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Rhythm: The Enemy of Story

Zzzzz…

This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.

Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.

The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.

Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.

Oh great, more piles of gold…

In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.

I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for  a day.

The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.

Good luck!

The Halls of Ignominious PC Death

Oooo! Spooky!

Oooo! Spooky!

Last night I finished up my involvement in a D&D campaign run by my friend, Fish. It ended poorly for my wizard, the elderly Baltigast – he took a pair of bad draws from a Deck of Many Things as a last ditch effort to recover his lost power and prestige, and instead wound up a toothless old madman without a penny to his name. Ah well.

Tomorrow, I start running my own D&D campaign (which was the reason I left Fish’s game – I like running better than playing, and I can’t wait anymore). So, today, in memory of those PCs who came to bad ends and in anticipation of those PCs who are going to, let me tell you some stories about the miserable ends some of my players have fallen victim to over my 23 year history of running RPGs.

In no particular order:

Barooza, 3rd Level Half-Orc Berzerker, Amedio Jungle, Oerth

Barooza foolishly drank an Elixir of Madness, making him…unreasonable. An unreasonable berserker in a dungeon crawl is a dangerous prospect, and so the other players tied him up. Now, however, they had a thrashing, 250lbs half-orc to carry around, and nobody felt up to it. “Hey,” said the pirate, “I’ve got this Bag of Holding! We can just stuff him inside and carry him around!”

Yeah, that Bag of Holding? Actually a Bag of Devouring. They stuffed poor Barooza in head-first, and he only had time to scream once before he was consumed by an extra-dimensional predator. Bummer of a way to go.

Wheeler, 5th Level Mage, Crystalmist Mountains, Oerth

The party was in a large, hollow tower. They could scale the walls up to the top, but the walls were crawling with nasty critters that would try to eat them. The alternative? Well, Wheeler wanted to levitate straight up the middle of the tower and, once he reached the walkway at the top, he could let down several coils of rope for the rest of the PCs to scale. The trouble, of course, was they hadn’t really done the math on how far Wheeler could levitate for the duration of the spell and whether that would be sufficient time to reach the walkway. It was not – he came in ten feet shy. He then fell a couple hundred feet to his death. At least the prophet at the top was good enough to resurrect him.

Mac, Sergeant, Xplore Corporation, Abandoned Eridani War Cruiser, Fornax Galaxy

The party was being shot at from the floor below by war bots that were pumping plasma up through the deck plating, leaving molten holes in the steel floor. Mac attempted to drop a grenade through one such hole, but instead of dropping it through, he decided this was the time to play a game of hoops. He shot from half-court, the grenade took a very bad bounce, and landed at his feet. Boom. His internal organs were pulped, and so ended Mac.

Nameless XF Inc Mercenary, US Naval Base, Lone Wolf Planetoid, Wolf-359

So, after attacking an armored US Marine with a kitchen knife (and barely surviving), he and his compatriot were cut off in the detention wing of the facility, with their only possible escape route being a cargo elevator. Into the cramped elevator they crammed and slowly began to ascend to the laundry room, however, the marines had reached the elevator and were guiding it back down. The elevator was a cage, and there was just enough room to stick a pistol out to maybe shoot out the counter weights to release the elevator. The other guy took the shot. After much random ricocheting, the bullet hit the mercenary between the eyes.

Major Russ Carmady, Olympus, Groomsbridge 1619

Major Russ was a big fan of planning out his defenses, so when they landed to secure a drop zone on a strange alien planet, he ordered the whole area littered with antipersonnel mines – just in case, you know? Cut to a few days later, when they are being bombarded from orbit by a Chinese battlecruiser and actual extraterrestrials are about to storm their base, and what does Russ elect to do? Well, he obviously can’t be captured, so he makes a run for it. This was my question:

So, do you remember where you placed your own mines?

No. No he did not. Kablooey.

Got any other ridiculous tales of PCs’ untimely demises? Share them here!


Publicity News

Say, did you miss my last book signing? Feel guilty? Well, have I got some good news for you! I will be doing another book signing at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston this coming Saturday, 5/30, from 2pm to 4pm. I will be signing copies of the Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, so come on down!

No, seriously, come on down. I don’t want to be lonely. I want the nice people at Barnes and Nobel to appreciate my business. I’ll have cookies and stuff. Just show up and let me scribble on your book!

Campaign Morale in RPGs

Been a while since I’ve put on my gamer hat hereabouts, so here we go…

And if everybody but the cleric and the ranger quit, this probably happens.

