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My Favorite PCs: Kenny “Cowboy” Garret

Cowboy must be imagined as being played by this man.

Cowboy must be imagined as being played by this man.

Sometimes, as a GM, people come to you with a character concept that has you scratching your head. Some guy says “Hey, can I play a character who’s a priest, but he’s also a were-snake and is on the run from the mob?” You want to tell them how silly that sounds to you, because you can’t really wrap your head around the idea of a snake/priest/mobster nor are you certain how on earth you’ll work such a character into your campaign and wish they’d just pick something normal and easy to follow. The thing is, though, that you shouldn’t. Well, almost never, anyway (I did have somebody want to play a character that, given the setting, all the other characters would be morally and legally obligated to kill – I talked them out of it). Let me take a second here and tell you why you should always try to say yes, though. Let me tell you about Cowboy.

Cowboy was (and arguably is – the campaign is just on an extended break) played by my friend Will in a Shadowrun campaign set in Hong Kong. He is a vampire. He is a race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong. He is Texas-born race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong.

Yeah, I know. This is a edge-of-setting character archetype from an out-of-setting locale doing a job that the character archetype isn’t technically suited to do. It sounded…odd. I wondered whether he might not just be happier if he played a physical adept with a focus in car driving. But no – Will wanted to play this character. Sticking to my mantra, I said yes.

Cut to 3 missions later. We’ve already established that Cowboy can turn gaseous but, when he does so, he leaves his clothes behind. All the other PCs at this point have seen Cowboy naked, which is amusing enough, but nobody knows he’s a vampire (as they are illegal persons in Hong Kong and could be murdered for a sizeable bounty). The rest of the team, at this moment, is involved in a dangerous manhunt in Kowloon Walled City, trying to find a man before the HKPD finds him, all while dodging ghouls, gangers, evil spirits, and Knight Errant response teams.

Cowboy and ork grifter Boris are holed up in a building nearby, watching the police perimeter. They notice that the cops are moving out, meaning they’ve got a fix on the target, which means the team is in trouble. The team is out of radio contact and Boris is currently getting high off novacoke, so Cowboy takes matters into his own hands. He goes gaseous, leaving his clothes behind, sneaks across the street, and infiltrates a police cruiser. He then goes corporeal again, starts up the car and, after swinging by to pick up a very-high Boris, proceeds to lead half the Hong Kong Police department on a crazy chase through the alleys and trash-strewn streets of Hong Kong’s meanest slums. He did this while naked, while a very high Boris screamed bloody murder in the seat next to him, and while playing country western music at top volume. The car lost mirrors, had a fender blown off, had bullets put through the windshield. It was magnificent!

Then, in the grandest of finales, Cowboy tried to make it into a mall parking structure before a Thunderbird got a lock on their cruiser with their assault cannon – he failed. The car disintegrated in a ball of fire and high-velocity slugs, sending Cowboy across the pavement at high speed, making a road-pizza of him. Boris, through expenditure of every ounce of luck he had, managed to survive by skipping across the reflecting pool before the mall and smashing through a plate-glass window.

Cowboy? Well, he’s a vampire, son! He just healed himself, stood up, and walked home. All buck naked, all while whistling “Thunder Road.” Good times.

So, yeah – if a player comes to you with something bonkers, say yes. Variety is the spice of life.

The Breaking of Fellowship

They all have to go their separate ways eventually, right?

They all have to go their separate ways eventually, right?

The truism is this: all good things must come to an end. We like to think that our current happiness or contentment is permanent, but nothing is permanent. Friends move away, loved ones die, prosperity fades, possessions are destroyed, philosophies are undermined – everything upon which we often base our idea of happiness is transient. Gaming, as it happens, is no different.

I organize my gaming life into several epochs. First was Junior High through High School, known as the D&D Epoch. I ran 5 campaigns; I played in 5-6 or so, plus innumerable one-shots and campaigns that never got out of the first session. It was mostly the same 6 people. We lost a few along the way, gained a few. Then college drew us to different states and we moved on to ‘real life.’ I looked back on those days while in college, feeling like I hadn’t yet fully capitalized upon what RPGs could do and wishing I could try again.

Then came the Pelham Epoch. Some friends of mine – all gamers and nerds – moved to this apartment in Arlington that became our gaming Mecca. I ran 5 campaigns there and played in 2-3, plus again the innumerable one-shots. This was my gilded age of gaming – a bunch of unmarried adults with no kids and few obligations getting together every week for tons and tons of geekery. It seemed like it would last forever. Of course it didn’t – people moved away, many of us got married, many of our jobs became more and more intrusive into our lives. Some of us just tired of gaming altogether and pulled back their involvement. The Fellowship was broken, to borrow Tolkien’s idiom.

