Saturday, January 31, 2009

Session Prep Sheets

Session prep sheets-- another easy tool.

Once a game gets rolling, I introduce plot elements. Some of these players grab onto and some they don't I think the trick is to be willing to shift your focus and your game depending on the desires and interests of the players. Either they'll eventually get back to the story you have in mind or else they'll find something better. In the case of the latter, you should let them. If they're enjoying themselves and have some feeling of progress there's no need to railroad them. Now players can waste away a session doing what would appear to be stupid stuff, but the key is to know if they feel that the story is moving forward. Mind you all of this approach makes the gamemaster's job more difficult. I do a lot of rough sketching of ideas, coming up with plots and so on, but I have a tool I use to plan for a particular session. I found it on someone's blog/site four+ years ago (I need to find that again so I can give credit where credit is due). It is a list of questions for planning-- under each question you give three answers. If you know me, I've probably already foisted a version of this on you to look at. Here's a completed example from my Exalted campaign:

*On table-- Flickering Knife, Serpent Murders, The Chains, The Gangs, Stealing Items, Money
(I like to note at the top of these forms the major plots in play. That way I don't forget them and I can think of how to work in them into the answers below)

Three conflicts that might happen in the game
1. Tension between followers of Sharpened Though and Oaksaint Vross
2. Tracking the Bloody Hands: drips of blood
3. Chase after Flickering Knife-- Interrupt the Gatetakers: shadowed, wet street (might note the flickering from their bond)
(I read conflicts as any significant challenge, be it combat, problem solving, chases or whatever)

Three interesting NPCs who might be encountered
1. Skycast Red: Spirit Bringer
2. Glain Kolath Bloom/Varya Jestkind: in force
3. Mardos con-Vardos
(If I have an NPC list I'll just put names here-- sometimes I'll also note a topic for them to bring up or a place where the PCs might run into them.)

Three interesting locations the PCs might visit

1. House of Repugnant Depths
2. Street of Mercenary Gods/Listening Grifters (or *Theater, Poets Guild, Oil makers, Confectioner's)
3. Painters' Household: Kenobi Wailingsong
(As with NPCs, these things are often just short-hand because I've written about these places elsewhere. If not I'll tuck in some sensory details)

Three "tone-setting" events for genre-flavor
1. Particularly bloody duel between Northerners and Dragonblooded troops (why in city?)
2. Last day of the month, food/flowers set above the front door
3. Theater Spectacular
(The idea being that each session should remind the players of the distinctiveness of the game they are playing. So in this case I have something that reminds them of the local politics and the Exalted world, something that references local customs, and something that reinforces that this is an urban game.)

Three plot-moving revelations that might occur
1. Ledaal Jyumei lives-- darkened alley, finding the ring
2. That the Sorrow Weed comes from (XXXXX)
3. Murder Cults for the Spirits
(These are elements that impact the big picture story. They're the one's I'd like to move forward on or which seem to be top of the players' minds at the moment. I won't always get to any or all of these things, they just serve to remind me not to be too static. In the example above, I don't think the players have actually had that answered directly, but it hasn't had that great an impact yet).

Three seeds to plant for future development
1. Soldala Hush-- her messengers tied to something unusual
2. Fayt Abandoned, Azeries, Master of Talons (Song of Sorrows) meeting
3. Another piece of the Metal body or evidence of its growth: theft from crafter
(Starters for new trails or investigations for the players)

Three recurring threads to weave back in
1. Return of the Seven Fiery Devils-- their interaction: Hodo Shan, Kan-taze, Midikano, Son of Stone and Wrath
2. Spotting/Interacting with Hesaal Chain
3. The Show in Day Quarter: Dragonblooded rivalry
(Elements from the previous session or earlier that need to make a reappearance so they're developed or not forgotten)

Three puzzles, dilemmas or moral choices
1. What are the other groups of young Dragonbloods doing?
2. Location of the other hearth?
3. What about the portrait?
(I usually use these to note unanswered questions or mysteries hanging over the group. Sometimes I'll come up with a small ethical choice situation, but more rarely)

Three strokes of luck (good or bad!)
1. Spotting a craftsman of skill in Dusk Quarter
2. Identifying a runner for gangs
3. Invitation to meeting or party
(I often find this the hardest thing to come up with. Ideally this would be a place to note opportunities to present or punishment/consequences for bad rolls or bad decisions. Here I've noted three strokes of good luck. I sometimes use these to reward players who roll extremely well on incidental rolls. There's nothing worse than rolling critical successes on a spot check where there's nothing unusual to see).

Something novel for each PC
*Kiir: following up from her email
*Illathin: Dojo appointment...perhaps hint about Final Sky, Shaded Mind of War
*Lupita: What about the stone-- will she use it to craft?
*Mahiir: New spell gained
*Zhu du Fan: Streetwise-- following up on questions submitted regarding gangs
(This wasn't in the original document I modeled this on. I use this for catch-all, especially if I haven't done a list of “Three Things” for each PC as I mentioned in my previous post).

As with the Three Things prep sheet, what I call the Trinity or Triad sheet has material that can carry over from session to session. After a game, I'll check off those elements I did use or which no longer have relevancy. It usually takes me about an hour to prepare one of these sheets for a game. It can often be my only prep for a session. If I can get a good four hour session out of that, I consider it a success.

This prep format has other tangible benefits. It allows me to organize and prioritize my ideas and plans. That makes going back to review previous sessions easier. It also keeps me from overplanning and spending too much time. Limiting yourself to three things means you come up usually with three solid concepts. On the other hand, I'm not married to what I have here-- the material is flexible and no session has ever truly survived contact with the player characters.

Tomorrow, my batch NPC system and the Neural Tarot.

Friday, January 30, 2009

GM Prep: Using Three Things

In two posts so far, I've rambled around a little bit about the importance of GMs choosing where to put their energy-- especially in terms of preparation. I mentioned combat prep and a little bit about building background so it actually has an impact on players. I began considering this while mulling over the difficulties of a historical campaign-- including the level and kind of prep needed. In yesterday's post I mentioned the "What My Father Told Me..." structure which is an amazingly handy framework to use in game-building. It can easily be adapted and reworked for most campaigns. I have a number of other tools I use that have a better input (in terms of my work) to output (in terms of table time, enjoyment, utility, etc) ratio.

Let me preface this by saying I tend to run an interaction-centered campaign. I believe strong NPCs power a game. They move forward the plot, establish the scene, and provide challenges through conversation and questioning. I've been lucky to have great players who enjoy interacting with characters. I've also had a few players who find that less interesting or downright frustrating (I'll get to the topic of player needs and management in a later post). Generally my games are fairly freeform, in that while I do have a line of plot and event, I try to give players freedom to explore around and find their direction (my favored approach but one that does take careful watching to make sure that players do have a sense of the core direction-- something I sometimes forget).

The first prep technique I use is mostly for longer, ongoing campaigns rather than one-shots or mini campaigns. Generally before a session I have some sense of a couple of scenes I want to carry out-- a combat, the investigation, something the group has mentioned they want to do. These are the "collective" moments that move the grand gears of the plot forward. But I don't sketch out everything and I try not to write it all in stone. The trick is to be flexible and ready to roll with whatever choices the group makes. Usually I have a pretty good guess, in which case it is worth my time to sketch out those scenes a little bit. If I'm fairly certain and it will be a narrative centerpiece, then I put in more effort to develop detail. I also make a list of the major plot points or questions for the game-- I don't put any notes by these, but the act of remembering them and putting them down on paper helps me keep them at the top of my awareness when running. It means I'm more agile about tying those into what I'm doing.

But many of my sessions include time for the individual PCs to carry out their own agenda. If they have leads they want to follow, plans they want to carry out, people they want to talk to, I'll go around and deal with that. However, you can't count on everyone to have something in mind at the same time. My trick for preparation there is to make a list of three incidents for each PC. These are brief scenes I can throw at them. If I come to them and they show hesitation about what they're going to do or if they say something like "I'm going to study" that closes out the moment, I use these.

Here's an old example from the Arcane Rails campaign (6/03)

The Captain
1. Dealing with the fact of his impersonation
2. Captain Babcock-- invitation to be recalled
3. His former associate now a tool of Dr. Cross.

These were thread plot threads I'd either begun or was planning to begin with this character. In the first case, the Captain had learned that someone had been impersonating him back home and was making a reputation for themselves. I thought I might push the player into looking into that-- either suggesting it or mentioning he'd heard a new rumor regarding it. In the second case, this was a significant (and potential romantic interest) NPC for the character. He could encounter her and learn that she'd received an invitation to rejoin the Aeromilitary service from which she'd lost her command. This would potentially complicate their relationship and would also hint that preparations for war had begun in his homeland. In the third case, I'd engineer some revelation about another NPC who had been his right-hand man in the service. I'd set up the crumbs of the trail which could eventually lead him to discover this person now worked for the group's nemesis. All of these would be quick scenes, some advancing the plot more than others, but each giving the player a chance to have center stage.

