Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Help A Monster Out…

In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d mention that venerable gaming guru Mike Sands is seeking funding for his Monster of the Week game, so spend a little to support this NZ creative venture and make a monster somewhere very happy for the holidays…

In the New Year I hope to showcase a new range of New Zealand RPG's and scenarios, so if you're working on something I could mention, please let me know.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Individual vs Collective

When running campaigns, there is often a tension between individual character spotlight time, and the needs of a group to work together and accomplish the broader strokes of the plot. In the simple terms of a traditional game this tension often reflects the difficulty between one player dominating the focus of the GM while others sit idle, and all the players interacting and being involved (to a greater or lesser extent).

As a player I’m not a fan of sitting idle – I do enjoy watching others play, but if the periods of inactivity are too pronounced, then I’ll start thinking of things I’d rather be doing. As a consequence I try and avoid too much downtime for people who play in my games, while trying to balance this against the need to maintain an element of realism for individual characters.

In the two campaigns I’m currently running, I recently noted two, fairly extreme, completely divergent examples.

Rogue Trader
In this game the system actually proscribes the formation of the group. There is one character - a Rogue Trader - who is commander of the spaceship, and who holds a warrant to trade, plunder and profit. The other characters are the executive officers, specialists who each have unique functions to support these aims. The published adventures for Rogue Trader are an interesting mix of challenges which allow each of these characters to shine, while maintaining the overall structure – with the specified aim of all characters seeking to increase the Rogue Trader’s Profit (which they can use to obtain goods and services). It’s an odd mix of capitalism in space, crossed with Pirates of the Caribbean.

The game has gone very well so far – although it’s still early days (4 sessions including an intro adventure with pre-generated characters). The players seem to have embraced their unique roles and advocate, in character, for their individual preferences, effectively accepting the construct of the setup. They must manage their crew and ship, and mutiny remains an ever-present challenge (as the crew number 20,000 NPC’s, the executive officers are perceived as the collective authority – regardless of their individual differences). The play, thus far, may have been influenced by the very colourful nature of the setting (while a little clichéd the pre-written material has been a lot of fun) and their previous player relationships, having spent several months together playing my pulp version of Masks of Nyarlathotep, but it seems that there is a sustainable basis for a solid campaign arc with this arrangement.

This is my own superhero campaign which has run for around 12 sessions. After having experienced setbacks I discussed previously in this genre, with divergent character play detracting from collective play in Canberra Mayhem, I had tried to structure a background which bonded the characters together through their superpowers, with the proviso that as the characters had limited recollection of the previous arrangements, they were effectively ‘different people’ now and thus free to take whatever action they wished. I also foreshadowed this, and allowed a degree of influence over the shape of this historical background through using active ‘flashback’ scenes for individuals.

While this game has been fun, it has highlighted the fact that few of the players were willing to sacrifice their individual autonomy to any significant extent in exchange for a collective arrangement. The characters sometimes united to fight common enemies, but this was often not an easy arrangement, and as soon as the danger has passed they return to their own individual concerns. This was most evident in the last session, where the players had agreed out-of-character before the game that they would spend some time in-character discussing their future arrangements. Accordingly, I made sure that there were no major threats to detract from this dicusssion, and no urgent matters which would require the group to split up.

However, what eventuated was a series of unfortunate events which led one character to kill another, and two others to travel overseas. While dramatic, and perhaps appropriate to the style of the game, it seems likey that further play will be fragmentary and continue to involve a significant degree of player downtime.

Obviously two instances do not make a rule – but what I conclude from these examples, is that the balance between individual and group play should ideally be established early, and transparently, as attempting to introduce it later is likely to cause friction between the players perception of the character as an individual, and their willingness to sacrifice a degree of autonomy for the collective.

Equally, it's possible that some players simply prefer a specific style of interaction with a game, and you must carefully consider this when forming a group, or when having having initial discussions about the shape and arranagments of a campaign.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Into the West

As I’ve mentioned previously, I recently wrote Sundown, a Call of Cthulhu adventure set in the Old West, as my Fright Night offering, and to celebrate the 30the Anniversary of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. This is now available, free to download, via Chaosium or RPGNow/DriveThruRPG.

As you will see from my previous post about the anatomy of Call of Cthulhu adventures, I haven’t managed to steer away from the pitfalls of this kind of old-school offering entirely, in some-part because of the constraints of this scenario as a ‘con offering - although I have tried to flag them, where applicable. Thanks to all the playtesters who made this a memorable game to run.

Feedback welcome.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fright Night V

Okay, I’m interrupting my post on how I write ‘con games to detail my attendance at Fright Night 5, which happened this past weekend. But fear not solitary subscriber – I have included some detail about my creation of my ‘con scenario below which I will develop further in a subsequent post.

This was the fifth instalment of Fright Night, a one-night horror-con. I was facilitating Fright Night I, out of the country for Fright Nights II & III and posted about Fright Night IV here and here.

Round 1 – Miller’s Children
I signed up to play this game as the blurb sounded interesting, and Donna has often signed up to play in my games, and I thought it was high time to return the favour. I was given the character of Robbie to play, the oldest sibling, and something of a delinquent in a scenario which is very much 'Home Alone', with a magical twist.

I must give full credit to the other players. Ellen was a fantastic Carol - Robbie’s sister whose birthday was ruined. She was suitably annoying and particularly good at embarrassing Robbie. Stephanie did a great job with Krystal – Carol’s friend who had a little crush on Robbie, and constantly feuded with little Jamie (played by the effervescent Mike F.). Their feuding was totally hilarious and threatened to obscure the horror elements. Mike F. also deserves special credit for being disarmingly good at portraying a 7 year old and unexpectedly adding some sentimental sweetness to proceedings.

The scenario was good fun, we enjoyed the setup, although we may have caught Donna out with a few of our wackier ideas. The climax was a little frustrating for me, as I wasn’t in a position to really influence events, but it all ended well (in that we likely wound up in foster care). The scenario ran a little over two hours, so I decided to venture out for coffee and a little fresh air before launching into my game in the second round.

Round 2 – Sundown
This is the game I’ve been writing over the last few weeks. At this juncture I should point out that I decided to write this game as a Cthulhu adventure, which means it should to conform to a couple of conventions I’d probably not apply to a scenario for my own system:

1. There needs to be an investigative component. Cthulhu has always prided itself on offering the dual attractions of both appealing to problem-solvers and horror fans, potentially giving satisfaction on both levels.

2. There should be some reference to the Mythos – usually this is in the form of a Mythos entity encountered in the final scene of the adventure.

3. There should be a way of defeating said Mythos creature, or other villains, which transcends physical force.

4. There should be player handouts of some description.

Of course, you could throw all of these things out the window – but as I had decided to write this adventure as a scenario I’d like to publish, I decided that I’d try and incorporate these ideas to varying degrees, as well as using traditional pre-generated characters with a blurb, rather than employing my contemporary ideas about using framing scenes and objects to allow for greater player buy-in.

With this in mind I wrote up 8 pre-generated characters, folks from Tombstone who ride off in a posse to hunt a man that has committed a terrible murder. I put a bit of effort into creating come character tensions (with the obvious expectation that these may come to nothing if the players chose to ignore them) and then tried to tie as much of the scenario as I could into actual history and events of this era (another common element of Cthulhu scenarios). As this is a ‘con outing, it is actually a fairly traditional railroad – so I also created a couple of floating scenes to allow the players to choose to deviate from the expected path, and then hopefully choose to return to it.

The playtest went fairly well. The inter-character drama proved to be pitched at about the right level. The players seemed to enjoy the climax, and while some complained it seemed a little tough, I think it was an overall success. The playtest revealed several elements that I hadn’t paid enough attention to in the drafting, and I found that by refining these, the game looked a lot better. That said, I knew I couldn’t trust the playtest as these were players I run games for regularly, experienced Cthulhu players who knew the score and conceit of the genre and were willing to embrace it, as well as being fairly comfortable at playing together as a group.

