That’s a hard one. I’ve had several good, successful campaigns, and one phenomenal one that ended this year. What made them good or great? Honestly, in some ways it’s hard to say — just like good and bad art can be the matter of a bit of shitty editing, there’s alot of things that can go right and wrong at the same time.

First, and most importantly, you have to have buy-in from the the game master and the players. They all have to be interested in the game for longer than a one-off, and they have to be committed to the idea of playing regularly.

Second, play regularly. I can’t stress this enough — if you let a game dangle for a few weeks, the momentum is gone, and often the group won’t even hold together. People are busy and there’s always something that can take you away from the table — work, travel, kids, sickness, school…there’s always something. So if you’re going to commit, commit to a schedule that you can maintain, even if it means that every once in a while, someone has to play someone else’s character for a session or two.

Third: Have a consistent vision of the universe and the story you are telling. It’s going to change due to character action, losing or gaining players, and the longer it goes, the more chance that you will deviate from the original concept or story. This isn’t necessarily bad. The first few sessions really are more like a pilot episode of the TV series, to set the tone, world, and get people interested. Then comes the hard work.

You can half-ass the metaplot, like X Files or Lost, or you can have a consistent view of the story that might need to wiggle about to finish close to the mark, like Babylon 5.

Tied to that is the fourth point: Consistent characters, and this is where the players come in. Good characters might need a bit of tweaking until you settle into them. It’s rare you have a game where the characters are “right” at the start, much like TV shows. (The most wonderful example of this not being the case is probably Firefly, where the characters — even when they were changing and growing — were amazingly consistent and well-rendered.)

Another point about the characters — they should have some kind of connection to each other. It doesn’t have to be direct, but there should be web of why characters A, B and C are working together. Some campaigns lend themselves to this. A military, police, or espionage-themed game gives you the ability to throw people together because their skill sets jibe, or they simply were the guys that drew the short straw.

For example on a non-military campaign: our current Hollow Earth Expedition game features several characters that might not ordinarily work together or move in the same circles. Lady Zara is the money — she needed help finding her uncle and hired Gus Hassenfeldt to be her African guide. Simple. Dr. Gould came in a session later. He was a doctor with the Spanish that were harassing the White Apes Zara’s uncle found, and I tied him to the Atlantean background the city the apes inhabited. Now he’s a plot device and driver of the story, but still in her employ after they escaped Africa. Later, we added Hunter, a Terra Arcanum overseer/agent, who was sent to protect the Atlantean blooded doctor and prevent the secrets of the Inner World from exposure to the public (and more importantly, the power-mad men running Germany and the Soviet Union.)

So Zara binds Gus and Gould through employment, as well as other concerns, and Gould binds Hunter to the group through the Atlantean angle.

Your characters should have some kind of connection. Maybe they were old service buddies, maybe they’re related, maybe they work for the same people, or their goals are similar enough to pull them together. There should be something besides meeting in a tavern to “adventure together” to pull the group together.

With characters that have a connection beyond “we want to play”, a consistent vision for the world, and a commitment to play regularly, I think you’re halfway there.

Now you just need to catch lightning in a bottle.

Last week, one of our players cancelled out and at the same time we had a guy sitting in for a session…what to do? Go with an NPC in the current adventure? (I had an idea that would dovetail in nicely…) Do a one-shot? Board games — I can recommend Thunderbirds for cooperative grops, and Xtronaut for competitive types. Have a movie night?

These are all good ideas when you have incessant scheduling problems (the downside of having a larger gaming group. This week, most likely, we’ll have another two players out — one’s at GenCon, one’s working. (I really need a new hobby…) So this week, the answer will most likely be board games or a movie night, depending on if the one player is stuck working.

Last week, the answer was a one-shot. I decided to do a backstory one-shot on one of the new characters in the ongoing Hollow Earth Expedition game, John Hunter. We’re alluded several times to his misadventures on a mysterious island being how he got wrapped up with the secret society, the Terra Arcanum. So, I decided to do a one-night story that would tell the tale and be done, in case the one guest player didn’t come back.

So — how to tell this story in a 3 hour block of time? Hollow Earth Expedition, while a quick-playing game system, isn’t quite slick enough, and I needed to give the players a bit more of the heavy-lifting for the story and background development. I turned to Atomic Robo. It’s the fastest, best-playing version of Fate, in my opinion, and character creation is slick and quick. Four players were crafted (for the most part) in under half an hour.

