The play is the thing

Over the last two weeks, we have talked about getting set up for a game.  This will cover the final prep and give a brief overview of things to expect during that game.  Once you have an adventure idea, and characters to experience and or carry it out, you need to get to the real meat of Role Playing games: The Playing!

to get started, we need to consider game set-up.  This may be something you have already came up with based on the game system and or the setting you use.  Or, it could be something that you haven’t given much thought.  What do you NEED to play your game, and what do you WANT to play your game?  Need is usually pretty similar from game to game: something to write with, dice, maybe tokens or counters.  Some games have fairly specific needs, like Savage Worlds need some sort of bennie tokens as well as a card deck.  However, the environment you are playing may have other needs…playing online, you will likely not need dice or writing implements as your on-line environment may provide those for you.  A far as what you want, well…consider maps, or 3-D terrain pieces and miniatures, effect templates, candles or mood lights, music or sound effects, incense or scented candles!  Anything that may add to the enjoyment of your game, or make it easier to play.  Again, in some game systems, you may find that a want in one game is a requirement in another and vice-versa.  (Do table snax count as a need or want?  Might depend on your table contract!)

When considering this, think about what might add to the immersion, or connection with the games.  Do you want theme dice?  What about token that reflect the setting or the mood?  If your game is set in the bootlegging 20’s, could you get a soundtrack from the times and keep it as background mood setting?  Some games lend themselves to “theme-ing” better than others, but you can probably find little things to do for any game.  BUT:

  • DON’T forget your NEEDS when setting up your wants!  If you get all of the terrain and miniatures you want to use, but forget dice…this might be a fail!

All of this could be several posts long, just talking about how and where to find the right music or sound effects, or what makes the best maps and so on, but really this section is here just to remind you of the basics of setting up the game.  Once you are comfortable with the game set , You are ready to “Roll some Dice, and Move some Mice!” (I know many of you are too young for that reference, but just accept that it means get started!)

When running a game, you can encounter a great number of issues and challenges.  Most of this blog is about how to deal with various iteration of those.  But this post will address some specific issues and resolutions.  If I can relate it close enough to another post, I’ll link it as well.  Rest assured that no matter what you have seen before, and what I’m about to show you, the real answer to any game issue is:

TALK WITH YOUR PLAYERS

As we start lets recap just a bit:  You have taken time to somewhat (or more) connect your characters to your adventure.  You have spent either a small amount to a great amount of time setting up your “script”  So, the first idea I want to convey to you is Murphy’s Law of Game Mastering: Expect nothing to go as planned!.  The best battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and your plot is not much different.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players). really tell where your story goes and how it gets there.  You can influence that.  Subtly, you can lay out clues like breadcrumbs, hints from NPCs, omens or the stray bit of overheard conversation.  Or you can go to the other end, and have the PCs employer tell them what they need to do, or even the outside game GM discussion.  Remember that this is not always bad.  Sometimes the players are on a completely different wavelength than you and you need to go outside of the game to bring everybody back to the plot.  This, oddly enough is why you did the prep you did.  When things go sideways, you can look at the story, and see if your plot can be salvaged by changing some things.  The benefit of the minimalist set-up, is you then just have to have the Antagonist respond, using its motivations and resources to still reach its’ goal.  If you and your players are alright in a campaign where the enemy has gone (mostly) completely unnoticed, even though your tried to lead them to his machinations, and she succeeds to the detriment of what the players wanted, then bully for you!   If this was just a short adventure, the players come as close to failure as you can in an RPG.  If you and your players are not happy with that, then either bludgeon them over the head with the clue haddock, and show them the path (yes this may be simply a side comment that they missed something)  Either way, if this is just a part of a longer story, or even a campaign, well, now the Baddie has a brand new asset, or assets at his disposal! (Whats that, he just took over the world?  Then your players are in for a hard fight!)

Adventure? Check! Characters? Check! Set-up? Check!  How do you start the game?  This is as much personal choice as the theme of your game. For many games, a great way to start is in medias res (“in the middle of things”). This is the technique of starting, literally, in the middle of things; without introduction or lead in to the story.  Usually, just a quick introduction, and pick up the game in the middle of some ongoing scene. This does several things: captures players attention, introduces game mechanics, and hooks the characters into what is going on.  In medias res does not have to be in the middle of combat, though.  If you are playing a game with a strong combat focus, it is very appropriate to do so, however.  If you are running a bounty hunter themed game, maybe in the middle of a chase, might be appropriate.  Something to keep in mind, is that this type of beginning need to have a bit of background, unless the goal is to start with the characters in a completely unexpected situation.  Lets look at a few examples:

  • Set-up: You are a group of WWII saboteurs, sent to find out about this new weapon and stop its production if you can
    • …And automatic gunfire rattles off to the left…describe the warehouse they are in and what they see, or provide a map
    • Once the battle is over, tell the brief story of how they discovered the research, and where it was being produced, in a heavily guarded warehouse
  • Set-up:You and your crew are hard riding to get a message to a garrison commander before the enemy forces arrive
    • While galloping through a mountain pass, there is a loud rumble, and snow begins cascading across your trail…set the scene in the remote mountain pass, or provide them a map
    • Once they overcome the obstacle, fast forward to the real beginning of your adventure, the arrival at the garrison, with the enemy cresting the rise.
  • Set-Up: You need to know the location of the villains lair. 
    • With the villains attractive paramour across from you at the baccarat table, You have  a strong hand and a stronger drink…

As you can see, the in medias res can be a compelling opening to your game.  However, some players would rather get to know a little about their characters before being engaged, so you might wish to accommodate them, or you may just want the theme to be a little less intense.  (Note that the in medias res can be used for some fairly complex GM tricks.  I will probably do a post about them soon).  Another popular way of starting the game is the hire/impress/briefing style.  In this method, the players are hired by a stranger in a bar / impressed by the local military / gathered in a briefing to be told what they need to do.  If you have connected your players to the story, then this method still works well, because they are now being sent to do something they want to do anyway!  They may not like how they are being tasked (such as trumped-up charges and facing the hangman’s noose unless they do this task), but they should have at least a little bit of self motivation to accomplish it.

However you begin it, you will then carry on through the adventure beats, or the action/reaction until the situation is resolved.  During all of the game, there are several things to keep in mind, and you may well have addressed them in you table contract.  But if not, or as a refresher:

  • Don’t debate rules during game time.  As ref, make a quick decision,  and a note to discuss it after the session.
  • Everybody is at the table to have fun, the ref included.  when someone is getting bored (or worse, upset) try to fix the issue, even if it means interrupting the game momentarily…
  • Remember that the Ref is not against the players, but the NPCs he plays probably are!

One more thing to keep in mind, and this has taken me a long time to figure out.  Your story ends. No matter if it is a short one-shot type of adventure, or a full campaign, the end needs to be well-defined.  lets say they beat the big bad (BB).  You can end the game with an epilogue style wrap up after the combat/confrontation.  If they lose to the BB, summarize what happens with them out of the way of the BB.  Do they come home to ticker tape parades? Is the world safe for democracy again? Are the space ghosts never heard from again?  If they lose, try not to make it TOO dark!  Don’t use: “Because you died at the hands of Sodok the Slaughterer, nearly 1/3 of the population is sacrificed for her view of “the greater good” and for two generations everyone lives in constant fear for their lives!”  You can soften this a bit by summing up that Sodok the Slaughterer continues as fearsome tyrant , whose name is spoken of in hushed whispers for generations.”  This ends the game, and rewards the players or culminates the story.  Another option,if it fits the tone, is prepare a newspaper article / News feed /Heraldic announcement for failure and success…hand the appropriate one to the players after the game wraps.  Anything you can think of that is not, “OK!  you beat the BB, now how do you get back to town to resupply?”  Keep in mind that the characters may continue in further adventures, but this is a great opportunity for them to retire from the adventuring life.

 My biggest problem, as an epic style ref, is that once the players dealt with one story line, I basically rewarded them, and then let the world go on…if the players sought out other story arcs, then great, otherwise…the story just kind of ran down like a clock unwinding.  Not very exciting, no matter how fun the actual game.  This took me years to realize,  partly because I don’t get the opportunity to play often, but also because I thought a living  world was more engaging and exciting.  I no longer believe this.  Stories need the beginning, a middle AND they require an end.  The end needs to be as complete as the rest of the story.  Sometimes it is played out, but usually this is a narrative conclusion after the final confrontation, just like the narrative to start the game.  This does not need to be you, the ref, just telling the closing story.  Talk to the players about what their characters will do now that this issue is taken care of, or talk about what the characters hoped for even in a poor outcome.

I will do one more of these weekly posts, next week talking about post game wrap up.  Feel free to post questions or comments.  Remember that I started this blog at the request of one of my players.  I have done a lot of contemplation on a lot of these posts.  I know that my rules and techniques may not work for everyone, but I hope that anyone can at least glean a few things from them.  If you have had good luck with any of these techniques, or any of them turned out disastrous, please share!

