The RefMentor Cries a Little

Even though I consider myself a pretty good GM (and I am not alone in that!), I have done things as a ref that have not set well with me.  To the point that they often come up as I think about these posts, and what I could have done instead.  So, I figured I might bare my gaming soul a bit, and tell you of these personal fail moments as well as ways I might have done them better.  Take away what you will, either my catharsis, or a bit of advice!

I have often said that I am not so good at ending campaigns.  Usually I can write this off as my thinking the game world continues, with one of it’s problems solved.  But not to long ago, I was playing the original Plot Point Campaign in Rippers (A great Savage World setting).    We had come to the final story beat and I screwed it up…Big!  Now, because this is the final event in the story, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I am going to have to talk around it a bit, but I will try to be clear.  A little earlier in the campaign the players did two things that I forgot to take into account in this event.  First, an NPC escaped them, and then they, shall we say, left a door open that should have been closed. (For those that know the PPC that should be clear, without giving much away).  These two things should have had a HUGE impact on how this final scene played out.  But for whatever reason, I went to run the final scene as it was presented.   Because of this, the climactic encounter flopped.  The world should have changed for good or bad, and it didn’t…and then, I basically wrapped the campaign, rather than embraced the change and added my own adventures to reach that conclusion, because I was mad at myself and was soured on that story.  Wrong, Wrong, WRONG!  Now, I kick myself and bawl myself to sleep over it.  How could I have avoided that?  First and simplest; Preparation.  I should have taken a few moments to look at what had happened to lead up to the final encounter, which happened either way.   But now, the door that was left open had consequences to the escaped NPC and to the number and type of opponents the PCs would have encountered.  Since I didn’t do that, I should have taken the time to decide what would happen when the primary opponent escapes.  This could have added several more adventures to this game!  LESSON HERE: Prepare enough to keep the story line consistent, and when a mistake happens, gloss over it and carry on!  The world didn’t end (Probably!)

As I have mentioned before, the story set-up and setting is the purview of the referee.  As such, there are times that one needs to take over the story.  (This is not just the ref’s story, so this needs to be kept to a minimum to help set-up a better game experience!)  In a fantasy setting of my own creation, my players were going to explore some reported goings on at a outlying holding.  When they got there, the Garda (The holding keeper) offered a banquet!  But all was not as it seemed, and they had been drugged!  I had everyone roll drug resistance, and expected they would all fail.  Of course, one of the players succeeded very well…and then I declared the drug was plot strength, and even he was affected.  While I did give him a bit more info after they woke up in a pit, I wail and gnash my teeth about how that happened!  I easily could have either declared it plot strength from the beginning to move them to the next scene I had created; Or the one PC could have made his roll, and we could have played that out!  I almost decide to let the player have it, but decided that would probable spend too long in game time on just one player…Which it may have, but it might have simply been “i will run into the woods, and watch what happens…”  LESSON HERE: If you are going to let the dice decide, let them decide!  If you have considered carefully and decided that it is important for the GM to decide how a beat plays out, just DO IT!

The last nit i wish to pick is another fairly recent game and an ending.  In this game, an epic game of Role Master Standard System, in a world of my own creation, the game was reaching it’s climax, but I had begun to bore of the setting.  Because of that, I was not putting the energy needed into the play, and the final battle ended, not quite as I had expected.  The final battle with the enemy never happened, but the last of his forces were defeated, so he raged impotent in his hidden fortress!  So, not a bad ending, but not what I had expected.  So, I tried to wrap the game up, and ended up with an unfulfilling mish-mash for my player.  It kind of left a sour taste for a favorite setting for me as well… LESSON HERE: Stay Energized!  If you are not having fun as a ref, it will reflect in your game.  Think about this.  Is it because you are burned out as a ref, on the genre, on the system, or the setting…or something else.  You need to figure this out, to see what they correction is.  It may just be have a conversation with your players and switching games for a bit, or alternating games…or letting someone else ref (I plan on doing a post about this, if I get around to it!)  Whatever the problem get it fixed.  If you can’t then the other players at the the table will feel that lack, and no one will get the fun they want from it.

