Tuesday 30 June 2015

Overthinking things special: getting good

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I went last week to the Fitzwilliam Museum. My parents were in town and they were interested in seeing the watercolour exhibit, including the display of "Ruskin's Turners." "Ruskin's Turners" would have been the most English thing in my month if I hadn't been to see the Magna Carta exhibit at the British Library and also had a sausage bap and a pint of mild in a pub in Coalbrookdale. 

Anyway, what was I saying? Watercolours. Now, I will be frank with you: I was not expecting to enjoy this watercolour exhibit very much. You know the stereotype: grannies, seasides, all that stuff. Hotel room walls. But actually I thought it was varied and interesting; turns out I have these stereotypes because, as I may have mentioned, I don't know a lot about art.

But the thing that really grabbed me was the technical side of it -- there was quite a lot of discussion of the chemistry involved, and how changing paint- and paper-making techniques changed the appearance (and the sort of social context) of watercolours over the year. Painters talking to each other or to the public about technique as much as anything else, about how to capture a particular effect, which brush, which brushstroke, which whatever.

I always find that kind of thing fascinating, and it surprises me that there's so little talk about the nuts-and-bolts elements of running (as opposed to designing) a game. It may be because the fundamental tool of GMing is language, and people can talk, so they don't think of it like playing an instrument or something. It may be because each gaming group is so different that it's difficult to generalise across groups. It may be because the small-scale nature of gaming means that there's no way to recognise whether someone is an expert or not -- like, I have GMed a lot of games in my life, but my total number of players is probably no more than a few hundred, fewer than the number of people a moderately successful band fits into a single gig. So there's no consensus about who's a recognised good GM in the way that there is for a designer or painter or whatever.

I found these thoughts coming up during a recent effort in co-GMing a large game with a younger GM who, with no criticism implied, hadn't been running games as long as I had and therefore hadn't seen some of the common problems, didn't have as deep a bag of prepped material to pull from, and so on. I thought "surely there must be something I can do to help," but it was tough to think exactly what that could be -- most advice on running that type of game is focused on outcomes rather than on techniques for achieving those outcomes. Like: "ensure a balance of investigative, action and social play." OK, but how do you do that? Most "GMing advice" is a waste of air or ink, and when it's specific enough to be good, it may be too specific to be useful.

The social expectations on GMs also make this a challenge. In most gaming groups, habitual GMs are expected to be sort of social "leaders" -- and to some extent this is true, because it takes a certain amount of social presence to attract players to the table and running a game is much like keeping a conversation on target -- but, that being the case, offering a piece of advice to help someone's GMing is in some ways a challenge to their dominance.

I'm also not sure that we have a recognised way of teaching techniques other than emulation. For instance -- I was once in a game run by a friend of mine; there were some weird artefacts that the players were examining. The artefacts were represented by props that had been put out randomly at the start of the game; the GM had not planned them (most of them, anyway) in advance. A player used an ability on one of them to find out something about it and the GM asked her to roll to activate the power -- and, while she rolled and he interpreted the roll, he came up with something for the result. He used the system to create that little vamp to buy him ten seconds to come up with a good idea. It was very good, and I copied it, but I'm not sure he could teach you how to come up with something in ten seconds if that's not already something you're good at.

I know I have a list of techniques I admire in other GMs -- I should ask people to do some guest posts or something.

Friday 26 June 2015

Other things to read!

One of the cool things about my gaming career has been the great people it's introduced me to. Several of them have their own things going on elsewhere on the web, so I thought I'd take the time to shout some of them out today. 

The most important person I've ever met through gaming is obviously my wife, who has just started a project called Fabulous to 40, in which she takes a photo of her (cool, often charity-shop-derived) outfit every day between her 39th and 40th birthdays. She doesn't believe me when I tell her she's cool, but now other people can do it through the medium of modern technology!

