Wednesday, 27 March 2013


The last two trailers were all me, but I also wrote one to pimp the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign "Masks of Nyarlathotep". I wrote it like an old-timey adventure serial. It made me giggle, anyway.

As the RKO RADIO studio logo appears on the screen...


We see a BLOOD-COVERED HAND and forearm tumble off the edge of a bed as MENACING MUSIC plays. We hear A WOMAN SCREAM!



We see JIMMY MULDOON, a rough-and-tumble man, holding up a bundle of papers. He is sitting opposite CLARA GATES, a young woman wearing a raincoat.

Jackson was on to something. Something that got him killed. And I think it had something to do with the Carlyle Expedition...



We see JACK BRADY, a square-jawed tough-guy type, standing aghast. Eerie flickering light in the foreground sends the shadows of DANCING NATIVES on the cave wall behind him... and something else. We see a VAST, INHUMAN SHAPE RISE UP in the foreground.

My god! It’s impossible!



We see ERICA CARLYLE, a pretty young dilettante, light a cigarette.

My brother was fascinated by Africa. Obsessed, really. It was all he talked about...


CARLYLE (continued, dramatic)
It haunted his dreams.



We see a steamship, the VENTURE, pull out into the open waters.

CLARA (voiceover)
We owe it to Jackson to get to the bottom of this mystery and bring his killers to justice.

We DISSOLVE through several shots of the LONDON SKYLINE, the GREAT PYRAMIDS of Egypt, and the port of SHANGHAI.



We see Muldoon struggling with a SWARTHY FOREIGNER weilding a long, curved knife. The assassin pushes the knife closer to Muldoon’s throat, but Muldoon manages to push him away and knocks him back with a left hook to the chin.


We see Muldoon and several others fleeing through torch-lit sandstone tunnels with EGYPTIAN HEIROGLYPHICS on the walls. There is a terrible RUMBLING and we can see SAND is beginning to pour through cracks in the ceiling. Behind the fleeing heroes, we can see the shadowy forms of pursuers with monstrous, inhuman heads!



We see a super-crazy MADMAN, trembling, giggling and drooling on himself. His eyes shine with insane mirth.

The master is coming... you cannot stop him! Ee-hee-hee-hee!!


We see MULDOON strapped down to a stone altar, surrounded by chanting cultists. The CULT LEADER steps forward, wearing black robes, holding a curved SACRIFICIAL KNIFE in his hands.

CULT LEADER (super evil)
The stars have at last come right, Mister Muldoon. What a pity... for you.

The cult leader lets out a RIDICULOUSLY SINISTER LAUGH. Muldoon struggles against his bonds as the cult leader approaches, lifting the knife over him, ready to strike...

CLARA (off-camera)
Not tonight, palooka!

We see CLARA swing down to the altar stone on a rope. She kicks the CULT LEADER away with one booted foot and raises a THOMPSON SUBMACHINEGUN to mow down the assembled cultists.

CLARA (cont’d)
This is for Jackson, you monsters!



The camera is set at the bottom of the pit looking up. We see MULDOON and CLARA step into the frame at the top of the pit, and Clara claps a hand over her mouth as we see a WEIRD, SHIFTING DARK MASS enter the frame in the foreground.

What in the name of...!

The thing in the pit lets out a monstrous HOWL.



Clara and Muldoon wrap their arms around each other and kiss passionately as TRIUMPHANT MUSIC SURGES.

Clara pulls away, GAZING INTO THE CAMERA.

Oh, Jimmy... how can we love each other when it could be... THE END OF THE WORLD?!



Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Campaign Trailer: REIGN

Today's trailer is for a REIGN game I pitched to my Wednesday night group. After having powered through George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire stuff, I was jazzed to run a game that was all about political intrigue in a kingdom teetering on the edge of war. This trailer was a lot of fun to write, and it spun things in a pleasingly Shakespearean direction. Megan was dying to play this one. Would still love to run it one day.


We see a group of three men and several horses standing a short distance from the mouth of a cave at the base of a cliff. It is RAINING very hard, and they stand huddled, with the hoods of their cloaks pulled low over their faces. Their breath steams in the air.

We shouldn’t have let him go in there alone.

Sod that. I ain’t goin’ in there.

We’re supposed to be his bodyguards. We never leave his side.

Fine. You go.

Jarek glares at Baran, but he stays where he is.

BARAN (cont’d)
Bloody freezing out here.

The third man (HOGARTH) reaches under his cloak and passes a wineskin to Baran. Baran begins to drink. Hogarth looks toward the cave, and we see that there are several SPEARS thrust into the earth along the trail to the cave mouth. There are bleached SKULLS impaled on the top of each spear.

...Seven hells.

BARAN (offers the skin to Jarek)
Oi. Bit o’ the old red-red, brave sir knight?

Jarek shakes his head.

BARAN (cont’d; drinks again himself)
Suit yourself. Cheers, Hogarth.

Baran passes back the skin. Hogarth drinks.

