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...