Bored & Dying, part 1.5: Advanced Social Skills

•21/07/2012 • Leave a Comment

Last time I went into some meta theory stuff about social skills and people at the table. I was vague on purpose, because there’s lots of vagueness involved in GMing and there’s really few golden rules that apply universally. If this sounds scary to you, imagine yourself in my shoes when I realized that cooking something doesn’t involve baking a thing for a set amount of time, but, get this; until it tastes good.

That is the mindset you need to get, especially in social things where there is no real science around it. There is, actually, sociology and its inbred cousin, the pick-up artist books but neither of them have cured awkwardness and miscommunication yet, so let’s try and tackle that. There’s a few specific things that you might encounter and this our part one point five will deal with them in a slightly practical way, a little closer to the user level, away from the depths of the unabstracted raw fiber that make up our interactions.

If you’re not a good leader, being a GM is going to be hard. No two ways around it; you’ll need to be able to tell people to shut up, get moving, get out, stop or speak up. You’ll be handling a horde of kindergarteners at the worst of times, you need to be able to shut down situations that could lead to disaster and be able to kickstart dead action back to life.

Leadership does not come easy and creating it from scratch is particularly hard. Conveniently enough, there’s a way around it: Borrow it. If you’ve played Total War or Crusader Kings, you will have no scruples hiring a strongman into your entourage, a big man who can get loud or angry at others when needed. The question of whether the GM is “against” the players or not is an often debated one, for this exercise we shall posit that he is; you need to break the group when it is doing wrong and reform it into doing what is right. If you can’t do this, hire one of your group, to do the yelling for you. I have had my good friend Kubo, a mountain of a player, to ruin problematic players days. When my face gets serious, voice shuts down and someone’s being inconsiderate: I can always trust on him to punch a shoulder with a force that shatters every desire to interrupt the flow of the game, in addition to bones.

I would like to point out that while we cover the simple strongman approach here, there is the subtler variant that I prefer. Silence, austere dignity, crowd control through willpower. There’s no tip here for how to acquire these skills and I can’t honestly claim to grasp them myself, but there’s more to arbitration than getting loud, violent or overwhelming the group with numbers. As a GM, you will find your own style in all things, from systems of choice  to crowd control. Don’t stay on the entry level. Getting loud is impolite, people don’t like being around that kind of person.

Let us expand on asking friends to punch other friends: Delegating work.

When I started out, I had the bug: I made tons and tons of maps, I could dream of nothing but the adventure that I was going to run, I prepared NPC sheet after NPC sheet, refined those corridors, that dungeon ecosystem, every goblin had his own personalized piece of scrap weaponry. On the other side, my players wrote their charsheets on blank A4’s or napkins, often lost them. There was no player-side note-taking.

I thought this was the way it was supposed to be, I was the GM after all. Weren’t RPG’s “like computer games, but more free and with one guy playing the computer”? Was I not the computer? How could I complain? What more, it was a joy to prep dungeons and other parts of the game! (Also, frankly, nobody at the table had the artistic skills to understand or reproduce my maps but me.)

Well the joy dwindled, even before the low hit, when I was just slowly getting out of the high and entering medium area, I noticed that I did most of everything. I brought a binder. I still have the binder. Nobody else brought a binder. I had rulesets in there, I had paper, I had maps and charsheets and prep. Granted, the players brought food (LIFESAVER PROTIP GOLDEN GM RULE: YOU ARE THE GM YOU NEVER PAY FOR FOOD AND DRINK) but was there not something they should be doing?

It took me a while to find out that yes, in fact, there was. It took a delve into “indie” games to find examples of games where players take over parts of the traditional GM job. There’s even games where there is not GM at all! The role of designing opposition, world, scenes, all that there is, split up equally between players, perhaps things that need to be done concisely done by everyone in turn. All Blackbird games, Remember Tomorrow and many others explicitly have no GM and have everyone at the table collectively make up NPC’s, factions, locales and most importantly the relationships between all the agents. Then come in situations, and PC’s and who even needs a GM at that point? (The GM certainly doesn’t.)

There is a valuable lesson to be taken from this. Players themselves sometimes have a desire to create cool things outside of their character and things that their character might create. They don’t just want to be the movie star, sometimes painting a piece of scenery brings joy too. If you can harness this, do so: At the very least, you will have gained extremely valuable insight into what your player wants from you, what he wishes you had done on your own, were you a mind-reader. (Let us not forget though that empathy is second to mind-reading and empathy is ultimately the most important skill we’re going for here. One could view this delegating of creation as a casual cop-out, were one so inclined, but the advantages gained in both player and GM satisfaction, not to mention the division of labor are far too great to completely dismiss.)

