Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ballad of Johnny Ace

Today I tell you the story of Johnny Ace. It's a cautionary tale going waaaay back to the early 1990s and the second-ever Cyberpunk 2020 game run by yours truly. Every new Cyberpunk player at my table hears this story their first session, so that they understand what kind of game they're playing.

In my first-ever game, the three PCs were an unstoppable wrecking crew. I wanted to challenge them. So the Viking-themed drugrunners they were fighting brought in an ace -- Johnny Ace. He was an NPC Solo (the game's best combat class) built with regular PC rules. And I rolled him up with the best Cyberpunk rolls I've ever made in my life. He was an Olympic athlete, a genius, a man whose core humanity was so deep that he could have ridiculous amounts of cyberware without any risk of cyberpsychosis. No cheating on my part; he was just that good. And during the climactic firefight (there was always a climactic firefight in those days) he was going to round a corner and teach the PCs the meaning of fear...

The firefight starts. Our PCs are pushing back the Viking gang. Some kind of signal is given, and around the corner comes the infamous hired gun Johnny Ace, bristling with weapons and moving at top speed to plow through the surprised PCs. Initiative is rolled. One PC beats Johnny. A gun is aimed, fired, the bullet hits Johnny in the head, plows through his top-quality armor, drops him dead on the spot. No way to escape it. The best Cyberpunk character I ever committed to paper, and he didn't survive long enough to take a single action.

"That," I tell my new Cyberpunk players, "is what can happen to you in this game. You have been warned."

Some sentences just show up, demanding to be written. Sentences like my first response to Untimately's question #2:

"2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely. If your character dies, either you wanted it or you're an idiot. Trust me; you'll have plenty of other losses along the way."

My second question #11 gets at the same thing. There are some contexts where the specter of sudden death is part of the fun, like Cyberpunk or Call Of Cthulhu. It creates certain expectations that player and GM alike can do neat stuff with. But I think it's a bad default for RPGs in general. My Mattifesto series got into this at some length. Apparently I also shoot from the hip on it. For most games, I think, instant unearned death is not-fun, that mysterious substance that reduces the amount of fun available. Other bad things are fine, but your PC is someone you presumably wanted to play. The GM, who controls all other things in the game world, should let you have that PC until you're tired of it.

Sadly for Johnny Ace, I don't extend that security blanket to Cyberpunk. And he was an NPC anyway. Rest in pieces, Johnny.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lists are fun

Courtesy of the oft-delightful Jeff's Gameblog, I found this list of 20 questions from Brendan at Untimately (proper name? place name? enigmatic blog name? I dunno). I'm still chiseling away at the shape of Mind Shrike and I'm not in the right frame of mind for another DMG trawl, so let's answer some questions.

You're even getting bonus answers. Now how much would you pay?

1. Ability scores generation method? -- 4d6, drop lowest, any order
2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely. If your character dies, either you wanted it or you're an idiot. Trust me; you'll have plenty of other losses along the way.
3. What about raising the dead? -- Nope. Dead is dead. To do otherwise cheapens it.
4. How are replacement PCs handled? -- Worked into the story or character backgrounds if possible.
5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else? -- Varies from day to day. Individual most of the time.
6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? -- Double damage on a natural 20, or maybe double max damage. On a natural 1, I reserve the right to do anything I damn well please; the exercise of that right is capricious.
7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? -- Now you're stylish. Otherwise, no.
8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? -- Yep.
9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? -- I, like the God of an endless stream of needlepoints and puffy sweaters, will not burden you with more than you can handle. And I assume you can handle anything I can think of.
10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no? -- Yes, but rare for the same reason death is.
11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? -- Almost never.
12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? -- Not. Unless the point of a given session is resource management. It's not a sub-game that intrigues me very often. I will make an exception for arrows, as ranged fighters can dominate battlefields too easily.
13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? -- End of the adventure. Happens automatically. Don't waste game time with leveling-up questions, but we can hang around afterward for as long as it takes to fine-tune your PC. I dig it when you dig your character.
14. What do I get experience for? -- Showing up. Amusing me. A proportional share of the approximate rulebook XP value of the obstacles you overcame; I'll count "bluffing the duke" and suchlike as obstacles.
15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? -- Dice rolling. Traps = Ugh. Unless you're one of those players who ABSOLUTELY LOVES the fiddly bits of realistic trapfinding. Then I'll accommodate you once or twice every session or two.
16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? -- Mildly encouraged. Morale's an arbitrary dice roll when I remember that they might get scared, or a reflection of the personality we've established for them, depending on what seems fun at that moment.
17. How do I identify magic items? -- With magic spells or bardic knowledge. Not by testing and fiddling around and all that crap from a roguelike computer game. Life's too short.
18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? -- Yeah, you can buy generic ones and low-level doodads. From someone who makes them, and who you persuade to do business with you. There's not a Wal-Mart Of Magic handy. You're gonna have to roleplay this one, pardner.
19. Can I create magic items? When and how? -- You can. Find an NPC who knows how, and persuade them to tell you what they know.
20. What about splitting the party? -- Don't make a habit of it. You're boring everyone else.

