Friday, 31 May 2013

Interlude: An Ashley Tale

"Hi there, Internet jerks. My name is Ashley and I am the Queen of the Fucking Universe."

"You're probably wondering why my jerk Dad isn't here today to write about games or other Things That Suck Because They Aren't Me. It's because I have FUCKING GRIEVANCES. You better listen too, or else."

"Here I am sleeping with my Mom, who is also a jerk, but we was all comfy like when Dad comes along with his stupid fucking camera."

"Here's me saying 'Dad, you're RUINING IT, you fat idiot.' "

"Here is me saying 'FUCK BOTH OF YOU JERKS. I'M OUT OF HERE.' "

"Here is me coming to kick Dad in his fat stupid ass."

"Here's me saying 'I will end you, fat man.' "

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

Over coffee and pastries this morning, I was chatting with friends about gaming. Most of that was telling stories about games we'd been playing recently -- most of us were still warm-and-fuzzy about the penultimate episode of our Deadlands game last night. At one point, though, my friend Colin (who is running the aforementioned game) made a point that I thought was worth following up. I think it's true from both sides of the screen.

I'm not going to quote him exactly, because I can't remember his exact words (I'm old). But the spirit of it was this: it doesn't matter what you have planned, or how much you've thought about something, when it comes time to explore something in game play (whether it's a character concept or a campaign concept) you often abandon all that completely and take a different tack than you were expecting.

As a player, this is a kind of instinct. You can have all kinds of ideas about what will work as a character, but find that somehow it all rings false when you attempt to play it out at the table. I've seen players struggle to find the right note to play a character, when they came to the table feeling like they knew exactly where they were going with it. Others realize that an idea that was good in the abstract just doesn't work in practice.

For myself, when I feel like I've found the right "voice" for a character I know I'm good to go. As I've written before, I'm a "funny voices" kind of guy; my characters as a player and my NPCs as a GM all tend to have very distinctive voices. If I start speaking and it feels right, I have no worries the character will work. When I was playing my postapocalyptic barbarian character Magnus, I had the idea of making him talk like (my poor imitation of) Clint Eastwood, and that made the character gel in my brain.

Another time, in university, my friend Kathryn was beginning a Forgotten Realms game and I thought I had a concept that would be fun -- a Zorro-style masked avenger character, complete with outrageous name ("The Scarlet Brigand"). Somehow, when I sat down at the table to play him, I couldn't make that concept come to life. As soon as my mouth opened, the voice that emerged was a different character than the one I expected. My instincts told me that my concept was wrong, and thank goodness I trusted them. The character I went on to play still had the same swashbuckling style, but was totally different from what I had planned. He went on to be an all-time favourite of mine.

My friend Colin had intended to play his fiery street mage character Egan Connelly (in my recently-mentioned Shadowrun game) with a full Irish accent. He even went so far as to get himself audio lessons in speaking with that accent. Somehow, it didn't feel right to him at the table, and he quickly abandoned it. You have to do what works.

For the GM, the same is true. You often go into a campaign with all kinds of ideal images in your mind of what the game will be like, but I don't think a single game I've ever run has turned out the way I pictured it. Part of that is the fact that GMing is by its nature a collaborative art, and your ideas not only should but MUST change as the players interact with the material. The GM must learn to accept changes gracefully, to improvise when things take an unexpected turn, and riff off the choices and interactions made by the players.

Graham Walmsley wrote persuasively in his excellent book Play Unsafe that in a roleplaying game it's a mistake to try to plan too much, to be able to do or say the perfect thing at a given moment. It's enough to do the boring thing, the thing that feels right in the moment; this leads to scenes that feel more true, and drama that's less contrived.

In other words, trust your instincts.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Teasers Cont'd - Shadowrun

Yesterday I talked about my technique of using scripted scenes called Teasers and Codas to begin and end an episode. Here's an example of a teaser I wrote for the first session of SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED.



The camera frames the Space Needle, its distinctive outline establishing the place as the camera begins to pull back, revealing the skyline of 2050. We see a crowded mixture of old, decaying skyscrapers and neon-lit, futuristic corporate towers. The Aztechnology pyramid looms in the background, its ziggurat terraces surrounded by small flying vehicles, and as we pull further back, we see the shape of the RENRAKU ARCOLOGY appear in the foreground, a massive green glass shape towering nearly 300 stories to dominate the Seattle skyscape.

The camera pulls back more quickly – back, back, across miles of increasingly-decaying SUBURBS, with the Renraku Arcology still a huge, recognizable shape in the distance – to a ROOFTOP in the Barrens. The camera settles just behind the shoulder of MUIRIN CONNELLY, a short, slim dark-haired woman in her twenties.


She holds up a bottle of pills. The bottle is three-quarters empty. We can see that her hand is partially bandaged, and there are patches of blackened, burned skin on the back of her knuckles.


Muirin pops a pill in her mouth and dry-swallows. She turns as we hear a voice behind her.

KARYAN (off-screen, initially)
Keegan’s looking for you again. I never saw you, but you better make yourself scarce if you don’t want to get dragged into another three-hour meditation session.

We see KARYAN ARONYAN step into the frame from a door that opens on the roof. She is an athletic, muscular young woman with dark hair and olive skin.

MUIRIN (quietly)
Thanks Karyan.

…How many more days you got?

Not enough.

We’ll get more. Somehow. We’ll go back to Shanghai—

We burned up all our nuyen getting here. We either work it out here, or… that’s it.

Muirin begins to clamber down the ladder of a rusty fire escape, disappearing from the roof. Karyan steps up to the edge of the roof, where Muirin was a moment ago. She gazes for a moment at the shape of the Renraku Arcology in the distance, her body going suddenly tense. We ZOOM IN CLOSE on her left hand, hanging by her side.

Karyan makes a fist, and we hear her KNUCKLES POP. Suddenly, we hear the sound of ALARM CLAXONS in the distance.



Now Karyan is standing near the door of a well-appointed corporate executive office. She is wearing skin-tight black battle gear, with a pair of short Japanese swords strapped to her back, and many small throwing blades strapped to her arms and legs. MUIRIN is standing by her side, with an assault rifle in her hands…


The camera continues to pull back, then turns to reveal CAT COTE, a dark haired woman in her late teens, sitting at a sleek computer terminal, and KEEGAN CONNELLY, a thin, intense dark-haired man, standing at her side. We see GREEN PHOSPOR NUMBERS scrolling on Cat’s eyes.