And if everybody but the cleric and the ranger quit, this probably happens.

Role-playing games campaigns are social enterprises that rely on a good group dynamic to be successful. In this sense, they are similar to team sports (observe how the jocks and the nerds doth rage at such an analogy! Indeed, it is beauteous to me!). A good RPG campaign, in order to work, goes beyond what actually happens at the table and into the social and (even) political sphere. Good GMs know this, and they set their games up to enhance it. Poor GMs don’t pay any attention to it, and they wonder why everybody quits their campaign halfway through.

A Word About Ideals…

Okay, so it’s worth pausing for a second to define what I consider an “ideal campaign” to be. An Ideal Campaign has the following characteristics:

  1. Everybody Has Fun: This is a minimum requirement. Everybody should be laughing, everybody should be hanging on every die roll, everybody should be invested in what is going on.
  2. Everybody Is Engaged in the Action: The storyline of the campaign should matter to the players. They should care about what happens and should want to know what happened last time. Ideally, they should even discuss what might or is happening with each other and with you outside of the game itself. In other words, they are so deeply invested in the game that it stays with them at least some of the time.
  3. Everybody Gets Along: The people playing are compatible personalities who, even if not great friends, generally get along well and are able to be comfortable with one another.
  4. Everybody is Organized: The game starts on time, it ends on time, the GM keeps things moving, the players show up consistently, and the meeting schedule is regular and consistent.

These four things, when combined, mean the “campaign morale” is high and everything is going well. If one or more of these things aren’t working, the campaign is not going well (at least according to the Ideal).

How Is This Done?

Assuming we all want to get to Goal#1 up there, we actually need to address these goals in reverse order.

Organization: The first order of business is Goal #4: getting organized. This is really essential, because it’s the basic requirement of having a game: everybody needs to show up regularly and on time. Understandably, people will miss the occasional session due to illness or unforeseen circumstances or what-have-you, but on average everybody should be there. Furthermore, the game should meet often enough to create a kind of momentum. If you meet once and then not again for two months, people forget what is happening, the GM is less invested in continuing (since people have forgotten about it), and the whole thing can just fade away. Meet regularly, show up on time, and you can go from there. The party that plays together, stays together.

You really should try to avoid this.

You really should try to avoid this.

Group Dynamic: As the GM, it is your job to make sure the party in your campaign is compatible and able to get along. If you have a friend that nobody else likes, inviting him to play may be a mistake for everybody. Now, generally I’ve found most gamers can get along with most other gamers for a few hours a week (or month), but there are exceptions (and you know who they are, too, I’d bet). Not inviting a buddy of yours because you think his incessant need to creepily leer at women might offend the two women playing might hurt his feelings, but hey – he’s the one being the creep, not you. That, of course, is an extreme case and, again, I’ve found personality conflicts like this to be rare.

More common (and arguably just as important), though, is simply thinking about everybody’s playstyle. A band of by-the-numbers point munchkins probably won’t understand or appreciate a real Role Player in their midst and vice versa. I personally recommend getting a variety of play-styles involved, assuming everybody understands how you are going to run the game. If everybody is on board and aware of the expectations, everything will go much more smoothly.

Engagement: This is a tough one. Even if you nail the first two, this one is probably the hardest one to master. It also might be the most optional of them all – players don’t have to love the plot of the game if they just love the action of playing – but I firmly believe having this in your corner makes everything better (everything!). As GM, this one lands mostly in your court. All players, when they make a character, are telling you the kind of things they want their character to be and do. If I make a greedy Halfling rogue with a complex about how short he is, I am pretty much telling you that I want to pick a half-orc’s pocket at bar and then have a bar-fight when he calls me “short-stuff”. You need to figure out what your players want and then you need to build the storyline around those desires. Alternately, you can tell everybody before the game starts what the game is going to be about and then ask everybody to make a character that fits inside that arena. Of the two, the latter is easier but the former is far more effective (if you can pull it off). In either case, if players love the concept, they will love the game, and they will be more likely to show up, more likely to have fun, and more likely (even) to get along.

Fun: The game is fun if people are smiling (or shuddering like they just saw a horror movie) after a session is over. How this achieved is complex, but generally I’d say the above three concerns are a good place to start. The other thing to remember is that this is a game. Try to avoid getting anyone’s ego involved. Laugh. Act like you’re having fun (which you should be, dammit, or else why do this?). Generally speaking, the more fun you have, the more fun everybody else will likely have.