JAREK (quietly)
We shouldn’t have let him go...

The camera moves away from the huddled men toward the mouth of the cave. As the camera gets closer, we can see there is dim light coming from deep inside. Smoky TORCHES gutter inside the cave. We can distantly hear CACKLING LAUGHTER from somewhere inside.



We see a bulging velvet sack tossed to the ground with a metallic clink. Gold coins spill out on the earthen floor, glimmering in the torchlight. We hear more cackling laughter.

BLACKTREE (off-screen)
There is your price, hags.


We see LORD BLACKTREE, a tall, powerfully-built man in his forties with black hair beginning to go iron grey, standing inside a large cave lit by more torches. The cave walls and ceiling are elaborately painted with ancient PICTOGRAPHS. There is a large, bubbling COPPER CAULDRON in the center of the chamber. The only furnishings here are heaps of dirty animal skins and furs. Three WITCHES stand opposite Lord Blacktree: one is young, perhaps no more than nine or ten (the MAIDEN); one is older, an adult (the MOTHER); the third is ancient (THE CRONE). All are naked, incredibly ugly, and dirty. Their hair is wild. We can just barely make out SYMBOLS painted on their bodies under the top layer of dirt.

CRONE (lewdly)
You sure you wouldn’t rather like to settle in trade, Blacktree?

She holds up her saggy, withered breasts in her gnarled fingers, licking her lips.

BLACKTREE (repulsed)
You have your gold. Give me what is mine.

Oh, I think you’ve offended His Lordship, he’s a proper noble gentleman, don’tcha know.

MOTHER (mocking)
Too fine and important to spend his seed inside a peasant girl.

That’s not what I’ve heard.

The witches CACKLE LOUDLY. Lord Blacktree places his hand on his sword.

BLACKTREE (furious)
Enough. I will not be mocked by you filthy, deranged—

--Stay your anger, Blacktree. No one cares about the bastard get you’ve spread about the countryside.

You’ve paid for a vision, and a vision you shall have.

She reaches into the cauldron. We can see that there is a thick, nasty-looking liquid BOILING inside. Lord Blacktree looks startled as the MAIDEN fishes around in the boiling liquid for long moments, apparently unaffected. She flashes her yellowed, jagged teeth as she lifts something out and holds it out to show Blacktree. We see that it is a handful of EYEBALLS. Lord Blacktree recoils, and the witches LAUGH again. The Maiden passes them to the other witches.

So timid. That isn’t your reputation, “Milord”.

She makes a pelvic thrust motion and laughes uproariously, taking an eyeball in her teeth. Lord Blacktree turns away as they begin to eat, milky liquid running down their chins. The MAIDEN stuffs her mouth with eyes, eating loudly and sloppily.

BLACKTREE (clapping a hand to his mouth)
By the Gods.

Your weak Gods can’t help you, Blacktree. That is why you have come to us.

The witches are moving about the cave now, ecstatic, beginning to pass into a trance. When the MAIDEN speaks, we see that her eyes have begun to cloud over with milky CATARACTS.

MAIDEN (trance)
Blacky Blacktree commands us to see. To open the eyes of the darkness and gaze upon his enemies.

CRONE (trance)
The castle with red banners. You would see the hold at Land’s End. Where the old Bear and his cubs make their den.

MOTHER (trance)
We know what you want, Blacktree. And tonight fortune is with you. The old Bear breathes his last. In three days, the funeral bells will ring for him at Land’s End.

At last.

Blacktree smiles, and strides out of the cave.


The bodyguards straighten up as Lord Blacktree emerges.

...My lord?

We ride for the capital on the morrow.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Campaign Trailer: STRANGERS

This week, a little something different. Something I've been toying with as a tool to pitch new games to my group is writing up a "trailer" for the game, as though it were a summer blockbuster. I've had somewhat mixed results -- players tend to get a little overwhelmed if there are too many options -- but I like the basic idea. It's a good way to make sure players understand the tone and style you're aiming for. 

The first trailer is for a horror game (via World of Darkness) called STRANGERS.


What happened was not your fault.


We see a small bedroom with Winnie the Pooh wallpaper. Two young boys, six and four, are tucked into their beds. Their mother kisses the younger boy on the cheek and shuts off the light. A dim ORANGE LIGHT comes on as she closes the door behind her, and we see a plastic  NIGHT LIGHT in the shape of TIGGER glowing in an electrical outlet. The younger boy rolls over and sticks his thumb in his mouth.

You were only a child. There was nothing you could do.


Silence for a moment. Then, over black, we hear  the sound of something SNIFFING at the air like an animal. Snuff. Snuff snuff. We hear an electrical crackling sound.


as he pulls the covers up over his nose so that we can only see his WIDE, TERRIFIED EYES.

THE NIGHT LIGHT winks out with an electrical sputter. CUT TO BLACK.

We hear the sound of a child breathing quickly – terrified, hyperventilating.

