lame for them, lame for us, and can throw off the final scene.
Problem the Second: Rule Systems
Most games are not designed for one-shot play. They have complex rule systems that take time to teach/master, run combats at a slow pace, and basically delay the resolution of action for the sake of die-rolling. 7th Sea, as it happens, is chief among these: no duel takes less than an hour to resolve. Throw in players unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the system and you keep hitting delays – people look up rules, people hemming and hawing over their decisions, etc., etc.
Problem the Third: The Inevitable Bail-out
With these things, somebody who say they will come inevitably doesn’t show up. It happens all the time, and though I should plan for it, it usually screws things up for me. This happens because the person who always bails is the person upon whom I’ve pinned much of the plot and whose absence is the hardest to cover for. Also, this isn’t even accounting for the folks who show up late (which I’ve taken to be a given at this point), which only exacerbates the pacing issues discussed above.
Well, seeing how it’s rare that I manage to run a ‘perfect’ one-shot, I’m not certain I’m the guy to give you the answers here. I do, however, have a couple things I try to keep in mind when running such games. When I follow my own advice, things often go well.
Solution the First: Be Less Ambitious
Your players don’t really need Goodfellas or The Godfather when The Untouchables will do. Drop the sub-plots. Flatten out your villains. Cut the action to quick moments with only one major battle. Your players, like as not, will fill out the empty space with their own ideas. If you are good thinking on your feet, you’ll be able to give the plot the attention it needs while still exploring sub-plots and good ideas.
Solution the First, Sub A: Be Willing to Change!
One thing you can also do is, if the game is running long, drop certain conflicts you had originally counted on. Take out things, consolidate other things, and your players might never know the difference.
Solution the Second: Pick the Game Wisely!
Certain games are custom-made for fun one-shot adventures. Classic D&D fits this mold, as does Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui, and some others make characters or play a game with very simple character generation systems (Danger Patrol comes to mind). Don’t sit down with every Shadowrun sourcebook known to man and expect to make characters in an afternoon *and* play a game. Forget it.
Solution the Second, Sub A: Rules, Shmules!
In a one-shot, nobody should look anything up in a book ever. Who gives a crap if you get a rule wrong? Make up a serviceable house rule on the spot and move on. If you’re wrong, it hardly matters – you’re only playing this game this once, so there are no real repercussions of screwing something up. Likewise with some other things players get obsessed with: give the players whatever equipment they want with a minimum of fuss. Tell them they have enough money to do whatever sensible thing they’d like to do. Don’t ever ask them the question ‘is there anything else you’d like to do?’ when you want a scene to end. Just finish it. Tell them their brilliant plan works and move on with your life – you can’t spend fifty minutes role-playing out a shop scene. Waste of time.
Solution the Third: Pick Your Players
If you’re like me, you know a lot of people who like to play RPGs and are asking you about playing in them. Of this grand company, there are perhaps only 3-5 who you can rely upon to appear when they say they will. These are the people you game with. Those other folks are great, and by all means invite them, but don’t make them central to the game. That may sound harsh, but hey, if they have a habit of never answering their phone and being perpetually forty-five minutes late, it’s on them, not you. I’m an adult and so are they. If they want to play games with me, they have to demonstrate that they want to play games with me. This is typically demonstrated by showing up on time and being good at communicating with others. This, by the by, is the rule I am absolutely the worst at obeying myself. Ah well.
So, there you have it – a rough and ready guide to a single night’s geekery. Hopefully it’s helpful! Thanks for reading!
A couple years ago, whilst I was still hashing out a novel set in Alandar, I decided to run an RPG set in the world. I adapted Wick’s Roll-and-Keep system, got a bunch of my friends to play, and so on (the focus of this post isn’t really on those particulars). Before the game began, I had my players vote on what kind of storyline wanted to deal with most in the campaign. The categories were ‘Exploration’, ‘Intrigue’, ‘Romance’, and ‘Military’ and each player had 100 points to distribute. When the dust settled, the party had voted overwhelmingly for Intrigue and Military while Romance came in third. Almost nobody wanted to explore.