CAT (a little distant)
Tac team, south corridor. Twenty seconds.

Right on schedule. They’re all yours, ladies.

KARYAN (stretching to limber up)
About time we got some action.

Shock and awe, baby. Me first.

Karyan and Muirin bump fists as Muirin pops the pin on a grenade with her other hand. She palms the door controls and it cycles open. She tosses the grenade and the CAMERA FOLLOWS IT DOWN THE HALL, and everything begins to shift into SLOW MOTION.


THE GRENADE BURSTS into a cloud of smoke, filling the corridor. We see a group of corporate security guards wearing Knight Errant uniforms rounding a corner. They slow to a stop when they meet the thickening grey cloud, and as they do the camera dips back through the cloud to show the door – just as it opens again and MUIRIN pivots around the corner with her rifle blazing. She fires a series of tight bursts down the corridor, cutting into the group of guards. She pivots back as Karyan runs though the door and down the corridor toward the guards. We see that many of the guards have been hit by Muirin’s burst, but others are bringing up their guns to shoot. Karyan is moving incredibly quickly (without the slow-mo we’d barely be able to follow her) and she runs UP THE LEFT WALL as the guards begin to shoot, kicking off near the roof to perform an acrobatic twist in midair and land right in the middle of the guards. CUT BACK TO REGULAR SPEED as she unloads a series of machine-gun punches and kicks all around her. Pow, pow, guards cry out and drop. SWITCH BACK TO SLOW-MO as she turns and launches a glowing fist at the last standing guard, lifting him off his feet with the force of the blow and sending him sliding back down the corridor on the polished tile floor.

REGULAR SPEED. Karyan stretches her neck as we see the rest of the team emerge from the smoke cloud behind her.

Got it. Dust-off in four minutes.

The group begins moving quickly down the corridor toward a bank of elevators.

Security team on the roof?

Twenty men, hardened positions. Good cover.

Looks like we have to earn our pay after all.

I’m already there.

The group steps onto an open elevator. As the doors begin to cycle closed, the CAMERA zooms in and we can see CAT’S EYES continue to flash with green numbers and symbols…


We see a tactical team on the roof facing the elevator. They are heavily armed, and training their rifles and grenade launchers on the elevators from positions of heavy cover. We see them tense up, taking careful aim as the elevator gets closer, when we see a DARK SHAPE appear in the air behind them. The camera shifts focus, and we can see an AERIAL DRONE behind the security guys, hovering and taking aim with a machinegun. One of the guards turns slightly, but an instant too late – the drone opens up, and the guards begin to scream and return fire, turning from the elevator. The camera turns from the firefight and ZOOMS IN on the elevator door just as it cycles open, stopping just in front of KEEGAN’S FACE. We see Keegan let out a long breath, and a streak of FIRE erupts from his mouth. The camera whips around and we see an EXPLOSION OF FLAMES in the midst of the guards, engulfing the center of their group. Muirin charges out and lays down cover fire.

Go go go!

The group breaks from the elevator and runs across the rooftop toward a large asphalt landing pad. As they arrive, we see a THUNDERBIRD rise up beyond the edge of the roof – a hovering vehicle much like a military helicopter without the rotors or the tail. Muirin and Keegan turn to lay down cover fire as Karyan and Cat leap aboard the ship. Keegan drops back and jumps aboard, and the CAMERA ZOOMS IN AND FOLLOWS as Muirin turns to run. We shift into SLO-MO as she runs, bullets from the remaining guards hitting the asphalt all around her. As she jumps for the Thunderbird, everything freezes for a moment and the camera points down – showing us the SHEER CLIFF FACE below, dropping hundreds of feet to the pounding surf. The action unfreezes as Muirin jumps aboard and the Thunderbird lurches forward.


We see the Thunderbird dive from the roof edge, dropping down the cliff face at hair-curling speed before pulling up and kicking in powerful thrusters only a dozen feet from the surface of the water. We see the cliffside corporate complex disappearing behind the ‘bird. There is a sudden EXPLOSION that splits the cliff in several places, and we see the structure begin crumbling into the sea.


In the body of the Thunderbird, the team is strapping in. Karyan and Muirin bump fists. Cat folds up her combat ‘deck into a black nylon case and passes Keegan a DATA WAFER the size of a fingernail.

KARYAN (still wired)
This is bullshit. I hardly even worked up a sweat.

We’re done. Clean sweep. What more do you want?

More of a challenge, grandma.

I’m glad to get back to San Francisco. I still got time for a nap before my date tonight.

MUIRIN (laughing)
Tonight? Cocky bitch!

What? It was a milk run. You all said so.

As they talk, the camera drifts forward into the COCKPIT, where we see the pilot opening the throttle and angling the Thunderbird out over the Pacific. The camera moves in closer, and the CONSOLE BECOMES TRANSPARENT for a moment. We can see a small brick of PLASTIC EXPLOSIVE wired in there, with a digital counter quickly winding down…

CAT (cont’d, off-screen)
Nothing to worry about…

There is a FLASH AND AN EXPLOSION from the cockpit, and the scene changes to confusion. The cabin is full of smoke. The cockpit is a smoldering ruin, and we can see the pilot’s slumped remains. We see brief glimpses of the team, torn up by shrapnel: Muirin is unconscious, her face bloody. Keegan struggles to free himself from his restraints, but finds them jammed, and reaches for a combat knife. Karyan is bloodied and disoriented.

…Where’s Cat? WHERE’S CAT? She was thrown out..!

Karyan dives from the side of the Thunderbird just as it begins to auger in toward the water. Keegan cuts himself free and throws his arm around Muirin’s shoulders, dragging her toward the open side door. He hurls the two of them out just as the Thunderbird hits with an almighty CRASH and we


Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Teaser and Coda

Something that has become a signature part of my style as a GM is the use of scripted cut-scenes during play. This is something that many players greet with skepticism (or even open hostility) the first time they encounter it, and I was no exception to the rule.

