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And there it is.

August 20, 2018

“When they win it’s a ‘meritocracy’, but when we win, it’s ‘Identity Politics'”

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Illuminas Episode 1

August 17, 2018

We’re doing a short run of D&D and posting podcasts of the play.  It’s very casual, so this means jokes, what-sound-quality-we-could-get-from-our-various-headsets, and so on.

Because I am new and TOTALLY AWESOME with OBS, I lost the first session, so you get to start with the intro from the first session, and then we start with the second session.  Enjoy!

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Scene Prompting

August 11, 2018

For the current game I’m running, I’m trying a new thing – I’m basically mashing two techniques together from other games I enjoy.

Apocalypse World Random Questions

One of the pieces of advice AW gives is for the GM to sometimes ask non-sequitur, personal questions of the characters.  You might be in the middle of a firefight and the GM is asking you to remember what your character’s first memory of tasting fresh food with your mother was like.

The thing that these questions do, is they basically provide windows into who the character is, and gets us, the audience, to sometimes step out of getting stuck on the immediate plot issues, which tends to become a sandpit for players in many traditional games.

Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix

TBZ has a chart you roll on whenever you meet another PC or major NPC – and it basically gives you a relationship prompt.  This gives direction and cuts out a lot of the testing and jousting to establish who the characters are to each other.  (TBZ also doesn’t let this be pure random chance – everyone at the table can bid some points to alter the results, and often this is where creative players create amazing situations from it.)

The other thing that this does is that it prompts certain kinds of scenes between characters.  If the characters are “destined enemies”, there’s got to be a point that makes it clear to the audience, that this is going to be ugly.  If it’s a friendship, the players have an idea of what to angle for.

Even though this seems to “take away” some control over your character, it ends up getting players to express who their characters are much better than having no prompt at all.

Scene Prompting

So, I combine a bit of both of those.  What I’ve been doing is making small charts, that suggest a type of scene, and the players will get to roll on it once a session.  I’m still refining how these charts should work, and whether they should be static or change session to session, but they have helped a lot in terms of breaking up the traditional RPG tendency to get stuck in plot and logistics.

1 Pick another player character – flashback scene to how they helped you out in the past

2 Pick another player character – you’re doing something mundane and having fun together

3 Pick another player character or NPC – you’re together and you get to ask a personal question

4 Flashback – name an NPC in your past who tried to stop you from your current venture

5 Flashback – name an NPC in your past who encouraged you on this venture

6 Pick another player character – show off something your character is an expert in, in this area/situation

Notice that all of these require at least one other character to interact with?  Also that none of the ones with other player characters are built around conflict or disagreement?  That’s all intentional.  If you’re playing a game based around a team or party, you should probably have some “team building” scenes that show why these characters are working together, particularly if the stakes are high.

I’ve been tweaking the entries each session, and I’m not sure if there has to be a single, unchanging chart, or if it is always best crafted to specific groups and situations.   Obviously, if your game isn’t based on an ensemble of protagonists mostly cooperating, you would choose some different points of focus.

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Points of Interest Prep

August 8, 2018

This is basically the prep style I’ve developed for low work “sandbox” style play.  In most sandbox style of RPGs, the GM preps (or buys a pre-made adventure) that has a large map, and tons of neat things prepped for the players to run into.

This requires a lot of work on the GM’s part ahead of time, whereas, since I run shorter arcs, it doesn’t make sense to spend 20 hours of prep in a game that probably will run 6-8 sessions.  So, what this method is about, is setting up just enough to cover the “next session” without also locking players into a definite path.

Points of Interest

First, write down the place of interest where the characters are at.   This might be a space station, a base of operations, a town, or whatever, depending on your setting.

Next, write down 3-4 more places of interest they might travel to within the timespan of your game session.  Some of this will depend on the scale of the campaign – a game of people warping around the galaxy works very differently than a game focused on a single sprawling city, and likewise, this depends on how long your game sessions are.  I tend to run 2-3 hour game sessions, so that keeps things close.

If you want, you can put these on a simple map, or draw them in boxes with lines like a flowchart,  but that’s up to you.  Early on, it’s not needed, but if you use this method of prep for a longer campaign, it’ll keep things easier to track.  That said, it’s about prep-as-you-go, and reducing the amount of wasted prep, so your effort-to-play ratio is better than a full sandbox map set up.

Three Things

For each of these points of interest, write down three interesting things the players are likely to encounter.  NPCs, threats, big hazards, or things that would be of interest specifically to the player characters involved (“Hey, that’s the oldest temple of my order!”, “The cheapest stardrive parts are sold here.” etc.).

The players do not have to engage or follow all 3 things to their conclusion, however, the players’ interest in these things is a good sign of how well you’re setting these up.   (Yes, you can do 2 interesting things, or 4 things sometimes.  That works too.  3 is a good norm though.)