Now, one of the things I knew was going to be essential if I was to run a campaign with a significant military element: I needed a way to adjudicate large battles that would both allow for the players to have control (more or less) over the actions of their army while simultaneously allowing for individual acts of heroism. Now, as it happens, the 7th Sea core rules (Roll and Keep system, Wick) had a system for running mass combat, but it didn’t work too well for me. Accordingly, I do what I almost always do with the games I run: I fiddled with it to no end.
The basic premise of the old 7th Sea system was that each player would pick their level of engagement in the battle (whether they were in the thick of things or way back in the reserves) and they would roll on a table that would determine if they had heroic opportunities or not. These opportunities were various things like ‘claim the enemy banner’ or ‘duel the enemy general’ or some such and they could add to your reputation, get you wounded, and help tip the battle this way and that. The battle itself was essentially decided by a dice off between generals. If you won three rolls in a row, you won the battle.
Now, I’m a fan of strategy games, military history, and military strategy in general, and this system left me a bit flat. The battles themselves were just window-dressing for heroic derring-do and little more. Now, this works great in a swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, where the nitty-gritty of strategy isn’t really part of the game. It wasn’t going to work in my Alandar campaign, where I had two and later three characters who were heavily involved in military campaigns. So, here’s what I changed:
Armies Are Characters
I made the armies themselves (or, more specifically, the divisions or regiments of those armies) into ‘characters,’ much like ships or vehicles. They had a set of characteristics to adjudicate their armaments, morale, mobility, discipline, and training. This changed the battle from something abstract to something more concrete and, since the system lent itself to duels, battles simply became duels between ‘characters’ comprised of tons of NPCs. I gave everybody sets of maneuvers they could use (advance, charge, flank, shoot, envelop, hold, withdraw, etc.), crafted specific advantages armies would have over each other, and established a rudimentary system for game balance. I will not claim it is perfect, but it worked well enough.
Battles Are Session-long Events
A major battle in a war is not a simple affair. Before the armies even take the field, there is weeks of skirmishing, supply lines to maintain, ground to scout out, enemy movements to spy on, and (in the case of Alandar) ritual magic to decide upon. I could get every player more-or-less involved with the planning and execution of these battles, even if they weren’t warriors, per se. The battles themselves would go on for a long time and, within them, there would be multiple different opportunities for individual heroism, periods of dialogue, and even skullduggery that could be committed against each other.
It’s All About Morale
In war, and particularly in pre-modern war, the plan isn’t really to kill all the enemy combatants, as that rarely is achievable or happens. The plan is to break the enemy army’s morale; if they no longer wish to fight, the war is over. Morale was sapped by casualties; the longer a battle went on, the more morale was sapped on both sides. There were occasions during the campaign when one side or the other would sound a retreat long before their forces broke, knowing that having a cohesive army was better than risking losing the whole thing on a gamble. Winning battles and engagements enhanced morale, but not by so much that you could willy-nilly charge your guys at that fortified position and expect to come out scott free (unless you were a particularly inspirational leader, that is). The PCs who were the generals of the armies in use had to be very careful keeping their army together, which in and of itself was a campaign element and recurring challenge.
The result of this system was, to my eyes, quite successful. My friends in the campaign still talk about the Charge of Atrisia against the 4th Kalsaari Heavy Legion, they still grin at the Sack of Tasis and shudder over the bloody fields of Calassa. Their characters became legendary figures in the history of the world and the war they fought in – The Illini Wars – I’ve made an integral part of Alandarian modern history. The Treaty they negotiated to end the war with the Kalsaaris was a two-session long arc in which there was more back-stabbing, political plotting, and nerve-wracking negotiations than at almost any other time in the campaign. I showed my players a map – a map they had bled and worked and even died over for the past 5-6 months of gaming – and told them to list their demands. I countered, we haggled, and in the end they negotiated a treaty they hated but that was the best they could do. They’d won against all odds, and I like to think I gave them the closest thing to being a Napoleon I could.