Cover for BB2. The painting is really top-notch.
The first time the technique registered with me was when I played a scenario out of the Call of Cthulhu book Blood Brothers 2, and I didn't like it at all. The idea of that collection was to present horror adventures (minus the Mythos) in the style of not-very-good old horror movies. The one I played was called "An Alien Kicked Sand in My Face", and was in the style of old Frankie-and-Annette beach party movies with the added twist of alien invaders.

What I remember about the scripted bits was that they inserted themselves into the story during the ending, so that stuff that would ordinarily be in the hands of the players to do actually happened on the printed page. That chafed with me at the time, in much the same way that some people hate the FMV cut-scenes in games like Metal Gear Solid. Why was I reading this, instead of playing it?

Slight aside: Thinking back on it now, some of the "text box" material in earlier TSR D&D adventures -- particularly those in the Dragonlance series and other adventures by Tracy & Laura Hickman -- came close to the same technique. The idea being to frame the action and highlight key scenes with formal elements that made the adventure hang together more like a story, or -- in the case of BB2, a movie. The original Ravenloft adventure comes with an optional scripted scene ending the narrative, and includes a few scenes that are fleshed out in the text. The same is true of Pharaoh. Both of those adventures are among my favourites of all-time, and probably among the earliest that I ran as a DM. 

So BB2 put me off the idea, but with the passage of time I returned to it about ten years later. I was working on a new campaign for the Angel RPG (the Joss Whedon one, not a game about literal angels) and had decided that I could punch it up by emphasizing the "TV-ness" of the material. The core book did a good job of talking about the conventions of the game through the lens of television, and I wanted to take it a step further.

I was thinking of a game that was more episodic than typical RPGs I had played up to that point, with short, contained stories that built into an arc exactly like a TV show. What if I created little framing scenes around each episode, just like the "teaser" and "coda" scenes that close a large number of shows (and often Buffyverse shows in particular). I had taken a course in screenwriting since my initial experience with BB2, and so I had skills that seemed to be well-suited to the task.

I had seen reference to the technique of "cut scenes" in roleplaying games before (probably in R. Talsorian Games' grab bag of ideas for the Cyberpunk game, Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads, which I still think is jammed with good stuff and unfairly dismissed because of the chapter on screwing over players who get too big for their britches). They seemed usually to consist of the GM describing a scene where the players were not present, with the GM taking the parts of any characters present. This seemed less than ideal. Besides, this seemed another intrusion into the middle of the adventure that was probably best left to players. A frame seemed less shoehorned into the action (although I occasionally use this technique now myself).

I introduced the scripts to my group with the proviso that they were an experiment, and if they didn't like them, the scripts would not return. Fortunately for me, they embraced them. (It helped that most of my players had at least a little background in theatre. This was familiar territory.)

In play, we found that they gave a satisfying sense of "roundness" and closure to each session -- something that I still strive for, many years later, which ultimately drove me toward shorter campaigns with a tighter structure. They allowed me to include players in delivering what would be exposition in most other games -- I was simply able to put the important words into the mouths of the PCs, rather than having to info-dump the important story points. Any time you can get players participating, rather than spectating, that's a good thing and well worth your effort.

The scripts also functioned on the level of signal to my players that the game was about to begin, helping to get everyone's attention focused in the same direction. (What reminded me of the scripts in the first place was my idea of including a theme song for the series, as a Pavlovian signal to my players that it was Game Time and the chatter should stop. If that sounds awful -- and it kind of is -- you're forgetting those evenings when the table talk goes on and on. I'm not sure the theme songs ever worked the way I was hoping they would, but I liked them and still use them today. The scripts fill the same role much more effectively.) They also played a nice structural place in the session as a way to build anticipation for the next episode -- I'd drop a little hint of Awesome Things To Come, and boom! Instant anticipation of the next session.

There are a couple of qualifications to this that bear mentioning. Firstly, some players are never going to be okay with any technique that puts words in their characters' mouths. Hell, a lot of people are willing to stick a shiv in your gut for suggesting that story has a place at the game table. Secondly, this technique takes a lot of time and effort. As someone with a background in screenwriting, a decent sense of scene and dialogue, and good speed at the keyboard, I may be uniquely qualified to use this technique regularly. If writing dialogue is not your strong suit, this may not be for you.

Thirdly, the choice of scenes used as frames is very important and bears careful consideration. I spent a couple of hours last week working on a teaser for the latest episode of my Victorian vampire hunter game Sunset Empire, only to cast it aside at the last minute (even though it was finished) because I wanted to play out the scene with the PC involved, rather than let the script decide her reactions or the outcome. (It turned out I needn't have worried, because it played out very closely to the way I'd written it on the page.) I think the lesson here is that significant scenes that involve important character moments or decisions should not be part of a script, they should be in-game.

That said, over the course of years I have incorporated the technique into my style and won over many players with the idea. It's not for everyone, but it's a handy technique in my bag of GM tricks.

It's also worth noting that a lot of these ideas (and others that I developed during that Angel game) are also at the core of the indie game Primetime Adventures, which borrows a lot from TV structure and tropes. Anyone who loves games that are heavy on the drama -- and if you're reading this blog, that probably includes you -- should really check that one out.

Monday, 27 May 2013

More Basics

To continue with my recent post on GMing Basics, here are a few more quick things that are useful advice for new GMs and good things to refresh in the minds of experienced GMs...

Say YES Or Roll the Dice

Probably the most frequently-asked question that a GM hears from a player is "Can I do (x)?" As a general principle, the GM should answer this question with YES as much as possible. Players like to hear that their characters are capable and have agency in saying how the game unfolds. They like to know that they can make a contribution to the game by their decisions -- whether they're a matter of choosing a course of action or merely doing something with style. Saying YES empowers the players and makes them know that their contributions are welcome.

Sometimes you have to say NO, because something is clearly unreasonable or impossible. No matter how many times Rabbi Goldstein punches the brick wall, he's not going to smash through it unless he is a gamma-powered rage monster called The Incredible Rabbi Goldstein. But saying NO shuts people down, and you shouldn't lean on that crutch too much. If players are asking a GM regularly for things that the GM doesn't see as do-able, this is probably based on a fundamental miscommunication about the way the game world works.

