Thursday, October 31, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 28!

Just three days remaining in Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge!  Here we go!

Transcending the material plane:  how do you GM online?

Long story short?  I don't.  Period.

I'll play board games online--I've recently been on a kick, playing Sentinels of the Multiverse with several of the other members of the Greater Than Games forums--but I don't play RPGs online.  I don't really feel any animosity for those who do, but it's not for me.

Why, you might ask?   In my eyes, rpgs are an inherently social activity.  There's something to be gained not just from the interaction of players at the table, not just in terms of collaborative storytelling but also in terms of table banter and personal relationships.  Online gaming, whether via typing or a voice-chat utility, loses the inflection and nuance of face-to-face interaction.  While it can be convenient, it's a poor substitute for the real thing.  Since I haven't been at a lack for face-to-face gaming in quite a while, I don't intend to change anytime soon.

So, online gaming for me.  I'll stick to my face-to-face Friday night group and my yearly convention circuit, thank you!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

30 Days of GameMastery--Day 27!

4 days in Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge left!  Take a look at today's entry:

Have you ever co-GMed?  Would you consider it?  What are the pros and cons?

I have actually co-GMed, though it's been quite a tick since I've done so.  Way back when I was still at Wittenberg, a good friend and I co-GMed an end-of-year one-shot which actually ran over two days in length!  That session, one of the infamous Blackfall games from which I took my company's name, was an absolute tour-de-force in terms of challenge.  Players rose up, characters fell, and the illithid conquerers of Blackfall were ultimately undone by the acts of a single dwarven mage who sacrificed himself to shunt the city into a different timestream, removing it from the world at large.

Co-GMing, as you might imagine, comes with a good deal of baggage.  While as a normal GM, you might enjoy relative autonomy in terms of the plot, overarching story, and presentation of NPCs, these become areas of consensus when someone else is riding shotgun in the GM's chair.  However, that same consensus can also result in great ideas that may not come from one GM alone.  And what, if anything, are RPGs if not some sort of collaborative storytelling?!

Is there room back here for two people?
Or more?!
The biggest difficulty with co-GMing, though, has to come down to time.  Normal GM prep can take a solid amount of time on its own; now imagine trying to line up that prep time with another individual, with a schedule just as busy as yours.  A relatively new friend of mine, met through the Wittenberg Role-Playing Guild, mentioned that he and another guilder were intending on co-GMing a semester-long Legend of the Five Rings game, as demand for L5R was particularly high.  Knowing their schedules, I immediately questioned his sanity:  getting together to prepare for a collaborative session every week?  That's a bit much.  However, they've somehow made it work, with one GMing focusing on the more zany, combat-based encounters and the other dealing with more role-play focused, character-driven vignettes.

One potential solution that I've seen to this dilemma is to simply alternate GMs--either the GMs share one character or play their own while the other GMs, with the GM's own PC fading into the background for that individual session.  While I haven't actually attempted this concept yet, it's been raised at our Friday night table as a potential alternative for some of our busier players, who may not have time to prep for a full session each week.

Overally, though, the biggest key has to be communication.  If you're going to co-GM, pick someone with gaming preferences similar to your own, such that the disconnect of switching GMs doesn't throw off your players.  And, throughout the entire process--from prep to play to prep again--you've got to keep talking and making sure that all the GMs are on the same page.  Do that, and this crazy idea just might have a chance.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

30 Days of GameMastery--Day 26!

Just 5 days left in Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastery" challenge!  Let's get started!

Are GMs bad players?  How do you step back when someone else is running the show?

Let's answer this one succinctly:  yes, GMs are bad players.  You know how "too many cooks spoil the broth"?  Too many GMs spoil a game.  Just as you might come to the game table with one vision of what your game will look like, every other GM comes with that same idea and attitude.  And, while this isn't unique to just GMs--everyone has personal preferences, of course!--the act of GMing represents a step towards actualizing that reality.  Turning over your stake in a virtual reality is hard! 