Luke Slater and I met at university, and we discovered that we share some interests -- gaming, obviously, which he also blogs about, but also really terrible movies. We write about them at Bad Movie Marathon (well, mostly he does, but I do one every now and again, as does another cool person I met through gaming, skerryflower). We're currently working on a special project, the Summer of Lovecraft, in which we watch as many films based on H.P. Lovecraft stories as we can between now and Lovecraft's 125th birthday, August 20th. I've been working on that a lot lately, so go over and check it out!

More directly gaming-related is this cool new blog from Red, whose old video game blog I believe I've mentioned before. Geek Chicery covers RPGs, board games, electronic gaming and sort of general geekiness from a feminist perspective, plus lots of cool crafty stuff. I'm really impressed by the level of production she puts into her D&D handouts: 

Anyway, she is a cool, creative person and you should check it out.

Next time: I went to an exhibit of watercolours and I somehow made it relevant to running games. 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

GMing 101: In defense of stereotype and cliché

Cliché is such a nasty word, but I think a certain amount of cliché can be good for your game. It's all about finding the right circumstances in which to deploy it.

So I spent this past weekend at a big live-action game event. The society I'm in, Isles of Darkness, runs parlour-style live games, and the national events are made up of several showcase games for each of the different games (or "genres") we run.

This creates a situation that is slightly unusual for GMs -- you have a game session that is part of an established continuity, but with characters that haven't necessarily met each other. You want to have a big plot, often a done-in-one plot that has links to the overall progress of the campaign, and you have four to eight hours to do it.

How do you do that?

With cliché and stereotype.

"Oh, Professor Blastoffsky? He's harmless."
At heart, a stereotype is just a way to convey a lot of information in a short space of time. For instance, in my D&D game the "Thieves' Guild" is basically just a type of organised crime. So when I needed an NPC from that group, I gave him the voice of Fat Tony from The Simpsons. You know the kind of thing: "My ... associates ... and I have made a loan to dis gentleman of soitan monies. Now dat the period of the loan is expiad, we wish to collect the moichandise."

Is it great writing? It is not. But this character was not going to be a long-lasting supporting character; he was going to be an obstacle for the PCs, and it was important that they be able to get a grip on him quickly. Similarly, Fat Tony's muscle tended to say things like "duuhh ... you want I should break his legs, boss?" 

That might sound corny, but you have to reflect that the muscle in most games doesn't get a lot of conversation. Mechanically, they're all just mooks, so it really does matter that some of the muscle says "youse messed wit' da wrong people" and some says "for the glory of the Emperor!" and some says "slay them all! Blood for the Blood God!" or whatever. That's actually more characterisation than you're going to get from a realistic portrayal of those characters, because in reality you just can't tell very much about a person on a brief meeting. 

For instance, this guy doesn't even like mysteries.
Same goes for the setting of any done-in-one scenario, particularly given the way in which RPGs can blend elements of multiple genres, or even bounce between genres. If we're only going to be in this crumbling Gothic mansion for a few hours, we need to know quickly if this is the kind of crumbling Gothic mansion where people are tormented about their failed relationships or the kind of crumbling Gothic mansion where a sinister butler tells us that wailing noise is just the wind. 

This is also good because it helps me know what to do in a scenario. When I'm in the crumbly old mansion and the Professor has been shot and high tide has cut us off from the mainland, I go -- "then the killer is still in the house!" and everybody knows what's up.

Alan Moore once said of Stan Lee that he had the revolutionary idea of making comics characters two-dimensional as opposed to one-, and that's a pretty funny line, but the simple characterisation of early comics served a purpose. Remember, most people weren't reading every Superman comic one after the other like they do today -- they were picking one up at the train station or something. Characterisation and premise needed to be simple to get the reader engaged and into the main part of the story -- the action -- quickly. 

Now that's all well and good, so why are people so opposed to these shopworn old setups? Why are we not just fighting rats for copper coins forever and ever? Well, part of it is that we aren't just reading a single Superman comic on the bus -- we're coming back to these stories and carrying them on, and we're doing it in a world we can inhabit. In a society like the IoD, we're explicitly trying to run a game that's focused on characters who grow and change and react to their experiences like real people. It's hard to do that if the premise of the game doesn't bear that kind of weight. 