What followed is the current epoch, which I have taken to calling the Diaspora. The once great gaming group is scattered and occupied with other things. Games are happening, but not all in the same place and often without our collective awareness. I know there’s 1-2 campaigns going on that I’m not involved in, but unlike in the Pelham days, I know nothing about them. I don’t hear the stories. I don’t pass through the room while the fun is happening. I never spectate. I’ve run 6 campaigns in this era and played in 1. Lots of one-shots, too. The gaming is as fun as it ever was, but rarer and more constrained by time and distance. Gaming has drifted down the priority list for most, coming in a distant third or fourth behind things like family, work, and other ‘grown-up’ activities.

This epoch, also, is moving towards its end, I feel. I don’t know what the change will be, but it’s in the wind. I grow frustrated with how difficult it is to arrange a game, with how hard I need to work to get my friends in one room again. It spoils a fair amount of the fun for me. I feel like some kind of weirdo, bugging people who don’t really care anymore to play games they pretend to like in order to assuage my ego or something. I can’t emphasize how much I hate that feeling. It makes me angry sometimes, and none of this should involve anger, ever.

So, where is all this going? Well, I could talk about gaming-as-metaphor for life, but that seems grandiose. Let me just say this: enjoy the moment, be there for your friends now.  They may always be your friends, but they won’t always be sitting in your living room eating popcorn while slaying a dragon. Nothing lasts forever.

Narrative Boardgaming and Me

A lot of my friends are pretty serious board-gamers. They own more board-games than they do individual dinner plates or even, possibly, individual pieces of flatware. Some own so many board games that it is extremely unlikely they will ever manage to play them all. They keep buying more, though.

Zzzzzzzz...huh? What? Oh, yeah, I buy coffee or something. Whatever.

Zzzzzzzz…huh? What? Oh, yeah, I buy coffee or something. Whatever.

While I do like games and will usually try any game once, I’m discovering that my tolerance of such games is somewhat limited the more and more game nights I attend and the wider variety of games I play. I find I get bored easily with a lot of games and, while I can appreciate the strategy involved and often admire the elegance of the rule design, the actual act of playing the game generates the same feeling I get while doing my taxes.

I’ve been trying to isolate my criteria for what makes a good board game, and I’m finding it’s surprisingly difficult. As a basic rule, I despise almost any game that makes the acquisition and management of resources a major gameplay component – Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Monopoly, and their relatives. Then again, I really enjoy Illuminati and Innovation, which aren’t too far off such resource management games, so that’s not quite the rule involved. Likewise, while I find deck-building games to be more frustrating than interesting (every game of Dominion I’ve ever played has wound up being a brief, perplexing, and disinteresting experience), I think Thunderstone sounds like a lot of fun. Furthermore, while I no longer have the attention span or endurance to tolerate massive strategy games like Axis and Allies (and its billion spin-offs), I love History of the World and will play Diplomacy anytime someone suggests it. I don’t like Risk, but I do like Risk: Legacy.

I believe I’m beginning to figure the metric out, at any rate. I’ve decided that, while the rules of the game are important, what is really important to me is whether or not the concept behind the game is fun. The prospect of building tracks across North America (Ticket to Ride) sounds unutterably dull to the point where I have no desire whatsoever to play the game unless I’m in a room full of people who want to play and I have nothing else to do. On the other hand, the prospect of being a corrupt politician in a small banana republic and attempting to overthrow El Presidente (Junta) sounds like hilarious fun, so I’ll play that no matter how tedious the rule set is. I’m in the game, ultimately, because it tickles my imagination somehow. I feel emotionally invested in the outcome, even if that outcome is completely random (Betrayal at House on the Hill) or takes hours and hours to finally realize (Robo Rally). The game has to make me laugh or encourage me to talk in a funny voice. If I can look at the board and say “that looks so cool,” I’m in, no matter how poorly the rules are laid out or how predictable the outcome ends up being (Monsters Menace America). On the other hand, a bunch of cardboard chits that explain to me how I’m the richest stock broker in Manhattan is not going to get me going, no matter how innovative and interesting the rules mechanics get.

This, ultimately, is probably due to my obsession with story. I am a storyteller; it’s just about the best thing I do and pretty much the only thing I want to do. Everything to me is a story and, if the story is boring, I’m no longer invested. This goes for almost everything in my life, but especially so for the games I play. This part of the main reason I’ve been playing Warhammer 40K for as long as I have, for all the foibles and flaws in their rule set: I love the world, I dig the story, and I like telling stories every time I play the game. That’s why I plunk down hundreds of dollars a year and spend countless hours building and painting miniatures – it tickles my narrative-bone. Sure the investment is pretty major, but the payoff far exceeds anything that can be accomplished on a Risk gameboard. Risk, meanwhile, has a much more interesting and tangible narrative edge than Fluxx, which, while mildly amusing, is unlikely to get me really invested in play as it is so abstract as to be no more interesting than, say, Crazy Eights or Uno.