I do find, however, that my own tendencies as a player help keep the action moving.  You see, I'm an instigator.  I'm the guy who's always going off on his own, exploring places where he shouldn't be poking around,  While I have run into the occasion where new GMs aren't always prepared to deal with my off-the-cuff adventuring, most GMs find that I provide them with ample opportunities to exercise their evil ways, which pleases them to no end.

I also try to make myself available as a rules resource, particularly if we're playing a system that I have a degree of system mastery with.  While I do my best to not interfere with the actual act of running a game, if there's a question of rules, I offer to look up page references or cite my own experience in the system.  That way, the GM can focus on the in-game situations as they stand, while I can take care of the minutia.

Really?  The best thing you can do?  Just sit back and enjoy--trust your GM and trust the journey they're going to take you on.  Hang up your jaded jacket at the door and dive on in!

Monday, October 28, 2013

30 Days of GameMastery--Day 25!

You know it by now:  Lindevi.  "30 Days of GameMastering".  Challenge.  Go!

Problem players and drama llamas:  what's your horror story and how did you resolve it?

So, let's go back to the halcyon days of 2008.  The PlatinumChick and I were still living in our apartment in Fairborn, planning our wedding and eyeing up houses here in the Miami Valley.  Our Friday night game group was still rolling along and 4e was less than a year old.

Enter Richard.  Richard was the co-worker of one of our Friday night mainstays and had been looking for a regular group for quite some time with no luck.  As such, we welcomed him in...which was probably our first mistake.  You see, Richard came with three major problems which, like a bad rash, kept reoccurring.

The first was the least serious, though as a GM, it frustrated me personally.  Richard constantly wanted to revise his character, making significant changes and revisions, well over and above any 'retraining' coupled into the system.  Richard made a nuisance of himself, barraging myself and other gamers at the table, looking for input...which he would consistently ignore, both at the table and in character advancement.  One of the most absurd instances occurred during our "Pirates of the Underdark" game.  Despite the table's protests, he dropped a high-damage area-of-effect power into the middle of the party, hoping to catch a number of their foes in the blast.  Not only did Richard miss every one of the enemies, he damaged all of the party members in the melee, critting two of them!  After several sessions of this chaos, we started referring to Richard's character as "the best player on the GM's team!"

Really, Richard?
You couldn't play at the game store over the weekend
and arrive at our RPG night on time?
The second reason frustrated everyone at the table.  You see, Richard was a big HeroClix enthusiast who enjoyed playing at one of the various game stores in the Dayton area.  However, Richard's night of choice?  You got it:  Friday night.  Typically, our game nights begin around 6pm.  We grab dinner together--either at a local restaurant or take-out joint--and begin playing around 7:30, lasting until 11:30 or midnight.  Unfortunately, Richard's HeroClix games ended at 9pm, which was followed by a minimum half-hour drive to our apartment.  As such, Richard often wouldn't arrive until 10pm!  After a number of requests and emails, nothing had changed on this front.

The third reason, truth be told, was quite personal.  You see, Richard was married.  The PlatinumChick and I were engaged, about to be married in 2009.  However, that didn't stop him from sending her numerous inappropriate texts and making homophobic commentary at the table, fully knowing that I'm bisexual.  This one, I took personally.  I'm as lewd as it comes, but there's a big difference between making jokes between friends actually making moves on a to-be-married woman, especially while you're married.

Three strikes?  You betcha.  Not long after we moved, I finally pulled the trigger on Richard:  during one of the numerous sessions he had missed, I raised my concerns to the group and suggested that we release him.  The next day, I sent him a brief email highlighting our concerns and letting him know he would no longer be welcome at the table.  He took it...well, about as well as one could expect, but it hasn't been an issue since.

I've seen Richard at a few gaming events in the Miami Valley since then and, believe it or not, he's been rather civil.  He actually sat in on one of my Cold Steel Wardens demos and was an eager, invested player.  Maybe there's room for some redemption, I suppose, but I don't really aim to find out.

