Strangely, I started this post right after the Day 18 prompt for Plenty. The thoughts I had toward the end naturally dovetailed into this prompt so here we go:

“I tend to run the games we play, simply because I have plenty of stories running about my head at any one time. When we finish a session, my brain is already leaping ahead to what I can do with the consequences and outcomes of the players’ actions. I love having to invent characters on the fly, and while my games usually involve some level of research and planning — I’m not the total sandbox sort of GM — there is a joy n having the decision trees the players create sprout in my imagination.” — Me.

For every player action, good die roll, bad die roll, there’s more choices, more directions to go. It’s a recursive exchange, as well: the players have decision trees sprout up in front of them from these as well. Every for every hint or clue, every mission briefing or scene set-up, every combat thrown at them, there’s also the input of the players — quippy exchange, every botched roll, every success or failure, injury, NPC met, other player character interacted with. The more people at the table, the bigger the number of decisions and events that can be birthed, the more vast the field of possibilities. There simple aren’t that many hobbies where the interaction of players, their characters, random chance, and differing frameworks of rules, settings, and the like come together.

One of the genres I don’t tend to run is horror. I have nothing against it. I love a good scary pic — The Thing (Carpenter! dammit!) scared the hell out of me and remains one of the best examples of how to do it. Alien — come on. Trust me on this one: The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Spare, superbly acted, tense, and short enough to not drag and still get the job done.

But it’s really hard to create that atmosphere at the gaming table for me. We’ve had a session here and there that’s been creepy, or discomfiting, but really scary? Nope. To try and keep that tension across a whole campaign? I’ve never seen it done, but I’m sure there are those that could pull it off. At best, we’d get a sort of Ghostbusters kind of vibe. It’s just not the players’ nature to play dark.

About the best I’ve managed is for my Dungeons & Dragons campaign. One of the things I noted when prepping for it…you’re dealing with monsters! This isn’t some heist film in armor with swords, you’re going into caves or what have you to take on some f***ing creature of the night to save a village if you’re noble, or nick its stuff if you’re not. It should be scary. Taking that angle and running with it, I ran that angle. The players were expecting light high fantasy. they got gore and misty forests with creatures that were trying to kill them. It was about the closest I managed to get, so far. (That my daughter started playing in a side game after this meant she got a taste of this. It works a lot better on kids. The psychiatry bills will be enormous.)

 

Plenty: an abundance especially of material things that permit a satisfactory life : a condition or time of abundance — Webster’s Dictionary

Role playing games present the players with an infinite number of stories to tell, an infinite number of universes to inhabit, an infinite number of characters to play. Want to be a space fighter pilot? There’s a game for that. A cybernetic cop working the streets of Ridleyville, where the streets are always wet and neon lights the night? Can do. A classy super spy fighting a cryptic organization dedicated to chaos, or communism, or terorism, or what have you? There’s a game to accommodate you. A heroic dwarf bent on avenging some ancient wrong done to your people? There’s an app for that. (No, seriously — the Fight Club 5 character creation app for D&D5 is excellent. )

There’s always a new bad guy, or maybe — like a comic book — your villains are never really dead. A village to rescue from banditos; better get together some of those gunslingers you know. Treasures to find, dragons or Borg or dinosaurs or corporations to fight.

The world can be your own — sprung like Athena from your head. It can be a licensed property you’ve always loved — just about every sci-fi TV show or movie series has or has had an RPG done for it. The rules aren’t always stellar, but the game’s out there. And the rules systems! There’s plenty. Fate can be tweaked easily and often on the fly to fit any universe you have in mind. It was designed as a pick up game system back when it was FUDGE, and that quick and dirty quality remains even in Evil Hat’s most polished work. There’s d20 in its myriad of forms, but usually it’s some form of 3.5 or 5th edition. It’s powered almost every genre you can think of. Want simple sci-fi rules? Get the old “black book” Traveler (and for whatever deities you hold dear, steer clear of the execrable new version.) You only want to roll 6 siders? There’s a system. Only percentile? Gotcha covered. Dice pool games where you roll a number of whatever die you prefer? They’re out there. I can recommend the old Star Wars game by West End…but if a Stardestroyer is involved in your fight, you might need plenty of dice (like a dump truck of ’em.) There’s at least four official Star Trek games out there. And the number of “indie” games…like grains of sand on a beach these days.

There’s so much to play!

I tend to run the games we play, simply because I have plenty of stories running about my head at any one time. When we finish a session, my brain is already leaping ahead to what I can do with the consequences and outcomes of the players’ actions. I love having to invent characters on the fly, and while my games usually involve some level of research and planning — I’m not the total sandbox sort of GM — there is a joy n having the decision trees the players create sprout in my imagination.

Sometimes there’s a new game out and we want to swap and play different games from time to time. It’s nice to have choice, isn’t it?

“If you could only play one role playing game, what would it be?”

