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!

 

 

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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!

 

Jeepers, fella’s! It’s the cops!

In last post, I suggested ways to deal with troublesome characters but only as a pure thought experiment.  In this post I want to give an example of how you could apply the thoughts in different settings.  So, in each of the next paragraphs, I am going to consider this situation:  A character murders a low-level street thug, who turns out to be a chosen of a local crime boss.  The simple assumptions that will hold in each setting are that the constabulary are generally a law-abiding bunch who do their job because the think it is important to have a just and lawful society.  The murder took place in a waterfront alley, in the dead of night.  It was quick so their was minimal sign of struggle. The thug was murdered because he caused the character to lose face with his companion, which is important to him.  The character is not a professional killer, but is knowledgeable on the ways of police practice.  The local crime boss has a few “Friends” with the constables, but cannot expect them to out-right break the law…but he has a few minions of whom that is their specialty.  He is not the Capo of the area, so he is restricted on the amount of mayhem he can raise without repercussions from both sides of the law. So, given these situations, which of course will usually take place completely off-screen, unless your players are the constables (which is a whole different article unless they carried out the murder and are trying to sabotage the investigation from the inside…) you can make a quick decision based on how you want to deal with the character….and then you can even explain what happened!

1st, we will look at a fantasy setting.  This is a typical mid-high fantasy setting, so magic is not uncommon.  The constables, with the exception of the King’s Sheriff and his hand-picked deputies are the city militia, who, for day-to-day patrolling, answer to the Sheriff before the commander of the watch.  Murders happen regularly in this small city, and the patrols do their best to set it to rights.  The law is handled first by the Sheriff, but allows appeals to the God of Justice, who does not always judge only on the crime at hand.  Anyone who appeals to the God, turns over their fate to the will of his priests with no recourse afterwards.  The first thing the patrols do, is question around and see if anyone noticed anything.  In the set up-the only thing noticeable was the loss of face, so except on an exceptional die roll they will not find anything.  The Crime boss however wants vengeance for his chosen son, so sets out all of his watchers and ruffians to dig up what they can.  Their tactics are a bit more direct, so they have a 50/50 chance of finding at least the defacing incident.  If they do that, then they have a good chance, say 3 in 4, of confronting the killer.  Where it goes from there is a role play (with a bit of roll-play) event.  Because of a “donation” to the sheriff, he send his deputies to the mages guild to request a magical investigation.  In some worlds, they might be able to call the spirit of the deceased and ask him about the last day of his life, but such necromancy is seriously frowned upon, so they have a mage perform some psychometry to see what they can find.  If the mage is successful, they may have a decent lead.  If he is not, or if he is but the magic didn’t let him find much (such as seeing through the victims eyes his last few moments so only gets a quick wire around his neck…maybe a ring or distinctive scar on a hand), they don’t have much.  If he is found by the sheriff and the “good” guys, he will face a sentencing by the sheriff and then the option of facing judgment by the priests of justice (who, of course have many ways of finding “the truth”).  So, the player may face the block, prison, or at least burning several favors.  If they are found by the crime boss…he will probably be ambushed and join his victim.  And If he survives, the boss may take it up with the capo of the area…

