One element that always seems to make it into the games I run is intrigue. As a youngster, I grew up playing Top Secret and James Bond:007. The spy genre is based around solving mysteries: what’re the bad guys up to? Can you trust your friends? The genre also taught me about verisimilitude — trying to keep an air of realism, even when the adventure was total pulp fiction; and it taught me story structure — how to lay out an adventure to allow players to uncover the mystery yet keep a certain pace to things.

A few good rules to keep in mind:

1) The Jaws rule: Don’t show the monster/McGuffin/bad guy too early. They lose the impact they will have later. Also, your players don’t slaughter them so early you don’t have a story for the rest of the game session. Build up the tension while they uncover clues.

2) The Raymond Chandler rule: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” If things are bogging down, or they’ve gotten too far in an adventure where you can’t finish that session…but you won’t have enough to fill the next, throw a new challenge at them — especially near the end of  a session. It can be a red herring that slows their investigation, it can be an entirely unrelated thing that distracts their attention.

3) The basic spy/mystery plot:

You start the adventure with the hook — the event that gets the characters on the road to solving the mystery. It can be an expository scene where they gain information from an employer, they get a mission briefing from their agency, or they stumble into the middle of an action piece. The point is to hook the players into pursuing the plot. Once you’ve got them there, the basic plot looks something like this:

ACTION SCENE — EXPOSITION SCENE or CLUE FOUND — INVESTIGATION SCENE with each of the action scenes being in their own discrete and appropriate to the type of action set piece. You can do this sequence as many times as you like, but the typical movie three-act outline means each cycle of this sequence gets you closer to the final reveal of the plan/horror/bad guy/whatever. In spy movies like the Bond series, each of these cycles happens in a different exotic locale, but in a sci-fi or horror piece, if could be a different part of the same general set piece. For instance, in Aliens, the initial hook is when the company and the marines ask for Ripley’s aid. The first action scene involves no combat, but does set up the mystery — where’s the colonists? What happened that trashed the colony? The exposition is that the colonists are all in the atmosphere processing plant, which leads to the investigation of the plant and the inevitable action scene in the creepy alien lair, and so on…

Give out just enough information to push the plot, and if the characters do well in their skill tests while investigating, give them tidbits that help set them up to do better in the next story sequence.

 

Gaming is an inherently social pastime. People get together to pretend to be someone they are not, doing fantastical things together. It pulls all walks of life — introverts and extroverts. jocks and nerds, all sexualities, all races and cultures — and it allows them to come together.

Over the past few decades, I’ve made a lot of my friends through gaming, probably more than with any other hobby, through work or school. It was a glue that bound my best high school friends together and kept us traveling across the country to get together for gaming long after college was over. When I landed in a new city, I ought out other gamers. many of these friendships lasted even after the group would break up as people were reassigned in the military, or moved away for work opportunities. I had a gaming group in Albuquerque that lasted three years, then came back together four years later for another decade.

Members of both my weddings were people in my gaming groups. Both wives were met through gaming, either directly or indirectly. Nearly every girlfriend I’ve had? Gamer.

The key in almost all of these friendships was that they might have been focused on gaming, but they rarely stayed confined to that realm. Game groups where the players get together solely to play rarely last, I find; groups that play, that go to movies, that have cookouts and camping trips, or to the movies and dinner together — groups that are friends –last.

 

Today’s prompt was “examine”, and this led me immediately to the idea of the AAR, or after action report. Typically, every session or two I ask the guys how it went. Usually, you’ll get the non-committal “It was good”, or “It was fun”, or something to that effect. But it also gives the players a chance to give the GM feedback on things when they crop up.

For instance, when a player realizes the character they created has veered off in a direction, due to the stories and the direction of play, that they didn’t anticipate. The character may have become less interesting. Maybe they don’t like where it’s going and a course correction on their arc is needed. Maybe they want feedback on how they want to advance the stats, skills, etc. They might not be as interested int he direction of the campaign — it’s not bad to get that feedback; it’s best if everyone is interested in the game. maybe they don’t feel they’re getting enough “screen time” or there’s a personality conflict that they need to resolve.

It’s also a chance to let the GM know what’s working. When “that was fun” gets pretty explicit about why it was fun, the GM can adapt the focus, themes, adjust the “rating” of the game (maybe it got a bit too explicit or violent; or wasn’t enough of the same), or otherwise play up the good things. It’s also a nice ego boost to the guy or gal who put all the effort into putting the game together.

As a player, it’s also not a bad idea, as you play, to think about what your character’s motives are, how they might change with their experiences, and how you understand them. Is a new flaw/weakness/trait appropriate? Is a reduction in a stat a reasonable idea. (Most players aren’t looking to weaken their characters, but I’ve had some who have done just that because it “made sense.”) You can think about your character’s interests, the skills they’ve used, and what a reasonable vector of advancement might be. There’s nothing wrong with, “I want my ranger to become a multiclass with druid” — actually, that makes a lot of sense — but it’s also fine to have your ranger multiclass as a sorcerer. But it helps to explain why and how that’s going to happen. A character that gets their ass handed to them might decide they’re hitting the gym to up their strength, or take some self-defense classes to improve their fighting skill between adventures. That’s a perfect explanation for a skill increase.

