Archive for the ‘game advice’ Category

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Flag Framing 2: Running the Game

January 9, 2015

Running the Game

What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?

That’s your guiding principle.  That’s pretty much the whole process in a one-sentence nutshell.  It’s very easy.  Everything you’ve done as prep in the previous article?  Those are tools to make this question easy to answer.

I really want to emphasize how easy this is – I’m about to throw a lot of words of advice and people assume that means it’s difficult, but it really boils down to answering that question, over and over, during play.

Scene Framing

Many roleplaying games talk about using scenes, but few really give good advice about how to actually run them.  In the end, a lot of people end up with the classic “What do you do next?” cycle that ends up dragging play along.

If you’ve ever tried to write a story, draw a comic, or do a film, you know that scenes and pacing are what make or break things and they’re also a giant pain in the ass.

So here’s my rules for scene framing:

1. Opening Scenes

Start the scene just before something interesting is likely to happen.

Look to the question at the top of the post here – “What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?” – that’s your guideline.

Don’t make the players work to get TO an interesting situation, don’t make them guess what might be interesting about it, and don’t put it far away so they don’t see it.

A lot of RPG time is wasted in what I call “Traffic and Introductions” – the characters are wandering around or going back and forth (“Where do you go next?”) and then when they meet NPCs, there’s a long awkward conversation period of trying to figure out what the NPC’s angle is and so on.

Movies & TV don’t do that.  They skip it – travel is a short cutshot of the characters racing across town, or just a cut to them walking in the door, initial introductions are snappy conversations where introductions are quick and personality is dripping from the NPCs from the moment you see them.

That said, the moments before something interesting is about to happen gives it the space in play to see what might come of it – maybe it’ll go more or less like you expect it to (“Yep, it’s going to be a fight”) or maybe it goes very different (“You’re going to cut a deal? Well… it makes sense!”).  Those surprises are fun for everyone involved.

Assume Competence

Sometimes you might start a scene and a player will go “Wait, wait, I wanted to do X before!”.  As much as you can, assume the characters are competent, and if it seems at all reasonable, “Sure,  you went and got the evidence before you showed up, that’s fine”.

Once in a while X should get it’s own scene, but most of the time it’s just a logistics thing the player wants to establish and isn’t actually that interesting to play out, even if the implications for this scene, or a future scene, might be big (“Wait, you switched it with poison?!? Oh boy…”)

Regularly assuming competence of the player characters will get the players to trust that you’re putting them into interesting conflicts and not just putting them into “gotcha” moments to screw them over.  It’s an important shift for players used to deathtrap dungeons or railroading GMs to understand as well.

First Scenes

The first scene of any session for any given player character is a bit special – this is the only time you will have time in advance to consider, in depth, what kind of opening conflict or scenario would best hit their Flags and set up further problems.   It sets a tone and if it’s a good situation, no matter which way it goes, it will set up further complications that you can improvise scenes out of from the consequences.

I find two types of scenes work great for First Scenes:

  • “What is the best course of action?” – a discussion/argument between characters, usually with important stakes involved
  • Revealed information/event that shifts your situation significantly (“So… one of us here is a spy.”)

In both cases, these have no specific direction or “right answer” but they do let the players show you what they’re interested in and the way their characters think or operate.  Their choices in these First Scenes tell you directions to consider following in.

2. Closing Scenes

End the scene just after something interesting has happened, or just after NOTHING interesting has happened.

Closing scenes is the hardest skill out of all of these, but it improves your game experience by a great deal – closing scenes quickly and on time creates a momentum.  Everyone will find themselves amazed at how much you can get done and how much energy the group gets to push forward in play when you can do this right.

If it looks like nothing interesting is going to happen (and none of your NPCs are going to push it forward) close it right away.  Sometimes players will want to stretch it further, mostly because they feel like they’re missing an opportunity or something, but you should simply ask them, “Was there a thing you were going to do?  If not, we can assume you spend the time doing X and go to the next scene.”

Once something interesting happens, it’s a good time to cut the scene.  Cutting the scene quickly after that allows the players to take the energy and excitement into the next scene and gives a real flow to play.  If it drags out, then things slow down and it gets harder to pick up again.

Aiming at Player Flags

The players have told you what kinds of things they find interesting and want the game to revolve around – so that’s what you aim your scenes around.  Again: What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?

You can ask these questions and get good ideas of how to make a scene on various Flags they give you:

  • What makes a (relationship) /achieving (a Goal) complicated?
  • Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if it costs you? (choose between goals and personal costs)
  • Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if you have to wrong? (choose between goal/relationship & ideals)
  • Is this still the right thing to do? (things that make you doubt your cause or relationship)

These are the interesting things that make a character’s journey worth following.  Finding out how far a character will go, where their lines are, and what they will, or won’t do… and along the way finding out what ideals they hold and who they care about and how deeply.

Twisting the Knife

Game designer Paul Czege once told me that the trick to this is that the issues that the Flags are based on are like a knife, and you basically keep twisting it – “Do you still believe in this?  How about now?  How about NOW?” etc.

