Ante Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

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.

The Burbling Lake

My Creative process

I have been behind posting new blogs, because, as you know if you are a regular reader, I am building a new campaign.   I have actually started another post, but it has stalled, so I figured I’d post about what I are doin’!  Before, I posted about how I build settings…and how I really use kind of a middle out system now.  Well…in this post, I’m going to walk through this creation.  There will probably be a few minor spoilers for my players, but nothing big, and besides, they know my dim view of metagaming! 🙂 

Please Note:  This is me trying to make a coherent and presentable presentation of my most recent creative endeavor…so…read it, then think about it….

First, I need to tell you that I have worlds and worlds of worlds always floating around in the back of my brain.  I kind of view it as a slowly undulating lake with these ideas floating to the top then sinking back down, with the occasional mutation or crossbreeding of the ideas.  And then there are the bubbles of toxic gasses.  Those create some very dark and twisted PC or NPC ideas that may or may not ever see the light of day.  A lot of these are PC ideas, that just Don’t Play Well With Others!  So, whenever somebody wants to change games, I am usually up for a new setting.   I just go sit by the lake a while and see what floats by!

Anyway, this setting has show up a few times.  It has recently been morphing into a Savage Worlds setting, but the desire was put forth for my current favorite Epic Game system, RoleMaster Standard System so I dredged it up and started examining it.  The Earliest iteration of this setting was a Roman trading outpost, near the edge of the empire.  From there, I decided I wanted to have an isolated setting, but I wanted to have places to explore…so…The Schism.  This isolated the city and it’s surroundings…I have a few ideas for what happened, but I haven’t decided exactly, but I do know what will be found beyond the ridge, and I have already worked out how to actually get back, but that is too big a spoiler.

Then I debated about having a King or ruling noble…or just the old office of the governor, and came up with a compromise that leaves a reasonable  but ineffective government.  The Grand Council was actually going to be rotating seats every year, so over 20 years all 20 seats would be replaced…but that just seemed to long, so I settled on having them all be re-elected at the 10 year point.  Of course, game takes place near the upcoming election…instant plot hooks!  It becomes almost ShadowRun Super Tuesday type setting (if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up, or I’ll gladly discuss in comments).  Of course, at the same time, Something is beginning to harass the outer settlements…and they need someone willing, or desperate enough to go deal with it.  On top of all of this, there is a war brewing between the Head of the local crime family, and one of his rivals.  Why?  Because that gives me three main story lines in the three quite playable settings: Politics, Crime and Exploration (even dungeon crawl…just don’t tell my players:) )  This is one of the main things I have discovered between Epic and Episodic RP: Epic, the world happens whether the players interact with it or not.  In Episodic, the stories revolve around the players.  Because this is epic, the players will get guidance or taskings, but they can always find their own things, or choose a single story-line to track to the end.

In a bottom Up style, I would detail each story line, (at least) the main characters and the point along that the players interact with; the adventures.  In a top down, I would eventually, define the interactions of all of these story lines, the main parties to the stories, which would include goals and desires…In my style, I create a general direction each one is going.  I see where they each link.  People are created as I need to carry the story along.  Specific locations and goals, the same.  I can do this without much trouble.  Whether it would work for you depends on how fast you can come up with fill in.  Also, some refs will find this much to haphazard.  But it works for me.  I still need to create some detail for particular pieces, but I spend time just visualizing the setting and the people, and imagining how things will play out.  For whatever stories the players are not following I generally assign a couple of dice rolls to see how things are progressing…something like:

01 – 40: Papa Delahni and family are stalemated by the upstart

41 – 90: Papa Delahni and family push back the upstarts

91 – 98: no real progress in made on either side

99 – 00: Monkey wrench! (A brassy is killed so the Policia are suddenly against both sides, a politician decides to get involved and starts offering support to one side or the other….

So, for me..that sets the stories up.  Now, I need some unique setting pieces.  SO I brainstorm…what makes this a unique place?  Well, it has two moons.  Yeah!  Good idea!  How does that affect their calendar?  hmmm…starts getting complicated…Wait!  One is stationary, so it has no effect on the dates!  Cool!  Why?  Welllllll…Oh!  It’s not a heliocentric setting!  GEOCENTRIC!!!  classical setting given the original concept, but how can I make it even more obvious without saying…oh…the universe revolves (except for the big moon which doesn’t) around the planet.  The sun!   Yes!  Not only does it revolve around the planet, but it has another axis that it revolves around!  From this point, the cosmology is all just string of consciousness, throwing out things that I don’t like, leaving open some possibilities (Is there a beanstalk to the stationary moon? Why?  is that relevant?  OH, a whole new story line…probably for higher level characters!) but discarding others (The moon is actually a giant observational lens…the world is under a microscope, literally!  no…overdone and i can’t make it not hokey…)

Now, the hard part…I have two players who are quite urban-centric and would easily work into the criminal story line (one of whom may have some exploration potential).  I have one character who could go Politics or exploration route, and I have an exploration character who would work into the criminal and maybe the political…I have ideas where these story lines will all intersect, but they don’t for a while.  So…Throw them together with disparate reasons to arrive at the same place…and then set up several hooks, and let them play.  I half expect them to stay together because they are PCs, but if they don’t…well, I have a few spare rails lying around, and a couple of fairly powerful engines…and I am ready for the train wreck and to deal with the aftermath.  I could have steered the players to create a single story line character type, and it may end up that way, but, RMSS allows for such extensive character detailing, that even if they all choose one story line, after a few levels, they could fit that mold.  And if it ends up that a character won’t fit, then, well…we will probably make a new character…but if many of them don’t work…

Hey!  I have an idea for a campaign!  It starts at an abandon outpost…the characters do not know why they are there….

True Neutral

(Well!  News!  You should be able to post without having a wordpress account now!  If you haven’t posted before, I might have to approve it first, but that should only happen once!)

Does the ref need to be absolute Neutral?

A recent game has had me reflect.  We had a conditional TPK.  TPK?  yep…Total Party Kill.  How do you get a “Conditional” one then?  Well…two players were available, the other two players were steel bucketed.  (Steel bucketing protects PC who cannot play.  They are impervious from death, but not from bad things…)  Anyway, the buckets of player stayed back with a REF PC (Yeah, another post…the difference between NPC, Ref Character and a PC played by the Ref…), and the others got involved in a situation that got them killed.  As Ref, I gave them a few fortunate breaks, which is definitely Character leaning, rather than neutral.  So, it got me to thinking: “Is it really the Ref’s job to be absolutely neutral, neither aiding the players or the black hats???”

Like so much else, it depends.  And this is one of those things that some Ref’s get really up in arms about,  so this is my take…but I will at least touch on other views, so you can make up your own mind.

For me, the answer is a definite NO!  Everyone is at the table to have fun, and that includes the ref.  Sometimes a ref feels sorry for the players, and the challenges drop in scale.  That way, the characters will survive, so no hard feelings, right?  Or what if the players have just pissed you off, whether on the table or in the game, so to get back, characters start dropping like flies.  That’ll learn ’em, right?  Both of these are the wrong reasons not to be neutral.  As a ref, you are a force of nature in the game worlds, so the life and prosperity of characters is in your hand.  It is easy to give them everything or take it all away from them.  Your job, in MOST cases, is to enforce the world laws with impunity.  The risk of a characters life, health or even livelihood is a significant part of the drama of the game.  If a character gets in over their head, they will probably come out the other side worse for wear.  My rule for this has always been “I will not kill a character on a dice roll.”

What does that mean?  A character should not die JUST because of bad dice rolls.  Or Most “Random Encounters” (anything not directly connected with the plot arc) should not kill a character.  A character should only be killed in a story arc connection.   If a character should understand that they are outmatched, it might be  the correct thing for the ref, to let the player know that, in case the player doesn’t realize even when the character should.  Sometimes, the dice are just against the players.  They can’t get a good roll at all, and so cannot catch a break.  Or, they have no way of knowing that the shi……shtuff they just stepped in is a hell of a lot deeper than they had any reason to expect.  In those cases, I have no problem stepping in, changing an outcome in the characters behalf.  It will usually be bad, but they will probably survive.  They wake up naked, in chains, over a cauldron of boiling oil…Or find themselves sold to the mines as slaves…The one thing I resist is altering world laws to make this happen.  If they are hit by a Death Star main cannon, It’s not as if they will find themselves recovering in a healing vat…they are, unfortunately, destroyed.  What if they die in the middle of a desert from giant scorpion.  Could a group of nomads show up, fight off the scorpion and save the character?  Maybe…maybe not.  But for the moment, lets look at another piece of this argument…

What if the character and the player know they are facing horrible odds, and still feel it is the right thing to get involved with?  Slightly different story.  In this case, I will often still try to keep them from being killed, but I will be much more neutral.  If the black hats are wavering between killing them and using them for experimentation later, then I will aim to keep the characters alive.  But, if the black hats have no reason to keep them around, or will even be disadvantaged, then the character buys wholesale agricultural property (Yup…they buy the farm).  Why do I save the first set and not the second set?  Well, the player has chosen to be a hero.  If they survive the challenge, they become heroic, if they do not, well, they died a hero’s death.  In my view, as a ref, that is the more fun option.  (remember what I said earlier…that is why everyone is here!)

The final issue where refs often become non-neutral is when dealing with significant NPCs.  Sometimes, as a ref, you have created a great villain, and the characters completely surprise him and destroy him on two lucky dice rolls.  Well…the rules state that they can do it, so…They win!  not fun.  Think about your villain as a Player Character.  Would you be happy for one of your players to be defeated that simply?  Well, come up with a survival strategy.  Maybe he has “Always had” a secret escape trap door, so that when he falls under that great blow, he drops through and disappears…Or maybe he had a double…But, on the other side of that, just because your players outsmarted your plot, don’t decide that, oh…he wears armor that is only vulnerable to Blue Iron…so that characters cannot harm him as he and his minions now tear them to shreds!  This villain may have been your crowning achievement…but where is the fun ending?  If several of the players are killed, but the last one has sworn a vendetta against the villain in character creation…well…at great cost…he could win!

Here is my simple rule for this:  What is the most enjoyable outcome?  When you have one player, and that character is killed, that had better be a satisfactory ending.  That single player is killed by the Big Black Hat, but they knew they were not ready, but had no option.  Would the BBH, then wish to capture the character to soliloquize over their defeat?  Think of that one player who thought their character just died…and after a few moments of mourning, you tell them that they wake up…If all of your players have charged the Light Brigade, but all get killed…is there a successful epilogue that you can regale them with?  Have fun.  Characters are robbed and killed.  That is what our games emulate.  But is that what makes a good game?  Sometimes, but not always!

A final consideration…The sniper bullet on a dark night in the back of the head.  Believable?  Very.  Particularly if your players have been causing all kinds of problems for a criminal kingpin.  Fun…no.  The other way?  Characters spend two game sessions tracking down the kingpins movements and set up an ambush.  Their long gun loads explosive, poison, glass bullets.  Shoots him from across the street as he steps into a pool of light.  Rolling natural crits, does the kingpin die?  What is the funnest outcome?  Maybe it wasn’t through the back of the head, but right through the shoulder…or maybe the character kills the kingpin…only his arch rival was waiting for such an opportunity…Follow the Fun!

A Book of Blue

Is the Secret in the Sauce?

In my last post, I discussed the importance of separating player knowledge from character knowledge; that is, how to avoid metagaming.  OK.  So, you have that well in hand, but how do you get your players secret information?  Can you get secret information out without letting anyone else even know that you did? And, is any of this even needed?  I’m glad you asked!

In this post I will talk about blue-booking, as well as about tools to help you use PK (Player Knowledge) against CK (Character Knowledge)!  “But, Mentor!”  I hear, ” what is this Blue-Book You speak of?  Does it hold the Secret of Understanding?”  Well, it holds the secret…

Blue Booking is a means of passing secret information to players.  Somewhere in the dim history of our hobby, somebody had a blue notebook, that they passed to the ref with a pertinent query (such as how much gold did I get when I pick pocketed our fighter?) that they didn’t want the other players to know, and thus the term was born.  It is one of the two simplest ways to pass secret info to players, and no, the book does not have to be blue, or even be a book.  It can be a torn piece of notebook paper, scribbled with your question, folded and passed to the ref, who then either scribbles an answer or nods and eats it!  The other way is the dreaded “You, come with me…”  This is when the ref points at a character and takes them out of the room.  (Of course, it might be a player pleading to go out of the room with the ref!)

Benefits of each…the player in question can carry on with secret shenanigans and the other characters are none the wiser…the players may be, but the characters aren’t…But, if the players know something is going on, aren’t they all going to try to make notice rolls and check their pouches, you ask?!  As we went over before, that would be using Player knowledge where the Character has no way of knowing anything is amiss.  Then why pass secrets this way, if you have an expert set of players who will NEVER EVER use player knowledge?  Simple.  Drama! Using these techniques may allow the players some clue that something is going on, but it also allows them the enjoyment of finding out what is going on through their character!.

However, to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into players perceptions (remember when I told you that you can change what a character perceives?  This can also be done , to an extent to the players) by randomly handing a paper to another player with such a cryptic statement as, “enjoying the game?” or “you hear the wind!”  That can be accomplished in a call out as well.  “How bout them Bronco’s?” (they play football…)  This will get the players either overly cautious, missing some of the more important things (You never saw the man run past with the bag of gold, as you were busy checking your pouches) or begin to ignore the exchange because it is none of their characters business!!!

If you can do this with a blue book, when would you take the time to actually do a call out and waste game time? Or, if it not a drama concern, and your players are good what is the benefit? What if you wanted a character to suffer amnesia.  You could just blue-book her with “you have amnesia until I tell you otherwise.”  OK, works, but…It also leaves a lot of questions.  So if you take her out you can tell her what happened, if needed.  You can have a back and forth about how much she still knows, if there is anything she needs to remember…You can pass all of the things you need to accomplish to meet your story goal!  And, the players are in the main room, sweating into their nacho’s about how long you’ve been gone!

Here is a cool trick that works for particular settings.  Say you have a group of players, that are pretty good at NOT metagaming, and you want one player to have a portentous dream that includes the other characters.  Well, you could tell everyone that you want to do a dream sequence.  Boring, but works.  You could play it out, responding to the players constant questions of “how are we on a boat?  We are not even by the sea?” by saying “you just are, OK?!”  and then at the end…”HAHA!  It was just a dream along!  Back to regular game!”  OK, that works.  But what if you needed each of the players except the dreamer to relate some sort of clue?  Answer: Blue-book!  Give everyone a short list of instructions.  All of them can get the…OK, this is a dream, go with it…but what if everyone but one player got that instruction.  What if everyone, but that character was told to use a given phrase at least twice during the session?  What if that persons instruction just said, there will be some weird things that happen, but your character should not notice them…See what we have done there?

How would you handle another odd situation:  One player has been kidnapped and replaced by a Doppelganger.  (what if the character is killed?  You could run the whole combat as a call out or kidnap them, and then game in off time to see about them surviving the ordeal…)  The Doppelganger knows some/most of what the character knows…Before you run something like this, you must trust that you Player can face a role-playing challenge.  You will find that many people find it difficult to play their character slightly different…not in the bad day way, but a “now you are a hidden enemy that wants to eat the other players” way…

What other tools maybe available to you to pass the all important secrets.  In a live game, most players have cell phones.  You can text message each other!  In an online game, usually you can whisper or isolate a single player to pass info to.  What about email between game sessions?  Great tool because you can detail significant info without taking game time!  Also, you can do a lot of scheming in an out-of-game session!  (Let me be clear…this is still game and takes in-game time, it just happens with a character or two rather than the whole party.  It needs to have the time to happen between sessions, or it can get pretty awkward.  Yes, I am planning a post about dealing with game time/real-time!) It doesn’t take a genius to work out these tools, but if you never think about it…it will never get thought of!