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!)

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!