There is an interesting conflict arising in this situation under certain circumstances: what if you wish to take over only part of what your player made up? What if there’s 2 NPC’s that you’d prefer to melt together? What if a locale needs serious refluffing, but has a good crunchy core, or vice versa?
Would the player get mad? Should I ask him?  Am I losing control?

No you aren’t. The game is and will always be in your hands. Make sure to tell the player beforehand that whatever he thinks up, you might completely ignore forever, or shelf until it the stars are right, or perhaps even use only part of it. The last part makes creative types (like you and me) most nervous, something not getting used at all is no harm done but what if something gets bastardized? The horror.

The remedy to this is simple: bribes. When you use a bit made by a player that you have altered, and you will, start off by saying that it is good work by him, hand him the XP or scene points or whatever your system uses and then be quick to point out that you changed parts so that the player doesn’t get a completely free ride with the piece. Wouldn’t it be strange if the player knew exactly what the secrets and weak spots of an NPC are?  Wouldn’t it be unfair to the other party members? Of course it would. The player contends himself with his bonus XP and a job well done. You have used prefab material that is perfectly tuned to one of your groups wavelength and that essentially for free. You may have even made a party wealth balance adjustment. You have saved prep time and in turn been offered an opportunity to mess with the party on a meta-level, congratulations, you have schemed your way into paying for a lunch by eating it. It was free.

By the way, delegating work isn’t limited to the in-character level of the game. Keeping track of the combat markers, checking HP and ammo tracks, even real life food and drink logistics: all this is work that needs to be done and especially in the last case it would be disgraceful for a GM to handle it alone. Tell your players they suddenly got responsibilities and they better buckle up, because you’re an emancipated woman GM now and you’re not going to take it anymore. Now have the dwarf get you a glass of drink or else.

For a moment I’d like to return to weird indie games; while we’re on topic of trying out new games, make sure you know the table from both sides. Maybe you were like me, dreamed of a career as an elf wizard most of your youth, but once the game got together nobody was willing to be the GM and you were the only one competent enough to TAKE UP THE MANTLE? Well if so, you should definitely treat yourself to some player action, particularly if you know a good GM. You’d think being a GM would give you a player experience prerequisite, but it’s not quite what you think it is. Play a game as a player. Games I’d recommend for GM’s to play if their groups absolutely CAN’T produce a placeholder GM: KAMB, Blackbird, Grey Ranks, Hikikomori (not a group RPG strictly speaking, check it right now, actually.)

One last thing I would like to discuss is Social Contracts. Social contracts, in the broader sense are any spoken, written or unspoken agreements you have with people, but in this narrower scope, they are a wonderful thing that GM’s decided to make to get everyone at the table on the same page, settle disputes before they begin and set the tone for the game.  A social contract for RPG’s is a big ol’ paper, again I cannot stress enough how great it is to have it on actual dead tree, with a list of points regarding the game on all 3 levels:

  • out-of-character: issues like times of play, regularity, what happens to characters should a player not show up, food logistics
  • mechanics: what system is going to be used, who has rules, what optional rules are used
  • in-character: what is the group etiquette regarding third person, how is narrative control handled, how much OOC talk is tolerated, are jokes allowed (important if you want to attempt the herculean task of playing a serious game)

A good commentary on and sample of social contracts can be found here and the note at the end of the list plays well into my leitmotiv of empathy; mismatched players and telling someone it’s not going to work out without making it personal, both interesting problems. Again, the GM should be able to get into players heads and see why they want to do what they want to do and use this to manipulate players into working for him. There’s a million motivations and no point in attempting to list them, but you should be aware of those that you are faced with.

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It’s like I’m writing my memoirs, bored and dying

