How does it start?

I have talked about lots of different things about how to run a game, and how to do referee things, but only brushed on the meat of it.  So, lets choose a setting and go through the steps of actually building an adventure to run your players through!  I am planning on doing this in three sections, each a separate post, hopefully no more than a week or so apart.  This one will go through outlining a session.

Some caveats to this process.

  • Know your system.  You don’t have to be a guru at it, but be comfortable enough to know what the system you’ve chosen can and cannot do well.  As mentioned several times in these posts, you can tell any story in about any system. it’s just a matter of how well or how smoothly your system does it.  Knowing this, you will not make a central part of your adventure something that the system does not do well.
  • Consider your scope.  How big of an adventure are you creating?  If you are planning a campaign (out of scope for this article), your stories are considerably different from if you are making a single session game.  This step becomes more important as the scope becomes narrower.
  • The last caveat is more a reminder; plan to have fun!  Know that your players will likely do things you had not expected and that’s ok.  Know that you may miss a few things in your set-up, and that ok.  This is not a matter of life or death (well,maybe to characters and a few stiff drinks, but…) and it can all be made better by a simple discussion.  With these things in mind:  Lets get started!

We will start by choosing the setting.  For the purposes of these post, I am not going to refer to any system mechanics. I’ve mentioned a few created settings in these posts, so I am going to choose our Space Centurion setting.  Next we decide how to set up our game.  We need to make a few decisions at this point.  Probably most important is scope.  Generally the amount of work for a campaign set up is about the same as a single adventure, as well as anything in between, because as the focus gets smaller, the details need to be more fine.(however, the bigger the scope, obviously you will be doing more work overall because you will be bringing that focus sharp over a series of directly connected stories).  For this, because of the impetus behind these posts, we will focus on a single story.

At this point, we need to come up with our story.  Keep in mind that an RP adventure is not the same as writing a story.  In a story, you control everything.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players) really tell where your story goes and how it get there.  So, what do we need?  Conflict.  Every story is a story of conflict, as we all learned in 7th grade English.  Depending on your school, you may have learned different “Man VS” conflicts, but here lets just kind of look at Man VS Man (probably the most common in RP), Man VS Nature (This may be monsters, or just the world) and Man VS Self (Very difficult to do in RP (particularly with more players), but often very satisfying…doppelgangers do NOT count as Self! 🙂 )

Once a story-line is made, then you will need to turn it into an adventure.  There are lots of ways to do this, but lets look at a low detail version, a high detail one and a middle detail one.

  • For the low detail, you just need to come up with your antagonist, the goal of said antagonist, and the resources available to accomplish it.
    • But wait!  Can a Man VS Nature have an antagonist?  Of course!  the Volcano/earthquake/hurricane/flood/jungle may not Decide to interfere with the heroes and their goals, but it does anyway.
    • Many Nature stories feature time as a resource of the antagonist…usually the heroes are  running against the inexorable and may not have enough time to complete their task!  Once you understand that, throw the players in the mix!  you just need to figure out how the bad guy responds.  Done.
  • This usually requires a strong understanding of your game mechanics and your setting as well as the ability to improvise responses.
  • A high level of detail would start with the basics, as above, but you may define specific resources, perhaps even down to the number of wagons and oxen the evil baron has, so you can keep track of the attrition afflicted by your meddlesome players.
    • It requires you to work out at least partial stat blocks for the bad guy (as above), but also his support and at least generic supporting cast.
    • You can work out a flow chart that addresses each scene/event and direct the players along it.  Maybe each encounter has a very positive outcome, a positive outcome, a neutral outcome, a negative outcome and a very negative outcome (one step above Total Party Kill (TPK)) and each of those lead to the next event on your story arc.  This method can be very gratifying visually, and perhaps some events might only have two outcomes (did they get it, did they fail to get it) and others may have more.  This makes it quite easy to play out as you can see what has been accomplished what effect each success or failure has had on events and so on, but can be frustrating because you come up with all of these options and the players may get very lucky (or skillful) and blow right through your chart, leaving all of these cool ideas to never see the light of day!  (A common hazard of the world building GMs!)
  • Finally you might create beat or point arc.  This is not as loose as the first version, but much simpler than the last version.
    • Here, you take your villains goals, and determine a vague idea of where your players can affect them.  Maybe they will have one chance before the boss battle, or maybe they will have three, and if successful with a key one of those, they will add one more.
    • When building this version, remember that each point along the story or each beat of the adventure should have a fairly direct consequence on the outcome.  It should weaken the players or the big bad, or strengthen them.
    • Information about the weakness, or even just learning of the next plot (particularly in a campaign) gives them some bonus against the enemy.
This single story adventure will be primarily Man VS Man. 