The compromise I use is simple: imagine a sliding scale of level of player time and engagement, then map that inversely to the stereotype level. So, for instance, it's not a good idea to have your game world be nothing but hoary old tropes unless your players are all first-timers; if they're going to be spending a lot of time there, they'll want it to have some real weight. But an individual librarian can be an absent-minded old coot with no problem. If you ever need to go back to the librarian and she becomes a larger character, you can "wrinkle" her a bit, give her some depth and complexity. 

(It occurs to me that there's another distinction to be made between the predictability and the complexity of stereotypes, but I'll leave that for another time.)

Anyway, so, that's me once again defending hokey old adventure-story tropes in gaming by pointing out that they're not dumb; they were created by skilled artists who knew what they were doing by creating them. Usually.

(Another discussion for the future: when people don't realise the difference between cliché and reality, and how that's a problem.)

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Illuminating character through conflict: or, effective challenge design in live games

I apologise for the sketchy nature of today's post, but I was up until two in the morning prepping for a live game I'm going to be running this weekend. I've also been working on a series of posts about Lovecraft movies over at Bad Movie Marathon, so check those out if you're interested in the ... uneven history of Lovecraft films.

Conversations over the last weekend have reminded me that there are quite a lot of people who've never written this kind of game before, and I thought I'd write about that process. This is naturally going to be kind of an incomplete discussion, because keeping it restrained is difficult; it naturally wants to drift off into related topics and I just don't have all day.

Where's the fun? 

I am on record as not being interested in playing certain types of game at all -- not because I don't think they are fun in some abstract, universal sense but because the thing that is fun about them isn't fun for me, at least not usually. Different games have different things that are fun about them. Of course, most games have multiple fun things, but there are usually one or two main ones.

The main question you need to ask yourself is: is the fun thing about this game the consequences of a challenge or the act of resolving a challenge?

Let's take a few examples:

  • In Super Mario Brothers, the fun comes from the act of resolving a challenge. The princess and the turtle are all well and good, but what the game is about is the feeling of perfect, harmonious flow you get when you're racing through a level. 
  • In HeroQuest 2nd ed, the fun comes from the content and consequences of the challenge. I really want to know whether uncle Boriban is going to take my cows, and the resolution system is more or less just a simple way of reaching an answer to that question in a way that feels true to the characters. 
So involved with this character.

Now, that's not to say that you don't want both elements. Obviously, no one is going "Oh yeah, Hitler Quest has bitchin' shooting mechanics; no one pays attention to the fact that you're playing an SS officer." In fact, the setting is crapping all over the play experience. Some minimal level of both is required, and a high level of both is desirable. 

In Castle Falkenstein, for example, the mechanics demand a character choice from me -- how badly do I want Uncle Boriban not to take my cows? In a successfully-designed field LARP, I think, there should also be strong elements of both. Exploring a fantastic world and fighting dudes with a sword is just plain old fun by itself -- I imagine, having never done it -- but it's more fun if those dudes are interesting and you care about the stakes of the fight, just as it's more fun to rescue the princess from Bowser than it is to get to the end and, I dunno, be able to compare your time to your previous runs. 

Practical design consequences

Now, you think I'm about to say that the mechanics of the World of Darkness games (which I have previously referred to as "the worst possible system," drowning in complexity without any increase in choice or realism) are so bad that the focus of design has to be on the characters and their moral choices. And that's ... sort of true. But it's not the whole story. 

Let's back up a sec to the role of plot in a large, social game. This applies mainly to your World of Darkness type games, but you can also think about it in terms of any game where there are both "outward" procedural plots and a lot of "inward" social interaction. 

(Now in the late 90s and even into the modern day, "plot" properly so-called was a sore point among World of Darkness gamers. Some craved it, and felt that any part of gameplay that wasn't "plot" -- that is, interaction between characters -- was just a sort of window-dressing meant to give colour to the plot. Others rejected it, and felt that any hint of non-player-generated conflict was missing the point. There was a certain amount of snobbery in both directions. Still is, although I haven't noticed it so much lately.) 