Keep Rolling! And may your dice often critical/explode (in a good way…an explosive dice may be quite painful if not downright dangerous!)

The State of Play

Let me deviate from mentor-ship for a bit to present an observation and or an opinion.  In an earlier post, I talked about how our hobby and players evolved.  I am seeing a new evolution becoming popular…the shifting focus from Player Characters to Interactive Story.

What do I mean by this?  The simple version: Role Playing that is focused on telling and improving a story, with little regard for the fate of the characters being played.  Contrast this with the game that the player characters all are main characters of equal value, and the story simply builds out of how these characters respond to their setting around them.  Although a subtle distinction, it makes a significant difference as to game play and outcomes.  Let me see if I can expound on this a bit, and then I’ll do a short opinion discussion.

In our games, in the more traditional character based game, the players each play a character that they invest with various amounts of blood, sweat and tears.  For those that invest a great deal, their characters become dear friends, or even alter egos.  They often play these characters with all the foibles and nuance that they can, or at least are comfortable with.  The characters react to the world as their players believe they would,  usually to the characters best interest, but occasionally, as is the case with real people, sometime self-destructive.  This style of game play puts the fate of a character fully in the hands of their player (and of course the dice.)  The down side of this style is that sometimes one character might well overshadow others in circumstances.

In the interactive story based style, the players again play their characters with as much investment as comfortable, but part of the table contract is the understanding that the characters are part of the shared story, and that the actions they take should make a better story.  This does not necessarily take away player agency, just the shift the focus of their action a bit, with the intent of making the story more enjoyable for everyone.

One of the best things to come out of this shift in focus is the creation of a “plot mechanic” primarily in the hands of the players.  This mechanic, like Bennies in Savage Worlds or Fate Points in FATE, put much more power in the hands of the players to shift either dice results or even plot points.  Of course these same mechanics can be used in either style.  In the more character based stories, they are mostly used to keep the characters from failing (as nobody wants their hero to be a failure).  And, this fits perfectly with that game style.  In the more interactive style, these may be used more often to set up other players or keep a character alive after a story appropriate disaster befalls them.  Of course, these can be used to the pure benefit of ones character, or to make the result flow better with the story.

Anyway…In my opinion, some games are perfect fits for the story specific mechanic.  Games such as Fiasco, and other games designed specifically for play without a game master.  My game group has played this to varying degrees of fun, depending on how much focus was put on characters vs story.  When everyone is trying to make their character the star, the stories often seem disjointed, but when everybody is focused on making a “movie” or story, the games go well.

Well, it is important to be aware of this change in our hobby.  And it may be the “Next big thing” for it.  However, I am more in the character is the star style.  Maybe because I like to play big epic games that take place in a vibrant and continuing world.  The idea of making one story shine above others seems a bit odd.  Of course, I see the draw of making fun stories.  The normally involve more people.  They try to keep any one character from overshadowing another.  I see that benefit.  But, I see that as my role as GM…keeping the players involved as much as they want, and let the others fill in the gap.  Maybe my stories are not always as spectacular as some others, but I rarely have players complain.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m old and set in my ways…but I am not sure I am ready to make that evolutionary step.  Some of the points seem very minor when looked at coldly, but the way they play out…I still like the character based role play.

 

OK…now back to your regularly scheduled mentor-ship.

 

 

And now I cast…Oh! Look! A Monkey!

In honor of my second vote, I now offer a consideration of non-tabletop things…Those things that can be distractions or enhancements and how best to deal with them. For the purpose of this entry consider a distraction anything that takes players away from the environment of the game and an enhancement as something that adds to the enjoyment of all involved. There are individual distractions as well as individual enhancements and I will brush by them in the appropriate context, but mostly I will be talking about your whole table. Don’t forget, that you are at the table too and should be enjoying things as much as everyone else!