In the end, what I learned was that running a military campaign requires players who want to be in a military campaign, just like anything else. If you have players who want that kind of game and you work hard to give it to them, some pretty crazy stuff can happen.
The 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 was an exceptional thing. It produced a greater concentration of fantastic characters than any other campaign I’ve run and, to some extent, forged the gaming group I still play with today. This campaign featured Helmut Dauben Kohb, the statistically improbable, unkillable Eisen, as well as Lord Edward, the shamelessly hilarious rake. But they weren’t alone by any means. I have yet to tell you about the Vesten.
The first thing that is amazing about the Vesten is that it was, in reality, two separate characters. The first was named Ruin, played by my friend Bobby, who was a towering viking goliath of the Vesten people, a reincarnation of a hero of legend named Valkar, who was fated to slay the Great Wyrm. The second was his friend and countryman, Galdar (played by my buddy DJ), a powerful rune-mage and a man who, at various points in his life, was priest, warrior, pirate, and merchant. The two of them–both powerful, savage northmen who struck down all who opposed them–managed, unintentionally, to find themselves doing things in different places at different times. The common people of Theah could not divorce the two (how many blonde barbarians could be running around destroying Montaigne ships or crushing Vodacce merchant fleets at the same time, really?) and so rolled them into one immortal folk hero/terror called, simply, the Vesten.
Both characters were very different from one another. Ruin was garrulous, reckless, guileless, and without fear. Galdar was vengeful, brooding, careful, and stern. Ruin was a wrestler; Galdar was a boxer and pistollier. Ruin became the master of his own school of hand-to-hand combat, Galdar became a living embodiment of the Rune of Fury and was lightning incarnate. Both of them tread the line between myth and reality: Ruin wrestled with a grendel and answered the riddles of a dragon (one of the most tense sessions ever, incidentally: no rolling, just me asking riddles and Bobby having to answer them correctly or see his character plunged into a fiery abyss). Galdar fought with Krieg, the Vesten God of War, and turned down his proposals and, at the conclusion of the campaign, sacrificed himself to become a five-hundred foot pillar of lightning and storm clouds to destroy the Ultimate Evil. Their battles and their choices built reputations for their characters that topped those of even the most famous heroes and villains of the game setting. They had a little race: the player who had the highest reputation at the end of the campaign would ‘win’. It was a close thing–they had reputations of 135 and 130 or so. To put this in perspective, few characters manage to top 50, even in a long standing campaign. When they took action, the world shook.
This is, ultimately, what made them such amazing characters: Bobby and DJ’s actions through their characters actually changed the campaign setting. They diverted the paths of nations, they destroyed long-standing terrors, and uncovered new knowledge and new ideas to change what the world would become. What is exceptional about this is that I didn’t make them do it. They had the choice to take the easier path–to be, like most RPG characters, drifters in the stream of the world–but they refused. They wanted their characters to change the world, and they did.
Managing this as a GM, you can imagine, was challenging. I had to loosen the reins a bit, let them do what they wanted, and allow the plot to form itself in reaction to their decisions. It forced me to let go of my preconceived notions of what the story ‘was supposed to be’ and let it become something else equally awesome. I confess to trying to rein them in from time to time (if for no other reason than to let the other players step up to the plate more often), but overall I think I allowed them a lot of freedom and the campaign was better for it. When Galdar (or one of his aliases–Galdarus or Gillis) wanted the Vendel to build him a great warship, they did. It was the best damned warship in the world, and they used it, dammit. Did it break the campaign? No–it changed it. Change is not bad, or at least not necessarily so. Losing control as a GM doesn’t always mean ruining your campaign. Sometimes, with the right players, it means making the campaign one your players will be talking about for years and years to come.