In the end, not everyone is a 'fit' in every game group.  If it happens, you've got to remain cool enough to speak the truth and do what's best for everyone involved.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

30 Days of GameMastery--Day 24!

Just a few days left of Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastery" challenge.  Let's get right into it!

Canon vs. alternate universe vs. original setting:  What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?

A great many blog entries ago, I spoke about the concept of Kotov's Syndrome:  better known in gaming circles as 'analysis paralysis'.  You see, the problem when you can do anything, is that you can do anything!  Without limits or some sort of constraining device, we mere mortals tend either freeze up completely or flounder through, unfocused, without any overarching plan.

I've found that, in most of my personal creative endeavors, it's best to put at least some limits on yourself.  Limiting a game concept, a setting, or a scenario provides focus and allows a writer to better stay on topic.  When writing Cold Steel Wardens, I made what I originally thought to be a controversial decision:  CSW as a system does not have rules for transformative powers (a la the Human Torch or Colossus) or invulnerability (a la Superman); I tend to think they're overly powerful and not suited to an investigation-focused idiom.  However, in practice, I've found that none of my players or readers ever found my decision to be that controversial--it made sense, given the context.

In terms of setting, I tend to appreciate these sorts of limits, as they provide finite plot points and boundaries for players to act within.  Don't get me wrong--I like worldbuilding as much as the next writer/designer/GM/whatever, but in terms of my home games, I find that I prefer the "alternate universe" idea best between today's trio.

There but for the grace of the Dark Knight...?
The biggest benefit of the alternate universe is familiarity.  Considering the recent release of Arkham Origins, let us consider the example of The Batman.  If you're running a game in Gotham City, your players will know what to expect, even if Bruce Wayne never makes an appearance.  They'll expect pseudo-Gothic environs, corruption through the heart of the city's infrastructure, and organized criminals facing off against the masked "freaks" institutionalized at Arkham.  All of that sounds like a basic canon universe, but the alternate universe allows you to alter that paradigm in a manner of your choosing.

So, let's change the paradigm and make that canon setting into an alternate universe.  Imagine that same Gotham if Bruce Wayne had never became Batman.  Certain members of his rogues' gallery might never come to fruition, while still others would become unchecked powerhouses.  Bane might never exist, though someone like Black Mask might become a titan of the underworld.  We have a framework in existence for the world, though the players can't necessarily expect their knowledge to be accurate.

Maybe that's not satisfying for your Batman-ia.  Perhaps you could instead alter your universe such that Bruce Wayne died in his third year of being Batman, before ever adopting Dick Grayson.  In such a scenario, numerous ripples would echo across the universe, perhaps with Grayson himself attempting to take on the role of masked vigilante with no mentor.  What would he be like, without Wayne's intervention?  What about Wayne's later protoges:  Jason Todd, Time Drake, and Barbara Gordon?  The possibilities, within a limited scope, are utterly endless.

Such is the benefit of the alternate universe.  Once you have some lines to work within, it's so much easier to work without!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 23!

If you don't know the drill by now....Lindevi, "30 Days of GameMastering", challenge, go!

What effects do system mechanics have on story?

When I started gaming, I was a big supporter of the d20 System.  One system that could do potentially everything?  A unified, easy-to-understand mechanic that just so happened to line up directly with the world's most popular roleplaying game?  Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, in practice, results were always sort of mediocre.  While certain ports of the d20 System--notably Call of Cthulhu d20--managed to maintain atmosphere and tone, many other interpretations of the system (even by big publishers) were bloated, flavorless, and just 'meh'.  d20 Apocalypse was like that for me:  while the post-apocalyptic feel in gaming has always been ripe for great ideas, but the quintessential d20 post-apoc sourcebook left me unimpressed.

