pdf coverThe Sublime Porte is now live on DriveThrRPG for both Ubiquity and Fate. This sourcebook includes two adventures and maps to the Old City and “European” City, as well as the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace.

The print versions are about two weeks away (hopefully) as we wait for the proofs to come in.

After a few trying day of attempting to teach well online while our district and governor keeping moving the kung flu goalposts, I’ve finally gotten a moment to sit down and bang out a post. Today’s prompt Investigate is a good one.

Everyone’s got that first RPG that really grabbed you. I started, like most, with Dungeons & Dragons (the original boxed set), but the first game to really grab me was James Bond: 007 by Victory Games. The movies were a staple of my teen years, along with other action fare, and this game helped me hone the storytelling art: how to rig together the classic three act adventure, having a good set pieces for action that were tied by character building/exposition scenes to move the action along. Central to the espionage genre, and really for a good dungeon crawl, is the idea of investigation — whether it is uncovering what’s in the next room, tracking down a conspiracy that leads to the big bad or some kind of eldritch horror, finding out who double crossed you on that deal gone bad, to wandering the setting looking for trouble to get into — discovery is ultimately at the heart of most role playing games.

There should always be something kept just outside of the characters circle during a campaign — that big bad you’ve been building up for the final confrontation (don’t bring him in early ’cause they’re going to get insanely lucky on rolls that night and slag him like a bar of lead), some aspect of the bad guy organization (For the first few Bond films, we never saw the head of SPECTRE…he was only “Number 1”.), don’t explain everything, leave some mystery there. Even when the campaign ends, there’s a certain joy in not quite knowing everthing that was going on. Think how much people enjoy throwing ideas around about what that scene meant or what was really going on behind the scenes. The internet is full of movie and TV conspiracy theories. Never reveal all your secrets.

Well, day 14 fell on a day that was supposed to be an easy day that turned into a heavy workload. That was fine by me, since the prompt for that day wasn’t inspiring anything in me.

Today’s prompt, however, is a good one. One of the parts of learning how to GM well is the same as any media of storytelling — framing a scene. Even for sandboxers that simply let players wander about their world looking for something to happen, framing is important. Scene framing involves spotlighting important events in a narrative, or character moments that aid the player in moving toward character growth.

For instance, players might be walking interminably to a mountain where their nemesis rules to destroy a magical McGuffin. The walking, let’s face it, is boring. The day to day mundanity of taking breaks, eating, foraging to find food, can be important for the story — say the characters are traveling through the Valley of Bones on their way to the mountain and after an attack by the adversaries they need to find food and water; that’s now an important, unusual event in their journey. They do it and survive; they don’t and fail. One of the way that RPGs have traditionally gotten around the boring travel bits is with random encounters. That’s certainly a way to go if you’ve had nothing planned for the session, but a better idea might be to do the equivalent of a fade or wipe to the next scene that had impact on the characters. This doesn’t have to be combat. It can be meeting an old friend or adventuring companion of a character that allows the player to build on their alter ego. t can be a short side quest — a traveling party was raided and their children/women/money to stake their new life was stolen forcing the characters to make the choice of staying on mission, or breaking to “do the right thing.” It can be some form of moral quandry — do they help the [your enemy here] who has been injured, is trapped in quicksand (or the equivalent trap), or something that ties tightly to a character’s flaws/goals/or moral structure.

All of the players should ideally get their own “beat”; their moment in the spotlight, but sometimes, you’ll find an event is so interesting or emotionally engaging that the players not involved are interested in the story, even if they aren’t the focus. That makes for a great session. A good example of this might be many of the ensemble Marvel movies — every character gets their moment to do their schtick or experience some milestone in their journey, even if it’s a short moment. In a game, this allows the players to be the star for a while.

Framing a scene involves creating the atmosphere you want. Perhaps you’ve beamed down to a distant outpost on a mostly barren world to find the facility empty. There’s no sign of a fight, there’s food half-eaten on the tables in the canteen — as if people had been mid meal when whatever happened happened. Eery quiet save for the ever-present sound of the air circulation system is all you here. However, there’s more than that.

Important scene will have a few factors to them. There will be an action of somesort that has to be reacted to. This can be physical, like an attack; it can be mental, the setting inspires an emotional reaction; it can be philosophical — you present them with a hard choice; it can be social — they have to convince an enemy to turn to their side. The action should have something to do with achieving their goal, whether for the party or a character. It should present them with a dilemma (it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking) that requires a response that could advance their cause, or creat a set-back but require them to “do the right thing”, or which requires some kind of change in the character.