Everybody likes to laugh in an RPG, but so few players are willing to make their characters comic relief. Everybody is usually in some kind of contest to be the coolest, toughest, scariest, or most impressive. Not so my friend, Joe. In the very same 7th Sea Campaign that featured the stalwart and inexorable Helmut Dauben Kohb, Joe played Avalonian (i.e. English) expatriate ‘Lord’ Edward du Charouse, who was actually a Marquis, and that only by marriage to the lovely Michelle du Charouse, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Montaigne (i.e. France). This character was, hands down, the most ridiculous, hilarious, and wonderfully fun character I’ve probably ever had in a game. Let me tell you why:
Joe built his entire character around three things: (1) A Romance background with Michelle, the stereotypically fickle and spoiled Montaigne noblewoman, (2) the Lecherous flaw, meaning Lord Edward was pretty much constantly trying to score with any attractive woman he saw, and (3) the Dangerous Beauty advantage, meaning women were drawn to him like flies. Throw in the fact that he was an arrogant fop, a blissfully ignorant dilettante, and a pretty talented duelist, and this resulted in an absolutely enormous amount of trouble that followed Edward around, everywhere he went.
You see, Edward cheated on Michelle constantly. With anything. All the time. He’d have relationships or attempted relationships going with every single young female NPC in the game at the same time. He wasn’t clever about it, either. He once, for instance, invited two women for a romantic evening walk in the gardens of a Vodacce prince at the same time and spent the whole scene finding excuses to leave one alone, scale a wall, and return to the other one. One of these women was a deadly swordswoman and bodyguard to the archvillain Villanova. The whole affair did not end well.
Furthermore, anytime Edward was caught cheating or even paying attention to another woman, Michelle would throw him out of their château. Michelle was the one with all the money, all the prestige, and all the influence; without her, Edward couldn’t possibly live to his standards. So, regularly, we would embark upon epic plots to regain Michelle’s love, punctuated by ridiculous side-adventures, such as vows made in court that he could ‘fence a bear’ (didn’t go well), that he was on ‘a secret mission from the Musketeers’ (he never was), or other similar egocentric activities. I don’t think we ever laughed harder in a game, my friends and I.
How Edward Dealt With His Problems
The best part about Lord Edward was Joe’s unflinching willingness to get him into massive amounts of trouble all the time, for any reason. You know how most players spend all their time trying to avoid complications, planning their assaults on the enemy castle with painstaking detail and with buckets of backup plans? Not Edward. He just waltzed right in, assuming his pretty smile and his money and, failing that, his skill with a blade would make it all work out. It regularly blew up in his face, got him and the rest of the party in huge amounts of trouble, and the adventures that followed with them trying to get out of that trouble were simply priceless.
There was this one time that the players got their hands on a small ship that had its ballast replaced with gold bars. There was so much gold there, they could have bought entire kingdoms with it. This, everyone knew, was the tip of the iceberg of some sinister plot that the PCs would spend the rest of the campaign unravelling. They knew whoever’s gold this was wouldn’t hesitate to kill them all if they were discovered with it. So, when they sailed into port, everyone agreed that they were going to keep the gold secret.
So, when most of the party left and put Edward in charge of the gold, what did he do? He grabbed a whole gold brick, walked to the nearest brothel, threw the gold down on the floor and said ‘there’s more where that came from, ladies!’ When the players got back, their ‘secret’ ship had become a party boat, with Lord Edward engaged in an orgy with half the whores in port, throwing gold around like it was water. Absolutely hilarious and it got them in incredible amounts of trouble. The Vesten rune mage with them also blew Edward out the back of the boat with a lightning bolt. Good times.
I won’t even get into the time that he, during the game’s version of the French Revolution, founded ‘Lord Edward’s Home for Wayward Women (No Ugly Chicks).’ That didn’t end well, either.
Nevertheless, Edward remained charming and likeable, even if he was creepy and arrogant and chauvinistic. He managed this by always realizing how wrong he had been and making it up to those he cared about, often at great physical risk to himself. Still, for all his attempts to go the straight and narrow, everybody knew he would fall again, do something foolish, and the ridiculous swashbuckling fun would begin again. All this, by the way, as a result of a player, Joe, who knew that fun in an RPG isn’t about avoiding trouble, it’s about going out there and finding it, even if you need to make it up yourself.
Play like Lord Edward everybody. Your games will be better for it.
So, a week or two ago I mentioned I should tell you folks about Helmut. Now seems as good a time as any.