•13/07/2012 • 3 Comments

I spend a lot of time with RPG’s. I currently play one game weekly, as a player, but I have a few years of GMing under my belt. I have however spent a lot of time with RPG’s, not playing them but studying them. Reading rules, reading other people’s thoughts on things. This has gone for roughly 15 years, since I was a really wee lad. I always tried to see the system in things and perhaps I have found some method to the madness that is RPG’s. I don’t have much to do at the moment so I will write some stuff that I think may be of use to someone, maybe.
I am not entering this ring with any goal other than writing, because I have time. I think however that war stories are the best way to improvement outside of, you know, actually GMing. I’ll make this a 3 or 4 part thing. I’ll be assuming tabletop RPG played at a table, not online, which is an ENTIRELY different ballpark.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the skills needed for a GM’s job, were we to try and categorize them into groups and sub-groups for whatever reason, would boil down to 3 sectors: people skills, game(r) skills and magic. The last part is somewhat tricky, it’s last for a reason. Let’s look at the first section.
Clearly as a GM of a tabletop RPG, you are not going to be alone. The very nature of tabletop RPG’s insists on an experience shared with others(note 1). On the most basic level, you all will need to communicate and being humans, talking is efficient. If you are not a good talker, GMing might be a problem for you. You need to talk A LOT as a GM. If you ummm and errr, the experience will be of diminished quality for all. Two options: surrender the reigns, (absolutely no shame in this, you are exactly the same sort of human that the others in the group are,) or improve. Learning by doing is your only option in this; talk more and actively reflect on how you talked. Take note of all your errs, awkward silences, when you were at a loss for words. Don’t get sad over mistakes, sadness brings no action. Getting mad is a good step: gets your blood pumping, oxygen to the cells. Don’t stay mad though, that makes you select unreasonable choices. After calming down consider what should have happened. What it comes down to is choices and muscle memory: choices are based on theory and calmness at the time of decision-making and practice is based on nothing but practice. Keep talking, try to talk clearly and calmly. Know when not to talk, for whichever reason.

Not talking is by the way an important part of communication. You will need to listen, and sometimes you may need to shut the hell up, for everyone’s sake. Don’t take it too hard, all newer GM’s run into a high sometimes and will try to tell you in the most coked-up fashion an anecdote from their past games, or, god forbid, something funny from the internet. These are bad form. RPG’s are very much about flow, interrupting the flow of the game that the entire group is participating in for your own selfish gratification is disgusting. IMPORTANT: Keep paper handy, write down everything. Every thing. This includes your unrelated anecdotes. Keep a note about the anecdote in the paper intended for post-game. When the post-game arrives, once the game has ended, review the paper and consider telling the anecdote then and consider how hard it would have impacted the flow of the game.
You should always be aware of how much spotlight time each player has gotten and you should attempt to equalize this. All should have about the same relevance in all things. This includes you. Make sure each player gets to talk, ergo do things as their character. Players have different minimum and maximum tolerances for their own actions. Gauge this and consider reasons: why is the player here if they aren’t doing anything? Reasons are many and a good intro to player psychology is ChattyDM’s Player Types, which he overtook and improved on from generations of GM’s who pondered this question. The questions boil down to simple things: waiting for an opening, hoping for a different take on a scene, social anxiety, personal issues… The art here is to find out what the issue is, via experimenting, with as little player awareness of the probing. To do this, grab the reminder-paper for the near future and make sure to note what options you have not yet exhausted: in general you can look for what kind of player it is according to Chatty’s categorization, or you might look at a further text regarding types of progression, then start rating what the player looked like during their scenes. I recommend using words for ratings as opposed to numbers or, the least useful, checkmarks. Your handwriting is a good way of memorizing things, even after months I was still capable of remembering stupid details about a lecture if I wrote down notes with a pen and paper. Some players enjoy their comfort zone. Some enjoy leaving it. Some enjoy being torn out of it forcefully. Make the right choices.

Worst case, but still not as bad as not solving the problem, is simply asking: “Why did you stay so quiet?” and then patiently listening. Again we need to stay calm and not pressure. If it’s social anxiety, pressure is the worst thing, in other cases suggesting options may sway the players opinion and give you what you want to hear but not what the issue is. Consider this too: what if the player doesn’t know themselves? Keep probing and attempt to see what kind of scene and what type of action or progress bring joy to the player or cause him to jump into action.
The solutions to most things are almost infuriatingly zen-like. If it’s anxiety, make them feel at ease. Make friends. If it’s personal problems, they need to solve them. Preferably with friends. If they want a different scene, give them that different scene. Or let them turn the scene into what they want it to be. If it’s harder rules enforcement, give them that.
Empathy is the word we’re dancing around here and it is a skill and talent that there is no reason not to desire. Empathy by definition means finding out the thoughts of other people, useful in all interactions. It’s the “thinking a turn ahead” of chess, but applied to all human interaction. You can do with it what you please, but in the capacity of the GM you should use it to make and keep the game enjoyable for all, including you. An interesting thing to think about too is subtext; never consider something to be just what it appears to be. Every sentence, every action causes ripples and affects future options and actions as well as tells you something about what is going on inside the agent. Try to think about what things happening in games mean, on all the levels, people at the table, mechanics, characters in the game. Consider that the player may not be thinking about consequences. Keep note of consequences, continuity is one of the best things a GM can pull out of his hat of tricks.