Homer III is a frontier planet of the Star Empire of New Rome, but a planetary non-citizen (read alien) has been capturing some of the intrepid citizens, draining them of fluids and leaving their desiccated husk draped across the archways of their villas.  However, the citizens don’t know what is happening, they are just finding some of these farm holders in bizarre positions and bled dry.  Is it an alien infection?  is it an  enemy of the Empire?  Who knows.  SO the Proconsul has contacted his senator and requested aid from the Empire to protect the Citizens and deal with this…thing.

  OK. We have a story that is focused, has some intrigue and some sort of confrontation in the end.  Obviously I need to figure out some details, but we have the basics.  One of my first considerations is characters.  However, characters are the topic of the second post, so we will cover that in more detail later!

Characters are considered, and perhaps discussed.  Now you need to work out the story  details:

If I am going to build the simple version, I simply need an understanding of Homer III, and I need to define this Man-Spider Alien.  Does it have access to Empire level science?  perhaps it is a wholly primitive hunter, or a bit of both, ala Predator?  I need to stat it at least partially.  If it is alone, how is it capturing these citizens?  Do I want to throw in a few hints of a possible disease?  Perhaps the proconsul is ill when the cohort arrives…  It’s goal is to drive the Empire from its world so it can hatch its eggs in the upcoming rainy season.  It is a member of a hunting pack, while not quite as intelligent as normal humans, it is quite clever.

In a detailed story I want to cover many possibilities.  I will start with them meeting the proconsul, who is showing signs of a wasting disease.  He will give them the information available, and explain that the Empire has never sent the normal Janissaries or the phalanx troop so the colonist are fairly vulnerable to issues such as these.  If the players examine the proconsul, they will find he has a rare form of space cancer…one that requires high empire level medicine to cure…but it can lead to a wasting type illness, but it has never shown itself to be contagious before.  If they try to send for information on the security detail they will have to wait 3 days for the response, and are then told that one should have been formed, are they sure?  Eventually (enough successful negotiations) they will have a detail formed and sent, but it will take time to actually form, drill and deploy them…during this time at least one more colonist will show up dead.  If they go to investigate the villas, they will find that all but the most recent have been scrubbed clean by the slaves.  the most recent however, has had one of the slaves, a non-citizen of local stock disappear.  The wife has gone to her fathers, so only the caretaker is left. He can tell what he saw, when the thing left his master in the archway.  Knowing that the story can’t go on without some clue, if the players don’ talk with him, they can find a drag trail leading up to the villa.  with enough success, they can tell it is recent, that there was two sets of foot prints, and that the drag marks represent bare toes…and there is a dried trail of some sort of liquid .

But, to keep from working out all of the rest of the details, i would finish this with a mid level of detail.  Taking what was already detailed above with this:  I want 5 adventure beats.  The first is the interview with the proconsul.  the second is the evaluation of the most recent villa.  Next is the site of the killing, then is the tracking of the big bad, and finally the final confrontation.  Again, to keep the story going, we know that none of these can lead to a complete dead-end (unless it leads to a return to the main story line…maybe the tracking point, but that would then strengthen the enemy by giving them one more victim)  To workout the rest of this game, I need to create an impact for each point.  If the players are successful they weaken the enemy, or get something to use against it.  If they fail, then the benefit the enemy or hinder their own cause.  And because it has been presented, i might overlay every beat with a virus threat…but they might be able to mitigate that at some point.

Alright!  hopefully next week, I will post the next part of setting up an adventure, the Characters!! Keep in mind that when using the medium detail style for campaigns, each beat can be a complete adventure built like this.  Like a bead on a string, that can be examined and expanded into the beads on a string of this post!

If you have questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll try to get you an answer!

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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!

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!)

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!