The best solution to having to say NO absolutely is to let the dice decide. When the players ask to do something difficult, or unlikely, ask them to make a roll to see if they succeed or fail. You can even make it a tough roll. A small chance of success is still a chance, and doesn't have the same baggage as shutting a player down. 

ONLY Roll the Dice If Success OR Failure Is Interesting
The other side of dice rolls is not to ask the players for a check if you're not prepared to accept any outcome that is possible. If the players' failed rolls mean they miss a clue that will stop the action cold, then don't ask for a roll - just give them the clue. There is nothing more boring than everything stopping because of the whimsical nature of dice. It's much better to not ask for a check at all than to call for a check and then have to soft-peddle the results or cheat them somehow to protect the players from a difficult / boring result.

Sometimes a Failed Roll Doesn't Mean Failure

Failure can be interesting, if it adds more complications to the lives of the players. Maybe a failed Stealth roll could lead to a pulse-pounding chase or a battle. Unanticipated twists in the action are part of the point of rolling dice at all.

The other way of approaching this situation is to allow the player to succeed, but at some cost to them. So perhaps the player character who failed the Stealth roll manages to quickly hide before the guards appear, but drops something important to them for the next part of the mission, increasing the difficulty slightly. This is a good thing to negotiate with the players.

No Plan of Action Survives First Contact with the Players

Players make decisions that no GM can anticipate. This is a good thing. Although it is unnerving for a novice GM to see their carefully-planned adventure being approached in chaotic, unpredictable ways, player agency is what makes roleplaying a vital form for storytelling. The lack of control over what direction events will go makes gaming fun.

It's a classic rookie GM mistake to plan things out too much, with little room for the players to come up with creative solutions. The instinct to steer players along a set path is a wrong-headed one, because eventually players realize that they are just along for the ride. This is called railroading.

Create Situations, Don't Assume an Outcome

The solution to the above problem that experienced GMs eventually arrive at is to create interesting situations for the player characters to be involved with, but without a particular expectation of an outcome. This is ideal because it places great weight on the actions and decisions of the characters - which is as it should be.

The more charged the situation, the more interesting the fallout will be.

The Importance of Pacing Cannot be Overestimated

I always find it's handy to keep a clock somewhere in my frame of vision and have a sense of the passage of time during a game session.

Try to stay mindful of how long scenes are lasting, and make sure to move things along if not every player character is included in what's been happening. Players are patient to a point while watching scenes with their fellow players in them, but they want to play and be included too. Share the spotlight around equally. And pay attention to what the players' reactions are -- if they aren't enjoying a scene, try to cut it short. If they really dug something, make a note to do more of that in the future. 

Be aware of when your end point is, and structure the session so that you get in all of the material you need to within the time frame you've got. I usually have an idea in mind for a final scene that will put a nice cap on the evening and keep my players excited for the next session, and end with that.

Take a break half-way through the session. This is a great opportunity to catch a breather, have a snack, touch base with the players (or eavesdrop on their conversations about what's happening in the game) and get ready for the second half of the session. Seriously. TAKE A BREAK.

If the action is flagging, have something happen to pick up the pace and get all the players on board again. This need not necessarily be an action scene -- Lester Dent says that when the action flags, you should have a guy with a gun kick in the door -- but something that changes things up and kickstarts the fun. I try to keep a list of a few things that could happen at any point in a session, and drop them in as needed.

Don't Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

You will make mistakes, but don't sweat it. As long as your players are having a good time, they'll forgive you any other mistake you might make. If you make a big mistake with the rules, just clarify it after the session or before the next one. If you goofed on an important detail, just openly admit your mistake and tell them the facts as they should be, and move on.

There is little value in pretending to be infallible. A GM that is transparent and admits errors (and does his best to correct them in the future) generates greater trust and amity at the table than one who cloaks himself in authority and blusters at anyone who questions it.

Don't dwell on your mistakes (or allow others to turn them into a big argument / drama). Make a judgement, clarify if necessary, ask for others' thoughts if you're uncertain, and move on.

Make the Stakes Clear

Communication in roleplaying games is really key, and nowhere does this create more strife than when a player finds themselves in a situation they didn't expect as a consequence of their actions. The GM must always make it crystal clear to the player what the results of a decision could be. Is this fight to the death? Could denying the king's request lead to a civil war in the kingdom? It's best to be as transparent as possible about these things.

Remember, it's not your job to talk them out of making bad decisions or protect them from bad things happening -- it is your job to make their decisions significant. Choosing to run the Cardinal through with your rapier when you know it will mean a lifetime of hard labour on Devil's Island is much more interesting than running him through and being surprised when the authorities clap you in manacles.

Sharing Is Good

Whenever possible, include the players in the process of describing how the game proceeds. Let them describe the outcome of a successful roll, or how they dispatch an enemy. Let them embellish their characters' actions and make them their own. Allow them to add details to scenes, or even call for whole scenes of their own. Include them in scenes featuring other players by allowing them to take the part of NPCs in those scenes.

Sharing narrative authority with the players increases the level of trust and involvement around the table for everyone. It is probably the most important innovation in gaming over the last decade, and one of the things that make gaming at out table more fun and rewarding than any I've done in the past.

Don't Be Afraid to Break Your Toys

Last thought: Play hard. Or, as Graham Walmsley would say, Play Unsafe.

It's way more interesting to play a game for four sessions and have those sessions be full of excitement and drama than it is to stretch out a game over ten or twenty sessions and have gameplay drag. GMs should not be worried about their setting being damaged or broken because of player changes. They should embrace change and keep the stakes high constantly.

In Joe McDaldno's great indie game Monsterhearts, he says the GM should play NPCs like they're stolen cars. In other words, don't worry about them getting banged up or even smashed into the wall at 200 MPH. Don't worry about keeping them around forever -- they're not pets, they're just there as elements in a game. Have fun with them and move on.

This attitude is one that players pick up on, and translates into risky, exciting play at the table. If the players know the GM is setting the stakes high and isn't afraid to kick the status quo off a cliff on a regular basis, they will do the same. And the basis of dynamic, exciting gameplay is exciting, dynamic characters.  

