Odd question, although it shouldn’t be, considering I game with a set group of folks. You would think we would give gifts — birthday or otherwise. The answer is: whatever we are playing at the moment.

I’ve given copies of SerenityBattlestar GalacticaAtomic Robo,, and others to folks. Most likely, I would give Hollow Earth Expedition to folks if I were gifting this year, as that’s what we’ve been playing, but who knows what the future will hold?

The question for today’s RPGaDay was “share one of you best ‘worst luck’ stories.” that one is easy: During a Stargate SG-1 campaign (we were using the James Bond: 007 RPG rules set with some tweaks for aliens, etc…) — it had to be 2005 — we were playing parts in the big Antarctic battle at the end of Season 7. One of the players had a fighter pilot who had been flying the F-302s from the show. During the big fight, he rolled a 00 (always a fail in JB:007) to dodge a shot from a goa’uld fighter.

The pilot struggled to get control of the fighter, which was now plummeting toward the ice below…but he’s got plenty of time; he’s six miles up! First roll to get control: 00. Safety roll: 00. The craft is now so badly damaged he’s got no choice to put it down. Control roll…

00! Safety roll: 00

He’s got to punch out as the F-302 starts to come apart in a flat spin. Tries to punch out…

Double. Zero.

This is his sixth indisputable failure. I have a choice: GM fiat and say “no, you’re getting out of this one” or accept that the universe wants this character deader than dead. (The player agree — dead. Super dead.) Never seen anything like it before or since.

Honorable mention goes to the husband of one of my gamers that used to play with us for a while. He was a bit of a duffer — he could never remember the die mechanic, even though we’d played for a year. He also was one of those guys that no matter what dice he used, they betrayed him at the most inopportune moment. This lead, one night, to him throwing himself to his knees, crying, “My dice at fucking me!!

 

Simple: play it. Better: Run it.

Managing a game will require you to engage with the rules at a deeper level than the players — for the most part. There are games like Fate and some of the indie stuff that try to spread the storytelling and rules management across the entire group, and there are people that love that, and in those rules sets, playing is probably just as good.

When learning a new game, keep the adventure short and to the point. Make sure the events play to the strengths of the setting or rules. If you’re in a game where court intrigue is the point (say, Blue Rose) you focus on a few scenes involving court intrigue. If you’re learning the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, you need fights that involve magic, swordplay, and monsters.

A normal adventure, for me, plays to several points in the rules: have a social scene that involves the characters talking their way through a problem, have an action sequence that plays to the strength of the game — guns, fists, swords…what’s the schtick? — and have some kind of investigation scene to figure out a problem or mystery, and an athletics-based scene. If you were doing a Chthulu-type game, there should be something that tests the wits and courage of the characters; if you’re playing fighter pilots in a space opera game — have a vehicle combat scene…or save that for the next session.

Like a new car, use only the features you need to get from the car lot to your home: the steering wheel, the pedals, and gears. Leave figuring out Bluetooth and the overly complex entertainment system fro when you can’t accidentally mow down pedestrians.

…or very rightly…

Last week’s game ended with a raid by the pirate forces of Chua Te, Captain Trihn, who was looking for a place to land after the destruction of his pirate haven, San Antonio. the Captain of Sanctuary, Hollander, put him off for a bit, but the baddies were scaling the sides of the old passenger liner in search of our travelers and their Vril companions. We ended on a good cliffhanger, outnumbered and with the monstrous henchman, Tongo, just having grabbed a hold of Gus Hassenfeldt….

The night started with Tongo hurling Gus over the rail, not to be seen again for the night. The reason for this is the player is at a Transformers convention. His character failed to transform into a flying machine (that we know of…)

During the fight, it was obvious they were trying to capture Gould. Hunter wound up taking down quite a few pirates with the katana he picked up while in India. (It will eventually become a plot device.) In the fight, he tok on and slew Tongo with one hell of a good strike with the weapon. Between this act and the Vril lighting pirates up with their ray guns, the pirates fled.

However, another faction was in play, as the strange dwarf-like critters that carry around Ivora the Magnificent, the mistress of the airship Sela, stole in during the fight and made off with Zara, Olga, and Shria — the Vril pilot and daughter of Emperor Mot of Atlantis. Hunter noted the abduction and gave chase, with Gould following, leading up to the boat deck, where a basket was waiting to be winched up to the waiting Sela, as the airship was casting off. Hunter went for broke and jumped onto the basket using the katana to try and stabilize himself (and nearly killing one of the women inside.) This lead to a tussle with one of the dwarves, which threw him from the basket into the jungle below. Gould shot up the engine car of the airship and damaged it a bit.