When creating a story for your players, you can best do this by setting up what the outcome that is desired — the characters find the bad guy’s hideout and can rescue the hostages. You have several scenes that push the plot — 1) a discovery of a certain piece of evidence that 2) leads to an initial confrontation with the henchmen of the big bad, and 3) if they succeed pushes them toward the goal or should they fail requires them to regroup, perhaps do another scene requiring them to find evidence or clues, and eventually leads to the denouement. You can let the players wander and investigate the world all you want, but at some point, you drop one of these moments into the narrative, allowing them to move closer to the goal. This dispels the notion they are being railroaded, while still pushing them in the right direction.

So, simoply put, to frame a scene you 1) create the right atmosphere, 2) present a problem that requires 3) the characters to make a decision, and their reaction 4) leads to an outcome or corresponding reaction that moves the story along, or helps the character grow in some fashion.

While I despise the rest rules in Dungeons & Dragons that allow characters to power through a major, life-threatening fight and slough off the damage with a wee nap, the concept of giving the players a break in the action is a well-advised one. Much like in a movie, keeping the tension and action ramped up often doesn’t have the effect you might think. When the action doesn’t break for a moment of levity, character development, or to give the audience a rest from the sturm und drang of noise and fancy visual effects people aren’t pumped up…they tend to get tired or bored. A classic example is Quantum of Solace, in which the action scenes were not punctuated with moments of quiet and character development…the movie wound up being dreadfully dull despite a fusillade of action.

Similarly, when running a game, there’s something to be said for amping up the danger and action; sending them from one threat to the next. However, that can leave the characters unable to regroup, heal, or get their bearings. A good example was a recent Alien game a ran where the characters had reached the denouement, finding a secret lab working on the Engineers’ black goo. Things went predictably wrong as the big bad released some of the results of their work to prevent word of the lab from getting out. In the ensuing fight anf flight that took two sessions, the characters didn’t get a chance to stop or heal — bad guys and critters were everywhere, and there was the threat of the lab’s experiements reaching a nearby mining settlement. Their ship was lining up one of the company transports with an eye to blowing it’s reactor and destroying everything in nuclear fire.

Great set-up. But the characters were failing stress tests left and right and were no longer in control of their characters — they lost agency because I didn’t give them that necessary breather in the action. They couldn’t heal up, they couldn’t relieve stress, and what should have been exciting became a bit of a slog.

Rest — even a break from the action to “talk about their feelings” or get their wits about them is important.

The prompt message left me scratching my head. I don’t want to talk about having a message to your game; we get enough of that through every other media, right now. Play by Message or Email? Never done it, so I don’t really have anything to say there. Using message apps to contact the players in secret…?

I like that idea. In some games, you may want to keep player specific information compartmentalized. Maybe your players have a hard time with out-of-character knowledge and would use it whether their characters would know it or not. Maybe you have a character with a secret agenda or identity that even the players shouldn’t know; for example, a player character who is a Cylon in a Battlestar Galactica campaign, or a mole in the group in an espionage game, or a undercover synthetic trying to manipulate the crew in Alien — the surprise revelation that a trusted PC is actually a bad guy can be a lot of fun. Passing messages on scraps of paper was a time-honored tradition, but when everyone has a smartphone (minus one of my players…damned Luddite!), you can up the game and send not just messages, but pictures (this is what you saw…) or maps snippets (you explored this area alone, look at all the treasure!)

I’m a fan.

Well, that’s another day I missed trying to push out RPGaDay posts. Which brings me to the prompt: Stack.

One thing you can count on is life not stopping. Sometimes, it doesn’t even slow down. Occasionally, it accelerates. August is usually a bad month for me. School and college start up and I’m prepping classes and teaching. Often, Black Campbell Entertainment is in the final stretch of prepping a book for publication (in this case, The Marvelous City — our guide to 1930s Rio de Janeiro), and there’s the attendant kid raising issues. Fun, or even some side project like knocking out a few hundred words on the blog, can get lost.

Thrown in the stack, as it were.

