Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Short Campaign Model (Part Four)

Again, the objective here is to condense all the exciting moments of a longer campaign into a smaller timespan. So here are some tips to help you bring the awesome:
  • Start strong and end strong. Having an episode begin with a good "hook" and end on a note that creates momentum for the next episode are key. 
  • Start stories as "late" as possible, not just in media res but just before events come to a crisis point.
  • Use creative scene framing and editing, just like you'd see on a television show. Again, the storytelling "language" of television should be familiar to everyone, so this is a tool that should feel right and give your storytelling punch.
  • Mix up the tone of the series. Like a good TV show, you should have a main tone that you stay true to, but you need to change it up. Have scenes that are sad, funny, exciting, scary, quiet, mysterious... good stories have variety and depth.
  • Keep the pressure on the PCs. Tight structure means that something important should always be happening!
  • Give the players big, tough, important choices with serious consequences. The more impact a player choice has on the game, the more satisfying it is.
  • Drama comes from character motivations / desires and the conflict between opposing desires / motivations. You should know what your characters want, figure out where there are opportunities to put that in conflict, and apply as much pressure as possible. Instant drama.
This model (and the high trust, high drama style) does have some potential for problems. Here are some things to watch out for:
  • Static characters are situations are dull; dynamic characters that change and struggle are interesting. Mixing it up makes for exciting sessions, but this runs contrary to the way most roleplaying games are played. Expect that your players may be resistant to the idea of putting their characters in crisis; this may feel like you're trying to "take away their stuff" or ruin the thing that makes that character fun to play.
  • Don't back away from dramatic situations. This is another thing that players instinctively avoid -- but it's poison to a game where things have to happen fast. Never put off a scene until later if it could happen now. 
  • Players, don't keep secrets from other players. Open secrets at the table can be used by everyone to set up and develop drama.
  • Players and GMs need to work together to make it awesome.
  • Talk openly and honestly about the kinds of stories you want to tell, and keep talking as the game proceeds. This creates clear expectations and makes the development process transparent and accessible to everyone at the table. But make sure that you don't decide things ahead of time -- play out scenes at the table, not at the coffee shop beforehand.
  • Trust is key for everyone at the table.
Tomorrow, I'll present an example of campaign design using the Short Campaign Model.

To be continued...

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Short Campaign Model (Part Three)

Let's shift gears a little bit and look at some of those pieces in more detail.

The Pilot Episode (or Introduction) is crucial because it gets a lot of your cards on the table. Players get to "kick the tires" on their characters for a first time, and should get a chance to experience how the game is going to play. That means that they should both get a chance to try out any unique mechanics (system ones, or stuff that's unique to their characters). This teaches players what to expect in the game that follows.

On the GM side of the equation, you need to introduce most of your important NPCS and locations, and begin penciling in conflicts. Most importantly, you need to use the Pilot to establish the tone of the game, something that can't be underestimated. If you're going to be playing a game that expects a higher level of seriousness from the players, you need to get that happening right away.

The "body" of the campaign is the Core Episodes, each of which should focus on a different player character. This is that character's "spotlight" time, when we get to learn about who they are and what is important to them.

When it is a given player character's episode, you need to confront their conflict, making it the main focus of the action. This flies in the face of traditional roleplaying game logic, which tends to build up to conflict in a very long-arc way; you might imagine the traditional model as being closer to a novel (or series of novels), where characters advance by small increments toward a climax much further down the line. It can feel a little forced to push character conflicts right away, especially if a given character's Core Episode is the second episode in the game. But remember, the objective here is to jam as much awesome into the game as you can. You don't have time to play episodes where nothing happens. Hit the conflicts hard, and move on. If the conflicts are worthwhile, whatever decisions are made in the spotlight episode should provide interesting fallout for the rest of the series.

Other characters can and should participate in other characters' Core Episodes, but their conflicts should just be in the background -- a "B" story to give body to the main conflict you're exploring. This can actually be quite rewarding for players who aren't in the spotlight, as they get to set up stuff in their own story that will pay off later. Screen time is everything in this model, of course -- the character who's in the most scenes has the most space to develop.

