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Just discovered another good gaming blog: Deeper In The Game by… I can’t find his name on the blog — I think he posted on The Forge as Chris Chinn.  I’m enjoying the posts about gaming and GMing.  I’m lost when he writes about anime/manga, but these subjects tend to be in separate posts.

Big Stakes GMing: Gamble Everything
A good, short post about the joys of what I call Story-Now GMing: how to do it and why it’s funner.
NB: “Illusionism” is the new term for “railroading,” I gather.  Kids today…

Improvising NPCs: “X but Y”
A good little formula for creating interesting NPCs on the fly.

Lots more to explore here, the blog goes back to 2007.

But unlike Ol’ Blue Eyes, I think mine are worth mentioning.  And pondering, and learning from.  My regrets are the big “Dead End” signs on the road to improving as a GM and a player.  I want to remember where they are so I can steer clear of them in future.

I remember the time…

…when Ryan was in a duel to the death with Yrkoon over the Runeswords, Stormbringer and Mourneblade. Ryan was about to be defeated, which would have meant the annihilation of his character’s soul. The stakes were absolutely clear. We all looked at each other in horror – it should have been a great moment – and I fudged a rule to allow him one more round. He won the duel. I think we all felt dirty after that moment, like we’d cheated ourselves.

My mistake was not being willing to let the PCs fail, not trusting in our ability to make failure interesting – even though defeat in that duel would have meant the end of Ry’s character. That kind of curveball is what drives emergent story at the table! I should have been willing to let it happen. Ry would have re-entered the story as another character, we would have turned it into something interesting.  Instead, we went for the hollow happy ending.

I remember the time…

…when, in the first session of a new campaign, the PCs captured and disarmed the guy whom I was going to turn into the master villain! I panicked, I was seeing all my carefully laid plans spiraling down the toilet – and I engineered the villain’s immediate escape.

My mistake was that I took away the players’ agency. They were driving the story by taking bold and provocative action, and I shut them down. I made them adjuncts to MY vision, instead of partners in storytelling. I strongly regret it now.

My other mistake was that I was too attached to my own plans. I didn’t have faith in my ability to still build a cool (but different) story around an unexpected outcome. It would have been simple: this would-be villain was the head of a family of powerful politicians and sorcerers. Kidnapping him as the PCs did would have instantly set off a war between noble houses! And the patriarch’s nephew would have made a fine arch enemy in his place. But I couldn’t see any of that, I had panicked.  I should have rolled with it.

I have more regrets, but those are the biggest that rattle around in my head.  If I can take the lessons from these, then I’ll make big strides towards becoming the kind of GM that I want to be.

-J

Just Gaming Stuff

At the moment, I’m really enjoying the 2 GMs 1 Mic podcast (www.2GMs1Mic.com).  The main segments are a bit hit-and-miss, but the regular segment Favourite Game Of The Week is a great way to hear about other role-playing games from some very enthusiastic reviewers.  They cover three new games every week; as a result, the list of RPGs that I want to buy, read and play is growing at an impossible rate.  The only solution is that I’m going to have to retire now and dedicate my life to gaming.  My first task is to find out which game comes in the biggest cardboard box, so I can live in it.

Their Currently Playing segments are also interesting, as they deconstruct their latest play sessions (actual play).  Like me, they’re in a couple of different gaming groups and that switch game systems very regularly.  Currently Playing is a great chance to get an in-depth look at games that I haven’t played yet, and to get other gamers’ perspectives on games that I have.  I’m still trying to understand why they like Dresden Files so much (I’ll gripe about Dresden in another post).

Since my main gaming group is having some extreme problems with scheduling at the moment (there’s real life interfering with gaming again), listening to 2 GMs 1 Mic and Ken And Robin Talk About Stuff comprises just about all my “gaming” right now. *sigh*

Also, I made an interesting connection recently.  I was introduced (virtually) to a friend of a friend of a friend, because we’re both big gamer-heads.  Sky Roy thinks a lot about what makes games work (or not work), and writes about it on his gamer blog, Bright Cape Gamer.  He has also put his learnings into practice and written his own fantasy RPG that fixes some of his biggest peeves about D&D and similar games.  The game (in beta), and the reasons for its existence, can be read here: Heroes By Trade.  Feedback and AP are welcome.  I’m really looking forward to reading the beta (and maybe playing it), but haven’t started yet, because these days my free time seems to come in 10-minute chunks, and trying to grok a game that way is frustrating.  I’ll wait til I can dedicate a couple of hours to it.  Meanwhile, I’ve been reading his blog, and I think that he’s my kind of gamer.

So in short, while I’m not gaming, I’m consuming blogs and podcasts that make me want to game more than ever.  It’s like being lost in the desert and reading foodie magazines.  Hope you’re having better luck!

-J

Pulped

It’s funny how, once you become aware of an idea, you notice it everywhere.  Some people call it “The Secret,” but there’s nothing supernatural about it, it’s just statistics and psychology.  Anyway, now that I’m thinking about pulp adventure gaming, it keeps coming up.  The latest 2 episodes of 2 GMs 1 Mic’s podcast (2013 Ep.17 and 2013 Ep.18) have been partly about pulp adventure gaming using Savage Worlds.  And they got me thinking…

The big thing that I have to figure out before I run a pulp campaign is: What makes a pulp plot, and how can I achieve that at the table?  There is some information in Spirit Of The Century, some in the above-mentioned podcasts, and really I have only just begun my research.  Pulp plots are a lot of things, including fast-paced.  So I was just thinking: could we do one complete adventure (“episode”) per session?  With a hard deadline, I/the GM would be driving towards a climax when there’s about 30 minutes left in the session.  Scene-setting and “editing” would be necessarily quick and snappy.  But I think maybe one 3-hour session is not enough time for a decent adventure, if there is to be any tactical content at all.