Sometimes I'll put a little more detail in my notes, but generally I try to keep it simple. It does mean that on occasion when I go back later, I'm not sure what I was talking about. For example, from Libri Vidicos:

Sokka (6/1/07)
1. More notes from the Princess
2. Wickets and Imps
3. Mysterious Woman-- Hamhock assault

In the first case, I'd had this PC receive strange anonymous fan notes from someone. The mystery was half how they were getting into his room and half who the sender was. He'd get another note which might push him further into looking into the matter. In the second case, the PC is a member of his house's sports team which plays a game looking suspiciously like Qwidditch. I'd narrate a practice, maybe give some clues about what the upcoming team was like, or have him interact with one of his team-mates. In the third case...I have no idea now. Who was this mysterious woman supposed to be...and why was I so specific about an attack with a hamhock? Very odd.

The three options technique is useful as quick prep and filler and helps to me to remember the various hanging plot points. If I don't use some of them in a session, I'll carry them over (provided the circumstance for them hasn't expired) to a later session. In the meantime, because I've noted them, I've got them working in the back of my mind. I've had decent success with this technique-- it reduces downtime and "um, I don't know what should I do..." at the table and more importantly it allows me to look more prepared than I actually am. A GM has to maintain that illusion-- must be a good liar.

The second preparation technique I use is an obvious one: having pictures for NPCs. I tried doing a little of this maybe ten years ago-- scanning some images and using them to illustrate major characters. It worked, but putting things together was hard. Today it has become insanely easy to find good illustrations. The best places I've found are the forums at,, and video game rpg sites like I use a good quality inkjet printer to print out images onto 4x6 photo paper. I keep large index card boxes for the campaigns with likely images sorted in the boxes. You'll want to try to do some organizing as you collect images, otherwise you'll lose track of things. I tend to print out more images and put them in the boxes so if I want to throw a random new NPC at the group, I can quickly look through and find them.

-This is not necessarily a cheap approach. You need a good color inkjet printer. I like the Kodak Easyshare I'm using. The ink is fairly cheap and BestBuy has bundles with both the cartridges and packs of average quality photo paper for less than just the ink for other printers. I've also had some of the best customer service from Kodak. The two times I've had problems, they've immediately fixed them and included extra materials.

-There can be a significant up-front time cost in tracking down the kinds of images you want. You have to be less than picky. I tend to download anything that looks interesting-- later some of the seemingly less useful images will turn out to fit with what I'm doing. I try to find an excellent artist and then follow back to see what other kinds of work he or she likes. There's a kind of research trail there (like following back sources from a text).

-I prefer illustrations rather than photos. That's a personal preference. It obviously helps with fantasy games, but even for modern, I like the slight unreality a illustration gives. When I ran my Vampire campaign, I used photos but I took out the color, filtered and blurred them to give them a slightly darker tone for the game.

-If you look hard enough, you can find images for many different campaigns. For the Exalted campaign, I've put together illustrations with an Oriental or Wuxia flavor. For Libri Vidicos, I try to find images that have a hybrid look rather than "high fantasy". I also use Victorian and Steampunk style illustrations. For Changeling I've been able to find a lot of strange modern stuff, as well as casual portraits.

Despite the work, the payoff for doing this is pretty huge. I keep images for particular campaigns in their own photo book. Players can reference this at the table and I can use it to refresh my memory while doing prep. Just as different people learn differently (doing, seeing, hearing, etc), different players respond better to different cues at the table. Some are very good at picking up the verbal details, which is important since a tabletop rpg is primarily narrative. But others are visual learners in which case a picture helps to establish a memory. For all players the images deepen the visual cues-- the GM still has to describe the character, but can put additional emphasis on behavior, speech and attitude. Players will remember and been interested in NPCs more deeply by having images.

On the flip side, having images ready is an enormous aid in coming up with characters. I know Kenny's started to do this with his campaign. Our instinct as storytellers when we see an image out of context is to try to provide a story for that character. That's a great way to generate new ideas. I try to mix it up between finding images which fit NPCs I've already come up with and finding pictures that I have to make NPCs out of. You can find concept art for various rpgs showing buildings and locations-- these can also be easily worked in. I try to do this more sparingly and save them for really unusual locations that I want to have a greater impact.

The benefit gained from doing this lasts across multiple sessions, so your work has greater value. If you take the time to do some mass hunting, you can make it even more effective. I try to block out periods that I'm going to go searching or do printing of things so that I don't overdo it.

Tomorrow, my technique for mass NPC generation and how it helps shape the campaign as well as my stolen trick of the Trinity prep sheets.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Campaign Prep Brainstorming

I mentioned in the previous post the two campaigns I've been brainstorming on. The high fantasy one I mentioned is a little easier on the story side than the mechanics side. Once I start looking at doing a straight fantasy game, any number of questions arise: how am I handling magic so it is flexible and interesting? what level of combat crunch am I looking at? are we talking a more realistic or cinematic kind of play? what level of system details do we want-- weapons heavily lumped together or very grainy-- if the former then how do I distinguish magic weapons? if the latter then how do I go about writing up a weapons chart. I'm not happy with most of the existing fantasy systems I've seen. d20 and Rolemaster (and RM's bastard children MERP and HARP) are too over the top. Gurps I like but not the magic system and not for handling higher level things. Fantasy Hero is more crunch fest with the bonus of having to point evaluate every little thing. True20 has some merits and on the surface would be appealing given how much I like Mutants and Masterminds by in play it feels thin and limited. Burning Wheel I disliked intensely-- the same with this new Anima rpg I picked up recently. Exalted has some good base system things, but everything is so wedded to the setting and the powers therein. That's not entirely a knock against Exalted as it does work well for that world (I wrote up a full convert for L5R for one campaign). Anyway, I want something flexible and interesting without my having to spend a hundred hours getting the rules together (or modifying them to where I want them).

On the other hand, the other campaign I'm working on, I'm not so worried about the rules. That I expect I'll either wing, use my Action Cards homebrew, or maybe a Storyteller light system. Essentially this will be a modern fantasy game, with my niece having requested a school-based setting. I can do that, but I'm going to go smaller scale than the other times I've done that.

I imagine she'll be among wards taken in by an odd academy after she displays some power. I want to have something of a tease there that it isn't clear if these abilities are mystical, mental or super in origin. There'll be a small staff and the sense that this facility has recently reopened after having been abandoned for some time. I'm imagining a class of no more than 8-10 fellow students. That's enough characters to create some dynamics. The Academy will be situated outside the sleepy East Coast town of Arkham Harbor (a place I've used before in a different context for an oddball supers game). We'll begin with the obvious mysteries for her to explore: what are my powers? what is this place? what is the agenda of the staff? set against the background of high school social dynamics. Eventually questions will arise about the secret history of this location and of the staff themselves. Of course they'll go off grounds at times, at which point I might insert a Twilight-Hour world, perhaps which can only be entered by persons with their powers. That could set up another group of mysteries as well as new NPCs.

Now what I'm imagining in the background is that this is a hybrid of the concepts behind Mage: the Ascension and Persona. M:tA has a modern world where mages battle over consensual reality. Persona has individual characters who summon "Persona's" (drawn from myth, folklore and just plain weirdness) who cast spells and cause effects. M:tA has mages broken into several several groups based on both a philosophical outlook and a casting style. I imagine that Persona-using could be just another style in that universe. They can represent a character's inner emotional state, their outlook, what they're hiding, etc. So in that sense I get another tool to express/demonstrate what a particular NPC is like.

I'm still not sure about all the details here-- that's just a rough sketch of what I'm thinking. Originally I'd considered a more isolated setting, but (at least at this point) I think I need to have a close by backdrop of the real world they can interact with. I like the strange urban setting stuff and making it only accessible to the PCs adds to that.

Still very rough yet-- I have to work out more of the details in my head, but at least I'm making progress on it. Originally I'd thought I might use a setting that I'd been developing in a shared email exchange/story Shari and I had been doing, but the more I think about it, the more I eventually want to go back and work on that thing as it stands, rather than reworking it for something else.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thinking About the Third Continent Campaign

I've been thinking and doing some brainstorming on two rpg campaigns (I think I've mentioned both before). One is for our Sunday group (currently on haitus following the wrapping up of "Season One" of Scion) and the other is something to try out with my niece (currently in HS).

The first will be a high fantasy campaign. I haven't figured out what I'm doing mechanics-wise (I keep going back and forth between several ideas). But the game is set on the third continent of my world, the one most dominated by the influence of the Gods. It draws a huge influence (and directly borrows from) the Glorantha setting. I've run three campaigns in that place (and Sherri ran one there for a time). I've pushed the second continent timeline ahead significantly, but I don't think I'm going to do that with this one. I'll probably take up a couple of generations after the last campaign there, rather than several hundred years.