Finally, if there ever is a conflict between player desires, take this at face value: conflict is good. Conflict does not necessarily have to end in total defeat for one part and total victory for the other. Both may reach their goal. They may compromise. Do not attempt to solve conflict between players as long as it is on a game level or in-character level. Only if the conflict is related to the people sitting at the game table, should you intervene. One notable exception is griefing; causing in-character problems for the sake of causing havoc. There is a way to play a sociopath character and very VERY few players understand how. Be wary of players who would try and make a character who would cause damage or unsheathe his weapon with no other motivation than “the lulz”. You probably know the sort. Keep away from them. Keep them away from your game. Everything they touch turns to shit, don’t let them touch your game. ChattyDM wrote about this too. Do not ever tolerate this. This is one of the few golden rules that are not “floaty” or “zen” or relating to preference or tastes. Boot assholes. Always.

A perfect storm of bad homebrew GMing choices

•09/07/2012 • Leave a Comment

I like my DM. He’s a decent guy. He’s living a life he agrees with, I don’t entirely, but I am OK with him as a person. He’s decent enough. But he has managed to create a situation where cliches have literally become the rule. The one rule of his system is that cliches from other high fantasy things are the rule.

My DM has been playing /tg/ for a while now, some years. He has had 3 longer groups in his setting, which he considers pretty consistent. There’s a big undead ruling polity across most of the world, which I was told was caused by a group. That’s nice.

The problem is, we neither have access to any collected tome of fluff nor crunch. We are literally on our own here. We have to ask the DM when we need data. We have no idea about averages, weapon damages, movement, anything. We don’t use any charts, tables, grids. There’s a lot of winging it. The setting supposedly spans continents, but we barely know a thing. We keep getting things on a need-to-know basis.

Hitpoints are somewhat irrelevant: We all have a similar amount of them and damage comes completely randomly, there’s an armor soak mechanic that I saw applied once but never understood it. The game uses only d10’s, so guess what damages are like. I’ll give you a hint, daggers do 1d10+11, exploding dice, weakest weapon. Random horseshit pops up every now and then, things like xd10 to everyone around for interrupting a spellcaster in any way during casting. I am trying to put into words just how retarded that is but it’s hard. Imagine trying to turn on a dynamo flashlight and a guy passing by walks into you and you both, plus people in the vicinity, suffer an IED explosion. I realized that the GM may have powergamed me, because I have a pretty incredible undead regen that works off of any blood, and I effectively have triple the max HP anyone else has, regaining a third with any man-sized corpse drained. This is the only thing I really know for certain, everything else is completely random; I am fairly sure the GM is just making up based on what the dice roll. Obvious high v low? Hit. d10’s provide so much chaos, it’s impossible to try and calculate anything, the possible variance would make a weatherman mad.

And this is where we try and figure shit out, we try and work out some system to the madness, but what do we have to work from? We have no official sources. Ah, but what is the official source? It is a doc file that the DM has been rewriting for several years, making it more and more unreadable. It is his heartbreaker. His high fantasy heartbreaker.

I am literally playing fantasy RPG #6584794.

Shit (RPG) girls say

•19/01/2012 • Leave a Comment

I have played RPG’s with girls only a few times, on a campaign level only twice. The second time of those two is the campaign I am in currently. This is a pretty meager setup for a statistic but all the more fertile soil for observational humor. My point is this: both times there was one girl in the group and both talked in secret to the GM for minutes on end and had some kind of hidden plot/identity thing going.

In general, I find hidden plots to be shitty because they’re hard to pull off well; leaving the rest of the group to stare at their hands while the GM is monopolized is shitty player behavior. The hidden plot itself too tends to be bad and snow-flakey, not to mention contrasting strongly with a group that doesn’t have hidden backgrounds. (A game with every PC having a hidden story seems decent enough though, everyone would have to suffer the pauses so courtesy and briefness would be cultivated in time.) The GM should have an activity ready for the waiting rest of the group on hand.

Being the comedic mastermind wunderkind that I am I pointed this coincidence out to my current group after the game, (you don’t shit on a GM’s game while it’s going,) and while the 2 bros agreed with me along the proposed “Women, amirite?” line, the girl had an interesting revelation in response: The hidden thing was actually not her idea.

As it turns out, the GM suggested this hidden thing that was still yet to be revealed to me IC or OOC, because the girl couldn’t decide on anything for a backstory. Her character is a simple half-elf thief (elves being an actually dying race in this game, systematically eradicated by the undead forces that by now control most of the civilized world) barely skirting around the snowflake area, but never dwells on herself. Not skilled in anything, failing to do basic thief-work, not carrying around lockpicks. (For real.) The GM even arranged for her to be my “apprentice” against both our wishes IC. It’s a very animu group dynamic. I later asked her for the hidden stuff because I trust myself enough not to use it in a way that is harmful to the game. she was reluctant, but in the end told me there actually was no hidden backstory.