Many of those questions presume a D&Dish experience, which is fine if that's all you play. My bookshelf, however, groans beneath the weight of other systems. So here are a few answers that apply to any system I'm running...

1. Ability scores generation method? -- Whatever it says in the rulebook. I'll err on the side of generosity up front; I can find plenty of ways to whittle your advantage away later on if I need to.
2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely, as above. Other losses abound, as above.
4. How are replacement PCs handled? -- Case by case. I encourage players to connect their PC to the Story So Far, but it's not required. If you like your new PC, we'll work it in within the next 20 minutes somehow.
6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? -- Not unless the rules call for it. And that, now that I think about it, is a shame. I'll have to fix that..
9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? -- You're much more clever, collectively, than I can ever be. I won't put anything that's guaranteed lethal in your path, but even if I do, you'll probably beat it in 1d4 rounds.
11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? -- Nope. If we're gonna do that, why not just set our rulebooks on fire right now and go find a new pastime?
14. What do I get experience for? -- Being fun. Having fun. Making me laugh. Shocking me into silence with your cunning. I'll reward "we had a better time because of you" more than "you effectively used your numbered piece of paper to overcome my numbered pieces of paper.".
16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? -- If you can put up with one or two GM NPCs hanging around, it'll make me happy. If not, they'll leave.
20. What about splitting the party? -- That's a terrible idea. Now everyone's texting or playing Magic or something while you're doing your own thing. If you want a solo adventure, we can set one up later.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Gentlemen -- BEHOLD!

Many years ago I collaborated with Keith "Eberron" Baker and Neal "He's good, but unfortunately you probably haven't heard of him" Gamache on a book called The Complete Guide to Beholders. This was before Eberron, when we just called him Keith "Daddy Smackdown The Hammer" Baker. Ask him sometime.

Anyway, I was thumbing through one of my comp copies last night. Keith wrote most of it and Neal wrote most of the rest; perhaps my longest single contribution was Chapter 7: Beholder Architecture.

I don't like maps and I don't much use battlemats and I don't like 4e D&D because of the emphasis on Specific Physical Locations. But I can write 9 straight pages of descriptive text about different kinds of beholder lairs -- how they're laid out, how they're used, what they mean. That says something about the kind of roleplayer I am. Dunno what, but something.

Luckily, someone who can do cartography made some nice maps based on my descriptions. I'l credit them by name next time I have the book handy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Time to dust off the NES

Way back in the day I played a lot of Legend Of Zelda. I mean a lot, and I mean the first one. Found some swords, set some trees on fire, cursed that damned Wizzrobe time and time again. One of my prized possessions is a hand-drawn map my brother made of Zelda's second world, done to a scale of 1 screen = 1 page of loose-leaf notebook paper, with every tree and rock drawn and colored by hand.