In the end, these things all feed off one another. If you can get all four of them to work, then your campaign is guaranteed to be a success (I promise). If they all fail, people are going to be checking Facebook in the midst of the game and blowing off a session anytime a second cousin is in town. Believe me, I’ve been in both situations, and they are the best and the worst role-playing experiences I’ve ever had. Good luck out there, and have fun!

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!

Romance in RPGs

Been a while since I wrote a gaming-themed thread, so here we go:

You know what almost every heroic story in scifi/fantasy has? A love interest. You know what kind of game aspires to create the same feeling as a heroic scifi/fantasy game? RPGs. You know what almost always sucks for everybody? Trying to create romance-themed storylines in an RPG.

How it should work in the GM's head.

How it should work in the GM’s head.

Of course it all sounds like a good idea, but when you actually get down to doing it, it never seems to work. Sure, it makes perfect sense that the player who makes the ‘ladies man’ character gets to have a love interest. Yeah, getting the prince to fall in love with your Valkyrie is pretty awesome from a plot standpoint and creates all kinds of fun conflict to explore. Having a married character is a fantastic plot hook for almost any game. Unfortunately, this stuff never seems to come across too well.

But Why?

Okay, I’m not even going to cite all the various problems that arise when you get a bunch of socially awkward geeks in a room imagining that they’re fantasy character is falling in love with another fantasy character that is portrayed by their best buddy the GM. Let’s skip that Freudian smorgasbord and establish a few assumptions. They are as follows:

  1. You are playing with emotionally stable and well-adjusted adults who can talk about kissing and girls without losing their minds.
  2. You are playing in a group with mixed gender players and/or folks confident enough in their sexuality that the idea of ‘pretending’ to love a character played by somebody otherwise unattractive to you does not create weirdness.
  3. Everybody agrees that a love story would be a cool addition to the plot.
How it works in practice.

How it works in practice.

Okay, let’s make all of those (grandiose) assumptions. These things still don’t work easily (if at all). Here are a few of the reasons.

We are not Actors

Pretending to be in love is a very, very challenging piece of performance. Hell, if you’ve never really been in love, it’s very hard to simulate it. Even if you have, you might not have a really firm idea of what happened to you or how you acted or even whether you should act that way again. Also, no matter how open-minded and confident you might be in the presence of your fellow players, acting out a love scene (and I’m not even talking sex – BY ALL MEANS DO NOT GO THERE! Seriously, guys – that gets all sorts of creepy really fast) is sort of a private thing, and it’s hard to commit to it or believe in it in the same way you can easily believe that a dragon is chasing you or that you really want to kill the villain who burned down your character’s village. Without commitment to the scene, it feels wooden and flat. It doesn’t ring true.

What is Love? (baby don’t hurt me…don’t hurt me…no more…)

So, say your character falls in love with (whoever). What does that mean in terms of the game? While some game systems work this in very well (7th Sea has the Romance background, the Fate system has Aspects tailor-made for this), others are very poorly suited to this kind of thing (D&D, for example). Exactly how to work romance into the plot can sometimes be unclear to both the GM and the player. The significant other becomes something you tag on to your character sheet, which is just plain odd. Sometimes they act as a henchman, which is practical, but it becomes very easy to relegate their role in the game to ‘the handsome guy who holds my spell components’ or ‘the cute blonde girl who shoots arrows’ and, in general, the whole interesting aspect of the romance is lost. This makes sense, since it’s easier to manage that way, but it also rings false and wastes story potential.

Stereotypes AHOY!

If you are playing with a single-gender group (and sorry about that – playing with both guys and gals is awesome and I highly recommend it if possible), introducing the opposite sex can quickly degenerate into a bunch of guys (or, I suppose, girls, though I have yet to encounter an all-female gaming group and suppose its existence really only in theory) complaining about what the other gender ‘does’ or is ‘like.’ This kind of pigeonholing can range from the insulting and misogynistic to the merely boring and archetypal. The object of romance ceases to be a real character and is treated as a flat stereotype of either the perceived positive traits of a gender or the negative ones. This is not only bad stereotyping but can also quickly bleed into bad behavior or crude talk on the part of the players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy this.

What To Do?