So, if you’re trying to peddle a game to me wherein I get to grow crops and sell them in town for horseshoes, call somebody else. Let me know when the barbarians or zombies or zombie-barbarians show up and then I’ll be there with bells on.

The Perils of the One-Shot

Putting on the gamer hat today – hold on.

resized_game_mastersSo 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.

The Problems

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.

The Solutions?

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.

Yeah...ummmm...no.

Yeah…ummmm…no.

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!

The Ten Commandments of Gamemastering

photo-full

Yes, I am a giant geek. Deal.

I’ve been running role playing games for my friends for about 22 years or so at this point. I have created and run over a dozen campaigns and innumerable one-shot adventures. I’ve played RPGs with rank newbies and grizzled veterans and everybody in-between. I’ve lost count of the number of game-systems knocking around in my head (and, indeed, as any of my long-time players can attest, I sometimes get them all tangled up together.). What I lay out here are the strictures by which I try to run what I consider to be a good game. They may work for you or not; all I’m expressing is my experience. I might also add that I don’t always live up to these commandments myself, as much as I try. When they all work, though, something golden is bound to happen.

 

#1: Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Game Too Seriously

Yes, I realize you spent hours and hours prepping this adventure. Yes, I know your players are being paranoid weirdoes and metagaming this thing to hell and back. You are absolutely right that your players aren’t taking the Black Dragon of Immortal Dread seriously. I get it. Your players are being dicks. Now, pay attention: Get Over Yourself. Repeat back to me: This is a game. It is not all that important. I will not pout or complain or storm off or exact my vengeance on my friends in the form of falling rocks. The idea in an RPG, hell, the idea in every single game, is for people to have fun. Are your friends having fun? Yes? Then shut up. Roll with it. Improvise.

#2: Thou Shalt Clearly Explain The Game’s Goals

If these dudes show up to your 'historically accurate barbarian campaign', it's your own damned fault.

If these dudes show up to your ‘historically accurate barbarian campaign’, it’s your own damned fault.

The easiest way for players to ‘ruin’ your game (and please keep in mind that RPGs can’t actually be ruined if your go with it) is for them to have no idea what you want out of the game. Your fun is every bit as important as their fun and, if they are your friends, they should care about that. So explain to them in clear terms what you want the game to be. “This is a dark, gritty crime thriller game set in a dystopian future” or “This is a horror game where you guys are monster slayers” or “This game is supposed to be high adventure space opera with laser beams and talking robots and everything.”

This gives your players the choice: do you want to play this game that I have described, or do you not? If they don’t, no harm/no foul. If they do, they should be willing to buy into the whole thing. If you and the players work together, things will get awesome fast. If you and the players aren’t on the same page, it isn’t going to work.

 

#3: Thou Shalt Hold Story Above All Else

RPGs are not strategy games. They aren’t card games. They are Role Playing Games, which means people play roles (characters) and you, as Gamemaster, put them in situations where they can play those roles. They are, in essence, highly collaborative storytelling games. As such, the story needs to get top billing. It isn’t just that the players are doing a certain thing, there needs to be some understanding of why they are doing this thing and what the stakes are and what happens next if they succeed and so on and so forth. Now, this doesn’t mean a fair amount of strategy can’t be involved (particularly if the game’s concept calls for it), but any RPG that degenerates to mere dice rolling and accounting is going to be dull. Victory is far more sweet when it means something, and it won’t mean anything without a story attached to it.

Yes, even the dwarf samurai.

Yes, even the dwarf samurai.

#4: Thou Shalt Find Every Player Character Cool

Yes, all of them. Even the ones that are very much not cool, like the pacifist half-orc accountant or that one guy who wants to play a wandering poet named Dweeber who keeps a dead fairy in a pouch in hopes it will produce pixie dust someday. It doesn’t matter if the player has come up with a character you think is the dumbest, least interesting, least appropriate or useful character ever devised by man, it is your requirement, as GM, to love him and try and make him look cool.

Why is this your job? Because the GM is supposed to make the adventure fun, and a player who finds his character useless and ignored (no matter how rightly) isn’t going to have much fun. Now, making them work may take some doing here, but try and figure out what circumstances will make that character shine and make a point to give them that opportunity as often as is feasible within the bounds of the story. Again, if you’re obeying Commandment #2, ideally this shouldn’t be much of a problem very often, but stranger stuff can happen. Anyway, if somebody shows up to the table with a stupid character, you need to forget all about that character’s stupidity and work your ass off to make them awesome. The game will be much better off for it, trust me.

