Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Art of Game Preparation

In my opinion, the essence of a good roleplaying game is preparation.  In the past I’ve discussed a some essential elements for any convention RPG, including constructing a solid pitch the role of chance in your game, constructing memorable scenes, and running action sequences.  Today I’ll look at some of the small, but essential elements that can really enhance a game experience, if you take the time to prepare them beforehand.  While I wrote this from the perspective of running a scenario at a convention, the same level of preparation also enhances any campaign:

A Pre-Flight Checklist – I don’t leave home without a one-page sheet which summarises everything I want to convey to the players from the moment they sit down at the table.   I've previously described this in detail here.  By setting this down in dot points I make sure I don’t forget anything important, or have to slow the pace of the game later to cover off something I’ve forgotten to mention from the beginning.  I find the list helps me structure what would otherwise be a bit of a rambling monologue.

Timekeeping – a watch or clock is essential.  It can be remarkably hard to keep a track of time when facilitating a game, and it is fairly crucial that you keep your game to time, and aren’t forced to rush through the final scenes.  Timing is not an exact science, and checking your watch will likely mean the players check theirs and start thinking about their next game, so I usually try and be discreet about it.  I’ve noticed (as a player) that often somewhere between a quarter and a third of the total time allocation is spent on initial introductions and explanations.  In a game where establishing the characters is important (Fiasco, Apoclypse World, EPOCH) this is fine, but in more traditional games with pre-generated characters this often means that the final scenes suffer.

Maps – Maps serve two important functions.  First they obviously convey relative information about places, which can be useful to emphasise information already provided or illustrate simply something which would be complex to describe.  Second, they implicitly tell the players that their characters are on the right track or operating within the anticipated scope of the scenario.  I often find that maps can be a useful synopsis of key information both at player and character level.  The key is to have them be as simple as possible, to avoid having the map become a distraction for the players.

Pictures or Art – as with a map, a picture can convey a lot in a much simpler and more artful way than can easily be described aloud.  I particularly use pictures when there are multiple NPC’s in the scenario (and hold up a picture of which NPC is talking to be absolutely clear for the players) or when there are monsters which might prove challenging to describe (stay tuned for my forthcoming post on Cthulhu Mythos monsters as an example).  Art can also be useful to convey mood and setting information, something I note that the grand experiment has made particular use of when running his scenarios.  When I picked up his scenario to run at short notice, the pictures included instantly and powerfully communicated a lot of information about the style, setting and intent of the scenario.

Name Tags – regardless of whether the players know each other before your game, they will soon ideally be referring to their characters by name.  To enhance and encourage this, you ideally want to provide name tags so that players can read, at a glance, character names.  Whether these are labels, folded pieces of card or laminated badges, a small effort before the game can make it that much easier to embrace characterisation. 

GM Screen or Rules Reference – only rarely do I use a GM screen raised at the table as I think it dampens down the collegiality of the game (and I never roll dice behind a screen), but I often leave it lying flat and use the table for rules quick reference, but even having post-it notes in a rulebook would suffice.  The secret is to flag any rules which are complex and likely to crop up during the scenario, so the exact text is at your fingertips.  Ideally you will make the core rules accessible to the players as well, either by putting them on character sheets in short form, or creating tabletop quick reference guides.

The Basics – There are a couple of more basic things you should also cover off for an optimal experience; if your game uses dice, bring enough dice for everyone, you don’t want the game being slowed at a crucial moment while people go searching for their dice, or ask to borrow some.  Bring enough pens or pencils for all the players - again, waiting to get a pencil to track damage or write a note can slow the flow of a game. Consider laminating handouts or other materials to try and avoid the table becoming a sea of paper and minimise the damage of an inevitable drink spill incident.  Have a copy of the ‘con timetable nearby so that you know when your round begins and ends as well as small scraps of paper for notes (both for yourself and the players).  And obviously make sure you have a copy of the scenario, relevant rules and character sheets ready to go.

Is there anything I’ve missed?  Feel free to add your own tips on game prep, or comment on mine. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

EPOCH Goes To War

Today I released War Stories, the second scenario collection for the EPOCH survival horror roleplaying game.  As the title suggests, War Stories features scenarios set during wartime, and covers conflicts which span more than ninety years – from the horrors of trench warfare in WWI through to the complexities of peace-operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
War Stories features the works of some very talented RPG writers including: Monster of the Week author Michael Sands, the co-author of Call of Cthulhu’s Monophobia  Marcus D. Bone, Frontier of Fear contributors Andrew Millar and Liam Jones, and, of course,  yours truly. 
Each of these scenarios offers something different; a unique take on war and the role of the characters as soldiers and civilians in the context of wartime.  I think there are hours of great gaming to be had exploring each of them – I certainly had a blast during the playtesting process.
The collection has been beautifully illustrated by talented artist Doug Royson.  I think it’s evident that his art has gone from strength to strength with each piece in this collection, and the extremely evocative cover is truly outstanding. 
Behind the Scenes
Assembling this collection was more time consuming than I had expected.  This is the largest EPOCH scenario collection to date, and each author has put considerable thought and effort into their offering.  The collection comes in at 155 pages and a little under 60,000 words, and it took a fair while for the authors to design, playtest, write-up and submit their work.  Then each scenario was edited by me, which involved a fair bit of back-and-forth with the author, to ensure a level of consistency with other EPOCH scenarios, while staying true to their vision, and then a detailed edit was done by Andrew Smith, who also flagged any questions he had regarding content.   
Writing an EPOCH scenario is both simple and extremely tricky.  On the one hand, EPOCH allows a high level of flexibility which allows an author to adapt virtually any horror premise.  The source of the horror (and associated effects) merely need to threaten the physical or mental wellbeing of the characters on 6 specific occasions, ideally culminating in a dramatic climax.   As the players will apply and describe the suffering of their own characters during these challenges, there is no need for complex mechanical detail (stat blocks, skill checks and difficulties etc.).

On the other hand, EPOCH is about empowering the players to create any character they wish, and makes the development of these characters the core focus of the game.  Therefore, it can never be assumed that characters will investigate explore or endanger themselves voluntarily – which is the central tension of most horror games.  In EPOCH the source of the horror, and the scenario setup, must either be tailored to threaten the characters irrespective of their actions, or the characters must seek an escape which puts them into the path of the horror – or some combination of the two.
This character focus means that the scenario is actually more of a framework to provide ever increasing tension and drama to force character development, rather than a detailed story to be explored in-and-of itself, and I think this can be challenging to write – particularly if you have a strong vision for how you want the scenario to play out.  So, although scripting an EPOCH scenario seems simple at first, creating a scenario with sufficient adaptability to suit a diversity characters can be a challenging undertaking.
War Stories brings the total of published EPOCH scenarios to 14, featuring the work of 7 individual authors.  Needless to say, I am extremely grateful for the contribution of these talented folks to the game, and I hope you’ll take the time to check out their work.