Genre Acceptance

I was considering a Halloween game. Based on an old The Dragon magazine enclosure, about a group of scouts in a Haunted House.  I considered it, then discarded it, as i didn’t think any of my players would like the idea.  (Also, I didn’t have the time to play)  But…it definitely got me to thinking about playing characters who might do something that experienced players would be unlikely to have their characters chose to do…

When setting down to a gaming table and working out the social contract as well as what you are playing, it might be needed to consider the genre tropes you would expect.  For instance, there is that recent GEICO commercial where the kids are hiding in the woods and one of them suggests getting in the running car a drive away, but the others decide to hide behind the running chainsaws…This commercial is obviously poking fun at a great number of the slasher flick tropes.  The one character is the voice of common sense…Most players would normally play this character.  But, if the game you are getting ready to play is the Jason Vorhees story line, the players need to accept that their characters are blind to, or completely accepting, of the trope of this kind of story.  There are many fairly obvious examples of this, and some that may not be so obvious.  Lets consider this, As well as the player types and how they might be convinced to play these genre appropriate characters!

OK…Slasher horror flick, pretty obvious.  Your character need to not think about the general survival rules of these shows…never have sex, never separate, never go downstairs to investigate the noise or look for a weapon…Because, to play in this game, it needs to be understood that most of the characters will die.  Of course, the GM can just force them into the kill situations using tricks or just saying “after smoking the weed, you find yourself in a dark bedroom upstairs in just your underwear…roll to see if you notice the closet door opening!”  What about any zombie story since George Romero?  Every person who has the slightest understanding of modern fiction knows that they need to have their brain destroyed!   Again, the ref can change that by saying that his zombies need to have the heart, or the left pinkie toe destroyed…so the players are as clueless as their characters.  How ’bout we consider a favorite setting of mine: Deadlands.  Once the players have played for a few session, and likely from the moment you set down to discuss this setting, the players will know that evil is afoot.  And, If they finish a story arc, they will have a very good feel for what is going on.  But what about their next characters?  The classic Will-o-the-Wisp:  How many experienced players are going to go traipsing off in a swamp to check out the oddly flickering lantern?  On the other hand, if the character is youthful, and has heard that some treasure hoarding  fairies can be spotted at twilight in the same swamps…The wisp becomes an obvious threat again.  (Unless of course they have heard the legends or had an ex-adventure that took an arrow to the knee tell them about when they lost the thief when he went after a thief’s light in the swamp…

Horror type stories are obvious for this type of acceptance, but any setting, like superhero, or exploration need to have this acceptance.  So, to make these game better reflect their source material, or to maintain the replayability of a setting, players need to be willing and able to accept this.  Like the difference between Player and Character knowledge, this is a matter of suspending disbelief for the sake of playing the game.  The player may know that going into the rat infested cellar is actually a way to get them into the cellar and trapped in a caved in sewer, they may avoid it, unless that is the way the story starts.  It may seem that experienced players would be hard pressed to fall for some of the genre tropes that a new player might, even if they are playing the young and inexperienced new adventurer.  But take hope!  Experienced players will likely willingly embrace these tropes even easier than someone who does not have much practice at suspending their dis-belief, if appropriately baited enticed!

If that’s the case, how do we lay the groundwork.  Well, let’s go back to our player types!  The Bestest character type may be the hardest to convince to play with a handicap, such as not being aware that zombies are only vulnerable in the head.  How can they be the best if they have to wait like everybody else to learn that?  These characters need to understand that they can BECOME the BEST, but need to start behind the power curve like everyone else.  Once the characters start learning the secrets, then they can become their goal.  Until that point, they may become the mad experimenter…the best at figuring out how to deal with the issues…But in general, for the good of the game, they will have to delay their gratification.  Sorry.  The rule about a lot of things for them to do can keep them distracted!

How bout the escapist?  They are pretty easy!  Because they are often not at the forefront of action, they can easily accept that they don’t know that crossing the streams is really not as bad as expected!  Weather a tag-a-long or a dabbler, let them play the character who is there just to learn how the story turns out!