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Back to Basics

Last night we made characters for a brand-new game by my friend John, who's taking the Big Chair for the very first time. It's going to be a high adventure steampunk epic full of intrigue and airships and giant mechanical Napoleon. I'm playing a swashbuckling Errol Flynn type hero who's the Charles Lindbergh of the steampunk age -- a daring pilot who's the toast of Europe and secretly a spy on Her Majesty's Secret Service. All of this makes me very, very happy. 

In honour of John's first time at bat, I thought I'd post an entry talking about some of what I consider "core principles" of GMing. This is material I originally presented as a workshop at the local university gaming club, WARP. 

If you read any roleplaying websites, blogs, discussion boards or listen to a podcast, you know that there are a lot of people out there who think there is only one way to roleplay. One True Wayers. There are One True Wayers who think roleplaying is all about tactical combat, One True Wayers who think roleplaying is all about story, and OTWers who think roleplaying is about wearing costumes and speaking in silly accents.

The truth is, there are a lot of right ways to roleplay, and only one wrong way.

Fun is the Most Important Thing

If everybody at the table has a good time, you’re probably doing it right. GMs have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders, and if we tend to forget any one thing, it’s this… fun is the most important thing. The only thing.

Your players will forgive you any other mistake that you could make, as long as they’re having a good time. If they’re not having a good time, it doesn’t matter what other skills and techniques you bring to the table… players don’t continue to play in games that aren’t fun. Life is too short.

The good news is that this is a problem that is easy enough to fix. If you’re running a session and when you look around, you see bored, distracted players, you know you’ve got to shift gears fast. Just ask yourself, what is the most fun thing that could happen right now? And make that happen. It doesn’t have to make sense. Worry about all that later.

One important consideration is that you need to know what your players enjoy. Paying attention to what your players want is probably the second most important job a GM has. More on that to come.

I also want you to remember that, as GMs, you are also entitled to fun. You are a player too, and your games should be enjoyable for yourself. If the GM’s not having fun, chances are the players aren’t going to enjoy themselves either. You’re often going to be the cheerleader of the group, getting people hyped up to play, getting them excited about your game. Unless you’ve got fun stuff to look forward to, it’s hard to jazz up anyone else.

The Players are NOT The Enemy. They Are Your Collaborators.

There is an awful temptation to think of players as the opposition, because a lot of the time the GM is in control of the antagonists. Old School games with their roots firmly in war games certainly emphasized this divide, and encouraged early GMs to hit the players hard, moving them from one battle to another, and exploiting their weaknesses or errors.

This is not a constructive way to GM, unless you want a game that is all about combat, resource management, and paranoia. If that’s the kind of game you want, the rest of this seminar will probably make you cranky.

GMs often struggle to get their players to commit fully to a game, to actively engage, to care about the story that is unfolding. This is called “Buy In”. There is nothing so frustrating as a game that the GM is pouring his heart and soul and hours of prep time into, while the players spend every session texting their friends or chatting out of character about last week’s episode of Dr. Who.

It’s a lot easier to create Buy In if the GM welcomes player input into the game from the very beginning, maybe even letting them help create part of the setting, and listening to them when they say things like “I’d like to play in a game where I got to be a general in charge of an army.” The value of keeping secrets and surprises in a game is highly overrated; having players who are willing to participate actively and help you make the game exciting is way more important than keeping the story safely under the GM’s thumb.

GM Authority Comes From the Players

Back in the day, we used to joke that if the players got out of line, you just had lightning strike them down or boulders fall, burying the player characters. The GM was God, after all, and God’s authority was unquestioned. If those smartarse players stepped over the line, you could and should squash ‘em like bugs just to remind them who was really in charge.

I don’t know if there was anyone who actually ever played that way, but I can’t imagine that they played that way for long. It’s true, in a traditional roleplaying game, the GM has a lot of power to control the narrative, and that pretty much means that you can do whatever you want. But most players aren’t interested in a roleplaying experience that includes random abuse. They’re at your table to have fun, and chances are they don’t think it’s fun to have the GM acting like a bully.

A GM with no players at the table has exactly zero authority. It is your job as GM to exercise your power responsibly, to always remember that you’re working with the players to create a fun experience together.

One important qualifier: You Are Not Santa Claus. The players are your partners, not The Enemy, but that doesn’t mean you spend every session massaging their feet and feeding them crème brulee. It is your job as the GM to provide adversity for the player characters – sometimes, it’s even your job to create situations that are horrifying or have life-or-death stakes – you simply have to make sure you’re doing so in a way that is fair and unbiased, and that the players are always clear what the stakes are in a given conflict.

The GM Must Be Fair and Unbiased

In acting on the behalf of antagonists, in framing stories, interpreting rules, and especially in managing interplayer conflicts, the GM must be fair and unbiased. A GM must deal with close friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives the same as a player that’s just sat down at the table for the first time. That means you don’t give anyone a particular advantage over another player, and you don’t single anyone out to be picked on or ridiculed.

It’s important to create an atmosphere of equity and respect at the table, and that starts with the GM. You let it be known that everyone’s opinion has equal weight and everyone’s voices will be heard in a conflict. Sometimes the GM gets the final word, sometimes decisions get made by consensus. No one should ever walk away from the table feeling like their contributions were ignored or they weren’t given a chance to speak.

The GM should play by the rules of the game, and not change them on the fly or ignore them. Players expectations of the game are often based on the rules, so a GM needs to work within those expectations or make deviations from the rules-as-written clear. If a given game has too many rules for you to grasp, play a game with lighter rules.

The GM should not cheat, not even in favour of the players. Some GMs feel this is a harmless way to “keep the story on track”, protecting the players from random die rolls that could harm their characters. The best way to do that, however, is to make sure that the players are clear about the stakes in any given conflict. It’s very hard to create any drama in a battle, if the players know you’ll bail them out if they get in over their heads. If players aren’t allowed to make significant decisions in the game – even mistakes, sometimes – they aren’t being allowed to participate fully in the game, period.

Trust Is Essential to a Successful Game

There is nothing as boring as a game where the players refuse to participate because they’re unwilling to expose their characters to any kind of risk. Can’t make any friends or have any romantic entanglements – the GM might use them against you. Never take a drink in a bar – someone could poison your drink! Never buy a home – the GM will burn it down!