Obviously, how these Flags get tested and pushed on depends on the genre and style of story you’re trying to tell.  Golden Sky Stories, The Friendship Game, Breaking the Ice or Clover all are games that can be rather light hearted and fun, but still hit emotional points without being grimdark or brutally intense.

Self Complicating Flags

Sometimes the players give you great issues and Flags to deal with from the start.

A player might set up their own goals, ideals or relationships at cross odds within their own character (“I love my brother the drunkard king” “My patriotism means I have to stop him from running our nation into the ground”).

Some groups might set up Flags that are complicated between characters – two people want things that are at cross odds, or suffer from a key misunderstanding between characters.  This makes it very easy to set up scenes around this stuff.

Let the NPCs take dramatic actions

I find the easiest way during play to answer the question “What would be interesting…” is to simply look at the motivations of the non-player characters and how they intersect with player characters’ Flags.

Since I set up the scenario and the NPCs in such a way that they’re already going to complicate the player character’s goals, ideals and relationships, all I have to do is follow the logical actions and reactions of the NPCs.

“Of course your sister doubts whether you are telling the truth…” “He thinks you tried to murder him.  He’s going to go all out at this point…” and so on.

Look to the motivations for your NPCs, and simply play your NPCs – they pursue their goals according to their personalities.

The players improvise by simply playing their characters – all I do is do the same thing, through the filter of “What would be most interesting right now?” and scenes become very easy to create.

Some possible dramatic actions for NPCs to take:

  • Make an attack (physical, social, political)
  • Make a public challenge, or talk trash
  • Make a demand or a threat
  • Offer a deal, ask for help
  • Reveal how they feel about a character or event
  • Ask how you feel about a character or event
  • Steal/Take/Break something
  • Reveal how they’ve changed how they feel about a character or event

Extreme Complications (use sparingly)

Extreme complications are things which change the situation drastically, but they’re not necessarily pushed for by any of the characters – a sudden sandstorm trapping everyone inside a building, the king dies from a sudden illness, etc.

Extreme complications shake up the situation for EVERYONE, which makes them both exciting and hard to handle (look at your list of NPCs, now consider that each of them might have to drastically reconsider how they’re going about things… yeah…).

When you do these right, the players become more invested – they’re either scrambling to protect what they’ve got or they’re saying “YES! This is the chance I’ve been waiting for!”

When you do it wrong, it feels cheap and unfair, and much like any other story media, like the writers are looking for a cheap bit of excitement and a dodge from the story threads they don’t know how to handle.

It has to feel reasonable for the setting and genre you’re playing in, and it has to basically impact everyone.  It can’t just be there to block the player characters from gaining influence, power, or success.

Escalating to a Climax

So you’re going scene to scene, asking “What would be interesting to see the player characters face right now?” where does this all go?

There’s an easy, natural tendency in how stories, work, which you’ll know because we’ve all grown up listening, watching, reading stories our whole lives – the situation will escalate.   The non-player characters will become more active, and the player characters will, too, and things will come to a head.

For the non-player characters, look at the list of motivations and decide as you go along:

  • Get more aggressive, escalate in how far they’ll go
  • Change tactics, try a different way to get their goals
  • Cut a deal, demand action from others, compromise
  • Find help, make new alliances with other characters
  • Bail out, give up, surrender, come clean
  • If they normally follow rules, they start breaking them
  • If they normally break rules, they try following them

At some point between the player characters taking action, and the non-player characters taking action, the situation resolves in a way that seems stable or answered for the near, foreseeable future.  That’s where you end the story arc.

The sooner you want things to end, the faster you have the NPCs put more and more on the line, upping the ante and risking more, until the whole matter gets decided.

Between Sessions

Between sessions, your prep time is very low, anywhere from a few minutes of reviewing your notes of Flags & NPC motivations to an hour if you have to push together crunchy stats for NPCs and so on.  The less a game depends on you prepping mechanical stuff for conflicts, the easier this is.

At the end of each session, consider if any of the NPCs may change their motivations, escalate, and so on.  These notes are worth jotting down for your next session.  Pay attention if the players have made changes to their Flags – that’s important!  Mull these things over before your next session and consider a First Scene or two to kick off the drama for your next session.

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Flag Framing 1: Setting up a Campaign

January 7, 2015

Flag Framing

An updated, comprehensive version of this style I’ve written about before.

This is a method to run RPGs that allows the GM to improvise and adapt to anything the players do in play, without requiring onerous amounts of prep or years upon years of experience.

The basic premise is that the same way the players can show up to play every week and simply look at their character sheets and figure out “what would my character do?”, the GM can prep in a way to look at NPCs and the PCs and figure out “what would be most interesting to have happen next?” and go with that.

I first began employing this when I drifted the rules for Feng Shui, but it basically can slot into many traditional RPGs.  Many close versions of this exist in existing games – Primetime Adventures, Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and so on.

What this does well – High drama action/adventure, feuds, blood opera, politics, intrigue

What this doesn’t do well – clue trail investigations, planned endings, combat games that are hard to generate combat encounters easily

Idea & Pitch

Before you do any heavy lifting in terms of prep, start with the idea phase, and get only the basics together so you can pitch it to your players.  This lets you avoid doing unnecessary prep work, and you can adapt after you hear their ideas as well, without much work.

