Who is the who?

What is a story (or an adventure) without characters?  In last weeks post we talked about writing up an adventure, and how the conflict is Man VS., But remember that MAN can be any protagonist, whether male, female, protoplasmic asexual, or super-intelligent shade of the color blue.  Depending on the game system and the setting, you may have all or none of these in your character group.  Characters, both PCs and NPCs, are a distinct and important part of making your adventure, and I will talk about each of them in this weeks post.

We will start with NPCs, or anyone not played by a player character (hence: Non-Player Character)  These range from major players, both heroes and villains, to walk ons.  They are a shorter discussion in general,but that does not mean they should be relegated to forgettable status..  The more important they are to your story-line, the more thought out they have to be.  While a chandler who sells the players waxed cotton line may need little more than a name (if even that), the big bad of the game needs quite a bit more!

Lets start small and go big.  A simple walk-on NPC needs little thought.In many cases, a name, a quirk and a voice are over thought.  Most NPCs of this type are stage dressing, shop keepers and villain fodder.  They represent Joe average.  They are OK in anything they need to do.  The more important an NPC, or the bigger role they play, they need more consideration. Hirelings of PCs should all have names, and at least one characteristic like  quick, Brave, giggles at inopportune times, cunning, untrustworthy, yawns all the time, etc…  For names, there are lots of resources, from a phone book (if you remember those) for a modern game, to various random name generators such as those found at Seventh Sanctum or Behind the Name.  At least keep a note card or page with a list of names, where you can write a couple of words about who they are, so if your players want to go back to them.  If they are important enough, make a note about how they talk.  If you are a 1st person player, imitate that when being the character.  If your more 3rd person, remind the players that this mousey little bartender talks like John Wayne!

  • Simply put: The more important the NPC, the more details you will need on them! Most major NPCS (based primarily on amount of “Screen time” they get) will need near complete character sheets with appropriate GM notes.

Before I even start on Player Characters, let me say this:  PCs should not be created in a vacuum!  PCs are informed as much by a setting as they are by other characters and/or story-line.

PCs

As the heart of your story, there are several things to consider when thinking about PCs.

  • What type of character(s) fits the story?
  • What character class, archetype or skill set is needed to meet the various challenges?
    • In general, the 5-man band trope will cover most requirements.  The RPG version is usually: Fighter (Heavy/Tank);Mage (Scientist); Rogue(mechanic,scrounge); Healer (medic);  Shooter (sniper, Archer)
  • What is the minimum and maximum number of players you need/are willing to run?
  • How can you hook your characters into the plot, or with each other?
    • The “you meet in a bar, and a mysterious stranger approaches” gives the player little connection to the plot or the other characters, but is a direct intro to the plot.
    • If each character has a personal stake in the outcome, then they want to get a good outcome.
    • If the players have at least some connection to the other players, then they will typical want to work together better.  This can range from family, to same school or hometown.  you can also connect each player with two other characters, and that way they web together.
  •  How tightly do the characters need to be tied to the story?  Drinking in a tavern and being hired by the mysterious patron is so easy to get them involved, but it does not really give them any reason beyond, something to do other than drink.  It is a great way to get a disparate group of unknown together.  On the other hand, the easiest way to get them all directly involved is having them all be part of an extended group that must resolve the issue.

You could provide pre-generated characters to your players.  This saves time during your first game, and allows you to control all the aspects of the characters.  This makes building hooks easy!  When building pre-gens, a couple of things to keep in mind:

PRE-GENS:

  • Most of the time it doesn’t matter if the character is male or female.  So if you name the character either give them a name that is gender neutral, or a male OR female name.  Often you can just leave the name to the player.
  • Make them at least somewhat interesting.  The background they have would not normally be “you work in a garage,”but should be they “worked in Uncle Vito’s garage since they could follow instructions, but when Uncle Vito was gunned down, you escaped by hiding behind a barrel of oil…”
  • Build hooks so they can relate to the story!  And conversely, make sure they have the skills to shine at least once during the game
    • This can be hard if you don’t know how many players to create for.  If you have two players and you had planned for 6, what do you do with the missing skills?
    • You may need to build yourself a table that shows you how to modify each of your characters if you don’t have enough, or make not of which skills are shy and consider how to get around them in the game

The middle ground of PC is character outlines.  Depending on your system, you may outline that you need at least a warrior, and a mage of a particular discipline; or you might say everybody needs at least one weapon skill at moderate proficiency, but you also need someone to be a divine worshiper of the god of black water.  With these basic outlines, you can get with your players and put all of the requirements on a white board or on note cards or whatever, and then draw straws to see who gets to choose what untill all of your requirements are taken care of, then let them build what ever else they want.

If you know your players, or are confident in your ability to guide players you don’t know, then you can go straight to character creation.  This gives your players the most freedom, but can put the greatest strain on your game, so lets look at some details:

Character Creation at the table

If you give your players complete freedom to create what they want (which is what I usually do), you have opened yourself up to the biggest headache.  You now need to make sure that the adventure fits the characters, and that you have appropriate hooks for them.

  • I recommend that you guide the character creation.  Kind of like the middle ground, you know what you need to have.  You know the setting and the scope.  (Creating characters for a single adventure may allow some rule breaking to fit what you need.  For a campaign…not really allowed!)
    • Keep in mind your story.  All of the next points assume you have a fairly solid grasp of the story you want to tell.  If you are telling a story about Victorian monster hunters, who incorporate part of the monster into themselves to make better hunters, you may not want a holier than thou brimstone preacher, but a preacher who fight the stain against God might work, but do you have the requirements of skills and abilities to meet the challenges of your story?
    • Talk with the characters about your setting.  Depending on the genre, you may even give them basics of the plot.  This might not work in a murder mystery, but in a” get the macguffin” (macguffin? you ask…the thing thqt MUST be gotten) dungeon crawl, you can probably tell them that.
    • In that discussion, they will need to know what type of characters you expect, and perhaps more importantly, what won’t fit.  In a witch hunting game, it is probably inappropriate for one of the characters to be a demon worshipper!
    • However, if they want to play that character, find out why.  Perhaps you can fit their desires into a character idea.  They want to play a demonologist to cast black magic?  What about White magic?  More limited perhaps,but the holy priest may fit in much better!
    • Feel free to have the players provide you hooks, but if your scope is a single game, help them change that hook to one that fits your setting.Let other players make suggestion about the character…get the ideas flowing.  If you need the characters to know each other, work out how.  do they each know all of the others, or is everyone connected to only one or two of the others?
    • Once concepts are made, work through character creation.  Try to make the build fit the idea, but make sure you get the skills covered that need to be.