THE OLDER BOY – CLOSE (Same angle)

as we see a dim BLUE LIGHT begin to fill the room. We REVERSE ANGLE and we can see that the light is coming from the children’s CLOSET. The silhouette of a FIGURE begins to appear inside the closet.

THE OLDER BOY pulls the covers up over his head.


We see the Older Boy huddled under the blankets, with his eyes squeezed shut and his hands over his ears. He is shaking, tears running from his eyes. The BLUE LIGHT can be dimly seen through the sheets, and as we hear the sound of THE CLOSET DOOR OPENING with a groan, we see a dark SILHOUETTE cast against the sheets.

We hear the sound of something SNUFFLING AT THE AIR. The Older Boy tries very hard to hold still and not make a sound.

THE SILHOUETTE MOVES CLOSER, passing right over the huddled child. Although the outline is human, the arms seem impossibly long and they move in an unnatural, boneless way.


The Older Boy’s eyes open, nervously looking about. It is QUIET. He begins breathing rapidly again, and after a long moment he tosses the sheets aside...


...and the room is exactly like it was before. The orange NIGHT LIGHT casts a warm glow. The closet door is closed. Nothing is out of place. No one stands over where the Older Boy is huddled peering out from the sheets.

The other bed is empty.

As the Older Boy sits up, tears running down his face, we see that the WINDOW IS SLIGHTLY OPEN, and the curtains billow slightly in the breeze.


The Older Boy opens his mouth to SCREAM and we CUT TO BLACK.

If you had done something, tried to fight, cried out... it would have taken you too. You know that, John.



We see JOHN, an older version of the boy we saw in the earlier sequence, sitting amongst the debris of his life. The room is a disaster, and we can see any number of empty liquor bottles scattered around the room. John sits hunched over a table, where we can see a POLICE BADGE sits in front of him. He is holding a SERVICE REVOLVER in his hands. His eyes are the same, haunted eyes of the child in the previous scene.

He lifts the REVOLVER and holds it to his temple –


Yeah. I know all that. And none of it matters a god damn.


As we see THE HAMMER FALL on the revolver. Click. Nothing. John begins to shudder, great wracking sobs, and he collapses. FADEOUT.

John... What if I told you there was a way...

A way what?

A way to deal with your loss. A kind of... special support group. For people like you.

There are no people like me.



We see a group of four people – two men (including JOHN) and two women, sitting around a long wooden table. They are all, somehow, as haunted-looking and edgy as John.

There are others, John. People like you, people who need... closure.

We see a MAN WITH WHITE HAIR enter from a door at the far end of the room and stand at the head of the table. We see he is standing in front of a large WOODEN CARVING on the wall that depicts a man in medieval jester’s garb playing a flute. A line of dancing children follows the jester. There is a legend emblazoned at the bottom of the carving: THE HAMELIN GROUP. FADEOUT.


We see a montage of John and the others from the table:

  • A woman backs up a flight of stairs, blasting away with a SHOTGUN at a group of small figures moving up the stairs after her.
  • John and a group of others huddle at the edge of an open grave in a stand of woods, covering their mouths with handkerchiefs.
  • The headlights of a vehicle catch a figure standing in the middle of a darkened roadway – and it unfolds HUGE WINGS and soars overhead, the light reflecting off huge RED EYES.
  • We see a MAN RUNNING TOWARD THE CAMERA, ON FIRE from head to toe.


What would you say to that, John? For a chance to pay them back for what happened to your brother?

I’d say sign me up.


We see JOHN standing in the foreground, pointing a pistol at something off-camera. Behind him, we can see two young boys in basketball jerseys are backing away, terrified expressions on their faces. There is a DIM BLUE GLOW in the foreground and we see a TALL, SKINNY SHADOW fall over the group. Its arms are long and move in an unnatural, boneless way.

JOHN (to boys)


Friday, 22 March 2013

Drama Tools - Commitment

One of the most important things that playing in a HTHD game requires of everyone involved -- players and GM -- is commitment. And when I say commitment, I mean a willingness to "go deep" into emotional territory that most roleplaying games don't require or endorse.

As an aside, it also requires commitment in more pedestrian ways. You will find, in a game that focuses on character development and drama, that it's increasingly difficult to go ahead with a session if one or more players is unavailable. The characters are intimately tangled up in every aspect of the story, and more than that, the players are intensely involved on every level of the story -- although you could have a session where you do a "side story" focusing on some of the characters, players are also committed to the game on the level of audience. Missing an important part of the story is a problem, and you can't just catch up by downloading the episode from the internet.

Most players are initially reluctant to open themselves up to the level of commitment that HTHD demands. The games they are probably accustomed to tend to avoid situations of emotion and drama, and the idea of allowing their character (and, by extension, themselves) to become vulnerable in a roleplaying game is strange and scary. And it's true that even for players with experience at this sort of thing, often your first instinct is to back away from an in-game conflict rather than tackling it head-on.