1. Create a Situation

You should figure out a situation that is going to be a source of major conflict.  “Major conflict” can scale quite a bit, based on how long you want to play – “Who will be the honored warrior at the Tournament?” is one scale, “Who will control Christiandom after the Schism?” is another.

The shortest scale might be the outcome of a battle or an argument, but the largest scale can be the outcome of histories or planets.  The main thing is that conflicts are something where many parties are invested in seeing things go their way, and they’re willing to either risk their own safety and/or harm others to see that happen.

It should be a situation that as a GM, you can simply make up problems on the spot, because it inspires you to see what sorts of trouble would keep spewing out of it.

You can create this with your players or on your own and pitch it later in this process.  Just be aware that the players should buy into the situation and be excited to play in it.

Situation with a game that has setting

If your chosen game already has an established setting, it maybe a matter of picking a place, a time, and what’s going on.  This may involve juggling facts dealing with canon of the setting or stories you’re working from.  Figure out how to communicate that and make sure the players are on the same page.

Situation with a game that doesn’t have a setting

If your chosen game doesn’t have a setting, or you’re choosing not to use it, find a way to put what the players need to know into 2 pages, a quicksheet, you can type up, and print out.

2. Create Concepts for Key NPCs

You will have between two and a dozen core NPCs at this point.  You should describe them in 1-2 sentences, primarily looking at their position in the situation and their motivations.   Effectively, the NPCs motivations are what fuel the Conflict.  These NPCs might be against each other, or planned to be against the PCs.

3. Get the Player’s Concepts

Tell the players what the basic situation is and who the key NPCs are involved.  Get the players to pitch their own ideas about their potential PCs, who they are and why they’re involved or committed. These concepts need only be 1-2 sentences as well – giant backstories don’t help at this stage.

You should also decide if the PCs are supposed to be working together, at odds with each other, or shifting alliances or what, as well as what kinds of characters fit with the mood and genre of this game.

If the players want to create full characters at this time, that’s fine as well.  Games like Sorcerer or Burning Wheel encourage groups to do a group character generation session which effectively does just this thing right here.

4. Player Character Motivations AKA Flags

A Flag is a mechanic or aspect included as part of your character which is explicitly designed for the players to tell the GM and the rest of the group what kind of conflicts, or story focus they would like for their character.

When you choose a Flag, you’re telling the group that you want to see your character tested on how they feel about this and how far they will go.   These may change during play, but it’s a nice way to “flag” something, to say, “Look at this! COME OVER HERE!!!”  Will you hold to your ideals? How far will you go?  What prices will you pay?  You play to find out.

It’s really important at this stage to look for Flags that don’t fit with the game as a whole – if you’re playing a cheery superhero game and someone makes “Grimdark Murder Man” you need to look for those Flags and concept and find out if they really want to play the same game you want to run.  Sometimes this idea drift is habit or miscommunications, so fix it here before play starts.

Good Flags

Good Flags focus on a relationship or ideal that your character is willing to take a risk or cross a moral line for.

Moral Lines

“A moral line” has to mean something for your character – and it depends on the character!  If your character is a ruthless assassin, then killing probably doesn’t mean anything to them.  But maybe they have rules “I don’t kill children” or “Only if it’s in the contract” or whatever.  Whatever that line is, you can make a Flag about it.  If it’s not really an issue for the character, it’s not really fun to poke at in play.

Consider – would you lie to help your child?  Steal?  Risk your life?  Murder?  Under what conditions?  The places where you can easily say yes, or easily say no, aren’t as interesting as the places where you have to think about it, or you say yes or no, but you don’t feel right about it and it sits with you.

You can also play with a reverse moral line – a relationship or ideal that would make your character draw a new moral line they never had before.  For example, the assassin who decides to never kill again, because of a promise they made to their son.   How important is it to honor that promise?

Pointing Flags at the Situation

The Flags the players are creating should aim their characters at the situation.  They should have strong ideals, morals, relationships that make them get involved.  They may want to support or oppose any of the NPCs you’ve already laid out.  Players must tie their characters into the core situation this way.  The more direct and clear reasons they have to be involved, the better.

This is not to say their motivations may not be complicated.  The Player Characters may have different reasons for getting involved, their motivations may be at cross odds, or any given character might have two or more conflicting motivations that complicate the situation (“I am loyal to the King and will see his wishes fulfilled.” “My family could finally gain power to deal with the rival faction if I favor my own instead.”)

4. Now flesh out the NPCs

The players have just given you a good idea of what kinds of conflicts they’re interested in seeing in this game you’re about to run.  Flesh out the NPC ideas you already have, add a few NPCs if called for based on what the players just gave you (“His kung fu master disowned him?  Yeah, the master has to show up for sure.”).

Focus on giving the NPCs motivations and Flags that cross with the Player Characters.  Just like the Player Characters, the Non-Player Characters have goals, ideals, relationships and lines they’re willing or not willing to cross – how these conflict with the Player Characters’ notions create great drama.