Lets go to the example:

Continuing our example from before, lets touch on each of the ways you could create characters. We have come up with a story, so now consider the types of characters that you might need or want.  NPCs we need, are the spider alien,and its brood, the proconsul and a couple of servants.  That might do for a minimum.  The way the story is written, we may only need to completely stat out the big bad. The rest can get by with a few notes.but we may create some of the stats to deal with things we don’t expect.  Of course all of the bit players will need names, so I’ll have a random name generator (or a book on roman history) to create roman sounding names, with maybe space-opera monikers (Space runner, Star child, Voidmann).

If you are setting this game up for a convention, or just to try out a system or something, you may consider pre-gens.For the game you decide that all of your characters will have basic military training, so that defines part of their background.  Perhaps in your game, they have been together since they were out of the crèche as they were destined to form this cadre.  So now the players are connected.  Using that, the mission becomes important because one of their creche mothers has gone to this frontier planet, and they haven’t heard from her since she left.Like that, you have given them a reason to be together, to work together and a want to undertake the mission. (Maybe mother is in one of the villas that has been attacked…she is OK, but wants the master avenged).  You have soldiers; you also need perhaps a doctor, maybe with a xeno-disease specialty.  One of the characters is a research specialist.  You need a long-range fighter and a couple of close in fighters.  How about a diplomatic face type.  And then, as a final character, an insectoid non-citizen trying to earn its citizenship by serving the emperor.  Its motivation is different, but it adds a bit of party conflict, so you only make it available if all of the other characters are taken.  If you want, you can add character specific connections, but most single shot adventures don’t see a whole lot of use of them.  You can make it a point of play, exploiting it during one of your beats!  Otherwise, you are ready to play!

In the next situation, you may not know your players, but you are not limited by time, you may have a couple of session to cover the story, so you decide to have them create characters, but you will control the process.

You know you need all of your players to have Some fighting skills.  So, depending on your game system, you may require everyone to take a weapon proficiency, or x number of points in combat skills.  If your system is a pure class base, then this part of the decision is basically what sort of classes are needed.  As you can see, this is where a class based system could have significant advantages. Assuming you are playing a skill based or class/skill hybrid system you will need to be a bit more defined. You have access to notecards, so you use them. If you don’t know how many players, you may need to mark the characters.  something like all 1 star characters have to be taken before a two star character can be taken, and so on.  This ensures that the minimum classes/skills are covered.. If you are using a class hybrid system you may put out cards for just the classes , so everyone can pick that first.  Then, put out the skill cards with skill/talents/powers (whatever ) on them.These cards can include skill groups (skills for a thief, for instance) or maybe individual, allowing people to specialize as they see fit.  Once skills and classes are distributed, you might talk about hooks, or you can lay them out for selection as well.  If you lay them out, it might be best to be a little vague so character secrets are not common knowledge.  If you are going to leave the players to work out the character hooks, you might consider the next iteration instead!

Lets now assume you are going to be playing with your usual group of players.  You know the kind of things they play, but maybe this setting will get them to shake it up a bit.  So, you get snax and start talking about characters for the new game.  Everybody agreed to the setting, so you just need to tell them a bit about your story plan.  Everybody is happy with what you need.  So they can dive into character making right?  Yes, but…THey can make their character and then work with you about fitting them into the group, but if everybody talks through the types of character ideas they have, you can guide them in their choices, and other players may have some influence to make better characters!  Cool, eh?  OK…your group is talking about characters, and one of the players really wants to play a dwarven priestess to the God of the Axe.  You explain that this is not really a fantasy game, but they would really like to do this…now what?

Like so many other things at the game table – talk it out!  Maybe after finding out why she wants to play that, you agree that it could be a fun concept, but it doesn’t fit.  But (Later we will talk about the Yes, But.. .and No, and… concepts) how about she is a non-citizen from a high Gee Ice world called Graham Holt.  So, she is short, and hairy, like a dwarf, and she actually has psionic powers that her people have attributed to divine intervention.  You hadn’t planned on any kind of magic, but this minor power might fit well.  So, she gets to play her Dwarven priestess, that is on this operation to work toward her citizenship in the Empire.  Character motivation! She may not be connected to the other players directly…or, maybe she has been assigned to their cohort for a while!  Maybe even the slave of one of the other characters!

Once created, then you need to wrap it up with tie ins.  Once each of your characters is a closely connect with each other and the story that you are comfortable with, you are off to the races! (Not breeds of people, but competitions of speed…but actually mean you are ready to play!)  Well…almost.  Next week, I will discuss setting up for your game.

Let me know if this is of help!

A Gentle review of a Savage system

A new favorite game!  Could be the only game I’d need, forever, except…

One of the things I had planned to do with this blog was game reviews.  And I have decided it is time to do one, the first one!  My first review is of Savage Worlds, specifically the deluxe edition, but I don’t into to get into the detail that separate the versions I am familiar with.

To start, lets talk about what savage worlds is and what it isn’t.  So, without further ado…

savage-worlds-logo

Savage Worlds

What is it?

Savage Worlds is a setting neutral (or generic) game.  It is hard to call it rules-lite because its core rule book is fairly densely packed with rules.  However, many of the rules are designed to address specific issues that may come up in a variety of settings.  Since the core book is only ten bucks, and you can get the test drive rules for free, it is well worth the investment.  The test drive rules are the rules lite version of the rule set, so the powers and setting rules are very curtailed, but you could acquire the test drive rules and, say the wizards and warriors supplement (also free) and have a pretty good fantasy savage world to try out. 

The rules are not a game setting, but a rule set that allows the playing of any setting you want.  It is very well supported with settings, both licensed and fan made.  These range from standard settings like fantasy,pirate, modern or sci-fi, but they also include a great number of unique and mixed genre settings as well.  The default rules tend to reflect life as an action movie, but it has mechanical adjustments that can make it more realistic or gritty.  

The tag line of the game is Fast! Furious! Fun! and it lives up to it pretty well  It has several separate resolution mechanics, but they all work well together, and are mostly easy to learn.