The Active explorer, profiler and storyteller may be your easiest to convince.  They play the game to explore the world and/or their character…so it is just natural for them to separate what the player knows or doesn’t from her character.  When you discuss with them the tropes of the game, particularly the latter two, they will likely embrace the challenge and the entertainment they derive.  The exceptions are probably the troublemaker and the avatar.  The troublemaker tries to break the setting, or at least test the boundaries.  For them, the ref and the other players will simply need to remind them that breaking the trope is not the same as breaking the boundaries.  As long as they keep that i mind, they should be controllable.  The Avatar is probably as difficult as the Bestest for this, maybe more so.  No body want to play a different version of themselves that has obvious dangerous flaws.  The avatar player is likely to be one of the least likely to embrace a character’s death or major flaw, and by defining their character with this weakness will be nearly anathema to them.The best way to deal with them is probably bribes!  The other option for the Avatars and Bestest might be for them to play the more sensible characters.  The Stick-in-the-mud virgin in the horror story, or the grandparent who doesn’t “ken to no nonsense” or the nerdy scientist type.

All of these thing considered, this really is just a form of Player vs Character knowledge.  When playing any game, part of the enjoyment is transporting everyone to some-PLACE else.  If you bring a modern player into a medieval setting, the player may know how to make gunpowder, rendering most of the armor useless.  You don’t let them do that, because it goes against the spirit of the theme.  This is exactly the same issue.  Most players know that getting in the running car and driving away will keep their character alive to fight another day.  But if the trope of the game is we need to tough this out and survive til morning, then hiding behind the running chainsaws might seem a perfectly viable plan!  Of course, no one would want to WIELD one as a weapon, (Too dangerous, I’m sure) until they are the last one standing and must face down the machete wielder! (Lets hope they haven’t run out of gas!)

Advertisements

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!

 

I’m back!

I know it has been about a year.  I have 3 posts I have been fiddling with, and hopefully be publishing at least once a month.

 

Again, if you have a point you want discussed, let me know.  I’ll cogitate on it a bit and spew forth some words!

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!)

Random or Random-like

As I am sure you are aware, I am mostly a Top Down style ref, playing Epic story lines. This usually results in very big story lines that intersect with many other big story lines…often leaving players a little stymied as to which way to go. On the other hand, bottom up story lines tend to lead to railroading of players… However, both of these can be avoided with just a bit of planning. And, you can add life to your adventures when you have encounters that are just everyday life running into the players while they pursue their goals. And here is where we come upon a classic argument often between the top downers and the bottom uppers: Random Encounters!

Because I run epic games, I trust in random encounters to keep the world vibrant. Make the players realize that it is not there just for them to complete the hunt, fulfill the prophecy, or capture the MacGuffin. And for this, I used random encounter tables. Depending on the set up, sometimes I have random tables set up for specific locations…in one instance I had created 5 different random encounter tables for one city…and each of those had a daytime and a nighttime version. A lot of work, but it definitely gives specific flavors to each quarter of the city. On the other hand, when I run episodic games, I usually plan encounters that may seem random, but that are the next step in the story and will probably have something important that becomes obvious later in the game. Lets look at each one, to see if one is better than the other. And of course, then I will present another way to do it, that I really like to use!

Random Encounters (Cue Trumpet fanfare)

Random encounters can be as simple as setting an encounter period, and rolling on a prepared table. In the early days of gaming, back when dungeon crawls were THE THING, you would roll a D6 every hour or so (Game time, not real-time) and depending on the dungeon and noise the adventurers made, a certain result would trigger a random encounter. Then, depending on the dungeon level, you would roll the encounter, and a given set of monsters (or maybe the odd evil adventuring party) would spawn around the next corner. Viola! Real life happening, eh?!