That makes me the target audience for this essay by Tevis Thompson, which looks at how the Zelda series has changed and how he'd like it to change back. The main thrust of his piece -- and the part that might interest roleplayers -- is that Zelda used to be about exploration and now it's about story. In terms that resonate right now, Tevis says the old games were a sandbox and the newer ones are a railroad.

I think he's right. I'm not an expert on modern Zelda, but as much as I enjoyed Ocarina of Time, it did fence me out of much of the world until I passed some predetermined thresholds. In original Z, I could wander all over the place to tangle with monsters way outside my weight class. I could explore dungeons out of order. The only narrative drive was "there's a Bad Thing and you have to get some stuff from these places to stop it."

His thoughts on the relative merits of exploration vs. story are worth checking out. I don't know whether they'll change any minds, but they do cast these different types of gameplay into sharp relief, and Tevis's points mirror some of the things I've seen in the old-school-D&D community. I don't entirely agree with his preferences; sometimes I want freeform exploration, but other times I really enjoy experiencing a directed story. Either way, though, it's a good read -- thoughtful and detailed and dancing on the edge of academic without quite falling in.

But there is one major difference between Zelda games and RPGs, and this gets to the heart of my problem with a total exploration model. If Link dies, he pops back into play with his gear and his history intact; his story continues. The player is mildly set back, but they still get to be Link. In a typical RPG, if my character dies, I have to discard everything I enjoyed about him (or her) and start from scratch. I don't get to keep being the dude I wanted to be. Maybe it wouldn't matter if I was someone who just played himself-with-a-funny-hat every time. I'm not. Some of my favorite roleplayers do that -- I even married one -- but I like being a character. Total freeform sandbox exploration would be more satisfying to me if it had a Zelda-style character reset. I enjoy that a lot more than a character meatgrinder. Can it be done? Has it been done already?

(I should credit Penny Arcade for pointing me to the essay. PA is an essential read.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I always wanted to ride a griffin. Or a gryphon.

Let's continue DMG-crawling.

P. 49 -- The rules for aerial combat take 3 pages, including a creature-by-creature breakdown of how different monsters fight when airborne. You can see D&D's wargame roots showing. It might be fun to combine these with my old copy of Dawn Patrol.

P. 55 -- I appreciate the attention that underwater adventures get here. Back in the day, I was designing an all-underwater 3e game, and this material would have been handy. It doesn't grapple with the problems of fire or metalwork, but there probably weren't many AD&D characters trying to build strongholds at the bottom of the ocean. On page 56 there's a reference to "the great air-filled domes of Atlantis." I'd love to know if that ever got written up.

P. 59 -- Probably my favorite illustration in the book. Nice work, Darlene.

It's a Viking ship, but he's no Bergman character.

P. 61 -- Now we're talking combat. This, as Tolkien said, needs a week's answer or none.

It's clear that the sense of time was very different in the early days of RPGs. Each combat round here lasts for 1 minute, instead of the standard 5-6 seconds in most of the games I know. When we combine this with the rules and rationale for hit points at higher character levels, it means that a brutal throwdown could take hours in the game world. That's an interesting stylistic choice, and one with some precedent in literature; I think of some of the minor Arthurian knights, like Bors and Ban, who were always bumping into each other and then battling for days at a time without landing any grievous blows. Still, I like fast combat rounds, since that's how most fights seem to go in real life. And also on Spike TV's Deadliest Warrior.

Also, we don't have the Weapon Speed table here (I've never owned a pre-2e PHB). I've seen it, and I think David Morgan-Mar captured it correctly here:

If you want weapon size to affect initiative in your roll-a-d6 system, why not just say that a hand-and-a-half weapon, or a weapon-and-heavy-shield combo, gives your character a -1 penalty while a two-handed weapon is a -2? Much cleaner.

P. 63 -- "It is common for player characters to attack first, parley afterwards. It is recommended that you devise encounters which penalize such action so as to encourage parleying attempts -- which will usually be fruitless, of course!" Aha ha ha! Excuse me as I wipe away a tear of helpless laughter. Or wait, are you serious here? Neither answer is encouraging.