One of the plot points will be a massive change among what passes for the 'Celestial Bureaucracy*'. The senior-most gods have passed on and the second tier have moved into their places but still haven't settled into their new roles and stories. I'm imagining that the group will start by making up very young characters, something like early teens. They'll come from a shared community and go on an adventure, but something will happen to shatter their community, forcing them to flee.

Now one of the other devices I'm going to impose is that each player will also make up a God to go with their character. They can come up the God and its story from whole-cloth. They don't have to fit it into the niche of a pantheon, but they'll have been raised in the service of that God.

Now here's the trick, we'll time-lapse forward after that prologue scene. We return to the characters in their late-teens/early twenties. They escaped the disaster which befell their isolated community and have found a new place to live and to hide. To reflect the changes which have affected them in the years between, players will draw from a deck of random events which might have shaped their experience in those years. I'm imagining things like: Abusive Master, Learned a Trick, Developed a Fear, Turned Away from Faith, Scarring Injury, Found a Wondrous Thing, Unlucky in Love, and so on. I'll have the players work those things into their characters as the spend the points necessary to take them from adolescence to adulthood. I might break the cards into a positive, negative, and neutral deck.

The game will take up then with the players forced to answer a call to action and reaffirm their earlier bonds of friendship. In this they're partially driven by their Gods. They'll essentially be the last (or among the last) of their particular God's worshippers. They need the PCs to enact stories and adventures to help them regain their place and power. As the PCs do epic things, they'll gain some new abilities based on their God and on what they've done. The PCs actions and attitudes, will-- over time-- change the Gods and move towards the creation of a new pantheon with new relationships.

That's what I've got in my head so far on that front.

(Out of time I've set myself for this-- I'll talk about the other campaign tomorrow).

*That's literally the first time I've ever managed to spell that word right on the first try. I have a weird block with it.

I have a pretty full rss feed of things, but I'm not as big a fan of linkdump posts. That's a personal preference, so I'll try not to do it too often. I do have a couple of things I found interesting recently:

I mentioned the Persona series of JRPGs before. This article has a nice examination of the differences between the games and some of the core thematic elements.

Valerie d'Orazio is a comic book blogger and writer. Her posts are uniformly interesting and worth reading, especially those concerned with the state of women in comics and the comic industry. She recently put forward some arguments about the depiction of underage comic sexuality, particularly revolving around a recent conviction of a person for possession of materials depicting the Simpson kids in sexual explicit situations (among other things). I don't know if I completely agree with d'Orazio's position-- but I have a hard time reconciling my free speech views and my feminist views with something like this. It is the slipperiest of slopes. her comments certainly complicated my reaction and I'm still not sure where I fall on this. In any case, she got a lot of backlash for her opinions. She's decided to stop blogging about her opinions on controversial matters, which I think is a tragedy. We needs smart and literate voices from across the spectrum who can write without being abused or subject to ad hominem attacks.

Sweet Agatha looks like an interesting rpg.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prep Where Prep is Due

A gamemaster needs to spend his preparation and development time on those things which will provide the greatest benefit at the game table. That's often a difficult rule to follow because creating a campaign and running is a creative act. But oddly enough it is also like a sales presentation or pitch. You need to have in mind your target audience, you need to know what you're trying to sell and you have to be able to close the deal. Your presentation has a limited amount of face time and you need to make it effective and engaging. I'm immediately dissatisfied with the analogy there because GMing is such an oddball mix of roles. Let me focus on a particular example:

Having a rich history and backstory for your world or setting is great. But a GM needs to think about what the players need to know. What I see too often and what I've fallen prey to in the past is an overemphasis on backstory. Fantasy rpgs most often sink under this weight. They mistake world-building for actually providing something people can play in. Elaborate histories, extensive genealogies, details on the flora and fauna sound great, but most of the time they don't help a player make choices. By make decisions, I mean the following:

-How do I play my character? & What do I do in this situation?
This is often the worst thing. Giving a player a long document which details the history and ethos of various nations and races usually doesn't give them a sense of who they are as characters. By their nature, PCs operate at the micro-level, seeing things as they happen on the ground. Some players will trudge through that stuff, but most won't or they'll only get a superficial sense of what is going on. In either case, the time and effort that you've put into writing all that up has been wasted. You might be able to work it in later (at risk of falling into game lecture mode) but your time could have been better spent.

If you're going to provide info, Players need quick summaries of things like races, groups and nations that they have to choose from. That should help them generally select what they want for their character. What they need after that is information that talks about what it is like to be a member of whatever group they choose. Some of the best material I ever saw for this was from Runequest/Glorantha. On the surface that setting seems impenetrable-- with a really complicated and insanely details history. But the game setting has always made it a point that the PCs don't really know that stuff. Each group in RQ has an entry called "What My Father Told Me..." consisting of a narrative from some kind of authority figure. They answer the following questions:

Who are you?
Who are we?
What makes us great?
What is the difference between men and women?
Where do we live?
How do we live?
What is important in my life?
Who rules us?
What makes a person great?
What is evil?
What is my lot in life?
How do we deal with others?
Who are our enemies?
Who are our gods?
What is there to do around here?

These are the things a player needs to know in order to start to play a character from a culture or place which is vastly different from their experience. You spend about a paragraph per answer. I guarantee it is the most effective time spent to help a player get what they know and what they're about. They can agree with it, they can change it, they can rebel from it, but in any of these cases they're at least reacting from a solid grounding. Telling someone the history of the Dwarves' wars with the Orcs and the Elves doesn't do that-- they learn a couple of things (Dwarves don't like Orcs) but that's not usually enough for a player to come up with a character who will stand out.

All of this comes about when Sherri pointed out to me how much time I was spending on writing histories, doing gazetteers, building timelines and trying to reconcile events. Those things are backdrop and can serve as color as a game progresses, but generally they look and feel to players like an info dump. They're already dealing with the info dump of the situation they're in so adding more complexity makes matters worse.

And it isn't an effective use of time.

(more again tomorrow maybe)

Monday, January 26, 2009

GM Prep Tools

Gamemasters have some pretty amazing tools and resources available to them. I know people who are into d20 3.5/4.0 have a number of programs for remote play, drawing up tactical maps, tracking character development, and managing combat rules and sequences. I'm not so much talking about those things. In part I see those things as symptomatic of some of the things I don't like in games. Running for thirty years or so I've learned some things about what fits my style of play and gamemastering.

First, a GM has to have many skills-- they have to be able to craft a story, they have to be able to improvise, they have to be able to articulately express and convey emotions and details. All of those things I'd consider sort of higher order skills-- or maybe they'd be better described as creative or expressive elements. There are also a set of skills a GM needs that might be considered more meta-- understanding player needs, managing different personalities at the table, managing conflicts, and assisting the group dynamic. Those are worth looking at in more detail some other time. But a GM needs to have a handle on some other, more basic skills.

The obvious thing here would be the grasp of the rules and the ability to craft/write up/point up adversaries and villains. But for me that's really a secondary consideration. A GM should know the rules of the game, but not to the point of bogging down in them. They should be able to make a reasonable interpretation on the fly and, if they get it wrong, be willing to fix it later away from the table. Some genres require a more crunch heavy version of this, like Supers or DnD (shudder). I've been moving away from this over the years.

I don't write up all the stats on my bad guys. I don't because it is a waste of time for me. What I need to know are general ranges, some interesting details, and three to five things they can do that make them different from any other baddie. if they're Mooks, I just need one or two details. If a combat goes well, it ought to be done in about an hour (unless it is a big fight). In that case, I don't want to spend more time than that in preparation. There are exceptions-- big bads, special events, climax sessions and so on. I'm more likely to put more detail into super-villains but that's the nature of that genre.

The thing is, as a gamemaster, I have all the points. I can kill the players anytime I want to. Any GM can do this, regardless of who they are. it is part of why I don't get GMs who seem to have an antagonistic approach to their players: they can always win. Now some argue that the GM needs to play fair-- they need to have monsters of an appropriate 'challenge level' or have complete stats for all of the villains. I had a player who was convinced if the GM didn't have that, then they were cheating. I don't buy that-- whatever I do at the table in terms of combat should be done to serve these purposes (not necessarily in this order):

-Provide an exciting and action filled scene
-Allow players to use combat based abilities and stretch their creative abilities
-Let players roll lots of dice
-Give them the satisfaction of a concrete victory (or alternately raise the dramatic stakes by having them fail in some situations)
-Advance the plot

I'm not saying combats need to be cakewalks-- far from it. More satisfaction comes when there's something at risk. The GM just needs to be creative about what they put at risk, how they dole out consequences, and what would make for the most cinematic scene. Cinematic in this context can mean many different things-- for a horror game that pace and pressure is going to be very different than one which apes Final Fantasy.