As a second comment on the last whine, in retrospect, I should have stopped the game.  I let it play about 4 sessions too long that were simply waiting for things to pick up again.  I should have asked the player, yes it was a game with my Lady Wife, how she would like this story to end.  We could have worked out a good ending, with a good reason to come back.  As it is, we do have a reason to return to the story, but I’m not sure the desire is very strong.  TALK WITH YOUR PLAYERS!  Your table knows what they like.  They, including you, as you are one of the players, just with a different role, can come up with what is your BEST FUN!

I hope that these few glimpses at my whiny side help you look at some of your problems or issues.  I am here for advice on this or any other topic.  Feel free to ping me about it.  Who knows, maybe it will inspire a whole new article!

Keep rolling, and enjoy your “Rich Fantasy Lives!

 

RefMentor

The Games (and styles) We Play

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about game style…Epic, Episodic, even Epic-sodic, and, since I have not posted an entry for a while, lets try this one out.

In Some Common Ground, I discussed the basic differences in Epic and Episodic.  I have also mentioned Epic-Sodic in Random-like, but let me get deeper into each of these and discuss the pro’s and con’s.

EPIC

Epic is usually my go to game.  However, I have noticed some things only on fairly deep introspection.  Surprisingly, there are some thing that I don’t like about it.  I have often defined an epic role playing style  something like this:  While the player characters are important to a given story line in the game universe, they are not all that important in the universe, overall.  If, and when, they die, only a few people they have interacted with will probably notice their passing.  Of course, if they have performed heroic deeds that saved villages, towns or even kingdoms, that would be different.  But…the universe doesn’t care.  The game will focus on these characters and their life in the world.  It will be about the adventure arc they are following, but if they get in over their heads, the universe (in the guise of the GM) will not make the path easier for them, and if they die…oh well.   Epic games are kind of like the Novels of role playing.  The characters are a bit more detailed, and there is often significantly more character building in them.  But because there is often many story lines going on in the world, I have found myself wrapping story lines pretty matter of factly.   Hurray!  They have beaten Lord Two-Dark and his minions.  But, they didn’t even touch the fact that Yirk the Bloody is gathering slaves for the zanzabarbarians…or the ogres in the Yellow wood in the next kingdom over?  From an Epic  ref’s point of view…a hero’s work is never done.

In these games money is important.  The cost for a healing potion and ammo will be specific, even if it changes slightly due to availability from one place to the next.  It is important for characters to be able to estimate the worth of the things they find and/or be able to haggle for it.  Often the players have a daily routine.  It likely includes study or practice.  Usually, encumbrance is carefully calculated, and wound can be deadly.    Random encounters make the world feel more alive, because they represent things and people that are going about their daily business.   A story can still be on the rails, going from one thing to another, but the details of the between becomes important.  A map, graphic or textual, is a must in the Epic game.  If it is 100 miles to point B from Point A and 300 miles to Point C, from Point B, then Point C is not 50 miles to Point A!

The Epic Style can support Top down or Bottom up, but it is very difficult to run without significant set-up.  It can support any character style, but, because it often integrates daily routine, detailed survival and travel, it usually runs better with detailed characters.  And, because the characters are dealing with the rest of their lives, and not just the “adventuring” part, they tend to build up quite rounded and deep characters.   (Of course, an Epic character can be very shallow as well, but most players who really enjoy Epic style will build appropriate characters).  In an Epic game, when a player is unable to play for a night it is often much better to not play that game, so as to not have another player mis-play him.

This does not mean you can’t play episodically with an epic style.  It is just that playing from key scene to key scene is not very conducive to maintaining all of those details that make a complete and living character in a constant and detailed world.

Episodic

The Episodic game is much more like a television show.  The group of characters often have a three act style of adventure.  There is often an over-arching story about the characters, but many of the games are just “monster of the week” style serials.  There is nothing wrong with episodic play, and is really the only style of play suited for conventions and even the game group that can only infrequently get together, and need to get their story’s told before they (the players) die of old age!

The Episodic style is, as I pointed out, basically the opposite of the Epic.  Usually money is not closely tracked.  The players have what they need, but maybe not everything they want.  Encumbrance is either not an issue, or is just not closely tracked.  The Episodic style is, in the words of the Bard “The Play is the Thing!”  Why worry about the minutia of basic life and upkeep, when you can just get to the adventure?