Her backstory, she told me, was non-existent. What she had, was a talking sword that we all saw/met once IC. She didn’t go into detail about that, implying there was no details to be had. She might be playing me, but her story seems reasonable. She said she wanted to grow the character with the story, an approach that I like, but still recommend having SOME starting point. This fits in well into the apprentice/uselessness schema; my character was an aging burglar by the time he got killed and now that he’s a free, albeit undead, man, he’s relishing in being able to hide with no pulse or breath to mess up his operation.

So tell me internet, is this really a thing girls do?

I don’t have a design philosophy; a long-winded record of my babbling

•02/11/2011 • 1 Comment

Now I ain’t one to talk about my own humility in a fake Garrison Keillor writing style, being the clever-man-pretender that I am, living through tests and examinations by using big words and anticipating what my opponent (grade-giver) wants to hear, but when I write about something dear to my weak ol’ heart, I can’t but be honest and cut the crap, out of respect for you, dear reader, and out of hope for improvement, stemming from my awareness of lack of skill in a matter.

I don’t have a “design philosophy”, I have never read a “design bible” of any game and  I know little about game design on a theoretical level. I could point out what is bad in a game if you were to put it in front of me, but it is not up to me to make rules and generalizations, that is something i have to leave to my alter ego in a reality where he lives happily, studying game design, expecting to find a job in game-making the moment he graduates and magically creating value from thin air to sustain himself.

What I do know about games is close to ChattyDM’s perception of a game; the “fun”, the “awesome” to some extent, these are things I understand on a subconscious levels and I wish to create these in games I run. I got into a twet discussion with Good People about design philosophy and it got me thinking, “what ARE my red strings when writing stuff for a game?”. Thus I present to you; things you might come across if you were to play with me.

It will help you, dear reader, understand if I give you a brief background on my gaming career; I have played a game on-and-off with friends at the end of our high school lives, then I have seen them but a few times again when we got to play. I do not get to play often, I have not played an RPG in years now. What I do, is browse a Horrible Imageboard and read wonderful stories of people playing RPG’s. I reminisce about the games, I fantasize about games that never happened and will probably never happen. I read what people who play RPG’s post on Microblogging Sites and I read their blogs and I read rulebooks for games I can’t even imagine myself playing, for kicks.

I write my own material too, since all the input has to be excreted somewhere. I have a google notebook where I write down chunks of ideas, ranging from three words length to a block of text with strange gibberish interwoven into the text, in both English and my mother tongue, often in the same sentence.

I firmly believe that universal systems are neat, but specialization is better; if you’re going to play a wild-west game, you’re going to use A&8, not GURPS wild-west. If you’re going to play fantasy, you’ll use one of the trillions of fantasy systems there are, not GURPS fantasy. Unless you’re the sort of Horrible Person that would consider making a kitchen-sink game without any thematic soothing, e.g. COWBOY MEETS WIZARD MEETS ZOMBIE JESUS MEETS GARGAMEL, you’re not going to have use for the universality that comes with GURPS or unisystem, double so if it involves idiotic amounts of rules, as is the case of GURPS. I feel the same way about material in regard to groups; a pre-packaged adventure is neat, but one tailored to suit your group is a million times better. Any decent GM would of course not run an adventure out-of-the-box, there’s always considerations to be made and small or big changes to be done, so the party fits into the generalized, mass-produced framework.

The last paragraph is analogous to how I handle all my “session” notes; I don’t go into any detail when preparing adventures, I merely write down scenes I think would be good, I might make even presumptuous parts that require something from the players (for instance someone being a paladin) and make a specifically tailored part for this paladin, but all this goes out the window if the group I might some day encounter doesn’t have a paladin. You all know the stories of players doing something completely unexpected, instantly throwing the first-time DM’s session notes for the next 3 sessions out the window; this is what I expect in literally all things, improvisation is the most important part of my “sesh prep”. My prep really consists of 3 phases; what is happening now is the “bare bones phase”, where I write down short taglines. “Cartel merchant died, left behind riches at his remote post, cartel is sending a new guy to take over, escort him”. The second phase sets in once I have a sesh or two of merely sitting down with the group; I would never start a campaign just like that, without a long discussion on expectations, characters, party cohesion, backstories, story glue. It’s the difference between a person putting colored blocks into their appropriate holes in a children’s toy and a blind guy standing on one leg trying to install a lightbulb, without any ladder and with a lemon for a bulb, under time pressure. The final phase is what every CO will tell you is a reality of warfare; known unknowns. You can prepare as much as you’d like, but you’re still just one brain against the 2+ relaxed brains of your group. Something unexpected will come up. The third phase starts when you, the DM, capital letter, wait for complete silence, take a deep breath and declare the session begun. The third stage is improv. I don’t need to elaborate on improv, we all know what it is, we all know we need to get better at it.

