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RPG Session Review: “I’d Watch This Movie!”

I don’t usually write-up recaps of gaming sessions. I find it generally boring to summarize what was, essentially, something me and my friends did once and will probably never do again. It’s like going to an improv show and recounting the entire event to somebody who wasn’t there – it rarely winds up half as entertaining as it was in the flesh, and your friends start looking at you funny.

Today, though, I make an exception.

Yesterday, me and a couple friends (Blake, Will, and DJ) tried out a hack of the Danger Patrol RPG that I put together (with significant help from my friend John Perich) that set the game

Pictured: Armando Corazon

Pictured: Armando Corazon

in modern-day San Diego in the style of a classic Cop Action movie. The session was, in a word, epic. Today I share the hilarity with you in what hope is terms that won’t bore you to tears.

We started out with the opening credits to a movie, set to James Brown’s “Livin’ in America”, showing scenes of sunny San Diego and also introducing our villain, Armando Corazon, Drug Lord of the Southwest and King of Tijuana (played by Jimmy Smits). He has been buying up real estate in San Diego. He had a cop killed. He was on the cover of Time magazine. I set all this up with some clever photoshop work and a basic working knowledge of Power Point. It was hilarious and set the mood perfectly. Everybody who played was given top billing in the credits and, given how player-driven Danger Patrol is, I gave them screenwriting credits, too. I can’t stress enough how much fun this was (both making it and watching the players react to it when I pulled it out) and I’m going to do this every time I run a one-shot of this game from here on out.

Credits over. Cut to a private storage facility on the outskirts of San Diego; cops engaged in a shootout with drug-crazed lunatics. Our heroes are on the scene: a Cocky Rookie (Officer Rufio), a Crooked Veteran (Nicco – James Woods cast as the actor to play him), and a Wise-Ass Beat Cop (whose name I don’t remember; played by Blake). Just then, Philipe Corazon, Armando’s little brother, dives an industrial drilling machine through the side of the storage facility and makes a break for it. Craziness ensues.

The guys had three threats to deal with in this scene: Philipe on his Drill, Drug-Crazed Lunatics, and What’s Inside the Building (which was set to ‘go off’ in 3 turns). Nikko requisitioned a fuel truck and drove it after Philipe, only to have it catch fire and almost explode, causing him to have to requisition an old lady’s Lincoln and drive her car (with her still in the driver’s seat since her seatbelt was stuck) after the fleeing drill as it drove through convenience stores, a used car lot, and so on. Meanwhile, Rufio and Blake drove *their* car into the storage facility, crushing things as they went. They found a bomb set to explode in a secret tunnel underneath the storage facility. Rufio tried to disarm it while Blake dragged an unconscious drug addict out of the building before it blew (he was joined by all the psycho druggies who fled with him). The bomb was successfully disarmed (druggies and cops clapped and hugged each other in relief…and then realized who each other were and began to chase after each other), and Philipe was shot in the leg by Nikko and arrested.

During the investigation, it was discovered that there was a network of tunnels under San Diego dug by the Corazon Cartel that enabled them to smuggle drugs across the border with impunity. This complex system was devised and maintained with the supervision of Dr. Hammerschmidt of UC San Diego (played by JK Simmons). Interrogating Philipe (played by Freddie Prinze Jr) revealed that the good doctor was going to be assassinated by Corazon thugs at his gym.

Cut to gym. Giant shoot-out with the thugs. Nikko blows them all away and then calms the crowd (two threats: Corazon Hit Men and Panicky Bystanders) while Blake runs down the doctor (tripping him up with his Really Big Flashlight). They toss the doc in the car and bring him to a Mafia-run restaurant (Nikko is connected) and threaten to leave him there for the Italians to deal with unless he talks. He tells them a big shipment of drugs and money is coming in to seal an alliance with the Yakuza. He tells them it’s all going to go down at Sea World that night. The Mafia is also going to try to hit the scene. So, we’ve got three criminal syndicates, a stack of cash, Sea World, and, oh yeah, Blake’s family is there attending the last whale show of the night.

This is it, the big showdown. Blake fighting Yakuza ninjas in the penguin enclosure. Rufio getting in a wrestling match in the ice-cold waters of the polar bear tank. Nikko talking the mafia guys down from interfering. Armando Corazon trying to garrote Blake to death, only to be flipped into the (now electrified) waters of the penguin tank. The whole time, Darren, Sea World Employee, listens to his headphones and mops up penguin droppings without hearing a thing. Victory.

It was hilarious fun. It all took only 3 hours or so (including character creation time). It was the perfect one-shot experience, and I’m going to do it again. As Blake said: “I would totally watch this movie.”

Next time, though, I am going to need closing credits.

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.


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!