Reasonable NPCs are BETTER NPCs

“Reasonable” doesn’t mean agreeable – reasonable means the characters have reasons for what they want and what they’re trying to achieve, and if the Player Characters are in line with that, or can be made to a decent compromise, then most NPCs are willing to go with that or change their own plans.

In other words, NPCs also have a point after which they will either change their goal or their methods or both – either increasing how committed, aggressive, and how much they will risk to get what they want, or they will decrease it, potentially giving up altogether.

This is where enemies can become allies, allies might become enemies, a person who merely was friendly is now willing to risk their life for you, or a rival who merely wanted to best you, now wants to eat your liver.  And it makes the PCs important, because while the NPCs are acting and reacting, the PCs are a major part of how that happens.

You can have a few non-reasonable NPCs in the mix as well- they tend to spike the situation and make it hard for everyone else, often forcing people into polarized camps.

5. What does this Campaign Prep look like?

Time

Outside of the time you spend talking to your players, or the number juggling of whatever character creation system you have, it usually takes between 1-3 hours at top.  You can think up a lot of ideas during your daily routines, the official prep time is just organizing your notes and/or typing stuff up for the group.  For a pickup game I managed to think up ideas during an hour of dinner and then 10 minutes of prep, so it’s not a very involved process in practice.

Between actual sessions, you’re taking 10 minutes to an hour of prep, sometimes this is really just reviewing your character notes before play.

What you should have

You’ve got the general situation.  You’ve got the list of PCs and their Flags, and you’ve got a list of the NPCs and their Flags or motivations as well.    That’s really all this method requires – if your game makes it easy to improvise difficulties or challenges, then you can pretty much go from here.

You can try a few different ways to organize these:

a) List method

Have a list of the PCs, a list of the NPCs.  Put a sentence of their motivations next to them, or their full Flags under them.  This tends to work well if you have a dozen or less NPCs.

b) Conflict Web

This works great if the NPCs are generally opposed.  Write down the name of characters who are involved in the situation, and draw lines between characters who are opposed or support each other.  You can use notation or different color lines or whatever makes it easy to tell which is which.   This is also effective up to about a dozen or so people, before it becomes really complicated.

c) Relationship Maps

The Sorcerer supplement Sorcerer & Soul goes into using these, where you map blood relations and romantic partners, and basically use that as your visual cue of who is probably aligned or against whom and where shady secrets, forbidden relationships, and horrible behavior lies.

d) Index Cards

One card per character, put their Flags on the card.  Pretty useful to lay out on a table, easy to visualize, and you can rearrange them to whatever suits your needs in the moment.

Next Up: Flag Framing 2: Running the Game

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Sorcerer: Getting Started

November 2, 2014

A lot of people end up having a really hard time starting Sorcerer.  The Annotated Sorcerer edition gives a lot better tools and advice, but I think part of it is that Sorcerer expects people to come in to play already with a really good sense of savvy about media and story structure, and zero-hand-holding for traditional RPG gamers.  

This post is basically my “easier go” primer at how you need to be looking at the set up process to make your game fly.

A real world situation that means something to you

Sorcerer draws a lot from horror, and horror often takes a normal, real world situation that has emotional stakes, and then adds weirdness to it.  It bends or breaks the boundaries so we can see a bit more about what people really feel, or what they might do, or show themselves to be, under weird conditions.

Start with a normal, real world situation that means something to you, emotionally.  Romance, family, kids who are bullied, people who have just lost their job, religion, people trying to escape a rut – something real.  This is what I consider to be the “third leg” to the triangle formed by the Two Statements method described on pg. 15 of Annotated Sorcerer.

This doesn’t have to be set to the highest stakes – like it’s very easy to go to child abuse and dark dark places, but it makes sense to start somewhere less intense, a little more easier to digest.  Think about what general kind of characters are under what kind of pressure – and how that might be individually or as a result of the place they live in:

– People who feel trapped in a small town, with little prospects for a different life

– Teenagers feeling helpless as their families deal with an economic bubble bursting around them

– People who have committed a crime they’ve never considered before, and now are trying to hide it

– People who just lost a loved one, and can’t get past the grief

– Prodigies, people who have skyrocketed to the top of their competitive fields, fighting off rivals, breaking glass ceilings, dealing with the old guard

Although the protagonists of Sorcerer do not need to be part of a group, or even know each other, this kind of thing produces a common theme among characters in a nice way.

The players should be able to relate to the idea on some level – you can at least empathize and there’s a bit of an emotional kick for you, not necessarily that you’ve lived through it… if not, either the players are not going to be a good fit for this campaign, or you need a different angle.

(You can, of course, go much more afield than the normal, modern world for your situation, but you should find some way to key into real human situations/emotions.  If your campaign is going to be about sci-fi space travelers, be sure to tie into family, romance, etc. as the things that don’t change…)

Getting power doesn’t always solve problems

So you had characters under pressure, right?  Then they get magical power via sorcery.  When you’re making your protagonists, did they:

a) solve their problems/alleviate the pressure using sorcery?

b) choose the escapism of success – find a way to be successful/popular while their real problems remain in place or grow?

c) choose the escapism of the forbidden – use their sorcery to punish people, gain pleasure, wealth, etc. in a way that’s more like a drug kick or addiction than deal with their problems at all?