None of us like to comb through the stack — being it the overflowing Inbox of email (or actual mail), the to do list at the house, shopping, errands, kicking out a plan for the week’s adventure(s) with your game group. Currently, I have two groups: the “nerd night” crew of 6 overgrown adolescents; and the mom & daughter group. That’s two D&D games to plan for, not to mention the not as regularly played Star Wars game for the girls and a guy from the nerd night crew.

But fun is necessary. It’s not just gaming — it’s relaxing, it’s fun, it’s social, and especially with the the plethora of kung flu madness circling the globe in news-fueled fear and idiocy, it’s a needed distraction from the adult world.

Make time for it.

Cult Leader Gleh’n, “What does Jeff Goldblum want?”

Jeff Goldblum, “I want…my money back. Oh, oh! And I want angels to give it to me. And pixies to count it out, and a gnome or a hobbit or an elf to sleep at the foot of my bed, and have – I just want them all over my backyard. But no matter what happens with any of that, I DO want my money back.”

“Run, Ronnie, Run”, 2002

Why that quote..? It’s just a funny toss-off line from one of those guilty pleasures movies. If you haven’t seen it; do. It’s got one of the funniest middles of a movie. The rest? Meh. But it was the first thing that came to mind.

What do we want out of gaming? Is it to have fun? Escape the mundanities of everyday life? Be creative? Make some kind of political statement no one else at the table cares about? Get together with friends? All of the above? I suspect it’s the latter for many, but with differing weights to the various elements.

For me the main thing is socializing, I realized recently. i’d always thought the main point of interest in gaming was the creative aspect and having fun, but the recent Zoom-powered gaming made me realize that it’s the act of getting together with people to have that fun. I could game with anyone around the world with Google Meets, Skype, or Zoom…but I want to be with folks, breaking bread, drinking cocktails or beer or wine, and forgetting all of the adult shit we have to do everyday. For a few of the players, it’s their only release from family and jobs. We could just as easily just hang or watch movies, but gaming allows us to really escape reality for a while.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve said that the gaming groups that best hold together are the ones that do other things with each other; who are friends, not just gaming buddies.

I guess that’s what I want. But no matter what happens with any of that, I DO want my money back.

I was trying to think of how I was going to approach the current prompt Shade…then I just spent the rest of the day — my birthday, actually — just enjoying myself before finally sitting down to jot this daily thought on RPGs. Instead of using the traditional definition of the word, the obstruction or partial obscuring of light by an object, i was goin to try ” Shade — a subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone—sometimes verbal, and sometimes not. It appears in the phrase to throw shade…” (Merriam-Wester, of all places), but realized this might hove too close to the political. So no…what else?

Shade as shadow. A thing we see but which is not, in fact, the thing. This takes us back to ol’ Plato’s allegory of the cave: Prisoners have been chained up in the cave, facing away from a bright source of light, and have only seen objects as shadows on the wall. To them, this is reality. One day, a prisoner breaks free and escapes the cave and once his eyes adjust to the light, he sees the things that threw the shade; see the world as it really is. The cave signifies ignorance or agnosis — a lack of knowledge — since ignorance has come to be a pejorative. (I guess you could tie this into the throwing shade definition…)

There’s few things scarier than a lack of knowledge, especially when you are in a situation that is unfamiliar. Many of the games your players will find themselves in have some aspect of the unknown. What is the thing that’s been stealing people’s children? There are rumors of a [pick your monster] living in that cave/under that bridge/inside the mountain — why is it there? What does it want? How do we appease it or get it to go away?

The previous could be used in almost any setting. Is it a monster in D&D? A serial killer playing on a local superstition in the 1980s (when we were told serial killers and pedophiles lurked in every bush and rad van)? Is the colony on LV-691 not responding? Why is that starship drifting through space? Your job is to go find out and maybe resuce people/bring the bad guy to justice/kill the monster and get its treasure/not get face f$%#ed and have an alien burst out of your chest.

Don’t reveal everything. Even when they roll well and should get clues, hold stuff back. Keep the big bad off screen until it’s time to scare the crap out of or enlighten the characters. Make what they see the shade on the cave wall, and only reveal what threw the shadow until the time is right.

This can be equally useful for players. You built that fully-realized mysterious characters that so intrigues you and you want the players to eventually discover for themselves. It’s so tempting to start dropping hints, or outright blurt your secrets into the air…don’t. Have them hold back. Have them lie, or at the very least obfuscate. Shade isn’t an absence of light, and a bit of information or misinformation might be enough to make the others take an interest in the character and want to engage with it. Don’t give it away for free; make ’em work for it.