So spending too much time writing up all of the very specific stats of bad guys is not an effective use of time. It is more effective to think about how to make the setting of the fight cool, coming up with some great possible 'moments' for each of the baddies, and developing a way to make the players feel like you as the GM is really going to hose them. Because, again, killing them is easy. Injuries, temporary effects, loss of equipment, loss of powers, debilitating wounds, collateral damage...all of these are more interesting.

I'll come back to this tomorrow to look outside of combat about what marks effective use of GM preparation time (for me).


So most people who know me probably realize what my favorite website is: I love checking things out there for several reasons. It is a great example of how a website can be informative, interesting and dynamic while still being focused on a narrow, niche topic. The community has managed to remain civil and the few flame wars I've skimmed through have been a pale shadow of the ear-burningly unpleasant back and forth of things like video game sites. Contributors generally write well and you can usually find answers to questions and a good sense of if a game fits well with your play style. The ability to manage and review your own collection through the site is a plus. The main reason I like BGG is that board games form a defining obsession for me.

I remember playing a few boardgames with my family. Mastermind with my dad (with certain pieces removed to compensate for his color blindness), Othello with my sister, I think some chess and so on. The usual range of family games. However my sister began to bring other, stranger games into the house which I loved. Cosmic Encounter, 221B Baker Street, Quirks, Darkover, and Sorceror's Cave. By the late 1970's I was pretty well hooked on rpgs and I also began to pick up various board and war games, mostly SPI, Metagaming, Task Force Games, and some Avalon Hill. I got to play some of them with my friends, but generally my parents avoided these. My sister played a couple with me, but by that age we'd reached the point where siblings go their own ways. I always had a lot of games that I wanted to play, but never got the chance to. In later years I'd do some serious miniatures gaming, pick up some WW2 games, try my hand at Star Fleet Battles, but I generally didn't have the real focus to be a wargamer. So I was off and on for board games for a long time.

Part of the problem, beyond finding people who wanted to play, is that I'm just not a very good gamer. Some games I can get a handle on-- Illuminati, for example. During the CCG early craze I tried a bunch of games, but again, I wasn't very good; except for maybe, Jyhad (now Vampire: the Eternal Struggle). The common thread there is a real social dynamic to the games I was any good at. I just really like playing games. I mean I like to win, but I'm OK if I don't. I've tried to train myself to be both a good winner and a good loser-- having seen bad versions of those things in my many years working in gaming retail. I also like rules. I like systems and mechanics and seeing how things play together. When I say that, I don't mean in the sense of figuring out optimizations. I means more in the sense of seeing how the cogs and mechanisms of a game fit together-- what are the feedback systems? what happens if I do this? how is the game managing to balance decisions?

Of late, I avoided buying new boardgames, but instead I've been trading games through BGG which has a fairly robust trade matching system, a nice mechanism for feedback on trades, and the ability to quickly set up what you want and what you're willing to give up from your collection.

So far, by trading I've managed to get the following games: Scotland Yard (a junky copy but it was a game I wanted to see), Pirate's Cove, Arkham Horror, Pillars of the Earth, the Euphrates & Tigris card game, Fighting Sail (and old wargame I owned once), Perikles, Fairy Tale, Age of Mythology: the Boardgame, Phoenix, Succession, the Bridges of Shangri-La, Rhienlander, Transamerica, Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Descent (with most of the expansions which I really wanted for the figures), Oasis, Arkadia, and some figures and scenics and tabletop games. I'm probably going to hold off on trading for a while, especially until I get a chance to play through more of the games I got. I've got two last trades coming to me-- one for Race for the Galaxy and the expansion, another for the Starcraft board game and the last Descent expansion I don't have. It has been nice to get ride of games and minis I don't want for games I'm interested in.

Anyway, that brings me to my real point. Supposedly the people running BGG will be (within the next couple of months) finally opening up which will do the same thing as BGG, but for role-playing games. I think it very likely that my head will explode if that comes to pass.

Libri Vidicos Session Review

The Libri Vidicos session ran fairly well last night. I'm still a little amazed that the homebrew rpg system I'm using has managed to sustain itself in a fantasy rpg context for as long as it has. I've got a few things I'd tweak in terms of the magic system, the exp costs, and how damage is tracked, but overall I'm pretty happy with it. I've been working (or trying to work) on a version with slightly more crunch for the combat side of things. That's been hard for two reasons-- first, that I don't want to mess up the easy narrative flow of the game as it stands right now and second, there's basic combat crunch and then the insanity of things like d20 or Rolemaster. I don't want to go too far down that road. Again, I think it is one of those situations where I need to sit down and define ahead of time what I want out of the system-- what positive benefits do the changes provide. (If, on the off chance you aren't familiar with the homebrew system I'm talking about, you can look at the version of the rules posted on the Libri Vidicos and Changeling wikis: linked in the sidebar).

Some summary thoughts about the game last night:

1. Had another session with some introduction of elements, some talking heads and then letting the individual players follow their own leads and interactions. I think I dragged a little on this. I had some things I wanted to get across and if I'd been more on the ball I could have gotten a second 'go-around' with each player.

2. The device of using a particular class to introduce a plot or thematic point is a good one. It should be used sparingly, but I think at least every other session in that game there need to be a reminder that they are in a school and taking classes. One of the lectures dealt with the question of defining "monstrous-ness" and how people define thing through the other. It was probably a little unsubtle, but there were a couple of players wrestling with some of those concepts in some email exchanges I'd had in between sessions.

3. A scene I wasn't particularly pleased with seemed to get a strong positive reaction. One of the teachers looked at how each of the students were casting. I was able to work in some history of magic, a reminder about why different mages cast differently, and some other ideas. I thought it came off a little frazzled, but Sherri said the whole thing went over well. Perhaps it was that I describe something new and unique to a fantasy setting and then managed to tied it back to each individual character. At least, that might be one of the reasons that worked.

4. Since the game is supposed to be about late-HS/early college age characters, one of the players chose in an email to handle a situation in a deliberately adolescent way-- essentially punching someone out who had been talking trashing about a girl (and indirectly him). It was a good choice for his character in order to remind everyone that the PCs, despite their skills, can be at base slightly immature. The trick was/is how to punish the character without punishing the player. I'm working on using his punishment time as a chance to have him meet and interact with some new situations and NPCs. OOH I don't want to reward "bad" behavior too much. The distinction between PC and player choices becomes a difficult one here.

5. We've had a couple sessions of NPC interaction, plot advancement and general set up. I'm hoping to have a little more action and adventure next time. There's been a series of 'trials" running this year for the second-years of each of the five houses. Next session will be a scavenger hunt around the school, with some upperclassmen assigned to interfere with their efforts. I'm hoping that works well.

6. Dave's character has been asked to put on a circus (for various reasons). I felt like I didn't do justice to that at the table. The group made a list of acts and tried to figure out who would do what. I should have had a couple of NPCs pop in on that-- to put their two cents in, volunteer or else dismiss the notion. That was an opportunity I might have lost there, especially since there are some first-year students they really haven't yet gotten a sense of. OOH I did manage to have a couple of interactions with NPCs who have been around but they haven't seen in play. I'm most happy with how one of their fellow classmates and housemates has finally come into focus as a severe micro-manager and precise taskmaster. Last year I didn't have a good sense of what that character was about, but now I have a hook that everyone knows and acknowledges.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Historical RPGs

I always have a fair number of rpg campaign ideas percolating in my head. Some of them have become more fully fleshed over the years as I've thought about them and others have fallen by the wayside. I expect the vast majority of them I'll never actually get around to running, but it is fun to consider them. Right now I need to be thinking about the campaign setting for my niece (who has been patient)but I'm having trouble getting to what I really want to focus on in that-- I have a couple of things I sketched out before, and more nebulous ideas that might be worth brainstorming over. She likes the "school" game concept, but I want to narrow that a bit from the large scale I'm using in Libri Vidicos and the wide background level I'm using it for in the Changeling campaign. I don't mind repeating myself, but I like to do that sequentially and not in parallel.

Some of the campaign ideas I really like I'm pretty sure I'll never get a chance to run. Primarily that's because they have root in a historical setting or period. I've run many games across many genres, but historical stuff seems to be the most difficult to interest people in and, from my end, seemingly the most difficult to build a campaign for. I've only run a couple of historical games and they were mostly very short run. I played/ran in an Ars Magica campaign, but while the historical backdrop was there, the setting was isolated enough that it felt like a more conventional campaign. The same applies to any Call of Cthulhu games that have been set in the 1920's. There are the limitations of the technology and a little bit of the cultural attitudes in play, but for the most part the game focused on the immediate story of horror. Any other historical games I've done have been only a couple of sessions, like a Swashbuckler three parter I ran, and have had more of the fantastic than any solid grounding in history.

So I'm trying to think about what makes those kinds of games more difficult to run and perhaps a little more unfriendly to players. The only other genre I can think of that's seems to have as many barriers would be something like a hard sci-fi campaign (though not a military sci-fi game ala Warhammer 40K or Starship Troopers).