Even though option A seems like the best, understand your protagonist might never have developed the skills to deal with these problems without sorcery AND, on top of that, now they have this secret they have to keep about how they navigated those issues at all.

No matter what, your sorcerer is generally successful and doing well with their sorcery – if any problems exist, they haven’t caught up to you… yet.  (pg. 25-i in Annotated Sorcerer quotes Christopher Kubasik and goes into some detail about this.)

Kickers and real trouble

The Kicker is a problem your protagonist faces.  Notice now you’ve got a lot of places where problems can crop up – the pressure of the normal situation (and your normal life), your new “successful” situation you’ve created, keeping your sorcery a secret, and dealing with weird drama sorcery, demons, and sorcerers bring into things as well.

Generic but useful Kicker seeds:

– A friend, family member, or lover is leaving you… you have to do something.

– Someone or something threatens the secrecy of your sorcery- your secret might get out

– Your normal life is falling apart – you have to make a change.

– The power has gone to your head – you’ve made enemies and now they’re coming for you

– Your demon did something terrible, and now you’ve got to cover the trail

– You want out of the sorcery game, and an opportunity has opened itself up for you.

– The thing which you pursue passionately – you’ve found a clue to some form of enlightenment/ultimate experience – how far will you go to see the truth?

– Something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, you finally see a chance.  Revenge? Professional success?  Love?

This is where basically we’re talking 180 degree difference compared to a pre-planned scenario – the players decide what the campaign is going to be about, what the “big problem” is for their character to overcome, and the GM follows that, instead of the GM planning it and the players following.

Sorcery means problems

Sorcery works best when you’ve defined it in some way that causes problems to the protagonists’ ties to the normal world.  The source of your power might in fact also be the source of your problems.

Some possibilities:

– Demon Needs require feeding people to it.  Who do you pick? Why? How do you hide the fact?

– Sorcery takes time and effort, enough that you have a hard time making normal life commitments

– Demons actively seek to sow discord or destroy relationships you have with normal people

– Demon Needs require your own memories.  How much of your past and identity do you give up? When do you stop?  Can you?

– How much do you have to lie to hide your Sorcery? How many people do you have to keep out?  Do they realize something is amiss?

Starting Demons

Each protagonist has one Demon already bound, which they are using to their benefit on one of the fashions listed above.  I like to think of the Demons thematically as my go-to before I start nailing down powers or appearances.

A particular Demon can be:

a) A representation of what the protagonist imagines their ideals to be, made concrete

Opportunity – show what happens when these ideals are taken to an extreme, show the limits of these ideals, etc.  show what happens to the protagonist when they get access to power and the chance to pursue their proclaimed ideals.

b) A representation of what the protagonist is in denial about as their ideals and desires – the demon pushes for these things as a personality, out of their Need, or provides the opportunity to do these things with it’s Abilities and powers.  

Opportunity – constantly show what the protagonist is thinking/desires, see how well they do at navigating acceptance, denial, etc., show what happens to the protagonist with they get access to power and the chance to do the things they deny themselves.

c) The opposite, personality-wise, of the protagonist.  The Demon constantly tests the protagonists’ beliefs and standards to see if they will hold, or what really underlies them.

Opportunity – the protagonist is constantly forced to show off their boundaries and sense of self, the demon is actually in competition with the protagonist in some way.

d) The Demon is a provider of security, safety and success – it is a pusher or drug dealer in a fashion.  It has the “answers” to all of your problems as long as you accept its answers above your own judgment, and whatever prices it asks of you in exchange for the reassurance.  

Opportunity – the protagonist has to develop their own backbone, find their own boundaries.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good set of ideas to go with.  You can start with the basic Statement of Environment & the Statement of the Look & Feel of Sorcery + Demons…. look at the situation that thematically pulls it together, come up with a normal person in this situation… then pick one of these themes and get a fun Demon from that, which plays off your character in an interesting way.

Depending on your game, the Demon may not actually be a source of real problems by pressuring hard – it can be a low-key pressure on top of other things – for example, a highly protective Demon might still push the protagonists to have to establish boundaries without necessarily going into seriously harming people.

Either way, this is a good way to get a quick idea of how to build a better Demon to meet your character, and, gives the GM something cool to figure out how to angle the Demon in roleplaying.

Defining Humanity

Here’s my easy go-to method in this:

What does it look like, story-wise, when you say a character’s soul is dead?

I don’t mean mystical soul, I mean their spirit, their heart, their emotional center and sense of self.  What things show us this character’s spirit is crushed/corrupted beyond any shadow of redemption or hope?  Is it committing acts of moral evil?  Is it having people run over their boundaries repeatedly until their will is crushed?  Is it giving up their hopes and dreams?  Cutting off everyone they love in pursuit of duty?  Letting go of their ideals?

Think about this especially in light of the mundane situation and pressure you’ve decided upon, then in context with what Sorcery means as far as creating further trouble.

What situation, could you imagine a character physically living through, but seeing it as they have lost, completely and utterly?

On the opposite end, are there any situations you could see a character physically dying, but protecting or living up to some ideal or value and seeing the story as they have triumphed in some way?

