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Archive for the ‘Game Preparation’ Category

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.

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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?

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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.

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Even when I’m not the designated GM (and so have no prep to do between game nights), I still spend a lot of my free time on gaming stuff: sometimes writing down and working out ideas, but mostly just reading: reading gaming blogs and forums, reading gaming news and articles, and reading games.

Right now I’m reading Fate Core, which is simply the FATE rules abstracted from any setting and published as a stand-alone system.  Next I plan to read Savage Worlds (finally).

Probably my favourite movies of all time are the Indiana Jones films.  How could I best create such high-flying adventures at the table, and what system would I use?  That’s the question that’s always at the back of my mind as I’m reading new game systems.  I know it will take more than just the right system; probably the prep, the players’ approach to the game, and the GMing techniques, will be just as important as system.  I read games as much for the GMing advice as anything else.

Other questions on my mind as I read games:

  • Who authors the story: the players, the GM, or does everybody play to find out what happens?
  • How does this game make failure interesting?
  • How does this game help us to create surprising and intricate scenes, people, and plot twists?
    • Somewhere between “memorize this encyclopedia about this fictional world” and “make up the setting yourself!” is the sweet spot in which the game provides plenty of provocative setting elements, and inspires the players to mould their own game-world out of it.  Does this game lunge for the sweet spot?  Does it strike a bullseye?

 

Random tangent:

  • It would be instructive to play Microscope a few times in a row, and generate a bunch of very different game worlds.

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This is a retrospective and lessons-learned post.  I’m just coming to the end of running a Trail Of Cthulhu scenario for my gaming group.  It was my first Cthulhu game, my first investigative game, and my first time using the GUMSHOE system, so the learning curve was quite steep for me; fortunately, I had almost a year to prepare, as everyone in the four-person group rotates through the GM’s chair.

The game was set in 1933, and centred on an imaginary neighbourhood of New York City called Arkham.  The fishing community on the southern tip of Manhattan was all Deep One hybrids.  The employees of a rare book shop were Mythos-seeking Nazi operatives.  And the corrupt mayor and the mobsters were members of a coven of Yog-Sothoth wizards a-la Charles Dexter Ward.  I created all of the above in secret based on “creepy events and loose ends” in the PCs’ backstories as developed on char-gen night.

The game has gone well, over-all.  The sessions have been fun, the prep has played well, the players are enjoying it I think.  We’ve had six sessions plus the char-gen night, and it looks like we’ll have one more before the PCs’ arcs have largely run their courses (I was going to say “are solved,” but the protagonists don’t really solve anything in a Cthulhu game!).

Learnings:

Investigative games require the most work to prepare, especially if you are writing the scenario yourself.  I didn’t know this, going in.  I must have spent literally ten hours in preparation for every hour we have spent in play.  My notes comprise hundreds of pages.  Some of that was because I was learning to write and run an investigative game on the fly, but still: this kind of game requires a lot of prep.  I can see why published adventures are so popular in this genre.

I didn’t really tie clue discovery to the PCs’ skills; I just revealed clues based on the actions of the PCs.  In other words, I missed out on some system/fiction interaction.

First I went too slow, then too fast.  In the initial sessions, the PCs did a lot of investigating and interacting, but little else.  It was fun for me, watching them follow clues and uncover the mysteries that I had buried, but after a few sessions I realized that we’d barely touched the dice, and wondered if the players were really enjoying things as much as I was.  So, in later sessions, I pushed the action forward by triggering events (e.g. the Salfmores summon the Xothian) that I had been planning on saving until the players had gotten more involved in underlying intrigues.  This spiced up the action, but may have seemed arbitrary or confusing.

I didn’t make my NPCs sticky enough.  I think this is one reason that the PCs didn’t get involved in the half-buried intrigues as quickly or as deeply as I’d hoped they would.  Private Jones (Frank’s old army buddy, now a Shub-Niggurath acolyte and hanger-on of the Nazis), for example, should have been more insistent on dragging Frank into his schemes and obsessions.  The Brookhaven Trust (the Yog-Sothoth wizards) should have taken direct action against Rodney sooner.  Both Brookhaven and the Nazis should have taken more overt action to secure the treasures hidden in Jane’s gallery.

I had too many intrigues going on at once.  I have read only recently (in Hite’s Night’s Black Agents) that players can become confused and frustrated as the number of intrigues rises beyond one.  I had three.  In retrospect, I didn’t really need the Brookhaven Trust arc at all.  I think I just included it because I really wanted to play out the Charles Dexter Ward story.  Or maybe I was thinking: three PCs, three backstories, therefore three secret factions.  Anyway, just the Deep Ones and the Shub-Niggurath-worshipping Nazis would have been enough to engage with all three backstories.

I ended up writing out all the clues that the players had found, after each session, so that they would have a list to look at, next week.  Otherwise, I think they would have forgotten half of them before they could have followed up.  Extra work for me.  Not sure if this was strictly necessary.  I should have gotten them to do it.  With fewer intrigues, there would have been fewer outstanding clues at any one time, as well.