In a successful game, "plot" or "away missions" or whatever you want to call them feed back into the social environment; they have consequences on social play, and it has consequences on them. In too many cases, "plot" is sterile, explicitly focused on trying to keep the social space isolated from the rest of the world (put a pin in this question: because social players scorn "plot" and consider it intrusive?). But it doesn't have to be this way. In a well-run game, "plot" is thematically tied to the conflicts, both internal and interpersonal, that the characters have. So a new plot event should change the game's emotional dynamic. Oh man, they finally got Zergathrax? There but for the grace of God go I. 

Who's next, Insectobastard? It really makes ya think.

Most GMs tend to consider one of the sides of the game superfluous -- they all say that the social side is the really important one, but in my experience the actual split is probably about 50/50. Or maybe they just suck at one of the two modes, and the question is one of skill, not priority (running games is a skill, or more accurately a set of skills, and you can be better or worse). But by focusing on both sides, you can improve your game. 

Some tips

So let's ask ourselves some diagnostic questions: 
  • How does this plot relate to the overall themes or questions of the game? 
  • What fun choices do the players get to make in this scenario? 
Now, me personally, I very seldom write about theme or colour stuff except at the very beginning of a campaign, when I fill a page or two with imagery and sort of emotional or tonal notes. Having done that, I feel like I'm probably in the right place; I don't think I make a lot of bad thematic choices in my games (well, not inadvertently, anyway). Some people like to really sit down and think about theme and mood in a way that I don't. 

In theory, anyway, my game should already have something that links procedural goals with thematic elements: it's called a setting. For a lot of people, though, the joy of subcreation replaces any thinking about this process, presumably because they've read a lot of stuff about worldbuilding? I don't know. 

How do I improve my handling of thematic elements in "procedural" sequences? Mostly it's practice and observation, but I would do a few things: 
  • Watch/read some kind of adventure fiction in which the two are strongly intertwined (Buffy yes, Spider-Man yes, The Wire yes -- stipulating it's not really adventure fiction -- James Bond not so much). Take notes on thematic relevance of procedural stuff. This is a solved problem. 
  • Create a list of setting elements relevant to thematic content at the beginning of the campaign. For instance, a lot of my games in the last few years have had issues of secrecy, loyalty and feeling helpless in the face of greater powers. So Cold War stuff keeps coming up. 
  • Honestly, most of this is solved by developing a setting in a coherent way. I don't mean that everything has to be rigorously in service to an agenda; after a while, you should be able to do this and have it feel natural. 
And how about improving procedural stuff? Again, this is a particular problem for a large-scale game, because it necessarily lacks the flexibility about rules that is the hallmark of a good tabletop session. But seriously, it's not that hard: 
  • Treat rules as tools rather than procedures. 
  • Never present a problem with only one solution. 
  • Ground procedural challenges in detailed, plausible description, both of environments and of characters. 
  • Don't run fights where the outcome is certain. 
  • Remember that there are fight outcomes other than "you win" or "you lose."
A quandary

Remember when I said that GMing was a skill and that people could be good at it? Like any skill, it takes a combination of practice and good teaching. But this post, frankly, is an example of bad teaching. It's so vague. It's tough to talk about particular things to improve when you worry that you'll be telling your audience something they already know or putting someone's shit in the street. Not sure how to resolve that; your advice is appreciated. 

Friday 12 June 2015

The perils of the imagined world

Ideas in this post may not be fully developed. I'm thinkin' out loud here.

When designing scenarios, I tend to perceive two major factors in terms of what I'm making: the imagined world and the imagined session.

So the imagined world is all that simulation-y stuff, by which I don't mean that's it in any way realistic. It's just what we know about the world.

You know, this kind of thing. 
So, the players want to go to Frog Island. What do I know about what's on Frog Island? More broadly, what do the underlying principles of the world tell me about what's going to be in Frog Island? 

The second question is one of the imagined session. Roughly speaking, when the players get to Frog Island, what are they going to do there? 