In addition to whatever spotlight conflicts you're exploring, the next-to-last episode needs to set the stage for your season finale. You need to make sure that this is the moment that any "arc" storyline which is unfolding begins to come together. The conflicts in this episode may be external ones (story elements the PCs have to deal with) or they may be interpersonal ones within the "main cast" of characters. How do their personal drives play against each other? Who gets the resolution they want?

The stakes need to be as high as they can be, and the stakes must always be clear to the players. A choice is only interesting if the player is informed about the consequences.

It goes without saying that at the end of the season, you need to wrap up all of the story elements you've got in play in a satisfying way. Pay off any conflicts you've got on the table, and don't worry about breaking your toys -- your game is going to be more satisfying if everyone's going for broke, not worrying about a second season down the road.

To be continued...

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Short Campaign Model (Part Two)

The search for a more compact, focused way to run roleplaying games led me to a different kind of media: modern episodic television.

Television maps well to the tabletop roleplaying experience. Episodic stories fit the single RPG session, while the "season arc" that structures most modern dramas works very well as a map for a whole campaign. NPCs in your game become the "supporting cast" of the 'show', and locations your characters visit frequently become 'sets'. If you have a game that is a success, you're free to run another "season".

You can push the "TV-ness" of a game by adding elements like a theme song, to start out every session. Players can bring their characters into focus by choosing real-world actors to "cast" in the part.

Finally, this framework has the advantage of being familiar to almost every player at the table. There are lots of players who might not know the jargon and high-level rules associated with GMing, but they've probably seen their share of television shows. They are very likely to know all the conventions and specialized language associated with episodic TV intimately. And this gives the player and the GM a great starting point to talk about building a game.

As an aside, I am well aware that others have followed the same chain of logic and borrowed from TV as a framework for a game -- Primetime Adventures being the best example of this. If you haven't played PTA, you should.

With television in mind, the basics of the campaign model become clear: a short run of sessions (6-10 are ideal) form a "season" of the game, with each session having a self-contained (episodic) story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The season also has a "story arc" over the course of 6-10 episodes, and brings things to a conclusion at the end which provides a sense of closure. If the game ends there, players should be able to walk away satisfied that everything important that was to happen in that game did indeed take place.

It is especially appropriate to think of the structure of each episode  in terms of the Three Act Structure which informs modern screenwriting. This means that each story has an initial Setup, or Introduction, which establishes the initial situation; this is disrupted by a Turning Point which changes things up and sets the stage for the conflict. The body of the episode should be about the characters' Confrontation with whatever the issue in the story is. Finally, there is a Resolution of the situation where the conflict is resolved and the characters are changed. 

This also maps to the level of the season (or campaign) in a sensible way:

In the above breakdown of a six-episode arc, you can see how the first episode (or, if you like, "Pilot" episode) serves as the first Act of the campaign. It introduces all the important characters and locations, and sets the most important conflicts in motion. It is the "springboard" for the season / campaign.

The body of the season's episodes focus on individual characters. In the above model, we're assuming that you have four players involved in the group (which I have most often found to be the case). The second Act develops the characters by bringing them into sharper focus, giving each character a chance in the spotlight. The arc story develops in the background of these episodes, and should be brought to a head before the last episode of Act 2.

The "season finale" should confront and resolve all of the most important conflicts that are in play.

To be continued...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Short Campaign Model (Part One)

This is material I originally presented as a workshop at the local university gaming club, WARP. 

There is an anecdote I tell sometimes that illustrates the way gaming has changed over the course of my lifetime. It begins with a recounting of the summer, early in my gaming career, when I played through the classic Against the Giants / Queen of the Demonweb Pits saga for Advanced D&D. We're talking about months of epic gaming, culminating in a battle against an evil demon-goddess. Good times.

When D&D 3rd Edition came out, and I jumped back on the bandwagon after years of turning my back on the 300 lb. gorilla of the RPG industry, when I was thinking about what to run as a campaign my mind immediately went back to that campaign. I would take my players on the same epic journey, with the same cosmically-high stakes in the third act. An adventure they would always remember.

Except it didn't work out that way in practice. Although I took pains to slowly paint in the war against the giants that would take the body of the campaign, I took so much time building up to it that the players never got to that stuff. They had other things going on. We had good times with that game, just not the good times I'd planned. When I retired the campaign, the players had still never faced a single giant.