NPCs want things

NPCs to note are characters who want something that affects the player characters – the druid wants help hunting the dire wolf, the politician wants their cooperation, an informant is trying to get info to sell on them…, etc.  You can write down a short sentence about the NPC and what they want.  If the game has relevant skill/stats that matter, you can usually drop those in without needing a full write up.

While it’s easy to focus on the “plot” thing an NPC might want, you should also consider what social interaction thing an NPC might want from the player characters as well.  These are most interesting when they add a nuance or work at odds with the practical motivation (“The Bishop wants you to turn over the Cursed Sword, but also wants to mend the rift between you and your uncle.”)

Threats

Monsters, bandit gangs, stars that emit radiation pulses, a rickety wooden bridge… if it is something that might directly harm the player characters, you’ll want to prep these.   Since these sorts of things end up taking up the most time to prep in most games, I usually don’t have points of interest that are ALL threats.

This also mirrors the idea of a general sandbox game – danger isn’t in every single place, and certainly not in equal amounts.  Even travelling to a point of interest doesn’t always mean encountering each threat – smart players will use means to gather intel ahead of time and figure out which things to avoid or sneak past.

History and Setting

Any point of interest that is a place where people live (or have lived in the past), is a good chance to fill out your setting.  Obviously, you can show how the characters get by and live their lives, their cultures and practices, but you can also show things in ruins and things left behind.  And, not just describing it in a general sense – you can give more direct information to players whose characters specialize in history or cultural lore.  (“The language on the walls is a form of Later Velnapian, probably part of the Migration after the war…  there won’t be any great libraries as you’d normally expect, but any records they brought with them will certainly be what they considered the most important to save.”)

Aside from cool worldbuilding factor, some of these might foreshadow or forewarn about things in other Points of Interest.  (“Assuming this funeral poem isn’t figurative, I’m guessing they lost half their fleet when their defense drones went rogue in the quadrant over.  How about we go around?”)

Play, Prep, Adapt

After the session ends, note where the players are; figure out 3-4 new points of interest they might reach after that and prep the interesting things there, as well.  If the players stayed in the same area, consider if some of those interesting things might have changed or if new ones might pop up.  And, of course, “what’s interesting” can change quite a bit based on actions in play – characters who are heroes might find people asking for help against bigger problems, characters who are fugitives are hunted, and so on.

Obviously, most NPCs can travel as well, so you might want to have some show up at new places depending on what happened.  Things like extreme weather or disasters might affect a lot of points of interest.  The classic “evil army is invading” always can affect places.

Notice, though, as you build up more and more locations, you’re only having to look at 9-12 things at most, a lot of which are going to be 1-2 sentence descriptions or ideas.   If you re-use NPCs, they become easier to play as you get more comfortable with them as well.

Using this system, I usually have prep times of 20 minutes to an hour between sessions.

 

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Fantasy vs. the Fantastic

July 8, 2018

I’m finally getting a chance to get back into a combination of gaming and catching up on media after a hectic beginning of the year and it’s helping me get back into a key concept for tabletop gaming settings:

What parts of your setting are mundane vs. fantastic to the characters? (as opposed to us, real people, who do not have to worry about dragons and cyborgs and such.)

And how do you get the group on the same page about it as well?

A simple example

So let’s say you’ve got a fantasy game, and there’s a spell to turn invisible.  As far as the society in this game, is this:

  • Completely unknown?
  • In legends/stories, and probably feared or considered child’s tales?
  • Rare but known to exist?
  • Uncommon but something people take some precautions against?
  • Completely known and has several common countermeasures to stop it from being abused?

Depending on the setting, this is either super powerful and scary, or it’s a minor advantage.  In some cases, the thing is just as fantastic to the characters, as it is to us, the people playing the game, and in other cases, it’s about as mundane to them as someone knowing out how bust open a lock on a car door.

Sense of Wonder vs. Genre Piece

As a group, are these things supposed to be a thing that’s a sense of wonder (or terror) or are they just another piece of genre trope that’s fun and not a big deal?  This covers a lot about how you narrate things, prepare things, etc.

Doing a favor for a fae being who grants you a miraculous healing point and their castle disappears after you walk out of it will have you considering that healing potion one way, while buying a dozen healing potions at the Temple after picking up supplies is a different thing.

Playing Your Character & Narration

If you know where these things stand in the game world, it also lets you know how to play your character, and to mesh well with the other players as well.   If magic is unknown, your wizard might be able to scare a king into submission with a few spooky tricks, while if it is well known, your character might be considered little better than a shoe cobbler.

Likewise, this affects how you narrate things.  “Spectral energy glows at his hands, before he chants the mantras of the divine archer, and a golden bow appears in his hands…firing forth arrows that blaze light from the mouth and eyes of his targets!” vs. “I scramble up the stairs while firing Magic Missle at the pursuing forces.”  Both the creative effort and time you spend, in part, depends on what fits for your game setting, and likewise, most people prefer description for the fantastic, brevity for the mundane.