I had a hard time deciding how to cover this…by category of issue, by level , etc…but I have decided to do, like many of my post some broad stroke guidelines and I will start with Distraction and how to deal with them and enhancement and ways to increase it. However, I also have in my pocket a whole blog about that specific topic where I will talk more about the tools available and whatnot. So…what is a Distraction? Distractions occur at your table often. Side conversations break out, a players cell phone rings with an amusing ring-tone, a child thinks they need to eat, or maybe a player needs something to keep their hands busy above the table…While all of these can be classified as distractions in the truest sense, what I want to discus is the incident that breaks the mood. For instance, My Lady wife often brings her embroidery to the table. It could be considered a distraction, so I will use it as an example of how it could be in this context. If she were to lose track of the plot, that would be a distraction for her, but if her character is not pivotal, then the character might also be distracted…by the fly buzzing next to their ear, or the hissing of the air leaving their vacc-suit. That is NOT a distraction in the point of this blog. If, however, she lost the plot AND her character was pivotal…then having to stop and explain what just happened again WOULD be a distraction. If she was doing something that the whole table had never seen before and all game stopped as she did it so they could watch her and ask questions…Yup! Distraction. (As it is, she keeps the plot quite well, and our gamers have watched her enough to not be too taken away!) Side conversation can be a HUGE distraction, because not only do (usually) 2 or more of your players lose the plot as they talk about their latest escapades, or their last game…it often interferes with the other players trying to listen to what is going on. What about when two players need to take junior to bed? YUP! Distraction…so, lets assume this simple equation: Distraction = Interruption. So, how do you deal with these? All together now…”It Depends!” Overall, you have to suffer some level of distraction, because this is a social encounter, and real life always has a certain priority, or even a persistence, over the game table. You are all there to have fun, but sometimes that fun IS talking about a similar situation in another game, or how another character would have dealt with this issue. The first line of defense on any of these distractions is to point it out. If one person is responsible, such as constant phone calls, or playing games on their laptop you might want to take them aside and mention it. Just tell them that what they are doing is distracting, and it is taking away from the other players fun. If several folks are the cause, Just say something to them. Keep the conversation to a minimum, and/or, in the words of my mother, at least keep it to a dull roar! Once you have pointed it out, if it continues, you might offer a warning. But after that, let their character suffer for their lack of attention, but make sure you don’t punish those who are distracted, just those who are distracting (See the difference?). For instance, here is what I have done: In a combat, I normally ask players to keep track of their initiative, and remind me when I forget or they get skipped (yes, it happens even to the best of us!). However, If I am at the punishment phase of a distracter, I may INTENTIONALLY skip their initiative…when they remind me, well, perhaps they were too busy saving us from space invaders to notice it when their action came up, or simply state that the character missed their opportunity to use the initiative, better luck next round. DON’T let this get into an argument. Remind them that they had been warned…and then carry on. Make sure you give every opportunity to those who are trying to pay attention, however. I have also been known to just continue narrating while they have their own conversation, or, of course, take part of the conversation as character dialog! Whenever you are dealing with distractions, always keep in mind the social contract, and the needs of real life…A person on call MUST answer their phone, parents really should feed their kids, and if chatting is unavoidable, stop game for a 10-15 minute break. Let chat go. Usually, I have found, that if I point out that game has stopped for 15 minutes so we can get our chat out…the break only lasts a few minutes!

There is also a time when enhancements can lead to distractions. For instance, the first time I tried to actually use background music/sounds…I thought it worked pretty good. But several of my players found my selection annoying, and the “Soundtrack” too full of noises that they weren’t sure if they should be hearing, and if their characters should respond…I hadn’t intended them to…It was just atmosphere, after all…but it was a huge distraction. (I still try to get music involved…I’m just not that good at it!)

What about things that are really enhancements that many people think as essential? Like what, You ask? Battle maps, maybe? Blue Books? While these can definitely be an enhancement for everyone, If they are not prepared well before hand, and you end up creating it on the fly, well, first of all…for shame…unless of course you have something like a gridded white board that is intended for such use. But in building a map, you have had to stop everything, and basically say to your players, “You are about to get ambushed, you just don’t know it. So, everybody have a Mt Dew and we will return to our regularly scheduled game as soon as I have set up the hose job!”  For those of you who have gamed as long as I have, many times game is played entirely in the mind, and distances and ranges are all best guess. And sometimes that works great…but it can lead to big arguments about exact positioning and facings and the like. I usually draw out rough maps (our game table is a white board! I Know…you’re jealous!) and let them stand, even though I have a copy of the great Campaign Cartographer, I only rarely use it for things like battle maps. (I do use it for character standees quite often though) For these type of distractions, the only real cure is practice and planning. Most games can get by with a blue book pass once in a great while…if you have players constantly passing secrets too you, only action them during their turn…and carefully gauge whether you can intimate what is in the book among your group, and play it out, or if you need to fill out the book and pass it back. As I spoke about way back when, characters with outside game knowledge can usually be curbed of such unwholesome appetites!

