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.