What about a futuristic setting?  Lets replace the waterfront with a spaceport on the fringes of the New Roman Solar Empire.  While science can replace magic as above, it seems unlikely that they would have the possibility of summoning the spirit of the deceased, so they need to rely on the purely physical.  Ever hear of Clarkes third law?  Using this , you can use the exact same logic as above.  However, the setting is sufficiently different as to need a different approach.  Law is dispensed from the representative of the local senator and his Praetura Sentries.  Assuming the victim was a citizen, then he will be given proper attention and the killer will be ruthlessly sought.  So, was the killing observed by a small patrolling Security Drone?  Maybe not, as this is an out-of-the-way planet, but it is near an imperial spaceport…so it was likely to be caught on a camera, or at least the confrontation between the victim an his killer.  What about a DNA trace tool?  Well, hopefully the killer disposed of the tool.  Oh, he did?  well, what DNA/Pheromone/epithelials were left on it?  He destroyed it entirely?  Good.  But, what about the crime boss.  He has access to drugs and brain scans, and is not above bringing anybody with a questionable past, who would be afraid to report to the Sentries, in to interrogate what happened.  If you, as a ref, want the killer to be found, you can.  There are lots of ways to get there…and don’t forget divine providence.  The Senate will likely rely on omens and divination as well.  Or, you can leave it to a dice roll and assign a chance of being found.  Once he is arrested, then he faces trial with all the evidence.  Then punishment.  Maybe, if the killer is a citizen as well, he is banished and all possession given to the victim’s family.  If he is not a citizen, then perhaps the local coliseum games have a new event to come!

The whole point is not to have to take a great deal of game time out to punish characters for breaking the local rules.  Just realize, that as ref, if you feel the need to remind players that they are  living in a society, their actions have consequences.  As you can see, you have reasonable tools to use with just a little thought.  And, the investigation can run and cause problems for the characters during their main adventure.  Or, it can be the adventure itself!  The worlds we create to play these games are not always the wild west solving every problem with a pistol.  Sometimes that is exactly what they are, but…it is not the only way to deal.  Either way, it is important that your players are aware of the social mores and restrictions that their characters would know, otherwise you may be meting out very arbitrary punishment!

Murder is Bad, um-kay?

Ways to deal with Characters in the setting

Before I go into this post, I want to explain something…I am not posting a (directly) world building article.  But, there are a couple of reasons for that.  1st…I wanted to post this article.  Second, World building is a HUGE topic.  As far as RPGs go, it really is setting building, so any of the “Ecology” articles will be relevant.  What are people looking for?  The various and assorted dregs of ideas that I use to build new settings?  Tools to build world/universe maps? Building stories and plot arcs?  I guess I set the question too broad…So, I will be posting another poll…but it will be a fill in the blank…What kind of things do YOU want to see?  And lastly…what do you think of my new layout?  I might be playing around with them a bit in the near future.  Please NOTE: The hexes at the top Right are the menu’s!

Now…to the point!

One of the issues that ref’s have is dealing with disruptive characters.  The player is usually fine, but the character is causing problems (usually a psych type motivation or maybe a bestest) .  The fighter who gets into fights with the least provocation…not with fellow PCs, but with NPCs…bar patrons, thugs, etc.  The thief who feels the need to pickpocket every merchant they see, and relies on quick feet when the roll fails…the assassin who routinely murders people because they look at them cross-eyed.

None of these are necessarily BAD character types, but they can make for disruptive games.  So, what can you do?  Actually quite a lot, ranging from the “settle down” comment to the player, to the Blue bolt from the sky, leaving only a smoking pair of boots! (Yes, even if the character was barefoot…but that is a bit of a more  gruesome sight…)  But, this post has a bit of world building to it, so let me lean on that.   I have already addressed some of the problems of the troublesome player, and will assume you have taken care of that.

The first thing is character boundaries.  I have discussed the need for building a team of characters.  So, the first thing to do, if your character wants to play a low down murdering scum bounty hunter / assassin, but your game is about lawful obedience to gods of light…you might veto the character.  OR you might sit with the player, explain the arc, and see if this character can be led to a path of redemption.  If that works, then you have a hook…the first priest who assigns the task has seen this poor urchin, and charges one of the paladins to convert him from his heathen and un social ways!  (sorry…we are not worried about hooks…but that one was too easy!)  If the character doesn’t fit the adventure, find out what appeals to the player and see if you can fit their wants into a character that does fit.  Or, would everybody rather play a dark and EVIL campaign…(I will cover EVIL campaigns sometime).  I won’t go into this discussion for now, we already have a given that the PLAYER is not the problem.  The next, and perhaps most important thing, is societal boundaries.  One of the biggest jobs for a ref is to try to suspend disbelief in a game about the Ahlflin, a small creature with small eyes, big ears and Huge teeth, who is driving the living spaceship at 100 times the speed of light through the heart of a black hole in pursuit of one of the mighty space dragons.  Part of that suspension  is to represent the society in which they live.  And society has rules.  I am not talking LAWS and I am not going to get on my high horse about legislation and morals…Rules for people to live together.  No matter the setting, Killing people is bad.  Behavior that disrupts society is BAD,  and every society has a way to enforce that.  A society is any group of people.  a party of 4 have their own society.  And they have ways of enforcing it.  A star faring civilization of trillions of souls have a different society.  The general rule is that the larger the society, the more rigid the standards.  It is ok for a single couple to live however they wish, doing what ever they wish…but, when millions are involved, the rules are more restrictive to keep order, if not peace.  So…how does this play to RPGs and reffing?  ENFORCE THE RULES!

