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!


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

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 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!

Lets make a Stalk setting

This episode of RefMentor is brought to you by the garden of imaginary things…where game settings come from!

The Ecology of the Setting

Recently I was asked by a young GM about his setting.  He had a map and had started a timeline.  Great beginning, but he was trying an unorganized top down design.  And, if you have ever tried that…you know it can get out of hand very quickly!  So, here is a method that I recommended to him.  The analogy is not great, but it does work.  It is really a middle out built, disguised as top down.  Let me try to set up the idea:

When you are creating a setting, you have lots of ideas that you want in it.  so, you throw out a bunch of seeds and let them grow.  Hopefully you can tell the difference from the weeds and the planted seeds…and what if the seeds don’t work well together…so I recommend that you plant a central stalk of your setting, and then associated pieces can bud and branch off that central stalk!  OK.  That is the very general  description that might not make any sense, so now I will, as I often do, go into more detail, then try to give an example.  Granted, the topic of a setting in the length of the se posts is daunting, but if you want more, let me know…I’ll work on detailing it more!

When you are building  a setting…and for this purpose, I am not going to touch on game system, as that is a later decision that should have minimal influence on this step of your setting, you have ideas for what you want to play.  Sometimes it is a couple of things you want to see, and other times it is lots of ideas that you want to be present.  The first step is make a decision about what is the most important aspect of your story.  Map? A Culture? A business? Magic? Technology?  A language?  Whatever it is, that will be your stalk…the central trunk of your setting design.  Once you have your stalk, then you are going to build it, let it grow beyond what you think you might need.  As you build the central core idea, you will have things, little branches that will act as hooks for all of your other ideas.  Try not to worry about making them, and when you see them, make a not of them rather than try to make them complete branches.  Once, you get this stalk built, when you are satisfied that nothing else would add to what you have, then…Take a break!  Seriously…Take a break away from this…get a drink…find a distraction…play a game or ref another game.  This is important because when you come back to it your fresh.  Re-examine what you have.  Decide if it still is what you want to use.  If it is, decide if there is something you want to add to it.  Do it as needed.  THEN…find the natural breaks. A map has natural boundaries…large mountain ranges, oceans, big rivers.  A culture has breaks, when governments change, or borders expand.  Each of these natural breaks should be considered as a place to splice in the next piece of your setting.  Now…look at what you had identified as hooks/tags/branches before and add these new breaks to it.  If you have other ideas that you want to see, look and see if they will hang off of one of these natural places.  If not, do you have a place that you want it to be?  Then force a break in the stalk and put it in!  That shouldn’t change the main part of your stalk, but you may find, if you review everything, that maybe the stalk has a few things that make more sense to be changed with this new influence.  I would suggest that you work more on tying those ideas to the natural places, but if just won’t work then shove it in there!

This is where you develop those ideas that you wanted in there…remember that an idea may branch completely off from the main stalk and never touch it again, or it may wrap around the stalk and twine in and out of it.  This method allows you to keep a focus on what is important. Don’t be afraid of free association…maybe, in building this, you may find a branch actually becomes a new stalk!  Ideas can build on each and every branch and always reach back to another one…the natural world has all of these weird interconnections, why can’t your imagination place?!  The biggest concern when using this is to get carried away!  Not that is a bad thing, but if you get to far from the central stalk, the more work you are doing.  In some cases, you may be developing a setting for years or even the rest of your life.  Other times, you are creating a setting, to tell one story (which of course should be your stalk) so you don’t need to go far from it.  Put as much work into it as you want, but this technique will allow you to be certain you have what you want, and may reveal interesting new options that never occurred to you before!

Now…an example…Obviously just a stalk itself could take pages, but I hope this will illustrate the point.  I’ve mentioned a setting that is roman empire in space.  Well…that statement right there gives me the important stalk.  Obviously I want an interstellar civilization that is based upon early roman democracy.  So, I start with the stalk and it will go something like this: The Empire never fell.  The madness of the Ceaser’s was cured by divine magic and they ruled for a millennia.  Because Rome remained in power, and because of divine cures, the polytheistic belief system kept Christianity and other monotheistic beliefs on the sidelines, but they have always had active followers.  Because of this, the dark ages didn’t happen, so technology has advanced more rapidly, putting the tech tree about 200 years ahead…computers in the mid 17th century…The empire eventually dominates the world, opposed by a small but significant guerrilla movement in the far east, and a resolute native American (Indian, Mexican) forces. resistance.  Like the original Romans, they would have citizenship rules, castes and slaves…And on and on…it would obviously need to have a general timeline, the discovery of FTL drive, the Planet of New Rome, current home of the Senate, and so on…