So, some thoughts:
-Legend of the Five Rings gets around the question of historical setting by detaching itself. Is has all the trappings of a samurai/"oriental" (I use that term cautiously here) setting without having to know more than the basic conventions. OOH it does require players to eventually learn the behaviors and the manner codes. That's been a problem for a couple of players when I've run it who have been stuck in a more western heroic mode. The setting itself is full of anachronisms. Plus it manages to IMHO screw up the question of religion in the setting by creating a hybrid Shinto/Taoist/Buddhist system called Shintao. One thing it does have is a set of clearly defined roles in the form of the various clans. Each clan has a pretty easy to grasp concept behind it and it serves as a great shorthand for when players deal with NPCs. That's a concept it lifted pretty much from the White Wolf games, and it is worth considering how just that might be adapted elsewhere.

So, two things I can get from that: historical flavor but not history & easily understood archetypes for players and NPCs.

-Related to that would be the various historical White Wolf World of Darkness settings. Like L5R it presented some clear sets of archetypes for the players. But generally, with the exception perhaps of the Medieval version of Vampire, those games didn't do so well. I used some of the Victorian-Era Vampire for a modern game I ran, but as a sidestory quasi-time travel/actually potent memory bit. Again, there the players weren't engaged with the historical part of it as much. In reality it could have been any time period.

-So maybe I need to think about my reasoning for wanting to do a historical campaign-- what am I getting out of it. Can it be bastardized (ala L5R) to get the elements I want?

I'm going to come back to this tomorrow or the next day as I'm tight on time right now. Tonight's Libri Vidicos and I have a number of important plot balls I'm juggling there. I usually think about the games for a few hours during the week and then try to give myself two or three hours to work on the actual session beforehand. That's the math for a game I've been running for some time. For newer games I usually spend more time in prep and general brainstorming. Even with a game that's moving forward under its own momentum, I'll usually take stock of where I'm at every several sessions and spend some extra time working on the game between those sessions.


As a goober/geek, I'm required to have a strong position on the question of the Watchmen movie. I don't think it is "unfilmable" as some have suggested. Snyder's choice to excise the Black Freighter portions into a separate form (a DVD I think) is probably the best choice if you had to adapt it to feature length. On the other hand, I think there's enough scope to the series that it would probably have been better served by a mini-series if you had to have a live-action version. All that being said, I am both excited...and fearful.

But my reason for fear may be odd.

It is that I'm worried about Tyler Bates.

Bates composed the score for the Watchmen movie. You only catch a little bit of his score in one of the trailer versions. The one in widest distribution has a song by, I think, My Chemical Romance. I'm old enough that I couldn't actually identify one of their songs and since they aren't features in Rock Band or Rock Band 2, they definitively fall outside my experience range. Anyway, Bates scored Snyder's other big movie...300. And I hated the music to that film. Mind you, that movie was deliberately over the top but the score goes above the call of duty. And unfortunately what little I've heard of the Watchmen music makes be think it will be equally over the top.

Mind you, I probably won't care while I'm watching it. But I'll be snobby about it later, mostly when I'm watching the special edition Blu-Ray disc I buy the day it comes out. It just seems like a real opportunity squandered. I don't mind bombast (I like Brian Tyler's score to Constantine, Clint Mansell & Marilyn Manson's score to Resident Evil and John Powell's work on the Bourne films. But by the same token, this seems like a movie that's going to need careful and subtle texturing which overdone music may not carry (and potentially Snyder's direction may not contain).

In brighter news, there's a new Neko Case album coming out in early March. All my hopes for humanity rest there.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


We played a couple of games of Wasabi on Tuesday evening. Z-Man games recently published it and Matt as been demoing their various games. He also brought a copy of Start Player which consists of a set of cards each with a different bizarre rule used to determine the starting player of any game. Rules look like "The player wearing the most make-up is the starting player" or "The player who most recently bathed is the starting player." That was goofy and a little more campy than I like. I comes with an over-large wooden meeple to mark the starting player. I hated it immediately.

In any case, Wasabi's a kind of area control/placement game. You draw recipes and try to get your ingredients out on the board next to one another in a line. If you put them out in the order shown on the card, you get extra points. Obviously, getting the ingredients in order for the larger recipes becomes difficult as the game wears on and the board fills. There's a limited number of tiles for each ingredient and some special action cards which affect the game. Having played it, I can see a few rules changes which would be needed in order to make the game more accessible (the ability to take an action to discard a recipe you can't ever fill, being able to select from a couple of recipes when drawing, etc).

It feels like it could be a good gateway game, ala Carcassone. I enjoyed game, but not as much the play. I think there's a distinction there worth exploring. The game itself is lovely: the board is elegant, the tiles are graphically well-produced, the pieces are printed on nice and heavy cardboard, you get little sake bowls to keep scoring cubes (bright green like wasabi) in, you conceal your play area with a menu sheet that has pockets for the recipes you've drawn. All of that makes for a game which is a pleasure to look at. I think that could be an excellent lure for new gamers-- especially since they've put it at a reasonable price point (as opposed to Heads of State which they released at the same time-- I'm not paying $70 for a board

But much of the pleasure of my experience comes from the aesthetics of the design and production. The game itself isn't a grabber for me. That's got me thinking about games that come from that direction and one's that come from the other end, bad production and design but a decent game. I know a lot of people talked about Cheapass Games as the Holy Grail of that latter kind of game. But in my experience, the games were rarely that great-- even setting aside questions of the production quality. Neuland, another from Z-Man, is a game I like but which has some horrible design decisions. The game and the choices it presents, OOH, is very strong.

I think I need to look at the games I like (or dislike) and try to measure the basis for my opinion-- how much is weighted into what areas.


I mentioned Patrick McGoohan's death last week. I have a fondness for him as an actor out of proportion with the actual number of things I've seen him in (for example I've never watched Ice Station Zebra for more than a few minutes). But as I said before, The Prisoner left a pretty deep impact on my psyche. I recognized many of themes later when I encountered them in Moorcock, PK Dick, Burroughs, and even Eco. When my sister was first married I ran a Call of Cthulhu one-shot for her as a kind of anti-Wedding Shower. The upshot was that at the end of the session it was revealed that one of the players was in fact the new Number 2 and that the players were in the Village. Their captors had been trying to assess how much they actually knew about the Mythos. It was a good session with a couple of surrealist touches that one or two of the players picked up on and a brilliant reveal by No. 2 at the end.

My oddest Prisoner connection is that I once had a really nice poster of McGoohan in the Village. Strangely enough it was one of the few things an ex-girlfriend lifted from me when we broke up. I don't know if she liked the poster or just knew it meant something to me. Very strange. I also managed to lose my copy of Gurps Prisoner in my house fire-- one of the few Gurps books I really regret being destroyed. Not that it was a useful resources but it really represented a strange open period in game design (again another story I need to do about the various oddball proerties put out by rpg companies in the '80's and '90's).

Anyway, AMC's been streaming all the old episodes online. They're preparing for their own remake mini-series. I'm dubious about that, even with Ian McKellen and
Jim Caviezel. The rest of the cast is too pretty (the original show avoided any real sexiness). Caviezel, despite my liking him as an actor, doesn't seem to have the right gravitas. I'm also worried it will be a too literal re-envisioning of the series. I always liked the surrealism of the original. But my main point about the show on AMC is that rewatching those made me realize that some of the episodes just aren't very good. They either dramatically shift tone, break some of the rules in a goofy way, or just feel like filler. Part of that was the original production schedule and part was ITV trying to get enough episodes to market for an American audience. So, I think if one wanted to watch and get a good feel for the tone, one could/should do it in twelve episodes. Here's the twelve I would pick:

1. Arrival
2. The Chimes of Big Ben
3. Free for All
4. Checkmate
5. Dance of the Dead
6. A, B, & C
7. The Schizoid Man
8. Hammer into Anvil
9. Many Happy Returns
10. The General
11. Once Upon a Time
12. Fall Out

Of those Dance of the Dead is probably my favorite for setting the tone of control against The Prisoner's own cleverness. Episodes 6, 7 and 10 are less successful episodes in mind opinion, but they're still good. I've cut out It's Your Funeral, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, Living in Harmony, The Girl Who Was Death, and A Change of Mind.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


A correction to my previous post. I remember being briefly good at one game-- Tempest. But that was an arcade cabinet game and I never got good at any other one. That would literally be the only arcade game I'd want to own. I suspect if I got to play it again, I would hate it.