That’s my compass on Humanity.  Naturally, this is context specific to whatever you’ve got going on as the focus of your game, but these questions let you get a handle on it pretty easily.

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Interrogation: How about we don’t make a game of torture?

July 31, 2014

In something like 3-4 different places online, I see different folks asking about how to deal with the issue of interrogation in their games.   This recurring issue in roleplaying games comes directly out of a certain way of structuring play, poorly.

“And then, they attack!”

Example: The heroes are investigating an abandoned warehouse when suddenly mysterious assailants  attack them!

Let’s start from the top.  What purpose does this fight actually serve?  Sure, it’s action and action is fun, but why are the attackers’ motives and reasons mysterious?  How does it serve your game?

“Uh, well, it brings the clues to the players! Now they have to find out WHY they’re being attacked, right?”

Ok, so clues get brought to them, do they also have to pry those out as well?

Other Media Does This, Instead

In many movies, books, etc. when you have the “kick in the door and get attacked” one of the following things happen which allow the storytellers to avoid turning their heroes into sociopathic interrogators:

1.  The assailants declare their business from the beginning.  (“The Crimson Sword sends his regards! Now die!”)

2.  The assailants spill the beans right after defeat (“Ok, ok, I’m not getting paid enough for this job!”)

3.  The heroes can deduce information using their own knowledge (“That’s the Lu family sword style!”)

4.  The scene simply skips ahead (“Using the info we got from those thugs, it should be on this dock here…”)

Structured for Failure

A lot of times the reason for this kind of thing is that a lot of the combats are meaningless – they’re put in to the game because “you’re supposed to have a fight” – there wasn’t a meaningful way for players to avoid it, to defuse it, or to do anything other than get stuck in a fight, so to get control, they try to get information.   Also, because the information wasn’t immediately presented, the players now have to work to get it.  Finally, if your game relies solely on Actor Stance and the players have to actually play out every scene, what’s their last option for finding out what’s going on?

There’s a LOT of steps here that make this happen, which are all easy to avoid, if you’re not stuck in this terrible structure of gameplay.

Instead:

1. Make sure combats have obvious motivations

2. Ask if there’s any information players would want to get from their opponents

3. Consider having the information being presented freely by the NPCS, before, during or after a combat.

4. Consider using knowledge skills of PCs as a good way to feed information deduced by their characters

5. Consider skipping ahead after the combat directly to the next place the clues would lead.

What’s a more meaningful interrogation?

Even assuming you skip torture, and say, are doing something like a police procedural (though, there’s a lot to be said about things like tiring people out, withholding food/water, keeping them from going to the bathroom…), the problem is that a lot of games structure it like it’s a matter of pulling out exact facts.

Instead, what makes more sense to do is to pull up motivations and ideas an NPC has.

You know he’s hiding something.  He’s covering for his brother.  You’re not sure what.  He feels bad for the guy who got killed.  You’re pretty sure he’s not the killer.  He let slip that the shop was closed that day – even though he shouldn’t know that if he really was out of town.  Etc.

So half of it becomes whatever social/trickery skills the other half becomes knowledge/information skills to put together the pieces or compare against it.  (“Sure, everyone know’s Sal’s Deli closes on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.  Everyone who’s a regular, that is.”)

Now here’s the thing -for 99.9% of the games out there?  This is not something to play out and roleplay through.  The players are probably not trained interrogators or masterful enough manipulators to play it right, the GM is probably not a good enough roleplayer to improvise the motivations and mistakes of a character well enough to actually do this all freeform, well.

Make a couple of dice rolls, summarize, and move on.  Even cop shows only show you a few minutes of interrogation scenes, and that’s because otherwise you’d have a lot of boring and bad tv.

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Navigating Character Sheets & Simplification

July 21, 2014

So, one thing that hit me worth going over again is the issue of usability and character sheets.  One of the big hurdles to non-gamers to roleplaying games is navigating character sheets.   Most games have a process like this – the player states they want to do something, the GM says, “Do an X check/roll/test” and then you have to look up something on the character sheet, do something with dice or cards, then make a calculation of some kind.

Teaching that process is a basic skill for whatever game you’re doing, but it also means that new folks are basically playing “Where’s Waldo?” trying to find the correct information on character sheets that may look a lot like arcane tax forms.  This becomes especially bad if terms are repeated several times on the sheet.  “Bonus” or “Modifier” probably makes up something like 30-40 boxes on a typical D20 game, which doesn’t help a new person at all.

Simplified Character Sheets

Usually, I’m teaching new people to play less mechanically heavy rpgs to start, but if I have to teach something with more heft, I try to get the cleanest, most simple and least detailed character sheet out there, if someone has it.  Otherwise, I make one in a word document, trying to keep it to the minimal amount of info necessary to run the game.

The less stuff on the sheet, the easier it is for a new player to find it.  If you have 7 skills you use all the time, but the normal character sheet lists 30 of them, how much easier is it to find what you need if all we list is the skills you have, instead of having you look through lines upon lines of skills you don’t?