Part of this is the difference in gaming as a child or teen (or even a university student) versus gaming as an adult. There are constant demands on the adult gamer, and sessions are neither as frequent or as long as you'd like, in order to accommodate those long, long campaigns we treasured back in the day. As a ten-year-old, it wasn't uncommon to spend whole days playing D&D, either on weekends or whenever we could get the gang together in the summer. In university, we'd often game through the night and hike through the snow to go for a big breakfast at the local diner before returning to our beds. Halcyon days of Coke and polyhedrons. Sigh.

The end of this game convinced me that I needed to adjust my style of play so that I got the most out of our limited game time from that moment forward. I needed to find ways to jam as much awesome as possible into a smaller space. Incidentally, I wanted to find a way to tell a more complete story, with a beginning, middle, and ending -- something that would give players that satisfying feeling of "roundness" to the story and closure when it ended.

That led me to create what I call the Short Campaign Model, which I hoped would deliver tighter, more focused games full of content and drama with minimal downtime.

To be continued...

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Third Act Blues

My long-running Victorian vampire slayer game, Sunset Empire, is down to the last episode or two. I'm not sure how to feel about this.

On one hand, it's exhilarating to be playing out some of the big confrontations that have been promised since the beginning of the game, feeding out the last few big reveals, and really getting players to go for broke. I hope that it's satisfying for them. I suspect the final act of a game is always going to be bittersweet for GMs.

Looking back over the span of a long, satisfying campaign with lots of twists and turns makes you nostalgic, and a little sad that the party's finally coming to an end. All the problem moments fade away, and you just remember the good stuff. You think about the journey that these characters have taken with you as both guide and audience, the hard knocks they've taken, and the moments of clarity, truth, and triumph they've fought their way to.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why the traditional mode of running campaign games has no end point. Players and GMs both invest so much time and effort and love, it's hard to let these games go, even if the game is probably better served by ending when it's hit its stride rather than when it's slowly losing its lustre. How many of us would rather George Lucas stopped while he was ahead, in 1983?

We've put a couple of games to bed this summer already -- Rob's Cold City game and Colin's powered-by-PTA Deadlands game. I know Colin in particular was feeling the GM ennui as the game came to a close. It does tear your heart out a little bit to let these things go. As Plutarch would have it, we are all Alexander weeping that there are no more vistas in this game world left to conquer.

This would be the point where I offer some sage advice on how to deal with this stuff, but like I say -- I'm wrestling with it myself at this moment. I may not be the best judge of how to let a game go, right now. I've been trying to figure out a song to close the game with in the last episode for the last few days. It's bugging me. You want to find that perfect end note. A last drop of honey, so that the memory is sweet.

When Cold City ended, part of the process of putting that game to rest was inviting Rob to be on our podcast (which I swear is coming soon), where we were all able to ask questions and share stories about the game. It was helpful to talk it out, remember it together, celebrate the good stuff. I think that's important. Our group has also had special suppers both leading into a final episode and also as a "wake" for a successful game.The function is the same -- provide a space to celebrate, remember, and let go of the game together.

It's also great to have some kind of artifact at the end of the process to remember the game by. Colin and Megan go to great lengths to create summaries of our games, which is probably the best record you could hope for. Having pictures of the characters or a collection of favourite quotes from a game is also a great momento.

For Sunset Empire, I'm also thinking of experimenting with a different kind of ending, if the players are interested in trying it on. Most of the time, I prefer to end games with a bang and not much falling action; that way, if there is a little story left, it lives on in the mind of the players. This time out, I'm thinking of experimenting with an episode to serve as an extended denouement. We would be playing out scenes in a freeform way to explore what happens to the characters, and the world they changed, over the course of many years. Since most of the characters have some degree of immortality, this could extend quite a ways. And if you think I'm stealing Alan Moore's idea of showing how these characters change over the course of 100 years, you're probably right.

Until then... ennui.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Fight! (Part Two)

So here are a few ideas about making combat less time-consuming and Not Fun. I'm not sure any of them are a perfect solution, but they each have merits.