My “world” notes work in a similar way to the first part of the last paragraph, the part about the paladin. I have 3 pillars on which my “world design philosophy” stands: magic-non-interference, apathy, player input.

Magic-non-interference is something I realized as a kid trying to write my first hero-with-sword story; I can’t realistically predict all the small changes that easy access to magic would have on a medieval society (not to mention the fact that I can never know perfectly about the middle ages like the guy from Tao of D&D tries to do). All the threads about “what does a society do if they have access to WoW-style resurrection” or anything of that magnitude sends horror down my spine; it would take a trillion years (or merely a lifetime of Tao of D&D posts) to figure this sort of thing out. When we generalize this to “any magic of that strength” levels, we’ll need two lifetimes/trillions of years.
These are not new problems, everyone deals with them in some way when making a fantasy setting. Everyone has their more-or-less clumsy way of trying to balance out the un-balancable.  My solution is simple, make magic something that isn’t common. I like the OD&D idea of magic being very hard to find under normal circumstances, of the average farmer not ever seeing a magic sword. He might meet a horribly huge bug infestation that could be of magical origin, but he won’t get benefits from magic easily. As long as the magic is on my side of the GM screen, I have no worries of it becoming too powerful, too world-changing for my tastes. This works to a similar extent with religion and any other Great Power wieldable by mere mortals, perhaps like “modern-era” technology; the average farmer will not see a vecna’s-eye-equivalent in his lifetime if he’s lucky, if he isn’t and goes to war, he might see an older sergeant sporting one. In a greater city, all sorts of shady things happen so the average scum might get his grubby hands on one too, for a very short while. (His is the choice between losing it to a black market merchant for a fraction of its price or to one of the former owner’s associates for the price of his life.) A PC would have trouble accessing such a great piece of equipment before mid/lategame.
Admittedly, this is also because I fear imbalance due to practical inexperience. I could read all the posts about balance in games on the entire internet, and then decide to run vanilla OD&D where the PCs can still get horribly pulverized in a matter of in-game moments at the highest possible level, yet it will never be equivalent to actually having played and finished a few campaigns with a system that cares about this sort of balance.

Apathy is something I have in all NPCs. Apathy, or better neutrality, manifests itself in my world by the lack of extreme relationships at the start of the game. There are the default insane shining crusaders that will massacre whatever undead they might meet, but most people when encountering an undead of the polite sort that doesn’t immediately want to kill them, merely get very suspicious and careful. There is fear involved, but it’s fear of the unknown; “these might not be horrible murdering demon skeletons, these might be my ancestors. In either case they’re not tearing my flesh apart, so I best not ruin that”. My backdrop for a campaign start is the end of a great war, involving all sorts of gods and nuclear exchanges; there is just too many displaced strangers around to be weary of them all. The undead in particular, have a better status than in most settings; you won’t be treated kindly, but if you don’t decompose and behave well, nobody is going to deny you entry to a public house. This also presumes a sentience sufficient for common politeness, which i have no problem handing out like candy. Even where there are deep-seated old hatreds, regional rivalries, dynasties looking to ruin each other for far-off pieces of land, at the initial phase of the campaign, there would be order to refrain from open hostilities.

On the note of beginning after a great war; female characters. Wars exterminate decent young men, give some power to women, at least temporarily. I am a fan of feminism; I am OK with female characters and wouldn’t do the neckbeardy crypto-chauvinism/bad taste thing. Again, apathy, neutrality. In a world of permanent open carry, one-on-one you don’t mess with anyone with a sword, regardless of gender.

There are many factors that flow into this strange egalitarian worldview forced on the NPCs, but the Great War with associated displacement of people’s and the rise of money are the largest. They both also force a wonderful regionalism and decentralization on the world, turning all of fantasy France, fantasy Iberia and fantasy Germany (including Switzerland and Austria), down to fantasy northern Italy into small local sovereign states, which naturally translates to adventure potential gold mines. Lastly, it allows for more exotic party compositions, involving robots, cutesy short furry creatures, orcs, and gentlemen and ladies of all other races and origins. Worst case, money is the pragmatic reason to stay together as a group and finish a job, while sentience capable of politeness should root out problem players (because as we all know, there are no problem characters, only problem players).