Also accept that maybe simplification causes you to skip or do some things wrong the first couple of games.  “Oh, wait, this one modifier shouldn’t normally be added in this case!” “We’ll try to remember next time”.   That’s fine, you want the players to grasp the basics and then refine, not drop them into the deep end without support.

Sections: Related Info goes together

Just like I said with tracking dungeon data?  Break out information into sections.  Put the combat stuff together, the social stuff together, the magic stuff together, etc.  This may include repeating info from other sections or simply moving it altogether if it only really gets used in one way.

You do not want to force players to have to jump around a lot looking for multiple pieces of information – put it all in the same area and make it easy to find.  If there’s also charts or rules that do well to include on the sheet, put these in this same places as well.

You can also use visual breaks like large fonts, boxes, symbols or colors to help people differentiate the sections from each other.  Of course, these things have to be large and readable enough to stick – there’s lots of folks who used really small or detailed symbols and all it ends up doing is cluttering up the sheet.

Detail vs. Shorthand

So, the trick to a character sheet is to give you information you need to play, right?  Expert players don’t need as much information – they’ve memorized a lot of it.  They can write “Magic Missle” on their character sheet and they know what it does and how it works.  Another player needs the range, the cost, the effects, to reference it.

So everything you have on the character sheet is basically a balance between detailed descriptions and shorthand.   Now, this isn’t to say the player has to internalize everything – other players at the table can help, or the GM can as well.  For example, using my shortened skill list suggestion, if a player has to use a skill that’s not listed, someone at the table can go, “Oh, what’s your Intelligence attribute? Ok, roll a die and add that” pretty easy.

On the other hand, if there are powers or abilities which require choices in thinking about whether to use them, or how to use them, you want at least a shorthand layman’s description of what it does so that a new player can even make that initial guess to try to use it.   For many games that have powers or magic like this, it often eats up enough space on the character sheet that you need to use the back or give it a whole sheet onto itself.

Leaving Space

Have space on your character sheet for random notes, even if it’s on the back or wide margins.   You could make a box or section for every single thing (“Weight, height, hair color, eye color”) or you can leave it off and have a blank space for players to take the notes they want.   The thing is, players WILL take notes for things they find important, and it’s easier for them to do that than to fill every last millimeter with boxes or sections and expect the players to hunt it out every time.

Noob Strategy Advice

If the game has a lot of crunchy strategy to it, it’s also helpful to have a sentence or two describing what this character is good at, and which of their abilities might be useful in certain ways.  “Loma is a powerful warrior, best used to running up to the front lines and taking on the enemies head-on.  Use your Warrior’s Healing to keep up your life points!”   This helps new folks figure out a bit about the strategy and if they want to play this character to begin with.

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Double Cross without Illusionism

April 10, 2014

So, now I’m looking through the DX book more deeply at the adventures set up.  Over the years, there’s been a few different scales of illusionist adventures, usually along one of these lines:

Checkpoint Illusionism (All Roads Lead to Rome)

Where the adventure consists of a few checkpoints which are flexible in how you get to them or get out of them.  This is the most flexible of the bunch but still problematic because often the checkpoints expect a very rpg-trope level of outcomes.  Feng Shui and HeroQuest pushed this sort of play.

Branching Path Illusionism

A set of events leads to a potential number outcomes from any scene, leading to a limited number of other scenes.  This is the most common  type seen in a lot of games, with White Wolf games being the most well known.

Step by Step Illusionism

A specific linear set of events to happen in a set fashion, scene to scene.  These are pretty rare, but Double Cross has this pretty much in spades.  There’s a minor point of branching in the adventures, but it is pretty locked in.

Where it doesn’t fit

Anyone who’s played a lot of D&D or White Wolf games can recognize the issue of trying to run an investigation game, a social game, or a “how do I get past this obstacle” game when you give people certain power options.  Once a few powers or spells fit together, a lot of problems just evaporate and you find what maybe a good portion of the adventure was built on, disappears in 10 minutes of play.

This is very true of Double Cross.   There’s a lot of “Simple Powers” that cost nothing or next to nothing and create plot-changing actions easily.  For example, just the electricity power set you can get a power to simply “read” anyone’s data being wirelessly transmitted.  Another power lets you record any data to a USB, disk drive, etc, just by touching it.   Given that the setting involves a secret war between a government organization and superpowered terrorists, you’re basically snatching cell and email data and potentially solving a lot of mysteries much easier.

So you end up with two options: a) ditch the adventure you’ve prepped, b) stop the players’ powers from actually working or mattering.  You either spent a lot of time putting together adventure material that is now useless, or you crap on the players’ choices and stomp on whatever they thought was cool about those powers.

This is a big reason of why Illusionism is shitty.

Making it work for Double Cross

Well, it’s actually not that hard.  There’s two easy levers by which you can improvise action.  (Go read GM Improvisation 101 and it’s links for basic applications – these two are the DX ways of applying that.)

Mission and Politics

With this giant secret war going on, you have your side, a bunch of other sides, and everyone wants something.  Action is basically “someone wants to get/do something” (your side to theirs, their side to yours), “Someone wants to convince someone of something”, “Someone wants to find something out/hide something”.

Set up some general motivations, set up a few Macguffins, and this is easy enough.  You can simply give players missions from their higher ups and that works well enough.