On the night I was down to 4 players. Something I didn’t initially think would be a problem, but as I looked through the pre-generated characters I realised that I had linked them together more thoroughly than I had intended, and that the game would be so much richer if I could beg or borrow another couple of players. Fortunately Marcus was able to oblige me with Hannah and Ants, who were attired as zombie pirates! This was particularly fortuitous as I had arranged individual touch lights for illumination and the zombie make-up looked terrifying in the darkness, lit only dimly from beneath.

Just as we were about to start, Ants told me this was to be Hannah’s first ever tabletop roleplaying experience – and that I’d better not mess it up! Needless to say, I felt the pressure acutely (also, being threatened by a zombie pirate is scary stuff!).

The game went well. I think it was a richer and more dramatic run then the playtest (which is saying something as the playtest was pretty dramatic). The credit for this rests with the players who really embraced their roles. Bryn was fantastic as the bumbling doctor (blame the dice!) and put up with my comedic spotlighting with good humour, while Hannah did a great job as Marion, adding the memorable syphilis needles and ground-up turtle which I’ll definitely include in the published scenario. Scott, Mike and Ants really came through with their conflict, and even found a way to act heroically – which ultimately sealed their fate. I also really enjoyed the characterisation that Stephanie put into the School mistress, who she played almost exactly he way I had envisaged the character. I really enjoyed the game, and felt the story went almost exactly as I had hoped, and interestingly, mirrored the playtest almost exactly in structure and execution.

Now to write it up and get it published somewhere.

For further Fright night coverage see Luke's post here, Mash's post here, or Marcus' post here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

You Got Game?

It must be 'con season, beacuse there are a lot of really interesting posts around the place about writing 'con games. I particularly enjoyed Jacinta's post about the kind of people you might encounter in your 'con game. This is of particular interest to me because I'm working on some advice about overcoming some of the more common player-initiated problems that can cause games to de-rail. I've also been interested to follow Luke's progress on preparing his own 'con game 'Tears of Vykyris', particularly the idea that he will use 3 images instead of a traditional text blurb. Then there's DrBunnyHops who is detailing her thoughts about 'White Rabbit' a game which mixes sci-fi and parenting which obviously struck a chord with the punters, as all 9 player slots filled up in record time.

I'm about to pick up the pen and have a shot at writing my offering for Fright Night, which I also plan on running at Kapcon. I thought I'd try and detail my own thoughts about this process - albeit in a general rather than specific sense (I'd hate to spoil anything for potential players).

For me 'con games are about memorable scenes. Scenes where the players are fully engaged, living in the skin of their characters, confronted by challenges, with sufficient ownership to actually feel the ramifications of their decisions and interactions. My job (as GM or writer) is to secure that ownership, create the context, and then frame the challenge. Finally I need to be able to troubleshoot, tweak, extend, sharpen or otherwise tailor the scenario as it plays out, so that it delivers the desired experience.

So when I think about the game, I ask what kind of scenes are these? I don't mean specifically what scenes - unless I want to force a railroad I won't get to actually script a complete scene where meaningful encounters occur. That's the realm of directors and authors - but I can get a sense of the kind of events that might lead up to these scenes, the backdrop if you will. However, I also know that no matter how impressive my backdrop (players are never going to be impressed with settings for very long), the real action has to be played out by the characters, so along with a general idea of the scenes I want, I need to think about the protagonsists - the characters - their motivations, ambitions and circumstances.

As an example: in one of my Council of Champion's games there was an extremely memorable scene was aboard a transport plane en route to a lighter-than-air weapons platform controlled by a villain. But that wasn't important. What was important was that the 8-year-old son of two of the heroes had just picked up a firearm (borrowed from a gun-slinging hero) and this caused a massive confrontation between the parents about the kind of life their son should have. It was epic, and went to the heart of the real story - not the villains - but the way that heroes balance real concerns with their dangerous jobs. The responsibility of the team to be role models. The ethics of having a child in a dangerous situation. The very nature of being a superhero in a team with others. I couldn't have scripted that scene, and I couldn't have imagined that it would take place in the belly of a transport aircraft which was entirely unimportant to the plot. But I could decide that the role of the child in the team could be a major catalyst for action. I could shape the characters to be in conflict, and exacerbate this by involving more of the team than just the parents. I could script a plot where the characters were put under relentless pressure, and be ready for it to errupt. The players did the rest.

So, now I have a general idea about some of the scenes, and the characters who want to fill them, I need to do the hard yards. I need to get the characters into a position they can deliver the drama. Characters aren't ready to go from minute one - there's no context - their actions lack meaning. I need to let the characters develop - shape themselves - explore their repsonses and develop a group dynamic. To do this they need details, small challenges, tests, encounters where they can establish these traits. The more of these details I can bring, the more the players have become immersed in their characters, and immersed in the setting. We need a lot of detail, but we only need to apply it when necessary. Colours, smells, metaphors, lot's of descriptive elements and NPC's, people to help the players moderate their characters - benchmark their behaviour.

Next I need to think about how the scenes are going to play out. Players can spend hours just hanging out - but I don't have that kind of time. I've got 3 hours. If I'm running any kind of action, that's going to take time - I need a lot of detail. Each player needs an explicit opportunity to act, probably several, and I need to keep a track of their actions, reinforced through recap and narration, so I need to factor that in. Introduction scenes also take a lot of time - especially if you're encouraging the players to add their own descriptive elements. A first scene of a game often runs for a full hour after all the introductions/setting/rules stuff has been done. So I need to decide the key scenes are. how will the game end? Is it a climax? In which case, what are the scenes that will lead up to that climax? How will I communicate the ascending importance of these scenes? How much ability for I want to allow the players to improvise, or create their own scenes? What about small scenes - travelling, or just passing time. Players need space to breathe and characters need an opportunity to interact with each other.

Now I should have a skeleton. An outline of the scenario I'd like to run/write along with an idea of some of the characters and details that will populate it.

To be continued...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sullivan on the Mind

On March 25 I wrote a short introduction to the Sullivan Agency - a fictional agency I created to allow for a cohesive tool to justify the outrageously over-the-top characters the players had created for 'Masks of Nyarlathotep - Pulp Edition', and a way to funnel new characters, supplies and equipment to the characters while investigating mysteries and cults around the world, as well as provide them with a motive to keep going. I wrote:

"Colonel Grady Sullivan (Ret.) set up the Sullivan Agency in 1910 after a distinguished career in the US Army’s 7th Cavalry. Some in Washington noted that Sullivan’s sudden move to the private sector coincided closely with reports of a missing shipment of Mexican gold on the US border, and the subsequent Mexican revolution led by Pancho Villa who had often met with Sullivan in his role as División del Norte - whatever the truth of such rumours, the Sullivan Agency rapidly gained a reputation for employing men who get the job done.

Sullivan recruits professional, highly capable men with a variety of skills and talents. He expects his people to operate independently and make their own decisions to get the job done. The pay is good ($20 per day plus expenses) but the real reason you work for Sullivan is his connections. Sullivan has connections everywhere, and a personal recommendation from the Colonel can see you go far. Sullivan knows all the right people in Washington and London, and often has lunch with the governors and directors of major banks and investment firms. His friends prosper, and his enemies – well it’s best not to get on the wrong side of Grady Sullivan."

Last week Andy M. was in Paris on business, and he sent me the following picture:


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Out Now

I’m pleased to say that ‘The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2010’ has now shipped and is available in glorious hardback and tradepaper editions. Inside you will find 33 stories and poems collected from Australia and New Zealand, as well as a genre overview for the year, including awards, novels, anthologies, industry news and a recommended reading list. I'm looking forward to reading the other contributions - you can buy a copy here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August Update

It’s been a busy August for me. This despite having a vacation from running Cthulhu, and skipping a session of Reverie due to player absence. So here is a short update of August happenings:

Fright Night
Fright Night, Wellington's one night of horror roleplaying, is looking for GM’s. If you’ve got a great idea for a scenario, drop Marcus a line right now. Time is running out!

As a tribute to the 30th Anniversary of Call of Cthulhu I’ll be running an original game (which I plan on writing up and publishing, in one form or other, later in the year), so I hope to see you there.

I recently attended the first 2 rounds of Confusion, a small one-day Wellington ‘con. You can read my report on Confusion 2010 here. This year Fiasco and Monster of the week were popular, and the con featured a pre-booked LARP in Round 3.