Well then, how could we do it in say three sessions?  We would still need a meaningful deadline for each session.  The three-act structure fits nicely into that schedule.  Something like:

  • Session 1:  The PCs face an unexpected danger, escape, then investigate and discover the real cause (ie. Villain!).
  • Session 2:  Pursuit.  Things get worse, leading to Certain Doom (Cliffhanger!).
  • Session 3:  PCs escape the Certain Doom, there is a Plot Twist, leading to the Final Showdown (Climax!)

So, every session, you’re driving towards either a big revelation, a cliffhanger ending or a climactic showdown.  That sounds doable!  Now, would it achieve the desired effect, or just make us all feel harried?

All four of us in my gaming group are serious, serious gamers, we like the same types of games, and we get along great.  But despite all that, each of us brings very different games to the table.  We all take turns choosing the game and GMing.  Mike is very plugged in to the online indie gaming scene, and brings us the new hotness.  Ryan is on a lifelong quest to discover or build the perfect story-gaming system.  Peter’s tastes run to the crunchy, and he loves superhero games.  And me, well…

When I look at the history of the games that I have nominated and run, there are both expected and unexpected trends:

I’m attracted to settings more than systems.  I know that system is vitally important to the gaming experience, but when I read a new game and go “hell yeah I want to play that,” it’s usually because the fictional content (or “fluff”) has grabbed me.  I find this especially when reading the GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, et al.  I don’t even particularly like the GUMSHOE system, but these games have evocative, detailed settings that are ripe for drama and adventure.  Setting-rich games are kind-of a problem with my group, though, which tends to prefer games with a low barrier to entry (i.e. not having a lot of setting material to memorize before the game can begin).  When I run a game, I tend to spend a lot of time developing setting and backstory content, and then trying to figure out how I’ll introduce it all during play (without boring exposition scenes).

But system IS important.  I like systems that aren’t too crunchy; I don’t want to have to keep flipping through the rulebook during the game.  A system should have explicit mechanics for driving the story forward and in unexpected directions.  I want to be surprised, even as the GM.  We end up mixing and matching systems and settings quite a bit.  For example, I ran a game in the Elric! (a.k.a Stormbringer) setting using the Sorcerer and Sword system (with great success).  But paradoxically, reading setting-free system rulebooks (e.g. Fate Core) leaves me cold.  I need some sets and costumes with my rules, even if I’ll never use them.

Sorcery, ghosts and demons.  These are favourite genres of mine that I keep coming back to.  I feel like there’s something about forbidden knowledge and Things That Should Not Be Named that I haven’t successfully invoked at the gaming table yet; but I can’t say exactly what that is.  I’ll keep exploring these genres until I do.

I just finished my turn in the GM’s chair, so my next opportunity to pick the game is probably a year away.  Still, I’m always reading new RPGs and supplements, and of course I want to play just about all of them.  Maybe looking back at my previous selections will help me to narrow down on what I’m really looking for.  Or maybe I’ll decide to try something completely different.

Way Point

I have the urge to write about two dozen gaming posts.  For now I’ll just list the topics, and hopefully I’ll get to them all over the next year or so…

  • My favourite games, and why I like them
  • Games I haven’t played but want to
  • Games I’ve read but will probably never play
  • What kind of gamer am I
  • Some game reviews, maybe

I know these are all pretty inward-looking topics.  I don’t know if they’d be of interest to anyone else, but some of these are things that I’d like to get out of my head and onto e-paper.

Speaking of Indiana Jones…

I had just said that I’m always on the look-out for games and techniques that can re-create the fast-paced action and wonder of the old adventure serials, as exemplified (and resurrected) by the Indiana Jones movies.  Well, I found a game that sets out to do just that.  And if the term “award-winning” has any merit, then this game does it very well.

Spirit Of The Century RPG, by Evil Hat Productions.  Yes, one of the very Fate-powered games that sired the Fate Core System book which I’m currently reading and assessing for its Indiana-Jones-ness.  How ironic.

I would love to play this game.  But then, I say that about every game I read.  I put down SotC momentarily to read an article it references, “THE PULP AVENGERS: Game Mastering Pulp Adventures in the 1930s and 1940s,” by Brian Misiaszek, 1994.  The article characterizes pulp adventures this way: “Some features of the pulp genre include its simple morality of good versus evil, masked and cloaked heroes and heroines, devious villains and their schemes, gun-wielding desperados, cliffhanger endings, weird science, and a world still lush with unexplored places and lost races.”

I can think of two people who would have a problem with the “simple morality of good vs evil” part.  One of them is me.  I prefer games (and stories) that explore the meanings of “good” and “evil,” not treat them as absolutes.  We live in a reality in which the the greatest villains seize power, amass fortunes and subjugate millions without ever breaking a law; and meanwhile, common people have to fight the police just to protect their homes and defend their rights.  Fiction with clear-cut good-guys and bad-guys is too much of an escape for my tastes.  I like some meat with my potatoes.

But nothing says that complex moral questions are incompatible with fearless protagonists, zeppelin chases, crazy gadgets, exotic locations and cliffhanger scene cuts.  I think we could take what we want from the pulp-era adventures, and play our kind of game.

- – -

P.S.: If I do get to play  Spirit of the Century, we will probably use the mechanics from the later-published Fate Core System.  Although they’re both Fate games, the latter benefits from years of playing the former, and includes some system improvements.  For example, SotC instructs players to come up with ten Aspects for their characters.  In Fate Core, the author recommends five, explaining that ten proved too onerous and unnecessarily complicating.

Caveat: at this writing, I’m only halfway through reading Fate Core, and about 10% into Spirit of the Century.

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