Okay, so how do you surmount these obstacles? Well, I don’t have all the answers, I must say. Across my decades of GMing, I can really only say I’ve been successful in introducing romance storylines in one campaign I played in and in one other I played in (both 7th Sea). When it has worked, the following tools seemed to be in evidence:

  • Let it be Player Initiated: You cannot and should not attempt to introduce a romance-related thread unless the player has made it clear they want that to happen. This can either be with the way the character is constructed (they have the ‘Star-Crossed’ flaw, for instance, or something equivalent) or how the player plays the character (he is constantly serenading pretty ladies, asks about the presence of attractive NPCs and so on). To foist a love storyline on a player that doesn’t really want one is a waste – everybody will feel weird and it won’t be any fun.
  • Skip the Courtship: Pre-established romances are easier to play than new ones. This, oddly enough, is often true for life as it is in RPGs. Once the fires of infatuation have faded, you can still be just as much in love with somebody but can also act normally around them and avoid certain levels of love-struck foolishness. Accordingly, players that begin play with pre-established lady-loves or doting husbands or what-not have a less taxing role-playing task ahead of them. This is not to say that courting can’t be fun in a game, but you really need the player to be on-board and need to be sure you have the right game atmosphere to make it work.
  • Love is Risk: Romances should be played as player vulnerabilities. This doesn’t mean you need to kill a player’s wife at every opportunity, but to love requires a degree of commitment and compromise. Romantic storylines should be mined for conflict, and not all of it need involve danger. I had one PC’s wife leave him (taking all his money) because he ignored her and went gallivanting about the world with his friends (i.e. the PCs) and left her alone. It was an entire adventure arc to win her back, and it was awesome. Likewise, romance storylines exist to make conflict and conflict makes plot interesting. There are lots of ways to do this (you don’t need to go far to find examples). At it’s heart, being in love (whether in reality or in a game) means you (or your character) are extremely vulnerable to the person they love, simple as. Nobody has the power to hurt you like the person you love, whether it be intentionally, accidentally, as a result of others’ actions, or whatever. As a good GM, you need to use this to make the story go. If players don’t want their characters’ loves to be central to the plot, they probably shouldn’t have them in the first place.

That’s what I’ve got for now. I’d love to hear what others have done (and if it worked). As a storyteller, I badly want to initiate these kinds of stories inside my campaigns, but I also know from a gaming perspective just how difficult it is to pull off. There is a difficult (and unique) balance to be struck and, while I do know it’s possible, I don’t think it is practical to expect it to work in every game.

What To Do With Torchbearer?

Occasionally, I purchase or acquire new role-playing games from the bargain shelves of gaming stores or from friends who are cleaning out their book collection. I take a look at them, read them through, and make a determination of whether I will do one of two things:

1) Shelve it and never look at it again.

2) Waste hours considering the campaign I’d like to run based off the game, even though I do not, in any way shape or form, have the time to run an RPG campaign.

Damn you, clever rule system!

Damn you, clever rule system!

Option #1 is usually the more prudent choice. I am in the midst of running 2 campaigns right now, both of which are temporarily stalled thanks to me being too busy to think about them, so the idea that I might spend any amount of time thinking about an additional game to play is silly and wasteful.

…and yet here I am.

I just acquired the hard copy of Torchbearer the other day, which is a new RPG by the same guy who did The Burning Wheel, which is at once one of the more fascinating and frustrating rule systems I’ve encountered. Torchbearer is essentially a stripped down version of Burning Wheel, using the same basic rule mechanic but tossing out the fourteen tons of character-intensive soul-searching off of which that game operates. It’s a throwback to the old dungeon-centric games of my youth – players portray a basic archetypical character all of whom collectively need to make their living by invading the dark and forbidding places of the earth for treasure. The best thing about it is that it has de-romanticized dungeon crawling – people who spend their time hunting treasure in deadly places are not heroes, they are not the finest examples of humanity, they are not whimsical storybook characters. They are desperate, poor, and probably starving and the only reason they are doing this is because they haven’t the connections, the will, or the wits to live a more respectable life.

I sort of dig that idea. And I do like dungeons.

The problem (and the debate) that occupies my time, though, when considering whether a game is worth running and planning or not is two-fold:

1) How will this game be different from other games I have run?

2) How can I make it into something new and interesting in its own right.