About this time, Trihn’s fleet opened up on the Sanctuary, blasting the old ship repeatedly. Old steel eventually started to give way, and the scaffolding that held the Sanctuary upright began to fail. Gould and Amon, the Vril leader, gathered up their gear and people and were attempting to escape the place when they ran into Hunter, who with a great acrobatics roll survived the fall through the trees. They decided to go after the women as they had little time before the airship was too far to follow. They worked their way forward through the damage and fires to the forward cargo hold cum laboratory for Uncle Zek, and after rescuing his daughter, make good their escape in his flying wing. (Tossing a bunch of machinegun rounds at the fleet for good measure.

In quick order they catch Sela, which is following the crash track for the war saucer, Aruna. She’s going for the salvage? They get close, looking to down the airship, but they are hanging Lady Zara and Shria out of the sides of the ship — hostages. The characters race ahead and make a dangerous landing in the clearing the saucer is downed in. They have about 90 minutes to figure out how to repair the ship, and Uncle Zek — with Hunter’s mechanical aid, and Gould’s science knowledge, manage to rewire the systems to use fewer “heat crystals” that it usually can.

And just in the nick of time, too: Sela has arrived and Ivora is threatening to drop the hostages if they don’t give her the crystals. Hunter opens up with the guns on the airship and Ivora makes good her threat — giving us our first party kill of the campaign. Gould goes to aid the woman dropped out of the airship, only to have the dwarves rappel into his path. In the ensuing fray, Hunter fatally damages Sela with the flying wing’s guns; and Amon and Zek drive off or kill the dwarves. Shria is able to escape the crashing airship with minor injuries.

They use the saucer to track the wreck of Sela, and jump onto the collapsed balloon that is holding the keel and control car up in the trees. This led to a chase, in which they discover Ivora has held onto Olga — she has figured out that the woman is a psychic battery and has use of her…because Ivora is some kind of mentalist of sorceress. She is able to use some kind of telekenesis, able to shroud herself from view by “clouding men’s minds”, and the fight between her amplified powers (thanks to Olga) and the two men was tense but ultimately they rescued Olga while losing Ivora in the trees.

They returned to the clearing, where Aruna was coming to collect them, in the hopes of finding Hassenfeldt back at Sanctuary when they hear a strange snuffling sound, and turn to find themselves face to face with a tyranosaur!

And thus, I’ve managed to keep every session, so far, ending on some kind of cliffhanger, with a character missing, another dead, and the rest facing a mega-predator.

[This post was supposed to drop on the 20th…Oops! SCR]

This is an odd question, as it seems to suppose challenging means difficult, rules-wise. That’s not the tack I’m taking. For me, the most challenging system I’ve learned is Fate.

What? Fate’s so super simple!

Not if you’ve been playing for some time. In the olden days — 30 years ago or so — the GM or DM was in an adversarial position to the players. You came up with the world, the challenges, and you sought to outwit the players, and vice-versa. Narrative control rested heavily with the DM. DM was God.

Later, games moved toward a less adversarial position, but the GM was still the guy who came up with most of the aspects of the story and the world the players moved through. Fate, and many indie games, try to shift this over to the players. It can be a laudable goal, and can lead to a more enjoyable experience for the entire group…but I also think it can cause a game to suffer from too many cooks in the kitchen. This has certainly been the case for several groups I’ve played with, where the players either aren’t ready to take up the mantle of throwing aspects on the board, or who are more focused on their characters and don’t want to do the worldbuilding.

Fate and many of the indie games have a “pick up game” quality to them. Low prep, quick in, play, get out. This works brilliantly for certain genres, and not so well for ones that involve, say, mystery solving, where the players want to be surprised. That’s not as likely when you’ve hashed out how the monster works in a committee. Fate and indie games often are aimed, I would suggest, at those players who frequently GM or want to.

Our experience — and this is a small sample group, mind you — is that games where the narrative control is purposefully thrown at the players can lead to confusion. Everyone needs to have a good handle on the rules, not just the GM. The most common complain I’ve heard for Fate, for instance, is along the lines of  “I don’t know how to do the scene aspects.” Not everyone is quick on the quip or the good aspect…nor should they have to be.

This push (and it is a push, not a pull) to make the players more involved in every aspect of the game runs counter to most RPGs, which typically have had one person leading the way. The head chef, if you will, with the players cooking or playing sous chef; the GM sets the overarching themes and story, the players lend the spice, the surprise, and the character to the story. Maybe a better metaphor would be writer/director and actors…the story and look is the purview of the first, but the second often get the accolades. The director can sin a good performance or story, but the actors or players can save it with a great performance.