Round One – Infinite Porticos
I’ve always loved Elric/Strombringer and enjoyed many of Moorcock’s stories, and while I’ve run a few games of this some years back (indeed it is my preferred fantasy setting next to WFRP)– I always found that knowledge of the setting was a significant obstacle for full participation for other people. Unfortunately this game was over-booked and feel bad that Ivan was ‘voted off’ in the early elimination (actually, he fell on his sword) but that’s never a good way to start a ‘con.

In this game I was allocated a slave pit-fighter character, and did my best to bring a degree of bravado and pragmatism to the game without derailing things. The setup was solid, although perhaps a little linear. Marcus later told us this was intended as an ice-breaker for a campaign – a way of introducing and bonding a new party of heroes with diverse backgrounds – and in this role I think it is a strong offering. Marcus did a great job with the NPC’s and I have provided him with my feedback on the scenario (from a playtest perspective) as I understand he soon plans to publish it online.

Round Two - Invasive Procedures
I had decided to run the new adventure for Fear Itself titled Invasive Procedures. There were a lot of elements I liked about this scenario, and I had done my best to anticipate how some handouts and props might enhance the experience (and thus lift some of the load from my GM’ing performance).

The beauty, and major drawback, of this scenario is that it puts the players in a very un-empowered position (I give nothing away to say they are patients in a hospital with limited mobility). This might be fine with a crew of players who all really enjoy rich character experiences, and will embrace the powerlessness of the character – but when you are running at a ‘con for people you don’t know (or rarely run games for) there is a danger that one, or all of the players, may get rapidly alienated and dissatisfied by what they may perceive as a frivolous, or unfair, constraint. Needless to say this tension increases dramatically through the course of the scenario.

Before I ran the game I had an open conversation with the players about this element and asked if they’d be willing to work with this element of the scenario, to generate a more memorable experience (an element of EPOCH). I was very gratified when they agreed, and we began. The scenario itself ran well – thanks largely to the efforts of the players who all did a really impressive job of embracing the setup and characters. I improvised a few elements on the spot – the mannerisms of the NPC’s, opening and closing the curtains in the room to give a feeling of time passing etc.

I found the scenario itself not especially easy to navigate, which meant I was sometimes left scrambling to find things, and I think that that tension of powerlessness is perhaps stretched too far with the full scope of the scenario – I can easily see the players becoming unhappy if the GM is not extremely careful about the setup and execution. However, I think there were some really great elements, which played out exactly as I had hoped and with the right kind of effect.

As a further experiment into some of the techniques I want to incorporate into EPOCH I think the game was a strong success, and reinforced my thoughts about the kind of system that a game needs to deliver on the key points of my horror manifesto. I should say, however, I don’t think any of the players were actually scared at any point, but there were some strong character/player responses.

You can read other reviews of Confusion from Jenni and Marcus.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 Tips for Running Horror 'Con Games

Marcus is gearing up to run the next installment of Fright Night, and asked if I'd be interested in providing some advice on horror games. Looking at my previous entries, I am dismayed to see I haven't spent a lot of time on this subject, so without further ado I present my 5 tips for running Horror ‘con games:

1. Bring the description. As a GM you are the eyes and ears of the players. They depend on you, both for explicit and implicit queues about what is important, and to enhance and aid their visualisation. It is therefore critical that you spend as much effort as possible on your descriptions. As a general rule, there’s no such thing as too much detail. Layer it on. What does a place look like? What does it smell and sound like: what does it feel like? Many horror games take normality and add a fantastical element – be it monster, magic or madness. In order for the players to understand the full impact of this transition, they must first have a clear idea of the baseline. Draw on familiar tropes, or your own experiences – port this detail into your game. Establish the places and people of your setting clearly – it’s easy to get flustered or distracted when running a game. Try and take a conscious effort to stop, gather your thoughts, and then deliberately add details and descriptive elements. Ideally prepare maps or crib notes before a game to help with this– not necessarily to show the players, but so that you can be clear about the lie of the land, relative distances, specific details or even words that you might use. A few carefully chosen words can have a remarkable impact – even if the players don’t let on at the time.

2. Character is King. The essence of horror is the impact on the character. Try watching a horror movie halfway through, and you’ll likely be bemused rather than fearful or fascinated by the characters predicament. Context is everything, and if we have no reason to care about the characters – why should we care what happens to them? This problem is exacerbated by the nature of a horror ‘con. If you’re giving a player a disposable character for three hours, and at the end of that time they know they’ll walk away and, most likely, never think about the character again – what reasons does the player have not to treat the character recklessly? There is no easy answer to this problem. What you really want is for the players to agree to give their best efforts to ‘buy in’ to a character. You can do this explicitly – by asking the players to agree to this before the game, or using other techniques, like really ramping up enthusiasm, or descriptive elements (see above) and hope that the player is willing to ‘buy in’ of their own volition.

Ultimately, my view on the solution is more detailed than I have the space here to present, so here are some basic suggestions. Don't provide too much detail or be overly perscriptive with characters. Make sure you have considered your scenario from the players viewpoint. Try and let the players have the ability to embellish or add to their characters – encourage this. If your scenario is tailored to a genre (e.g. survival horror) communicate this explicitly so the players can get into the spirit of the thing. Always try and give the characters a reason to interact with one another, and the space to do so. Try and come up with roleplaying challenges of minor as well as major order to allow them to own the character (e.g. a grumpy motel clerk, a motorist in distress, someone who’s having a worse day than the characters). Try and leave enough room with for a chracter to fit almost any kind of player, and make sure the characters are linked in a way that leaves no-one out or marginalised.

Try and anticipate likely character actions - if they're confronted by something unnatural, scary, or dangerous they are likely to try and get weapons or flee. Or both. Make sure you've catered for this - ideally in such a way that the players don't feel railroaded or forced in their decision making. If you're going to have authority characters (e.g. cops) be prepared for a player to take this seriously, and assert authority - but don't count on it. Your players are likely to be smart, and well versed in the genre of the game you're running, and they'll be looking for clues all the time as to what the plot of the game is. Good characters, which are designed to support player 'buy-in' will hopefully keep the focus on the drama, and the horror and limit meta-gaming.

3. Pace it right. The pace of a game is important. Like a movie, you want to have a tempo that feels natural, and works to accentuate tense scenes, and allow for lighter moments as well. If you don’t make an effort to structure the pacing of your game, you may find these elements bleed into one another with undesirable consequences. I suggest starting slow, this is where the bulk of your descriptive workload lies. Let the players have some time and space to get into the skin of their characters. If you want to start “In media res” then you still need this space, but it comes later. Then, start moving the game in the direction you want.

Ideally you’ll want to have the pace build – the tension increase. Then perhaps a lull before another build in tension. If you’re using music or sound effects you can use these to give explicit queues to the players. If not, you may have to do the heavy lifting yourself, by increasing the cadence of your narration, the type of language you use or even the volume of your voice. Perhaps stand up to emphasise that this is an important scene. Maybe even mime the key elements, or even take the game in a semi-LARP direction.

If you’re going to use combat, even in the abstract sense then be sure to spend some effort bringing it to life for the players. Again, the more preparation you do, the better your game will be. If there’s some chance of someone being shot, you might want to look up real-life gunshot wounds, and be ready to bring some visceral detail to proceedings. Finally, give some thought to how you want the game to conclude. Is it a free-for-all with all the players involved, will there be a climactic final confrontation, or does it end unexpectedly? You might not want to script it too carefully, but having an idea about the way your game might end, and the experience you want to leave the players with, will help you during the rest to the facilitation. Finally pacing is important for real time. Keep track of the time as much as possible so you don’t run over your allotted slot – ideally you’ll have some optional material to add or jettison in order to fit the game to the time.

4. Don’t be a slave to system. Fairly simple this one - make sure any system you pick will work for the kind of game you want to run. I strongly suggest thinking about the kind of game you want to run first, then selecting a system which will support that vision – rather than picking a system then thinking up an adventure. Ideally you should be the master of any system you use, and be prepared to deal with questions and people who like to engage with systems. My rule is that it should be simple enough to be easily understood by all participants within 5 minutes, and ideally be well supported by game materials (perhaps double side the character sheets with a simple rules summary?). With the rise of electronic publishing there are thousands of systems out there, don’t be afraid to seek out something new.