Finally, Enhancements that ENHANCE the game play. These are anything that makes game play more vivid and/or helps suspend the disbelief. I will be posting a whole blog sometime about what sort of tools are available, so I am just going to touch on some categories now, and those that have a potential to become distractions, but usually are not. I just talked about a few: Maps, Soundtracks and blue books. Most of the time, these tools are great enhancements (or so I’m told with music…I’ve not perfected it yet). They allow a person to get a very good grip on what is going on, and allow players to share or keep information as required. So long as they do not get out of hand, use them! Enjoy them. Embrace the extra OOMPH they give a game. What about laptops at the table? They can be a great enhancement…automated character sheets…shared maps…secret notes! But they can also cause real problems…nobody looks at each other, buried in their screen…taking up precious table space…and then there is the Creeping Crud, one of the Laptops Greatest enemies! Lighting! Yes…lighting can make a difference…dim lighting can create a gloomy close feeling, while very bright lights and harsh surfaces can be disquieting and modern, but again…the potential for disruptive interference can be high…to dim to easily read dice or character sheets, brightness causing eye-strain…well painted miniatures, and player handouts! All of these things can provide a great boost to your game play…………..but overused, or used sloppily, they can cause notable distraction. What about first person character that the player uses props, accents and odd lexical dialects! A definite enhancement…but, if they are too over the top…it can be nothing but a distracting pain…

As I have said many times before in these blogs, most things can be discussed with your players and dealt with.  It is important to recognize that they exist.  Here is a bit of an experiment, particularly if you and your gamers are a new group, OR if you have been playing for years and learned to deal with each others foibles.  Ask each player to take notes during a game session about things they found distracting or particularly enhancing.  Gather them up AT THE NEXT game session, allowing people to think about them, add more or remove them.  At that time, have each person quickly peruse their notes and see if they were sufficient to stand up between games.  THEN  gather every bodies notes and discuss them as a group.  Maybe something that one player did annoys everybody, or maybe your soundtrack was a complete disaster…or even amazing aide to the scene…use that discussion as a starting point for better games!

Until the next post!  Happy Gaming!

Where the party at

Where the party at?

The whole point of role-playing is getting a group, as small as 2 in some cases, to play characters that will live in the game world and solve all of that worlds problems, or at least the one at the end of a story arc!  This post is aimed at the referee and the control a ref has over character creation.  To give a bit of background on this (and it’s companion post to follow)…I have been looking at making a new Shadowrun campaign, and have been thinking about characters and the runner team.  I began wondering what sort of ideas I might be missing, so I have been doing some research looking at several blogs, and forums, and reading the well thought out “The Game Master” by Tobiah Panshin (http://tobiah.panshin.net).  I found things I liked, some I didn’t, as well as things I did and did not agree with, but it was definitely enlightening.  Putting this stuff together I’ve come up with the following guidelines for GMs when their players are creating characters.  I have not used this procedure, but it seems like it would work, and I will be using it for at least the simmering idea I have.  I have stated repeatedly that I feel it is my job to work any character in…I still feel that, but I think I am going to be implementing these fences on those wide open fields.  I have no problem saying no to a character, I would just rather say yes!  Here are my rules:

  1. Share the love…or at least the plot line!
  2. Make a Party!
  3. To each, a roll (even a role)
  4. Something to do, Somewhere to go

Rule 1: Share the Love…or at least the plot!

This may not be obvious…and for a big top down guy like me, it wasn’t!  My worlds often have several stories going along, just waiting for players to touch one, so I can listen to the music!  Of course I have main plot lines that I will guide players to, but that is not the point.  The idea behind this rule is to make sure the players know what kind of game you are running!  And, since my players read this blog, I will use the impetus of an upcoming game to illustrate.  However, the game I am currently working on is a Shadowrun game, and for this ongoing example, I’m going to discuss a rules free game.  So, to Illustrate:  Lets make a plot based in modern-day, but with a conspiracy, x-files type setting.  The players need to know that they are going to be playing characters in a story that will include government conspiracies and cover-ups.  It will involve some advanced technologies, and in the story the governments of the first world nations are generally believed to be the bad guys. Also, the game will start in Europe, but will travel the globe.  What I wouldn’t tell them is that the technology comes from an alien that came to recover the Roswell crash.  I also wouldn’t tell them that the government is just trying to collect the technology from a multinational corporation who is equipping it own spy’s and agents with it.  Given this, they can make characters who “Know” the truth is out there…and perhaps have even seen or encountered it…or be part of the tinfoil hat crowd, or the anti-government conspirasists.  Why can’t they play someone who was part of the corporation and left because of a disagreement with their methods?  Well, first it would spoil a plot twist.  After that is discovered, a replacement character might be allowed.  Second…the Corporation would spare no expense silencing or ridiculing,or harassing the character…kinda tough for a starting character in what will probably be a fairly gritty setting!  This allows the players to start considering what sort of character would work in that situation.  You could give them a lot of information without revealing the plot, anymore than a movie trailer would.