P. 71 -- We have an extended example of melee combat here. It's middlin' as examples go, but it does contain a couple of the best character names in sword-n-sorcery history: Gutboy Barrelhouse and Aggro The Axe. Those names tell you everything you need to know about the characters attached.

P. 72 -- Pummeling and grappling have apparently been a bane to the hobby since the early days. Some things don't need to be realistically modeled.

Some good stuff, some bad stuff, some weird stuff. About par for the course so far -- and about par for the course in any RPG book. Coming soon -- psionics.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mind Shrike mania

A few days ago I dug through my Blue Folder Of Miscellany and found a list of randomly-generated supervillains. I thought I'd take one and run it through a few different superhero RPGs to see what happened. Here's how the first couple turned out.

This is one of my very favorite RPGs, and the first one I played regularly. You can trace a lot of my preferences back to his game if you're the kind of person who enjoys doing that. So what happens when we create a character to match one of the names from that list?

First, we almost got Cyberbarbarian. Marvel has a random character generator with a surprising amount of flexibility, and the first guy I rolled up could easily have had magnetic powers and a throwing knife... but having spent years playing Marvel, I remember that one of their sample characters had that exact power set. Boring. Plus this character had an Endurance stat of Feeble -- he fought and jumped around like Spider-Man, but he moved like Aunt May. That's Marvel for you.

Attempt #2 was more successful. With very little work, I put together a passable Mind Shrike (with flight and psychic mind-numbing):

F - Good
A - Good
S - Good
E - Good
R - Remarkable
I - Remarkable
P - Typical

Flight - Remarkable (around 120 mph)
Lightning Speed - Excellent (applied to Flight; that's a rule I never used before)
Paralyzing Touch - Typical

Talents - Martial Arts B; Engineering; Law
Contacts - NeuroTech Incorporated (tech company); Daggerbeard (nu-metal band)

This version of Mind Shrike came together in around 5 minutes. He's a lightweight -- weak physical stats, no offensive power worth noting, but a decent flyer with some good skills. As a lawyer with nonlethal powers, I'd  probably use him as a comic relief character. He could probably skirt the edge of "crime," since all he does is use his gauntlets to momentarily shut down people's gross motor functions. The band contact was free-associated from Mind Shrike - Operation MindCrime - Queensryche. I think this Mind Shrike is a good illustration of MSH as a system. I made him fast, had to stretch logic to connect him together, and he's more interesting than he is useful. I could drop him into any Marvel game I've ever played and he'd fit. I can already see a comic subplot where he competes with the lethal-yet-generic Killer Shrike to see who gets to use the Shrike name.

I think this is the second edition that Mayfair Games published. It got played for a while, back in the day, but it never lasted. Could be wrong, but I think it's the only notable RPG that was based on logarithms. Point-based where Marvel is random, detailed where Marvel is sketchy. DC is a game with a universal measurement system that tries to tie strength, duration, power level, distance, citrus flavor, and everything else into the same numeric scale. Not a bad game, and it has a few neat rules, but I'm not likely to dust it off for much. Here's how Mind Shrike turned out in DC.

Dex 7   Str 3   Bod 4
Int 8   Will 3   Mind 6
Infl 4   Aura 5   Sprit 4

Flight 8 (around 225 mph)
Sensory Block 6 (w/the Area Effect advantage)

Skills - Occultist 5
Wealth 5
Hero Pts 25

I built him on 450 Hero Points, the suggested starting total for a new PC hero. It took a long time, with a lot of page flipping and occasional consulting of other books, since this version of DC has character generation rules in a different book than rules on its unified measurement chart and a few other things I wanted to see. This Mind Shrike is... eh. Some kind of person with some kind of magic-derived powers that let him fly and black out all of your senses. I'm not nearly as interested in this one as in the first one. He doesn't have enough hooks to hang a character on. I suppose I could have given him some drawbacks or something, but after 45 minutes of chart consultation, I was done with him.