 

#5: Thou Shalt Improvise

You cannot plan for everything the players are going to want to do. There are two solutions to this problem: First, you can just not let them do things that don’t fit inside your plans (this is called ‘railroading’) or, second, you can just say “Yes, and…”

“Yes, and” is an improv term, and it is an important one. It means you agree to what the players want, and you use this new input on their part to make more interesting and fun things happen. This requires you, as a GM, to think on your feet a lot, but that’s okay – you should prep with the possibility of improvisation in mind. When I design adventures, I typically devise a series of NPCs the players will or may interact with and then devise the plots these NPCs have going on their own. As the PCs bump into each of these NPCs, this creates a story that spreads throughout the little universe I’ve created. If I need to create new elements, I do so, and they continue to influence the setting of the game, creating more conflict, more story, and more fun stuff. It really works, and it beats the hell out of the whole ‘you can’t do that’ angle.

 

They will do this for six hours straight. Trust me.

They will do this for six hours straight. Trust me.

#6: Thou Shalt Keep It Moving

Sometimes, players will start planning something (a raid on a castle, a dungeon exploration, an elaborate jail break), and then they will never stop. Not ever. They will spend hours and hours and hours sitting around and arguing with each other and then, when they finally get down to doing something, it’s already midnight and everybody needs to go home.

You job, as GM, is to cut that shit out. This is a really hard one, believe me, since a lot of players have an intrinsic distrust of you (which ought to be wildly misplaced, I might add) and will look suspiciously on any attempt by you to hasten along their planning process. You need to stop them, though, or they will miss the actual fun of the game, which is the execution of their plans. Let them plan, by all means, but let’s keep it down to 2 hours or so, tops. Be willing to fudge details in their favor, if you must, but keep it moving. As interesting as their plans are in the first fifteen minutes, by hour three they are usually just repeating themselves and getting nowhere. Moderate their discussions. Give them suggestions that would naturally occur to their characters. Ask questions that will direct them towards a concrete plan.

This map should be viewed as a 'suggestion' or a flavor piece, not the law.

This map should be viewed as a ‘suggestion’ or a flavor piece, not the law.

#7: Thou Shalt Not Obsess Over Minutiae

A lot of games lend themselves to the endless discussion of minor details. Games like Shadowrun, for instance, which has elaborate rules for every piece of gear in the game plus lifestyle costs, exchange rates, and so on and so forth. Old Dungeons and Dragons had it’s famed Encumbrance tables, Riddle of Steel has its half dozen interlocking wound tables, and so on and so forth. Maps like the one to the right here are as common as goblins.

Now, these things certainly have their place in the game, but there comes a point when you need to let it go. Screw up a rule? Whatever – move on. Forget that object X actually costs 30% more than you quoted? Nobody cares – move on. Are the PCs stuck in the middle of a labyrinth with no map and no conceivable way of escaping without said map? Too bad – let them find another way. Keep it moving.

This commandment has a lot to do with commandments 5 and 6, granted, and is also related to the all important commandment 2, but it is unique in the sense that it pervades every single part of the game, from character creation through the doling out of XP rewards. The rules – the book – is always the least important part of any game I run. I follow the rules, sure, but I never let those rules dictate what happens in the game. Why? Well, because just following the rules means the PCs can lose. They can all die. The game can end in misery and disappointment simply because your players were (perhaps accurately) too stupid to save their own hides. That’s not okay; that’s no fun. Don’t let the fine print ruin the bold sweeps of a campaign.

Don't let PCs' plans ruin opportunities for this moment.

Don’t let PCs’ plans ruin opportunities for this moment.

#8: Thou Shalt Make Things Dangerous and Create Tension

90% of players in the universe are danger averse. They want their dungeon crawl to go perfectly according to plan, they want all of their stuff to work exactly when it’s supposed to, and they don’t want their character to be injured.

Fuck that noise.

Stories where everything goes according to plan and nothing goes wrong are BORING. They aren’t half as much fun as when things go pear-shaped halfway through and everybody has to scramble to pull off a suddenly-improbable victory. Those are the games that players talk about for years afterwards. Those are the campaigns that set the standard for every campaign you ever run again. You want there to be danger, since danger creates tension, and tension is fun. Blow stuff up. Have something go wrong. Make the PCs work for their victory, since then (and only then) will the victory be sweet.

There are, of course, limits to this (consider commandment 4), but as a GM you should always seek to make things just difficult enough that plan A is by no means assured of success and plan B is likely to be shot to hell, too. This may sound mean, but if you give your PCs the opportunities to succeed, then everything will be fine.

Don't be stingy, now.

Don’t be stingy, now.

#9: Thou Shalt Be Generous

If something is not central to the story of an adventure and the players want it, let them have it. If a player creates a long-lost relative who lives in town and there isn’t some reason to forbid it, let it go. If a player wants his PC to be crown prince to a kingdom, tell him it’s okay. If a PC has her back against the wall and doom settling over her from all sides and begs for one chance to make it out alive, give it to her. You are not the PCs enemy. Let me repeat that:

YOU ARE NOT THE PCs’ ENEMY!