The first act/hour was introducing the characters in media res — staging a burglary on the Order of Prometheus, a secret organiation dedicated to unearthing and using ancient knowledge. One of the players was a history of ill-repute looking for Atlantis, and chasing the tale of a “vanishing island” in the Indian Ocean that a Roman traveler once identified as that mythic place. The Order has two maps — one by Marcus Maximus Tinto, said roman adventurer, and another by the only survivor of a shipwreck from 1900 that had the coordinates of the island (not shown on any map, of course.)

The other players are John Hunter, in 1926 he’s a “man who can get you anything” in Paris; a member of the Terra Arcanum who is supposedly a smuggler, and who is along for this ride to stop the revelation of the island’s position; and a skeptical geologist.

They steal the maps, do a brainstorming session to figure out where the island is, then the historian — who has “More money that sense” as an aspect, gets them a crappy tramp steamer they take from Marseilles to the island’s position. His calculation give them the most likely time the island will show, and sure enough, the isalnd arrives under a suddenly-forming storm, giant rogue waves that suck them into an inlet where they beach on the hulk of a WWI submarine.

They have limited time to explore — they don’t know how long the obviously volcanic island will stay “visible”, and they speculate that the place may be “hydraulic” in some fashion — the pressures from the ocean flor rising the island and lowering it periodically…but how are there plants and animal life, much of it from different geological eras, present? They follow trails inland in the increasingly bad weather and light, and eventually run into a native tribe that captures them in a big skirmish, dragging the historian and Arcanum agent to their villge, which is surrounded by a giant boma of thorn bushes and large bonfires.

A rescue attempt is put together by the geologist and Hunter, while the others ascertain from the natives — who speak a form of Sanskrit not heard since pre-Harrapan times! — that every generation or so, the island is pulled to another world, where sometimes the every-present sun sets.  The Hunter and the geologist stage a daring rescue that revolves around setting the boma on fire as a distraction, and using their lone Chicago Typewriter to lay down fire and scare or kill the native warriors with a spray of .45ACP.

They elude their pursuers, dodge massive creatures whose footfalls shake the ground, and escape to their steamer in time to set sail before the island disappears behind them.

We closed out the night with the Arcanum agent planning on recruiting as many of their valiant band as possible.

Scheduling getting you down? Maybe it’s time to do something different for a session or two. The one thing I’ve found over 30+ years of gaming: if you don’t meet regularly, forget campaigns…you won’t be able to keep the momentum and interest.

Well, we’ve made to the Hollow Earth in our Hollow Earth Expedition campaign (or have we..?) So it’s time to start working on what my version looks like. To that end, I spent the weekend digging through the Mysteries of the Hollow Earth sourcebook to see what Jeff Combos and the boys at Exile did with it. The last time i ran the game, we never got out of 1930s China, save for a short adventure on the East Coast of the US. This time I’ve committed myself to go full pulp, so Hollow Earth (or is it Venus? Or an alternate reality?) it is.

The characters had gone through an eye-like Stargate-ish artifact called the Eye of Shambala that was stored under the Potala Palace in Tibet and emerged in a setting cribbed from the Shangri-La in the Uncharted series of video games (I haven’t played them, but the visuals are great…and look to be highly influenced by the Shangri-La of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.)

A few of the things I’ve already started playing with:

Shangri-La — is this it? Or is it actually on the Surface World but only accessible through the Eye? This place looks uninhabited, which would fly in the face of the paradisiacal valley where people live long, idyllic lives.

How much dinosaur? Is the whole of the place dinosaur filled, or only certain bits?

The big one was how to incorporate Buddhist and Hindu mythology into the setting. Seems appropriate that sections of the Hollow Earth (or is it?) would have “nations” of a fashion — places where the devas and asuras ruled, places where their cousins, the Æsir and Vanir, or the Titans/Olympians might have ruled. We know the Atlanteans were around, but are these the same people as folks of Ultima Thule, or Hyperboreans? (Answer: no…and yes.)

That leads to the two races I know are going to have to get used — the Titans and the Vril-ya. The Titans don’t work for me. I see where they were going, but I’d rather go with these being the direct descendants of the creatures humans on the Surface World once called gods, but brought low by their own infighting. Perhaps a few of the old codgers are still around and ruling little fiefdoms? I also wanted to do a tie to the Mars from Revelations of Mars — and the Dheva are the link there.

The multi-armed thing works well with the Hindu angle. Perhaps the people of Mars and the Titans have a common lineage? One might be the experimental product of the other? It would also be a good reason for the animal-people of the Hollow Earth: all this is the result of the Titans or old gods playing around?