What it’s not…

Savage worlds is definitely not a simulation type game.  All of the rules tend to be fairly abstract and simplified.    Because is setting neutral, there are few rules dealing with unique situations and those that do, like radiation exposure, can best be read as guidelines.

How does it, uh, work?

The basic mechanic of Savage worlds is: Target Number of 4, if you roll over that number, then you succeed.    What does that mean?  Well, lets dive a little bit deeper.  For this part of the discussion, I am just going to keep to Core rules, but even when using the companions, these mechanics don’t change significantly. Characters are made up of 5 stats rated from a D4 to a D12+2 or higher, with an average human score of D6 in each.  Each character has a number of very broad skills, 23 in the rules, also rated from D4 and up.  Broad as in the Shooting skill covers a bow, a crossbow, a rifle, a laser carbine, or tank gun.  These skills are linked to attributes, so that if the character has only a D4 in Smarts, it will be more difficult, but not impossible, for him to become a world renown scholar in hydrotherapy!  To enhance the characters, there are Hindrances and edges that make further define the character.  A Major hindrance of Stubborn, for instance may make it just about impossible to change the character’s mind even from a bad idea, while an Alertness edge grants a bonus when looking for things or to pick up on subtle clues.  The rules cover separate races as well as define how to make your own by modifying their base stats, skills or edges and hindrances. Dwarves, for instance, are slower, but have low light vision and increased Vigor, while Elves are penalized when working with mechanical items, but have higher Agility and low light vision.

Next, one needs to understand Wild cards and Extras.  Player characters are always wild cards, as are some significant NPCs.  These are main characters of the story.  They have access to “Bennies” as well as an increased damage tolerance.  Bennies are a mechanic to alter mechanical outcomes, such as avoiding a failed die roll or making a deadly wound merely a flesh wound.However, perhaps the most dramatic thing that Wildcards have access to is the Wild Die.  Anytime they roll a test die, they also roll a D6, taking the higher die. Extras do not have access to a wild die, do not usually get bennies, and if they are wounded, they become incapacitated, while a wildcard does not become incapacitated until the 4th wound.

One more thing, the dice in SW explode! (That is, if any dice rolls the max, it is rolled again and added together, without limit, so, yes, it is possible to score over 20 when rolling a D4-2, particularly when a wild card throws a D6-2 as well, using the higher of the two).   As I stated above, the general requirement to perform an action is 4.  So a character rolls the appropriate skill, and wild die if able, and if they score a 4, the task succeeds, and improve their result for every 4 above that.  There are lots of modifiers to that number and to characters rolls, but that is the core mechanic.

The last thing to cover about the mechanics of the system is powers, AKA Arcane Backgrounds.  In the core book, there are 5 types of powers: Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Super Powers and Weird Science.  Their specific mechanics each vary in their implementation, but they all use the same power list, just flavoring them with their own background.  There is a list of many powers in the book and they define the pure mechanics of the thing.  For instance, the power ARMOR increases a persons resistance to wounds.  A mage might flavor it as actual spectral armor, or magic robes.  A priest might be wreathed in holy light. A psionisict might have telekinetic shields around him, while the super power might grant hardened skin, or the weird scientist creates a force field belt.

There are a few mechanic’s in the game: Melee Combat, Missile Combat, Social Combat, Dramatic tasks, Mass Battle’s and even chases and vehicle combat.  While each of these mechanics are abstract, they work very well in the system.  Each one is internally consistent and mechanically quite sound.

What I Love

SW has a lot to love.  The characters are simple but rarely simplistic.  As I said, if you have a character idea, you can pretty much create that character in only a few minutes.  Another aspect of this, and partly as a consequence of the Extras idea, NPCs can be created by the dozens in minutes.  The range of edges and flaws, while extensive, are easily modified with a moments thought.  Everything in Savage can be skinned or altered to meet specific tastes.  Your character is good-looking?  Attractive edge, but what if they exude pheromones that make people comfortable around them?  Attractive edge accomplished that, just call it Friendly Pheromones (Attractive) and done!

This same idea is replete in the powers.  One of the powers is BOLT.  This is a basic attack spell, magic missile, fire bolt, ice dart…just the coat of paint that makes it look like something else changes it.  But SW also has specialized skins, called trappings.  For instance if you skin your bolt as a fire bolt, perhaps it has a chance to actually ignite something it hits.  If you trap it as an electric spark, it may do extra damage to electrical systems. 

Because the game is very modular, pieces can be added or removed without much trouble.  Say you want your setting not to have Psionics, and miracles can only be used to heal, then remove the Psionics background, and limit the miracles background to only healing type spells.

Anytime the game goes to rounds, The Fast! Furious! Fun! mantra comes to life.  First, cards are dealt from a normal card deck, instead of dice being rolled.  Some edges or hindrances may affect which cards a player can use.  Because the system emulates action movie physics, a character can take as many actions as they want, with penalties for the more actions.  This is another thing to love, as it is not the I hit you, you hit me of many other combats.  Wildcards are quite robust, and it is somewhat difficult to kill them.  Not to say they cannot die from a punk kid with a shiv…exploding dice can be a bitch! 

What I Don’t Love

Hard to find too much that falls into this category, except…it is so adaptable.  That’s right, its greatest strength can be its biggest weakness.  If you don’t want to play a game with action movie physics, then you can dig into the innards of the system, and throw a few switches, like setting rules, that might change it.  For instance, if you want any good cut to hinder the victim, then use any variations on Gritty Damage.  A small layer of complexity for a pretty significant change.  You see, you really can play just about anything you want, but…

That very strength can make the game somewhat daunting to someone not familiar or without a lot of experience.  I don’t want to make you think that it really is secretly complicated, but if you want to modify things, the system might crack under your modifications.  How do you handle someone throwing an opponent against a wall?  well…there is no rule…what is it like?  It could be a push…or  maybe it’s a grapple with a throwing trapping.  What about …well, none of those are wrong. But knowing the rules well enough to make that choice quickly.  As I said..it is a rules dense system.

In an earlier post, I talked about how much change a system might need to fit your idea.  Savage Worlds makes those decisions easy, but that sheer simplicity might not fit the idea of what you want.  If you need a system that requires characters to make things, particularly a detailed part, Savage might not cut it.  You could run it as a Dramatic Task!  F!F!F! answer….but does it meet your idea?  If you want a More detailed skill system, maybe a performance and or an oratory or Politics skill.  In Savage, you could just make a Common Knowledge roll, but that may be too abstracted.  If you start adding skills, do you leave characters too weak when starting or do you need more skill points?  Or do you want to make an edge that fills those criteria…see what I mean.  Whatever you want to do you can do!  Will it fit your need?  Maybe.

