Friday, July 26, 2013

Introducing New Games

Over on there has recently been some talk about just how much GM-driven description is ideal for roleplaying games.  Some contend more description is better, others argue that too much description alienates players.  I think that if you play a campaign with some regular players, as a GM you probably have a good sense of which players enjoy description, and which are itching to interject and get started with their character’s interactions and the secret is finding the right balance to keep everyone happy.  But what about when you run a new game for the first time?  What about when you have a group of strangers at the table, as you might in a convention game?
New games often have an awful lot of information to convey.  Many have both a bespoke setting and a bespoke system.  Players will want to know from the moment they sit down, what sort of dice are needed?  What about character sheets?  Some will be focussed on the mechanics, seeking to draw comparisons with similar game systems, while others more interested in the setting, and the role of the PC’s.  And then there are many players who don’t engage at all from the outset, reserving judgement until later.
So, how to reconcile of the tension between a tremendous information dump, and not spending the first 30-45 minutes of the game talking about playing, rather than actually playing the game?  I personally find that an integrated approach works best, and here are the steps I generally employ as part of a 'pre-flight checklist' before every game.
  1. Be well prepared before the game.  Think about how to describe it, and make sure you have all the props (pre-generated characters, handouts etc.) printed and ready to go.  I usually try to have the below list on a single page, with some dot points for each heading to jog my memory about what I’m going to say.
  2. Talk about other stuff before the game.  Most important if you are running the game with strangers – it is important to get to know folks a little before the game begins and try and make sure everyone is comfortable  and engaged.  I usually ask about other games people have played, or other events at the ‘con.
  3. Start with a purpose statement.  A high level description of what the game is about and what role the character will play.  If the game is about investigation or problem solving, it’s important to emphasise this here, so that the players understand the game dynamic from the outset.
  4. Now it’s time to talk about system.  Unless you are using a system specifically designed for one-shots (Dread, Fiasco, EPOCH etc.) then you might need to consider making a cut-down or ‘lite’ version of the system and using only the mechanics that will actually be needed for the scenario you are running.  I try and customise character sheets where possible so only the information needed for the specific scenario is presented.  If combat is a major element of the game, I usually do a short introduction at this point, then revisit it later, when the characters have sheets in front of them, with an example in mind.  It’s important to keep this system description as short, and to-the-point as possible, and ask if there are any questions after each main point.  It’s likely there will be a recap of skill or combat rules when the scenario calls for this to occur, which should allow for additional reinforcement, and breaking up of the detail.
  5. Now the setting, where does the game take place?  If it’s a high-concept setting then I usually try and have examples of other popular media to draw on and then explain the differences.  What role do the characters have in that setting?  Particularly flag the way that NPCs are likely to react to them in the context of the scenario, so everyone is one the same page when the game begins.
  6. Break out the pre-generated characters or backgrounds. These should always be as short as possible, ideally no more than a couple of paragraphs.  More than that and it's likely that not all the players will absorb the details.  As an example, check out the way I set out pre-generated characters in Sundown, my Call of Cthulhu scenario of the Old West.  If you want the players to have more time to absorb the information, you might hand out the sheets at point 4 instead, but be aware that players may ignore subsequent description in favour of looking at their sheets.
  7. Finally it’s time to begin the game.  I usually introduce each character first, either with a dedicated vignette scene, or by framing their arrival at a destination, and asking the player to add additional details, like a description of their character, then prompt them to embellish this with some additional detail and mannerisms.  Hopefully this way, all of the players understand each other's characters and are ready to interact when the scenario first puts them together.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Horror For The People - An ENnie Awards Platform

The EPOCH roleplaying game was thrilled and honoured to be nominated for several ENnie awards this year (Best Rules, Best Electronic Book, Best Free Product & Product of the Year).  However, looking at the competition in each category it became clear that we were by-far the smallest dog in this fight.  However, like all small dogs, we know the value of making a big noise, and we thought we might have a little fun during the voting process. 