I am not talking about the game book.  I am talking about the society.  If someone attacks a city militia member, they will be, at the least, shunned.  If no one saw it, and the perpetrator ensured their were no witnesses, then the militia/guard will increase their patrols…either nobody traveling alone or more often patrolling the area.  If entire guard patrols are wiped out, then every available guard will be called out…they may fail morale checks, and for a while, your characters may rule a town out of fear…but that leads to secretive enemies, who may try to murder them…and eventually, they will send for a band of adventurers to deal with these evil tyrants.  What about Assassins?  OK.  You allow assassins in your games, fine.  Do you also include guilds, or are they all self-employed and freelance? Either way, the establishment will likely not appreciate people working “their turf”  without sanction…and any assassin worth the title won’t kill for free…and they then becomes a target of the locals.  Thieves and pirates will draw the ire of law enforcement.  People who don’t pay the graft to the keepers of the shadow market will be separated from their outlet…at least!

How can you catch the player who is breaking these societal norms?  Investigation!  Somebody will be in charge of seeking out the ne’er-do-wells.  How can they find them?  What tools do they have?  Magic?  Science?  Divine guidance?  What value is magic in criminal investigation? How difficult is it to kill someone when you can bring in the local necromancer to ask the spirit of the victim who killed them?  So how does your murderer keep the spirit from speaking…oh what games just that trail of crumbs could lead to!   What about a theocratic society, based upon a pantheistic belief?  They may use Paladins of the god of justice to investigate crimes.  Priests of the goddess of Revenge to carry out punishment.  Temple of the Patron of Slavers to deal with sentencing.  Technology…extrapolate any CSI type show.  In short, you can use whatever tools available to carry out enforcement of rules.  Maybe is just the Biggest thug that hangs out at the dock…for a few coins, he visits the perpetrator with a whack-bonk.  (What’s a whack-bonk?  A leather bag filled with lead shot…whack someone upside the head, and you hear a bonk as the head bounces off the floor!).  Maybe it is hiring gunslinger from San Francisco…he has a gun, and he travels!  Summoned Demons?  Summoned Angels?  Created bio hunters that track a single DNA pattern that never sleeps?  Or just calling the police.  All of these can be used to keep players in line.  Your game, no matter the setting will have some rules and some punishments.  It may range from a death sentence by stoning for any infraction, to banishment, to weregild  Man has inflicted some harsh punishments upon other men throughout history.  Sometimes it is just because they were the enemies…but sometimes they were enemies because they couldn’t live in the rules of their society.

Simply put, think about the society.  What are the rules of that society?  How are the rules enforced? And then have your society enforce them!

 

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

Role for a roll

This is Part TWO…Go HERE for Part One!!!

Since this is part two, I am not going to rehash the basics of Roll vs Role playing.  In the first part we discussed the more social aspects, those that would seem to be more applicable to ROLE playing, so in this I am going to go over the more mechanic aspects, or those things that might be more easily resolved via ROLL playing.