 

This was another difficult prompt for me. Focus on what? What should be the focus of the piece? What’s your focus when you game — as a player, as a GM, as a game designer? Are they the same focus? Do they have to be?

I figure I’ll start with the GM approach, since its the role I normally find myself. When you pick a game to run, there are several things you need to consider: genre, overarching themes, plots — whether serial or episodic. What is the focus of a setting? For Star Trek, for instance, it’s usually about exploration and discovery. Does that discovery have to be things and places, or is it important to have self-discovery as part of the themes examined. For Battlestar Galactica, the themes were survival, and at what cost? What is it to be human? For Alien or Call of Chthulu, it’s about exploration of the unknown and finding out that leaving it unknown was probably a damned fine idea. Now die. Dungeons & Dragons‘ focus in high fantasy and wish fulfillment…but for me a game about people taking on monsters took on a different focus (ha! worked it in!): I looked at D&D when I decided to run it a few years ago and saw horror, instead of mythic heroism in the vein of Lord of the Rings or even Greek mythology. The characters were involved in tracking down things that were best left alone, and they should be scary.

What kinds of stories work best in the game setting you chose. Our Star Trek game has yet to hit the exploration theme. We’ve focused on the politics and social disruption that comes after a near-catastrophic war. How is the Federation recovering? How do the colonies feel about being the stomping grounds of the Klingons (we’re set just post season 1 Discovery.), and the perceived lack of help from the Federation? Why colonize — the Federation is supposedly a paradise? Well, some folks don’t want your Starbucked monoculutre, and now they really don’t want your interference in their lives. Which meshes with the attitudes of the colonists in the early episodes of the original show; no one was happy when Enterprise pulled into orbit to do a health & welfare check.

I was looking at the new Alien RPGs quickstart book and found myself less interested int he eponymous monster (or any others) and more interested (much like Ridley Scott, based off of Prometheus and Covenant) on how the corporations and synthetics are endangering people. Space itself is pretty deadly — the horror of the game could come in just the simple things like environmental issues associated with space travel.

For players, what to focus on? Are you interested in your character’s background and how they might interact with that? Do you prefer to leave all that and simply be a 3rd level elf ranger who wants to kick the crap out of some monsters, get their treasure, and level up? Nothing wrong with either option, but it does move your focus — the former might not care so much about their stats, while the latter is probably very focused on the specific mechanics of their character.

Then there’s the interaction of character and story: Does a session of the game focus on the development of one of the characters in particular, with the others playing the supporting cast? Does everyone get a moment in the spotlight? It’s not uncommon, when I’m running a game to have a particular episode focus on one character’s development, with the others getting a chance to do their schtick, but the focus is on the “lead” for the session or two. For an example let’s use Captain America: Winter Soldier — it’s without a doubt, Steve Rogers’ story, but it’s also Bucky’s, and it introduces Falcon and fleshes him out with some important beats, as it does develop Black Widow. They all get time in the spotlight, they all get to participate, but this is really Cap’s emotional journey. Contrast that with Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, in which everyone gets to do their thing, but the spotlight is shared around between the characters — everyone gets their beat. Another example might be Captain America: Civil War — which really should have been a “Avengers” movie — it’s about Iron Man and Cap’s respective journeys, with the other characters getting their beats, but the emotional development is really between Steve and Tony over Bucky and how he’s affected them. Bucky isn’t the focus, but he is the plot device to make the story move. Giving one character that position of plot device to help define the other characters is a fun and tricky way to play with focus, as a GM, on the players’ characters.

Flipping between all of these approaches makes for vibrant and interesting games where everyone eventually gets to be the lead, and everyone still gets to do their thing.

The phrase “critical hit” or crit, and to a lesser extent “critical fail” (or “fumble”, now), have been in the gaming lexicon since the original Empire of the Petal Throne (how’s that for an obscure game, just to tie in with yesterday!). There’s a blog with the name, a band, a game company, it’s on tee-shirts.

Playing a game your character might give or take a critical hit, but these can happen to the players, as well. The classic critical hit — you lose a character you’ve had for a long time and have gotten to know. It’s rarely a going out heroically moment in old school Dungeons & Dragons — it’s almost always the milk run, the filler encounter the GM tossed together that winds up be fuckin’ lethal.  Sometimes it’s that great level 1 concept you just came up with that walks through a buzzsaw. It can be traumatic. You lost something you created and invested thought, time, and emotion into.