Over time, I came to realize a hard lesson:  just because you can make something in a generic system doesn't mean that you should.  Thanks to The Journeyman GM, I love Savage Worlds and its various settings, though truth be told, I can't see myself ever running a true horror game in SW.  Savage Worlds was built to emulate a pulpy, adventuresome feel, with Bennies and streamlined damage that allow for quick recovery.  In a horror game?  You don't want either of those things.  And, while Deadlands certainly contains aspects of horror, it's hard to truly be "scared" when you're playing a hard-bitten gunslinger, a mad scientist, or Gambit from the X-Men.

The right tool for the right job.
Game design is a unique animal:  it's a strange marriage of mathematician and creative writer that calls upon every spare neuron in your brain.  However, it takes both to make a great game.  A game tied too heavily to its mechanics feels generic and like math homework.  A game tied too heavily to its theme feels ephemeral and tacked on.

Think of game mechanics in terms of a tool box.  If you were going to hang a picture, you'd use a hammer and a nail.  You might instead use a drill and screws.  However, you probably wouldn't decide to use a wrench and spackle, even though they might possibly be able to hold the picture up.  The same thing goes for game mechanics.

This guy just lost some SAN points...

The best games use their mechanics to support their theme.  Call of Cthulhu encourages diverse skill use by tying advancement to using skills throughout the game.  CoC emphasizes the descent into madness through its ubiquitous "sanity spiral" wherein failing Sanity tests not only can drive you crazy now, but also makes you more likely to fail further Sanity tests.  Cold Steel Wardens emphasizes brutal combat and psychologically damaged heroes, spending an entire chapter (in a nominally superheroic game) detailing Injuries and Psychoses.  Dresden Files uses Aspects and very broad skills to emulate the flexibility of its arcanely-powered characters.

In the end, you've got to use the best tool for the job.  And, while something like d20 or GURPS or d% might be able to do the job, why not choose a more specialized tool that makes your job easier?  In this brave new world of digital publishing, there are games to emulate nearly every genre imaginable:  don't be afraid to give something new a try!

Friday, October 25, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 22!

Let's keep it rolling:  Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge continues!

A novel solution:  what's the best advice you've borrowed from a totally different field?

Einstein was once quoted as saying, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."  When you're writing--whether for a novel or a game--inspiration has to come from experience.  The more you read, the more you watch, the more you think...the more ideas you can pull from at the game table.

As such, I've pulled inspiration from some rather odd sources in my day.  In terms of GMing technique, however, the strangest source may well be the various educational philosophies I've come across through my years in teaching.  While most people don't necessarily think of John Dewey or Lev Vygotsky as great gamemasters, the truth is that they provide unique insights into engagement, feedback loops, and reward systems for learning.

For example,Vygotsky emphasizes a concept known as "scaffolding" to advance students towards more advanced concepts via smaller, digestible chunks.  I'm actually currently utilizing this idea in my Planescape game, in terms of the numerous factions in Sigil.  During our first session, our heroes were thrown into a chaotic situation, featuring a mysterious madman known as Barking Wilder.  During our second session, as the PCs were arrested for trespassing (and several other charges), they learned that Barking Wilder was the missing leader of an organization known as the Xaositects, who opposed their jailors, the Harmonium.  As the PCs made their escape, their knowledge and understanding of the factions and their intricate relationships has expanded, with our intrepid planewalkers about to be fully immersed in the complexities of Sigilian politics.

Obviously, educational theory can be quite the mouthful, and it's of most use behind the GM screen, as players often simply don't care about anything but the results themselves.  However, if all goes as planned, I'll be speaking about educational theory at the game table at length as one of my "Pendulum Method" essays.  With any luck, it'll be on shelves next year!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 21!

Today marks the start of the final leg of Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge; we're going to start talking about some of the "meta" details of gaming, starting with...

What are your favorite books about gamemastering?

Let's get one thing clear.  GMing means writing.  Even when you're running a game off-the-cuff, you're creating a narrative in which your players interact.  Even if you're using a pre-made setting or pre-made adventure, the details will always be different:  your Greyhawk is not my Greyhawk is not JimBob's Greyhawk.  And, even if you're not committing your campaign to text for posterity's sake, it's still being published each and every game night.