Helmut was a character in a 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 or so (give or take–don’t remember exactly). He was a landless Eisen (German) knight with a stain of honor on his family, a grim demeanor, and a tendency to be a little *too* patient (he had the ‘Indecisive’ flaw). He was played originally by my friend Mike and then later by my other friend Will after Mike moved to San Francisco (the character was too integrated into the plot to simply delete at that point).
Helmut was also a member of the ultra-secret Kreuzritter organization and a warrior of the Eisenfaust style, which involved a broadsword paired with an armored gauntlet. The style emphasized defense while waiting for an opponent to make a mistake, and then raining down horrible misery upon them with one massive swing. When Mike first made the character, we had no idea the Eisenfaust school either (A) actually worked as described or that (B) its patient style would dictate Helmut’s character from then on.
The first time Helmut ever used Eisenfaust as intended was in a duel against a man who saw Helmut’s family as cowards. This guy was almost Helmut’s mirror image and the battle was brutal. In 7th Sea, you can take as many Dramatic Wounds as double your Resolve before being rendered helpless. Helmut took 4 in the first two rounds of combat…and then proceeded to score 6 unanswered wounds to knock his opponent out. It was amazing–we hooped and hollered and cheered at Mike’s good fortune and at the awesome comeback. What we didn’t realize at the time was this: This was not a fluke.
Impossibly, and beyond all probably likelihood, Helmut was quite literally invincible. The funny part was that he always, always got his ass kicked in the opening rounds of a fight. If he had 8 wounds to deal with, he’d get 4 (i.e. become crippled) without doing much in return. Then, however, was when Helmut got serious. That was then the magic happened.
Sorely injured, often disarmed, flat on his back, exhausted, broken, battered, covered in grime, looking up through half-closed eyes at his foes celebrating over him, Helmut would slowly pull himself to his feet.
That was when I’d cue up this song.
We then sat and watched Helmut kick more ass while half-dead than he ever did while fully alive. He struck down an evil master swordsman and sorcerer after being tortured for months on end; he wrestled a giant bear-demon on the bottom of raging river (while drowning, mind you) and strangled it to death with one good hand; he’s get shot with an entire squadron of muskets only to grimly advance after the volley and slaughter every one of the bastards as they ran. There was, as far as we could tell, literally no limit to what Helmut could do if you gave him time. He was like a glacier–shoot him, stab him, run him down, but it didn’t matter. He was coming for you, and there was no escape.
What made the whole thing even stranger is that it was in no way tied to any one person’s luck–Mike and Will had the same luck with the guy; people who subbed in playing him from time to time would report the same phenomenon. Bad luck until crippled; incredible luck afterwards. The guy was magic.
Gradually, his character morphed from a young, serious, stalwart man to a grim, scarred, terrifying specter of death. His mysterious Kreuzritter training came more to light as we went along; he’d disappear at odd times, kept his own counsel, and you could never quite tell if he was friend or foe. He was the one guy nobody in that campaign wanted to mess with. His arch nemesis? The villain of the campaign–Gavin Fell, assassin and traitor to the Kreuzritter. Fell was quicksilver where Helmut was lodestone–he fought with knives, blazing fast and deadly accurate, cutting a man to death with dozens of blows before you could ready your defenses. Helmut, though, in the end, fought Fell on a narrow bridge over a bottomless chasm and took those knife cuts over and over and over, nearly bleeding out. Then, when he was on his knees, his throat cut, crippled and near death, he stood up.
Then we played the song; then we watched the magic.
When people ask why I play RPGs and wonder how I can get so excited about the things that happen, Helmut is who I think of. Yeah, he wasn’t real, but he felt real–every bit as real, anyway, as any character in any book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen. He was awesome, no bones about it. He wasn’t the only one, by any means–there have been others. Perhaps I’ll tell you about them, too (like Ruin or Galdar, Hool and Lord Edward, Finn Cadogan, Carlo diCarlo, or the Crew of the USS Lionheart), but I wanted to start with Helmut–the most badass character I’ve ever seen.