Sometimes this is an instinct that a conflict shouldn't be resolved / grappled with at that point in the story, or a genuine uncertainty about what to do / how to approach the conflict, but most of the time it's just a fear of commitment to the scene. Drama thrives on uncertainty and unexpected changes in personal dynamics; it's always a good time to take on a conflict, because the fallout from a scene should give you material to move forward and develop things further.

Megan summed up the technique that you need to get past that initial moment of pulling back from a dramatic moment with an anecdote from her theatre days. Whenever you feel yourself starting to pull back from a scene, you say "Fuck it!" and go for it.

The FUCK IT! School of Acting.

Often, simply being aware of this instinct to pull back from a scene puts you in a position to ignore that instinct. Just remember that salty mantra and dive right in the next time you find yourself avoiding something that could be interesting and exciting in a scene.

Commitment is always the more interesting choice. Powering through those awkward moments and seeing where they take you is the stuff of good drama and good gaming. Games like Primetime Adventures make this a requirement of play by building into your games a structured character arc with defined "spotlight" episodes for each character, but NOW is always a good time for drama.

Remember: Say "Fuck it!" and go for it.

Excellent advice for players, and useful stuff for GMs too.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How to Not Be A Goof (Part Two)

First, you must acknowledge that finding a group of sympatico players who are willing to play a game with a focus that is on drama (or even partially about drama) is going to take some work.

While it's true that not every game has to be about goofy fun, there are enough people out there who Embrace The Goofy (or what have you -- tactics, resource management, min-maxing) that you will probably not just stumble into a group that's gung ho to try it. A group that is largely composed of friends who have been gaming together since high school may indeed be All About The Goofy and have no interest in getting all serious on game night. For them it's about escape, and that's okay.

Finding out what they are willing to try is as easy as having a conversation with your group. This is an important part of Social Contract, a process that has gotten talked about a lot recently, and one that should be an ongoing conversation amongst a circle of players. If playing games is meant to be fun, you need to find out what your players enjoy, right? How do you do that? You ask them, straight up, what they want and don't want to see in the game. It's as simple as that. There's no pretentious B.S. involved -- it's a conversation aimed at making games as much fun as possible for all the players involved.

Maybe your players will be excited to try some drama as a side dish to their goofiness, or even as a new and spicy main course. Ask them.

The second step is a little tougher, especially for us nerds with our sometimes-fragile sense of social belonging. If your regular group is not open to the idea of adding drama to the gaming stew pot, or not many of them are, you're in the position of having to form a new group around a nucleus of players who are interested in giving drama a go.

Some people balk at walking away from their regular group to try something new, but this really doesn't mean you have to stop gaming with those people. You just don't play drama-centric games with them, full stop. You'll still be friends like before, and hang out, and do the same goofy things you've enjoyed for years. This is not an "either or" proposition.

Modern social media makes it a little easier to look for a new circle of players when you want to try new things. There are many groups on Facebook that cater to gaming in various cities around the world, as well as sign-up boards at your Friendly Local Game Shop, university clubs, LARP groups, even websites devoted to finding players. It may take some time, but it is definitely do-able.

When you meet your prospective new players, have open and frank discussions about the kinds of games you would like to play. Listen to what they have to say about the games they've liked in the past. Be willing to play games you've never thought of before, and look for people who are willing to do the same.

Once you've got some players who are willing to give a drama-based game a go, remember that it will take some time to build the trust and chemistry necessary for deep dramatic roleplaying. Don't worry about hitting it out of the park the first time, just work at getting those dramatic moments to happen and commit to them as much as possible. (Tomorrow's post will discuss my wife's most important contribution to the HTHD school of roleplaying, the "Fuck It" rule. YOU NEED TO READ THIS. Tune in Tomorrow.)

Time and patience pay off, when you're creating drama. If you're willing to put the work in, there is an opportunity to play games that are filled with the kind of satisfying, meaty scenes that the best TV dramas, movies, and books are capable of producing. Some people don't want that, and that's fine. But if you are someone who does...

Don't be a goof.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

How to Not Be A Goof (Part One)

Ah, RPGnet. Home of the pointless argument. Breeding ground of the great shaggy One True Wayer. Where no question is too innocuous and sincere to merit a response that is less than hateful, self-important screed.

Once upon a time, I spent a great deal of time reading through the forums at RPGnet, where occasionally you saw posts/responses from industry professionals (like Greg Stolze and Ben Baugh, ZOMG!) and high-level discussions of what gaming was and what it could be. Okay, that last bit never really happened -- that was probably more The Forge's thing -- but there were occasional chunks of diamond scattered with the dross. These days I can barely be bothered to read the forums... it's the same dull conversations that have been going 'round and 'round for years, and the same ugly, pointless vitriol aimed at Those Who Game Differently.

I did drop by recently and read the beginnings of a thread where a poster was saying that he was hoping to inject a little drama into his upcoming superhero game -- his intentions were to aim for something like what you saw in the Teen Titans cartoon. Mostly goofy fun, but occasionally some serious, dramatic moments. How could he do that, he wondered innocently.