I’ve had this conversation, and I’m sure the answer has changed over time. There’s also an obvious follow up question: Do you mean one RPG system or rules set, or one setting? With a little work, most RPG mechanics can be house ruled to the point they can adequately model any setting and scenario you want. If you mean that, then my answer would probably be the original Cortex system that powered Battlestar GalacticaSerenitySupernatural, etc…

If you mean one setting? I think I’d probably choose Space:1889. It incorporates elements from just about every genre: there’s action and intrigue of the Victorian period, there’s aliens and space travel, and it’s a historical period where swordplay, gunslingers, and ridiculous superscience can easily coexist.

How ’bout you — what’s your “one” game?

“She never felt like she belonged anywhere, except for when she was lying on her bed, pretending to be somewhere else.” ― Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor and Park.

I stumbled upon this quote while looking for something frightfully literate to start off this post. Something that would make me look smart and erudite. This quote, however, struck to the heart of why role playing games have been the center of my creative and social life, and why I had such a love of movies — and by that I mean bicycling to the theater and seeing a film on the big screen — as a kid: I never really felt like me, never felt like I belonged anywhere, in real life.

When I was in my friends’ basements sharing a communal daydream of being spies, or superheroes, or heroes on an epic quest to kill monsters and nick their stuff, or roaming the galaxy I was me. But me was never really me. Working, going to school, serving in the military, all that stuff — I was an imposter. The real me was waiting to explore and survive dangers in a host of settings. I could let out my inner Walter Mitty, my Baron Munchausen, between the time the game session started and ended.

Even today, much older, well traveled, and remarkably — still alive and mostly sane — I sometimes feel like a fraud because the real me is waiting for Nerd Night…when I get to be all the real mes hidden inside.

“A great book is an hallucinated IMAX film for one.” — Derek Thompson, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. And a good roleplaying session is the same thing. It’s a communal daydream. You all dream the same story, you all get to see the same movie, but it’s made by different directors, and while the basics of the play are the same for all, the minutiae, the special effects, the details — these are all personal.

“There is such a place as fairyland—but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of common day. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.”  ― Lucy Maud Montgomery

That’s gaming.

“I kick in the door…” — that character whose day is about to go pear shaped.

Either because I was the only one that could come up with an adventure in time, or the only one who wanted to, I’ve spent most of my time gaming as the guy behind the screen/ the DM / the storyteller / the game master. Role playing games, for me, weren’t just a means of escape from a mildly sad childhood, but a way of making friends. Of opening not just a door to adventure or entertainment for a night, but to friendships. When my door opens for the players, there’s food and drink, there’s companionship and laughter and talking about our day. You walk through the door and, for a few hours, away from the responsibilities of work and family, the weight of age and experiences, into a world where everything is possible with a good roll or a clever plan.

You get to walk through a portal not just into the bridge of your own starship, or out into an exotic locale looking for clues to what the bad guys are up to, or out of your superhero lair to rescue people, but — for people who are older — into a time when you could just be the kid you used to be, when everything was ahead of you and you could be whatever you wanted.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

Having begun to run a Dungeons & Dragons game for my eight year old, I realized early on that she would not only need to learn the rules as we went on, but that she would need help in exploring the world into which which she — through her character — had been plunged. Big exposition wouldn’t work well, I needed to get her into the action as quickly as I could, but she would need a guide: an NPC that would not only help guide her character through the adventures until she gained enough knowledge and confidence to work on her own, but through which she could see the rules working.

Her first guide was a boss — a captain of their little unit of soldiers in our version of Arthurian Scotland. This gave her a thumbnail look at the society and job of her character. She got to fight some low level but still challenging monsters and learn how the basic mechanics of the game worked. I let her take the lead of a few adventures, and when she had trouble, introduced a character that was “in the know” about the things she couldn’t be. The new character, a warlock that worked for the Morrigan, let her see how the magic rules worked, but also guided her through the increasingly complex politics and mythology of Celts of the period.

About that time her mother started to play, as well, and just by nature of the players’ relationship, her mom wound up taking on a more central and leader role than was intended. She became the guide for the story elements, but for a while my daughter was the one that was more experienced in the game mechanics and helped her mom.

But answering this prompt, I realized that I have often had a guide for the players — an NPC that was either a commanding officer, a techie or science type for when they didn’t have one, or some other character that was there to aid the characters in coming to grips with the game world they were operating in. Sometimes it might be the friendly native — a Martian scout showing the British around the Mars of Space:1889, or  some other local color; the captain of the starship they were serving on (which also aids to provide a prompt for getting into an adventure); the friendly school librarian or Radio Shack owner in Tales From the Loop.

The characters don’t exist in a story or setting vacuum, but they are often faced with mysteries or troubles which the players might not recognize in a new setting, or which they have no frame of reference to work from. It’s helpful to give them a lifeline.

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.