Into this world, at this point, the PCs join in.

Finally, there’s player input, something that hasn’t happened yet to my setting.
What I am imagining in my wet GM dreams is that players who take a keen interest in something, say Scandinavia, give me the tl;dr on why it is rad, explain to me the pitfalls that I might encounter trying to stuff this into the current campaign and that I would then collab with players on what this could do for the campaign.

I am a great fan of players having a strong influence on the game, both through in-character means and out-of-character. I am, at this point, very open to players throwing ideas at me, telling me what kind of scenes they’d like to see, perhaps even very specific scenes they’d like their characters in. On a purely metagame level, this creates a wonderful organic currency of backrubs; an extortion method for me to use if I were ever to need one. I can always count on my Main Bro to do what I need him to do for the sake of the campaign, but it’s nice to be able to do this with other player’s characters. And obviously, it’s wonderful for players if something goes exactly the way they wanted.
In a way, I am a proponent of two-way railroading. With the same flimsy excuse that a bad GM would make for his railroading, the players get a diluted version of this (reminder; never surrender the rudder, only give the illusion of doing so,) and can use the same bad excuse, optimally resulting in a zen moment where both parties realize what railroading can be; a great tool in good hands and a horrible tool in horrible hands.

It is worthy of mention what I use as the basis of the world, the soil for all the stuff growing on top. Like so many other unoriginal scrubs, I find the european knight to be a good standard icon representing fantasy, especially the low-magic sort that I prefer, so a fictionalized Europe doesn’t seem too far off. However, in every thing I take over from history that I could not tell the tale of in a way that I could captivate an audience of disinterested schoolchildren, I take at least 2 steps away from real life to make the game good. You might know the game where you put a sentence into an online translator, let it run up and down 30 languages and then see the result; that is what I do with every name, and some historical facts. A case study; the Hussite wars were a conflict that was the first to see short rifles and handcannons in use. Hussites were known to use armored carts to ride into battle, out of which they shot rifles, much like tanks. This little tidbits should already be enough ChattyDM-ish “awesome” to pass on it’s own. However, then we have something that is boring, something that neither me nor anyone in my group is interested in, something that we all know too little (or know enough to know it is boring) about; then we need to make those steps towards changing it. One thing in particular that I am rather content with in my setting is the state of England; the magical ruler of Britain, always hovering just a little above the rest of europe, messing with it and not getting messed with itself; I tipped it into the sea.
I realized early I wouldn’t know how to do Albion in a way that was not boring Tolkien-necrophilia, so I gave up on it entirely. It created a myriad of wonderful plot hooks and lore possibilities. An elven Atlantis. Bathyscaphe dungeoneering. An elevated Scotland! The isle of Great Britain is now tipped into the sea at the south end only, and also was apparently a floating disc. An entirely different outlook on new world colonization efforts. A somewhat stylistic version of Scotland! Mountains now higher than ever, piercing the skies.
If I were to draw a map of my game world, I would deliberately draw a bad map of Europe, sans England, mimicking medieval cartography, and I would leave a lot of space open. I have not yet given much thought to many places, because I find that rushing into something without the spark of inspiration coming first is a terrible idea. I am not in any hurry; no group. If I were to find a group that would want to start in a part of the world I have not yet cared about; let them inspire me. Failing at that (and I trust in groups to fail to inspire me, facing the necessity to come up with own shit can be quite a shock for players,) the players should decide on a different place, preferably the one I have already decided upon as a Good Starting Point, where I already think most my adventure seeds would work. (For the curious; Alsace-Lorraine.)

The era is ambiguous and anachronistic by design; chivalry is still in full effect, yet there you have the Hussites. Money is gaining in value, capitalism and trade are beginning to become serious options for the powerful. Religious wars (modeled after the catholic/orthodox/Islam triangle) are still vaguely in effect, yet you have enlightenment already happening. Politically, everything is open for great change, the world having suffered a Great War, extremely vaguely modeled after the Mongol invasions, the cards are shuffled, there’s enough chaos for anything to start-up. Again, apathy and player input. Neutrality. All these things are optimized for maximum adventure potential, and my personal comfort, since I am the DM and I am driving the car the party is in.

I think in summary it is fair to say that the lessons I apply in my games are “lack of prep in favor of improv” “strong player input” and “openness of the game world for unexpected additions”.

A return to a welcoming summer residence (this blog)

•19/08/2011 • Leave a Comment

I certainly managed to resist the extreme urge to blog for an entire year of blog asceticism. Props to me.