The floodgates of dumb broke open. People were very eager to tell this person -- who had made what he wanted to get out of his game very clear, and wasn't really asking for anything that demanding -- that he should just forget about drama, relax and enjoy himself. Why would you want that? Dude, that's not what roleplaying is.

Why don't you just be happy with goofy fun?

I'll tell you why not: Because that's not what the poster said he wanted. Period.

You see this fallacy all the time, on RPGnet and elsewhere. "Roleplaying is just goofy fun." Anybody who wants it to be more than that is a pretentious asshole, or a manipulative railroader.

I have no problem with goofy fun, or with people who enjoy that style to the exclusion of all others when they game. My Roll20 game Blood Money pretty much runs entirely on goofy fun mode. But I don't have any interest in doing that all the time.

For those of us who enjoy dramatic roleplaying, once we've experienced the deeper rewards of real character-focused play and scenes that push us to our limits, there's no real going back to games that don't require our full engagement or demand a stronger level of commitment. We like to goof around too, but that's just an occasional sidelight.

So what do you do, when you want to inject some drama into your game?

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Drama Tools: Essential Actions

Megan followed up on my post about her list of NPC motivations with the following comment, in case you missed it:

"I was pulling from the book written by some of Mamet's students on essential actions, which has a checklist.

An essential action must be:
  • physically capable of being done
  • fun to do
  • specific
  • have its test in the other person
  • not be an errand
  • not presuppose any physical or emotional state
  • not be manipulative
  • have a "cap"
  • be in line with the intention of the playwright (or in this case, the GM)
I don't know that I succeeded with all those items all the time, but they were my guiding principles. (See A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder et al., p.11)"

I highlighted a few of those I think are particularly important in a gaming context.

Megan's mention of essential actions (and Mamet) led me to this article on Practical Aesthetics on Wikipedia. The article says the following about essential actions: "An evocative and relevant description of what the actor wants within the scene. It is essential to understand that what the character is doing and what the actor is doing are separate."

In the gaming context, again, I think the relevant thing to know is that there can and sometimes should be a dichotomy between what the character is doing / wants and what the player is doing / wants. It's entirely appropriate in HTHD games for the player to maneuver their character into choices that aren't meant to be optimal -- they're intended to open up opportunities for drama

A lot of gamers don't like this sort of thing, but I think the only time it's a problem is if you're doing this sort of thing in a group that isn't interested in drama. And chances are, if you're one of those gamers that believes characters should always behave like a SWAT team, moving from one tactical situation to another with as much firepower strapped to their web gear as possible, eliminating characters who make sub-optimal choices with sniper fire and grenades, you aren't reading this blog anyway.

For me, the interesting choice is always better than the optimal one. Boring and effective is still boring.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Drama Tools: Pushing Buttons

Megan has her semi-formalized process of writing down motivations for each NPC, and I take a similar (but even less formal) approach. I like to think of it as "pushing buttons" on the player characters. If you understand the characters and the players well, it's like pushing a drama button.

Let me just quickly switch metaphors, to complicate things unnecessarily. Character backstory, problems and motivations are a whole big tapestry -- they tell you everything there is to know about the character up to this point. Drama is about destabilizing that "big picture" of the character and forcing them to take action, make a choice. Tugging on a string to see what unravels.

Often, as a GM you'll have one or two BIG character "buttons" (or strings, or whatever metaphor you prefer) that you want to push in a given session. And you should push them HARD when you do. If it's a character's spotlight episode, they should have all kinds of unpleasant decisions to make and come out of it smarting.

What I like to do, to give my episodes some texture (or adjust pacing on the fly, if I find that things are dragging and we need something dramatic to punch it up), is to have a few ideas of smaller "buttons" that I can tap on as sidelights to the main event. There's a character that someone doesn't get along with? They show up. Two PCs are having a fight about what's the best way to proceed on their Master Plan? Throw them into a scene together. We haven't seen a character's conflict on screen for a while? Toss them a little reminder, a little button press to wake them up and remember the struggle to come.

This works especially well if an episode concentrates on one character's conflicts -- you can still have a little scene for one of the other characters that makes it worthwhile and memorable for those players too. 

Modern games like FATE make this very easy, because character generation formalizes PC issues ("buttons") in a way that makes them very easy for the GM to grasp and refer to quickly. An Aspect with negative / Problem overtones is a ready-made, player-generated button that says "Push me for Drama, please." You can also get some mileage out of placing Aspects that aren't usually negative in crisis -- if someone's an expert swordsman, they should occasionally get to face down someone who doesn't give them the proper respect, to show off their skills. This isn't as interesting as a scene where a PC has to make some hard choices or make a sacrifice to get what they want, but it reinforces the character "on screen" in a way that's satisfying and reminds us of the character's basic focus -- the way Indiana Jones occasionally gets to show off his vast knowledge of history and ancient artifacts in between punching Nazis in the face.