On the radio I caught a few snippets of John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic. Actually I caught some of the talking heads bits at intermission and the start of the third act. I have a fondness for John Adams. He took a good deal of what Philip Glass had made manifest and worked it in a richer direction. At first, I didn't like his stuff. At least I had that same reaction I had to when I heard Paul McCartney did an opera. It just seemed a little too thin...a little too precious and self-indulgent. This would be around the time of his first big opera Nixon in China. A few years later, he did The Death of Klinghoffer. I don't remember exactly, but I think I picked up a recording of that after hearing him interviewed on NPR. I liked it...though again there was something strange about seeing something so modern done in an operatic form. Eventually I head some excerpts from Nixon in China and then got to saw a production of it in Bloomington. I really loved it.

In any case, what I did hear of Doctor Atomic I didn't care for. But I know enough now not to judge his work on such a slim slice or on first impressions. Two things did occur to me however. The first was when one of the talking heads mentioned that Italian audiences reacted negatively to one of Verdi's operas (I think La Traviata) because the subject matter was a scandal less than two decades old. The talking head then went on to suggest that music audiences of the period hated the mixture of new subjects with the old forms, but that "modern" audiences longed for it.

I call bullshit. It seems to be pretty obvious that modern subject matters in new opera remains still fringe-y. At least modern in the sense of within the last three or so decades. Adams is the exception to the rule and even he's not heavily performed. Where are the popular cries for someone like John Corigliano? I mean if there's the hunger he's talking about, then you'd expect to see a very different operatic repertory available.

My other thought came when they were talking about the third act of Doctor Atomic. From what I could gather, it centers around the first atomic test. The whole opera does, but the actual test comes in the third act. he talked about the fact that it is dealt with in a timeless way-- with a cross cutting of events in Oppenheimer's mind...maybe? What occurred to me is that there's one piece of literature I'd like to really see translated into an opera.

Alan Moore's From Hell.

It would be amazing and might heal some of the damage done by that gawdawful movie.

Just a thought.


I remember we had a video game system growing up and I remember playing games over at other people's houses. What I don't remember is ever being good at any of these games. I'd play through the first few levels and then get stuck and frustrated. I know a lot of people earn their stripes on games like Zork, Bard's Tale, Ultima and Wizardry. Part of the problem I had was that we had a Mac rather than a PC so I had to wait a couple of years to try these things. But still-- I tried a number of them, would play for a bit and then quit. This was especially true for the rpgs which didn't do anything better than a tabletop game did. The closest I came to either getting good or really wasting time was in playing SimCity and Risk on the computer.

The first games that I really, really enjoyed came, in part, because my wife enjoyed them as well. We loved Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy VI and ChronoCross in the Playstation. We pretty much bought any vaguely interesting rpg we could get our hands on. Fast forward to today. I have a list of those rpgs we have in progress but haven't finished...several dozen across various systems. I recently went through and purged a few out, but we could easily get through this entire year just working on the library of rpgs we have in the house.

Which brings me to Persona 4-- my current time-filler and procrastination device. It is from Atlus and is part of their larger and very strange Shin Megami Tensai series. It has demons, and angels, and high school dating elements. We loved Persona 3- especially in its second incarnation as Persona 3FES which added a lot of great content. They say they're not going to do that with this version, which is a little disappointing. Anyway, ten thoughts on the game:

1. The characters are more accessible and don't act like total idiots. There's a mystery going on in the game and it is a pleasure to see the characters keeping up with you in terms of deductions. Or even ahead of you sometimes.

2. You're able to choose your allies' actions in the combat section. At first I was a little leery of that since I thought it would slow things down, but it does really help. They also have some choices in leveling up which was absent from the previous game.

3. They left out weapon fusions and fusion skills. I liked both and I'd like to see those come back, but in this game it works.

4. The contrast in settings, even though both take place in a Japanese HS, has been nicely handled. The two games feel very different despite being very close under the surface.

5. Your skills don't have the chance to morph randomly when you level up. I appreciate that being removed as it often got in the way of things if you weren't paying attention.

6. The combat section has what seems like a minor change, but one that has huge ramifications for your choices. In these games, if you hit a monster with its weakness you do extra damage and get to go again. They're "down" and while they will take extra damage on the follow up, you won't get another action if you hit them again with their weakness. In the last game, if you hit a group with an elemental attack and either some of them had a resistance or you missed, then you wouldn't get the bonus from the ones you did hit. In this game-- you do. It seems small but the problem is that this rule applies to the monsters as well making your life really awful if you aren't careful. In Boss fights it can be devastating.

7. Reflective of #6 it has been much more difficult to protect the elemental weaknesses of your allies.

8. There's a general shift of the various Personas to make them more in fitting with the Japanese mythos in keeping with the tone of the game. That works. As well, there are direct references to at least two other SMT games that made me laugh.

9. Spell Point resource management is much tougher in this game. It provides a nice level of challenge.

10. Please, please, please-- don't put reflex based mini-games in an rpg. It is especially obnoxious in this game since a couple of important points require you to go through the stupid fishing mini-game and it eats up time both real and in-game. It isn't a deal-breaker, but it is wickedly unpleasant.

Hunter Session Review

Had our next session of Hunter today. I'm a much better GM than I am a player-- I have to say that up front. It isn't that I'm a bad player (I have been a bad player before and I'll admit that) but that I end up analyzing and second guessing the GM in my head. I can see that sometimes when I run for other people who are currently gamemastering. Usually it doesn't bother me because other GM runs very different games with very different goals than I do. All that being said, I end up watching Will's game because he's very good. He's, in many ways, a better GM than I was at his age. He's got a handle on characters and he's getting better at pacing. I imagine I must be a pain to run for-- certainly other people have said they don't want to run for me because they're intimidated. And, yeah, I can't help but pass judgment in my head about how a game is being run. But I've sat through some really, really shitty games. I put up with Chris' Exalted campaign which was painful (and having sat patiently through that game, he got pissy in mine...which pissed me off even more, but that's another story).

In any case, Will did a nice job with the pace this session. We'd had a conversation relating to some of my ideas about pace (which I mentioned in an earlier post)-- not that I want to say it had any effect, but it seemed better to me. He'd mentioned he had a plot device for one of the players that he wanted to include that might make things go longer. My reaction was negative, since it seemed like we were already at the climax of the session (beginning the session at the fight with the Big Bad). However, he managed to integrate it, make it feel natural and give one of the players-- who has less to do in combat, something to chew on. It was good and I didn't expect it.

Some things I noticed to keep in mind when I run:
1. When you're flipping between two scenes/locations, with a single player at the other location, you have to handle that carefully. There should be some choices and action to parallel what's happening with the main group-- motion or travel done quickly would be good. You also have to make a big point about the shift, maybe using it for an end-cap to a sequence. otherwise, there's the risk of the Netrunner effect (where one player's left out because their actions take place in a different time frame or level of interest for the GM).

2. Anticipation and excitement can be the GM's friend, but they have to watch it, especially when they get to the climax of the scene. As a GM, I know that when you're getting to the end of something, especially something you have visualized well in your head, you want to rush forward. I think a GM has to deliberately slow themselves down. Otherwise you move too fast for the players to keep up, lose description, and even take power/choice away from the players. Your instinct is to press forward then, but I think you have to rein that in. Not that you drag things out, but you have to be conscious, very conscious of what you're doing or saying in that moment and make sure a) the players know what's going on and b) you've dealt with the elements you wanted to get out there. I hate it when I do a big climax and at the end I realize some players weren't sure exactly what was going on. Or that I've left out some major point. My instinct, especially coming out of combat and into narrative is to keep the game in gear or ramp it up. I think you need to keep the combat pace, but not go faster or else you risk throwing everyone out of the car.

Or something like that.


More boring discussion of board games-- Rob canceled running his game tonight after a water leak broke out in his house. He ended up very lucky in that it wasn't frozen pipes. That's been a constant fear on my part given how cold it is out. Luckily we've dodged that bullet and he did as well. It ended up being a corroded washer that resulted in whatever link-up it affected simply gushing water. He managed to get a plumber to come out on a Friday night, a small miracle in itself.

Instead we played two games of Arkham Horror. Will likes the game or is at least intrigued by it. I've shown him a couple of board games, but this seems to be the first he's been enthusiastic about. I was afraid the time it takes (2-3 hours) might be a deterrent for him. But he's been reading up on the Lovecraft Mythos and trying to figure out what everything is. I'm not sure if he just missed that geek curriculum or what. For me, having read all that stuff and followed it pretty intensely for a long time, I kind of take for granted how delightfully arcane (in all senses of the word) it can be.

In any case, we played a three player game with myself, Will and Shari. We'd won fairly handily last time, so we took more experimental characters this time. That proved to be a huge mistake. That, combined with bad pulls throughout the game, ended up with the last gate opening with two of us still in the Other World and the third about to enter into it. I'm not sure we could have won even if we had managed to get through and close a couple more gates. We lacked the necessary clue tokens or Elder Signs to permanently seal them. This was a game against Nyarlythotep. The timing of it ended up well, since Rob arrived just as we lost and everyone seemed willing to play a second game.