...so that's two Mind Shrikes down. A few more are waiting in the wings.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Since I know...

...that literally half of my current followers like Cyberpunk, I should draw your attention to this here post at Monsters And Manuals. The proprieter thereof is breaking down how he organizes his Cyberpunk sandbox. Looks like it'll be a good read.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Note: Contains similies

In my experience -- a dangerous way to begin, but safer than feigning someone else's experience -- a group of players want to do one thing: everything.

It could be that each group has a fixed number of ideas, regardless of size, so no matter how many mouths are moving 12 ideas come out in response to every situation. A GM has to wrangle these ideas and these players. Like butterflies, they light on every surface and then flitter away. Poetry, but with battleaxes and cybernetic arms. To encounter an in-game situation with any reasonably conscious group of players is to drink from the firehose of inspiration.

Someone called Daztur has written a long, cogent, useful analysis of two different ways that roleplayers handle combat. Using concepts drawn from MMO players, Daztur posits "combat as sport" vs. "combat as war." Go read it if you need those defined. Useful concepts, these. They explain a lot about different perspectives on The Right Way To Play and also What Fun Really Is. And they fall short of the mark.

Players have ideas. Lots and lots and lots of them. Players think different things are fun, lots and lots of things. Often a group of players will be gnawing on both the Sports approach and the War approach to deal with a challenge. Often a single player will argue in favor of both during the same sentence. All it takes is the flap of a butterfly's wings to tip the decision in one direction or the other -- or both, or something else, as players are an infinitely creative lot.

That's the problem with Daztur's analysis, cogency aside, and with a lot of the discussion surrounding it. A group of people who automatically default to one approach or t'other sounds like a group that's, well, kinda boring. If you're always turning your environment into a weapon, you're neglecting your character. If you're only using your character's abilities, you're missing out on the world. Or so I'd guess. In my experience, players don't settle on one approach for long, and GMs shouldn't assume otherwise.

Friday, February 3, 2012

You continue to ask...

...we continue to answer. Barking Alien wonders:

1) What is the most common type of environment or terrain encountered thus far in your current or most recent campaign?

The grim, craggy wilderness of an alternate 17th-century New England.

2) What is the most exotic or unusual environment or terrain encountered thus far in your current or most recent campaign?

The long-forgotten tunnels carved beneath alternate New England to serve as a subterranean funeral pyramid/abomination breeding ground by the not-as-extinct-as-you'd-hope Neanterthals. Who are, themselves, fleeing in the face of attacks by eerily sentient Jurassic Park-style raptors. I'm not much of an "environment" guy -- I'm more interested in "antagonists."

3) What environment or terrain type have you never used but always wanted to? Why haven't you?

Hmmm. See above. I usually struggle to think of any interesting environments/terrains to include; my mind doesn't naturally bend that way.

4) Do you have a combat rule or mechanic from another game system you are using in the game system you currently play, played recently or generally play?

For many years, and in many systems, I've awarded Extra Credit Points. If you amuse me, or you do something improbable but brilliant, or if you do something fascinating in character, I'll give you Extra Credit. You can randomly redeem these for various small benefits (combat modifiers, skill bonuses, equipment you "just remembered," etc.)

5) In your opinion, what genre has received too little attention in regards to RPGs based on that subject?

Paramilitary spy heroics. A good game about GI Joe could make a pile of money and draw a heap of fans.

6) If a quality RPG on the aforementioned neglected genre came out tomorrow, what would make you buy it? What would prevent you from buying it?

Not much would make me buy it. I have kids and an uncompleted master's thesis to support, so paying to acquire new RPG stuff is low low low on my priority list. I'd rather just design parts of it in my spare time, then give up and do something else.

7) Do you find it easier to learn the rules of a game by reading the rule book or by sitting down and just playing it?

I can't do one without the other. I learn best by reading while doing, especially if someone's also explaining.