You are the facilitator of their grand adventure and attempt at glory, not their direct adversary. You want to make this fun, not arduous or frustrating. If you ‘win’ and all the PCs are dead and the game is over, you have failed as a GM (unless, via Commandment #2, you set this up for them as a possibility). Don’t be a jerk. This isn’t a power trip, or at least it shouldn’t be.

#10: Have Fun

Basic rule of existence: if you are having fun, people around you are more likely to have fun. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Laugh. Do what you think is cool. Your enjoyment of this game is just as important as anyone else’s, and if your players have beaten you into a place where you no longer enjoy running for them, you are missing the whole point of playing a game. Fun is the whole idea and, as GM, nobody has more power to make things fun than you. Go after it! Enjoy!

Why I am a Bad Nerd

Firstly: This is required reading material.

I went to PAX East this past Saturday. I go for really only one reason, and that’s the annual Warhammer 40K Tournament, which is a lot of fun, fairly laid back, and I’ve never had an unpleasant game while there. There is, however, something inherent in gaming conventions that makes me uneasy. It’s the same thing, honestly, that makes me uneasy at sporting playoffs and rock concerts and any other event in which the combined

This many people on the same mission in the same place is...concerning.

This many people on the same mission in the same place is…concerning.

masses of fandom converge to worship. It’s not just the crowds (though I’m not crazy about crowds), but the presence of groupthink. I would feel the same way at PAX as I would feel at a celebrity wedding or the coronation of a new king: here is a massive group of people hopelessly enthusiastic about a thing that is (1) not of their making and (2) in existence for the purpose of purporting the illusion that it is, in fact, of their making. Everybody talks about how ‘their’ team made the playoffs, but unless you live in Green Bay, that team is in no way, shape, or form yours. There is a whole subset of people who define their worth and orient their personal emotional health upon the presence, absence, and/or disposition of entities that they, themselves, have no influence over. It weirds me out.

There is something different at a gaming convention like PAX, though, that isn’t quite as obvious at sporting events or rock concerts (though it is clearly and undoubtedly present). The naked materialism of it is on a scale that even stadium owners might envy. Well, no, maybe ‘materialism’ isn’t the right word (you’re paying $6.00 for a hotdog at either venue and lauding your collection of themed clothing in the same exact way). I think instead what I’m going for here the way in which consumptive choice interacts with evaluations of personal self-worth, as described by the blog post above.

I’m reminded of a quote from Simon Pegg:

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.

Naked consumerism has never been better summed up than by "Gotta Catch 'Em All."

Naked consumerism has never been better summed up than by “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.”

Now, when I first heard this quote, I cheered its sentiment as a defense of geekdom. The more I thought about it, though, the less enthused I became. There are a couple things here that trouble me. Firstly, ‘not being afraid to demonstrate that affection’ is misleading. I am certainly not afraid to demonstrate my affection for, say, Warhammer  or role-playing-games or science fiction. That, however, is not license in itself to harp and gush over them to a unreceptive audience or to behave like a child. More importantly, though, is the way in which geekdom often chooses to express this enthusiasm and, indeed, how society dictates our enthusiasm should be expressed in general. A geek wears costumes, has themed T-shirts, owns themed bedsheets or salt shakers, and professes their vehement allegiance to Dr. Who or The Walking Dead and will not accept their favorite franchise’s faults. This shouldn’t be necessary or even recommended for a ‘true fan’; it is, as Pegg himself says, childish. The ‘supposed adulthood’ Pegg alludes to is not really a negative thing. It’s the awareness that your enthusiasm is not necessarily mirrored by everyone else and, furthermore, that such enthusiasm is not correctly represented by spending money on frivolities that in no way reflect the aspects of your particular franchise that make it a worthwhile thing in which to indulge. If you’ve got a pokeball salt-and-pepper shaker on your table, how am I expected to react to that? Even supposing I am a fan of Pokemon, what the hell does a salt-shaker have to do with Pokemon? What is the message here?

The second thing I take some issue with is the idea of geekdom (as described by Pegg) as being ‘extremely liberating’. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, maybe I’m a bad geek or nerd or what have you, but I don’t really see ‘liberation’ at PAX. I see, instead, collective self-assurement. The throngs of costumed gamers at PAX assuage the collective anxiety gamers often feel in non-gamer society. They are self-identifying themselves as an entity outside of the ‘mainstream’ (whatever that is) by associating themselves with gaming franchises and, often, specific characters inside that franchise. They are, in essence, defining themselves by what they consume and gaining confirmation that their consumptive choice is positive by the presence of so many other like-minded individuals. This is the opposite of liberation – this is conformity. Now, I’m not saying that geeks and gamers shouldn’t be proud of what they do for fun, but I am saying that the decision to express this pride in such tight confines and in such prescribed ways is suspect. I am forced to ask of the sundry Batmen and Marios striding about the BCEC: Are you holding Mario up, or is Mario holding you up?