Let try an example to make this clear; A foot race.  For this example I will compare two favorite systems Savage Worlds and Role Master Standard System(RMSS).  In RMSS, the participants would roll, add their relevant running skill (Sprinting or distance running) and look on the Movement/Maneuver table.  This would then provide a value to multiply by your base speed (ranging from you fall down and break a leg, to 2 times the speed and wow everybody with your prowess).  You would repeat this until one of the runners had completed the established distance.  Very mechanical and precise, making those who are taller (who have a slightly higher base speed) have a slight advantage, but more than made up for by having an appropriate skill.  In SW, you look at it from a plot view.  If it is important, but not overly critical, everybody roll an Agility, with a bonus to someone with the Fleet Footed edge…highest score wins.  Or, to deviate from the F!F!F! aspect, you could have everybody just roll a run die, move the appropriate distance, first one there wins.  If it is a key point of the plot, you might run it as a dramatic task, drawing it out to maybe 5 rounds, and collecting successes.  This raises the tension with the end result of the winner having the most successes.

To Wrap it up

So!  Is Savage Worlds the only system I need ever again?  Almost.  It sets up quickly, plays well, fits with just about any setting.  I can set up an evening game in a matter of minutes.  There are so many settings already made, and it is so easy to create my own.  I have enough practice that the open system is great fun.  On the other hand, as an epic gamer, the system lacks some of the grit needed to deal with some of the story details that I often want to play.  I can completely endorse Savage Worlds, and think it should be on every bodies shelves.  But, I won’t be giving up my other games, even though they have dropped into the minority of game time.   The stories I tell in other games have definite flavors and details that Savage doesn’t emulate that well.

Savage is exceptional for Episodic stories and very good at Epic-sodic, and not bad at epic story style.  It definitely is designed as a collaborative storytelling game, what with bennies (and the Adventure deck if you use that), and I talked about my feelings toward that already.  Savage could bend my feelings a little bit, though.

I hope that as a first review, I gave you something to consider.  Thanks for reading.  Let me know if you have another topic you want me to cover, or game to review!  Talk to you in about a month!

The Games (and styles) We Play

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about game style…Epic, Episodic, even Epic-sodic, and, since I have not posted an entry for a while, lets try this one out.

In Some Common Ground, I discussed the basic differences in Epic and Episodic.  I have also mentioned Epic-Sodic in Random-like, but let me get deeper into each of these and discuss the pro’s and con’s.

EPIC

Epic is usually my go to game.  However, I have noticed some things only on fairly deep introspection.  Surprisingly, there are some thing that I don’t like about it.  I have often defined an epic role playing style  something like this:  While the player characters are important to a given story line in the game universe, they are not all that important in the universe, overall.  If, and when, they die, only a few people they have interacted with will probably notice their passing.  Of course, if they have performed heroic deeds that saved villages, towns or even kingdoms, that would be different.  But…the universe doesn’t care.  The game will focus on these characters and their life in the world.  It will be about the adventure arc they are following, but if they get in over their heads, the universe (in the guise of the GM) will not make the path easier for them, and if they die…oh well.   Epic games are kind of like the Novels of role playing.  The characters are a bit more detailed, and there is often significantly more character building in them.  But because there is often many story lines going on in the world, I have found myself wrapping story lines pretty matter of factly.   Hurray!  They have beaten Lord Two-Dark and his minions.  But, they didn’t even touch the fact that Yirk the Bloody is gathering slaves for the zanzabarbarians…or the ogres in the Yellow wood in the next kingdom over?  From an Epic  ref’s point of view…a hero’s work is never done.

In these games money is important.  The cost for a healing potion and ammo will be specific, even if it changes slightly due to availability from one place to the next.  It is important for characters to be able to estimate the worth of the things they find and/or be able to haggle for it.  Often the players have a daily routine.  It likely includes study or practice.  Usually, encumbrance is carefully calculated, and wound can be deadly.    Random encounters make the world feel more alive, because they represent things and people that are going about their daily business.   A story can still be on the rails, going from one thing to another, but the details of the between becomes important.  A map, graphic or textual, is a must in the Epic game.  If it is 100 miles to point B from Point A and 300 miles to Point C, from Point B, then Point C is not 50 miles to Point A!

The Epic Style can support Top down or Bottom up, but it is very difficult to run without significant set-up.  It can support any character style, but, because it often integrates daily routine, detailed survival and travel, it usually runs better with detailed characters.  And, because the characters are dealing with the rest of their lives, and not just the “adventuring” part, they tend to build up quite rounded and deep characters.   (Of course, an Epic character can be very shallow as well, but most players who really enjoy Epic style will build appropriate characters).  In an Epic game, when a player is unable to play for a night it is often much better to not play that game, so as to not have another player mis-play him.

This does not mean you can’t play episodically with an epic style.  It is just that playing from key scene to key scene is not very conducive to maintaining all of those details that make a complete and living character in a constant and detailed world.

Episodic

The Episodic game is much more like a television show.  The group of characters often have a three act style of adventure.  There is often an over-arching story about the characters, but many of the games are just “monster of the week” style serials.  There is nothing wrong with episodic play, and is really the only style of play suited for conventions and even the game group that can only infrequently get together, and need to get their story’s told before they (the players) die of old age!

The Episodic style is, as I pointed out, basically the opposite of the Epic.  Usually money is not closely tracked.  The players have what they need, but maybe not everything they want.  Encumbrance is either not an issue, or is just not closely tracked.  The Episodic style is, in the words of the Bard “The Play is the Thing!”  Why worry about the minutia of basic life and upkeep, when you can just get to the adventure?

A map can be notional, as they get where they need when they need to be there.  When Joss Whedon was asked about the speed of ships in Firefly, he allegedly claimed they “Move at the speed of plot!”  (This was actually quite a revelation to me when I was setting up a Savage Worlds game.  I had spent 20 minutes or so scouring the maps to determine where an encounter would take place…a railroad, in the mountains, near a gorge….I was getting frustrated because I wasn’t finding the right place…and then…a bolt out of the blue!  It doesn’t matter where it is on the map…it takes place exactly where it needs to!)