This attitude is a symptom of a game where the players see the GM as The Enemy. You have to convince them that this is not true; you are not going to punish them for making a small mistake or oversight by sending assassins after them. You are not going to use every NPC they exchange a kind word with as a weapon to hurt them or take away their stuff.

What players need to understand is that although it’s the GM’s job to provide them with adversity – because a game where the player characters don’t face any challenges is boring – as a collaborator, the GM is happy to provide them with the adversity they want.

In a high trust environment, players are willing to take greater risks and allow the GM greater liberties because they understand they’re not going to be arbitrarily eliminated, punished, or crippled.

When In Doubt, Talk It Out

The best solution to almost any problem you’ve got as a GM is to discuss it openly with your group. Communication and transparency increases player trust in the GM and reinforces the collaborative nature of the relationship.

In the case of a rules question or a judgement call, asking for other opinions before arriving at a fair and neutral decision is ideal. The only problem that really should be dealt with discreetly is a player issue, which should be discussed privately before being broached with the group. Forcing an issue in front of the group can back a player into a corner, making them defensive.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying to your players “I’m not sure where things go from here – what do you think should happen?” or “What kind of scene would you like to see your character get into next week?”

The PCs Are the MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTERS in the Story That Unfolds

It’s a classic GM mistake to fall in love with the NPCs they create to take important roles in the campaign. But even if the GM and the players are attached to a given NPC, they must never take centre stage away from the player characters and their action.

The PCs are the stars of the show. All the stories you tell together focus on these characters, and an NPC (or the setting itself) should never be in greater focus than one of your “main cast”. The story is not about them, and no matter how much complexity you’ve put into the development of Stormtrooper #28, chances are the players don’t care that much about them.

NPCs should also not be used by the GM as a de-facto player character for themselves.

PCs Must Be Able to Make Significant Choices as the Game Unfolds

Player characters must also never be made spectators in their own stories. The players must be able to make choices in your game that have a significant impact on how the game proceeds. Although the idea that the game could go in almost any direction is intimidating to the new GM, it’s one of the things that make RPGs a vital storytelling form. This needs to be encouraged, not diluted or negated.

A rookie GM mistake is to create adventures where player character decisions can only lead in one direction. This is called Railroading, where a series of events will always lead inevitably from A to B to C, or Illusionism when the players believe they can choose to go from A to B or A to C, but really the GM is simply changing the outcome of that choice behind the scenes – creating the “illusion of choice”. In this model, whatever path the PCs take through the Haunted Woods, they’re going to end up at the Caves of Death… you planned it that way, and that’s the way it’s going to go.

Removing the ability of players to make significant decisions takes away their primary means of interacting with the game. It means you’re taking away their freedom and their ability to contribute. This can be okay in small doses, but ultimately players don’t want to spend hours of time as passive observers – they could watch movies or read books, if they wanted that. They want choices, big meaty ones that have real consequences. Making tough decisions and suffering through the fallout is the stuff of real heroism.

RPGs are Not About Combat, They Are About Conflict

Many games devote a significant amount of their page count to rules for combat, which makes sense given the roots of the hobby in wargaming, but for many players combat is not the main feature of roleplaying. In fact, unless a player enjoys tactical combat, it can be a problem – slowing the pace of a session to a crawl.

Combat is only the simplest form of Conflict; the difference is that Conflict is any situation where two characters enter a scene wanting different things and knowing that not everyone can get what they want. What happens next? Conflict can be between the player characters and an antagonist or even amongst members of the party itself. Conflict is the essence of drama, and important to good storytelling.

The stakes in combat are usually clear: life and death, or at least an ass-whupping for the loser. The stakes in a conflict might be more nebulous, or look different from either side of the argument. Conflict could escalate into combat in the long term. Conflict is rooted in player character drives and desires, and since the decisions they make in a Conflict have a significant effect on how the game unfolds from a point of crisis, it is a powerful (perhaps crucial) tool in the GM’s toolbox.

Play to Your Strengths

GMing is a highly collaborative art, something that requires a lot of negotiation and give-and-take with players to do well. The GM gets to make their most significant contribution to how the game is played by the decisions they make early in the game; What game am I going to run?  What genre? What sort of stories do I want to tell?

You should have a clear idea in your mind of what kind of game you’re going to be running, something that you can express in a concise and lucid manner to a player or group of players to catch their interest and attention. This is called an “Elevator Pitch” – a capsule description of your game to quickly get people on board what’s going to unfold.

A good GM always plays to their strengths, and runs games that engage them. Although you can meet players halfway on most other issues, allowing them to talk you into running a game you’re uncomfortable with (or uninspired by) won’t lead to a successful game.

Think about what kind of stories you most enjoy, and inspire yourself by reading / watching / playing more of that. Try to recreate that experience at your gaming table, and don’t be afraid to steal good ideas from anywhere you get them. Focusing your games on the things you’re passionate about will make them unique.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

New Jam: TRUE BELIEVERS (Part Two)

The thing that made the whole thing gel in my head was a third element: there are already people who dress up in costumes and take to the streets as "superheroes".

Real-Life Superheroes.
These guys don't have any powers, just a costume and a commitment to doing something good for their communities. Like most people, the first time I heard about this I dismissed it as a bunch of dangerous nutjobs who were deluding themselves into thinking they were heroes making a difference. It was Hero At Large without the funny bits.

But I saw a documentary that changed my mind. I was expecting something like a ha-ha, isn't this cute and slightly loopy tone, but the show played it straight and talked about people who really seemed to care about what they did. People who generally cared more about community service -- things like handing out food, bottled water, and blankets to the homeless, or visiting sick children in a hospital -- than about punching bad guys in the face. Watch some of the videos on the site I linked to above, and you'll see for yourself. These guys are for real. They believe what they're saying.

Some of the "real life superheroes" consider themselves crimefighters, and perform neighbourhood patrols... some, like a man who calls himself Phoenix Jones, have even mixed it up with crooks. Jones says that the costumes are important so that the police can tell at a glance the difference between the heroes and the crooks they fight.

Phoenix Jones on patrol.
The police are understandably wary of anyone that chooses to walk the streets dressed in a costume, claiming to be a crimefighter.