"Get caught by rabbits" is not what you were expecting. 
Each of these two halves can let the other down. If you get really committed to a certain type of setting emulation you can wind up giving boring or un-fun answers. 

"Hey, let's go to the Isle of Frogs! I wonder what's there!"


"Could this killing be linked to some deeper conspiracy?"

"Nah, it was the husband."

Or whatever. 

I have played in games that were so wedded to the setting, that were so happy to be adventuring in Glorantha or the DC Universe or whatever, that we never actually got to do anything. I love Glorantha my own self, but I didn't sign up to carry Kallyr Starbrow's luggage. It makes sense in the world, but even I have my limits. 

This is a problem in book design as well. Vampire 2eR was a huge offender in this regard -- page after page after page filled with stuff that was definitely true about the world, but was so vanishingly unlikely to come up in your game that there was no justification for providing it. 

Which is not to say that setting design isn't fun or interesting. Good setting design produces interesting session challenges in a way that is quick and easy and feels natural, and the accumulation of even non-game-relevant setting detail lends the events of a game weight that it might not otherwise possess. But I feel like a lot of people do it with more enthusiasm than sense. 

Session-focused design has its own problems; I suppose you could say that if you assume you're going to find a balanced, level-appropriate dungeon encounter wherever you go, you might as well go anywhere. (You could say the same thing for a moral dilemma; there's nothing more infuriating than a GM who's going to contrive your ass into a moral dilemma no matter how hard you scheme.)

I could and probably should talk more about the problems of session-focused game creation, but in my experience the thing I see more is design that's excessively setting-focused. I think, and I could be wrong, that this is because a) people enjoy worldbuilding, and b) a lot of game companies (particularly in the 90s?) were publishing games that were intended to be read rather than be played. I speak subject to correction, of course.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

The SAGA continues

I have got my Viking / Anglo-Danish morph SAGA army more or less sorted out, so it's on to the next project, my Normans, who are of course going to serve as the basis for a first Crusade morph (since the two armies should be 95% indistinguishable anyway).

Here's where we are so far:

The first unit of Hearthguard: Conquest Games Norman knights led by a Perry Miniatures Bohemond of Antioch.
God, I hate painting horses. Bohemond is a little shorter, but I think he looks OK (his base is built up). 

A unit of Warriors: Black Tree Design Norman crossbowmen.
The weird-looking guy in the back rank is, I think, Foundry, ex-Citadel.
An unusual choice, probably mainly for the building defense missions in Cross and Crescent: a unit of dismounted knights.
Perry Miniatures First Crusade, painted over a decade ago. 

The start of another unit: Levy archers. Black Tree design, except for the guy on the right, who is Foundry.
They're a surly-looking crew.
The army so far. 
 You'll notice that I am not super-consistent about basing; some of the models are on very flat Renedra 20mm bases and the other ones are on taller GW bases. Also, SAGA armies are usually based on round bases (although these bases are totally legal under the rules). This is because aeons ago I based the older models on the taller bases for WHAB, which uses square bases, and damned if I'm going to go back and undo work when I've got so much to do.

Anyway, I think they look quite nice.

Monday 8 June 2015

Post-apocalyptic figures!

I have been painting post-apocalyptic figures off and on for at least 5 years this go 'round; I just like the fact that they go so well with terrain you make yourself from junk. I am playing in a Rogue Trader Fallout game at this year's Oldhammer weekend, so I thought I'd take some photos and get things in one place. Here, then, are a selection of my relevant figures and scenery. More later this month, hopefully.

Savages: em-4 and my own conversion. 


Zombie troopers by Copplestone Castings.

Commandos -- ATTACK! Figures by Reaper. 

I forget. Picked up a job lot. 

Figures by Citadel and em-4. 

Reaper again. 

Copplestone again. 

Citadel. Smell the retro. 

Rogue Trader adventurers!

The Necromunda bounty hunters had so much story. This guy is clearly a former Delaque.

All by em-4. 

Kitbash, Prince August, Prince August, em-4.

Body and head from a Gripping Beast dark age warrior, backpack from a Warzone figure, tommy gun from Hasslefree.
em-4 / unknown
Unknown / Copplestone
Fantasy Forge / Scotia Grendel.