Couple..? So many bad jokes come to mind. So what to make of this prompt?

Couple (definition)
1a: to connect for consideration together
b: to join for combined effect
2a: to fasten together : LINK
b: to bring (two electric circuits) into such close proximity as to permit mutual influence
3: to join in marriage or sexual union
Well, I met my first wife through gaming. I met my second wife through a gaming friend. So there’s that.
Gaming in many ways has allowed me to take other interests and combine — or couple — it with socializing, with storytelling, with fun. My interest in history was really enervated by playing historical roleplaying games, specifically Space: 1889 and later Hollow Earth Expedition.
At its heart, though, gaming is about connecting people, and while playing together, working in combined effort to tell a story, entertain each other, and get the hell away from the daily grind of life.

What to do with today’s prompt: Forest. Do we take this literally (How to portray forests in a game…) or metaphorically (the ol’ “forest for the trees” canard)?

Answer: both!

Let’s start with the metaphorical. When planning a game, or even being a playing interacting with the story and setting it is easy to get wrapped up in minutiae. We’ll start with the GM side of things. Maybe you haven’t had a lot of time to plan. You’re focused on the next session. This isn’t necessarily bad for the first few sessions, but having some kind of point to a story is pretty essential. Why are they doing what they are doing? Who’s the big bad (if there is one)? What will the denouement look like. It’s a good idea to have some kind of generalized idea of where you want a campaign to go. (But have a Plan B…because Plan A isn’t going to survive contact with your players.)

It doesn’t have to be in depth. Let’s use a Star Wars campaign as a sandbox here: I want the players to 1) get mad at the Galactic Empire or start as rebels, 2) the have an initial introduction adventure that gets them on the heroic path, and 3) get their group a starship bad enough to fight back to 4) help a specific world fight the Empire, leading to 5) the fight with the big bad (in our case Sith Inquisitors), and 6) liberate the world or get martyred trying. There’s plenty of wiggle room for side quests, and it’s vague enough that if they don’t get through one of the waypoints, you can simply give them a similar challenge to overcome. This is especially useful if someone has a ‘”destiny” or there’s a premonition of something to happen that a character has. Make it vague enough to switch elements of this destiny-connected moment. Maybe they don’t see the face of the person their fighting, just the lightsaber color. It’s dark. They’re super-focused in the premonition and lose important details.

Keep the pace up enough that they are focused on the here and now. Have them look at the trees while you build the forest.

And…literally!

Forests are good places for things to happen. They’re so much more than “You are in a thick forest. There is a footpath you can follow…” What kind of trees? Are they healthy, dying? How’s the light? Is there noise? How about smells?

They provide cover not just to you, but to the bad guys. Woodland sounds, from birds singing to bears farting and grunting, to wind in the trees — there’s plenty of noise that can make it hard to hear someone coming. the foliage can be dense; it’s hard to see a threat until it’s “grabbed you by the belt”, as the Vietcong used to say. There’s animals to distract or attack. Some animals have a pretty strong smell. If’ you’re downwind from a bear, you know. If there’s a skunk in the area, you know.

When you take away noise or some aspect of the forest, you can create real suspense. The noise in the forests just stops…why? The dense tree cover makes it dim light, and there’s constant sounds of things moving in the brush, breaking branches, strange calls or grunts… Throw in some fog or rain. Especially the heavy rain that obscures vision and drowns out noise. What’s that strange smell? What is this strange footprint in the mud?

Forests have different qualities. There’s the cool, damp green of northeastern America or medieval Germany. Its smells and feel much different from the different from the “forests” of southwestern America, where the dry cuts down on smells, but when you do smell something, it’s usually strong and nearby. This is different from the jungles of India  and the those are different from the Amazon, or the Congo. Different plants, bugs, animals.

Making a forest unique can be a challenge, and nothing says you have to go heavily in depth, but even just a few snippets of information — “the trees are tall, their branches high above you, and their canopy obscures the light” — can tell you something. For instance, that example suggests climbing the tree to get a better vantage on something might be difficult. You’re not going to climb a redwood without gear. (Also for all the dark and damp, the redwood forest I was in was warm, even with the cool ocean breezes on the coast.)