Characters in Episodic games tend to be specialized, because their energies, as well as the needs of the gameplay focus on specialized skill sets.  Not many TV characters are all that broad, skill-wise, but of course they can develop very deep characters as they are played as hooks become background, or vice versa.  Savage Worlds, an excellent candidate for Episodic play, even has a mechanic for expanding a players background during game play, called a Dramatic Interlude.

Many games are really designed to be run Episodically.  Any Mission driven game, such as Shadowrun is really episodic and follows the three act style :Get the mission, research and planning, execution.  And, because of this style, characters tend to be more specialized, as they do not need all of the other skills.  It is assumed their life goes on without major consequence, or it would be an adventure!  And, like before, you can run Epic style games Episodically, but the whole point would kinda be lost, and it would probably be an “Upkeep” scene, perhaps played out as a montage, rather than played through.

Epic-sodic

This is my name for probably a very common  style.  It is basically Episodic gameplay, with Epic support.  You might be able to consider it long form Episodic.  How does it work?  This might be best as an example:

EPIC:

The players wake, and take care of their morning routines. Do they have any particular requests this morning?  OK..the Priest is going to temple for service.  The others  meet for breakfast, when a messenger arrives, and is properly introduced, he is somewhat confused as he was expecting one more person.  They will need to convince him they are who he seeks, and that the lat person will join them after his devotions.  If they cannot convince him, he will leave word where he can be found when they are all together. Knowing that it won’t do to interrupt worship they wait on the priest, and after he has properly broken his fast, the go to meet the messenger.  Check for random encounters on the way, and resolve them.  If any member of the party is incapacitated, then if they go on to the messenger, he will still not release the message.  Once they get the message, it is encrypted, but it is not overly difficult to decode.  It directs them to make contact with “The Green Man”  and explains how to do it.  What actions and or precautions do they take, and do they decide it is worth their action.  Once they are prepared, they travel to the green man, in The Blue Knight Club, in the Rose room, a private room…

EPISODIC

You have received and de-crypted a message to meet the “Green Man.”  You have just arrived at the Blue Knight Club, with instructions to meet him in the Rose Room.  Alibis?

EPIC-SODIC

You have recieved a coded message that directed you to meet the “Green Man” at the Blue Knight Club in the Rose Room.   You have about 6 hours before the meet.  What do you need/want to do?  (Once all prep is done…You may set up a random or preparatory encounter on their way) You have arrived at the3 Blue Knight Club…

I hope, from those descriptions, you can see that the Epic style will obviously take much longer to work through.  The life of the characters between adventures is important.  The Episodic is likely to finish in an evening.  You play out the important (read adventure) scenes. The Epic-sodic will take longer but not near as long as the Epic.  You are focusing on the adventure/story parts, but the supporting background and characters are not necessarily a given.  This has become my favorite style, I think.  I love Epic games…The lives of our characters is interesting, if not fascinating, to me.  But, as real life seems to allow less and less time for it, the development of characters and setting as well as the quickly getting to the adventure appeals.  There is no reason you cant play epic story lines (notice the small e) while playing Episodic.  The story arc just becomes more central to the separate adventures.  However, as discussed earlier, playing an episodic story in an Epic manner kind of defeats the point.  And, as Savage Worlds has become a new favorite, and plays very well in the Epic-Sodic, I guess I need to do a bit of a review for those of you who have never seen and/or played it!  (Next post…whenever I get to it!)

Are these distinctions clear?  I know you, my gentle readers, may have questions for your old Ref Mentor, and I’d be glad to answer them.  And, if your questions require more than just a comment to discuss them, I’d be glad to write a whole Blog Post about it.  So feel free to comment or ask questions.  Remember, my goal here is to offer bits of wisdom from a person who has been playing, and primarily reffing RPGs for almost 40 years.  I don’t claim to be the best, but I do have a lot of experience and have run a lot of things.

Live the adventure, folks!  And be a great Ref!

 

 

The Bad bad

Evil player characters

OK…lets talk about a topic that will eventually come up: The evil player characters!

It can have it’s place, but usually, in my experience, these games don’t last too long. In this post, I will offer some ways to make this at least an enjoyable experience, even if a short one.  And even before I start the discussion, let me say that if your players want to delve into this, I cannot emphasize the importance of the social table contract in this!

When contemplating an evil party, the players need to define the “EVIL BOUNDARIES!”  I am not going to get philosophical as to what is the nature of evil, but briefly discuss how it works in RPGs.  It was important enough that the early in our hobby, the concept of alignment was brought into the game, but it remained somewhat vague as to what good vs evil was and then by adding lawful against chaotic, the idea was to create distinct definable moral guidelines.  Then another game tried to define those morals with descriptives, like Scrupulous, or Selfish.  Now somethings can always be accepted as evil, on their face: genocide (oh, wait, what if it is killing evil creatures, like goblins?), Murder (Oh, wait…this is technically what many adventuring parties do), rape, blatant theft (or is that just not nice?).  What about the Evil Empire, like in Firefly or Star Wars?  Well, a lot of people lead pretty comfortable and peaceful lives under these systems.  A good place to begin discussing how this would work starts with the old AD&D alignment system.  Let me give you my interpretation, and it has always worked well for me.

GOOD: Greatest benefit for the most people

EVIL: Greatest detriment for the most people

LAWFUL: Oriented to the organization; the means must justify the end

CHAOTIC: self oriented; ends will justify whatever means

NEUTRALS: Socialistic; the privileged support those not so

OK…you have talked about what you are comfortable with, discussed how far people can go and you still want to run the evil campaign.  In my experience, an evil campaign kind of ends up being one of three types:

1: Players try to become leaders eventually running a guild or even a nation (really only viable for Lawfuls) Think the Star Wars Emperor

2: Players are tool of someone who is leading a guild or nation (in which case they are like secret police or senior enforcers) This may lead to them either coming to odds with their boss and having to dismantle what is in place or them becoming the heir apparent and taking over later, which becomes the first case.