For GM’s, it can be the players ignoring the fantastic plot and/or McGuffin you spent all weekend prepping for game, and they just want to schmooze the tavern girl, or they lock onto some random NPC you trotted out for local color, and now they are fixated on this guy and what he’s about. And what he’s about is the having the depth of a greeting card. Worse, you’ve build up the big bad and the snuff his ass before he can give you the big quest, or otherwise sideline your fantastic denouement. (For more on this, see the 0:50 mark below…)

Worse is when you prep up a game, put time and effort into the story, the NPCs, you map things out — it’s work! — only to have people regularly bail on the game. Or your work/life schedule doesn’t allow for play time. Maybe, even worse, the players aren’t into it. The game just falters and you have the choice or dumping the campaign or overhauling it. It’s upsetting.

Or the game group falls apart. We’ve had groups blow apart due to change of stations in the military, divorce — where friends either drift away to avoid the drama, or take sides; people move away, they have new schedules. If you can’t keep a regular schedule, gaming groups die…especially if the game is the only thing bringing you together. It’s one of the reasons I believe gaming groups should do other things together — be friends, not just gaming buddies. Friendships last if they’re build on more than one thing.

What was your critical hit?

I talked about familiarity and how it plays into the popularity of certain game systems and settings — d20 and fantasy. The “obscure” propt sent me down the opposite direction. Those that look for something out of the ordinary or novel for their gaming. I know a local gamer whose thing is “indie” games, and pretty much just that. He’s more interested, I think, in system design than actual play (I could be wrong — you know who you are!), but there’s also the joy of playing something no one else is. It’s like buying a Moto Guzzi as a motorcyclist, or a Polaris Slingshot as your car; it’s an attempt to be anachronistic.

It’s not a new thing for gaming, either…

From the start, there were obscure RPGs hitting the market. Dungeons & Dragons was still garnering a following when Games Design Workshop pushed Traveller out the door in 1977. The game quickly became the gold standard for sci-fi games for quite a while, but it wasn’t the only sci-fi game. There was Universe, an adequate platform for sci-fi gaming…but it had a way cool map of local space. There was Space Opera — a truly execrable attempt at game design that wouldn’t be matched for awfulness until the 5th edition disaster of Traveller. It you can find a copy of Space Opera, place it on the ground and back away very slowly.

Someone always thinks they can do it better.

To be fair, I’ve liked obscure games, myself. James Bond: 007 qualifies, because it was seriously outmatched in sales by Top Secret — a d20, TSR release. I loved Space: 1889, which was unknown outside of a few players I knew, but as sci-fi picked up on the “steampunk” trend, Space:1889 would be joined by more fantasy versions of Victorian speculative fiction like Castle Falkenstein — still one of my favorite systems, once we tweaked the combat system to be workable. We did that by using a far superior, and even more obscure game, Lace & Steel, as our compass. I liked The Babylon Project, despite the “a bit too fiddly” mechanics that Chameleon Eclectic used for the game, but on reflection had a lot of Fate’s (or more precisely Fudge’s) DNA in it. I ran it for almost three years.

What’s your obscure game? (I suspect the military folks that read the blog will trot out Twilight:2000 or it’s more awful variants.)

Role playing games are hot right now. Hottest, according to the sales figures and the number of people watching people playing online than ever. The self-publishing and Kickstarter options allow more publishers to get to market — I’ve been one of those who has benefited from this for years. By far and away, the most popular games right now are Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and Paizo’s version of D&D, Pathfinder, which essentially the same as number 2 — Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. All are, at their core, different versions of d20. Both are fantasy settings. There are a plethora of settings that use these as their gaming engine, from Greek myth-inspired stuff like Arkadia (a neat setting my daughter has been playing in) to modern spy settings and science fiction settings.

Why d20? Because most gamers start with D&D, and they know the core mechanic. Like driving a car, the controls are standardized enough to jump back and forth and not be lost. Now, d20 haters — and I’ve been part of their ranks and am trending that way again — will decry the lack of creativity in bolting on your setting to d20, or will complain about the way hit points or class/level advancements aren’t realistic, or the probabilities of rolling a whatever are flat. All good criticisms. But there’s something to be said for being able to sit down and play without having to learn new mechanics.

My gaming group loves the old Margaret Weiss games Cortex system. It’s flexible, allows you to craft a character well and design adventures that aren’t focused on killing some fauna for their stuff. I’d love to port everything we play into Cortex, and we’d all be happy, but I don’t have that kind of time…and something having a different set of rules is fun and can enhance the flavor of the setting.

Why the fantasy setting? In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons was a rip-off of Tolkein and Vance fantasy settings bolted onto a medieval wargaming engine. Orcs and elves, dwarves and halflings — it’s Lord of the Rings without the immense backstory. It was to the 1970s reader, familiar. Fast forward a few decades and D&D is now its own genre — high fantasy with house ruled settings to please kids who wanted to play teenage mutant ninja turtles, or fight dinosaurs or machine critters. the races might shift a bit, but they’re all there, but with a few “cool” additions like tieflings (who I’ll admit I like), and aasimar, and and and… It’s familiar, but you can fiddle to get what you want.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.