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I don’t get enough gaming.

I listen to gaming podcasts during my commute.  Sometimes I’m really inspired by what I hear, or I pick up some great advice that I want to apply to my gaming.  But then I forget most of it.  What I really need to do is take notes, or blog afterwards about what inspired me.  But who has time for that?  When I’m listening, I’m driving.  When I stop listening, I’m at work, or I’m arriving home and it’s family time.

Narrative Control, the podcast, is my latest discovery (I’ll post a list of good RPGing podcasts one of these days).  In their episode about mysteries, they started out talking about how to give effective clues that engage players, and ended up coming to a really interesting conclusion: that setting establishment and clue revelation can look very much the same from the players’ point of view.  For example, in your first session, an advisor is seen arguing with the prince.  Is this setting establishment, i.e. this advisor is argumentative or the prince encourages open dialogue or the court is wrestling with a thorny problem; or is this a clue, i.e. this advisor is so desperate about something that he dares to argue with his prince in public?  If this is supposed to be a clue, but the social rules of the setting haven’t already been firmly established, then the players aren’t going to get it.

Another good point was that every clue revelation should also be, or be coincident with, a call to action.  The players’ reaction to a clue should never be allowed to be “oh well that’s interesting I guess.”  Either the clue directly drives them into action, or at least some kind of action should be coincident with them finding the clue.  Players want to DO stuff, and unraveling a mystery is rarely top of their list.  There’s a fine line between puzzlement and frustration.  Give the players opportunities to take action and be awesome, to keep it fun and to cement the clues in their minds.

I’m thinking back to the game that we most recently wrapped.  I wasn’t GMing this one.  It happened a few times that the GM revealed some fact and we all went “huh,” and then he had to follow up by saying something like: “just like the one you saw in the cave, remember?” or “that’s the name that the Earl’s daughter heard in her dream, remember?”  Clearly this was meant to be a big “ah-hah” moment for us, but we needed it to be spelled out.  I’m not criticizing the GM; I think he did it better than I did in my Elric campaign.  I remember having to do the same thing a lot, explaining the implications of new facts or reminding the players who key NPCs were and which noble house they belonged to.  I think I had just made my intrigues too sprawling and complex, and my clues too subtle, forgetting that I was fully immersed in this setting every night, whereas the players encountered it one night every two weeks.  Anyway, I think both of us could learn a few things from this podcast.

So, rules for running a mystery or intrigue effectively:

  • Strongly establish the setting first
  • Use the reactions of NPCs to show social rules, or show that a social rule has been broken
  • Keep intrigues relatively simple.  You can ramp up the complexity in subsequent scenarios in the same setting
  • Don’t be subtle with clues
  • Make every clue a call to action, or coincident with a reason to act
  • Make things personal for the PCs: have developments directly affect them or their loved ones or assets

There were a lot of other good points in the podcast that I’m already forgetting.  I need to listen to it again and make notes.

Tangent: Zero-Prep GMing

My group has been talking about moving to zero-prep GMing as a way to continue gaming when we’re all too busy to prep a game.  And I realized something this morning.  Zero-prep GMing doesn’t just entail a change of approach for the GM.  Zero prep entails a different style of play for the players, too.  The responsibility for creating and running the world can be more shared by everybody.  In an early episode of Narrative Control, they mention a technique from John Wick’s book Play Dirty, in which NPCs are farmed out to the players.  When you interact with the innkeeper, somebody besides the GM plays him.  When you’re called in to talk to your station chief, one of the other players takes up the role.  This gives the players greater agency to establish things in the setting, which ultimately makes the game better for everybody.  This could be expanded to other elements besides NPCs.

This is a train of thought that I want to explore some more.  Zero-prep GMing kind-of scares me.  But if we can figure out zero-prep playing, then we could end up supercharging our whole play experience.

-J

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I recently discovered a new game that blew my mind when I read it: Swords Without Master, by Epidiah Ravachol.

Its genre is sword & sorcery — think Conan the Barbarian, although the author specifically cites Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories as inspiration.

What blew my mind was the game mechanics.  They are entirely focused on directing and inspiring storytelling.  There is no conflict resolution mechanic!  The dice are used to set the tone of narration, to trigger plot twists, to cue a new mystery, but never to determine a character’s success or failure (sometimes they’ll do that anyway, but that won’t be why you’re rolling).

It is as if the author asked himself: “Can I distill short-story writing down to a formula?  Now, can I make the formula into a group activity?  Now can I add rules and dice to make it fun?” And Swords Without Master is the result.  It’s group improv story-telling, with just enough direction from the rules to challenge and inspire, and to bring forth story elements like themes, morals, tension, and pacing.

Upon first read, it seemed completely different than anything else I’d ever seen.  Now, I can see the family resemblance to other story games like Fiasco (which I’ve only read) and 1001 Nights (which I’ve only read about).

It’s clear from the manuscript that Ravachol knows and loves the genre, and the art of writing.  The game text is economical and evocative like a good short story.

Just as interesting is the game’s packaging.  Ravachol publishes an e-zine of sword & sorcery short fiction and games, called Worlds Without Master.  This game, Swords Without Master, was included in issue 3.  The game was arguably his reason for starting the zine, and all of the zine’s other articles (thus far) can be seen as supplemental or inspirational material for the game.

I haven’t played the game yet.  But I know that I have to.  Not only because I’m a big fan of sword & sorcery fiction, but because one of my big fascinations with role-playing games (and fiction) is to explore the secrets of story structure.  This game does that directly.  My only question is: will any of my regular gaming buddies want to try it?

-J

Circle of Hands

2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.

-J

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?