The second game went much better, though the GOO we faced, Ithaqua, had some nasty abilities. His power to cause damage on us if we ended a turn in a street space forced some odd moves. But his negation of Weather environments and his boosting of the toughness of Cultists actually aided us. We bumped a few nasty cards which might have really hurt us and the Cultists ended up more valuable for Monster Trophies while still easy enough to kill. The real deciding factor for us was that Rob took the scientist character, who prevents gates from opening in her location. One of the players had had that in the first game, but it hadn't impacted too much. In this game, at least three gates didn't open because Rob was on the right space at the right time. Without that, the game would have been much closer.

We've learned that characters make a huge difference. Some simply have better abilities and stats. Some just aren't cut out for things, at least not cut out for the strategy we're playing in. There's a good deal of luck in the game, but I don't think it is entirely dependent on that. It seems that as players you still have a good deal of control in how you react to situations. It should feel overwhelming, and I think you should lose-- perhaps more than we have, but it should be close. I'm looking forward to eventually putting in one of the small box expansions to see how that changes things up.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Changeling Session Review

Ran Changeling this evening-- we'd had a bumped session due to the holidays. It always takes a bit to get back into the groove (at least for me) especially when it is a relatively new game. I'm trying to juggle several balls in this campaign which does make it tough-- a background school setting, dealing with the Changeling inner-lives and issues, setting up some Buffy-style plots to be investigated and solved, the issues of the courts, etc. I wanted to give a rich, open world feeling, but I fear that it does balloon the table play, which is constrained by the timing of a weekday game. All that being said, I made a couple of missteps last night--

1. Over complicated the layout of the initial combat/exploration setting. I had elements there that were unnecessary and got in the way. I wasn't sure how the group would approach the place, so I didn't know they would split up (odds are usually better that the group won't do that). I really needed to have a map handout ready. I probably added to the confusion and wasted time because of that. I'll have to remember that for next time-- map and simplify the encounter area down to 3-5 major elements.
2. I also dwelt on a few things that I could have gotten to the punchline on more quickly. That would have freed up people's actions.
3. I made a rookie mistake and had only a single adversary there-- I should have thrown in a couple more significant foes to give everyone a chance to test their mettle. Ended up the combat felt a little thin.
4. I had a tagline ending, with the revelation that Mr. Charlotte had a house-- but I managed to execute that feebly. It ended up falling flat as a significant moment.
5. Overall pacing was bad on my part-- despite having a strong outline and timetable and a large watch in front of me. I absolutely have to get better at that.

After the game I tried to seal up a few drafts in the house (notably the back door). There's some kind of air leak in the TV room I still haven't identified. I played my new favorite J-RPG, Persona 4 and got to the save before the next boss fight. When I went to turn the machine off the static from my hand fried the PS2 dead. The memory card seems intact (thank god) but the system is irritatingly dead.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Well, Patrick McGoohan passed away. He was one of my favorite actors-- I remember watching him on Colombo, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and, of course, The Prisoner. That last was one of those shows that really stuck with me when I was young. I was thinking about that today-- those things I saw on television that deeply affected my thinking in terms of theme and imagery. A short list then--

1. The Prisoner
2. Stairway to Heaven (since I only ever saw it on TV-- apparently the rights to this are tied up somewhere so it'll be a long time before it gets re-released).
3. James Burke's Connections
4. I, Claudius
5. The old, old Spider-Man cartoons. These were notable for having a very different design aesthetic from episode to episode, probably the first time I noticed those kinds of things.
6. The Tom Baker Dr. Who years
7. The Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes serials.
8. Saturday afternoon monster/horror flix on Son of Svengoolie
9. The St. Trinian's movies. I won't go into why.
10. The Rockford Files. Which I liked, but liked more because I knew my dad liked them. Best, for my money, of those crime dramas from that era (like Quincey or Ironsides).
11. Classic Star Trek
12. The Alastair Sims version of A Christmas Story. Again one of those things I only saw on TV, and loved in part because my dad liked it so much.

Probably more, but when I think about it, those are the ones that come to mind.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


More snow, of course, which meant getting back out there and shoveling. I worked on our neighbor's walks today. She's been in the process of selling her house for some time now and spends a good portion of the week in Chicago. I never like to see the house looking empty. I also had to move her curbside recycling bin up close to her porch. We still haven't gotten ours, but it looks like a good percentage of the block has. I'd thought they'd be light, but was in for a rude awakening. I could barely manage to get it up out of the snow and up close to the porch. I pulled my back more yanking it up the steps than shoveling the snow. Clearly this new recycling contract (at least right now) is a massive screw-up. They've been late by four plus days now for the first two pick ups of the year. Someone actually backed over my old bin when they miscalculated a three point turn and came up over the curb and into the snow. I had to pick up all the pieces and put them into another bin. I called the company (since the actual city office had its line busy pretty much continuously...apparently voice mail or holding is a big city concept) and asked to actually get one of the new bins, but they still haven't arrived yet. Supposedly next week is the last time they'll pick up without the new bin.


It has also gotten cold- which would usually mean at least a reduction of the snow, but it seems we're still getting pretty significant accumulation. The temps mean the furnace runs more than I'd like. I've been trying to find leaks and holes where I can to cut down on that, but they're all pin-pricks that add up to a major loss. The windows we had put in to replace the one's we lost in the house fire clearly aren't as good. We spent $23K on getting those windows done and had them for about a month before the fire took out most of them. Again irritating.

My biggest worry right now in regards to the cold is Doorstop, the outdoor cat. I don't like it when it stays this cold for this long. He has his house and his blankets, but it is dropping to zero and below at night. He's been eating a little less the past couple of days, so I'm worried he might be getting sick. Unfortunately we can't bring him inside. Besides the hair and the other cats not liking outsider animal, I'm worried about diseases. We don't have the money right now to take him to the vet for shots or anything and we're behind with the other cats' vaccinations. I lost the heating pad we had for him in the fire, and haven't been able to get another one. They're expensive, yeowtch and you have to leave them plugged in out there, which...with my fire paranoia, doesn't sit too well with me. Still, he managed to survive the last several winters, so I have to hope for the best. We've done well by him and have gone out of our way to help. I fear that sounds like rationalization, but that's the way it is.

Changeling Campaign Progress

Finished the next to last of the Changeling interludes-- essentially short stories for each of the players detailing their interactions with some aspect of Changeling existence. Have to figure out what to do for the last player-- I'm waiting on a narrative he's been composing. I don't want to write something that ends up stepping too much on his self-concept.

Gaming-wise I have several things on the table
1) Developing and continuing to set-up the story for Changeling. We're a few sessions in, but it still feels very early. I've doled out things carefully-- since part of the experience of that game needs to be dealing with weirdness and new situations in combination with trying to live real lives. I'm planning for the first "real" combat and adventure coming up here this week. I want to make that particularly interesting while giving them time to keep up with their own plots. Since we only play for about three hours per session, I try not to take any breaks and keep chatter to a minimum.

2) Working on the Libri Vidicos game I mentioned a couple of posts ago. I told players I'd get to any emails they sent within 48 hours. I may regret that. I have some structural work on the narrative to do there.

3) The most work I have in front of me is for the next Sunday campaign. We finished out the Scion mini-campaign before the holidays. They agreed they wanted to go back to revisit a previous campaign setting (or at least that was the one most chosen out of the list of dozen options I gave them). I have to build the system-- a reworking of my narrative action cards system, but with more combat crunch. I keep putting that off since it is a daunting task. OOH I haven't found anything else that would be less work and/or I'd want to use. I need to get that down before I work on the structure of the story, which means that it could be a while. I had this same problem when I was working on the Masks game-- is that a reaction to classic fantasy for me? I wonder.

4) The Exalted campaign is still up in the air. We're waiting on one player-- the rest of the group would like to play, but I haven't heard back from her. And she's great at the table-- most of the other players agreed that if she doesn't want to/can't play then we probably shouldn't play that game. So, I'm holding off doing any work on that until later.

5) other stuff- I keep thinking about other games. I HAVE to get a campaign outline done this week for my niece. Ugh-- I need to bear down on that.

6) Playing in two games. One looks like four or so sessions to go and the other will probably last until summer. I don't like playing as much as I do running, but the Hunter game I'm playing in is probably the best campaign I've been forever.


Got two people together today for a second round of Arkham Horror. Will returned, and Shari was playing for the first time. I'd tried to rope some others in, but various real world events precluded that. In any case, I did enjoy the game on a second try. We managed to get more of the rules right and we also chose more optimal characters. Will had a strategy planned that sort of paid off. Strangely enough, while applying more of the rules correctly-- which should have meant a harder game-- we actually had an easier play through. A good deal of the tension of the first game was lacking towards the end.