3: Players end up turning on each other to become the best at whatever they are doing (Really only suitable for chaotics)

If your game is going to become one of these, then what kind of scenarios can you run?  well, you can run any adventure you would run with any other team, but the hooks tend to be selfish. Why do EPCs (Evil PCs) go out to fight the Ogre Bandits?   Because they are infringing on their profit or victims, not because it is the right thing to do. Why do they crawl a dungeon? To get the riches and magic items, not to recover the lost art of the Dufuss empire…unless they sell really good, or they will really look good in his lair!  Once you have worked out the types of hooks you can use, what kind of story arcs are ripe for the EPC?

Stories can be similar…but the reasons for the arcs usually are things that GOOD players probably would not. These will probably be brutal or horrifying stories, as they delve into places we have learned to fear and avoid.  Even the mastermind character will be moved by the violence against children…(which works to solidify your strength; anyone who will do that to a kid…).  Remember that the “rebel scum” / “Browncoats” story line would be an evil story line from an Empire/Alliance view.  Again, make certain that everyone understand the things that are out-of-bounds by the contract. (Generally I don’t recommend playing EPCs, but occasional short explorations can be fun. Make certain that what happens at your table is within the bounds of what everyone accepts!)

Now, just to touch upon the more disquieting part of this exercise.  When playing evil characters, they will usually migrate to the extremes.  They will either play the comical evil; the cackling evil “Supervillian” type that pulls the wings off fly’s and kicks puppies.  This is what many people’s idea of evil PCs is.  The other extreme is the sadistic non-repentant madman, who considers mass murder, and rape as a character building exercise.  If this is the type of evil PCs you have, you might want to keep very tight reigns on how this game progresses.  Even if this is acceptable within your table contract, you will probably like to keep a lot of the stuff behind the scenes.  On the other hand, if you keep too much off the table, then you will likely be avoiding the reason people want to play evil characters.  So, keep the feedback flowing.  You need to be comfortable and capable with the ongoing story, but everyone at your table needs to be as well.

One last part of an EPC game:  PVP, player vs player, or inter-party conflict.  In an evil game, this is very possible and maybe even an expectation.  It is a point that needs to be re-addressed in your table contract for this game.  You have probably already addressed this, at least briefly, for your regular games.  But for this setting, it needs to be decided if it can happen, if it is expected, or if it is going to be avoided.  This could be a defining aspect of an EPC games, so give it the proper amount of attention!

OK.  To wrap this up;  Evil player characters can be fun, and will may be fairly base.  The story’s will be similar, but the motivations will be different and the resolutions of issues will likely be less epic, but can be very personal.  One thing I’d like to suggest: this game type can be kind of cathartic, but that will also make it quite an emotional game, so be ready for this and be ready to drop it at the first request.  As I said, I don’t usually recommend this type of game, but if you want to try it, embrace it, and keep my warnings near to your heart.

 

Aside from that, Keep Rolling!

 

The Big Bad…

No matter the game, eventually you want your players to face the Villain!  This is the Big Bad…the reason for the conflict, the why your characters are here.  Obviously there are many games and story lines that are not about defeating a final enemy, but many of them are.  This post is going to discuss how to deal with these powerful beings, from who/what they are to the final encounter (at least briefly…this could just about be a whole blog on its own…not just a post!)

One of the biggest challenges I have, is making the mastermind at the end of a story arc live up to his reputation.  The whole build up is based on the Big Bad at the end.  How he is incredibly intelligent, amazingly strong, diabolically manipulative or even devilishly handsome, but when the heroes arrive on the scene, he is just a stack of statistics to be defeated.  How can you keep this from happening?  Well…there are two ways to approach this.  One is purely mechanical and the other is much more narrative.  Since the mechanical approach is somewhat more objective, let me discuss that first.

The first thing to do is look at the Big Bad from their statistical definitions.  In some game systems, they will have specific game bonuses/resistances/abilities given to them by the system mechanics.  This can seem like the “Just stats to defeat” argument above.  However, I use it to remind you of what they have available to them.  If your BB is an Evil Priest, they will have fanatical followers.  These followers will (often) give their lives to allow “their” holy leader escape.  After all, this will lead to their reward in the afterlife…or whatever said priest promised them.  And of course, given even normal human intelligence, would likely not waste the opportunity to continue preaching, and so escape from the dangerous situation, relocate and build up another troupe of devoted followers as she takes up with her old plans once safely ensconced.  What if your Big Bad is a DRAGON, who is incredibly skilled in combat, right hard AND can breath fire on the interlopers.  Not only is it almost unbeatable in combat, he’s also super genius level intelligence.  Now, if your like me and of midlin’ level of Genius (or is that Midlin’ level of SUPER genius) you might find it hard to relate to said dragon, not alone make use of it’s super-genius stats.  If your game system does not have appropriate benefits for this, see what mechanics make him more dangerous.  You know he is a formidable opponent, and he would know it as well…he would also be able to take advantage of every possible combat maneuver or rule exception there is.  Mechanically, a very smart BB would not only be able to (at least) guess the strength of the opposition, but know how best to face them, or if it is to turn tail and run, later ambushing them as they try to drag off its hoards of magic treasure.  Greed might not allow this, but that is where you will need to make a call…

As I talked about in this post, don’t be afraid to use powers, or edges (or whatever they are in your game) against players.  That means don’t be afraid to use the BB advantages against the players either.  This may be particularly important if the confrontation is NOT combat.  Many game systems unfortunately are pretty rules light for this sort of a finale.  So lets look at some of the more narrative, less mechanical ways to accomplish this.

Using a more narrative, or GM moderated outcome, might be considered by players as cheating.  And in a way, it is, and because of this, you will need to keep a weather eye on becoming GM against Players and not let the BB become TOO powerful.  Keeping this in mind…let me elaborate.  (Of course always keep in mind the mechanical advantages (and disadvantages) that the BB has).  Assign them a couple of descriptors.  Maybe the Priest is Arrogant and dedicated.  The dragon: Greedy and cautious.  With the simple tags, you can give players hints on how to deal with the final encounter.  But it also tells you how the BB will deal with it!  If the dragon is Greedy but cautious and is Super Genius…well, how are your blood-thirsty murderous adventurers going to get close?  Anything they think of, the dragon will think of…Oh, but what if you, the ref, did NOT think of it?  Ignore what you thought of, the dragon would have thought of it!  Feel free to steal ideas from your players.  If their opponent is very smart, but not Super Genius level, well, then you have to apply a kind of filter…if their idea is way out there…then BB probably didn’t think of it.  So if you are stealing their ideas, how do they EVER approach this BB dragon?  Oh, yeah!  He is greedy!  If they can offer him some treasure…his greed might well win over his caution.  On the other hand, even if he did think of it, maybe it is not something he considers a great enough threat.  OF Course they will never send a small invisible thief into his cave!  Yes it is within the realm of possibility, but the chances of it actually happening…

You can use this “Players against themselves” strategy on other things as well.  In the case of the non-combat outcome, then you and your players are always playing on familiar ground, even if you are not certain about how to un-bind a particular permanent spell, but the people who created it may have considered everything presented…or may have missed something that the players can test for, but not easily!