As for the Vril-ya — I’m not sure I want to use the “official” version. I think they might have to be modified to be the Atlanteans/Thule/Hyperboreans. Maybe they were caught in the crossfire of the War Between Gods?

I’m still musing on where I want to go with this, but I tend to be a sucker for using mythology in my games (the Battlestar Galactica campaign took a sharp turn into Greek myth coupled with transhumanism.) and the idea of playing with Hinduism is alluring, especially as their gods die and are reborn.

I had dinner last night with a gaming buddy I occasionally play with here in Albuquerque last night. We got talking about the various stuff we’ve been playing, what we’ve wanted to play, and I mentioned that the Battlestar Galactica game that’s dominated my group’s sessions for years was coming to an end. He pointed out I’ve been attempting to wrap this for a few years, and he’s right…but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

This past week, the rag-tag fleet reached Earth, 4 years and 9 months after the campaign first got restarted with a crappy pilot session about people going missing from a mining outpost on the Armistice Line. (I found the date on my computer’s calendar: 27 April 2011 — just ten days after my daughter was born…) There’s still a few episodes left, mind you, but the main conceit of the game — reaching Earth and (hopefully) safe harbor is the subject of next week’s session. Other than a few more loose ends to tie up, the game is over. My friend, at this point, bet me $20 I don’t finish by March. How could I resist?

But now I have a hard date for the finish of the game: February 25, 2016.

For five years, this campaign has dominated my life. Discussing it with one of the players during the ride home the other night, we were talking about the game. It is the longest continuous campaign I’ve ever run; it was the longest campaign he’s ever played in. During the course of the game, it moved from a Cold War conspiracy-style setting, to a military and post-apocalyptic setting, to an increasingly science-fiction setting mixed with Greek mythology, to a political thriller, and then hard into transhumanist science fiction. There have been players that have come and gone, but we two had been playing from the start, and three main players since the Fall of the Colonies, about three and a half years…the characters are rich, well-developed; the setting feels lived in, realistic — despite the increasing science fiction aspects; it’s been, I feel safe to say, epic.

There were a few really big risks I took. Early on, I threw out canon from the reimagined show, but kept the good stuff from the setting. The Adamas were not the focus; the player characters took the place Apollo and Starbuck and the commander.  A bigger risk was going with “the Blaze” elements that got cut from Kobol’s Last Gleaming (a mistake, in my opinion); the “angry god” that destroyed the harmony of God and Man became the main antagonist, and the humanoid Cylons became “Seraph” — his “messengers” and replacements for the Lords of Kobol, Hades’ “family” whom he missed. I brought in Athena to replace a popular NPC and though I’d really screwed the pooch doing it. After a few sessions, it was obviously better. And in the end, I think I may have run my best game in the 37(!!!) years I’ve been playing RPGs.

Better than the excellent Babylon 5 game that was the first time I tried to do a coherent, planned out story arc. Better than the surprisingly good and long-lived Star Trek game at the start of the aughties, after I moved back to Albuquerque. Better than the very good espionage and Victorian sci-fi games from the ’90s, or the uproariously fun Shanghai campaign for Hollow Earth Expedition that faded away after this gam started.e..and like a good TV series, I want to see how it ends, but I don’t want it to stop.

Now the question — the same one I’ve been trying to work my way through for about six months, once I realized how close we were to the end — is “what next?” Or maybe more appropriately, “How do I top this?” and I suspect that’s my big mistake when thinking about the next games. I didn’t set out to top myself with Galactica, I just wanted to do the best game I could for people.

I sent out an email to the group, looking to see what they wanted to play or run. The newest player likes to GM, I was hoping to coax her into the center seat, but we’ll see. The big favorite seems to be a cyberpunkish sci-fi game, Atomic Robo, and I’m thinking I’d like to take a crack at either Space:1889 or Hollow Earth Expedition‘s Revelations of Mars settings, but I think that’s it for space opera for a while.

Here’s a video of Operation Black Swan which effected the capture of “El Chapo” Guzman. It’s helmet cam footage and should give you a good idea of how to describe combat sequences in your game.

It’s chaotic even if you had a good plan. It’s loud and disorienting, even when you know what to expect. (It would be no different with swords and magic — fighting is loud and confusing.) If you want to get the feel of the thing, concentrate less on the number of 10′ squares in the room; no one is pausing to say “gee, this looks to be a 50×20′ room, I now know my fireball will do…”

You might even misdraw the map for the initial portion of the fight, then reapportion the dimensions as people move through and realize it’s bigger/small than they thought; drop things on them that “should have been visible” (really, what could you see in portions of that video that were well lit?) They blow a perception (or whatever you’re calling it) test and that guy/goblin/alien/whatever that was hiding pretty much in plain sight gets the better of you. Damn that wizard for flashing his damn light spell right in your eyes! Or crap, my large friend with the two handed-sword didn’t realize I was inside the arc of his swing when he cut that monster in half; or Johnny over on Team C was a bit out of position and you thought he was the bad guy…good thing he had kevlar on.