Torchbearer’s basic world/setting is, frankly, not very interesting. Granted, it is expressly intended to be a throwback game, but just because that’s what the authors intended doesn’t mean that’s what I would do with it. I have run so many medieval fantasy world campaigns that the thought of another, even a gritty survival based one (which, it should be noted, I have already done) sounds fairly dull. So, in the interest of completeness, let me list off the similar campaigns I have run in the past couple years or so:

  • The Amazing Race: Talislanta: a campaign where I created two separate adventuring parties who had to go on a cross-continental race to steal a mighty treasure from an unknown land for a fabulous reward. Set in Talislanta, using that game’s system. It was fun.
  • Alandar: A game set in my own world with my own modification of the Roll-and-Keep system which ran for a few years and was quite epic in scope and depth. I’m never doing that again (most likely), so there’s no point in pretending to try.
  • Burning Imperium: A personal mod of the Burning Wheel system to fit the Warhammer 40K universe. Team-oriented play, dark world, etc.
  • Riddle of Steel: Japan: A mod (getting a trend here?) of the Riddle of Steel system adapted to a quasi-historical medieval Japanese setting. Very gritty rules, very character oriented, but mostly political intrigue based.

I will leave out the 3-4 Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I ran as a kid, as well as the umpteen-billion D&D-ish one-shots I’ve played in. I’m probably missing a few things in there, too. Anyway…

Stuff I haven’t done includes Post-apocalyptic settings, anything set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (which might be fun), as well as anything in a player-generated, collaboratively created world. All three of these seem like decent possibilities. The first would require the most adaptation on my part (though it would a very awesome take on the old dungeon-crawl trope: trawling ancient ruins for stuff to survive the wasteland of far-future Earth), the second is just a setting I love and would be fun to play with (though my enthusiasm may be unique in that regard – not a lot of WHFB fans around here), and the third would require the least work on my part, but would rely on actively engaged players contributing to the creation of the game. At my age, I don’t know a whole lot of people with the kind of free time and attention necessary to do that, as fun as it would be.

Ultimately, at some point, all gamers at my age need to understand something that is, regrettably, true: You’re never going to be 15-24 again. You will never have the kind of free-time you used to have before you had a family and a career and so on. All the crazy campaign Ideas you come up with can only come to fruition if, by some work of sorcery, you can pry the rest of your friends away from their real lives long enough to eat up 6 hours of their lives every week or two in order to imagine yourself somewhere else. So, would I like to run a Post-apocalyptic Torchbearer game? Yeah, I would. Will I?

Christ, man – I haven’t even gotten that Ravenloft campaign back up and running yet. I’ve got novels to finish, stories to sell, papers to grade. I’ve got that Warhammer habit to feed. I’ve got two kids, a dog, and a wife. Get out of dreamworld, Habershaw! Get back to business!

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!

Mysteries and Labyrinths

This is going to be a half gaming, half storytelling post, so you’ve been warned.

Not as fun as it looks.

Not as fun as it looks.

I like mazes and puzzles. When I saw The Goonies when I was a kid, that treasure hunt through the caves of One Eyed Willie was my idea of boyhood paradise. I searched the islands near my house for secret passages, cryptic messages, and buried treasure. All I ever found was a curiously discarded park bench on an island otherwise completely given over to seagulls and poison ivy.

When started playing D&D (well, running D&D. I’ve run far, faaar more games than I’ve ever played in), I used to devise elaborate mazes just like the caves and labyrinths of the old RPGs on my NES. I thought it would be fun, to have players sneak around in those mazes, hunt down bad guys and treasure, and avoid the occasional tripwire, deadfall trap, or poison dart corridor. It wasn’t.

Actually, it was deadly boring for everyone but me. I traced the players along on my secret map, and they were barraged with endless questions like “left, right, or straight?” or “there is a stairway up and a stairway down–which way?” There would be the occasional monster to deal with, but outside of that, my players were really tired of that nonsense by the time they got to the end of the campaign. Hell, they still give me crap about it to this day, and this game ran a full twenty years ago when me and my childhood friends were in 7th and 8th grades.

Still, though, I was fascinated with the idea of labyrinths and puzzles in stories and in games. Movies like Labyrinth and fantasy series like The Death’s Gate Cycle kept me interested. How, though, could you incorporate the satisfaction of solving a puzzle without slogging through the tedium of wandering up and down corridors? You can, of course, create linear dungeons and such (room after room, in sequence, each with a different challenge), but while that ensures the fun of solving a puzzle, it removes that sense of discovery one gets when you pull back a secret passage or make your way around that last corner. In stories, this effect is easier to simulate, but the labyrinth is necessarily reduced to operating at whatever speed the plot insists, and the protagonist(s) find his or her way through and encounter each obstacle at predetermined points, though with the illusion of being ‘lost’ woven around them.

Is this, then, the only solution for the labyrinth? Is wandering corridors and getting stuck in loops until, suddenly, that moment of epiphany pulls you through–is all that merely the province of video games, never to make the transition into pen-and-paper RPGs or fiction?