5.Do the work. You can run great games on the fly. But you can’t trust to that – well you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The work starts with writing a great blurb that will attract the kind of players who want to share the kind of game you want to deliver. Spend some time and get a blurb that really captures the essence of the game, and levels a little with the players about what kind of experience they can expect (as players). Then take the time to playtest. A good game can become a great game through a strong playtest – especially if you playtest with people you don’t know or who are willing to give frank and constructive criticism. Every minute of a 'con game is precious, and you need to be sure each scene is fit for purpose - and frankly, by the time you're at this stage, you're no longer impartial. A second pair of eyes can help, and especially help you see things through the players eyes. Just be prepared to listen - and even probe for more detail, even if it's a little painful.

Finally spend the effort you need to be really ready for the game. The other points should give you some idea about what kind of thing I mean. In addition, it’s important that you have the plot – and the PC options – ready to explain to the players once the game is complete. People like to know the details, and they like to have ‘real’ choices in a game. To feel like the outcome of the game is a foregone conclusion can be disappointing to some players – so be ready to level with the players about the game, and how their choices made it a richer experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Tonight I finished running the epic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for Call of Cthulhu. It’s not the first time I’ve run it – in fact it’s the third time – but it’s the first time in more than a decade I’ve revisited this Cthulhu classic, and I thought I’d share my approach and reflections.
I describe Masks as the James Bond Call of Cthulhu campaign. It features half a dozen exotic locales, improbable villains, deadly threats, all based around a fairly tenuous plot. In short – it is a blockbuster with all the good and bad that entails. The problem with this setup is the lethality of the campaign as written – I usually end up with a box full of character sheets donated by all the players whose characters have died or gone insane during the course of the campaign. Such a high character turnover can have negative impacts, stretching the already weak continuity of the chapters, diminishing player investment in characters, or even initiating ‘the Indiana Jones effect’.

To be fair to Masks, you have to consider the context of the campaign. It was written in 1984, when the gaming world was dominated by modules featuring monsters, treasure and dungeons. It added investigation, glamour and unusual encounters to this framework, even allowing the players to determine the order in which they resolved the chapters of the campaign. Since it's first edition it's had a whole chapter added along with a plethora of entertaining side adventures. Nevertheless, while innovative for its time, the campaign still has its fair share of linear plots, railroads and dungeons. In short - Masks is an imaginative classic that set the benchmark for all subsequent Cthulhu campaigns and continues to attract new Keepers, despite suffering from most of the pitfalls of old-school games. Judging by posts on the Yogsothoth forum there is pretty much at least one Masks campaign happening at any given time, someplace in the world – probably a lot more than that. The oft discussed fan-written Masks Companion has been years in the development and will apparently weigh in at more than twice the size of Masks.

As a GM, when facing the fairly harsh setup of Masks, you have three choices: play it straight and butcher a lot of PC’s; pull your punches and effectively run a watered down version of the game; or, change the game setup to support the campaign style. This run I chose the last option. I wanted more-or-less one set of characters to run through the campaign. I wanted to keep the continuity and play a style of game that supported the tenuous leads and unremitting, escalating and overwhelming danger of the campaign. So I designed the Pulp Cthulhu rules to support this style of game.

Players received an open cheque to create their characters – I wanted over-the-top characters and was willing to consider anything. Most players received a special advantage based on whatever background they came up with, all had the option of starting with Cthulhu Mythos and spells and everyone started with 1D3 Fate Points. Each fate point could be spent to avoid a catastrophic wound, reduce the impact of temporary insanity or gain 2D6 sanity points between chapters with an appropriate narration. In addition each Fate Point would generate a fortune point each session, which could be used to re-roll any failed skill check or automatically pass a luck roll. Characters gained 1 Fate Point for each chapter of Masks they completed.

Because I expected the characters would be a lot tougher I also introduced the major wound rule from Basic Roleplaying, which meant serious injuries would have consequences both in terms of stats and story for the characters, despite their hardy natures. And this system worked very well – we had a sorry collection of severed noses, horrific burns, major muscle damage and scars by the end to add plenty of colour to the characters journey.

All in all, it was immense fun. I greatly enjoyed the characters and the game, and loved traversing the familiar terrain of his campaign through a setup and system that better supported the game than in my previous outings. Many thanks to all the players who helped bring this game to life.

Campaign Statistics
Sessions Played: 16
Chapters: 7
Number of Players: 7
Number of Characters: 8 (plus Bullit the dog)
Total Fate Points Expended: 39
Fate Points Expended in Final Session: 12
Character Deaths: 0

EDIT: You can check out a players perspective of this campaign over at Andy's excellent blog.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Evolution of Superheroes

I’ve been a little quiet here of late, mostly due to venting my thoughts about gaming on Australian roleplaying boards in the great “system vs systemless ‘con game debate” that I seem to become enmeshed in annually. I’m not sure there’s much point in posting here about it, as I doubt folks reading this blog will care overly much about the issue.

Instead, I thought I’d document my process of setting up Reverie, a Superhero game I’ve now run a few sessions of, as an example of my current thinking about campaigns.

By way of introduction, I’ve been running superhero games on and off for a while now, but usually as short run games. My Council of Champions ‘con outings have been a lot of fun over the years – I designed a cast of powerful, famous, established superheroes with fairly complex relationships, and then let each group tackle the villanous challenge in their own ways, in as much of a sandbox style as possible. At the time these games represented what I thought were the best element of ‘con gaming. The ability to play complex characters, each with sufficient drama (incorporating both comedy and tragedy) to provide a satisfying interactions with the other PC’s and goals to drive them, as well as a powerful array of superpowers and the opportunity to devise unique and individual solutions to each challenge the game threw up.

Nowadays I see this style of character establishment as overly detailed and prescriptive – too brittle to be fit for purpose in a ‘con environment where I want to achieve 100% player activation. There is a danger the players feel they are being dictated to, and don’t ‘buy in’ sufficiently into the game space, or feel overwhelmed or confused by the complexity of the back-story. But, it was a useful exploration, and probably rates as the most consistently successful series of ‘con games I’ve run.

Next I ran ‘Potential’ a 3 part mini-series featuring a group of troubled youths who are experimented on whilst in juvenile detention, and develop superpowers. There were a lot of elements I was fairly proud of in this game, but it reinforced to me that a good origins story, which reveals meaning and purpose to seemingly random things like the development of superpowers, can really add to the depth of a game. I also borrowed an idea from Morgue, surveying the players about the kind of powers they wanted their characters to develop – without being specific – so I could reveal the powers during game-play. Ultimately, however, the anchors holding the group together were probably not sufficient to hold together the diverse and socially troubled kids the players developed meaning the 3 session limit was probably necessary without overly contriving the setup.

Then, in Australia I ran a year-long supers campaign ‘Mayhem’ using the M&M Paragons setup, with a lot of my own material. Again I surveyed for powers, but I also gave the players a second survey about the style of game they wanted to play, the level of system crunch, and a list of elements which they rated as either liking or disliking (robots, aliens, time-travel, realism etc.) This time I also designed a cohesive element to bind the players together more thoroughly, tied to the plot.

While this did prove more successful in providing a basis for the group to work together, the players (who did not really know each other before the game) designed characters whose individual plot interests often superseded the group action, meaning the characters frequently split, and gameplay suffered some pacing issues as I tried to juggle equal screen-time, and cater to individual stories. The crunch level of the system also proved challenging over a longer span game, as some players strongly engaged with the system, while others actively disliked it. I also tried casting a player as a supervillain – the idea was that the player wouldn’t go to most games but would be kept appraised of key plot elements remotely, send me what they wanted their character to do in response, and show up to key sessions for epic battles as appropriate. In practise however, the style of the game was a lot less over-the-top than I’d envisaged, and the supervillain player ended up playing most sessions, adding to the diversity of the game, but also adding to the load of individual scenes.

