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 clich├ęs, 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.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Zealand RPG's Represent!

Just taking a moment to celebrate some of the fine New Zealand roleplaying games that have recently been published. First up The Silver Kiss of the Magical Twilight of the Full Moon by Jenni in which four players play teenage best friends. Two human, two supernatural…somethings. One human falls in love with one supernatural and it’s basically a hilarious emo pastiche of Twilight and similar books/movies/TV shows. Buy it from Lulu here.

Next up is Al Shir-Ma, A 66 player LARP co-authored by yours truly. Al Shir-Ma is a Live Roleplaying scenario set in a fantasy world loosely based on the 1001 Arabian Nights. The players take the roles of important people in the town, the court, leading merchants, prominent townsfolk, and assorted visitors and travellers. There are strong threads of political intrigue, magic, romance, duplicity and revenge running throughout the game. Available from RPGNow, drop me a line if you'd like a review copy.
Here's a scenario I can highly recommend having had a really great time play-testing it for the Morgue. A diabolical contest is underway, and the unwitting heroes are all that stand between the villains and the ultimate prize! Can the heroes withstand being drawn into … The Mastermind Affair? Written for the highly entertaining ICONS supers system and availble now at RPGNow. Then it's on to The Black Hart of Camelot by Ryan Paddy which is a live roleplaying scenario for 24 players set in the legendary age of King Arthur, bringing together the lords and ladies of the tales for a gathering that will shape the fate of the Kingdom of Britain. Get it from RPG Now.
Finally, you have to check out Monophobia. Almost a decade in development, Monophobia is a collection of Call of Cthulhu adventures for lone Investigators (and a willing Keeper). Written by Mark Chiddicks and Marcus Bone, two veteran Call of Cthulhu Keepers. Get it from the Unbound Book now.
So get out there and support some great Kiwi titles!