Rule 2: Make it a Party!

This is where you may have to raise the heavy hand (or bring down the fingers!).  In this rule, you are required to make sure that each of the characters will have a role in your expected plot.  Also, you could make sure your characters are connected in some way.  That tends to make getting the party together fairly easy if character A knows character B who went to judo class with Character C who met Character D on a dating web-site…but that is not always needed.  It is important that since you know, at least in theory, where the plot will take them, that they each make a character that fits in the story line, and will have things to do.  There is another part to this rule: The party is a party!  They are not support for one of the other characters!  They are important!  In terms of party balance, no player character can be the “Ring Bearer,” (Thanks Tobiah Pansion) but they PCs can be the fellowship who need to protect the NPC Ring Bearer!  In our X-files game, A role-playing geek who is as huge conspiracy theorist, who left college to pursue it would be a good character…but a med student who needs to complete school so she can pay off her tuition and save her grandmother would have much less of a place, even though it could be a viable character, it might not work in your plot…What about four soldiers, who were just separated form the army because they go too curious about some of the nighttime activities of certain members of their leadership…Great!  They know each other, they have a decent tie in to the plot, they will probably be great characters…Rank is no longer important as they are all separated…but  there is a caveat…and that leads me to…

Rule 3: To each, a role (or roll)

This has been called the “too many cooks,” or the “balanced party” rule…when all of your characters are infantrymen, the only thing that differentiates them is their hobbies, in a game sense.  Here you need to make sure your characters all have separate strengths.  You can’t have everybody be the sniper any more than you can have everybody be the field medic.  In order for your characters to each have a chance to be THE character during the plot, they will have to have different strengths.  In our example, we know that they will all have some basic combat training…side arms, long arms, hand to hand…so, how do we make them different?  Well we have hit upon two specialties…the Long range shooter and the medic.  What about an Intel analyst with maybe some interrogation training?  Maybe someone from the motor pool to keep vehicles running?  Helicopter Pilot?  What about a ranking officer with some administration and tactical training?  What about a comm guy who is used to working with, and as a hobby, hacking, satellite communications?  This is not to say that every player wont have some skill in all of these things.  It IS to say that one character will be THE go to person when it come to this task!  (Sorry Besters! (Unless it happens to be your character!)) This is the time that you and your players discuss character ideas and connections.  At this point the characters may be fully formed, or just some vague ideas.  However, you will know that none of the player will be obvious enemies ( A priest of the death god, and a chosen of the god of life, for instance,) and can see how they have the potential to work together and if and how they know one another. Now you have a group of players that will work in your plot, they will work together and they will have a chance to be the main character.  There is still something missing…

Rule 4: Something to do, Somewhere to go

This is something I have struggled with for years as a GM…character motivation.  In the generic “you all meet in a bar” starting, players often form together because they are the people who do something (aside from holding up a PC card)  and then they stick together when someone want them to do something…and now they are a group, so they wait for someone else to give them a job…and so on.  It is important for your characters to have motivations to provide hooks that you can exploit.  When your characters are being created, tell them you need a background for them.  This is not usually a problem, for some characters, because they love to create backgrounds!  But others will find it difficult.  But what you need from them are hooks, and tell them that.  Perhaps you need 3 hooks from each player…you need an enemy, a close friend, and a goal, perhaps.  These can be very detailed; the former friend, who you were always just a little bit better than, who blames you for the time they almost drown trying to prove who could swim deeper, but is now the CFO of a major corporation.  Or they could be simple.  I have always felt protective of my little brother…  Tell them that they should expect these to come up in the plot, for good or ill.  Tell them that you have final say on each hook and you can add meat to it or pare it down.  Coordinate with them on things they would be aware of…If they give you a goal of “want to be rich” you need to see how they define it…and to what ends they will go to get rich, as well as why they don’t just set home watching get rich quick infomercials?

I will be using a tool I have created…don’t know how well it will work, but i think it should be good.  I’ll let you know how it works…but here it is:  I am expecting 3 or 4 players, so I will be creating 5 or 6 hooks in the following categories: regret, achievement or goal, hatred and loss.  Each player will draw 1 of each of those…This will give me hooks I have already created into the plot.  The players can then create as much or as little background that MUST include those provided hooks  I will probably have them add one more or replace one of those.  that way I have at least 4 and perhaps more hooks that will automatically  give the character a reason to follow the plot line!