The best manual on GMing
that you could ever want.
Because of this, my favorite book about GMing is actually my favorite book about writing:  Stephen King's On Writing.   Say what you will about Stephen King--I find his writing poignant and tense, though I do enjoy his short stories more than his novels--but the man knows how to weave together interesting characters into a great narrative.  And, his magnum opus--the Dark Tower saga--is nothing short of masterful.

King intersperses his insights on the writing process with the story of his own development as a writer, taking a painful and self-deprecating look at not only his years of substance addiction, but also the recovery from his crippling car accident.  King's autobiographical moments permeate his advice, as he's able to contribute a full lifetime of writing and reading to his advice for other writers.

I can't really recommend On Writing highly enough; but, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don't have to take my word for it.  Take a good think about the following 6 rules--taken directly from a Guardian excerpt of On Writing itself--and then go pick it up:

  1. The basics:  forget plot, but remember the importance of 'situation'.
  2. Similes and metaphors:  the rights, the wrong.
  3. Dialogue:  talk is sneaky.
  4. Characters:  nobody is the 'bad guy'.
  5. Pace: fast is not always best.
  6. Do the research, but don't overdo it for the reader.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 20!

We're 2/3 of the way through Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge--this post rounds out the "At the Table" section.  Starting tomorrow, we'll start talking about the "Meta" topics, which deal more broadly with the hobby in general.  But, for now, let's talk about our last "At the Table" topic:

What was your best session and why?

I've spoken about this session before, but the penultimate session of my "Tear of Ioun" game really stands out as one of my favorite sessions of all time.  A great deal of session prep went into building siege rules for the scenario and the set-pieces of the battle itself were outstanding, taking almost a full session to assemble the giant Morgordal Keep walls.

My players survey the field in
this massive siege!
The battle itself was really neat, as any great set-piece battle should be.  The combat was streamlined (if not exactly quick, with each player controlling their PC, an NPC ally, a siege engine, and a battalion of troops) and constantly engaging.  Even at the late hour of 1:00 am, my players were eager to play out the siege to its finality.

But, what struck me most?  What I enjoyed the most?  The fact that, in the midst of that sea of miniatures and scenery, in among all those dice rolls and gaming that could easily have descended into simple 'accounting' players still were knee-deep in actual role-playing and in-character dialogue.  FridayNightWill's runepriest chanted prayers and maledictions in the name of Kelemvor while smashing aberrations with his warhammer.  Martook's feeble supplications to Moradin before finally turning to Bane in his despair made for a phenomenal moment, particularly when he burst forth from the stomach of a purple worm, radiating power from his infernally-powered armor.

Every GM struggles at some point with the balance between the many desires of his group.  When people can't even agree on pizza toppings, it's up to the GM to try to find a happy medium in terms of game emphasizes.  I'll admit, I was worried that I had erred too far to the side of tactical combat in running this session, but the results spoke for themselves:  my players had a phenomenal session and I was left wondering how I could possibly top that awesome night.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 19!

Okay, brief warning before this entry in Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge:  this one might be a touch triggery for those sensitive to certain issues.  Apologies in regards to my fully admitted poor judgement, though I believe this story is worth telling.

What was your worst session and why?
This is a story that I don't tell lightly, because despite my cynical nature, I try to focus on what's good and what's exciting in the gaming world.  While I've gone on my share of rants--mostly regarding the upcoming D&D Next and my issues with Monte Cook and Mike Mearls--I tend to only review things in a positive manner and do my best to provide constructive criticism at every level of a game's development.  But this session stands out as my absolute worst; I feel guilty about it to this very day.