Make Combat Simple and Fun. This is the "Savage Worlds solution" in my mind, which to me is a near-perfect example of combat stripped to its essentials. Most bad guys in SW are explicitly goons, so they go down quickly, and only the "boss" of a given adventure has more sophisticated powers (and durability). The dice mechanics in SW are a lot of fun, too, with "aces" giving you a real rush as you blow the top off a roll. SW does have some issues, though -- the dice rolls are fun, but swingy, and they can make things go to shit for the players fast. And for myself, having player characters possibly missing actions for several rounds is the essence of Not Fun.

It's also worth mentioning that the same simple, fun philosophy underlies a lot of the Old School Renaissance games. On paper, they have a level of intimidating complexity -- what modern game has tables and combat matrices? -- but in play most OSR games are straightforward. Roll your attack, roll your damage, move on.

Make Combat a "Sometimes" Thing. I used to have a rule of thumb while in the Big Chair that I shouldn't run more than two combats per session. These days, it's one or none. Simply eliminating altogether combats that aren't significant to the overall story or the characters means you aren't wasting your time killing orcs or stormtroopers no one cares about.

This is what I've been doing in my current, climactic arc of Sunset Empire -- essentially, if the PCs aren't fighting a villain with a name, we don't bother with the details of how they meet their fate. John Hooke the 'golemnaut' facing his nemesis in the body of the Golem of Prague is an important fight we need to roll dice for; the players dispatching an army of faceless vampires, not so much. We can simply assume the players overcome the goons and move on.

It's worth mentioning that this kind of philosophical approach to combat -- deciding what's necessary -- is something that you need to use a deft hand with. I feel that I probably should have thrown in a little more fighting than I have, just to put stress on the players' resources. Finding the "sweet spot" of an amount of combat that's "just right" is something that might take some practice.

I think games like Wild Talents (and other One Roll Engine games) that make combat fast and dangerous fall under this banner too. There have been plenty of games in the past that make combat deadly enough to discourage players casually going for their guns (although it happens a lot more in Call of Cthulhu than you'd think), but few that make the actual mechanics as smooth and fast-moving as ORE. 

Not Combat Resolution, CONFLICT Resolution. This is a solution that a lot of newer games, especially "indie" games, have embraced. Instead of working out every blow in a fight, you resolve the whole combat with the mechanics. Primetime Adventures uses this philosophy, as do some of the Cortex Plus games. This has the dual utility of reducing the amount of mechanical weight placed on combat and giving equal mechanical representation to other forms of conflict. So whether you're punching it out or shouting it out in Smallville, the mechanics are the same, and the idea is to work out the character issues rather than mark off hit points.

I've played around with this idea in FATE too, extrapolating off the mechanics proposed in Starblazer Adventures. Although FATE does a good job of making goons easy to bust up, combat can be draggy. I have been experimenting with creating stat blocks for whole Action Scenes the players have been interacting with, rather than dealing with individual bad guys. So if the characters were caught in an ambush by imperial marines, "taking out" the scene by inflicting enough stress and consequences would end the fight. This works pretty well, because it allows players to really make a big swing in the events by paying off a big roll (and FATE seems intended to reward players setting up Aspects then knocking the bad guys out with a single big hit that cashes them in). It also allows the GM to arbitrarily pull the plug by declining to apply shifts of stress to Consequences, when everybody's had enough fighting for today thanks.

It's worth noting that, as my friend Rob has said, "Sometimes the conflict is the conflict." In other words, in a game like PTA that resolves interpersonal conflict rather than maps out specific interactions, sometimes you can be in the not-ideal situation of building up to an epic fight that is not played out in the mechanics. In PTA, one draw and you're done (there are optional rules to address this, but still). This is a sticky point with Conflict Resolution mechanics -- although they can speed you through unnecessary fights or consign them to background colour, sometimes you do want a little more detail. It's tricky finding a perfect middle ground.

Again, none of the above are perfect solutions -- just stuff we've played around with in the last few years. I think ultimately how much combat you have in your games, and how you negotiate how much is too much, is something that has to be figured out on a group by group basis.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Fight! (Part One)

It has been observed elsewhere, perhaps many times, that there is a disproportionate amount of page count devoted to the subject of combat in roleplaying games. Indeed, to many people combat is the essence of a roleplaying game -- the most popular games in the industry are all about achieving advancement by defeating enemies and acquiring more powerful weapons.

