I was reading over a couple of pieces on 11 Things to Help Your Players Be Better Roleplayers over on Gnome Stew, and the referenced 11 Ways to be a Better Roleplayer on LOOK, ROBOT and realized that several of their ideas were on display at this week’s game session.

The last few weeks have been a clusterf#$% regarding player attendance — between GenCon for one, another as a speaker at the Transformers convention over in England, and the third have to be away for work and other issues, we’ve been at least one player low all month. The past two weeks had me adapt to this by throwing together a murder mystery for our Battlestar Galactica game, set on one of the ships in the civilian fleet.

The two characters are members of the new Colonial Marshals Service, tasked with looking into violent crime, hoarding, and other immediate issues to fleet security. “Victimless” crime is ignored. However, in the aftermath of the Fall of the Colonies, there have been an understandable spate of suicides and suspicious deaths…they all have to be investigated. The veteran, Chaplain, is annoyed by this — he wants to focus on the Cylon menace, but I need the guy investigating crimes for this episode…right here, the player was doing what Grant highlighted in the second piece as points 3 and 4 — “Don’t Try to Stop Things” and “Take Control of Your Character”: The player didn’t pull the “my character wouldn’t do that” shtick — he followed the instructions of his boss, who told him he needed these cases closed and to get on it; the second character also had a case on the same ship — a missing 16 year old girl. The two decided to pool resources and investigate. The characters both bitched about their assignments — that was fully in character, and they were given the opportunity to harangue their boss…but they’re doing their jobs. In that, I was engaging in point 2 of Phil’s piece on Gnome Stew, Create Opportunities for the Players to Express Their Characters.

Points 3, 4 and 9 of the Gnome Stew article come into play here: One of the things I’ve always tried to do was act more as a director than a writer in games. The characters were given enough information to take action on their own. The players don’t lolligag — they immediately start looking into their respective cases. The whole time, I try to not just play the NPCs, but give possible queues that they might miss in the action, or might not have occurred to them while playing that tie into their character — getting inside the heads of the characters, as it were. Example: The new guy is a geek, an overweight former programmer than helped stop one of the prongs of the Cylon attack. He’s a coward, but he takes on the responsibility of being a cop seriously. As he realizes the parents of the missing girl are hiding something, and the younger brother is upset, I suggested that — this guy, the guy that no one would notice at college, that spent all his time playing a hero in RPGs and computer games, was suddenly the one guy that actually could make a difference and save this girl — he might find this both terrifying, but also an important moment for his self-esteem and personality. The player ran with it. They didn’t have to.

The veteran realizes that the suicide couldn’t possibly have happened as the report says — the safety protocols, etc. are too complex for a guy who was, in essence, the garbageman of the ship. He was murdered. The character is pissed, because now it’s not a check the box suicide investigation…he has to take it seriously. The two both run into a lot of stonewalling by crew and passengers and start to realize they are in real trouble…there’s something going on aboard the ship. They could, at this point, try to get backup or something, but they investigate further (Point 1: Do Something), checking the ship’s cargo manifests and the coming and goings of cargo ships and shuttles (the vessel is a major logistics hub for the fleet.) They also note the tattoos on the security men and crew of the ship — they realize it’s a Ha’la’tha (Tauron mafia) ship. They get the brother of the missing girl alone and find out she’s was sold to the HLT for extra food and clothing rations.

Point 3 for the GM: Keep things moving. Paraphrasing Raymond Chandler, the pulp mystery writer, when a scene bogs down, have guys with guns burst in. That’s what happened here. We’d been building up the suspense for a while and it was time to get things moving. The newbie’s questioning of the kid brings the gangsters after him. There’s a chase and hiding from the bad guys scene in a crew habitat that I described as being a lot like the living quarters in Outland. (I wanted the catwalks, the multiple tiers with points that would require jumping from level to the next. See the movie — it’s a great action set piece.) The vet has to come rescue him and they proceed to kick serious ass. Having done that, they find out they work for a HLT lieutenat operating out of the “box city” — an area of interconnected pressurized cargo containers (like those on a real cargo ship, but with pressure doors, etc.) The same place where the suicide-now-murder took place.

The encounter the bad guys, whom the vet taunts for their obvious lack of forethought on trying to kill them. “What do you think is going to happen? You’ll just wind up with more cops of the marines in here!” Of course, the gangsters are planning on scattering and changing their identities — easy enough with the terrible record keeping currently in the civilian fleet (it’s less than a month from the Holocaust.) It’s a Mexican (or in this case, Tauron, showdown…)

At this point I realize we’re getting close to quitting time for the night and seek to wrap the night before they get to the part where they rescue the girls. The question — do I go for the anticlimactic “Oh, you’re right, here’s the girls” ending, or step it up. I go Chandler — the area is suddenly sealed by other bad guys and the “big bad” (now just a minor functionary) tells them they’re all dead. The gangsters included. The trail will dead end here.

The area is getting vented and the characters had a series of misadventures trying to get to safety including attempting the classic air duct crawl…only to get stuck. Really stuck. Two botches in a roll stuck. At this point I invoke point 10 in Phil’s piece: Make Failure Interesting. The vet is stuck and goes seriously claustrophobic/ upset that after all the shit he’s been through with Cylons and other dangers, he’s going to die stuck in an air vent…and he doesn’t even know why! The players embraced failure, as grant suggested and ran with it. Eventually, they managed to get clear, but it gave a great half hour of entertainment.

One point grant had: Don’t try to stop things came into play here: the newbie is a coward, had been nearly killed, had to shoot a man, and he’s a wreck…his beloved top-end datapad was shot (saving his life) in the hab fight. He wants to get on the first ship off the craft, but the vet knows the HLT isn’t going to let them do that. They settle for hacking the comms system and firing off a report/call for backup from the CMS before they go after the big bad (see above.) The characters argue, they alter each other’s pans, but they don’t try to undo what the other player is doing. They built on it.

We ended for the night with the characters stuck on a gangster controlled ship, who were nearly killed by nameless baddies, but they know where the brothel/club that the HLT is running is on the ship and the newbie — cowardice pushed aside by pride and the chance to be a hero — is determined to save them.

The thing for players and GM to remember is that RPGs are a collaborative form of storytelling and play. The GM (at least in more traditional sorts of games) creates the outlines of the world and the players flesh it out with their actions. Sometimes it’s just offhand comments like the newbie stating the bad guys were trying to make their deaths look like accidents. Well, no, I was trying to come up with a quick ending that didn’t involve the characters getting killed by the ready to shoot villains…but it sounded good, so I ran with it. Take what the players are doing and mold it to work with what you intended — or it their idea’s better, purloin it [without telling them] and run with it. Ultimately, as long as everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.