The thing this whole post points to is consideration of your enemy.  Out of all of the story, whether top down, bottom up or something in between, you need to give your Big Bad a significant amount of thought.  Consider what it is, and what sort of challenge it should be.  Use these techniques or find your own.  But keep your BB from being just another wall of statistics and remember that they are as much a part of your story as the PCs are!  If you have a favorite BB, tell me about it, or tell me how you (or your ref) created it.

 

Feedback is very welcome.  Good, bad or indifferent.  I am going to aim for at least monthly, and hopefully every 2-3 weeks for new posts!  Happy Gaming!

 

Ante Up!

Another post inspired by a question from a fellow, and related, referee…How much buy in can you expect from your players?

The simple answer is:  As you might expect…it depends.   The final answer is that they will probably only ante up with the least amount they can.  Let me explain the issue, and then I will offer a few bits of advice…that’s what you came here for, right?

Buy in is what you want from your players.  You want them to WANT to come to game, to WANT to experience everything you have planned.  And, if your game is based on a very common setting, basically if you can say “We are playing in the Battlestar Galactica universe, as portrayed by the most recent television series, before season 3,” your players will likely know exactly what to expect.  But the farther you get from that statement, the more “Buy In” you are expecting from your players.  If you use the earlier statement, but tell them that the game takes place on an unknown miner, with only a couple of raptors for protection, the buy in becomes higher.  You want your players to go through the notes you provide them to know who the other 15 members of the crew are.  Now, your players may be that rare breed who will devour everything you have written, point out your logical flaws, and pose questions on how much a 10’ pole costs in your setting!  But more than likely, they want to know the setting so they can build a character.  Anything else, they want you to tell them when it becomes pertinent to their game enjoyment.  Nothing wrong with this.  But as a ref who loves to build my own settings it can get frustrating, when I need to constantly remind the players that the “Moon” in this world is visible all the time, that the common man thinks of the day divided into 20 segments of time called horas.  “These are important to the setting of the game,” I wail…and the players ask…”so is it still late afternoon, or is it evening?”  and all I can do is say…yes…it’s late afternoon…

What I have discovered is that while fascinating backgrounds intrigue players, particularly explorers or story-tellers, very few are willing to ingest vast amounts of info to play in it.  What you as a ref need to decide is how much of your background is story info and how much is setting info. Lets see if I can make this clear.  If your next game is taking place in our space faring Roman Empire, you need to decide if the game outcome will depend on knowing when the Leo rebellion occurred and the order the planets were taken back into the Emperors benevolent protection because a serial killer is carrying out murders based on those dates, then that info is vital story info.  However, if the story requires exploration of one of the Leo Rebels ancient Villa’s, then who owned it is really only story dressing.   This is important, because when setting your players up there is a delicate balance of info you can give them without making it obvious the importance of the fact.  The setup for both of these could be very similar: “Game will be set in the Leo Recovery Planets.  As many of these games go, there is a crime that needs solving.”  If you add “It is important to know about the Leo rebellion and recovery, particularly the dates of reintegration.”  that kind of gives away part of the mystery.    As a ref, you have already written 12 pages on the Leo Rebellion, but have any of your players read it?  Of course this borders on character vs player knowledge. (hmmmm…foreshadowing, anyone?)

Generally, epic games will have more story arc related background info, while in episodic games, most of the background info is just setting.  Obviously, there are exceptions to that.  If your information is just setting, then you can simply feed it to your players if and when appropriate.  When it becomes story linked the issue is more problematic.  Of course, you can hand out a “writers bible” version of your world that covers key points of the background.  You could explain all of the background info that might be important.   However, for certain games, just by highlighting that info might change the outcome of your story.  You can just tell your players where all the background is, and remind them that they may need to know everything in there.  However…let me address the other side of Player Knowledge vs Character Knowledge!

One of my pet-peeves is refs that seem to forget that what your players know is different from the characters, who have lived in this universe all of their lives!  Unless you can describe your game as “Our game starts in our real world, and the first game day will be yesterday AND you will be playing yourselves,”…it is very likely that the knowledge of the player and their character are not the same!  Even in this case, it may likely be different as what the characters know will be filtered through your, as the ref, understanding of their knowledge.  When keeping this in mind, remember that the players WANT to experience your game!  You have all agreed to play and look forward to it.  When you are getting ready to play the new setting, it is your responsibility to sell it to them!  Give them the highlights that WILL be part of the story arc.  Depending on how much that takes give them more.  Then Guide their character creation!  What does that all mean?

First, you should be able to present the highlights of the setting in a few sentences.  30 – 60 seconds.  If the players balk at that point…it is not a good time to change settings.  Find out what turns them off.  Can you come to a compromise without changing core things?  If so, do you want to?  If they are intrigued, and willing to consider, then…

Give them the highlights!  With the pitch, you have hooked them.  with this, you are giving them a taste.  You are letting them know enough of the background to let them understand what kind of stories might occur.  This is where you buff off your best Used Car Salesman jacket, slick back your hair…and fast talk!  Make them AMAZED by the setting…want to bury themselves in the potential!  After this, they should be clambering to make characters, bursting with character ideas!