So why is it that so many people seem to complain about combat in roleplaying games?

If there is one complaint I hear over and over again on message boards and at our local game club, it is the gripe that a particular session bogged down because of a fight that was ultimately unnecessary and not very much fun. I think that the fact the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons explicitly made combat the core of its design -- and especially tabletop combat using miniatures and battle maps or tiles -- was a contributing factor to many gamers rejecting the brand. Of course, they largely migrated to Pathfinder, so that may say more about the community's parochial nature than a rejection of combat-centric play.

I grew up in the early days of the hobby, where its roots in the wargaming community were clearer, and it's true that most of my formative experiences revolved around combat. I remember the days when it was considered a mark of excellence that a game's ruleset modelled combat with excruciating realism. My favourite genre in roleplaying -- superheroes -- is one that almost requires a certain focus on people in spandex punching each other in the face.

And yet I'm tired of roleplaying games that focus on combat. I get the appeal, and I enjoy playing characters that are good at combat (mostly because that speeds things along), but it's a case of diminishing rewards. Combat requires a lot of effort and rules infrstructure to do well. If you aren't getting a payoff from all of that work, what's the point?

Moreover, it's a truth of modern game design that the rules are weighted in favour of the players. I can't remember a single combat I played in D&D 4th Edition that we didn't win handily, with little sense of challenge or interest. That doesn't make D&D 4th a bad design -- on the contrary, it does what it's intended to do very, very well. But what it's meant to do is create a complex illusion of challenge that keeps the players advancing. Your mileage may vary, but I think this is also true of many other games: Leverage is well known as a game of "competence porn", and even something with deep indie roots like Fate makes characters very capable and hard to take out of the story. So where's the drama in a fight you know you're probably going to win?

This is not an argument for the unforgiving, one-bad-roll-and-you're-dog-meat "old school" rules systems. For me, and I suspect many others, those weren't fun either. With the possible exception of Call of Cthulhu, I have little interest in old school games where the character's fragility is a central part of the game. The Mongoose edition of Traveller (which is a marvellous, crunchy ruleset full of delights) sensibly included the "hardcore" version of character generation where you can die before actually playing the game as an option, to satisfy the old-school fans, but not a requirement.

So where does that leave us with combat? What do you do with it in a modern game? How do you use it in a way that keeps the adrenaline but discards the baggage that can make combat Not Fun?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Giant Robot Bandwagon (Part Two)

As an aside, in the time between writing the first installment and this one, I have been to see PACIFIC RIM and it was pretty much everything I hoped for. Thank you, Guillermo, for keeping the nerd-faith. For any of my readers who haven't already -- see it. You will be happy you did.

I think the thing about the mecha genre is that it works very well as a side-light in a story that is explicitly about something else. The Robotech "Macross Saga" that so obsessed me at a certain age is really a soap opera set against the backdrop of an alien invasion / space war. Evangelion is about the psychological damage done to people in war.

Pacific Rim smartly builds into its mecha-mythology a technological requirement for (at least) two pilots in each of the towering Jaegers, two pilots that must explicitly have a close bond which allows their minds to operate in tandem during a mission. Although it is on the surface a story of the battered human resistance fighting a losing war against sub-oceanic giant monsters, it is about those close human connections -- a kind of ironic reversal of scale. In the midst of these larger-than-life battles, what really counts is the space between two people.

I believe I have heard that Wick's The Aegis Project includes this kind of intimate relationship at its foundation, with one player taking the role of the pilot and another taking the part of the artificial intelligence within the battlemech. This bond is for life, and if one of the two within the relationship is lost, it creates permanent damage for the survivor. (If I've got this wrong, let me know -- again, I've not read it, but I was following the pre-release hype with some interest.)

As I get older, I have found my relationship with combat in roleplaying games changing. Like most gamers, it was initially a major feature of games that I ran and games that I played. Now, I mostly throw it in as something to change up the pace or perhaps ratchet up the tension a little. I prefer my fights these days to be fast, so we can get back to the "good stuff" -- which, for me, is the interplay of characters and meaty dramatic scenes. I suspect that a mecha game would play this out on a somewhat larger scale; space battles would need to be fast and colourful, but not distract the game too long from the HTHD play we're looking for.