Roxanne Butler
Roxanne Butler:
our unfortunate Huckster.
When I was running my Dark Tower/Deadlands crossover, the PlatinumChick played as Roxanne Butler:  a card-slinging New Orleans Huckster, trying to find her missing father.  Roxanne had worked for years as a "lady of the night", using her Huckster abilities to delude her 'johns' into believing they'd had a sexual liason, while actually preserving her virginity.  Roxanne came coupled with numerous bonuses to persuasion and charisma, often serving as the party 'face'.

While in Alderman's Creek, a small town plagued by numerous problems, Roxanne went off on her own to investigate a Paul Ashby, a preacher with particularly loose morals, who might have some leads on the town's issues.  The intention, naturally, was to use her feminine wiles to convince the preacher into revealing something of note.  I had intended to play up Ashby as being overly aggressive, resulting in a more difficult interrogation.

What I had not anticipated, however, was that scenario devolving into an in-character, attempted rape.  Lost in game-space, the scenario quickly degenerated into an ugly scene of the Ashby pinning Roxanne down and attempting to penetrate her.  Luckily, Roxanne was able to escape as one of the posse's followers shot Ashby before he could complete the deed.

I fully admit--as a GM, I was in the wrong in narrating/GMing this scene.  The description of this scenario was overly graphic and traumatizing.  I really have no excuse for my actions in this regard; that night after the session, I actually made a full written apology to my players afterwards and offered to retcon the scenario, but the damage itself was already done.

Now, I have no issues with including sexual material in my game.  In one of the playtests of Cold Steel Wardens, my players actively pursued a lead to a BDSM dungeon, hoping to find some information on a recent visitor.  However, sexual content and sexual assault are two very different animals.  In this Deadlands game, I neglected my players' personal comfort in favor of letting the dice fall where they may, and there's simply no excuse for that.

I can't stress this enough:  you've got to know your players and know their limits.  I crossed my players' limits, inexcusably, though they were kind enough to forgive me and give me the benefit of the doubt going forward.

So, what can I say?  I've learned a harsh lesson from this experience, reminding me of something very valuable.  As a GM, your job is to provide entertainment and amusement for your players--not to play things out 'realistically', especially without giving thought to the consequences.  Be aware, be sensitive, and when in doubt:  err on the side of PG.

Monday, October 21, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering Challenge--Day 18!

Lindevi's beating me to the punch in her "30 Days of GameMastering" challenge.  Let's fix that!

How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?

Full disclosure?  I hate bookkeeping.  Even while teaching, the act of grading papers and filing student records nauseates me.  Keeping track of player XP and doling out parcels of magic items is tantamount to extra work on my part, which I can't stand.  To me, each second that you spend with the details of minutia like XP tallies is less time that your party is actually out earning that XP!

As such, I very rarely use a true "advancement" system by rule.  Rather than tallying up XP for each character individually, I have a hard and fast rule of "level up every third session".  That way, players still get to watch their favorite characters advance and grow more powerful, while eliminating the need to tally XP or penalize players for having life get in the way.

Loot!  Glorious loot!
For the same reason, I very rarely dole out magic items en mass either.  Rather, I tend to favor the "inherent bonuses" option common in D&D 3.5e and 4e, which provides the same mathematical bonuses without suffering any mathematical imbalances.  If a system doesn't offer such a system and magic items are an expectation, I try to encourage my players to build a "wish list" of items that they feel would fit well with their character over time.  Having a list for each player lets me prepackage items that the players actively want, which satisfies them and makes my job as GM easier.

However, when I do hand out magic items, I do my best to ensure that they're unique and flavorful.  Warlord Kang's daisho from our run-through of The Flood, for example, was inhabited by the spirit of Kang's murdered brother, inciting any who wielded it into an unholy rage.  Maerlyn's Grapefruit, from my Dark Tower/Deadlands crossover was scry on others or to cast any spell...but with potentially disastrous results.
The key thing for rewards, though, is that they have to feel special.  A generic +2 sword?  No one gets excited about that.  But when those elements have a background, unique powers, or plot significance?  That's when the cream rises to the top, friends.