Make it murky, stressful, and confusing.

While working on the other post Blood on the Deck: Combat in RPGs, I had a paragraph I later pulled to tighten the focus of the article, but something about it stuck with me. Blood on the Deck talks about the centrality of combat in many RPGs and their adventures. That leads to the paragraph in question:

…[M]ost RPGs are analogous to action movies. There can be philosophy, and deep character growth, and political or social commentary, but in the end the monster is going to kill folks/the protagonist is going to throw down with the bad guy/the heroes are going to have to overcome the [pick your disaster]/or the crew is going to pull of that “one last job…” Depending on what the denouement is, that should be the focus of the rolling and the description in the game.

Action movies are about action. You dogfight the evil galactic empire. You find and kill the monster (and steal its treasure.) You find the big bad and throw down, preferably in a secret volcano base. But they’re not always about fighting, and neither do your games need to be.

If you are exploring, the big denouement can be climbing a mountain or escaping the avalanche. You could be navigating your ship through a particularly nasty maneuver near Jupiter. It could be the heist (with or without fighting) requiring climbing and sneaking and safecracking. It could be a car/horse/airplane/boat chase. This is the focus of the adventure

The focus is where the game should move in, get close to the characters emotionally, but also this should be where the most time is spent. The buildup to the focus can be interesting, but these are the things that — unless tied to the finale — can be glossed over with a “did you succeed or no” sort of roll. An excellent example of this in a movie is the recent The Man from UNCLE, which made some really intriguing choices in the action sequences. Most of the focus is on the character interaction, the action is mostly handled quickly unless it ties to the characters’ motivations. There is a sneak and peak scene at the Vinciguerra Yards. They need to find evidence of a nuclear bomb. Most of the action is to show the strengths and weaknesses of the skills and character of the two leads — Solo and Kuryakin. Once they find the bit of evidence, it’s a quick escape, followed by a boat chase/fight that we see mostly in reflections on the window of a truck after Solo has fallen off the boat and swam to shore. It’s funny and shows Solo moving from casual indifference to the people he’s working with to a grudging respect and desire to do the right thing. The fight is just there to help him get from Point A to B.

This might have been well emulated with a few tests to show the two PC’s skills: a stealth roll, a roll to defeat the fence, the door; a test to knock out the guard; a test to overcome the safe. A few tests to run away and exchange some shots with guards, then a some kind of discipline or willpower test for Solo while watching Kuryakin’s boat getting sunk.

By comparison, the raid on the bad guy castle is handled in quick, ’60s split screen that could have been handled with a single test to overcome the guards defenses. It’s not about the characters; they are part of a bigger action piece. It’s over very quickly, and the action slows and focuses of the two once they find evidence of the bomb and have to rescue Gabrielle, their MI6 partner. It’s about the people. In a game, you might run the basic raid as a contest of Tactics or a combat skill to lead the commandos, then slow down to do a few investigation-style tests, before launching on the bike/ATV vs. Jeep scene, where you would want multiple rolls to emulate the need to use the terrain to try and close on the escaping bad guy.

What’s the focus in your game or adventure? That’s where the players should be rolling to heighten suspense and give them chances to shine by doing things their characters would do. Is it a heist? A quick sneak test to climb the wall, get through the window, and past the guards unseen might do…but if the point is to rob the place, you should have tests that show that: a climbing test — oh, crap! the rain gutter is corroded!, another to open the window three stories up without falling, another to incapacitate or slip past the guard, another to crack the safe…

Is the character a “driver” — the final “fight” should be a car chase, using the environment to battle each other until the good guy escapes or best the other driver. Is the final objective for the character’s socialite to best her rival in verbal combat at a dinner and win the affection of Lord Stuffinpants? You get the picture — focus on the point of the story, and let the other stuff take a back seat.

Since the early days of role playing games, fighting has been a central theme or the specific purpose of play. This is no surprise for a hobby that grew out of wargaming — the simulation of warfare through the use of maps, dice, and complicated rules regarding the various elements of combat. Look at any game book pre-1990 (and even a few today), and you will often see combat takes up more pages in the rules than the basic mechanics of play: modifiers for range, for being prone, for fatigue or injury, for ammo or blade types, explosives and other area weapons, environmental condition, and on and on… Even in games that are oriented more toward social activities, you eventually get into verbal jousting. Some games go so far as to have mental “damage” you can take from a harsh word or brilliant insult.