Okay, okay – I’m being unfair, and probably a bit hypocritical. There were lots and lots of people at PAX who got dressed up just for fun and that didn’t treat the weekend as some kind of ‘safe zone’ for consumptive choices they make that they feel aren’t welcome elsewhere. Indeed, there are probably a lot of folks who didn’t go to PAX to salivate over what they intend to spend their money on next and, instead, went to have fun and play games with new people, just as I did myself. However, to make the claim that so-called geek ‘culture’ isn’t predicated on the idea that consumption defines our personalities would be an error. It is, and far too many of us buy into it. A lot of geeks are having their strings pulled by other people (many of whom aren’t geeks at all), and that bothers me. When I go to PAX, I have fun and I enjoy the costumes, but I also get the same feeling I get when I’m walking to Fenway Park amid a sea of Ortiz jerseys: Are we actually our own selves, and is that a good or a bad thing? Why can’t we have the courage to be our own person and present ourselves as such, no jersey or t-shirt or funny hat required?

Does this make me a bad nerd?

My Favorite PCs: Commodian Phentari

A lot of what goes on in a role-playing game is world-building. You, the GM, are trying to create an environment that the players will find themselves swept up by – you want them to feel like they know the place, like they understand it. This principle is essentially the same one as applies to good science fiction or fantasy or, hell, good fiction in general: people can’t get emotionally invested in a world they don’t feel comfortable in or that they cannot understand.

In fiction, the writer has more power over how this happens compared to a role-playing game – he or she can write in a style that evokes the proper feeling, they have greater control over dialogue, description, and exposition, and so on. Even if they screw it up the first time through, they get to go back and revise and adapt and improve. GMs do not have these luxuries. A GM has to make it work on the first try, he isn’t the one talking all the time, he can’t control player dialogue and, no matter how talented an improviser he is, there is realistic limits to the mood he can effectively create. That is why it is a beautiful thing when a player meets the GM halfway and begins to flesh out the world alongside him.

One such player was my friend Josh in my Battlelords campaign from about seven or eight years back. Battlelords is a kind of space opera scifi game

Ultimately, he was a pretty jolly fellow.

Ultimately, he was a pretty jolly fellow.

with ridiculous alien species all thrown together in a kind of incredibly fatal melting pot. This game had the highest character fatality rate of any I’ve ever run, and it wasn’t just me – the system demanded such things. The combination of the silliness of the aliens and the society along with the deadliness of the gameplay made a very darkly humorous game and into this environment Josh thrust the evil space-squid, Commodian Phentari.

The Phentari are a species of violent, brutal bipedal, cartilaginous cephalopods. Standing seven feet tall and breathing methane, their favorite dish is human and their favorite activities usually involve a kind of ritual dismemberment ideally after a nasty betrayal. They approach the world with an arrogant, barbaric aggression – they are going to take what they want, kill anyone who gets in the way, and have tons of fun doing it. Commodian fit right into the mold – he was deadly, smart, and cruel. That, though, isn’t what had this character make the list.

The actual background of the Phentari, you see, is a tad bit sketchy from the game material we had. I was improvising rapidly trying to fill them out into something more than just a blatant pander to the violent urges of your average adolescent teen male. I tried to make their society something that made sense, or at least on their terms. Josh, a skilled improviser himself and an experienced gamer, hopped right on board. He created new and interesting behaviors for Commodian, attributing them to ‘Phenatari culture,’ and made controversial in-game decisions sometimes for the sake of maintaining the cultural integrity of his character. If a fellow PC died (or was dying) he would eat their corpse, claim their stuff, and refuse to share (as was proper Phentari etiquette). During the party’s in-game poker nights, Commodian introduced a variant of the game called ‘Phentari Bluff’. It was five card stud, but the point of the game wasn’t to show your cards but rather to physically intimidate the other players into folding before any hands were seen. I believe a particularly heated game resulted in him shooting another player in the hand.

Commodian brought an enormous amount of dark humor to a game that, at its structural base, is an elaborate and indulgent D&D-meets-Shadowrun knockoff. He made the world seem real, detailing everything from Phentari banking (also known as ‘grave robbing’) to Phentari mating practices (don’t ask). These details led to the creation of other details about other species, and the whole thing snowballed into a vibrant and fun world in which to set a game. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible if I was doing it all myself, but with Josh’s contributions (and everyone else’s, too!) the whole thing was a lot of fun.