I had a moment of clarity and introspection just now while using the shower and assorted other bathroom appliances, I thought a bit about a thing I stole from Wyatt Salazar’s Expedition RPG; there’s separate attacks for actual damaging, causing buffs and debuffs, and for creating “edge”, a resource you can spend on things. I’ll be honest, I have only glanced (this is a pun, I’ll explain soon) the entire thing, but I love Wyatt, no homo, and his non-stuck-up attitude towards game design. The main thing that he’s a proponent of is that

“no turn should be wasted”

and I wholeheartedly agree, as should be clear to anyone who read my about my adventures with 3.5 D&D. I was considering changing my stripped-down ill-remembered version of this and also I thought of one article that the guy who writes Tao of D&D that was sort of a rant by Rob Kuntz about how D&D “lost it’s way” and was not about creative making-shit-up anymore, since it got standardized and canned up in little modules which I feel might be somewhat alarmist.

What my thoughts ultimately came down to was this; I think maybe every somewhat experienced GM creates his own system, or several systems.

I base this idea on the fact that published systems are made to offer a “mainstream” playable out-of-the-box games, perhaps even with optional rules for fine-tuning one’s sesh, and that’s fine; it would be stupid to add things that only do it for you, just because you’re writing the RPG. You can and should add it as a note or something, but it doesn’t make too much sense as a vanilla, regular rule.
This is because the published RPG should work well for as many people as possible, which is a goal on the fine line between compassion and thirst for profit and I’m okay with it. But once the game is bought and unwrapped and put to use in a group, it organically adds, removes and changes rules, intentionally or by mistake something that sometimes makes a lot of sense, in retrospect. A rule ignored because it was better to not interrupt a good flow, rather than wait to look at the rules, is a rule that served it’s purpose. Some of the best parts of my first games of AFMBE had jaw-dropping moments based solely on a horrendous/awesome mis-interpretation of the critical hit rules, rulings I insist on not changing because I believe critical hits should be rewarded instantly and massively.

I think that this changing is not a “sign of a good GM” because it’s a thing the GM does; it is something the entire group does, collectively. You obviously can’t make a rule that doesn’t sit well with your group. But the fact that you’re consciously working your way towards a more optimal system is a sign of a good GM, and I’ll go ahead and make the presumptuous hypothesis that: after playing a bunch of settings and systems, most GM’s will have experimented with light and heavy hacks on systems they didn’t like (since I’m being presumptuous, I’ll go ahead and say I think a system that a GM would consider “really really good” and possibly “not improvable” is the one that he/she started out with). They will also probably have had their experiments with a universal system, maybe. They will have settled on certain systems for certain tasks.

What I am saying is absolutely nothing new (it is 3am, I am sort of losing track and realizing I am writing horrible long sentences with subsentences inside them, like I’m writing in german, oh look at me, i can make meta bullshit inside a sentence ugh I hate myself) but I wanted to get it out there to present my big houserules to 0e D&D, which I think push it reasonably far enough from source material to sort-of qualify as a separate, new, MY, system. Thus making me a good GM. This entire article is me self-validating myself.

Happy birthday to me.

P.S: I think I will write something about my houserules (and where i stole them from) on here. I like them a lot and they will never be exposed to an actual gaming group, so why not.

P.P.S: I should clean this article up when I am not fatigue-high, i bet there is a good idea somewhere in here

P.P.P.S: I think I will rewrite this as the opening to a miniseries about stuff I draw inspiration from i.e. steal from, hell yeah I’m good, ok sleep

I like Lady Blackbird

•14/08/2010 • Leave a Comment

I have never played it but I am pretty sure it’s awesome.

Let me tell you about the canon in the game; there is a little map, a few vague words on every bigger clump of rock on the map and a scale drawing of a monster, your ship, and the ship that has eaten your ship.

The characters get more description than the setting. This is already a sign that the GM will be doing only as much as the players will have to. There’s traits that you use and tags that correspond to traits. They don’t go into detail what they mean; “Warrior; shooting” is pretty straightforward but what about “Ghostblood; electrical dominate”? Is it electroshocks? Does it open electrical locks? THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS

There is no mechanical “damage”. If you fail, you (or the ship) might check off a state like “angry” “injured” or “presumed dead”, but there’s no mechanical repercussions, except the dubiously small problem of having to roleplay your character.

Everything in the game is supposed to come together organically. The GM just keeps asking questions and the players have to do what would normally be done during GM prep time. It’s pretty wild.

Also of note is Old Messilla, a wild west variant where players are not working towards a common goal (saving Lady Blackbird,) but some are up to kill Billy the Kid, while others want to save him.

I want to play some games again. I should whip Kasiak to do some organizing.