In a game, in the end, it’s usually easier to search a room, drive a car, negotiate a price, or hack a computer system, than it is to pull a knife on a guy. Complexity ramps up the instant the fight starts, from the use of initiative (you don’t tend to have to throw dice to decide if you got the last box of Klondike Bars in the supermarket…but that kinda sounds fun, now that I think about it.) Some games look to limit this disparity in complexity. In Fate, you can have a simple challenge between players or players and GM — one roll to beat the two mooks guarding the door. You win the roll, they’re down and you’re in; you lose, take a complication or get “taken out” in some way. some are even more abstract.

The keys to a successful fight scene can be summed up by looking at the difference between two (recent) movies — Quantum of Solace and John Wick. Both have great action sequences…or should. QoS follows the Greengrass “Jason Bourne” style of close shots, quick cuts, and shaky camera action to heighten the sense of danger and confusion of a fight. It is a great way for a guy who doesn’t know how to shoot fight scenes to get a fast-paced, seemingly vicious scene on the screen. The choreography could be excellent, but you wouldn’t know it; your experience of the fight is truncated to claustrophobic space and frenetic movement — not unlike a real fight, where you are tripping over things, missing when you throw punches, bouncing off of people and things.

This method of description in an RPG is best handled by not using more than the most basic of maps, if that Descriptions of the space the fight occurs in should be short, pointed, and designed to either increase peril (that floor-to-ceiling window with the ten story drop outside, for instance), or for use by the character (“you land on the coffee table next to the heavy-looking brass lamp…”) The environment and the actions come into the character/player’s perception as needed to keep the action flowing. It is particularly good for certain kinds of large-scale combat, as well, where the character doesn’t have a complete view of the field, lacks a complete understanding of the objectives, and is being pummeled with the sensory input of war — explosions, smoke, dirt, blood, screams, panic — to the point where they focus too tightly on certain things. (The excellent initial scene of Saving Private Ryan does this very well.)

A game system that does this well is Fate: where fights happen in “zones.” Zones aren’t necessarily consistent in their scale, but are instead defined by a few bits of scenery (aspects) to give the environment character. Here, the players can use the aspect in ways that give the fight the quality we discussed above. Say your intrepid police are staging a raid. Two PCs are involved, and enter a large warehouse from different directions with their teams. Player A goes through a side door into Zone 1: “Cavernous warehouse” while Player B goes through the front door into Zone 2: “Small, cramped reception area”. While A might engage in a firefight with badguys on the ubiquitous “second story catwalks” and “sparsely located crates”, B must get past the tight doors and furnishings of the reception room to Zone 3: “tight corridor with small offices on either side” in which bad guys lie in wait. the ranges are tight and personal, and the details might be lost in the action.

The other end of the spectrum is the surprisingly good John Wick, which was made by stuntmen and film makers tired of the Greengrassian shaky camera fight scenes. All the fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, but still look fairly realistic. They are shot medium frame, so you can see what the hell is going on, and only dive to close shots to show injury or characters grappling. The environments are there to be used for the fight: the rack of something you can knock over to stall your opponent getting to you, or to distract/injure; the pool that you can fall into for the grappling underwater schtick; the stairs — so nice to toss (or get tossed) down your enemy; columns or crates to hide behind. The fights show the character thinking his way through the fight — prioritizing the closer or faster moving enemies for a quick, non-fatal gunshot, to slow them while he takes out the guy at the end of the hall, then returns to the closer baddie. Similarly, the famed hallway fight in Daredevil (the Netflix one, not the…shudder…) does something similar.

In doing combat this way, you’ll want to either give an excellent description of the fight space, or have a solid map for the characters to use, so that they can strategize their actions. This is the traditional Dungeons & Dragons approach: battlemap, minis, well-estabilshed scale. This would work particularly well for the above example of “Zone 1” — the massive interior of the two-story warehouse lets the character find a place to pause and assess before they leap in. A better map, showing the I-beam supports, the locations of crates or vehicles parked inside, the catwalks overhead, the stairs up, the location of the  tilting windows on the upper floor, etc. could be filled in to allow this player to have a more clear picture of what is going on than Player B in the dark, tight corridor with people spilling out of the offices on either side.

The key to describing combat in your game is to decide what the emotional and stylistic beats you want or need.


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