Without further ado, I present EPOCH chairman and cover-model, the Doomed Diver to present our platform to voters, who might never have heard of our game:

“For too long roleplaying games have demystified horror, and sought to tame the nameless terror that lurks in the darkness.  Players have felt confident and comfortable at the gaming table, their characters ensconced in levels, professions and classes, empowered to dispatch the horror they encounter.  Dice pools, attributes and tokens have become the currency of heroism, perpetrating a terrible inflation on infamy which no monstrosity can afford.  Worse than this, the greatest heroes of horror have been diminished by this golden age of character empowerment. 

The repulsive, terrifying and powerful vampires who were once masters of the night have become glorified bureaucrats, ensconced in conspiracy and intrigue.  The noble zombie, once a frightful and relentless mockery of life has been studied, classified and embraced as an iconic role-model to be emulated.   Ghosts and spectres who once preyed on the sanity and life-force of the living are now valued for their historical insights and emotional mysteries.  Emotionless iron automatons now serve those they once would have crushed beneath their heavy metal treads.

Enough I say!  It is time for horror to return to its proper place in role-playing games.  Bring EPOCH to your gaming tables and restore the rightful balance.  EPOCH will unleash true horror once more, dispelling any notion that terror can be classified and catalogued, appearing with a charming picture and vital statistics at the back of a game book.  EPOCH will summon that which has long remained chained and banished, and unlock the terror deep inside you.  A vote for EPOCH is a vote to make this a better, more frightening, world!  Horror for the People!”

Voting is now open, and runs until 31 July.  There are many great products, and even if you don't vote for EPOCH, please do go and vote!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pulp My Game

This week my gaming group returned to the world of 1920’s pulp with ‘TheTimeless Sands of India’ an Age of Cthulhu scenario by Goodman Games.  Pulp is an interesting strand of the Cthulhu games pantheon which promises a heady mix of action and adventure. Indeed Goodman Games draw on this idea to describe this series:

“Age of Cthulhu is first and foremost dedicated to exploring the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, and to bringing the excitement of heroic pulp-themed adventure to your gaming table. So dim the lights, load your trusty sidearm, and prepare to venture into the unknown…”

The problem?  Call of Cthulhu 6th edition, as written, doesn’t really support this style of play.  The system is (deliberately) lethal to the characters, as a form of promoting helplessness and enforcing a spiral into madness or death for the character.  To compound the mixed messaging, all but one of the pre-generated characters in the scenario have no combat skills (a nurse, mathematician, missionary and student), and the character that does (a retired soldier), has a well below average sanity score (which is further eroded by the starting condition of the scenario).

I previously played ‘Death in Luxor’ the first in the Age of Cthulhu series, using the pre-generated characters, and in the opening scenes of that game my character (with below average sanity) went permanently insane during the first scripted scene of the scenario.  The experience left me questioning the realism of the character continuing to 'investigate' the situation and ultimately spoilt my fun a little.

Now I think ‘Timeless Sands of india’ as a good pulp outing.  In fact, it reads very much like an Indian chapter of Masks of Nayrlathotep, with all the same ingredients and some neat twists on the traditional Masks formula.  It has the same potential for epic action, exotic and atmospheric investigation and a neat backstory.  There are some tweaks needed here and there, a few details that don't really make sense - but the overall bones of the scenario are sound.

What it needs, in my opinion, is to reconcile the pulp aspect with the constraints of 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu. 

Basic Roleplaying’ the system which underpins Call of Cthulhu can achieve many of the needed changes.  Other minor tweaks, like allowing players limited opportunities to re-roll skill checks, would also help.  The pre-generated characters also need to be updated, and made appropriate to this style of play.  In short, this scenario is pulp-ready, but not pulp-enabled.  House rules are needed, along with new pre-generated characters, to make this scenario fit for purpose.

Eventually, I hope that the release of the long-promised ‘Pulp Cthulhu’ will codify the tweaks needed to make Call of Cthulhu suitable for a heroic adventure style of play.  Until then, I’m satisfied that my house-rules will allow my players to experience the scenario in the style which scenario author, Jon Hook, intended.