The game I pitched last fall to my group, DAISHO, was intended to be a game more about political intrigue than stompy robots (although it had those too). The idea was that the players would all be samurai for one of the aristocratic families in a galactic empire that resembled feudal Japan. The difference being that samurai would be explicitly mecha pilots, flying giant robots that were each styled after the animal which represented the aristocratic house. So a family with a crane as their symbol might have a "Scout Walker" style two-legged mech, whereas the turtle clan might have something heavily armored and slow. Towering above them all would be the "Toho" mechs, humanoid giants (similar to Del Toro's Jaegers) which each clan would only have one or two of... the sort of thing used to settle clan disputes in a duel of epic scope.

But again, all this was intended as colour in a game that would be similar in tone to Game of Thrones. The complex relationships within a family, who was sleeping with whom, and the succession of the empire would be more important than playing out elaborate orbital incursions by armies of giant robots. The title -- which suggests the combination of a long and short blade in combat -- was meant to hint at this matter of scale.

My group said no to it. But one day...!

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Giant Robot Bandwagon (Part One)

After a summer of craptacular, underwhelming summer blockbusters, it looks like we might finally have a winner in Guillermo Del Toro's PACIFIC RIM. Guillermo is a nerd who hasn't forgotten his passions, and always manages to jam a metric ton of awesome (or in this case, two thousand tons) into every movie; he seldom disappoints, notwithstanding Hellboy and Abe singing Barry Manilow.

The giant fighting robot genre is one that I've always wanted to take on in gaming, having spent my formative years watching many episodes of Robotech and Voltron. Maybe it's just us gamers of a certain vintage (and anime fans) who like this stuff; I've never had any traction with players when I tried to pitch a giant robot game. And I've certainly never played most of the actual giant robot games out there, like Heavy Gear, Mekton, or Battletech (which mostly seems like an overcomplicated Avalon Hill boardgame from yesteryear with subsystems for roleplay patched on). I did play the actual Robotech game once, and enjoyed it, although my nostalgia for Palladium games is not something I feel the need to re-examine by actually playing them again.

I have the Mecha and Manga handbook for M&M 2nd Edition, and that looks like it would work just fine. (There are certainly lots of cool ideas there, even if you don't fancy using that particular system for your giant stompy robot action.) There is also indie game designer Ben Lehman's Bliss Stage, "about teenage pilots fighting back against alien invaders with giant robots made of weaponized love. It’s about love and war and the future of humanity. It has a lot of sex parts in it." That sounds awesome to me, but I think it would be an even tougher sell for a lot of groups. I should also mention John Wick's The Aegis Project, which tells the story of a giant robot-centric war fought across three eras. It sounds super ambitious, but that's all I know about it.

My personal tastes for mecha RPG -- in the abstract, thinking-about-it-even-if-my-players-don't-give-a-shit sense -- run towards using some flavour of FATE. I know that one of the settings being developed for FATE Core, Camelot Trigger, is a big crazy mecha space opera, so clearly I'm not the only one.

I began thinking of doing mecha in FATE while reading the excellent, comprehensive (and super crunchy) science fiction sourcebook Starblazer Adventures. SBA was the first FATE game I know of that explored the possible repercussions of the "FATE Fractal" -- the idea that the simple structure of FATE characters, including Ladder-based skills, stunts, and Aspects, could be applied at various levels of magnification. So you could use it to model a starship or a galaxy-sized construct, or a corporation, or a giant stompy robot, in much the same way and use the same resolution mechanics. Pretty cool. This is an important idea if you're telling a big, sprawling space epic where little star fighters may or may not be able to find a convenient Exhaust Port aspect to exploit on the Deadly Battlemoon. In space opera, scale -- and often, ridiculously epic scale -- is everything.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about my thoughts on running a mecha game, and a little bit about the game I pitched to my group (unsuccessfully), DAISHO.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Talkin' 'Bout My G-G-Generation (Part Three)

The important take-away from the previous two parts is that, although my friends weren't especially familiar with the new-gaming idea of collectively creating a campaign (say that three times fast), they took to it very easily with some prompting. Gamers of every generation are creative types, and they may start from the assumption that the GM is going to be mostly in the driver's seat, but when you open the door to everyone's contributions they are on board.