With these rules in mind I think I might get a very good game.  So, if and when we play it, I’ll let you know how it worked.  The next article is for the players, but you should read it too.  It will echo a players version of these rules.

It’s Not the ‘Size’ of the Party…

But the quality of the game that counts!

The Composition of the party definitely defines the kind of game you play.  The composition is both the number of players vs NPCs as well as the type of players and their characters.  This post will be about dealing with the issues of player groups of various sizes, And yes, I will cover ways to deal with the party of 5 players that all want to play bugbear assassins later!  For the purpose of this discussion, each player is only playing one character at a time.  Multiple characters is for a later discussion…

Let me start by discussing my most common game setting; one ref, one player.  This has some of the best strengths, but it also has some of the biggest weaknesses.  First, the game can be tailored very fine to give the player exactly the game they want.  It is incredibly well suited to epic styles, and because it is a single player, the easiest set up for player dilemma and intense drama.  Besides that, you don’t need to worry if a player is not going to show up or not…if your player doesn’t show, then the other characters won’t notice, because time will not have passed the next time they meet.  These can be intensely story driven and satisfying adventures, probably the closest thing to an interactive novel experience one can get.

The downsides can be crushing, however, particularly for new ref’s.  The story is a very fine balance, because if you lose a character because the character dies, or the player tires of that one…well, the game is over, literally in the only way an RPG can truly be.  The cure is to have a character make a new character and take over somewhere else in the story line.  But, this is not as fun for the player, and it requires a significant understanding of your setting to find the place to weave in a new thread.  There are ways to circumvent this, such as have the player in an organization that controls their involvement in the plot.  That way, the next character can be sent in to find out what happened to the last character.  Or maybe the new character received a letter (maybe a bit meta-gamed) from a distant relative asking for their assistance.  NPCs need to be very carefully run.  they have to be able to assist the player, without taking too much away.   On the other hand, they can spoon feed a character exactly as much or as little as you need to press forward with the story.  Character interaction can be a problem, because there are no other Player Characters to interact with., so any in character conflict must be handled by the “REF’s of the world” and leads right back to how you handle your NPCs.  One final weakness, which is somewhat being alleviated in today’s connected world, is the isolation.  The only person a player could reminisce with about their phenomenal gaming experience, is the ref, that set it all up.

Two players are similar to one, but it blunts both the highs and lows somewhat.  I find that a party of three through five is usually about the perfect mix for my ref style.  I know many refs who would rather run about five to eight for the skill spread, and this can fairly easily be argued when you look at many game designs…with that type of character base, almost all skill sets have at least some coverage.  So, lets look at a group of anywhere from three to about nine or even ten (Probably pushing that high-end) for this piece.  This is usually the best balanced game setup you can get.  The character interaction tends to be good, but the number of people can be chaotic if not controlled.  A killed character can be replaced in the party with several different techniques and without major disruption to the rest of the plot.  In parties of this size, NPCs are not mandatory, and are as much set dressing or intrusive as you want.  A group this size, especially at the higher end, really limits the possibility of EPIC role play, simply because of the vast amount of time that would be needed between players turns.  One of the benefits of this size group, is a missing player will not really screech the game to a halt, where it can with smaller groups.  On the other hand, that makes coordinating times more difficult, particularly with adult players that have mundane lives and families!  Also, if you have a munchie table (as in someone brings and everyone consumes munchies, not as in munchkin as that would be a crunchy table) you can end up with bags of refuse every night (to say the least!)…

And lastly, a huge game group…more than about seven or eight in my opinion, but some refs are happy with more…This is usually the least enjoyable type of game.  Too many people all wanting to do things, and trying to build adventures or stories that challenge everybody without boring everybody…well…individualization is pretty much out.  You can, however, come up with some interesting things you can do with this size group.  Co-Ref’s can run simultaneous games, and separate teams can be playing in a similar setting…I have never done this, but I know folks who have and it is apparently quite enjoyable.  Or, partial games…where half your players meet in one game session, and the other half in another…you can again run parallel games, or, of course, different games…but some ref’s find it difficult for more that one game running at a time.  If you can find a place big enough to support all of these players, and you have players with excellent manners and are very patient, there is no reason it can’t be played like any other game…but just writing the types of adventures when you have an entire platoon of characters can limit the style and type.

Does this give you some insight in how to choose your player group?  I love single player games, but they are an entirely different flavor of game from a social group playing (where sometimes the social wins out over game.  yes, another topic for later!).  If anybody wants, I can work out any of these in more detail, but like some of the other very broad topics, this is more an awareness of the benefits and challenges that could be encountered when setting up your game session.