That New PC Smell…

Been a while since I waxed philosophical about RPGs, so here we go:

Let’s face it: these people probably wouldn’t hang out. At all.

You know that moment in (almost) every D&D campaign where the PCs all bump into one another in some roadside inn and then, a half hour and a tankard of ale later, they’re running off with these near-total strangers to slay dragons? Did that ever rub you the wrong way?

It’s ridiculous, right? Who does that? I mean, most people don’t run around with total strangers in real life, and we live in a world devoid of roadside trolls and murderous death cults (well, okay, mostly without the death cults). I mean, it would be one thing if they all had compatible personalities, but the dwarves never get along with the elves, the wizards are always mocked by the fighters, and the thieves are always, always dickheads. How do these folks suddenly decide to risk life-and-limb together?

I mean, we all know why: it’s metagaming, pure and simple. PCs have that ‘new PC’ smell about them that draws adventuring parties like bug-zappers draw mosquitoes. You all have to hang out together or you don’t have a party. If you don’t have a party, you don’t have a game. We just tend to close our eyes, suspend our disbelief, and roll with it.

How to Deal With It

There are, of course, a variety of ways around this; ways to justify the all-important meeting and have the PCs hang out together long enough to plausibly build actual friendships. Here is a brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) list:

Option #1: They Need Each Other

This is the easiest and most straightforward method to do things. The PCs have to stick together to survive for a certain period of time. Perhaps they find themselves in a town that is under attack by horrible (whatevers) and find themselves sticking together simply to survive. Maybe they are all prisoners in the same dungeon and have to rely on one another to escape and then, of course, find themselves stuck together as fugitives from whatever force placed them in the prison to begin with.

The options are numerous, but most of them are in medias res type beginnings. This is a bonus or a drawback, depending on the kind of campaign you’re running, since an episodic game with a rotating cast will resolve the issue that is keeping them together rather quickly and then, in the next session, you find yourself back at square one. Furthermore, even in serialized games with long plot arcs, sooner or later the thing that brought them together is going to get resolved. Then we are either left closing our eyes and assuming they stick together or watching them shoot off in various directions.

Option #2: It’s Their Job

This is an easy one and can very quickly build long-term party cohesion: all of the PCs are employed by the same (whatever) and are, essentially, coworkers. They need to put up with each other whether they want to or not. They might be mercenaries, in the military, part of the same secret society, or any number of other options – all of them can work.

I’ve used this one a lot, and I can tell you a couple things. First, this set-up leads to automatic intra-party bickering. Since the characters aren’t required in any sense to like each other, many of them don’t and your players will engage in entertaining-but-time-wasting arguments with each other just for fun. Second, this an ideal set-up for a game with a rotating cast, since you can easily have this or that PC ‘transferred’ for a session or two without straining anyone’s imagination. The primary (and only) drawback of this situation is that you are relying upon external forces to keep the players together. Some players might chafe at this and, furthermore, if the external force gets removed somehow, you are back to square one.

Option #3: They Are Already Friends

This is another easy one that requires just a little background work for each character. All you need to do is have each character start with a positive relationship with at least one, but preferably two, other characters. Your PCs are already buddies, have already been through hell together, and they should join up without squabble or reservation. Give them a collective motive and bingo – you’re on your way.

There is, however, a drawback to this set-up. It is, primarily, that it limits the kinds of characters that can be plausibly connected without straining the feasibility of the relationship. If you are playing in a campaign were Fizziks and Gurkles have been at war for centuries, and one guy wants to play a Gurkle Chieftain and another guy wants to play a Fizzik Enforcer, it’s going to be a tough sell to explain how they’re friends already. You can probably make it happen, but it’s not a natural fit and will require a lot of backflips and contortions. Now, if this doesn’t bother you, then go ahead. It might bother your players, though (after all, that guy making the Fizzik Enforcer made it specifically so he could hate Gurkles and the Gurkle Chieftain had his whole family enslaved by the Fizzik Empire…).

Option #4: Don’t Even Try

There is no law in (good) RPGs that states that parties must stick together all the time to survive. I mean, that’s the case in D&D, but that is more video game than it is RPG, in my opinion, anyway. Use Option #1 just to give them an initial stick-together period and then loosen the reins. Let them go where they will, do what they will, associate with whomever they chose. The characters that most naturally would associate with each other, will. Those who wouldn’t, won’t. No biggie. It’s their game, let them explore it.

The drawback here, though, is a fairly substantial one that has two parts. Firstly, it is pretty daunting managing 3-4 storylines at a time as a GM. It takes a lot of prep, a good head for improvisation, and a sharp memory. Second, and related to the first, you’ll wind up with long periods of playtime where some players have nothing to do. When I used to run long-run campaigns, this kind of thing would happen from time-to-time (sometimes too often), and I’d have six PCs in four locations. If you were Group A, you’d be playing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% was just sitting around and listening. I was fortunate enough in most instances to have my players really engaged in the action of the game, so they often didn’t mind listening. Some, though, got bored, and I don’t blame them. If you try to use this method, make sure to keep it under control and plan on bringing the party back together sooner rather than later.