8) Name a currently available artist not normally associated with RPGs who you'd love to see do some RPG work.

My brother-in-law. You probably haven't heard of him, and I don't know that he's available. His stuff is usually what I picture when I'm writing RPG content.

9) What one book, movie, video, etc. that is not an RPG that you think should be.

I already said GI Joe, so that doesn't count. Someone already did Thundarr, someone made a tabletop Fallout conversion... got it. Dune.

10) Can you think of an RPG you've run or played in which the GM (be it you or someone else) used/referenced non-game related books to run the campaign more often then game related books?

Oh, yeah. My old group dipped into MERP sometimes, and the two of us who GM'd were the two biggest Tolkien geeks you were ever likely to meet. If we included movies, I'd say the same thing about Star Wars.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

From the blue folder

Huh. Looks like a list of random supervillains from some long-forgotten online random character generator. Who do we have here?

Stone Apocalypse -- super strength, body duplication, carries an Air Axe
Cyberbarbarian -- magnetism, time travel, and an Adamantium Knife
Blood Flame, wielder of the sinister Mind Whip
Mind Shrike -- psychic mind-numbing, flight -- is this really random?
Future Devil, with his (her?) Seventh Sense and a bunch of Gadgets
General Sorcerer -- body transformation, immortality, and a sideline in Ancient Lore
Fly Inferno, a weapon master with a Trick Staff and the power of meditation
Princessmeister -- animal control, hypnosis, willpower. I bet she's 7 years old.
Killer Reaper -- another weapon master, but he wields the Psychohammer
Emerald Blitzkrieg doesn't do anything interesting, but I enjoy the name
Living Imp -- someone else with Gadgets, plus body duplication
Patchwork Pharaoh is another fun name
Nightblood has gotta be a mutant, probably from the mid-90s, covered in pouches and bandoliers.
Z-Gladiator -- psychic, superhuman hand-eye coordination, superhuman throwing
The grim Green Jackal -- intuition, technology powers, and Gas Armor

It wouldn't take much to clean up Cyberbarbarian, Blood Flame, Mind Shrike, Future Devil, Fly Inferno, Living Imp, or Z-Gladiator for company. And I'm having fun figuring out how the Psychohammer works, or what the Gas Armor does.

Return to the DMG

Let's pick up where we left off.

P. 25 -- "Each player character will automatically expend not less than 100 gold pieces per level of experience per month." The mechanical logic behind it is sound enough if  you're playing a game where acquiring giant heaps of treasure is assumed. But the implications of it bother me...
LANDLADY: Sorry about this, Mister Thrashovore The Bloody-Handed, but your rent's going up.
THRASHOVORE: Again? It just went up last week!
LANDLADY: Well, yes. But now you've gone and killed the Pale Green Dragon With Luminescent Spots what's been hanging around our swamp. So we have to charge you more.

P. 31 -- Why can't I be an expert in Humanoids & Giantkind - Demography? This NPC sage can. And he/she gets to cast some spells too. Could be a fun PC. Kinda useful, not a powerhouse, guaranteed to bring some interesting complications into the group (who's going to carry his pile of encyclopedias?). But we're looking at a game that doesn't want you to play that way. Not for any clear reason that I can see; maybe it just never occurred to Gary Gygax that someone would like to have a PC like this. He missed out.

P. 34-35 -- I dig the little cartoons. Not in an ironic or mocking way -- these are clearly the work of someone who's having fun with the whole idea behind D&D. Some of them are terrible failures as jokes, but we can't all be Rich Burlew. I'd award someone a pile of bonus XP for doing this in one of my games.

Also on page 34, discussing henchmen, we learn that they are "useful in individual adventures as a safety mechanism against the machinations of rival player characters...". What kind of machinations are we getting up to?

P. 37 -- "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." At last, RPG scientists have found the Unified Field Theory connecting AD&D to Ars Magica!