Now we look at the timeline.  We see a guerrilla movement in Asia…so, let’s have a rogue theft of an early FTL by a Chinese agent…and they have formed a small, but resolute alliance of worlds.  So the guerrilla have become a full force, and the American resistance has overthrown a few planets, but these are backwater, frontier types that the Roman  Stellar forces and the Asian Universal Alliance cannot afford forces to take back over, but they both impose trade sanctions…and these rebel ships are considered pirates and smugglers in any non-rebel systems.  So, now we have the Cowboy/lawless feel of the rebellion, but they specialize in stealth tech and maneuverable ships.  But they make few breakthroughs because whenever they get big enough to do the required research, the site becomes a target…

There we have it…just a few minutes of thought, and much less than the minimum of work on the stalk, and we have a divinely guided Roman stellar empire, opposed by a resolute force of Asians…that still need a lot of fleshing out.  As well as rebel cowboy spies…with fashion and culture defined primarily by the Roman empire…and, as I set here writing , I see so many possibilities…A Star Wars variant…a Firefly variant…A Space Spies game…Roman Star explorers…

And with that little bit done, I could start a bottom up detail level and write specific adventures with a well established setting to reach back to for support.  Still a lot of work, but it can spark ideas, and maybe a new hobby of world/universe building! (Something that will always help an aspiring Ref!)


As Always:

That’s my Story…Take it or Leave it…My Trucker buddies, they believe it!

The Dynamics of “The Team”

Let’s do a bit of consideration of your game team…Some of the ideas that I cover here I will probably cover in greater detail at another time, but this has been on my mind as of late.  The “Game Team” I am referring to is not, necessarily, the archetypal characters that populate your character slots, but the players of your game, and you must remember that as a game ref, you are part of that team.  I’ve said earlier that without a ref, the game doesn’t happen.  Well, that’s also true of players.  I know there are RPGs out there that dispense with the ref in a free-form style, and some of those are really good, but this is a blog for ref’s, so I am ignoring those for right now.

In a later post I will discuss the types of players and why it is important, but here, I am going to make some, fairly obvious, observations on the gross mechanics of how a group works and things you can use or avoid.  These will include the size of your group, the need (or lack thereof) for blue-booking, and encouraging feedback.

Let me start with the size of your gaming group.  As you are probably aware, I prefer smaller groups and have played primarily (hours of game-wise) with My Lady Wife as the only Player.  I will do a whole post on single player games, so I just want to sketch out some observations.  With Smaller groups, simply because players get more relative “Stage-Time,” you can play much more character driven games, or even into the Epic game.  And because there is less wait-time between player “turns,” you can be much more rigid about the rules and all of the subtle nuances that the designer has built-in to reflect more unique situations.  As the group gets larger, the time between “turns” becomes greater, so the faster you can get through each characters action, the sooner each person has their next action.  Also, some games are designed and balanced for parties of more characters so the system itself can help support or hinder, your number of players.  How bout some ‘fer instances?”

OK.  If your players are involved in a grand battle between their characters and a small hoard of ravening trall, how could the combat go?  Well one character could sing their battle hymn, design an attack strategy that the rules support, begin their stealth maneuver,then attempt the ambush, then perform the attack.  Even if the rule system is quite abstract, the player and/or ref could embellish on what the 6 HP of damage were.  Or they could run up behind one and back stab it, next player.  While the first may be taken advantage of rules provided or just being very verbose as to their actions, it would often take a while between their description, the implementation, and perhaps the rules reference required, it is long and cumbersome when laid against the much more abstract: OK roll D20, stealth check good, roll the back stab…Is one better than the other?  Depends on your gamers…but if you have 3 players and each of them are verbose, the difference between that and 6 or 8 players…well…It could take 30 minutes to just get every players action done!  That is a lot of downtime between player actions!  So, group size can affect play style.

