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That Edge Between Doom and Boredom

This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:

  1. The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
  2. The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).

Sometimes I don’t even get that.

Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.

So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.

Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.

I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.

It ain’t easy, though.

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!

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 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.

D&D Psych 101

The real question a psychologist is asking right now: Is the woman played by an actual female or not?

The real question a psychologist is asking right now: Is the woman played by an actual female or not?

When you run or play in enough role-playing games, you start to wonder: how much does the character people select to play say about them as a person? I mean, there has to be some correlation, doesn’t there? You ask somebody to create an imaginary character they wish to portray and they come up with something – it has all the trappings of the kind of exercise a therapist might suggest.

I’m not the only person that thinks this, either. Do some searching on Google Scholar and you’ll turn up some interesting stuff. One of the more succinct pieces I have read is one titled “Stereotypes and Individual Differences in Role Playing Games” by Noirin Curran published in 2011 in the International Journal of Role-Playing (yup – a scientific journal studying role-playing. Out-geek that, nerds.) in which she writes:

Affirmation of identity is what players endeavor to find through virtual play, and Bartle (2001) sees immersion, the level of involvement in a game, as an aid to convey this affirmation of identity. Bartle describes the highest level of immersion, termed ‘Persona’, in a very clear way: “A persona is a player, in a world. Any separate distinction of character has gone – the player is the character. You’re not role-playing a being, you are that being; you’re not assuming an identity, you are that identity. If you lose a fight, you don’t feel that your character has died, you feel that you have died. There’s no level of indirection: you are there.” So, players can construct online personae which are very unlike their offline personality, they can create ones which are also very similar, and the construction of an online identity can have an effect on their real-life’ identity. ‘Drift’ is the term given to the phenomenon of players and characters changing to fit one another (Bartle 2001). When a player is more aligned with his character, he may also be more immersed in the character and the virtual world. The ideal is seen as being when one reaches full immersion and character alignment at the same time and pace.

So, in a very demonstrative sense, we are the characters we play and they are us. The association may be stronger or lesser in some instances, but there is a connection.

This past weekend I attended the wedding of my friends, Katie and Brandon. It was a lovely event and honestly one of the most genuine and romantic ceremonies I have attended. Both the bride and groom are pretty serious gamers, and as a little bit of fun, those of us known for our own geekery had the names of PCs we’ve played on the backs of our name cards. Going about our table, each of us revealed the character that they selected to identify us with. Now, I don’t think there was any actual psychoanalysis going on here – it was probably just the character that popped into their heads first – but I found myself pondering the implications.

The character I received was, arguably, one of the few characters I’ve actually played in the past ten years (I usually run games). It was Santiago Roma, the megalomaniacal Vodacce villain determined to ascend to his rightful place as ruler of the world by lying, scheming, and strangling people in dark alleys. He was a sociopath, devoted to his own ambitions. Now, this was a 7th Sea campaign where everybody was ostensibly supposed to be villains and, accordingly, I made a pretty horrifying villain. Oddly, though, one of the things I remember best about that campaign was how heroic so many of my fellow players’ villains became. They were a tad selfish, yes, and often irresponsible or mean, but Roma was the only one who could be considered truly evil.

What does that say about me? Now, I didn’t really identify with Roma as described by Curran above. If he had died, I might not have been all that upset – he had it coming. But I did work very hard to see to it that he didn’t die and that he did achieve his aims and that he wasn’t duped by the other players. I suppose that might say that I’m competitive, that I’m prideful, and that I can be aggressive when angered or threatened. All of these things, if I’m being honest, are true. They aren’t my favorite qualities about myself, but to say they are false would be dishonest and, very unlike Roma, I try to be honest to a fault.

Sitting beside me at the table was my friend Serpico. Serpico’s character was Eoin “The Wind” Donovan – another 7th Sea character from a different campaign – who was the glory-seeking, ever-friendly, ever-flamboyant Glamour mage who earned himself the title ‘Los Bumblederos’ due to a famous duel, and wore a yellow and black striped tunic to match. Serpico has also played Finn Cadogan, a character that he used to drive up every week from New Jersey to Boston to play during a time where, according to him, he wasn’t very happy in his job. What can we say about Serpico, then? Did he identify with Finn Cadogan? Hell yes! I have never seen anybody so hopelessly terrified as when Finn had to face his old nemesis, Gallo. I have never seen anyone so elated as when Finn and Conrad Varner defeated the Kalsaari 8th Heavy Infantry at Atrisia. Serpico and DJ (Varner’s player) got up and danced around the room. In a very real sense, Finn is Serpico and Serpico is Finn. DJ is Varner and Varner is DJ.

I’m not a psychologist, so I try to refrain from psychoanalyzing others (even though I do it constantly anyway). I’ll stick to talking about myself: The characters I have loved playing the most have all been scrappers. Old veterans and sly up-and-comers struggling tooth-and-nail for their piece of the prize. They might not be the prettiest or the nicest or even the best, but they will never give up and do whatever it takes. What does that make me? A fighter, I guess. A fighter in my own little personal battles, competitive, aggressive, and practical. Is that really me? I don’t know.

It makes you think, though.

My Favorite PCs: Finn Cadogan

13353-bigthumbnailWhen I first developed my fantasy world of Alandar, I spent a number of years trying to write novels set there. I had a good main character (Tyvian Reldamar) and a lot of the setting down, but I hadn’t yet stumbled upon a story that worked. Eventually, since I liked the world so much, I converted Wick’s Roll and Keep system to handle a game set in Alandar and I began a campaign. That’s when I met Finn Cadogan.

Finn, played by my friend Serpico, was the son of a mercenary company captain and man of honor, Tam Cadogan. Tam had gone missing when Finn was a young man, and the only link Finn had to his father was the family’s intelligent, magical sword, Banner. Little did any of my players realize, this was but the first part of a vast conspiracy that had Finn ultimately at its heart, though he never truly realized it.

The thing, though, that made Finn Cadogan great was the commitment with which Serpico played him. Finn was trying to put back together the mercenary company that had once been his family legacy. He’d promised farmboys and smith’s apprentices and common laborers that if they signed with him, he’d lead them to glory and wealth. Finn (and Serpico) took that promise very seriously, and much of the dramatic capital in the early campaign were Finn’s struggles as he found his footing, lost men to battle and disease and even desertion, and struggled with his father’s legacy (as reported by the sword Banner on every possible occasion). For Finn, there was forever the struggle of being an honorable man in a dishonorable profession, and Serpico played it to the core. It made for simply wonderful moments of both triumph and sadness and, even though Finn’s end was a tragic one, he did achieve what he set out to do–he restored his father’s honor, he brought wealth and triumph to his men, and he was remembered as a great hero. He, though, was too honorable to see what plots evil men wove around him and, in the end, he died to suit their needs. He died, however, an honorable man unstained by the wickedness around him.

Having a player commit to a character on an emotional level is not something you, as a GM, can force to happen. When it does happen, though, you wind up with some wonderful drama if you only decide to tap into it. I knew Serpico cared about Finn and about his men, so I squeezed him when I could so that the victory, when it came, was all the more sweet. Finn, along with Conrad Varner and Landar Marik, became cornerstones of Alandar’s past. Though I have changed who they were and what they did a fair amount, I have let those characters shape Alandar into the world it is now, thirty years since Finn’s death. It has, in a sense, given me my story. That, my friends, is a true gift, and much of the credit must be laid at the feet of my friend Serpico and the character he loved.

The Ten Commandments of Gamemastering

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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.