Today’s prompt is an interesting one. Let’s start with a definition for Tribute:

1a: something given or contributed voluntarily as due or deserved especially : a gift or service showing respect, gratitude, or affection a floral tribute
b: something (such as material evidence or a formal attestation) that indicates the worth, virtue, or effectiveness of the one in question the design is a tribute to his ingenuity
2a: a payment by one ruler or nation to another in acknowledgment of submission or as the price of protection, also : the tax levied for such a payment
Now, I could get very political with this post, which is the new meow for many; shoving their opinions and gripes in your face at every turn…but I’m not going to do that because this is about fun. So we’re going to pay tribute to “that game” — the game that really sealed the deal for you. The best system or setting. The one you’re playing 10, 20, 30, 40 years later. The one that inspired you in strange ways. The one that just came together right. We all have one. Here’s mine:
Dungeons & Dragons was my first RPG and the one that created a love of telling stories. I started playing when D&D was considered the gateway into satanism and possibly heavy metal music. Which one was worse, you can decide. these were the days when trying to find other players was like being a politician in a rest stop men’s room, tapping your foot under the stall…hey, kid: you like D&D?
We played the hell out of D&D and AD&D, and a bunch of other games from the other TSR offerings like Top Secret and Star Frontiers to Traveler and Universe. But the d20 system, to me, has always had serious flaws, especially for damage and healing (looking at you 5th ed!) Then in 1983, the one hit:
James Bond: 007 by Victory Games. The first system to really capture the flavor of the source material. From damage being tied to how well you did (Quality Result), to “realistic”ish damage in combat; from the product placement quality of having different guns and cars, boats and planes have different performance; to bidding for who went first in chases and rules for seduction (be still by teenage heart!); to designing your character and not randomly rolling — JB:007 was a sea change in how game mechanics worked. It was my first system “love” and I used it non-stop until the late aughties, when having worked in intelligence I was somewhat (okay, very) cynical about the business. I used it for cyberpunk. I used it for a Stargate: SG1 campaign. In many ways, the heavy research I did to try and to give our games verisimilitude led me into the field.
Space: 1889 by Games Designer’s Workshop. This game spurred y love of history, again because I wanted to get the setting right. I wound up specializing in European Imperialism for my bachelors and masters degrees in history. I ran an 1889 campaign pretty much non-stop until about 2007, when I shifted to Hollow Earth Expedition, paralleling my doctoral studies in the interwar period.
The mechanics for Space: 1889 were, to be kind, execrable — but the setting was superbly inventive and fun. With the release of Castle Falkenstein, I ported our 1889 campaign into those rules set, but with the terrible combat system replaced with a kitbashed version of the excellent Lace & Steel rules. It was rereleased in the Ubiquity rules that power Hollow Earth Expedition so returning to it wouldn’t be hard for my players. And it is a setting i keep wanting to return to; there’s just so much to run, right now!
Battlestar Galactica and other iterations of “Classic Cortex” by Margret Weiss Productions. Starting with the solidly good rules for Serenity, the first RPG set in the Firefly universe, I have loved the Cortex system second only to JB:007, and depending on the day, more so. There was some baggage from the original Sovereign Stone  ruleset by Jamie Chambers. It would power a couple of licensed product lines, including Demon Hunters and Supernaturalbut for me it was Battlestar Galactica — with the change to how Traits and Complications were addressed — sealed the deal. I wound up running an epic 5 year campaign that you can find the play reports for in the blog. It was one of the best bits of GMing I have done and it was one of the most fun and engaging games I’ve run. It’s the only campaign I miss.
Cortex got “Fate-ified” when Cam Banks took over the games for MWP, and I was not impressed by the following Firefly, although the new Cortex worked beautifully for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying — which wona few awards and was killed off by the Marvel crew far too early. It combined simple basic dice pool mechanics with lots of wiggle room for using Hero Points to do things, and it captured that freeform feel that the old Marvel Superheroes game from the ’80s had.
So there is my tribute to the games that guided my play for the last…too long. If I were to crown a game the “best” I’ve played, it would be a tie between James Bond and Cortex; my favorite original setting is easily Space: 1889 (which got even better when Clockwerk had it and expanded the world with more Germanic setting information.)
So…what’s your “first one”? That game that really hooked you? That one that you want to play again, or maybe get your friends to stop whinging and try?