One last thing: It's always worth remembering that sometimes you don't need to push any buttons. Your players will do it all by themselves, if they're sufficiently motivated and focused.

The GM just needs to be ready to push a button when necessary to keep the drama level high.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Drama Tools: NPC Motivations

To follow up on my Mamet-centric entry the other day, I wanted to quickly share a tool that my clever wife has devised as a GMing aid.

In addition to history, Megan studied theatre in university, so she was familiar with Mr. Mamet's techniques in the venue they were intended for. When she first took on "the big chair" and made the jump from player to GM last summer, she brought some of that theatre experience to the table.

Rather than develop an elaborate plot for her Primetime Adventures (PTA) game, which probably wouldn't have worked in a largely player-driven game anyway, Megan instead focused her efforts on knowing what her NPCs wanted -- if they were called into a scene, what did they want from the PCs? What would they push for, and where would they apply pressure? This plays directly into Mamet's principles of goals and urgency, and creates an opportunity to generate fallout from player choices. This is the most important tool a GM interested in dramatic play can have in her toolbox -- it's all about what the players choose.

Megan developed a list of NPCs and their motivations (which, I think, she altered as the game progressed and their immediate motivations and desires changed) as a tool that she could use to play out any scene that happened to develop. This has the advantage of a) creating an open, flexible structure for the game that is focused on, and responds to, player actions; and b) not wasting valuable energy building material for the game that the players might not ever get to see. Even in a game with a strong social contract, where the players and GM spend some effort in developing things as a group, you can never entirely know what path the players will focus on (sometimes with dogged, unrelenting determination that leaves no room for other things) during game play.

It does mean that the GM is placed in a position of being largely reactive in play, riffing off the "lead" that the players establish, but if you have the nerve for it, that can work rather well.

As Megan ably proved.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Making Drama

Several years ago, a letter from the great playwright (and screenwriter, in recent years) David Mamet to the team of writers working for him on the TV show The Unit surfaced on the internet. Clearly, the show was going through some problems at the time (and has since been cancelled, despite the presence of the great Dennis Haysbert in the cast) and Mamet, as executive producer, was trying to light a fire under his writing team to get them to return to the core principles of drama. You can read the letter in its entirety here: Check it out.

Since our house style of play is all about the drama, when a guy like David Mamet (who knows a few things about drama besides the fact that people like to cuss) says "these are the core principles", we should sit up and pay attention.

Drama, says Mamet, is the main character's struggle to overcome the things preventing her from getting what she wants -- a specific, acute goal.

What we need to emphasize there is that drama has two elements: characters with a goal that they want more than anything, and significant obstacles that stop them from achieving that goal.

When I ran my Firefly game a couple of years ago, I told my players that although they were welcome to play characters who were mercenaries, there needed to be something that each of them cared enough about that they could not walk away from that one thing. (The problem being that characters who only care about money can always choose not to get involved with anything that causes them headaches -- a surefire recipe for zero drama.) I approached it from the angle of values rather than a goal, but the principle is the same. There needs to be something that is really, really important to the characters. So important they'd do practically anything to get it. In fact, a good deal of drama comes from that question: What would the character do, or sacrifice, or compromise, to get what they want? 

Mamet goes on to caution against writing scenes where the primary point is to deliver exposition, and poses three questions that the writers can ask of every scene as a litmus test of whether it is dramatic:

1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if they don't get it?
3) Why now?

So again, you have an emphasis on goals -- Who wants what? Each important character in a scene should have one.

Then, consequences -- What happens if they don't get it? The second most important thing in drama is the fallout that action by the main characters generates. Their choices (and failures to choose) should mean something. This is particularly important for roleplaying games. Player choices should matter more than anything else in the game.

And third, urgency -- Why now? There is a reason why particularly dramatic television shows or plays are often described as a "pressure cooker" or "powder keg" situation. The stakes are high, and should be high enough that they're just about to boil over or explode at any moment. That kind of high tension environment, where characters are pushed to make hard choices, is a great backdrop for drama. Scenes should not just begin "in media res", they should begin just as things are reaching a crisis point.


This is something that is antithetical to the structure of most roleplaying games. Most games are not about player character failure, they are about a string of small successes (and sometimes small failures) leading to a glorious destiny. Character progress is onward and upward, and usually involves more and better powers and magic geegaws and heaps of gold coins. For a lot of players, the HTHD style -- which demands that there are significant struggles and setbacks and situations where a crisis is aimed directly at the player characters' heads -- would be frustrating and perhaps terrifying.



The man knows his drama. Class dismissed! 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Let it Reign

The theme of the week seems to be "stuff I'm developing", and today I'll be talking about a game I'm trying to get to the ready-to-pitch stage for my other Monday night online group. (I've christened them The Monday Men, after the bad guys in my weird 1970s game The Strangenauts. It's probably worth mentioning that the look and the name of those bad guys were among the only things that I retained from a Green Ronin game that inspired me, Damnation Decade. A sourcebook for a modern d20 game that had some great ideas but terrible, wrong-headed execution.)