Lets open the discussion with the old dungeon delvers worst fear…(No not dragons…or undead who drain life force, or creatures that ruin your armor, or…OK, maybe not worst fear), Traps!  As a ref, you can put many different kinds of traps in your dungeons, or on your alien star ship, or on your treasure cubes…whatever.  They generally fall into two broad types.  The simple stated trap, or the detailed multistage, self resetting type.  But, they both have problems:  The simple trap: when the players cross this point they will need to roll initiative against a poison dart type.  OK, you player with sharp eyes rolls well enough to notice the trigger plate/trip wire/eye beam whatever.  Yes, they can all avoid it, now that the trigger is pointed out.  But they want to disable it, so it will not bother them when they leave.  OK…what is the trigger.  Well, now you need to come up with one…you decide it’s a trigger plate.  OK…can we slide a shim under it, or short-circuit it?  um…well…there is no skill for putting shim under trigger plate…So, have them roll a Disarm Traps!  YEA!  “You coulda just rolled for it in the first place,” you grumble…

What about the trap you spend time detailing each of the actions and triggers to make even Rube Goldberg proud.  When they trip the trip wire, it frees up the trigger plate, so that when it is stepped on, the bucket of sand in the wall tips over, which works the bellows, which blows out the solid wax seal which blows down the calliope tube sending forth a hail of poison darts…”Oh, a trap!  I will roll my disable complex device skill!”  um…ok…you disable the trip wire…roll a notice trap…as you can see, they can, if they see each step, bypass your well thought out plan with a roll…that is not what you want…You wanted them to track the trip wire to the trigger plate, the trigger plate to the sand…and so on, then let them create a way to completely disable the trap, with a discussion AND a character appropriate eye…maybe the local rogue just wants to locate each of the holes and pull out the darts…or remove the wax plug…or…or…but, if you can’t design a trap worth beans, and your characters have no trap disarming skills, do they still fall in the yawning 20′ deep pit with spike and hunger rats at the bottom?

Here you see the Roll vs Role in a mechanical setting.  And it can be just as game breaking as the social issues.  This same issue can be encountered dealing with anything from horse riding to piloting a spaceship.  If you, as a ref or scenario designer, have a great idea to provide a challenge it may or may not be resolvable in either manner.  Say you need the players to slingshot around a black hole.  We will not worry about what other tools or tricks you may have used to get them there…we are just worried about that piece.  As far as your concerned, it will be a matter of building enough success on a piloting roll before too many failures are accumulated and they are spagetified…But, the player of the pilot of the ship is an astrophysicist in real life, which is why he chose a pilot…he knows his stuff.  He wants to actually calculate the trajectory for a single near pass, gaining whatever speed he needs, thus making it at worst, a one roll on mathematics…Do you let him?  In this case, I’d say yes.  The player is playing to a strength of the character (not the player) and is willing to risk the decision in an all or nothing single roll.  This meets the tension needed for the encounter, as well as forces the characters to come up with solutions that either you hadn’t thought of, or make more sense, because you are not a Sufi mystic!

Usually, as far as these kinds of challenges go, you can work either way, if the risk is maintained, but like I said in part 1, for mechanical interactions, rely on dice and character, no player, skill.  For interpersonal interactions, rely on the dice, but modify the difficulty or the result (depending on your game system) by the players input.  That is a good rule of thumb.  But there are caveats and rules for it as well.  The reason I recommend using a dice roll and players skill in mechanical interactions is because then, YOU don’t have to out-think another PLAYER.  If you can or not should have no bearing on the characters chances with a situation that you as ref, had no direct part in.  Even though you said there is a trap here, or a wall to climb here, or a slippery slope here, you did not build the trap, the wall, or the slope.  Natural or man-made, you can provide hints to a player:  This wall is shear and quite smooth…the room is littered with bones, and the floor has hundreds of small holes…the slope is covered in scree with a rare plant root sticking though, and that looks like a bit of a sword…These clues do not require the PLAYER to modify their characters actions, but indicates what sort of DIFFICULTY they will be facing.  All of that being said, it does kind of limit some of your options…so the Ol’ RefMentor will offer some advice to include these hindrances and still make them a challenge.  Please note, that unfortunately, a lot of these suggestions will definitely limit the use of a Disable Traps skill.  Because of that, lets start with a brief discussion of that skill and its many variations