When Fate and other games of this sort work well, they really work well. With the right group, the use of aspects, the sharing of aspects of the story can improve upon the play and be immensely rewarding. However, I don’t think systematizing many of these elements of the story is needed. I don’t know how many times a player has made an observation that improves a scene — “You said it was raining, how much harder is it to make this turn at speed..? Wouldn’t my Jag make the turn better than their Escort?” You don’t need to throw an aspect, we all get that a car chase at night in the rain is harder for everyone. Fate takes something that often happens at the table naturally, and tries to regulate it, and in doing so makes these moments of play less organic and natural, and more mechanical.

I find that difficult. It’s not hard from a rules standpoint; it’s hard because it tries to force rule into something that was just understood.

The last couple of subjects for the RPGaDay didn’t much interest me, and I was recovering from a 1200 mile weekend on the Triumph, so I didn’t post on them. This day’s question, however, is a good one: What innovation could benefit RPGs and their players most?

This obviously suggests “technology”, and I’ll address that first. Online platforms that allow players to connect across the world is the obvious one. We have Roll20, Google Hangouts, and other video conferencing platforms that allow folks to communicate and play together. Roll20 and Google Hangouts have added functionality — especially the former, which is specifically designed for use by RPG players — like dice apps, character sheet uploading, virtual tabletops, etc. This is all great for the players, and Roll20 looks to be growing quickly…I haven’t had a chance to use it, but I’m intrigued by it.

One of the reasons I haven’t jumped in is the same reason I’ve found this platforms of limited utility — normally, I have a group of two or three people on one end, and a player or two that can’t be at the table on the other. Video conferencing works best when everyone is on the computer and talking online…and while this allows people to connect across the world, it loses a certain bit of the personal touch of sitting together. When you have a bigger group on one side and a person on the other, it’s very difficult to get the logistics of the big room to work well — you need a camera and mic that can capture the entire table, and you need a screen positioned someplace where you can have the virtual player visible by those players. To be frank: it’s a pain in the ass.

The times I’ve tried Google Hangouts, it’s pretty stable for a short session, two to three hours, and with a limited number of people (I haven’t tried more than three.) Improvements in video conferencing due to better data bandwidth is the most obvious innovation in distance gaming (did I just coin a term? I hope so!) I think once Roll20 and other platforms also move away from the focus on fantasy gaming toward more generic maps and tokens, character sheets, etc. would be a close second. I don’t play D&D or Pathfinder, but a lot of people do, so that’s just supply and demand, I suppose.

But another point of “innovation” that might be very helpful would be in the field of book design. There’s been a steady move from the ’90s to today toward graphic intensive books: full color, glossy paper, massive tomes that cost a lot, are hard to read, and blow up your tablet when you try to use the pdf. I’d like to see a move (or a regression, if you like spending $60 for a coffee table book you’ll probably never play because you can’t read the damned rules…) toward simpler, cleaner layouts.

Movies.

I know for a lot of folks, it’s books, but for me, it’s film and television. I’m a visual guy and I grew up going to the movies with my dad as a treat, then later escaped to the theater to get away from reality with the likes of Indiana Jones, Mad Max Rockitansky, the Goonies, and James Bond.

I learned the three act structure from movies. Learned that doing an action game could easily use the “three exotic locations for an action set piece” with exposition between of Bond movies. I learned when characters worked, and when they didn’t, and how to set a beat for a scene. This is too short, this is too long. Keep it simple. Move the story.

I went through a period in the late ’80s of getting into comics, and running superhero games. The tone, the beats, and the way to structure a campaign required a rethinking. Longer arcs, but more episodic in nature. This fed into the ’90s, where I started running longer campaigns, rather than ones that lasted a few months. This required a different type of thinking. Instead of organizing a game like a movie, or a series of movies, I started thinking in terms of television series.

About the same time, series that had overall story arcs that were (generally) well-planned were starting to show up. Hill Street BluesSaint Elsewhere, and the granddaddy of well-planned arcs, Babylon 5.

After Bond movies, Babylon 5 was probably the biggest influence on how I game, at least from the notion of having a metaplot that the characters can affect, and the effect of which also change the world and the characters.

There have been other movies and shows that have served as inspiration for our games, and a few books — some of Ray Kurzweil’s stuff from decades ago, the Flashman series heavily informed my Castle Falkenstein games, Greek myth always seems to creep in.

But from how I plot, to how I manage a scene between players, to how I describe things — “Smash cut to the plane over ocean superimposed on a map…” or “We pan down to see your characters moving through the building…” — movies are still my go-to inspiration for games.

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