P. 38 -- I like the idea that low-level cleric spells are a result of godly behavior, mid-level spells come from the god's servants, and high-level spells are a direct gift from the deity itself. You could build some fun roleplaying encounters with this concept, or even structure a campaign around it.

P. 39 -- So a couple pages ago, I wasn't allowed to ask my henchmen about their alignment or religion. Now I can't ask about their spellbooks either? Seems like a forced scarcity. The interpersonal economy of Gygaxian D&D is weird.

New goal -- get people to use the phrase "the interpersonal economy of Gygaxian D&D."

P. 47 -- "Naturally, the initial adventuring in the campaign will be those in the small community and nearby underground maze." [Should that be "initial adventures"?] That's not natural unless you make it so. By the time I ran my first D&D campaign, when I was all of 14 years old, we were primarily moving from one large urban area to another through unforgiving wilderness, playing with the plots of kings and mystics. I don't think we ever went into an underground maze. Not that you can't, just that you don't have to, and so we found our fun in the fresh air instead. There's nothing wrong with dungeon-crawling, if that's what you like. There's something wrong with assuming it's How To Play The Game.

Okay, looks like a lot of rules for flying and sailing coming up next. Take 10, people. We'll regroup in a while.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Best Practices

I've spent enough of my life working at a desk to lean away from the phrase "best practices." But this challenge from the Hill Cantons blog sounds interesting:

  1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
  2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
  3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
I'm late to the party. The project got off the ground last August, and even put out a PDF. I'm looking forward to reading it -- after I answer these questions myself. Don't want to taint the sample.

SUMMARY: I do the voices. I make NPCs I don't need. I treat PC mechanics as if they were goat entrails. And as a fourth bonus point, I keep it busy.

DO THE VOICES: I like adventures about people. So there are gonna be NPCs. Some constant, some recurring, some one-offs. And because my players like adventures about people, I'll have to improvise any number of innkeepers and fixers and intrepid reporters and muleskinners and droid repairmen and lackwit potboys, perhaps all trapped in the same elevator. So I do voices for as many as I can. Not always literal voices -- I'm fair-to-middlin' at accents, no better -- but I try to give every NPC some trait that's more than a sentence of descriptive prose. Accent, hand gesture, speech pattern, eye contact, body posture, nervous twitch. They don't all come out immediately, lest the players realize how few tricks I have in that particular bag, but any sustained interaction will produce it. That gets the players away from Playing The Game and into Being Their Character, which is what I enjoy the most.

MAKE NPCS YOU DON'T NEED: I just enjoy making characters. Give me a game with robust PC-creation mechanics, or with an evocative theme, and I'll spend a couple hours just creating dudes. Doesn't matter if it's a game I'm running or playing; character generation is its own reward for me. And when someone says "We should play Cyberpunk again!" or "I have this superhero I'd like to play for a while...", I've got a bunch of material ready to launch. Because when I make characters, I also make connections between characters. I brainstorm and write down encounters or stories or odd, spiky fragments connected to these characters. With a decent character generation system you can churn out 12 NPCs in a hurry, plot out some connections, and you've got as much campaign as you'll need for a long time.

GOAT ENTRAILS: Everybody made the character they did for a reason. They made the character they want to play. So look at that PC -- see what it can do, what it carries around, what it lacks -- and run an adventure that showcases these strengths and pounces on these weaknesses. Offer up situations that play to each PC's main stuff. Have a couple encounters in your back pocket for their lesser stuff. Occasionally highlight this lesser stuff -- my recent Cyberpunk story came about because my wife's character had invested a few points in the "fly an AV-4" skill and we thought it would be fun to do just that.

KEEP THEM BUSY: Boredom is the enemy of fun. Duh. So make sure something is happening. If any player -- ANY player individually -- has gone 10-15 minutes without engaging in activity, it's time for Something To Happen. Goons with guns kick in the door. The walls start closing in. Eerie piping music that only they can hear. Slime bubbles up from everywhere. A cryptic 3-word phone call. I don't care what it is, just give them something to do/solve/escape.