This skill is quite common, and that is because Ref’s love traps.  Whether the skill is called Disable Device, or disarm trap, or gimmickry, or defaults to lock pick or stealth, they all allow a character to pull out his trusty screwdriver and wedge, and stop a trap from working.  I do not usually allow this skill for use on anything but the likes of box or door traps.  A small metallic box with a poison pin that pops out if the key is not used, or a door that sounds an alarm when opened type traps.  First, the character must find the trap or at least know it ts there.  Then, I will allow them to use the skill to depress the tumbler at the back that stops the pin, or slide a bit of chewing gum wrapper into the alarm sensor.  Usually allowing a failure to not disarm/bypass it requiring an improvement of skill or another roll with a penalty or whatever the system you using requires…but on a fumble, or critical fail…the trap is set off.  This keeps this skill and it has its importance.  But for large traps, then skills such as construction, or engineering or programming are used.  But…lets look at another option!

As I mentioned in the last post, Riddles don’t work.  Traps don’t really work either.  You should come up with a way to make traps that are self resolving.  What does this mean?  Well…let me give you an example, that I have actually used.  The players come into a temple in a dungeon.  But nothing tells them it is a temple.  the floor is littered with bones, there are hundreds of holes in the floor, a door at either end, one of which they came in, and two obvious recesses on the other walls.  In the center of the floor is something that looks like a ship dog wheel, but there is no outer ring…just the inner spokes.  What is it?  With the right information before they came, they might have know that a particular command word lighted the temple.  The players didn’t have that.  If they had, and they used the command word, the two doors would have sealed, and the recesses would have opened, revealing the altars and treasures within.  Since they didn’t have that, they could have just left.  They decide to inspect the recesses and see that it appears they may open…well, there is that wheel in the middle…when they turn it, the doors slam shut and uncomfortable hot water begins filling in through the floors.  once the water is about waist-high, the bones form skeletons that attack!  the skeletons are hardly hindered at all by the water resistance.  Not the case or the players…what about the dwarf and the halfling?  The water raises to about 5 feet deep and stops.  It remains until the last skeleton is defeated, breaking the magic, dropping the wheel in the middle, but now opening all doors to ensure there is no water in the room of the holys.  A fairly dangerous trap, but completely avoidable.  But, surviving the trap is a second way to get to the altars.  What happens if they pull the wheel again?  Care to guess?

What about, like CRPGs, you use the “Find the blue key to open the Blue Door” puzzle.  It can make for effective traps, because you can have them being chased, and if they get to the blue door without it, then they are trapped and must face this overpowering enemy.  Chases are great for this, and yes, the chaser can be a giant stone ball rolling down the corridor!  If the characters bypass a pool of acid (James Bond, or old school dungeon, it doesn’t matter) by walking along the narrow ledges at the side, but later are running from a giant stone ball…how do they negotiate the acid pit?  do they try to jump it, or leave the corridor by jumping through he door leading to a dark unexplored pit?  A trap should have a way for the builders to bypass it, unless they sealed themselves beyond it forever.  What about a room next to a corridor, that they can see into, and it has several levers connected to chains going into the ceiling, but the window is only wide enough to look out of…and is that a dead Gungar setting in the chair next to that lever…with a copy of PlayOrc?

Mechanical…bypass obviously or simply…a lever lifts the portcullis…now how to get to it on the other side of the gate?  the floor shifts as you walk on it, but the center point of the pivot can be found, and leapt past…Big traps are for encountering…Little traps are for skill checks!

Any questions?

Where the party at

Where the party at?

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

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

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

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

Rule 2: Make it a Party!

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

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

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

Rule 4: Something to do, Somewhere to go

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

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

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