Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘GM prep’

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

At first, I thought that preparing an adventure meant writing out an entire module, just like the published ones, before play began.  So I used to do that.

Then, I learned that I only needed to prepare ahead as much as we were likely to need in the next session of play.  So I used to do that.  And I believed that, once the adventure was finished, my notes should look just like a published module.

I still prepare only one session ahead.  But now I have given up the idea that my notes have to be sorted into the same chapter headings as are used in published modules (Background Info, Encounters, NPCs and Monsters, for example).  The material that I prepare for the next session is likely to be all that I need for the next session, so there’s no need for me to divide it up and file it amongst everything that has come before,  And if I need to refer later to something from a previous session, it’s all there in my prep in chronological order.  Human memory works chronologically, so it turns out to be very easy to find things.

—————-

Wow, 2 years since my last post.  What I’m up to: I’m running Trail of Cthulhu for my main gaming group.  But of course, we’re not playing it straight — we story-gamified it.  The scenario was developed from material generated during character generation.  New York City, 1933, corruption, Deep Ones (fish people), ancient artifacts, some weird fertility cult in Central Park… We’re 4 sessions in, and it’s a LOT of fun.

-J

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

Okay I got the relationship map sorted out — and it’s HUGE.  Right now it’s actually on four different pieces of paper, and I’m not sure that I’m going to bother transcribing it all onto one (poster-sized) sheet; it would probably be too unwieldy anyway.  We’ve got:

  • inter-personal relations (good and bad)
  • inter- noble-house relations (good and bad)
  • several schemes in progress

This is going to be great fun.

Now I’m statting up (stat’ing up?) NPCs, demons and other critters and items.  LOTS of them.  They’re each half a page, to save table space (let me know if you want me to post my character sheet templates).

Then I’ve got to make up some Bangs (which should be easy, given all these ambitious NPCs and their clear motivations!), and detail some locations.

44 hours til game time!

When this is all over, I plan to polish up a bunch of this material and put it into the next revision of the Dictionary of Elric.  But first: the kick-assing’est game of Sorcerer & Sword, ever.

-J

Read Full Post »

The planning session went great.  The players came with the seeds of character concepts, and we jammed on each others ideas.  I had also prepared a list of questions that I wanted each player to answer about their character — I’ll post it later, some were from Sorcerer, some were setting-specific — and that spurred more conversation.

I especially loved it when the players proposed things to each other like “hey, can we say that our characters are brothers / I’m in love with your daughter / your uncle just knocked up my wife?”  These guys practically built their own tangled relationship map without any help from me!

Which is also the problem I’m now facing.   (more…)

Read Full Post »

The G.o.T.H. (Games on The Hill) players are gearing up for our first game of Sorcerer RPG, yours truly presiding.  We’ve had our planning session, and the game is scheduled to crack wide open in eleven days.  Today’s post is our One-Sheet, describing our “game concept” if you like, thematic direction and the selections we made in customizing the rules of play.

One-Sheet

Notes on Theme, Setting and Genre. Mention any inspirational material.

Casablanca, the movie (1942).  World War II real history was inspirational, but we are picking elements from it, not adopting real history wholesale into the game.

What is the setting: Location and Era?

Casablanca, late 1940.  Crossroads of refugees, outlaws, deserters and resistance fighters from all over the world, war profiteers, black marketeers, corrupt local officials and imperious German officers.  French Morocco is part of “unoccupied France,” but the Nazi army moves across and within its borders with impunity.  There is some unequal treatment of Jewish people in the setting, some ghettos (Mellahs), but no transportation or concentration (yet).  Jews can still operate businesses.  Nazis are searching Europe for objects of divine power and sorcerous lore.  Nazi occult researchers have turned up nothing real – with exceptions possible.

The events of this game will not be a proxy for the greater war at hand.  The players are not trying to defeat the Nazis single-handedly.  This game will be about the personal plights of the player characters – as any Sorcerer game should be – and the war is just part of the setting.

What are Demons?

Impossible beings, with fetishes that they want to play out in the real world.  There is no big demon conspiracy, although they can know each other, have friendships and rivalries.  Like inmates of the same mental institution.

All demons can communicate by speech during the Contact ritual.  Demons take on their Type upon being Summoned.

Demons take names when they first encounter the human world.  Therefore, mix of biblical, Arabic, Sumerian, Greek, Indian names, etc. and (rarely) some modern names.

What are Sorcerers/What is Sorcery?

People who know about real demons, and how to perform the rituals of sorcery.

What is Humanity?

Sanity/Empathy hybrid.  Your Humanity is your ability to empathize with others and to act with compassion.  It is also your ability to maintain a reasoned connection with the human world and society.

What acts risk reducing your personal Humanity?

Victimizing someone (demons don’t count).  Recklessly exposing the world to insanity or chaotic and dangerous forces.  Anything that permanently raises your Lore exposes you to ever greater insane concepts, and requires a Humanity check.  Contact, Summon and Bind rituals.

What acts can redeem your personal Humanity?

