The play is the thing

Over the last two weeks, we have talked about getting set up for a game.  This will cover the final prep and give a brief overview of things to expect during that game.  Once you have an adventure idea, and characters to experience and or carry it out, you need to get to the real meat of Role Playing games: The Playing!

to get started, we need to consider game set-up.  This may be something you have already came up with based on the game system and or the setting you use.  Or, it could be something that you haven’t given much thought.  What do you NEED to play your game, and what do you WANT to play your game?  Need is usually pretty similar from game to game: something to write with, dice, maybe tokens or counters.  Some games have fairly specific needs, like Savage Worlds need some sort of bennie tokens as well as a card deck.  However, the environment you are playing may have other needs…playing online, you will likely not need dice or writing implements as your on-line environment may provide those for you.  A far as what you want, well…consider maps, or 3-D terrain pieces and miniatures, effect templates, candles or mood lights, music or sound effects, incense or scented candles!  Anything that may add to the enjoyment of your game, or make it easier to play.  Again, in some game systems, you may find that a want in one game is a requirement in another and vice-versa.  (Do table snax count as a need or want?  Might depend on your table contract!)

When considering this, think about what might add to the immersion, or connection with the games.  Do you want theme dice?  What about token that reflect the setting or the mood?  If your game is set in the bootlegging 20’s, could you get a soundtrack from the times and keep it as background mood setting?  Some games lend themselves to “theme-ing” better than others, but you can probably find little things to do for any game.  BUT:

  • DON’T forget your NEEDS when setting up your wants!  If you get all of the terrain and miniatures you want to use, but forget dice…this might be a fail!

All of this could be several posts long, just talking about how and where to find the right music or sound effects, or what makes the best maps and so on, but really this section is here just to remind you of the basics of setting up the game.  Once you are comfortable with the game set , You are ready to “Roll some Dice, and Move some Mice!” (I know many of you are too young for that reference, but just accept that it means get started!)

When running a game, you can encounter a great number of issues and challenges.  Most of this blog is about how to deal with various iteration of those.  But this post will address some specific issues and resolutions.  If I can relate it close enough to another post, I’ll link it as well.  Rest assured that no matter what you have seen before, and what I’m about to show you, the real answer to any game issue is:

TALK WITH YOUR PLAYERS

As we start lets recap just a bit:  You have taken time to somewhat (or more) connect your characters to your adventure.  You have spent either a small amount to a great amount of time setting up your “script”  So, the first idea I want to convey to you is Murphy’s Law of Game Mastering: Expect nothing to go as planned!.  The best battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and your plot is not much different.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players). really tell where your story goes and how it gets there.  You can influence that.  Subtly, you can lay out clues like breadcrumbs, hints from NPCs, omens or the stray bit of overheard conversation.  Or you can go to the other end, and have the PCs employer tell them what they need to do, or even the outside game GM discussion.  Remember that this is not always bad.  Sometimes the players are on a completely different wavelength than you and you need to go outside of the game to bring everybody back to the plot.  This, oddly enough is why you did the prep you did.  When things go sideways, you can look at the story, and see if your plot can be salvaged by changing some things.  The benefit of the minimalist set-up, is you then just have to have the Antagonist respond, using its motivations and resources to still reach its’ goal.  If you and your players are alright in a campaign where the enemy has gone (mostly) completely unnoticed, even though your tried to lead them to his machinations, and she succeeds to the detriment of what the players wanted, then bully for you!   If this was just a short adventure, the players come as close to failure as you can in an RPG.  If you and your players are not happy with that, then either bludgeon them over the head with the clue haddock, and show them the path (yes this may be simply a side comment that they missed something)  Either way, if this is just a part of a longer story, or even a campaign, well, now the Baddie has a brand new asset, or assets at his disposal! (Whats that, he just took over the world?  Then your players are in for a hard fight!)

Adventure? Check! Characters? Check! Set-up? Check!  How do you start the game?  This is as much personal choice as the theme of your game. For many games, a great way to start is in medias res (“in the middle of things”). This is the technique of starting, literally, in the middle of things; without introduction or lead in to the story.  Usually, just a quick introduction, and pick up the game in the middle of some ongoing scene. This does several things: captures players attention, introduces game mechanics, and hooks the characters into what is going on.  In medias res does not have to be in the middle of combat, though.  If you are playing a game with a strong combat focus, it is very appropriate to do so, however.  If you are running a bounty hunter themed game, maybe in the middle of a chase, might be appropriate.  Something to keep in mind, is that this type of beginning need to have a bit of background, unless the goal is to start with the characters in a completely unexpected situation.  Lets look at a few examples:

  • Set-up: You are a group of WWII saboteurs, sent to find out about this new weapon and stop its production if you can
    • …And automatic gunfire rattles off to the left…describe the warehouse they are in and what they see, or provide a map
    • Once the battle is over, tell the brief story of how they discovered the research, and where it was being produced, in a heavily guarded warehouse
  • Set-up:You and your crew are hard riding to get a message to a garrison commander before the enemy forces arrive
    • While galloping through a mountain pass, there is a loud rumble, and snow begins cascading across your trail…set the scene in the remote mountain pass, or provide them a map
    • Once they overcome the obstacle, fast forward to the real beginning of your adventure, the arrival at the garrison, with the enemy cresting the rise.
  • Set-Up: You need to know the location of the villains lair. 
    • With the villains attractive paramour across from you at the baccarat table, You have  a strong hand and a stronger drink…

As you can see, the in medias res can be a compelling opening to your game.  However, some players would rather get to know a little about their characters before being engaged, so you might wish to accommodate them, or you may just want the theme to be a little less intense.  (Note that the in medias res can be used for some fairly complex GM tricks.  I will probably do a post about them soon).  Another popular way of starting the game is the hire/impress/briefing style.  In this method, the players are hired by a stranger in a bar / impressed by the local military / gathered in a briefing to be told what they need to do.  If you have connected your players to the story, then this method still works well, because they are now being sent to do something they want to do anyway!  They may not like how they are being tasked (such as trumped-up charges and facing the hangman’s noose unless they do this task), but they should have at least a little bit of self motivation to accomplish it.

However you begin it, you will then carry on through the adventure beats, or the action/reaction until the situation is resolved.  During all of the game, there are several things to keep in mind, and you may well have addressed them in you table contract.  But if not, or as a refresher:

  • Don’t debate rules during game time.  As ref, make a quick decision,  and a note to discuss it after the session.
  • Everybody is at the table to have fun, the ref included.  when someone is getting bored (or worse, upset) try to fix the issue, even if it means interrupting the game momentarily…
  • Remember that the Ref is not against the players, but the NPCs he plays probably are!

One more thing to keep in mind, and this has taken me a long time to figure out.  Your story ends. No matter if it is a short one-shot type of adventure, or a full campaign, the end needs to be well-defined.  lets say they beat the big bad (BB).  You can end the game with an epilogue style wrap up after the combat/confrontation.  If they lose to the BB, summarize what happens with them out of the way of the BB.  Do they come home to ticker tape parades? Is the world safe for democracy again? Are the space ghosts never heard from again?  If they lose, try not to make it TOO dark!  Don’t use: “Because you died at the hands of Sodok the Slaughterer, nearly 1/3 of the population is sacrificed for her view of “the greater good” and for two generations everyone lives in constant fear for their lives!”  You can soften this a bit by summing up that Sodok the Slaughterer continues as fearsome tyrant , whose name is spoken of in hushed whispers for generations.”  This ends the game, and rewards the players or culminates the story.  Another option,if it fits the tone, is prepare a newspaper article / News feed /Heraldic announcement for failure and success…hand the appropriate one to the players after the game wraps.  Anything you can think of that is not, “OK!  you beat the BB, now how do you get back to town to resupply?”  Keep in mind that the characters may continue in further adventures, but this is a great opportunity for them to retire from the adventuring life.

 My biggest problem, as an epic style ref, is that once the players dealt with one story line, I basically rewarded them, and then let the world go on…if the players sought out other story arcs, then great, otherwise…the story just kind of ran down like a clock unwinding.  Not very exciting, no matter how fun the actual game.  This took me years to realize,  partly because I don’t get the opportunity to play often, but also because I thought a living  world was more engaging and exciting.  I no longer believe this.  Stories need the beginning, a middle AND they require an end.  The end needs to be as complete as the rest of the story.  Sometimes it is played out, but usually this is a narrative conclusion after the final confrontation, just like the narrative to start the game.  This does not need to be you, the ref, just telling the closing story.  Talk to the players about what their characters will do now that this issue is taken care of, or talk about what the characters hoped for even in a poor outcome.

I will do one more of these weekly posts, next week talking about post game wrap up.  Feel free to post questions or comments.  Remember that I started this blog at the request of one of my players.  I have done a lot of contemplation on a lot of these posts.  I know that my rules and techniques may not work for everyone, but I hope that anyone can at least glean a few things from them.  If you have had good luck with any of these techniques, or any of them turned out disastrous, please share!

Keep Rolling! And may your dice often critical/explode (in a good way…an explosive dice may be quite painful if not downright dangerous!)

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How does it start?

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

Some caveats to this process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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