Behold the Metatron!

Well, Maybe not the voice of God, but the voice of game!

What is the voice of a game, you ask.  It is how the game is presented; somewhat along the lines of 1st or 3rd person presentation.  To make this clear, let me pull out the “Big Bag of Examples” and show you the same scene presented from the opposite ends of the spectrum…

First, a Character, or 1st person, style: I walk over to the table, picking up the dagger, grimacing at the sticky blood.  I will point it at him…”That’s because you already knew he was dead, didn’t you Counselor.”

“Wha… I knew no such thing!  How dare you!” At which point he leaps erect, hand on his sidearm…

And, same scene, presented narratively or in third person: Centuria Diana approaches the table, gingerly picking up the dagger, barely suppressing a grimace at the still sticky blood.  She grips it, and points it over the table at the seated Counselor. She will accuse him, with just the required amount of tact, of plotting the murder.

At that point, he leaps out of the chair, grabbing the elaborate pale blue Jadic grip of his sidearm, vehemently protesting his innocence, but coming short of accusing the Centuria of manufacturing evidence.

As you can see, the same short scene, conveying the same information.  One would be easier to read, while the other tends to be more immersive.  And that is what separates the camps of RP’ers.  For these I will do a summary of the benefits of each and the problems of each.  If I feel there is more to be said, then maybe later I will treat them each in more detail.  First, my more preferred system, In character:

In character game voice has each player don their character like a costume in the stage of the adventure.  Of course they will describe their actions, but any conversation is done in character.  The ref will, to the best of their ability, take on the mantle of presenting all the rest of the world in character.  This can be very immersive, and usually,  much more spontaneous.  When the player speaks with the characters voice, it becomes more personal, after all you are speaking in I’s and my’s.  In Character makes the adoption of verbal affectations, such as stutters, whisper speech, accents or even catchphrases easy and visible.  On the other hand, this does present one of the primary difficulties found in RPGs…character vs player skills.  If your character is the Senator from the planet  New Athene IV, but you, the player, have a stutter and get tongue-tied with more than 3 or four sentences at a time, this becomes not only a challenge,but a character breaker.  Unless of course you can, as a player, use your natural difficulties in a very successful manner! What about during intimate scenes?  Do you, or your character handle it better, particularly if you have 6 other players sitting around waiting for their turn as opposed to your character who is alone with your object of affection in a dimly lit room while the snow howls outside?

Narrative, or third person presentation is, at least for me, a bit more of a creative challenge.  Naturally, a good portion of an RPG is narrative, even if you’re LARPing…Doubtful you are going to actually pull out your double-barreled scatter-gun and shoot it at the ref, who is currently portraying your lifelong nemesis, so you narrate that action.  This does allow for characters to inject a bit more flair into their character that they may be unable or unwilling to actually verbally portray.  Such as the above mentioned intimate scene.  Or what if your technician character is discussion the details of transit sleep with the designer of transit sleep tubes…can you as a player do this?  What about you as a ref?  Does that mean you should avoid such a possibility?  Another drawback is that verbal affectations are more difficult to work in.  Of course, when you introduce your character, you may say that he has a deep rumbling voice unless you say otherwise, but unless you occasionally remind the others: “In his deep booming voice,he reminds the people to be calm and reassures them that he has their best intentions at heart.”  Also, a purely narrative style really suits a presentation that is impartial.  It is conceptually much easier to send Plebian Zephus into the arena unarmed than it is to walk in yourself…”I walk into the arena, knowing that I go to face my slow and painful death.”

Like many things, you must play with what works for you, but again, it is often best to blend the two.  In character, or first person voice is usually more difficult to achieve for the narrative player, than narrative is for the active voice character.  This is because you always have SOME narrative no matter the rest of the voice.   But the totally narrative character may fear to speak as their character because it may shatter the illusion of the characters voice or vocal patterns.

Here is something I would offer as a short challenge…in your next game session, challenge yourself, and your players, to use the opposite voice.  If you are used to (as I am) speaking in accents and witty comment for several different character, try describing them rather than coming up with the exact speech.  If you normally describe what you talk about and how you address certain things or people, try to actually adopt that voice and those addresses.  Let me know how that works out!

And don’t worry…as far as voice goes, I will talk about several topics that deal with the language in games…so just hold on for a bit!

Until Next time, That’s my Story.  Take it or Leave it.  My trucker buddies, they believe it!