After Kapcon this year, and the enjoyable experience of running the 4th instalment of my Council of Champions game I thought I’d give it another shot. With Reverie I sent the two surveys I’d used previously (with some editing) and included a third to establish some basic character details which I’d use to include the initial plot.

As with Mayhem I wanted to create a sandbox experience, so the characters could choose almost any course of action, and be ready to plug an appropriate scene or encounter. But I also used the origins story to bring the group together in a way that would lead them to work together. Fortunately, this group was much more willing to embrace the group dynamic, probably due to their fairly extensive roleplaying experience. The group has also really engaged with making the characters their own – adding detail and even creating fictional Facebook accounts to interact outside the game space. I feel very privileged to have players willing to make that effort.

I've ditched M&M in favour of BASH Ultimate Edition - BASH does a good job of providing a simplified superhero system, but the math stemming from combat is still undersirable - it's probably on a par with the Difficult Check damage calculation in M&M, but I'd still like an even better fit...

In Reverie the origins story forms a major part of the plot, and I’ve tried to create something complex enough that the players will be interested to investigate and speculate about, but hopefully not so convoluted they give up (it’s a delicate balance). To do this I’ve used elements of the players own creation, balanced against a range of day-to-day concerns for the characters, and sufficient immediate danger to spur super-heroics. Because of the skill of the players, this is often more like conducting the game, than facilitating it – each instrument knows its part and adds to the overall harmony seamlessly.

What remains to be seen is how the game will evolve, because ultimately, once the detail of the origins story is laid bare, the players will need to take a more active ownership of the game. I only hope the second phase will be as enjoyable as the first phase has been.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

State of Play

What have I been up to? Here's a quick update:

Running: Masks of Nyarlathotep – Pulp Edition (Call of Cthulhu/BRP)
This campaign just reached the half way stage after 8 sessions and it’s been a blast. The fate and fortune points system I introduced have really worked well. The fortune points (which allow skill re-rolls) allow the players to really make sure they have all the leads they need, and add a new and interesting tactical dimension to Cthulhu combat, while still not spoiling the simple and straightforward vibe that’s the hallmark of BRP rules. Fate points have let the characters tackle the campaign head-on and really embrace a pulp style of play, which I think is necessary for such an old-school campaign. So far I think I’ve claimed at least 6 fate points, which would otherwise be 6 dead characters. I’ve also found the BRP rules I’ve added to Cthulhu (rumoured to be part of the next edition) have further empowered the players, while also adding some neat narrative details. I’m looking forward to seeing how the next half of the campaign plays out!

Running: Reverie (BASH Ultimate Edition)
This supers mini-series is in its infancy, but the first episode was huge fun, and I’m confident in sustaining this level of enjoyment. I find running supers games both fun and rewarding, and I’ve honed my style of origins stories to a good level which makes adding a strong character focus an implicit element of the game. I’ve developed quite a lot of plot for the game, but have been careful to thread this right through character backgrounds and will work hard to keep the focus on character driven drama which the group seems to enjoy. The stakes for me are higher with this game because it features a lot more of my own ideas then the pre-generated scenarios I usually run, so I usually feel both more nervous beforehand, and feel a greater sense of reward if things go well.

Playing: Gotham High (PDQ)
This has been an interesting experience and I took it on to try something different. I’m not a huge fan of the setting or system, but developing the characters has been entertaining, and the other players have been great fun.

Not Mentioned: I’ve temporarily halted running Kingsport Tales to focus on running Masks in a streamlined way. I’d really like to get back to Kingsport Tales soon, but I’m also enjoying the change of pace in Masks, so I guess it’s a case of not having cake and being able to eat it too. I also have suspended my involvement in the long-running D&D 4e campaign I had been playing due to ‘creative differences’ with the GM.

Looking Ahead: I’d like to run games at both Confusion and Fright Night, although so far I’m not sure what I’ll choose to run. Rogue Trader is also on my list of games I’d like to try running.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Day of Games

On Saturday I attended my first Day of Games (DOG) organised by the local legend Sophie Melchior. DOG is a small to mid-size, mostly indie games ‘con, where people bring games which require little or no preparation, and offer to run them over three rounds, with the most popular games (as voted by the audience) being selected to be run. I brought along Piledrivers and Powerbombs, a simple wrestling game as my contribution. What follows are my reflections on both the games and the systems I played.

Round One – Piledrivers and Powerbombs: Chokeslam of Darkness Edition

The Game: This was enormous fun, I had a full load of 6 players, and they set about creating wrestlers with silly gimmicks, and their enemy wrestlers with glee. Sophie featured as the evil NPC General Manager of the league and everyone got into the spirit of things rapidly. I was hugely impressed with everyone’s contribution, and I think that despite the disparate levels of knowledge or love for professional wrestling, and different gaming experience levels, everyone really came to the party in this game. It was massive fun and we managed to run through two complete match-cards with pre and post match scenes in the time allotted. I was particularly pleased by the willingness of the players to jump into the guest commentary roles when their own characters were not involved in a scene to really keep the flow going. The game and characters could have easily managed another hour in my opinion. Wrestlers created included:

  • Leeroy Harlem – Avenger of the disadvantaged street children, and his nemesis Max Power, a wealthy developer.

  • Man of Science – Educator and quoter of all things Darwin and Dawkins, opposed by his nemesis, bible-toting Father O’Mallet.

  • The Rainbow Warrior – Environmental activist and her fearsome hulking nemesis, the HAZMAT suit clad, Industrial By-Product.

  • El Hombre Lobo – The howling luchador known for abrupt ring entrances, and his nemesis the fearsome Shadow Man accompanied to the ring by his sexy zombies.

  • El Diablo – Another luchador who stands for the underprivledged opposed by the evil Developer and his bulldozer of destruction!

  • Last, but by no means least, Ronald Ray-Gun – Presidential wrestler with a tefelon smile and scantily clad Secret Service bodyguards opposed by the twisted head of the United Nations, the Secretary General.

The System: P&P is a neat system, it uses really simple techniques and a easily understood system to represent the different parts of the game. The real genius of the system is the use of pre and post match scenes to allow character developments and storytelling, while also delivering a mechanical advantage. It flowed smoothly and easily.

As a critique I would say that there needs to be better guidance for the players during the initial creation phase to help if they get stuck – the NPC gimmick and finisher tables are useful, but could be better tailored for this purpose. The pre and post match scenes are a little too similar and should have better demarcated points of uniqueness. There also needs to be a mechanic for linking subsequent match cards including rules to aid with the use of the GM to mess with the wrestlers and the commentary needs to be officially turned over to the players while different match types should have some optional special rules (e.g. in a cage match anyone who draws a face card takes a point of sellage in addition to the normal rules reflecting a collision with the metal) and finally, the actual wrestling itself needs another phase. The idea of drawing a hand then having an option to fold is nice. There should also be a chance to ‘raise’ drawing on the poker theme, to increase the tension and allow for the players to engage better, and more strategically, with the fight.

Round Two – Dread (D&D scenario)

I was actually ‘volunteered’ for this game by Alasdair, but I had been wanting to try Dread for ages, so was interested to see how it runs. Paul was offering a D&D version of Dread so I thought I might as well give it a shot.

The Game: I’m not a huge dungeon crawl fan so found motivation for this game a little tough, compounded by the need to fill in a questionnaire at the beginning of the game. However, my fellow players, and their characters were fairly motivational, so I created Old Ali a wizened demon worshipping wizard and together we ventured into the depths of the Dragon God’s dungeon and slew the beast with the loss of two of our number (including Old Ali). The game was solid and finished with an hour to spare, so Paul broke out Fiasco. I opted to wander off for a coffee and catch up with some folks instead, resulting in some interesting discussions about the nature of horror games at ‘cons.