Most of these models are a mix of em-4/Grenadier and Copplestone. This gives them a nice unified appearance, because of course Mark Copplestone sculpted the original Grenadier line that later went to em-4.

God I feel good about this picture. Em-4 again (or maybe original Grenadier?)

I should make one of these my banner. 
To see all that work culminating in what is, basically, a completed project ... well, it's very inspiring for me.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Ships, sheets and proficiencies

So I did not have time to figure out a proper ship combat/sailing system before my first D&D game with a ship combat in it. I fudged it and I think it went OK, but I definitely don't want to be making it up as I go along every time. So here are my thoughts. I want the following to matter in ship actions: 
  • Where a ship gets hit: masts/rigging? Hull? Below the waterline? 
  • Manoeuvre: in particular, turning in combat is tricky for sailing ships. 
  • Decisions made by PCs: rallying/commanding, steering, shooting, and of course magic. 
I think the easiest way to do this is to give each ship a little character sheet, like the ones in Man o' War: 

This example, taken from R. Fuller's Man o' War page, is easier to see. 

There are also no skills that reflect the different things ships can do, which on the one hand is a good thing but on the other means we run the risk of a single skill becoming dominant. So here's what I'm gonna do:
  • Separate ships into bands: high/medium/low as above. Allocate damage effects to each band. Maybe if you exceed a certain damage threshold, or on a crit, you create some special damage effect like killing a vital crew person. I would assume that typically imposes disadvantage on whatever it is that part of the ship does. Like, kill the helmsman, disadvantage on steering or whatever. 
  • Give ships proficiencies. So instead of using characters' skills, we use characters' stats but ship proficiencies. For instance, let's say the skills are: Tack/Wear, Chase, Ram, Board/Grapple and Broadside. Galleys are good at Ram and Chase, big battleships are good at Broadside and Board; basically each skill is a maneouvre and certain ship designs are good or bad at them. 
  • Allocating PCs to a certain station on a ship helps you do something cool with them -- tops, helm, sick bay, guns, whatever. Maybe just allows them to roll their own stats or something, although that might not always be a great thing. But it would certainly help figure out where everyone was. So maybe the character sheet is a little mini-map; put a figure on that area of the ship, that's where the character is. 
  • Obviously the PC ships are going to be more detailed than the NPC ones. 
I guess the real question is the skill list. I like the ones I've listed; tight turning, fast pursuit, and some different combat actions. I don't know if there's anything I'm leaving out. 

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Frugal Gaming: Refurbishing an old piece

Some years ago, I responded to an ad on Freecycle offering a bunch of "Warhammer figures." They turned out to be mainly GW Lord of the Rings figs in a big old Quality Street tin. I was pleased enough; I repurposed some Wargs as generic fantasy critters, painted up the terrain, traded or gave away most of the rest and was pleased. Right at the bottom of the box was ... well, I thought it was one of the old fantasy buildings that came with the 4th edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle boxed set. But it isn't! It resembles, but is not quite the same as, the watchtower from the old Warhammer Townscape; however, this one has an arched front door rather than the square one found in Townscape and the 4th ed box. So I have no idea. Anyway, it was pretty beat up, so I threw it in a drawer and forgot about it.

The other day I was having a bit of a terrain clearout (which is also how those brick walls got painted) and I decided to finish it off. So I bashed together a new roof out of a bit of scrap card and some coffee stirrers, stuck it on a piece of scrap foamboard that had been sitting in the shed for over a year and stuck some flock on.

Not the most realistic or detailed piece of terrain ever, but for a total cost of, oh ... £0 ... it'll do. It looks like something I would have failed to produce in my young days. 

The grey border thing was supposed to be cut off, but the tower was already stuck together. I'll maybe do it at a later time; it would help with the messy edge. On the other hand, I'm constitutionally disinclined to go back to a finished piece at the best of times, let alone when I've got a crapload of other stuff on. 

"Good enough" is a vital concept for the frugal gamer.