Acting in the best interest of others, even though it costs you.  Destroying a significant source of sorcerous lore.  Banishing a demon whose Power exceeds your Humanity score.

At zero Humanity, you are…

…a sociopath, a gibbering wreck.

Demons will…

…challenge and disrupt reality; bypass decency.

Humanity check to…

…keep your grip; understand others.

Rituals are based on…

…transgressing on someone; performing the ritual somewhere you’re not supposed to be, e.g. someone else’s house, or a public place.  Creates a permanent incongruity in space/time at the location (insanity manifest, alien geometry).

Descriptors: Stamina, Will and Lore taken straight from the book.

*  *  *

Next I’ll post the three character concepts, including backstories and kickers.  Then you’ll really know why I’m so excited to start this game!

Read Full Post »

(5th chapter in a book of thoughts and learnings from a GM who is studying Ron Edwards’ game of Sorcerer in preparation for his first game)

I have a bunch of posts in the works about the game’s unique dice mechanics, and they (the posts) assume that you’ve read the rulebook once but didn’t really get it (I didn’t). So to give you one more day to finish reading Sorcerer, here’s our to-do list for the pre-game session:

Things I Need To Prep Before Planning Session:

  • Names List for Demons

Sorcerer Pre-Game Session(s):

  1. Discuss the game. Any confusion w. the rules? Ready to move forward?
  2. Discuss setting: Era and location and flavour
  3. Brainstorm character concepts
  4. Discussion of types of stories of interest leads to meanings of: Humanity, Demons, Sorcery.
  5. Fill in top half of the One Sheet
  6. Crystalize character concepts:
    • Stats and descriptors (front of chr sheet)
    • Back stories, kickers, and some related “people, demons, places, possessions” (back of the sheet)
  7. Draw “Relationship Map A”, 3 distinct characters and their related people, demons, places, possessions. Maybe 3 disctinct constellations, but merge where appropriate/interesting.
  8. PCs roll up starting Demons
  9. GM makes copies of all PCs and PC-Demons

Your Kicker Should Be:

  • immediate and urgent — impossible for your PC to ignore
  • personal (ties in to something on the back of your sheet – though your chr doesn’t have to know how, yet)

Your Backstory Should:

  • explain how and why you became a sorcerer
  • tie into your kicker
  • describe the circumstances of acquiring your first demon
  • introduce some people whom you need and/or care about

GM Prep After First Session:

  1. Review Kickers and backstories.  Merge PC’s relationship map and GM’s secret relationship map.
  2. Create and detail-out NPCs & demons, their motivations and goals, and where the juicy conflicts lie.
  3. Review PCs’ demons. Make changes as necessary. Consider personality of each.
  4. Plan some Bangs. A bunch of Bangs. A variety of Bangs.
  5. Create any other details required by Kickers and Bangs: maps, locations, stats of bad guys and their demons, etc.
  6. Write short descriptions of people, demons, rituals, places, etc. with an emphasis on creating ATMOSPHERE. To give your GMing some imagery and flavour.
  7. a Demons Sheet: one page to track PC demons: binding strengths, mood vs rebellion, Need and feeding, etc.

Read Full Post »

I want to let the players define the game’s setting, theme and story as much as possible. I just have some guidelines in mind.

Required Reading:

Just the main Sorcerer rulebook. Although reading Chapter-1 of Sorcerer’s Soul will certainly up your game.

Standard Setting:

Since this is our first Sorcerer game, let’s keep it simple, and save our grand creative outbursts for subsequent games. I know there is no “standard setting” in the rulebook, but let’s borrow unabashedly from the examples provided. We’ll pick our definition of Humanity from one of the four offered in the book (pg44, or Sorcerer’s Soul pg16).

And unless you’re feeling especially inspired, feel free to lift your PC’s Score descriptions, Price, Kicker type (pg35) and maybe even your whole character concept (ideas pg37-38) right from the book.

Demons:

There’s a wide range of possible definitions of Demons given in the book (pg58), from “fallen angels” to “fighter jets with AI.” I’d like to stick to a fairly traditional definition of Demons: extraplanar creatures, banished djinni, spirits of the dead, something like that. Beings that have a crappy half-existence Elsewhere, but really prefer to mix it up with humans on our plane.

The One-Sheet:

By the time we are ready to begin play, we will have filled in all the blanks on the One-Sheet, which is a handy one-page summary of our game parameters, and which looks like this:

  • Notes on Theme, Setting and Genre (mention any inspirational material)
  • What are Demons?
  • What are Sorcerers/What is Sorcery?
  • What is Lore?
  • What is Humanity?
  • —–What acts risk reducing your personal Humanity?
  • —–What acts can redeem your personal Humanity?
  • —–At zero Humanity, you are…
  • —–Demons will…
  • —–Humanity check to…
  • —–Rituals are based on…
  • What is the setting: Location and Era?
  • Descriptors: Stamina, Will, and Lore

Again, since we’re using the examples offered in the book as much as possible, it won’t take us long to answer these questions. I’ll send out a filled-in One-Sheet after our pre-game session. It will replace this, becoming the GM’s hand-out.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »