Genre Acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

And now I cast…Oh! Look! A Monkey!

In honor of my second vote, I now offer a consideration of non-tabletop things…Those things that can be distractions or enhancements and how best to deal with them. For the purpose of this entry consider a distraction anything that takes players away from the environment of the game and an enhancement as something that adds to the enjoyment of all involved. There are individual distractions as well as individual enhancements and I will brush by them in the appropriate context, but mostly I will be talking about your whole table. Don’t forget, that you are at the table too and should be enjoying things as much as everyone else!

I had a hard time deciding how to cover this…by category of issue, by level , etc…but I have decided to do, like many of my post some broad stroke guidelines and I will start with Distraction and how to deal with them and enhancement and ways to increase it. However, I also have in my pocket a whole blog about that specific topic where I will talk more about the tools available and whatnot. So…what is a Distraction? Distractions occur at your table often. Side conversations break out, a players cell phone rings with an amusing ring-tone, a child thinks they need to eat, or maybe a player needs something to keep their hands busy above the table…While all of these can be classified as distractions in the truest sense, what I want to discus is the incident that breaks the mood. For instance, My Lady wife often brings her embroidery to the table. It could be considered a distraction, so I will use it as an example of how it could be in this context. If she were to lose track of the plot, that would be a distraction for her, but if her character is not pivotal, then the character might also be distracted…by the fly buzzing next to their ear, or the hissing of the air leaving their vacc-suit. That is NOT a distraction in the point of this blog. If, however, she lost the plot AND her character was pivotal…then having to stop and explain what just happened again WOULD be a distraction. If she was doing something that the whole table had never seen before and all game stopped as she did it so they could watch her and ask questions…Yup! Distraction. (As it is, she keeps the plot quite well, and our gamers have watched her enough to not be too taken away!) Side conversation can be a HUGE distraction, because not only do (usually) 2 or more of your players lose the plot as they talk about their latest escapades, or their last game…it often interferes with the other players trying to listen to what is going on. What about when two players need to take junior to bed? YUP! Distraction…so, lets assume this simple equation: Distraction = Interruption. So, how do you deal with these? All together now…”It Depends!” Overall, you have to suffer some level of distraction, because this is a social encounter, and real life always has a certain priority, or even a persistence, over the game table. You are all there to have fun, but sometimes that fun IS talking about a similar situation in another game, or how another character would have dealt with this issue. The first line of defense on any of these distractions is to point it out. If one person is responsible, such as constant phone calls, or playing games on their laptop you might want to take them aside and mention it. Just tell them that what they are doing is distracting, and it is taking away from the other players fun. If several folks are the cause, Just say something to them. Keep the conversation to a minimum, and/or, in the words of my mother, at least keep it to a dull roar! Once you have pointed it out, if it continues, you might offer a warning. But after that, let their character suffer for their lack of attention, but make sure you don’t punish those who are distracted, just those who are distracting (See the difference?). For instance, here is what I have done: In a combat, I normally ask players to keep track of their initiative, and remind me when I forget or they get skipped (yes, it happens even to the best of us!). However, If I am at the punishment phase of a distracter, I may INTENTIONALLY skip their initiative…when they remind me, well, perhaps they were too busy saving us from space invaders to notice it when their action came up, or simply state that the character missed their opportunity to use the initiative, better luck next round. DON’T let this get into an argument. Remind them that they had been warned…and then carry on. Make sure you give every opportunity to those who are trying to pay attention, however. I have also been known to just continue narrating while they have their own conversation, or, of course, take part of the conversation as character dialog! Whenever you are dealing with distractions, always keep in mind the social contract, and the needs of real life…A person on call MUST answer their phone, parents really should feed their kids, and if chatting is unavoidable, stop game for a 10-15 minute break. Let chat go. Usually, I have found, that if I point out that game has stopped for 15 minutes so we can get our chat out…the break only lasts a few minutes!

There is also a time when enhancements can lead to distractions. For instance, the first time I tried to actually use background music/sounds…I thought it worked pretty good. But several of my players found my selection annoying, and the “Soundtrack” too full of noises that they weren’t sure if they should be hearing, and if their characters should respond…I hadn’t intended them to…It was just atmosphere, after all…but it was a huge distraction. (I still try to get music involved…I’m just not that good at it!)

What about things that are really enhancements that many people think as essential? Like what, You ask? Battle maps, maybe? Blue Books? While these can definitely be an enhancement for everyone, If they are not prepared well before hand, and you end up creating it on the fly, well, first of all…for shame…unless of course you have something like a gridded white board that is intended for such use. But in building a map, you have had to stop everything, and basically say to your players, “You are about to get ambushed, you just don’t know it. So, everybody have a Mt Dew and we will return to our regularly scheduled game as soon as I have set up the hose job!”  For those of you who have gamed as long as I have, many times game is played entirely in the mind, and distances and ranges are all best guess. And sometimes that works great…but it can lead to big arguments about exact positioning and facings and the like. I usually draw out rough maps (our game table is a white board! I Know…you’re jealous!) and let them stand, even though I have a copy of the great Campaign Cartographer, I only rarely use it for things like battle maps. (I do use it for character standees quite often though) For these type of distractions, the only real cure is practice and planning. Most games can get by with a blue book pass once in a great while…if you have players constantly passing secrets too you, only action them during their turn…and carefully gauge whether you can intimate what is in the book among your group, and play it out, or if you need to fill out the book and pass it back. As I spoke about way back when, characters with outside game knowledge can usually be curbed of such unwholesome appetites!

Finally, Enhancements that ENHANCE the game play. These are anything that makes game play more vivid and/or helps suspend the disbelief. I will be posting a whole blog sometime about what sort of tools are available, so I am just going to touch on some categories now, and those that have a potential to become distractions, but usually are not. I just talked about a few: Maps, Soundtracks and blue books. Most of the time, these tools are great enhancements (or so I’m told with music…I’ve not perfected it yet). They allow a person to get a very good grip on what is going on, and allow players to share or keep information as required. So long as they do not get out of hand, use them! Enjoy them. Embrace the extra OOMPH they give a game. What about laptops at the table? They can be a great enhancement…automated character sheets…shared maps…secret notes! But they can also cause real problems…nobody looks at each other, buried in their screen…taking up precious table space…and then there is the Creeping Crud, one of the Laptops Greatest enemies! Lighting! Yes…lighting can make a difference…dim lighting can create a gloomy close feeling, while very bright lights and harsh surfaces can be disquieting and modern, but again…the potential for disruptive interference can be high…to dim to easily read dice or character sheets, brightness causing eye-strain…well painted miniatures, and player handouts! All of these things can provide a great boost to your game play…………..but overused, or used sloppily, they can cause notable distraction. What about first person character that the player uses props, accents and odd lexical dialects! A definite enhancement…but, if they are too over the top…it can be nothing but a distracting pain…

As I have said many times before in these blogs, most things can be discussed with your players and dealt with.  It is important to recognize that they exist.  Here is a bit of an experiment, particularly if you and your gamers are a new group, OR if you have been playing for years and learned to deal with each others foibles.  Ask each player to take notes during a game session about things they found distracting or particularly enhancing.  Gather them up AT THE NEXT game session, allowing people to think about them, add more or remove them.  At that time, have each person quickly peruse their notes and see if they were sufficient to stand up between games.  THEN  gather every bodies notes and discuss them as a group.  Maybe something that one player did annoys everybody, or maybe your soundtrack was a complete disaster…or even amazing aide to the scene…use that discussion as a starting point for better games!

Until the next post!  Happy Gaming!

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.

Crossing Boundries

What are you willing to accept at your table?

This is a post about players at your table.  Interesting that I just read this while thinking of this topic.  Not because I agree with everything he puts forth, but because it is about the “Contract” you have between you and your players.  Some of the points he raised are worth consideration, but I am not going to debate the points in this post.  Although I recommend you read through it I am more interested in what sort of players and what sort of characters you are willing to game with.  I am going to start with these assumptions:

1. Both you and your players are at the table for fun.

2. You have some option as to who plays, even if that is to go without game.

3. You and your players can have a discussion without someone actually getting dead!

We have touched on some of the parts of this Gaming Contract, but here I am talking about the hard edges of that contract.  As a ref, you need to know what you are comfortable dealing with in your game, and you need a good understanding of what your players will and will not stand for.  One of the first stumbling blocks, in my experience is cross sexing.  What is that?  Allowing players to play characters that are opposite to their sex.My Lady Wife is fairly adamant against this, so when she is playing, it is easy to “Just say no.”  As a Ref, however, I have no problem with this.  I let players play sexless robots, or demons, or infinitely long-lived elves.  I may not think they play them very well, because my belief and/or understanding of these various races is different from theirs.  What about female Dwarves?  Most “sources” that I know do not even address that dwarves have females.  (What, are they asexual? Hermaphroditic? are they literally born from stone?)  Most games however, will allow a female to play a dwarf and a female one at that.  Her biggest argument against it, aside from the fact that she doesn’t believe men can play very convincing females, is that it is a significant hurdle to the suspension of her disbelief…It’s hard enough to remember that the 6’4″ 280# gamer guy is playing an 18″ tall fairy type character, not alone that he now has tits.  (And, strongly in her favor, most guys end up playing lesbian females…partly out of fantasy fulfillment, but also because most of them have a hard time thinking of another male as tap-able!)  Aside from all of this, it is something you need to decide.  If a player is paying an Ice golem, and decides that he wants to learn fire magics, because its cool, will you allow it?  Do you step in and say “Nope, you can’t play your lifelong dream of playing a fire breathing Ice Golem, because that just doesn’t happen in my word!”  Ignore it, and just let it happen?  Maybe let him do it with significant penalties..Maybe an extreme example, but if a 4’6″ petite female wants to play a male Ogre enforcer,because the Ogres of the Pit do not allow females, do you let her, even if she has no idea of how to play a male, or a not overly bright ogre or how to go about “Enforcing.”

OK…talked about cross sexing, and playing racial characteristics.  What about how dark your campaign will/can become?  Will you accept characters who become drug dealers or pimps?  Many people seem willing to let a character torture, flay or kill NPC enemies, but often tend to shy away from letting them pimp out an NPC.  What about rape?  Very touchy subjects, and they should be clearly understood what will be tolerated in your game group.  What if one of your players is a victim of rape?  Not something they might want to talk about, but if you don’t understand that it is beyond the scope of that players contract, are you willing to accept the possible harm you have brought to your table?  I tend to keep my table about R rated.  Sex happens, but discreetly off-screen, or lightly brushed in a soft-core soft focus way.  Usually rape is acceptable subject matter, but whether players are involved or not, that goes Off-screen.  Torture…another very dark subject that you may or may not want to allow.  In general, I don’t encourage player to come up with inventive new tortures, and set the results basically as a die roll, keeping in the  rule structure.  By the same token a player is a captive, the methods used for information gathering or punishment, or whatever, are broad stroked…”You are tortured for several hours a day…roll me 3 will/fortitude/resistance/fatigue checks”  On the same area, but not as dark…what about sex?  Between characters?

And to the complete other side of the spectrum, how much fucking off will you tolerate?  During a Hell Game (A game that is more social than story telling, little to no attachment to the characters), we can go a whole session, and never even pull out characters.  But, during serious game, I am much more restrictive, and have been known to continue narrating even though other players are chatting off topic, throwing pepperoni slices at each other, or throwing up in the corner.  (Well, I suppose that depends on why they are throwing up…)  Then when I have them roll initiative  they are more than a bit surprised, or if I tell them they just took a serious hit and they are only standing on their feet out of sheer surprise…wow!  Gets their attention!  And usually significantly pissed off players!

The gaming contract can be as explicit or implicit as everyone is comfortable with.  Remember the voice of game.  Sometimes, the contract may specify how to handle these things.  Sometimes, it can be very simple: “The game table is Rated R.”  But, when it looks like a sensitive issue is coming up, it may be time to better define part of it.  Yes, sometimes it may be a bit of a spoiler, but most of the time, these issues are fairly obvious, so talk to the players before you go gallumphing over the Rose, ignoring her thorns!

I Know That You Know That I Know…

Defining Who Knows What, or More Importantly, What They Don’t Know

The topic today is:  Knowledge!  And how to separate what a character knows from what their player knows.  For many new players this is a completely alien concept.  For many experienced players, it is something that they don’t do well.  So what, exactly is it that I am going on about? Player Knowledge vs Character Knowledge (PK v CK).  When all of your players are sitting at the table, but their characters are all separated (don’t split the party up and get Al killed!), what happens to each character, or each small group of characters is probably not as apparent as it is to the other characters as it is to the other players!  Clear?  No?!   Let me get the big bag of examples then, and see what I can find!

Player A is playing Character A. Player B is playing, surprisingly, Character B.  They are recovering after a long night of plunder and boozing, in their own rooms.  However, Character B has been followed, and, in the middle of the night….ruffians break in, poison dart him to unconsciousness and kidnap him!!!  Well, Player A sees his stalwart companions player fail saving throw after saving throw and decides to help, so he has Character A wake up and stagger into the hall, thereby interrupting the ruffians, and saves Character B from an unsavory situation!  YAY!!!!  Nope…  Player A has used Player Knowledge that his Character would not know, therefore gaming outside of the scope or meta-gaming.

Why is this important?  On occasion it is not, and even beneficial.  Usually that is when someone “plays the PC card,” when gathering a group.  My Lady Wife is quite adept at it, actually.  This is when you are gathering a party together, but none of the characters know each other.  How do you get them together?  Well, You can use the “You all wake up with a hangover in a jail cell…”  or the  “Thanks for VOLUNTEERING for the kings navy.  Since you are all ready VOLUNTEERS, and since we have been at sea for two hours, I’m sure none of you will want to swim with those shackles and that disorienting bump on your head…” approach.  Nothing wrong with this, but a bit heavy-handed (but if it fits the story, all the better!)  Another option is to trust to PK…”Player A, you have stepped out of the courthouse, squinting in the sunlight, when someone runs full tilt into you.  Player B, you are running from a small gang of muggers, but on coming around a corner, you run square into someone!  What do you do?” In this case, you are hoping that the players use a bit of PK (and maybe even break character a bit) and find a commonality in the chance meeting and begin to form a party! (By the way, I have a post in mind about ways to gather the party together!)  But, this is one of the few times you want this…

When characters are separate, and you, as the ref, take some sort of action against one of the isolated groups, there is probably a story reason for it, so you don’t want the other players running out and screwing it up!  Think about a horror game a moment.  The characters are taken to their individual rooms, and each one has an encounter…that encounter is someone from their past…but the apparition says the same thing to each character.  It is important,but if the players take what they have seen happen with their friend, they may jump in trying to short-circuit the story, you lose the in character reveal, that may be the whole point!

So…fairly clear about what it is, and why you usually don’t want PK to interfere with CK, right?  Well, how do you deal with this?  Once again, several ways, and you need to find the way that works for you and your players, and suits the game.  If your players are mature and experienced with RPGs, you can simply inform (or remind) them that their characters only know what they experience.  Usually, it is not to hard for these players to listen to what goes on and enjoy the gaming, without meta-gaming (or at least not obviously…you may allow a bit of it just for plot purposes…such as when the character just says “I tell them what just happened.”  This way, the characters can be brought current without going through the whole scene again).  If secrecy of the scene is important, then you have tools such as blue booking or interim game.  (Don’t worry, I’ll talk about those next!)  If you have inexperienced players, and they try to meta-game, you can take the opportunity to educate them!  You might simply ask “Why are you doing that (going there, saying that, etc…)?”  When they tell you they need to save their lifelong boon companion, ask them how they, in the persona of their character is aware of the issue?  And then explain that what they are doing is noble, but the character has no reason to do it.   Maybe they will come up with an excuse…”Um, well, after all that pillage and boozing, I need the jakes, so I’m going out…HO-HO!  What do I see but a ne’er-do-well dragging a bag of person down the hall!!”  In that case, you need to make another decision…do you reward them for creating a viable situation?  Do you smile sadly and say “Nice try,” or do you give them a partial…”well, you don’t see a bag of person, but your stalwart companions door is open, and the room is a mess, his sword is on the bed post, but he is not there!”

Most of the time, I encourage players to use some PK.  It is never important to the story, and they need to come up with a story suitable reason, AND…I have final say.  If it was imperative that the isolated scene happen, because the next part of the story is finding the companion, then letting them rescue him before they get away kinda ruins the story.  But…what if they get an earlier start than you had anticipated?  Here is a little GM trick: What the players don’t know is that the Ref can shift timelines! In other words, when you tell Player B it is just before dawn when he is taken, maybe that was just his perception…when Character A gets up to avail themselves…it IS just before dawn, but Character B as been gone for hours…Remember you are the characters perceptions!  Feel free to be a bit vague or even out-and-out give them bad info sometimes!  

That’ll show those good for nothing meta-gamers!!!!

Pick Your Poison

or, What is the best system to use

In the last post, I offered the two simple rules of reff’ing.   So, now you need to consider what rule system you want to use.  First of all, that’s easy!  What rule systems do you have available to you?  Then those are where you start.  “But Master,” I hear you whine, “I only have first edition AD&D, but I want to play a game like Star Wars, but with dinosaurs!”

Well, that’s OK, say I…and that is why we come to this post.  Game designers spend a lot of time trying to build a game system with an internally consistent setting.  Often, they work very hard on Game Balance issues as well.  But that does not mean you must play their rules in their setting!  True, AD&D is best suited to a high fantasy almost Tolkienian setting and appropriate stories.  The same way the Traveller rules are best suited to a high-tech, far future SF setting with starships.  But let me pass on another ref rule:

Any story can be told with any rule set!

The thing that you will need to keep in mind is that the farther away from the intended setting, usually, the more modification you will have to do.  If you are a beginning GM, I’d not recommend venturing too far away from the setting.  In fact, I’d encourage you to acquire either A) A game system with a setting much closer to what you want to run, or B) acquire one of the several generic systems, such as PEG’s Savage Worlds, Steve Jackson’s GURPS, or Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing.  However, if you can’t, or don’t wish to get a new system here are some things to think about.

Before attempting to modify a game system, you need a pretty good idea of both the normal, expected, game setting, and the setting you want to use.  With this in mind, you can see what does and doesn’t need modified.  In the hypothetical I posed above, we need to change the character races into dinosaurs, create a magic system like the force, create star ship and robot rules, even figure out what character classes are needed, which ones are not, and how we need to modify them to fit the new story line.  Is a Jedi a cleric, or magic user?  Could they be a Ranger or Paladin?  If we made them a Ranger, then they would be more fighter types, with access to some of the new FORCE, instead of MAGIC.  If we decide to create a new class all together, then we need to start considering the game balance built into the character classes.  What if we use a dwarf template to create our new scaled Bear-a-saurus…who use specially designed Laser slings…“But Master, a Dwarf is short and disdains the use of slings!”   Again I hear you thought, but this leads us to the next consideration:

Why change the rules if you can just put a new paint job on it?  In other words, Our Bear-a-saurus is stout, a little slow, but very strong.  Hey…that fits the dwarf, or maybe a Half-orc.  Well, so rename them, re-describe them, but don’t make any changes except maybe take away their infravision, and give them Hunters sight…What’s the difference, and what can you see with Hunters sight?  Well, it detects movement in low light…not much use in an underground dungeon, but in a forest, or town…LOTS of things move…The less you need to change then the better to preserve the balance built-in by the regular designers.

One more thing to consider: Special Effects!  This is something that struck me like a lightning bolt when I first read it in Masterbook: What is a laser blast?  Well it’s a beam or missile of light.  Oh, so kinda like a magic missile, but it can miss, and come in a wand, uh gun, that has charges, um…ammo in it?  How much damage does it do?  Well…a magic missile already has a damage listed.  Not enough?  Well, is it more like a lightning bolt?  Something that causes damage: a fireball or grenade or catapult or dagger or pocket pistol…does damage!  That’s it.  What does it look like?  Well, they all look different.  What about something that heals damage?  A healing spell, or health potion or first aid kid or spray skin…well, they all heal damage!

Well…this is just a taster of all of the possible considerations.  And it may be better suited for quite experienced refs, but I want people to consider the possibilities…Could you use the Shadow Run rules to tell a Deadlands game…yup   without too much change.  Could you use the Chivalry & Sorcery Rules to tell the story of a post zombie apocalypse? Sure!  Using them for their own genre is easier, and converting a generic system is the next easiest thing…but with patience and a will, it could be done