I'm planning three pitches for The Monday Men. I will probably talk about the other two -- Dim Mak and Nocturne -- another day, but today I wanted to talk about the brainstorming I'm doing for pitch #3. I am a huge fan of game designer Greg Stolze, and I particularly love his work on One Roll Engine (ORE) games like Wild Talents and especially the fantasy iteration Reign.

Reign is a gritty fantasy game that deliberately tries to change up one of the most enduring tropes found in fantasy roleplaying games. That is, generally in fantasy RPGs characters tend to be loners operating at the edges of society. Reign makes it an important part of play that characters are part of organizations -- the Company rules in the game can pretty much model anything from a band of pirates to a merchant coster to a noble family struggling for power George R.R. Martin style. Although the core book contains Stolze's own setting, he provides tools that can be used to develop your own. And that's where this game comes in.

I've been wanting to play a Reign game since I got my hot little hands on it. I like the high-stakes nature of the rules -- nobody engages in unnecessary combat in an ORE game, because that gets you dead or crippled in short order -- and I especially like that players are encouraged to connect with society and engage in intrigue. I have very little interest in running a fantasy game that features anything resembling dungeon crawling, and Reign is definitely the anti-dungeon crawl.

Although I expect to do a certain amount of game development with my players, if they choose to go with Reign (the other two games are pretty cool too, so that's far from certain) I need to come to the table with enough awesome that it will draw them in. Part of that is to come up with a context (or perhaps several contexts) for the Company the players will take on, and part of that is to sketch out a world that the players will be engaged by.

To back up the anti-D&D theme, I've been trying to develop ideas for magic systems that do not resemble the traditional uses of magic in most games. "No combat spells (too slow) and no healing magic" is my starting point. Stolze mentions in his book that you need to consider what effect the extant magic would have had on the development of society, so what magic actually does is an important question. Right now, I'm leaning toward stuff like communication (using an order of monk-like magicians called Dreamspeakers who can do something like astral travel and pass messages over long, long distances) and perhaps something with larger implications like shape-changing magic. I'm thinking that this may be a low-level thing that can be done by a lot of people, but that it's usually done to augment existing skills -- allowing casters to adapt to different weather conditions (extreme cold, say) or perhaps breathe underwater for short periods.

Another element I've been trying to find a place for in a game for a long time is what I think of as "New World fantasy". What I mean by that is a game with fantasy elements set in a version of North America in the early days of European settlement, rather than Europe-through-the-looking-glass. So we're talking about a setting with vast, unspoiled wilderness, isolated outposts of civilization (and lawlessness outside them), harsh weather, and very little safety net if the settlers find themselves in trouble. A frontier game, in every sense of the word. Since it's fantasy, it would be set in a time before the development of things like gunpowder when swords and bows and armor are still in wide use, although forged, high quality weaponry would be in much shorter supply in the new world.

The thing I'm debating right now is the idea that this is a New World where there are no indigenous tribes to help out the settlers (or go to war with them). There is evidence that there were developed settlements of natives in the New World, some of them quite sophisticated, but that they all seem to have vanished somehow. There is no evidence of what happened. Like the Roanoke settlers in the legend, they have simply vanished, leaving the settlers alone (and decidedly unsettled) in a haunted land.

Companies in this setting would seem to lean toward either trading companies struggling to get their wares to market or frontier settlements struggling to survive in a harsh wilderness. Either way, I think this game would reward the use of troupe-style play where players take on a number of different characters -- so you could play scenes with daring Voyageurs exploring abandoned villages and hunting strange fauna, as well as the administrators trying to keep things running and families scrabbling to make a home.

So that's where my head is at with Reign. I feel like there are a few more elements that have to fall into place before this game is going to gel and feel ready to pitch.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Who You Gonna Call? (Part Two)

The most ambitious thing I'm trying to do in my Ghostbusters hack is eliminate the Stress tracks. Having run GB previously using Savage Worlds, I feel like comedy games aren't generally well-suited for the traditional RPG rhythm of attack-and-inflict damage. You remember any Ghostbusters being greviously injured or killed in the movies? Me neither.

My initial approach was to narrow it down to two Stress tracks: Clobbered and Scared. But my work on the Franchise portion of the character sheet suggested that this might work a different way that would be more streamlined and appropriate to genre.

Beside the Franchise and Styles portions of the character sheet, there will be a box (actually, it looks like a little splat of slime) labelled Crisis. The idea is, if a Ghostbuster loses a conflict with a ghost, one of their Styles dice (say Brave, if they're scared, or Action, if they've been slimed or clobbered) is marked as in Crisis. That doesn't impose a penalty on the character's existing die in that Style, it means that when they roll it they also have to roll an extra d4 with their pool. Basically, it opens up more ways that Opportunities can be generated and complicate the team's life. If a character is given a Crisis in the same Style twice, they're Stressed Out and removed from the conflict in the most appropriate way.