Some gamers don't engage in a deep way with roleplaying games, of course, but that's the point of everyone building these things together; if someone is shy or feels like their ideas aren't good, the rest of the group is there to give them encouragement and suggestions. Eventually people warm up to the idea that the game belongs to us all.

The good news for GMs coming from an older generation of gamers is that this solves a number of problems that those of us in the Big Chair faced, back in the day. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it proceeds from a place of player engagement with the material. By drawing your game from the contributions of everyone at the table, you're sure to get a game that is interesting to the maximum number of people.

Secondly, many times in my formative years as a GM, players would have very little idea what they were getting into when they sat down at the table and made up characters (or even came to the table with one pre-generated). The chances were good that you'd get a random group of characters with very little to connect or motivate them. By creating characters and situations as a group, you implicitly create a working template of relationships between the characters.

Thirdly, if players know more about the game and feel a sense of ownership going in -- and in this game, they know as much as I do, barring what I pull in from the Call of Cthulhu rulebook and the Los Angeles sourcebook -- the more they feel ready to make creative contributions down the line. You're setting up a different kind of relationship between the GM and the players at the table as a foundation; they know from the start that they are considered co-creators whose contributions are welcome. For me, this is much better than the kind of "lonely fun" that some players get from writing elaborate backstories for their characters. If there is awesome character stuff to be had, get it on the table.

You also get the fringe benefit of built-in suspense. The players in this game -- which I've called Nocturne -- know enough to be spending their downtime wondering what's going to come next.

And hopefully, thinking about what they're going to introduce and contribute to the game, too.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Talkin' 'Bout My G-G-Generation (Part Two)

We proceeded with me asking questions about the characters and letting the players come up with answers that gave us useful details in building stories.

What was it that the journalist and the cop did for the big aircraft industrialist? Frank, the cop, was clearly his fixer -- and muscle when he needed it. Pat, the journalist, worked both on PR for his boss and also was plugged into the elaborate web of secrets and scandals that ties L.A. together.

Sure, cops in L.A. are corrupt in the 20's... but just how corrupt was Frank? What had he done in the line of duty? Did he have any enemies? (Yes, a lot of 'em.) What was the line he couldn't cross? (We agreed this was a good distinction to explore in play.)

If Pat was a journalist, what kind of journalist? Was he a crusader against political corruption and social problems, or did he make his dough selling dirt to the scandal sheets? It turned out, a little of both -- Pat came up selling juicy scandals, and now works at the edges of the political beat. He's using his position to go after big fish like Hearst and Howard Hughes.

How did our Howard Hughes type, Vaughn, get so rich? Jeff suggested that his family had made money in shipping, and owned a cruise line. Vaughn had invested his own money in air travel as the future of shipping and travel. And although he operates in rarefied circles, he's also interested in progressive politics. Partly as an image thing, but also because he sincerely believes in it.

I asked if there were important locations to serve as "sets" for our series, and someone suggested that Vaughn should own a nightclub. This could serve as the glamourous backdrop for a lot of scenes, and sounded great to me. It's a glitzy place with a big "Old Hollywood" stage that hosts the best jazz bands in the country, and has private rooms in the back for intrigue... and secret tunnels for moving illicit booze.

I suggested that we should start with a big event that couldn't be ignored, something that implicated all of the characters. I'm not sure who first threw out the idea of a body turning up on the rich Howard Hughes type, but it's such a classic bit of film noir business I knew it would be perfect.

The body belonged to Gretchen; she had worked in Vaughn's nightclub, and once upon a time they had been close. Vaughn had proposed, but she had turned him down. They had parted on good terms, and he had set her up in a plum position as hostess at the club. She had been dating a young actor. Gretchen had come to L.A. with her sister, who was trying her hand at being an actress.

Having squeezed some details about Gretchen out of the players -- with Jeff supplying most of the important details about their relationship -- I turned on the other players. I asked Steve if he also had a connection to Gretchen, and he said that Pat had a fling with her that the boss didn't know about.

"Dave," I said, "you never got along with her. Why? Did you know something about her?" Dave thought on that for a moment, and said that Frank had never trusted her. "She was too nice," he said. And Frank didn't know anything much about her background. "It was like she came out of nowhere."