What about player experience?  That makes a lot of difference.  If you have players who are completely new, then a lot of concepts and rule implementations will need to be explained.  Again, really new players work great for simple rule systems, or just abstracting the rules.  Much more experienced players may want very in-depth stories and even backgrounds…so this can not only affect play style, but design style.  This can also lead to blue-booking questions…Do your players understand the difference between player and character knowledge?  Do they demonstrate it?  Is it a big deal to you as ref?  Sometimes, particularly in hell games, you might rely on players using player knowledge to get the game going.  And of course, many games are started with the mystical Player radar…where the characters join up with otherwise complete strangers because the both reached for the last bottle of bay rum after their shave!

If your characters are all experienced, and all play they same voice (narrative or character) and the are really good about separating player and character knowledge, then you still have to look at what they want from your game…why are they at your table.  Sometimes, its buffet food….just feed me all I can eat!  Don’t care if it is really palatable, sometimes it is for distinct and nuanced environment and character interaction…yup!  Another problem.  Given all of these issues, how can you, as a ref, ever hope to “Give Good Game?”  Well…

TALK!  It is that simple.  Make sure you talk with your players, make sure they talk to you…make sure they talk to each other!  Sometimes it will be a matter of all but one player getting what they want.  In that case, can you plan on a later game focused on that players desire that the other players can enjoy, even if it is not what they want?  It is a big compromise, just like life.  To use one of my outrageous examples:  As a ref, you have created a space roman empire game full of weird planets, detailed politics, volatile NPCS, and a 30 game story arc…but if your players are in the mood for dungeon crawl hack n’slash…probably everybody will be disappointed.  I am not going to teach you to be diplomats, but…you scratch their back, while they are scratching each others…and overall everybody has a good time!

Until the next one…

From the trenches

Where we look at Bottom up design

Bottom up design, as we have discussed before, is a method of world building, or adventure building that starts with local detail and adds details about the greater area as needed.  For an exaggerated example, I will design a starting adventure in the fictional New Roman Empire that I looked at in the last post.

We are going to create an adventure on the Gloriana,Centurion class frigate.  To start this method, we need an idea of how we want our story to go.  So, it will be a murder mystery, where one of the officers was killed while in transit stasis.  So, with just this, we need to create a rank structure, a deck plan, a crew compliment, and at least a general outline of the cohort aboard the Gloriana.  We will also need to detail the murder as to work out what clues will be available to the players.

We could have the characters woken while everyone else is in stasis, but assuming the killer altered whatever monitoring devices are available, that would make it difficult.  So, they will be woken, just before everyone else so they can be briefed about their duties.  There is a time limit imposed because they will need to solve it before they arrive, or face judgement for failing a mission…oh, that leaves us to design a legal system so we can work out the rewards or punishment.

We need to detail all of the major NPCs, we can broad stroke the bit players.  Assuming that we don’t need to modify or create any rules, then we have a complete adventure…oh…except we might need to work out a few planets to create the non-human slave races on the  ship.  Which will make us detail some of their culture.  But other than that…we have an adventure…

To turn this into a whole setting, which is our goal, we need to expand this.  But for right now…we are done.  One of the biggest benefits of the Bottom Up style is we have all the details we need for an adventure and anything that comes up, we can start hanging on all of those empty hooks outside of the ship…other planets, different slave races, the planet that is mentioned in rebellion…the Flagship…”Wow!  This sounds like the perfect system for making a setting, why fight with the Top Down when you can build it as you need it?”  well….let me ‘splain…

This system takes work, but not as much as Top Down initially.  You end up doing the work in the bits that you need them rather than in anticipation.  Again, you say, so what?  If I am only doing the work that I need to do, then I have not over taxed myself!  Granted this is really the way most TV shows and even movies are written; just creating the information needed for each episode or installment.  This is where the problem can come in.  In your first adventure, the murder mystery, you decide that people are routinely wakened during transit stasis to ensure they maintain muscle tone, and purge the body of toxic build-up.  But, in a later adventure over a year later, you have a key part of an adventure revolve around someone who has been in transit stasis for over 100 years…May not be too difficult to reconcile, but if you had top downed, those details would have already been created.  What about if you identify the planet of Ragu II as having been purged from above due to a rebellion and that the Raguans make terrible slaves…a year later, you remember the name Ragu II and decide to have a ship commanded by one of its residents.  But, even though you mentioned it in passing in response to a player question, the player made a note of it because it seemed vitally important.  Well, now you need to either explain your mistake, or correct it by saying they were from Macarone II not Ragu II (or some such!)