The more I read about these guys, the more I saw them as a perfect image of what superheroes would look like in my game. Some of them would be earnest do-gooders that genuinely wanted to help make the city a better place, some of them would be more like cosplayers - more interested in elaborate costumes than actual crimefighting, and of course some of them would be people who wanted Fight Club with capes. Their costumes wouldn't be slick like in the comics, they would be homemade, with rough edges and occasionally hilariously garish or impractical. No Reed Richards unstable molecules for these heroes.

They'd be exactly like the "real-life superheroes"... but with real powers.

One thing I thought about a lot was Kick-Ass, both the movie and the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. I liked the movie quite a bit, despite not liking the comics very much. I thought there was a meanness about Kick-Ass that was off-putting. The underlying conceit seemed to be that anyone who believed they could put on a costume and go out and fight crime was a dumbass who deserved to get the shit kicked out of them or a dangerous psychopath.

Okay, he does look like a dumbass. No argument.
This game won't be like Kick-Ass, except perhaps for the costumes.

The heroes in this game might be a little crazy, and they might be in over their heads, but they have a deep commitment to the things they do. They are...

Friday, 17 May 2013

New Jam: TRUE BELIEVERS (Part One)

I have a lot of games on my shelves that I've never actually run. Even if it's just for reading, there are lots of things that you can get out of a game book. Some I wouldn't ever consider running for my existing groups, because they'd be a bad fit in terms of material, rules systems, or what have you. Some of them I've been trying to get on the table for a long time, and every once in a while I lift them off the shelf and leaf through them longingly.

One of those is WILD TALENTS.

I love supers games, and I've been a big fan of Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze for a long time. WT is a powerhouse of a game, bulging at the seams with great ideas and tools for play, and powered by a sleek and deadly (yet flexible) system that iterates on the great One Roll Engine first seen in D&S's earlier WW2 supers game, Godlike. It's an embarrassment of riches for a supers GM to dive into, but -- as the authors admit -- it's sort of a niche-within-a-niche game.

Now I think I might actually get a chance to run this bad boy, this summer. Our Wednesday night group is running up on the finale of our Deadlands game powered by Primetime Adventures, and I am enthusiastic about making WT the game that succeeds it.

I have always loved supers games, since I discovered Villains & Vigilantes in high school -- it was my go-to game to introduce new players to roleplaying for years, until Mutants & Masterminds came along and improved on practically every part of it. My natural instinct is to run something that's broad and Marvel-esque, but WT has a particular focus that is leading me down a path that's much more eccentric and interesting.

The focus of Wild Talents is on characters that believe in something deeply. In the canon setting, the super-powered Talents believe so strongly that they can bend reality to suit their whims. I'm not going with that particular concept, but I wanted to do a story about characters who were passionately committed to... something. Characters who are strongly invested in something make a good focus for games generally, as they have something at stake. In a superhero game, that's doubly important; even if you're not playing a game where the PCs are iconic heroes, they need to believe in something pretty strongly to put on a costume and go fight crime.

That was the other thing I strongly wanted in my game -- costumes. Really, if you're not interested in wearing a costume, what the hell are you doing playing a superhero game? There are any number of games out there where the characters are effectively super-powered beings minus the trappings of spandex and masks. Why would anyone want to play a superhero game without the trappings that differentiate it from every other genre out there?

So tossing around the idea of characters with strong beliefs (maybe even obsessions) and costumes took me in a direction I wasn't expecting. I toyed with the idea of the heroes being "grinders" (a term coined by Warren Ellis in his great cyberpunk comic Doktor Sleepless), early adopters of new body-modification technology that effectively made them super-beings. I liked the idea of heroes (and villains) belonging to a subculture that was obsessive, radical, committed, insular, underground, taboo, freaky.

It seemed to me that there was some juice in exploring some of the psycho-sexual side of superheroics that Alan Moore dragged out into the light in Watchmen, even if I was doing it in a slightly more irreverent way.

Promotional still of porn star Kimberly Kane as Wonder Woman
The above image convinced me that the line between superhero costumes and fetish gear is thin at best, and that perhaps the reason why it took Hollywood so long to "get" superheroes was a fear of that side of the costume image. With the right group of fearless players, this could be exciting territory for a game.

And there was one more element that made all of this come together for me in a way I hadn't expected...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Eternal Question

If you've spent as much time lurking in the cranky morass that is, you know that, like the seasons, certain questions and topics come around again and again. Sometimes with depressing regularity. It doesn't matter what shiny new game Jason Morningstar's just come out with, there is always someone that wants to complain about the rules in Rifts and hash out ideas for "fixing" it.

The question I'm coming around to, the one that people always seem to be asking and wondering about, is: How much prep should I do for a session?

I gave some thought to this after talking with my friend Colin on the weekend. He was surprised when I said that for my Rocket Robin Hood game Sherwood, I had actually been doing a fair amount of prep ahead of the sessions. Yeah, despite the fact that it's a light and frothy game full of zany chases and sword fights and rocket bikes, that's a game that's taken me a fair amount of heavy lifting, in a narrative sense, to get off the ground.

I had come to Sherwood having just taken an extended absence from the Big Chair, and part of doing more formal prep was getting my head back in the game. The more I have on paper for that game, the happier I am. And Sherwood is what I think of as a "B" game, a side project -- something that's more of an amusing sidelight to the main events of games like Sunset Empire or Shadowrun: Disavowed.

Yet, for some of those more "meaty" games, I am perfectly comfortable with a half page of scribbled notes in my spiral-bound notepad. Often, for those games, I will scratch down some ideas for a handful of scenes that could happen, any ideas I have for some choice dialogue, and notes for anything important that needs to play out (like a scene requested by one of my players in our "Next Time On..." segment at the end of an episode).

For me, the answer to the Eternal Question is this: Do as much prep as necessary.

Early on in a game, I do a lot of preparation and research for the campaign as a whole. For Sunset Empire, I kept reading until I felt I had a good enough grasp on the world of 1884 London to fake the rest. For Shadowrun, I read my way through enough of the 2nd Edition sourcebooks that I had my head in the world of Seattle 2055, and I could start assembling my own vision of that world. Once that early work is done, I don't need that much work to maintain the flow and consistency of material, and more of my prep has to do with thinking about play (and recording it in my journal) and responding to what the players are pursuing / interested in.