Lastly, I asked about the discovery of the body. Who had found it? When? Where had it been found? We decided that it needed to be somewhere that implicated Vaughn -- his country estate in Malibu. A servant had discovered it in the gardens, near a pond, and Vaughn's faithful lieutenants had sent the whole staff away on vacation when they arrived to deal with the problem.

I asked for details on the body. She had no visible wounds, except for some scrapes on her hands, and was wearing an evening dress. Pat had noticed that some of her hair had been pulled out at the roots, leaving some blood on her scalp. Frank had turned her over to discover that her eyes were eerily blood-red. She had a locket clutched in her hand.

I hadn't come to our online session with any notes or ideas about what kind of game was going to happen, so all of the above was invented on the spot. I think you'd be hard-pressed to do better than that as a setup for an adventure filled with mystery and intrigue.

Tomorrow, I'll reflect on the process and the whole idea of collective creativity in roleplaying.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Talkin' Bout My G-G-Generation (Part One)

This week, my online game group started planning our next game -- a very film-noir inspired Cthulhu Dark game set in 1920s Los Angeles. I have the excellent Call of Cthulhu sourcebook Secrets of Los Angeles to draw on, which is filled with pretty much everything you could want for a campaign like this. Some of the conversation that led us to this game made me think about some of the changes in underlying assumptions that gamers of various vintages (or perhaps system preferences) carry around with them.

When the group met via Google Hangout, we had already decided that a Cthulhu game would be a good fit. Since I've got a bunch of sourcebooks and adventures on my shelves for CoC and no regular opportunity to play them, I knew I wouldn't be short of material. I had a quick look at my shelves and mentioned some of the "flavours" of game we could play -- I was more interested in playing a game of our own creation than a pre-written adventure, although Chaosium and Pelgrane Press produce astoundingly high quality material.

The first thing my friend Dave said was something like "I think I speak for all of us when I say we're cool with whatever kind of game you want to run."

That's a very kind and humbling thing for a GM to hear -- it's always nice to know that your players trust you, and are willing to follow your lead. On reflection, there was a part of me that was startled to be speaking with players who didn't have an expectation going in that they would be working in more of a collaborative capacity to build the game. For me, this sort of thing happens so often in our games now that I don't think about it much. I assume there will be give and take on what kind of characters and precisely what kind of story we're going to play.

Back in the day, and among more traditional gamers, I think there was more of an attitude of letting the GM make the most important decisions about the game. The GM might buy an adventure, or a sourcebook, and think "Aha! I know just what I'd do with this..." and off you'd go. The players would take that starting point and make characters who fit that mold. I remember running a long-term Forgotten Realms game largely off the City of Raven's Bluff sourcebook.

After some talking back and forth about the merits of doing a traditional Cthulhu game set in Arkham, or one set in New York or Los Angeles, I asked which one of those appealed to the players most. Did someone have an idea for something that could fit into one of those settings? After some chatter, my friend Jeff suggested he thought it might be cool to play a Howard Hughes type aviation guy / zillionaire in 20's L.A.; I agreed that was a great starting point, and could already see the possibilities. 

(Notice the difference -- in the Forgotten Realms game, I started with the source material and worked from there, whereas in our current game I went with the material which best served the story ideas we came up with together.)

Dave pitched a corrupt cop character, and Steve said he'd like to play a journalist. These are pretty classic Cthulhu character concepts, and they fit well into the setting; I could see a classic problem coming, however -- CoC is notorious for having character concepts that don't necessarily have a great reason to work together. My next line of questioning was what the connections between the characters were.

Jeff's character is wealthy enough that they could certainly be employees, and that worked well enough, but I was after a deeper connection. These needed to be guys who trusted each other implicitly, who would stick together under fire. Otherwise, they could always walk away from whatever crisis I threw at them. I suggested that maybe they knew each other from the Great War. Always a good hook for the 1920s.

There was general agreement that this would be a cool way to go, and later we discussed them having done a secret mission behind enemy lines where they had already encountered something weird and scary together. (This may have been Dave's idea.) I thought that was a great idea.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about how we came up with deeper character conflicts, and how we collectively developed the idea of the initial murder which will kick off the game.