The System: The Jenga Tower is a strong idea, and it does a remarkable job of increasing the tension. My main criticism is that the method of engagement with the tower encourages players to not engage with the scenario - if taking actions forces me to draw from the tower and imperils my character - then I’ll try and find ways to avoid taking action directly or even simply avoid engagement with the scenario. Now, obviously it is desirable that players do not play this way, but the reality is that some do, and any game that relies on ‘like minded players’ has an inherent weakness. My view is that any system should actively support the player’s engagement with the game, and be aligned with the aims of the scenario – Dread seems to fail this test to some extent. I also don’t like the character questionnaire used to help shape the character. I appreciate the technique and I like what it is trying to accomplish, but I personally think such a crude device to accomplish these aims alienates and excludes a segment of gamers who don’t like to be put on the spot, or don’t engage well with written material in a ‘con setting.

Round Three – Fiasco (London Underworld Setting)

Fiasco is another game I’ve wanted to try for ages. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Fiasco of late, so although I was a little disappointed I couldn’t get sufficient wrestlers for another run of P&P, I was happy to join Mike’s game of Fiasco.

The Game: I pushed for the London Underworld setting as I love Guy Ritchie’s irreverent movies of this genre. Fortunately I was persuasive and we began the setup phase of the game. It turned out that I was playing ‘Fancy’ Frank Farley an ex-con who had a frankfurter stand, was trying to scam a cat welfare lady and had a shared love interest with Alasdair’s character. So began our caper, which was enormous fun and had me in stitches through most of the game. Having involved any number of underworld factions I thought our game was pretty wild – until, that is, we had a visit from the crew of Jenni’s ‘clothes optional' Harry Potter Fiasco game. Nonetheless, it was a very enjoyable time, and although things didn’t work out too well for ‘Fancy’ Frank, I had a blast.

The System: The genius of Fiasco is clearly adding structure, in a fairly traditional way, to the beginning and ending of the game. The creators seem to have cleverly identified that these areas are often the most important, and by helping to shape them while also allowing a degree of player autonomy, it makes the prospect of the game falling flat, or lacking motivation, much reduced. I’m not really sure about how the dice are allocated during the game, we pretty much ran with a story (okay, I might have occasionally hijacked the story in places) and the formal structure of the set-up or resolve mechanic seemed unnecessary given we were all on the same page. I suppose, however, that if players are less together on what they’d like to have happen this might be a bigger factor. As a newbie to the game I found the complexity and sheer volume of dice a little overwhelming, and I think that a strongly systems-focussed player might have struggled to ‘trust’ the game sufficiently to allow it to progress smoothly. On subsequent play, however, this seems unlikely to remain an issue.

So, a fun day with some really enjoyable games. My thanks to Sophie for organising a great Day of Games.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fast and Furious

I thought I’d post a couple of thoughts of my views on running action sequences in a game. I think action can be a powerful tool, and a great way to bond PC’s and pump out some intense collaborative material which can really help to flavour the characters. I’ve seen combat run in a protracted way, like a wargame, and I’ve seen it run as a fully adversarial experience – I think both extremes are missed opportunities, so here are my tips on how to give the action sequence the kind of punch it needs.

1. Fast, fast, fast. Most fights in roleplaying games take place in seconds, so it’s important to try and convey the frantic intensity of this experience. Stay standing while you run action, even move around a little to get the blood pumping. Use an initiative track so you can hurry from player to player and urge the players to make decisions as quickly as possible to emphasise brevity.

2. Describe, repeat, then take another angle. For some reason I’ve found that 3 is the magic number of times it takes for people to strongly visualise an action sequence. Take this example from my recent Masks game:

Player 1:” I strike the cultist for 7 points of damage with my sword.”
GM to player 1: “The cultist turns to run, then you ram the sword through his back as he’s in the doorway and kill him”
GM, to player 2: “You reach the doorway and are confronted by a frantic looking man, suddenly the glinting end of a blade appears in the centre of his chest and you are showered in gore.”
GM to everyone: “Down the corridor a woman has her key out to unlock her door, holding a bag of groceries. At the sound of the commotion, she looks down the corridor and sees the cultist impaled on a sword – for a moment her eyes meet the eyes of [player 2’s character] whose face is now covered in blood, then she screams and drops her groceries.”

You don’t need to use this technique for every action, but it will help for major or significant actions within the combat, and reduce the chance that players haven’t understood or heard what has happened.

3. Emphasise the gore. Violence is terrible and has consequences. Be ready to describe horrific injuries and their impact on NPC’s or even PC’s. Making the hit point loss into a tangible injury helps to emphasise the reality, and the stakes for the PC’s and also helps to de-glorify combat. If you’re not used to this sort of thing consider importing a simplified critical table from another game system.

4. Make sure the PC’s know you’re on their side, then root for the bad guys. This is a neat adversarial technique, which can help bond a group. Simply put, the players need to trust you not to actually be trying to kill their characters – if there is some doubt emphasise that the bad guys are surprised, inefficient or otherwise human -they are not tools of the GM but other characters, just as fallible as the PC’s. Then root for them. Act disappointed every time they miss, celebrate when they hit. It is a little confrontational, but in my experience the players usually get into the spirit of things rapidly – just so long as they trust you won’t skew the results in your favour. Another good technique is to roll everything in the open, ideally telling the players beforehand what the chance of a hit is.

5. Don’t let the fight get away on you. Ideally nothing should happen in the combat that you aren’t ready for. If you’re rolling in the open, then you should have some plan about what happens if you are very lucky, or the PC’s aren’t. Character death should (in my opinion) always be on the table, but a smart GM makes sure that the likelihood of such an outcome is both considered, and prepared for before rolling the dice.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Year's Best

Back in late 2009, I was invited to submit a short story for "A Foreign Country" a collection of speculative fiction by Random Static Press which was published last year. I hadn't written a short story since high-school, but I'm always up for a challenge, particularly if solicited directly, so I decided to give it a shot. I'm pleased to say my piece -Night Shift - has subsequently been included in 'The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010' anthology by Ticenderoga Publications. Their press release follows below:

"Ticonderoga Publications is walking on sunshine to announce the contents for its inaugural Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror anthology. Editors Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene have produced a list of 33 excellent tales by some of Australia's biggest names as well as some emerging writers. The anthology collects 150,000 words of the best stories published last year from the Antipodes.

"We're pleased with the number of fabulous stories that were published in 2010 that we had to choose from,” Liz Grzyb said.

"You could hold this anthology up against any international collection - Australians rock for diverse voices, imagination, and compelling writing," Talie Helene added.

The stories are (alphabetically by writer):

  • RJ Astruc: "Johnny and Babushka"

  • Peter M Ball: "L'esprit de L'escalier"

  • Alan Baxter: "The King's Accord"

  • Jenny Blackford: "Mirror"

  • Gitte Christensen: "A Sweet Story"

  • Matthew Chrulew: "Schubert By Candlelight"

  • Bill Congreve: "Ghia Likes Food"

  • Rjurik Davidson: "Lovers In Caeli-Amur"

  • Felicity Dowker: "After the Jump"

  • Dale Elvy: "Night Shift"

  • Jason Fischer: "The School Bus"

  • Dirk Flinthart: "Walker"

  • Bob Franklin: "Children's Story"

  • Christopher Green: "Where We Go To Be Made Lighter"

  • Paul Haines: "High Tide At Hot Water Beach"

  • Lisa L. Hannett: "Soil From My Fingers"

  • Stephen Irwin: "Hive"

  • Gary Kemble: "Feast Or Famine"

  • Pete Kempshall: "Brave Face"

  • Tessa Kum: "Acception"

  • Martin Livings: "Home"

  • Maxine McArthur: "A Pearling Tale"

  • Kirstyn McDermott: "She Said"

  • Andrew McKiernan: "The Memory Of Water"

  • Ben Peek: "White Crocodile Jazz"

  • Simon Petrie: "Dark Rendezvous"

  • Lezli Robyn: "Anne-droid of Green Gables"

  • Angela Rega: "Slow Cookin' "

  • Angela Slatter: "The Bone Mother"

  • Angela Slatter & Lisa L Hannett: "The February Dragon"

  • Grant Stone: "Wood"

  • Kaaron Warren: "That Girl"

  • Janeen Webb: "Manifest Destiny"

In addition to the above incredible tales, the volume will include a review of 2010 and a list of recommended stories. The anthology is scheduled for publication in June 2011. The anthology will be available in hardcover, ebook and trade editions and may be pre-ordered at indie books online."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Campaign Stakes

Campaigns are tricky things. If you want a strong plot, or focus on investigation – whether that be investigating a murder, or exploring a dungeon environment – the question of character motivation is likely to arise. Often, due to the nature of organising a campaign, not enough attention is applied by the GM in communicating the kind of game they want to run in advance, and this can lead PC ‘motivation’ problems down the track.