For a one shot, I often do a fair amount of formalizing things on paper -- I actually wrote quite a bit of material for the Slasher Flick one-off I ran at STRDEXCon, for example. I think part of that (which is probably of a piece with Sherwood) is "writing myself into the world", if you can follow that. Once I've got it firmed up in my head, less prep is necessary. When I run a Firefly one-shot at a con, I can fall back on the work I did running that game as an ongoing feature. It's a world I'm comfortable returning to.

For me, the question boils down to this: How much work is necessary in order for me to feel comfortable running this game and make it fun for everybody?

That's the tipping point on prep for me.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Leaving Londinium (Part Five)

It was always my intention for Sunset Empire to lead to this point -- to climax with the vampires seemingly having won, taken London and driven to the player characters to a very dark place indeed. The point being to raise the stakes as high as possible, then see what happened next.

See, the thing about the heroes of Sunset Empire is that they are all, as I've said in previous entries, excellent case studies in how imperial power crushes people down. None of them have a personal stake in propping up the existing power structures, and indeed many of the characters would be just fine with the world they know being wiped clean.

The question is, when these characters have an opportunity to literally change the world -- what will they do with that opportunity? What kind of future will they build? Will it look like what came before? Will it be a brave new world? Or will they wash their hands of the whole problem once the vampires have been dealt with?

There was an assumption on my players' part earlier in the campaign that this was a game that would fit neatly into the Buffyverse canon, and indeed I have done my best to see that a lot of the elements would work within that framework -- but only to a point. I always remained quiet when they made that assertion, because I knew that my third act was something that would have been impossible for the Buffyverse to ignore or forget. And it would indeed have the possibility of changing the setting forever. (It's a pedantic point anyway, as the Buffyverse never made mention of a Victorian space program or steampunk golems or a large settlement of faeries living inside London. Never mind.)

The discomforting thing (for a GM) about creating such a third act is that it places a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the players. I have a great deal of faith in my players' abilities to "bring the awesome", but I have played in a great many games where players balked or froze up when presented with the opportunity to make big, bold moves. They preferred the comfortable presence of a series concept that was smaller in scale and more personal.

But there's nowhere to go but forward, full steam, now. Jump on Mr. Fogg's airship, grab your sword, and get ready to kick out the jams one more time.

God save the Queen! 

Friday, 10 May 2013

Leaving Londinium (Part Four)

Warning to my players. Possible Spoilers ahead, as I peel back the curtain on some of the story stuff happening... read at your own risk, or else wait until the season wraps.

One of the first story problems I had to deal with, approaching Season Three of Sunset Empire, was the presence of a character that I fully expected would be dead by the end of Season Two...

William Gull. They HATE this guy.
Player characters are a contrary lot. They invariably act in ways that GMs have great difficulty predicting. That's a good deal of the fun in roleplaying, of course. But sometimes it throws you for a loop. And despite the fact that the player characters pretty much universally despised William Gull, the grouchy, willful leader of the Royal Magisterial Corps, damn if they didn't rescue his ass from certain death at the hands of Mithras.

It was my intention to let Gull go down fighting, in an epic duel of magic with Mithras that would at least highlight his formidable spellcasting prowess. But Mudlark and Matthias teleported into his office at the last moment, spiriting him away before the vampire lord got a shot at him.

So my first realization was that I had to give Gull a "third act". He had to change in ways that made him more real, and less of a cardboard bureaucrat that made the heroes' lives difficult. Gull would sincerely want to right as many of the wrongs he'd inflicted on London and the Corps as he could, before his injuries, physical exhaustion, and the long term toll of several strokes (and basic old age) caught up to him.

The second part of Gull's presence was that, since the players had made such a great effort to rescue him (despite their personal feelings), I had to give them some tangible rewards for that action. The easiest part of that was that Gull is remarkably well-educated and informed in the occult lore accumulated by the Corps; despite the loss of the Tower library and archives, Gull knew much of the important information that the players would need to plan their attack against Mithras. Gull explained the origins of the shadowy dome over London -- created by an ancient magical artifact used in sieges, known as the Eye of Ahriman. (The idea being that the Eye creates an expanding zone of shadow that both demoralizes the enemy and kills crops. Of course, vampires have an entirely different use for it...)

There is more that Gull must do, if he is to convince the prickly Lucy that he has truly changed... especially since he allowed Prime Minister Gladstone to be subjected to a ghastly death as a vehicle for a message from Mithras.

It is worth noting that part of Gull's change of heart has to do with a thematic concern about the character of Lucy. Lucy's deal is that she has no power or place in the world -- she is the quintessential marginalized female in a male-dominated (Queens Victoria and Titania notwithstanding) Empire. She was born to servitude, essentially, and much of her personal conflict so far has had to do with defying figures like Gull and the leader of the Watchers, Lord Emerson, as emblems of that male power and privilege. With Emerson dead (as seems common with the Watchers' Council, their headquarters in York was dynamited by the vampires' Fenian allies) and Gull at least making an attempt at reconciliation, it directs her ire towards Mithras himself. And Mithras is quite capable of symbolizing all the worst elements of male power and the cruelty of Empire.

I picture Mithras looking like Ciaran Hinds from HBO's Rome. Cold and severe.
Here is Mithras' speech from the end of Episode 3.1, "Anarchy in the U.K.", to serve as nightmare fuel:

“It has been almost eight hundred years since I last faced a Slayer. I must say, I relish the opportunity. The last one was great sport. She was a good swordsman, but not good enough. I defeated her… but that was not the end of my sport. For you see, I know the secret of your line. Strike one Slayer down, and another will rise. That was troublesome. So I spared her life, and merely cut off her arms and legs. I kept her alive, in a deep, dark hole, for seventeen years. Seventeen years of darkness, and silence, with no hope of release. She was quite mad by the end. It was my seneschal, Valerius, who finally convinced me to grant her mercy. He was right, of course, because she had been a worthy foe. I roasted her alive on a spit, and fed her to my men. The meat was terribly stringy, and quite tasteless, of course, but it was intended to be symbolic.”

“My advice to you, girl, is to run. Get away from this city and this country. Find yourself a husband and raise fat children and forget. Forget what destiny demands of you. For Valerius is dead… and with you, I will not be merciful.” 
Brr. Tomorrow, more inside stuff from the end of Empire.