A map can be notional, as they get where they need when they need to be there.  When Joss Whedon was asked about the speed of ships in Firefly, he allegedly claimed they “Move at the speed of plot!”  (This was actually quite a revelation to me when I was setting up a Savage Worlds game.  I had spent 20 minutes or so scouring the maps to determine where an encounter would take place…a railroad, in the mountains, near a gorge….I was getting frustrated because I wasn’t finding the right place…and then…a bolt out of the blue!  It doesn’t matter where it is on the map…it takes place exactly where it needs to!)

Characters in Episodic games tend to be specialized, because their energies, as well as the needs of the gameplay focus on specialized skill sets.  Not many TV characters are all that broad, skill-wise, but of course they can develop very deep characters as they are played as hooks become background, or vice versa.  Savage Worlds, an excellent candidate for Episodic play, even has a mechanic for expanding a players background during game play, called a Dramatic Interlude.

Many games are really designed to be run Episodically.  Any Mission driven game, such as Shadowrun is really episodic and follows the three act style :Get the mission, research and planning, execution.  And, because of this style, characters tend to be more specialized, as they do not need all of the other skills.  It is assumed their life goes on without major consequence, or it would be an adventure!  And, like before, you can run Epic style games Episodically, but the whole point would kinda be lost, and it would probably be an “Upkeep” scene, perhaps played out as a montage, rather than played through.

Epic-sodic

This is my name for probably a very common  style.  It is basically Episodic gameplay, with Epic support.  You might be able to consider it long form Episodic.  How does it work?  This might be best as an example:

EPIC:

The players wake, and take care of their morning routines. Do they have any particular requests this morning?  OK..the Priest is going to temple for service.  The others  meet for breakfast, when a messenger arrives, and is properly introduced, he is somewhat confused as he was expecting one more person.  They will need to convince him they are who he seeks, and that the lat person will join them after his devotions.  If they cannot convince him, he will leave word where he can be found when they are all together. Knowing that it won’t do to interrupt worship they wait on the priest, and after he has properly broken his fast, the go to meet the messenger.  Check for random encounters on the way, and resolve them.  If any member of the party is incapacitated, then if they go on to the messenger, he will still not release the message.  Once they get the message, it is encrypted, but it is not overly difficult to decode.  It directs them to make contact with “The Green Man”  and explains how to do it.  What actions and or precautions do they take, and do they decide it is worth their action.  Once they are prepared, they travel to the green man, in The Blue Knight Club, in the Rose room, a private room…

EPISODIC

You have received and de-crypted a message to meet the “Green Man.”  You have just arrived at the Blue Knight Club, with instructions to meet him in the Rose Room.  Alibis?

EPIC-SODIC

You have recieved a coded message that directed you to meet the “Green Man” at the Blue Knight Club in the Rose Room.   You have about 6 hours before the meet.  What do you need/want to do?  (Once all prep is done…You may set up a random or preparatory encounter on their way) You have arrived at the3 Blue Knight Club…

I hope, from those descriptions, you can see that the Epic style will obviously take much longer to work through.  The life of the characters between adventures is important.  The Episodic is likely to finish in an evening.  You play out the important (read adventure) scenes. The Epic-sodic will take longer but not near as long as the Epic.  You are focusing on the adventure/story parts, but the supporting background and characters are not necessarily a given.  This has become my favorite style, I think.  I love Epic games…The lives of our characters is interesting, if not fascinating, to me.  But, as real life seems to allow less and less time for it, the development of characters and setting as well as the quickly getting to the adventure appeals.  There is no reason you cant play epic story lines (notice the small e) while playing Episodic.  The story arc just becomes more central to the separate adventures.  However, as discussed earlier, playing an episodic story in an Epic manner kind of defeats the point.  And, as Savage Worlds has become a new favorite, and plays very well in the Epic-Sodic, I guess I need to do a bit of a review for those of you who have never seen and/or played it!  (Next post…whenever I get to it!)

Are these distinctions clear?  I know you, my gentle readers, may have questions for your old Ref Mentor, and I’d be glad to answer them.  And, if your questions require more than just a comment to discuss them, I’d be glad to write a whole Blog Post about it.  So feel free to comment or ask questions.  Remember, my goal here is to offer bits of wisdom from a person who has been playing, and primarily reffing RPGs for almost 40 years.  I don’t claim to be the best, but I do have a lot of experience and have run a lot of things.

Live the adventure, folks!  And be a great Ref!