Anyway, that’s my bit on this. I should note that I mix and match all the methods fairly liberally in my game. No matter what, though, I strive very hard to keep the artificial and the meta-gamey out of my party dynamics.

Getting the Gaming In

This game cover is, as KatieHal put it, 80s-tastic.

Twenty years ago or so, I was given a copy of the FASA strategy game Succession Wars. It’s basically Axis & Allies, but in the Battletech universe and with a less confusing ruleset. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have never gotten anybody to play it with me. This is not the only game I own that is in this category. I can lump in the FASA games Centurion, Leviathan, and Aerotech. I own a copy of Junta I’ve played twice and a copy of Diplomacy I’ve never actually used (the only games of Diplomacy I play occur via e-mail or online). That list isn’t even counting the RPGs I’ve bought but never actually run (including ones I wrote myself), the multiplayer video games I’ve never actually played with another human being.

I’m not actually complaining, believe it or not. Life is full of more important things than playing games and a great many of them are significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a point of regret, though, that I never have gotten around to having fun with these things. Other folks have garages full of badminton sets and cross-country skis they never use; I’ve got shelves full of games.

I’m not the only one with such a shelf, either. Many of my friends are significantly more weighed down with tons of boardgames they’ll never actually get around to playing (well, perhaps once), have shelves full of video games they’ll never really play, and have stacks of RPG stuff they’ll never have time to run. Rare is the gamer whose eyes aren’t bigger than his or her free time, particularly now that gamers my age are getting older, have more and more real-world commitments, and many more significant responsibilities to take their time and attention. Gone are the halcyon days of our late teens and early twenties, when we could devote entire 36 hour periods to orgies of nerdery the likes of which would shame Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

Well, what are a group of adult nerds to do about this? Are we to go silently into our middle age and regretfully pack up our Piles of Shame, resigning ourselves to a period our lives where the gaming is infrequent and mediocre? No! We must establish a plan to stake out our game time! We must requisition basements and attics for our use! Others have their ritual trips to the bar and inviolate Sunday sports sessions – why cannot we gamers have our time? So, to that end, my suggestions for how to address this issue:

Be Realistic: You and your friends are adults with families and jobs and responsibilities. You are not going to be able to spend six hours every single Sunday playing boardgames or RPGs and expect everybody to show up all the time. When planning out RPG campaigns or boardgaming sessions, keep this in mind. Those games that take ten hours to play and require massive amounts of time and attention are going to be difficult to schedule.

Be Specific: When you invite your buddies over to game, have a specific game in mind (e.g. “We are going to play Succession Wars”). Don’t just say ‘games’ or you’ll play either the same old stuff as usual or get caught up in everybody having different interests and never actually agreeing on what game to play (and then you wind up playing the same old game everybody can agree on).

Plan In Advance: You can’t really call up your buddies on a Friday night and expect them to be free Saturday afternoon. Plan a week or two in advance or have a fixed schedule that everybody’s aware of (‘the first Friday of every month’ or ‘every other Sunday afternoon’), and that way people are more likely to be able to make it.

Be There: If you say you’re going to go, go. Make it a priority. Yes, it comes in behind work and family, but don’t blow off one social engagement (which is what games are) for another social engagement. Barring rare exceptions, blowing off your gaming buddies to go drinking with your work buddies is pretty insulting on the one hand and takes away from the enjoyment the rest of the gamers will derive from the game on the other. Blowing people off is especially rude in the case of RPGs, where, in most cases, your presence is required to play your character and the lack of your character can derail whole adventures.

Keep Your Mate in the Loop: For those of you who are married or in long-term relationships, make certain you let your girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever know when you are gaming and where and so on. Let them know that this is important to you and your friends (even if they think it’s stupid themselves), and you’d really like to make it. Provided your spouse is a decent person who values your wishes, doing this kind of thing will prevent unfortunate double-bookings that prevent you from Being There. Also make clear that he/she has the ability to override gaming time if something obviously more important comes up (this includes things like illness, sudden familial obligations, etc., etc.). I could go on, but I’ll stop here, as we are starting to delve into me giving people relationship advice, and this blog is not the place.

There are other tricks, too – setting up RPG campaigns with rotating character rosters that don’t require the same people to be there every time, for instance, or playing board games that have short play times, and so on. Those five rules, though, ought to make it so that you can enjoy gaming well off into your golden years where, presumably, your time will free up all over again.

Retirement homes of the 2050s are going to be goddamned gamer paradises, I kid you not.