I'd notch that up to a couple of things. First, fewer players means that there's a better degree of coordination. Second, Will and I had played before and so there were clearly things you should and shouldn't do. Third, we played versus Azathoth who has the longest track and doesn't inflict that much of a penalty on players during the game itself. The first game we'd faced Yig which resulted in a much tighter game just for sheer lack of room to play in. Fourth, we had very good draws. None of the Environmentals ever really hurt us for very long. Gates kept opening where we'd already permanently closed them and the monster spawn was pretty easy or at least spread out most of the time.

We few exceptions, we almost never drew encounter cards in places, except for a few tries at the Newspaper. I still like the game, but can see how adding in one or more of the expansion small box sets might go towards making the game richer. I definitely want to play against the other GOO's to see what comes of those. We did play with the house rule about being able to opt to not buy something if we drew cards at the shop. However, that never really came into play since each time we did end up buying.

Things I Need to Figure Out Ruleswise Before We Play Again

1. If you begin your turn in a space with a monster, due to Mythos movement, can you evade it and move on or can you move then if you defeat it. I'd leaned towards the more liberal interpretation, but now I'm thinking not. I suspect a monster moving into your space automatically keeps you there.

2. Does the police wagon have to have a clear path?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


It bothers me when I think back on a day and can't remember anything I did that was worth commenting on. My primary activities were confined to shoveling snow, losing my wallet for a couple of hours, and going on a grocery run. That last is perhaps the most interesting. We're trying to tightly budget our shopping and make the most out of cooking and food resources in the house. I'd like to get at least a little ahead of the bills-- so no buying of new toys/junk/stupid stuff for at least three months, maybe more.

I'm trying to approach the resource use stuff like I'd approach it in an RPG. What's most effective right now-- if I spend this, what's the benefit I'm going to get, how long until I can get my MP (money) refreshed, etc.

Libri Vidicos Session Review

We had a decent session of Libri Vidicos. I'm trying to figure out what went well and what went less well. The real trick of the session lay in the fact that the players had figured out some of the major plot threads a little earlier than I expected. Since I've structured the campaign into "books" tied to school years, paralleling how Harry Potter works, managing pacing, misdirection and development becomes especially tough. They confronted a major NPC figure with their thoughts right at the beginning of the second semester.

Normally, in HP, the characters either don't tell people what's going on or there's a trust break in the setting. In some cases, the background characters are trying to protect the main character. In other cases, they can't reveal because doing so would let the NPCs (we'll use rpg terms for this) know they were up to something they shouldn't have been. The trick, at least in my case, was managing the NPCs reaction such that he wasn't dismissing them at the same time he slowed things down a little. He has good reasons for slowing things down, but I won't go into that. It does manage to kabosh a couple of scenes I had in mind for later, but I can cut or rework those.

We did the major scene with the NPC, then a couple of minor group things, and then did a "once-around". The once around involves my going around to see if the particular PC has something they want to do or someone they want to talk to. If they don't, I usually throw something at them from a prepared list of ideas I have for each of them. The group enjoys this, and people like watching other player's scenes. However, I felt like I took too long with this last night. I need to watch this and make sure the first players don't get too bored by the end. I also need to have a structured scene at the end of the session or at least after the once-around, to introduce a new element or comment on what they've found. That's a real struggle-- I don't like leaving the table without something interesting happening that gets them thinking about stuff for the next session.

Still working on restructuring the plot for the rest of this year-- I may need to go back and revisit some of my ideas for Year Three+ to see what's going to work there.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


A few things:

1. Finally finished up that two-page summary for the project proposal Gene and I are submitting. Took me forever to get it done. I had the whole thing in my head for the longest time. It was, in fact, more fully fleshed than any number of other things I'd been working on. I don't know why it took me so long to actually put it together in that format. I'd say at least part of it is that 2p summary is harder than it looks. I should probably try to work on mastering or at least getting better at it. I have some other things on backburner that it might be worth writing up that was, just to get myself more comfortable with it. I means sussing out the most important and elemental points of the story, tossing out the less interesting things that can be dealt with in the actual long-version, and being able to demonstrate that the idea has legs. I should practice on that.

2. Finally completed a trade for some minis through I'd sent my half of the trade deal well before Xmas, but I didn't get the games I was owed until this week. Of course I'm a fretter so it gave me more things to heighten my freeform anxiety over. I need to trade out the last of the things I'm trading and then stop that for a while. I hate having that extra baggage in my head.

3. Got done the first of my Changeling emails for my players. They're intended to give a first person perspective on certain elements of the Changeling world. I tried to describe how I see the concept of glamour in that first one...dreams and dream walking will be next. Then probably I'll work with Clarity and maybe how Contracts function. I'm not sure what I'm doing with the fifth. The Hedge is an obvious choice.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Doing Procedurals Today

Back in the late 1980's I created a superhero campaign we called "Saviors." I say created because it was a bit before I took over running and plotting the full game originally Eric Ferm and I built up the background and then my sister, Cat came aboard. She added a lot of great material and ran some dynamite games for it. Eventually a number of things, including my desire for greater control, moved me into the driver's seat of the game. That's a story for another time. For our group it was the first of the grittier games. We were in the midst of or just finishing Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Miracleman, Miller's Daredevil, and the other like-minded more vigilante oriented comics. The game was uneven, but fairly successful and some great moments came out of it. The actual campaign itself had several major turning points which dramatically shifted the narrative and course. It also had the largest number of character fatalities of any campaign I've run. A few years after we finished it, I ran a fairly long-term sequel campaign which took as its starting point proto-Cyberpunk ideas. I like some of the concepts of Cyberpunk, but always thought it set itself too late-- that the actual impact of the introduction of the various technologies was more interesting. As a whole, I liked that "Saviors II" game. Much later I tried to do a reboot of Saviors, but it didn't hold together as well. using Champions when other, more accessible systems existed and the change in available technologies made the game a little less interesting.

Kenny and I were talking about the difficulty of doing a real low-level crimefighter game in today's environment. Public reaction to anything falling outside the norm, severely increased public surveillance and certain technologies (cell phones, internet) really change the narrative options a gamemaster has. Still, I think there's some material there worth salvaging. I enjoyed Kenny's brief SWAT game and I've about doing one myself. But what struck me is how really rich the setting provided by Gotham Central is. I have the first three trades of that series and had been rereading them as part of my breaks between writing spurts.

I like the idea of a police procedural game, but one in which the players have extra leeway in terms of being detectives, forensic experts, and even SWAT. My original thought was to do something that was more weird-- a kind of Delta Green-based police game. But the more I think about it, the more I'd like to anchor it in the real world. The special case unit handles anything that even beings to smack of supervillainy or strangeness. You could keep the real "named" figures off-stage for a long time, with the players dealing with the marginal characters in those organizations-- the middlemen, henchmen and suppliers. Then when and if the actual Bad Guys appear, they'd be more menacing and threatening. There'd also be the question of how to deal with vigilantes. I wouldn't want something as stripped down and, quite frankly tech-love sci-fi, as the recent Batman film. Instead, I'd probably have a richer universe for the characters to operate in, with a blend of known existing figures and some new ones. Adapting the Batman rogue's gallery would work, since more people are familiar with them from at least the animated series.

I'd probably use a modified version of Gumshoe. The investigation system in there is excellent. However, the challenge resolution system sucks and irritates players. We used it a couple of times (for Gaslight Gumshoe, Spies and Super Detectives games) and the general consensus among about a dozen players is ditch everything but the investigation rules. I'd probably use something like Gurps or True20 to handle that side of things. Not that I'm going to get around to running that anytime soon, but it is something that struck me and I wanted to remember.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Played a few board games on Monday and Tuesday. And I finally got the project sheet into a workable form for the proposal. But the board games stick in my mind. My niece Kali and nephew Davey came over. Davey was content to plop himself in front of the TV and play some of the video games I have that he doesn't. They got a PS3 for Xmas and I feared they'd have little reason to come over once they duplicated most of the exciting entertainments I can offer. Therefore, the Wii is my trump-card.

In any case, Kali's always pretty generous and good humored about playing board games with me. I know she'd like to do some rpg stuff, but I'm still working on the setting and stuff for her. She's given me a tough assignment, modern fantasy with echoes of John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos trilogy. Anyway, we played two games. The first was Starship Catan, a two-player semi-card game based on Starfarers of Catan which in turn was based on Settlers of Catan. I won, but in part because of a rules mistake and in part because I'd played once before. She seemed to enjoy that game pretty least better than the other couple of games I'd recently shown her. Less successful was the Alhambra Dice Game. It plays with 2-6 players but doesn't scale particularly well down to the low numbers. There's a real runaway leader problem, especially if one player hasn't played before. So we got halfway through before calling it since I was kind on pounding her into the ground. That's an exception to the rule-- she usually can beat me, but only if she knows the rules.

In our Tuesday boardgame night we tried two of the games I'd traded for-- Transamerica and Oasis. Both were good, and also fairly simple. Of course I made a pretty major rules error in the latter game, but we all played by it so it didn't make a real difference. However, I suspect it will make the game even stronger the next time we play.

How's that for boring trivia?