What I have observed is that without this level of meta-communication, once the campaign has begun the players believe that the character perspectives are what should drive the action, and are often unwilling to commit to anything offline until the proposition is put to them 'in character' and usually - unless someone is really willing to try and bend others to their will - this inevitably results in half baked participation or limited agreement to any given point. Simply put: why should the characters risk anything (their lives, reputations or relationships) without a very good reason?

The problem is that the reasons that the GM thinks are good (it’s supposed to be a game about mystery/adventuring), are not sufficient to satisfy the players. Many games have an overriding assumption that the PC’s will want to participate in a dangerous activity, such as exploring a haunted house, or delving into a dungeon, but if the players have invested effort in their characters to make them seem more ‘real’ and have genuine aims and relationships with the world – such an action, not well justified to the character, may shatter a players perception of game reality. Meanwhile, on the other side of the table the GM is confused because the players seem to be refusing to engage in the core activity of the game (exploring mysteries/dungeons etc.).

My solution? Character buy-in is developed through in-game stakes. Characters need to begin with, or to have developed stakes in the game world, which they use to drive ambitions and aims, which in turn, levers participation in scenarios. Character developed stakes are critical to establishing the character, and taking the pressure off the GM to be responsible for everything. The GM has to allow the players to develop in-game stakes, and allow these stakes to be a partial focus of the game – then use these stakes, without destroying or co-opting them, to become the motivation for participation in the central plot the GM wants to explore. In other words, the GM is essentially ‘sharing’ the central plot of the game with the characters, which serves the dual purpose of allowing greater PC buy-in, and sharing responsibility for a fun game amongst the group.

Or, the GM needs to be up-front that the campaign requires the kind of characters that the players might see as ‘unrealistic’ or one dimensional and seek to develop some shared fun from this premise. If the game is about action and risk-taking, bring in the movie tropes, and use cinematic techniques to bring this to life for the players.

I’ve adopted the first approach with Kingsport Tales, allowing for detailed characters with developed back-stories that fuel their involvement in the Mythos, and used the second approach for Masks of Nyarlathotep Pulp Edition, highlighting that the game is a James Bond style action extravaganza. So far both games are delivering different, but equally good, levels of fun.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite RPG’s of all time. For me it hits the right balance between horror and suspense, between character focus and realism, system simplicity and enough crunch to be satisfying. But even I have to admit –the grim reputation of the game aside – the anatomy of a standard Call of Cthulhu adventure leaves much to be desired.

The adventure normally starts with a hook, often these are derivative or poorly thought out. There is an underlying assumption that the PC’s will choose to investigate a mystery despite their better judgement. Modern scenarios make better use of in media res to lever the action, but the difficulty remains - if you let players generate their own characters, how do you involve them without either railroading, or shattering player reality? Why do these characters continue to work together? There is a fine balance between the collective suspension of disbelief, and getting a viable group of characters to work together.

Next, the investigation phase. Old-School investigation games are like contrived intelligence tests. The players must ‘investigate’ following clues to get closer to the source of the mystery. If they don’t think of something, then they may miss out on a vital clue, and thus either get stalled, or be unprepared for the final scene. Often scenarios incorporate author assumptions that are flat-out unrealistic or unlikely, making further work for the GM. Options do exist in the game for the GM to prompt action, but these may well spoil the GM’s sense of reality. In addition, the ultimate result of such investigation hinges on some kind of successful skill test – a mechanical and luck driven intervention – in order to secure the information.

Obviously it’s in the GM’s interests for the PC’s to obtain the clues they need, but if such clues are made readily available, you once again risk the shared collective suspension of disbelief. Games like Trail of Cthulhu have highlighted this problem and made strong inroads on this aspect of the game, but the fact remains that making the investigation phase both challenging and rewarding without being boring or contrived requires considerable experience and skill and a high degree of flexibility on the part of the GM.

Finally, the conclusion – usually a confrontation with some action and probably some kind of strange monster. Again, the plausible ‘excuses’ the characters might have for venturing into the basement/secret chamber/old warehouse, and risking life and limb are probably thin at best. Considering the brutal nature of combat, and the imperviousness of many Mythos beasts, and the potential for losing a character to sudden temporary insanity - it’s likely to be a sticky end for some or all of the characters. If run straight, such a conclusion might be disheartening, un-empowering and feel like the work leading up to the climax was a waste of time. An experienced GM can work to make such a conclusion exciting, dangerous and meaningful, but I’ve come to realise that you’ve really got to have experienced Call of Cthulhu as a player first, in order to understand this fine balance.

And then, inevitably, the debrief – what was really going on? Why was it occurring and what could the investigators have done about it? Often frustrating, and an aspect of the game that really reinforces the old-school values of Cthulhu – the players encountered the plot, like some kind of giant, fast moving river, and were rapidly swept to the end, without really understanding what was happening or why. Sometimes these revelations are illuminating, but I always feel that they’d be so much better if they could be drawn out during the game, rather than afterwards.

I don’t want you to think I’m picking on Call of Cthulhu – many other games suffer from these kinds of issues, but what I conclude from this analysis is that most Call of Cthulhu games, if run as written, leave a lot to be desired, and have the potential to actually spoil the enjoyment of the players. To shape the adventure into the flexible and adaptive form it needs to be in order to negate such issues, requires a considerable degree of experience and skill. I guess, for my money, the problem is that this kind of consideration and discussion is not something that forms a core part of the game, and is certainly not an aspect of most published adventures.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One Year Old Today

Today TPK turns one!
Over the last 12 months 45 posts have been made here including reviews of games, actual play reports, ‘con reports, promoting published materials and my own musings on the nature of gaming, and how it can be improved. A total of 178 comments have been made to challenge, support, edify or inform these posts. Thanks to everyone who has been a part of the discussion, or even just idly skimmed the material.

The most viewed post? Oddly, One Night as A SuperVillain – Part 2, weighing in at 147 views, with Kapcon 20 - Part 2 the runner up with 107 views. In total so far TPK has had around 3,500 page views.

My favourite posts have been those about the nature of gaming, particularly in a 'con setting:

So looking ahead, what for the next 12 months? Well it’d be a brave person to predict this blog will continue at the same pace, but my gaming goals for the next year are:

- Continue to run my Kingsport Tales campaign.
- Run Masks of Nyarlathotep – Pulp Edition.
- Run a Rogue Trader mini-series.
- Run a Superhero mini-series.
- Attend upcoming Wellington tabletop roleplaying conventions.
- Write and publish EPOCH
- Write and submit a scenario for Fear Itself
- Write and submit another scenario for ICONS
- Write and submit a monograph or scenario for Call of Cthulhu

What about you?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Be A Hero

Last week I wrote an adventure for ICONSAdamant Entertainment’s Superhero Roleplaying system. This wasn’t something I’d planned, or even considered, before doing it - I’ve played just one ICONS adventure, and never written up a supers adventure before. However, during the e-mails about setting up the RPGNow Bundle, Gareth-Michael Skarka suggested that we produce a “Be a Hero” New Zealand ICONS adventure with proceeds going to Christchurch earthquake relief – an idea I thought was fantastic!

On Wednesday the 23rd I visited Morgue for a brainstorming session, and left his place with a draft outline. We wanted something over the top (4-colour) which dealt with New Zealand in a way that was authentic and respectful, and also fitted within the genre. The feedback from Gareth was that our draft outline was a little ambitious for the time available. So, on Thursday I sat down and wrote the first draft, condensing the action to a single region and two scenes. Morgue kicked into high-gear on Friday fleshing out the characters and providing system details, then it was on to Cam for editing and the Adamant team for art and layout.