Strategy in Play

Of course, if your game depends on strategic decisions, or choices that are well enforced by an internal logic to the game world, understanding where things sit in Mundane vs Fantastic is critical to both your planning and counter-strategies.  A good part of strategy is asymmetric information – who knows how things work and what options are available.

In our real world, an invisibility spell would let you get away with a LOT before people started floating the idea that maybe there’s an invisible person walking around (though, between the Predator movies, Ghost in the Shell, and real world experiments in optical camouflage, maybe quicker than you think).

Setting up for play!

I usually like to write up a 2-3 page document that hits what is expected of the game, including a bit on the setting and cultural expectations, especially if the game itself doesn’t include these things or I’m doing something different than what the book describes.

I look to see what things are different from our world, and I also look to see if there’s other popular media I can point to as a quick touch point.  If the game is set to existing fiction (movies, books, comics, videogames, etc.) – I try to find the quick short things I think people should refresh themselves with and also if we’re going to cherry pick specific parts of the larger work. (Which, you pretty much HAVE to do if a thing ends up going through multiple writers, has existed as a large franchise, etc.).

If players are building characters deep into an unusual thing, I try to give them more information or context about what that looks like and what expectations, challenges, and support are around their character.

Mind you, all of this is usually pretty short.  Since most of the games I run are something like 4-8 sessions these days, it doesn’t make sense to over invest in prep if the game isn’t going to be that long anyway.

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Game design: Siloing Resources

February 24, 2018

It’s a generally understood that you should design your game to reward the players to do the thing you want to see happen in play.  The important, but sometimes missed part, is that is that what you should want to see in play is the thing the players would also find fun, but maybe not realize on their own.

So part of that is “siloing” – some resources or rewards, are isolated in terms of how you can get them.  When you fail to silo things correctly, there may be glaring loopholes that make it easy, and even encouraging, for players to completely avoid the fun things that should be core to the game.

Monster Hunter World

I’ve been playing a lot of the Monster Hunter World videogame, and I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time.  Like many games, it has potions which you need to heal.  However, there’s no way to buy potions.   You have to go into the field and collect the materials.

This sets up a particular cycle: you need to heal, so you need to get materials.  If you want to gather a bunch at one go, you have to run to several points on a given map – which means you have to explore and know the map.  While you’re doing this, other monsters might attack you, so it’s a bit of turnaround from you hunting the monsters.  Bonus: knowing an area, gives you an advantage in the core gameplay loop of hunting, so that feeds right back in.

D&D and magic items for sale

Compare this to an often recurring issue for D&D games – the breakdown of magic item economy.   The core gameplay loop for D&D is dungeon crawling – either for treasure heists or as a tactical combat.   In both cases, however, the fastest way a single character gains ability is acquiring a magic item, which makes it a powerful resource in terms of game design.

In some forms of play, the only way to get magic items is to go on dungeon crawls and find them – so this means this feeds into the core game loop.  In others, though, you start ending up with options for magic items to be bought – in which case, it is far easier to find ways to get gold to buy the items, rather than try to deal fully with a dungeon crawl or have to figure out how to best use a random item you gained instead of buying 3 things that perfectly match your character’s role.  Once that happens, the reward no longer is tied to the core play activity.

Siloing – one path or a choice?

When you design a requirement for a resource or a reward, you can basically go about it in two ways.

First, give only one option to get the resource/reward.  This is a good choice for making core gameplay elements a requirement and unavoidable in play.  How much/how long/how often are parts to balance out to make sure it’s fun and not annoying, a chore, or so easy as to be meaningless.

Second, give two or more options to get the resource/reward.  Each one lays out a separate path, and, done correctly, might allow for a very meaningful choice, or at least, an expression of play.

In many games that use Flag mechanics, like Burning Wheel, you can choose which of your Beliefs you pursue, you don’t have to do all 3 equally, or even at all.  As long as you’re pursuing at least one of them, you get rewards.  In contrast, the earlier Riddle of Steel makes it so that early one, you can pursue just one or two of your flags, but if you want to improve high level abilities, you need to have nearly maxed out all of them.  Notice, however, that what this is, is that it’s several choices within the same category – “pursue this Flag” is still the underlying mechanic.

The danger in this second approach, however, is that many games have done things where the potential paths to reward/resources create contradictory styles of game.  If these contradictory things don’t fit well together, and different players in the group are playing along these paths, you get problems.   In this case, it’s important for the game designer to make clear that these things are exclusive options the group or the GM will have to pick BEFORE the game begins, and not find out after you start.

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The Reclaimers Roleplaying Stream

February 10, 2018

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be running a once a week RPG stream on Twitch with Quinn Murphy through CypherofTyr’s I Need Diverse Games Twitch Channel.

We’re doing Sundays, 6PST to 8PST.  Our first game is Tenra Bansho Zero!

Video link from the session is here.

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