Now you take off your storyteller hat, and put on your ref hat.  Guide them in character creation.  Don’t let them create characters that don’t fit the setting.  If you are like me, you want to let them play whatever they want.  That’s fine, if they are willing to fit their idea to the setting.  Sometimes, you need to veto certain ideas.  Usually, however, you can guide them to build the character core with setting clothes.  Done?  Ready to Go?  OK…Play Ball…

However, all of that is about getting them to pay up during buy in…and they still haven’t memorized the names of each of the prayer hours, or the ranks of the Emperors family!  “Refmentor!  You have Failed ME!!!!”  Nope! say I.  This is the next part of your responsibility!  Remember that I don’t like players trying to try to play a characters knowledgeYou are the memory of every character.  YOU need to use the proper language!  YOU need to stop, or at least remind them, that their character may or may not do something given the situation.  Of course, you can forbid them from doing certain actions, but it is better to offer them an alternative.  YOU need to be ready to answer a player regarding a setting question.  This does not mean you have to reveal secret knowledge, nor should you, until they have actually discovered it.  Avoid long discussions of setting info if possible…the players don’t need to know the whole cultural history of why it is appropriate to haggle in stores, but not on the street.  If the player wants that info, make a note of it to discuss after game, or tell them where that info can be found (Such as your games WIKI!).  You can remind them, when they are chasing the potential murderer through the alleys, that the bells are chiming Baynar prayers now…are they willing to risk their health by not taking the time to properly thank Baynar for their Hale body?  Will the murderer respect the prayer hours?  What happens if they don’t pray?  Can they seek atonement latter?  Is there an immediate effect?  This is info you need to tell them!

So, yes.  You can expect buy in at least to a certain level.  But, you need to be ready to sell your setting AND you need to be prepared to enforce the setting rules.  If failing to pray to the God of health results in immediate wasting sickness, then don’t just strike them with the sickness and then tell them “Oh, you missed Prayer!”  Their character would be well aware of this even if the players find it incredibly annoying.  Does the bad guy carry a relic that allows him to avoid every other prayer?  Then he may well get away this time…If not, he may still get away, but they may find his body later, having died from the wasting!  Make your players WANT to learn this info, or even better, allow them to add details!  As long as they keep within your flavor.  Looking forward to hear about your worlds and the adventures that occur in them!

(Promise it won’t be so long for the next one!)

Ah, Shucks…it aint that hard…

This article is about GM comparisons.  I have been complimented on my ref style by many players.  I have complimented other refs on their styles.  I have also had potential refs shy away from assuming this awesome mantle because they felt that they “wouldn’t compare to me!”  This is part of why I am writing this blog…Not so that people can “Compare to me,” but so they can see it is all about having fun.  As I said in a fairly early post, this is about having fun and seeing your ideas come to life!  As many of you are aware, if you’ve been reading these, or if you have sat at my table, I love EPIC 1st person gaming.  It appeals to the world builder in me as well as the thespian (yes, with a T and an H  and a p in the middle) in me.  That makes it the best style for me.  That does not mean it is everybody’s style.  So, we will start with a brief comparison of the main styles of reffing (1st person and narrative) and then go into a few other things meant to show you that ref comparisons are for conventions, not a friendly table!

I have already discussed, briefly,  what they are, so let me get a little more detailed and compare contrast.  Narrative describes game are when players and/or the ref describe what they are doing and saying.  This is usually more comfortable for most people. 1st person is where the players and or ref play act the character, often using silly or put on voices.  Because of this, it tends to be a bit more immersive, but can make people uncomfortable, which detracts from the reason they are gathered at your table.  If this isn’t clear, let me illustrate… In that post I talk about some of the benefits and detriments to using each style.  As far as Epic vs Episodic, we have talked about that as well, but not as in depth.  Even though this is not the place for formal elaboration, lets discuss it.  Epic storylines are built by people like me.  The world exists, and the player characters are part of it.  Depending on the setting, they may be tiny cogs in the machine, or they may be the big rollers, but either way, the world will continue to go on…This usually works best for top down, but can be handled otherwise.   When things happen, they have consequences in the world.  If you are a hugely Top down guy, you might even map out those details even if the players will never see them!  The Episodic game style is becoming much more common, I think, and lots of players prefer it.  This is when the story takes place when and where it needs to, with little regard for the world around it.  This is not to say that the outcome of one adventure won’t have an impact on a later adventure.  The big difference is often in epic, the players need to play through down time to some extent.  In episodic, it can all but be brushed over, because the next adventure will happen when and where it needs to be…and giving the referee the ability to say, “A couple weeks after the last fight, you have all recovered and find yourself joining a friend, down at the starport.  You have been here a while, and he is well into his cups.  Knowing that he is want to do this, you refrain a bit, when suddenly…”

OK.  All that being understood which is the game that will be more fun?  Which one will make you look like a better ref?  Which one takes the most work?  As you are probably bored of hearing, now, It Depends…When you set down to ref you are getting ready to involve your players in your story.  Think for a few moments how you would tell the story if the game was not interactive.  If this was just you telling your friends about the three space mice who went into the horned giants house to steal his moon cheese.  Would you tell it in broad sweeping main points?  Sounds like Narrative Episodic!  What about if you told it from the point of view of the Mendelvian Cricket pet that one of the space mice carried?  That might still be episodic, but since the cricket can imitate voices (Of course you know how good the Mendelvian crickets are at impressions!) this would probably be 1st person.    If you tell about how they snuck into the horned giants cheese cupboard only to find that it was not where he kept his moon cheese, so they had to devise a different plan…then this is going to be Epic.  Once you have figured out how YOU would best run your story, ignore the tags…no one really cares if the story is Epic or Episodic IF they have fun participating in it.  Can you tell the story in first person, and let one of your players play their character in narrative?  Sure, if everyone is happy with it!

Let me make a plea here.  Maybe not to the folks that are reading this and want to be better Ref’s…but to those who are reading this and are afraid to be a ref at all…GIVE IT A TRY!  Don’t be afraid that you won’t be good enough!  GIVE IT A TRY! 

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One of the most important things for new refs, and I have probably not mentioned this enough Winking smile, is to TALK to your players!  After a game, it is always a good idea to make sure you have a few moments to talk about what everybody liked or didn’t like.  This includes YOU, ref!  All of these posts, this entire blog may NOT apply to you and your game group.  But the only way you know that is by discussing what does and does not work.   You may not find that you enjoy reffing, and that is not a problem.  Don’t expect to run a perfect game on your first night, even if you have spent two weeks studying the adventure, and another two weeks working on your setting and voices or phrasing…You will have problems!  Big or small, but you get over them if you try.  If you try it and don’t like it, Hey! you have a bit of empathy for your ref, and maybe you will want to buy him an extra slice, or maybe, your players will fall in love with your mushy ruthlessness, and they will buy you your own Pizza!

 

Until next time…

 

That’s my story!  Take it or leave it!  My trucker buddies, they believe it!!