Our finished product, The Aotearoa Gambit is now available from RPGNow and DriveThruRpg, with all proceeds going to real New Zealand heroes who were in the thick of the Christchurch Earthquake response – St. John’s. Thanks to Morgue, Cam Banks, Dan Houser and Gareth-Michael Skarka for making this happen.


Adamant Entertainment is proud to present an adventure for ICONS: Superpowered Roleplaying produced especially as a charity fundraiser for St. John New Zealand.

St. John New Zealand are volunteer first responders and health care providers, currently operating the remaining welfare centre currently operating in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake. This 25-page ICONS adventure was written and edited by New Zealanders Dale Elvy, Morgan Davie and Cam Banks, who join Adamant Entertainment in donating all proceeds from this product, in perpetuity, to St John New Zealand.

The Aotearoa Gambit is a fast-paced adventure which takes place in New Zealand (Aotearoa) and after some initial scene setting, presents the players with 3 possible encounters, which they can choose to resolve in any order. Each encounter is structured to have possible alternate solutions, other than brute force, and also to increase in difficulty if not resolved immediately, making some tough choices for the heroes. These encounters should ultimately lead to a final scene which features a showdown with the main villain – an encounter which will determine the fate of an entire nation!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thank You

The RPGNow and DriveThruRPG Earthquake Relief bundle to support the New Zealand Red Cross raised US$46,125, buying just over NZ$60,000! This is a spectacular and special thing for our community of imagineers. Although Morgue has downplayed his role, I think he deserves a special vote of thanks for helping to organise this, as do Gregor Hutton, Malcolm Craig, Paul at Contested Ground Studios and Gareth-Michael Skarka. The willingness to help and goodwill on display during the e-mails to get this up and running, was humbling.

Most of all I'd like to pay tribute to all the publishers that helped make this happen - especially Kiwi publishers like Jenni and Red-Brick. Finally, this entire effort is due to the amazing efforts of Matt McElroy at, and of course, eveyone who purchased the bundle.

Gareth, Morgue and I have been working on another RPG effort to support some of the first responders to the Christchurch earthquake - more about that soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Christchurch Red Cross Earthquake Relief - RPG Bundle

Thanks to the efforts of Matt at RPGNow, Morgue, and others you can now buy a bundle of RPG products for US$20 to support the Red Cross earthquake relief effort in Christchurch. A number of NZ writers have contributed their products for this worthy cause - please buy this bundle and add your support.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The GM Toolkit

In my last post I talked about player activation, the idea that GM’s often need to do more in a ‘con game to ‘activate’ their players, in order to bring about more engagement and improve the overall game experience for everyone. That’s all well and good – but how do you actually do it?

I should clarify that when I talk about activation, I’m talking about players who would like to engage with a game more fully, but don’t for whatever reason. Not player’s who deliberately obstruct, challenge or proactively frustrate the GM – this I call ‘blocking’ and is an entirely different dynamic and has an entirely different solution, in my opinion.

Luke suggests 3 possible options; have fun, make friends with your players, love your PC’s. I think these are all good suggestions, and are techniques I use often. My note of caution about such methods comes from two sources - first, it’s sometimes hard to start a game with this level of enthusiasm (unless you’re Luke), and round one, after a late night, such an approach may not be sustainable. You sometimes need to build the fun slowly and draw off the energy of the other players. Secondly, by the GM taking such an active role, often you carry the game on your shoulders, meaning if your energy ebbs, so does the game, and it’s hard to know (while you’re doing it) whether players are actively engaging, or just being carried along for the ride. Ultimately, they may not find it as much fun as you do because they feel their agency has been diminished.

Here are some of my suggestions; I’d be very interested in hearing your own thoughts and opinions:

1. Be open about what you want and what you’re trying to achieve. Do this before the game (and preferably in the blurb) to be clear about your expectations and the kind of game you want to run.

2. Communicate the style, and provide some tools for player narration by using film techniques – describe the opening scenes as a director might (a dusty road, the camera pans up to windswept tussock and a clear blue sky, in the distance a man is trudging wearily toward the camera...). Tapping into such common ground should empower the player to use similar descriptive elements, even if they've never GM'd before.

3. Have pre-generated characters that support this. I found that providing some very basic detail, drawing on well established tropes and clichés, while leaving much of the rest to the player allowed for creative freedom, while not throwing the player in at the deep end. Give them something to build on, but too much detail often feels like a straightjacket.

4. Encourage individual scene framing. This adds to the idea that the players have a strong level of autonomy of their own character. You must help facilitate the scene, but if you start with some detailed description –then encourage the player to add some detail about their character indirectly at first (I like to use the opening sequence of the movie Sahara – the camera is panning over a desk, what’s on it? Is it neat or messy? What kind of pictures on the wall? etc.), then go back to the description – then more character detail, then start to force some decisions. A telephone rings – who is calling? A pizza is delivered, what sort of pizza? Did the character order it, or is it a mistake? A collector approaches the character in the streets, how do they react? Each choice helps the player solidify the character in their mind. Ideally each of these early interactions should involve NPC’s who are subservient to the character, minor parts in the movie, so the PC is clearly the focus and has the authority in each case.

5. Be sure to allow time for the player to process each of these elements. Not everybody grasps things in the same way and we all process information differently. If you communicate the idea that the players need to help frame a scene – talk about something else for a bit – and allow them time to think about it, and form ideas. People will feel less put on the spot. Last week in Australia I ran a game, communicated this idea, and before running the character intro scenes one of the players had time to make some notes, which actually led to a much more powerful, meaningful scene.

6. Kill the system. At this early stage the system just gets in the way. Players will often like to engage with mechanics, so they can optimize their play, prepare for challenges and get the best results. Unless this is the kind of game you want (see point 1 about being open) this is just going to lead to questions, and tie up player attention with mechanical crunch, which is likely to distract from the detail necessary to build a stronger character bond. I think we need system, but we need it to support this style of game, not detract from it. This is part of a deeper discussion about the kind of system we need for this kind of game.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Player Activation

Following some discussions of players and their impact on ‘con games with Mash, I was struck by Grandexperiment’s claim that he’d “never had a bad player experience at a Kapcon”. Clearly he and I may have different expectations and ideas about what makes a ‘bad’ experience, however, in the past I’ve certainly been guilty of blaming players when a session has felt flat or uninspired. As I work through some of the ideas around EPOCH I realise that player engagement must be a critical element of any successful horror game – the question is, what are the tools a GM needs to have readily available to help make this happen?

A brief detour back to 2009 when I ran a game at a university games day in Canberra. The roleplaying club needed to get a certain number of student members in order to qualify for funding for the year, so they has advertised widely and were offering a free pizza lunch as an incentive. I had decided to run a M&M supers scenario (the Proteus Plot) with my own mechanic for character creation which involved a degree of assisted narrative control; principally this allowed the players to tailor their own superhero characters and have shared authority over their ‘super team’ (I tried this again at Confusion 8). In this game I had 3 players who had never played a roleplaying game before - ever. They were there for the pizza. And yet these folks jumped into the shared narrative process. With a little prompting and scene setting from me, they deftly crafted characters, NPC’s and back stories, some better than the experienced roleplayers at the table. In fact, after the game got underway I forgot they were rookies until they tried to use narrative control to favourably influence the system mechanics for their characters.

What I took out of this experience was that, with the right tools and setup, people – irrespective of their experience - naturally engage with characters in a way that we’ve come to think of as ‘good’ play. So why, then, do we sometimes feel a convention game falls flat?

In a one-shot 3 hour roleplaying game, neither the premise nor the pre-generated characters are likely to create deliver a strong empathetic bond with a player. Compounded by the absurdity of the game premise, camouflaged by a system that restricts player interface in the interests of 'balance' and loaded with social inhibitors about expressing yourself before strangers; it's no surprise that some games become periods of tedium punctuated by occasional humour or farce at the expense of atmosphere.

I now believe that what we have to do is 'facilitate' the game in such a way that players can’t help but be 'activated'. That means we actually have to find ways to engage with them that allow them to feel comfortable - and for some people that's not going to be easy. If we keep a strong GM fiat, rules focus or adversarial approach, players have to decide to risk something in order to engage fully with the game, and many just won't. Because for some people a mediocre or even a crappy game is better than no game at all.