With this process, you could try to convince the players that this group of monsters was just patrolling, or going to get something to eat, or going on a hunt…But, usually, this random encounter just turns into another reason to fight something and take their treasure.  Eventually, random encounters became almost a whole game in themselves…roll the encounter check, roll the encounter, create the composition, determine their motivation, which could then make the encounter something other than a fight, such as a merchant train…are they looking for new guards, someone to hunt down the bandits that just attacked them, trade with folks on the road, or is it the cover for a bandit group, or a secret way to move the baron’s daughter from one place to another? Depending on the work put into encounter tables, you could work up very detailed encounters…of course, it took several minutes of dice rolling that made it fairly obvious that it was a random encounter. Players could engage or ignore as they wished,because it didn’t matter to the storyline they were following. In my experience, I have come up with entire new storylines from a simple encounter…of course, if the players started following it, they lost the main path and are now on a side quest…or it was a storyline that I spent time on that was never seen, or became the subject of another adventuring group. In epic games, random encounters are just about required to make certain that the world lives and exists beyond the main story line. In episodic games, inserting random encounters like this becomes just something to take time, never really furthering the story.

Random encounters could be very interesting, depending on how quickly the ref can create the details to support this just created band of orcs, commanded by 2 Hobgoblins…They could just be meat for the grinder. They could be a guerrilla group set to collecting slaves or stealing food (which may be the same things). Or perhaps they are a group of emissaries from the nearby tribes, traveling with a writ of free passage from the local land holder! Depending on the ref, and the game group, it could end up being nothing more than a fight, or maybe a chase as they try to hide from the better equipped and more ferocious hunters. Great addition to a game, eh?! Yeah, but a lot of hit and miss, and thinking on your feet. As well as the obviousness of the encounter.

Story Encounters ( bom, bom, baaahm)

In episodic games, the encounters are generally part of the story. The encounter happens, not because you rolled 2 on the D6 on the hour, but because the players needed to encounter this particular group of bad guys at this particular time either to provide vital clues or to move the story along some other way. This encounter is preordained, even if it seems outside of the main storyline. It has to be planned so that whatever the outcome, the players get what they need from it. If they bribe the thrill gang to leave them be, instead of finding a message from CorpX on the bosses phone, one of his lieutenants must let slip that Mr J from Corp X is not going to be happy with the decision. If they manage to sneak by the gang all together, a decision has to be made as to whether they can get through the story without the info about CorpX, or if one of their contacts needs to call them about word on the street about a meet between Billy Longknife, the gang leader, and a suit known to work for CorpX. If you let it slide, does the story end the same, or do they out Mr. J’s patsy, so he gets away, literally with multiple murders? This can make for interesting game hooks in the future, but takes a fair amount to set up. Whatever the outcome, the players likely believe it is part of the story line, even if it comes out of left field. Overall, this is obviously the better system, right? Well…not if you want it to be JUST a random encounter. A bit of a red herring to maybe throw them off the trail a bit…make them follow something a bit that has no impact on your story. So, lets look at a system I like to use when I have the time. It uses the best of both worlds!

This system works really well with my current Epic-sodic style. And, it works for both other styles as well. At its heart, it is similar to the Story Encounter system. You make your “Random” encounters up before hand. If they are story encounters, work out the details like you would with any other encounter. If they are truly random encounters, have them all made up before hand. Throw them in when needed. Make these encounters full encounters, or at least pre-planned. And then put them in whatever order you need. When you have the need for a story encounter, move the scene to it just as you normally would, either with a chance meeting in Epic, or opening a scene in episodic. Run the encounter, and make sure the players get what they need from it. If it is random time, pick the next encounter on your list and run the encounter just as you would any other encounter or scene. This way, your players never see you take the time to create the encounter so assume it is part of the story, or, if all of your encounters start with you rolling a couple of dice and consulting your papers, then they will never know Random encounters from Story encounters. Of course, it is more set up for you, but as I have stated before, in most cases, the amount of prep work is proportional to the enjoyment of the sessions. You can use these Random Like encounters in any play style, and your players wont have to worry about suspending player knowledge, and their characters can encounter it just as they should…with no forewarning as to how to handle this particular encounter!

 

(Does this need an example, or is it clear enough?)

 

That’s my storyTake it or leave itMy trucker buddies, they believe it!