The biggest problem with bottom up comes from having to make disjointed pieces fit.  I’m sure you have seen a favorite TV show that violates its own canon once, and never addresses it, or they need to create a lame reason that this instant was different.

OK…that should define both of the broad styles of creation.  Next article will talk about other benefits and problems by comparing them, and talk about how you can get the best of both worlds with only a bit more work to start!

That’s the story…Take it or leave it…My trucker buddies…They believe it!

View From Above

Where I delve into Top Down adventure construction

I touched on Top Down design in the Common Ground post.  This is designing your adventure or setting by looking at the “Big Picture” first and then designing each of the lower layers until you get to the fine details like family names, the Skorpion class cruisers that patrol the star lanes, and the Rusty Dragon Tavern.  I’ll hopefully illustrate this better with a hypothetical, and probably over the top example.  For this example, assume you have a game system that will fit perfectly for your idea:

The Triumph of New Rome: In our alternate history, Rome almost fell, but was saved through the brilliant, but savage, machinations of 1st emperor Narsis.  Now, the Roman Empire has advanced into a star faring culture.  How do we design this setting?

First, we need to figure out the extent of the Empire…how many planets does it control?  So, for each planet, we need to create some things…What is the planet like>? Desert and dual sun, or water with scattered islands….what about toxic atmosphere but very rich in resources?  So we design all of these worlds and give them names, and decide why the empire inhabited them.  What has happened to the natives, and how did they take to being subjugated by the Romans?  Well, we need to define that.  Oh, every planet has a population of citizens, slaves and subjugated natives.  So, we need to work out these natives, the populations and how many population centers there are.  Of course these places need names…

OK, now we have the empire, we of course need to decide why they haven’t expanded further?  Range?  Or bogged down on given planets?  Well, we need to define that.  But, if it is range, or simply resources, we need to figure out how travel works, and how big the starships are and their cargo…probably ought to work out what the standard method for pacifying worlds is, and is it more important to keep the slaves alive, or are the resources what drives them.

Well, we have the empire and the barest info on the starships.  Now we need to decide which of the planets are going to be important to the setting.  Well, All of them of course!  So for every planet, we need to work out the members of the senate there, what the lifestyle on that planet is, how many and how big the population centers are.

As you can see, top down can get VERY complex, as we haven’t even got a place for the characters to call home yet…assuming its Earth, a lot of information is already available, but we need to work out how it has changed with the New Roman Empire controlling it.  We need to work out the important people and buildings for the setting…what about any important members of the Senate, or the exiled General of the Praetorian who has recently acquired a Septus Class destroyer? Which of course we will need to name and map and work out crew and compliment… We haven’t  even worked out the significant dates in history that brought about this new Empire, yet!

The idea for Top Down is that whatever happens or whatever the players decide to do, you have already worked out what it could affect!  It is VERY labor intensive.   I usually work on a top down idea, but usually only about kingdom level down with a sketch of the world and a few notes about what is beyond.  The biggest benefit of this is it creates a very detail and believable setting that will always remain consistent.  As I have posted in my info, I tend to use this method, or this method with a shortcut. This is a great method to use when you are gaming in an Epic style, or if you are writing stories rather than adventures.  But when it comes to adventures, using this method, you can literally have ages worth of background and settings forever!

What are the downsides?  Well…LOTS of preparation.  Also, Lots of maintenance.  If you have a whole world going on outside of game, then you need to keep at least simple notes on its continued existence or it becomes stagnant.  When you tell a player that a queen from two kingdoms over just got assassinated, because that is the news of the day, and has nothing to do with your current game, next year, the queen cannot still be “Just assassinated!,” It could still be an undecided outcome, but SOMEBODY, and likely many somebodies, if you have built your Top Down correctly, has claimed the king’s hand!

Like everything else in reffing, this is a personal choice.  For the sake of completeness, the next post will be Bottom up, and then I will do a simple compare contrast.  Anybody have preferences of what to see after this short string?  Don’t worry..even without input, I have LOTS of post scheduled…just not certain what order to post them!

Thats my story…take it or leave it…My trucker budies…they believe it!