What you’ll have to adjust for is the fact that the general powers in Double Cross can make some things trivially easy to do – many of the powers give the players unparalleled ability to sneak in, get things, get info, or get out without even having to fight at all.

This means that instead of thinking of play in a single “Do X thing” as the whole adventure, you look at the consequences that comes out of the actions they take.  Did the players get ahold of a bunch of communications?  Maybe they find out someone they trust seems potentially a spy or a mole.  Did they sneak in and get the MacGuffin easily?  What if different parts of their organization are trying to get them to give it to them, but not the others?

Doing the missions isn’t the hard part, it’s what happens because of it that the real conflict comes forward.

Personal Drama

LOISes and TITANs, make the game go around.  Early in a session should be about players making LOIS connections and all you have to do is look at the positive/negative emotions and press one or other and have it show up in play.  These are effectively the Flags the players are giving you to work with.

The one problem for Double Cross is the ever growing Encroachment rate means you can only take so many scenes to deal with personal issues vs. deal with other problems.  As a group, you’ll need to figure out if this choice is simply a matter of where we focus the spotlight of action (“We spend 5 scenes dealing with emotional fallout, but it’s not like our characters missed any missions”) or if it’s an actual logistics choice (“You can go save your sister, or you can make sure the whole city is safe.  Make your choice.”).

Scene Count

A specific issue for Double Cross is that each scene adds 1D10 to a players’ Encroachment rate.

The average number of scenes a single character goes through in the 3 adventures is about 7-8 scenes.   When you look at most players having a starting Base Encroachment of near 30%, plus an average of 7D10 to 8D10 (35%-40%) over the number of scenes – you’ve got about 65-70% before you even start talking about using powers or an Impulse check.

So, keeping that in mind, you probably want to keep in mind the overall Scene count before closing up a situation or giving players a chance to Backtrack.

Combat/Non-Combat

Looking at the core adventures, a lot of the scenes with combat don’t have any good advice about what happens if you decide to just run, or lose a fight.  Given how much of the combat powers pump up the Encroachment rate, it seems like it’s a critical skill to adapt or deal with the players potentially winning combats through non-direct tactics, convincing the opposition to give up, or avoiding a fight altogether.

If you have simple motivations applied to the NPCs, you should have no problem coming up with their responses on the fly.

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Big Stakes GMing: Gamble Everything

February 6, 2014

I’m prepping for the last session in a game arc.  It’s… going to be hectic.  I’m excited and scared, because no matter what happens… the setting will be massively changed from here on out.

Losing Control to have fun

One of the biggest bits of bad GMing advice that has run throughout the years is the focus on “keeping control”.  Although part of it stems from trying to force people to play games they don’t really want to play, the other part is really just the idea that fun only comes from the GM and the GM must “protect” the setting, the NPCs, the as-yet-still-to-occur events they’ve prepped, etc.

It’s backwards thinking, though.  The role of the GM is to give opportunities to the players to DO THINGS.  It’s pretty obvious why your hobby would have a hard time if the core activity is spending hours to have one person keep you from doing interesting things for the majority of your time.

When I GM, I’ve got some ideas of which way it COULD go, but it just as often goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all – and that makes it fun.

One Big Target

One great piece of advice in Apocalypse World is, “Put a bullseye on everything”.  Don’t protect your NPCs, don’t protect your setting.  The players WILL break it, change it, destroy it.

Ultimately, everything you create as the GM is a target.  And targets are meant to be shot.

A lot of railroading or “fear of losing control” is a cascading series of protecting the very things that need to be open for change for the players to actually… play.

Consider Minecraft – it’s a game where the primary joy is the sense of accomplishment you get from building things, from changing the world.  You get to look at what you did and know you had a hand in it.   Now, if you’ve got this amazing setting, full of evils to fix and good things to protect, but you don’t let the players do just that?

Building Up the Stakes

So, a lot of what my games revolve around are things happening in the setting.  Sometimes it’s small scale (“What happens to your sister?”) to massive (“An angry god is about to rampage.”).

The trick to it is that you end up finding out what things the players care about and that’s what you revolve the stories around.   That’s not always “threaten or kidnap”… a lot of the most charged conflict comes out of simply having an NPC think less of a PC.

What it is the players care about, becomes worthwhile stakes.  And the choices and actions they take around it, should have a lasting effect.  If they protect or improve it, it should be changed for the better in a meaningful and enduring way.  If they fail to protect it, or if they harm it, it should be messed up or destroyed in a lasting way as well.

The elements of your setting -the NPCs, the locations, the local factions – are the things the players can look at and say, “I did that!” with pride or regret.  And we learn a little bit about what their characters are made of – what they’ll sacrifice and what’s most important to them in the process.

When we talk about Illusionism being exhausting to run? It’s because as the GM you do all this work and at the end of it, you don’t get to experience the joy and delight of the unknown story – of anxiously wanting to see how it turns out because, you, too, have no idea how exactly it will end.

Anything you create?  You are gambling.  You are throwing it on the table and saying, “This is fair game.  I might lose everything.  Show me what you’ve got.  Let’s play!”