Well, no, it isn’t, but to do otherwise requires the assistance of your players/audience. If you are GM-ing for a bunch of PCs who will never bother to figure out ‘where the thrush knocks’ and, instead, blunders forward slaying goblins until the entrance to Smaug’s lair is made evident to them, that moment of discovery is forever denied them. They don’t want or need that moment; they’d rather it be figured out for them. Likewise with your readers: if they won’t bother trying to figure out who killed Mr. Ratchett or why a stag appears as Harry’s patronus and are just waiting around to be told, there’s nothing you can do to make them wonder. Lay out as many clues as you like, hang as many of Chekov’s guns on the wall as possible, and they still won’t notice. There’s nothing to be done here without collaboration.

If, however, you can make the stakes clear and the rewards compelling enough – if you can fire their curiosity – why then there isn’t a labyrinth they won’t try to unravel, no clue they will fail to track down, and they will do it all with a smile on their face. In this sense, whether GMing a game for a bunch of your friends or writing a story for a larger audience, you need to meet them halfway. You need to give them something to hang on to in order to get them through that maze. Kidnap their kid brother, threaten to burn down their house, or steal their very souls away. That way, if done right, they will enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Running the Shadows

sfcityThis Christmas, I bought myself a present. I usually feel guilty for doing this, but a friend of mine was selling a few old RPG books and I jumped at the deal. I found myself in possession of Shadowrun’s 4th Edition and a pair of sourcebooks. Not expecting anything awesome, I began to flip around. Then I began to read. Then I began to build characters in my head. And villains. And a campaign hook.

Ah…crap.

Shadowrun is probably my favorite RPG setting of all time. If you’re running the shadows, I’m there. I’ve GM-ed it a number of times (though never managed to get in a full campaign arc), played it more than any other game, and am pretty much constantly making characters for it in my head. It is a near-perfect mix of cyberpunk dystopian future and urban fantasy. It is a place where trolls and elves and dwarves live in our world alongside everybody else, a place where magic is real and commodified, and a setting so pregnant with adventure hooks they seem to pop off the page and hit you in the face every time you read a sourcebook. Tack that on to a system that is full of crunchy gear and so many cool options that you don’t care if it’s an overall unwieldy monster, and it becomes and instant winner with me (as I tend to like crunchy rule systems). The fact that 4th Edition has ironed out a lot of the ridiculous hoops of the old editions, and we’ve got a game that I almost can’t help but want to run.

Shadowrun: When else are you going to need three pounds of six-siders?

Shadowrun: When else are you going to use three pounds of six-siders?

Me and a friend of mine were reminiscing about the Shadowrun team we’d assembled for another friend’s (Perich’s) Shadowrun campaign from 4-5 years ago or so. Dubbed ‘The Cutler Group’ (for our face man, Everard Cutler), we had a well-balanced, keenly-oiled machine of a team. I was Nikita, the Russian ex-special forces dwarf–the team heavy. I had a van full of guns, connections to Vory Zakon, and a bowling team. I blew up more bad guys than I could conceivably count. Our leaders were Cutler, the face man with the diamond cufflinks and the head full of chips, and Garret, the burned-out Texan mage with his sullen Earth elementals and his warehouse apartment space. We ran with a teenage computer hacker, Milo, an Amerindian street ganger and physical adept named Screaming Eagle, and a host of other occasional stars. Every session was like an episode of Mission:Impossible. Loved every minute of that campaign.

Looking back, that’s been the case for pretty much every Shadowrun campaign I’ve ever been a part of. There was the one I ran with Thurston Derbershaw III, the giant cybered up troll with his host of holographic T-shirts (including one that had a picture of a covered bridge that kept rocking back and forth with the subtitle ‘Trolls Do It Under Bridges”) and Niles, the butler-ninja with the special power to produce beverages at any time. There was the one before that, with the Harley-riding combat mage and the wise-cracking, completely mundane but well-connected Private Eye, Jack Connors. There was the one I played in before that, wherein I played a redneck Ork with a pickup truck, a mean bull-mastiff, and a rack full of hunting rifles. There was the one-shot I played as a ex-corporate assassin with a pair of Colt Manhunters and a Machiavellian code of ethics (helped along with ridiculously fast reflexes).

I could go on.

The point is that it looks like I’m going to run a Shadowrun campaign sometime. I’m in the middle of a Ravenloft campaign right now, so it might be a while, but it’s coming. Oh yes. I just can’t seem to stay away.

 

My Favorite PCs: The Vesten

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 legend, but not the man…

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.