In theory, this should be easy to track and flavourful in play. Since it's an "involuntary" use of a d4, the player would not get compensated for rolling it (unless they generate an Opportunity, as usual).

Franchise dice also have a Crisis splat. What that means is that, as the GhostMaster, I can pay a die out of my Ghost Pool (this hack's analogue to the Trouble Pool from Smallville or the Doom Pool of Marvel Heroic) to apply that crisis to the whole team's Franchise instead of a character. So if I were to put the Finances die in Crisis, that might represent some kind of massive property damage they're on the hook for. A PR die in Crisis might mean that an embarrassing blunder gets caught on a cell phone camera and posted on YouTube. Or, God forbid, the Wheels die might be in Crisis if something terrible happens to Ecto-1. (Note that Franchise dice can only be hit once, and although player dice are only in Crisis until the end of an encounter -- unless I pay to have them last longer -- if a Franchise die is in Crisis, that lasts until the end of the episode.)

The Ghost Pool probably works much as you expect it to, allowing me to add ghostly Assets and generally create mayhem around the GB team.

Here's a peek at an example character based on Bill Murray.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Who You Gonna Call? (Part One)

My online western shoot-em-up Blood Money should be winding down in the next session or two. It was a good, straightforward way to kick the tires on Roll20 and online gaming in general, but now I'm ready to move on up to bigger and better things. The new Allegiance game is still on the horizon, but the second game I'm going to be running for that group is Ghostbusters.

Considering what a huge level of affection there is for this property, it's surprising that no one has held the license since the West End game in the 1980s. Maybe the rights are too expensive.

My first instinct was to run Ghostbusters using Fate Core, a system that I am confident would be able to handle anything that the concept could throw at it. And I am eager to take the latest incarnation of Fate for a test drive, but I think I've settled on using Cortex Plus for my Ghostbusters hack. Let me explain why.

Firstly, although I love Fate -- possibly above all the other games on my shelf -- I think I'm feeling a bit of Fate fatigue over the last few months. When it comes to running games, I find myself looking for fresh harbours and new thrills. Sure, Cortex Plus feels in some respects like a distant cousin of Fate who never outgrew his teenage love for polyhedral dice, but it's just different enough and has enough unique mechanics to pique my interest. My games -- as player and GM -- of Cortex Plus to date have not been entirely satisfying, because I think (like the Fate Point economy) it requires a certain amount of finesse to run it. I have been craving the chance to run (and grapple with) C+ since I got my hands on a copy of Smallville.

Secondly, there are a lot of moving parts to Fate that I haven't quite figured out how to manage online, yet. The Roll20 interface isn't well suited to tracking Stress, and especially not well suited to keeping track of all the Aspects in play -- when you figure Maneuvers and Consequences into the mix, that's a lot for me to keep track of on a scratch pad. It's worth saying that I'm considering using Fate Core to run one of the three games I will pitch to my second Monday night online group, Nocturne. More on that another day.

Thirdly, as this whole effort is part of my continuing process of experimenting with the form and possibilities of online gaming, I would prefer to run this game exclusively using Google Hangouts -- minus the Roll20 interface. This has the advantage of placing the emphasis on more roleplaying and less tactical combat, although it will require the players to manage a character sheet on their end (and the use of a dice roller app - though I easily found a good one, Bones). I can easily use ScreenShare to show the players images if necessary, and there are virtual whiteboard apps that will let me produce thumbnail maps if I have to.

C+ is a system with a rock-solid base mechanic: roll a dice pool and pick your two highest rolls for your result. Where it gets interesting is that each iteration of the system has used a slightly different take on the character structure to produce that dice pool. Smallville concentrated on drama, so the character stats emphasized values and relationships. Leverage is all about competence porn, so it has stats that push the skill and awesomeness of your crooks. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a superhero game, so it has stats that emphasize things like teamwork and the ability to use combinations of different powers (whereas Smallville cleverly reduced them to a very minor part of the character).

My version of C+ characters includes the standard Distinctions (which, in this iteration, represent the character's personality) and Assets. My take on Assets is that they will represent the character's expertise, special advantages (like a Sixth Sense or Tobin's Spirit Guide), and Contacts (which puts a bit of developing the supporting cast on the players).

The main dice in the pool come from what I'm calling Attitudes: Action, Brave, Cool, Science!, and Weird. These describe in broad strokes about the kinds of things Ghostbusters do, and they hopefully push the envelope away from everyone just piling all their build points into the Proton Pack skill.

The secondary dice are common to everyone in the team -- Franchise dice. These describe the whole Ghostbusters branch in broad strokes: Finances, Gear, Headquarters, PR, Wheels. Because this part of the die pool is common, the players will have to "build" their unique Ghostbusters franchise together, making decisions about what to emphasize and what to slight.

Tomorrow I'll talk about some different spins on the C+ mechanics I'm playing around with.

To be continued...