The clues I gave Jane (regarding her personal arc) didn’t lead anywhere.  She could do nothing to follow up on them; could only wait for me to drop the next one in her lap.  I should have designed her clues to point towards investigative opportunities, not just to be pieces of a puzzle to be eventually pieced together.

Action scenes should be a mix of things to fight and things to flee from.  The real conflict scenes are ones in which something horrifying is discovered, and the PCs must roll Stability or Sanity checks.

It’s great when a Horrible Truth targets a PC’s Drive, Pillar or Source, directly.   When Rodney realized that his father is transforming into a Deep One (fish man), and that he himself has Deep-One blood too and will one day transform, and failed that Stability roll and went all to pieces, that was a fantastic scene!  That was what Trail Of Cthulhu is all about.  I can’t wait to reveal the other two Horrible Truths, and see how the other two PCs handle it.

That’s all that comes to mind right now.  It has been a monumental game, with a huge R-map and a very complex 3-part intrigue.  The horrible revelations have been lots of fun to play out: a Stability or Sanity check is always an event; they are the moments about which this game turns.

I would play Trail Of Cthulhu again; maybe with a published module next time.

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Following an epiphany, I’m playing RPGs with the kids again, and enjoying it like never before.

It all started with a podcast.  I have listened to several explanations for the resurgent popularity of “Original D&D” (or “OD&D”) in its various incarnations from the 1974 pamphlet to the ’83 Basic Set (the “Red Box Set” that was this author’s first experience with RPGs and which lends its name to this blog), but have never really seen the point beyond basic nostalgia.  The original systems’ oft credited “simplicity,” in my view, was marred by the clunky inconsistency of rules which seemed to have “grown in the telling” (much like the game’s central source material).  And don’t many, many modern indy games offer a cleaner simplicity?

Then I listened to Canon Puncture’s Game Advocates episode in which Tavis Allison advocates for OD&D (Canon Puncture episode 99).  And finally, my penny dropped.  Tavis explained (and I’m probably going to mangle his reasoning here) that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Original D&D was fundamentally different from the editions that followed in one important respect: in OD&D, the adventure is meant to be improvised.  All later editions, in contrast, encouraged DMs to either use published adventure modules or to plan out the adventure ahead of play.

The charm of OD&D, then, is to embrace the random, sometimes nonsensical results of the random encounter rolls (and the equally-important reaction rolls) as keys for improvising the story in play.

I never liked the random monster encounter tables: at first, because they produced random results with no thematic or narrative connection (and later because random encounters can just slow the game down and frustrate players, but that’s another matter).  But Arneson’s intention was that these random inputs serve as inspiration for generating story on the fly, both the back-story and current events.

Example: The player-characters are travelling through a forest.  Random monster: Unicorn.  Reaction roll: Hostile.  Now, DM and players alike ask themselves: why is there a unicorn here, and why is this intelligent and noble creature feeling hostile towards us?  Maybe… maybe she is searching for her kidnapped offspring, and she suspects the group of being the kidnappers!  Yeah, cool!  Okay so, who did steal her foal, and for what purpose?  Let’s say… there’s an evil baron in a nearby castle, who ordered his huntsmen to bring him a unicorn for some black magic which he intents to perform!  What is the baron’s big plan, and what is this black magic supposed to accomplish for him?  Etc.  There: from two rolls of the dice, the group has brainstormed the framework for an interesting adventure.

What does this have to do with me gaming with my kids?  I always said I want to play RPGs with them more, but always got hung up on the pre-planning: either I didn’t have time, or didn’t think I had any good ideas.  But after having this realization, I just decided to wing it.

“Want to play D&D?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay, sit down, I’ll get my things!”

We played.  We improvised.  It was awesome.

In fact, it is working out better than any of my pre-planned sessions.  Kids love to have input to the story, and will grab ideas and run with them (in all directions!).  Instead of me worrying about how to steer them towards the next planned scene, I’m saying “Yes! And…”, and running right along with them.  The action is faster-paced, the players are more engaged, and I’m way less stressed.  Three thumbs up!

So, in the end, you don’t need to use the OD&D rules in order to embrace random-table-driven improvisational play.  I’m actually using a 3.5E hack for 6-year-olds that I’ve just developed.  That’ll be the subject of my next post.

Good gaming,

-Johnny

 

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As the GM, what you need in your hands for the next session is a list of Bangs and a pile of “Assets” (NPCs, monsters, demons, locations and items).  Here’s how you get there.

1. Review Player-Characters’ actions in the previous session.  What do you think they’ll do next?

  • List any new Assets you will need to support what the players (probably) want to do.
    Just list them for now.
  • Think up some more Bangs that you can use to add pressure to their current situations and plans.
    • List any new Assets that you’ll need to support those Bangs.

2. Think about each important NPC in turn (including PCs’ demons). (more…)

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