Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

h1

Constructing Situation – process

January 10, 2020

I’ve been reading up on the Lancer mecha RPG beta, and got some ideas for a game I want to run later on.  The rules give you a broad setting, but you end up having to nail down much more specifics if you actually want to run a game.

The process of putting together notes ended up being a good chance to highlight some of the process and steps I use when constructing Situation for play.  (The broader process is the Flag Framing setup I’ve written about before.)  I’m skipping specific names of things or a lot of details, because they’re not as relevant as highlighting what this means structurally for running the game.

Setting vs. Situation

Setting is the broad background while situation is the specific scenario for the game/campaign you are going to play.   For many games, Situation is actually a key point in narrowing down what kind of characters fit for this particular run of the game you are going to do.

It’s not super important, but I do keep in the back of my head the fact there is “broad Situation” and “tight Situation” – the former is what I put together for this future game, while tight Situation would require actual player characters and their specific backgrounds, goals, relationships, etc.

So, you can have “The knights are defending a city under siege” as part of a broad Situation, but “Sir Morris’s cousin is a mercenary captain for the enemy troops” and “The Bishop is blackmailing Andrew to keep skimming supplies for himself despite the city in need.” etc.

However, you’ll see the steps I use for broad Situation basically tie into the tight Situation once you get to playing.

The Focus

Well, the Lancer RPG is primarily about mecha combat – so that’s obviously going to be a focal point for play.  I want to set up a “the crew is centered around a ship that travels” along the the lines of The Expanse, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop etc.

A star system being invaded, and, a military ship trying to take part in defending it.

What this does is facilitate certain things around the focus of play that I’m aiming for:

  • War obviously gets us lots of fighting mecha situations for the core focus of the game system.
  • Defenders vs. Invaders sets up clear broad sides to the conflict, and, defending your home is an easy moral high ground.  (Obviously, in actual play there will probably be a few grey areas that appear, but it’s not the same as “we’re the bastards, everyone’s bastards” kind of war story either).
  • A military unit has goals and objectives and it’s easy to keep the group momentum in a direction with in-fiction reasons.  (Also, while the player characters may not have the final say all the time, they certainly would have SOME input their commander has to take into account, so not a steamroll of their choices either.)

So this is how I tend to approach Setting and Situation- it either helps facilitate the focus for the game, or it can work against it.  Crafting carefully ahead of time lets you just get to the good stuff quicker and avoid misunderstandings.

The Groundwork

Now more specific ideas.  I was initially inspired reading the over the setting bit that the Lancer universe has FTL in the form of Blinkgates, but not every system has one – then it’s a journey of near-light, over several years, to get to the neighboring systems.

A question came to mind: “Huh, I wonder what kind of systems get accepted for new Blinkgates?”

The star system is rich in resources, but isolated by basically being sandwiched between an electromagnetically charged and dangerous nebula and a radiation jet firing off a quasar – they are stuck doing trade by having to go the long way around and sometimes lose ships from space hazards.

After several years of negotiation, they’ve gotten the Union to agree to build a Blinkgate there – the assessment delegation just left and it’ll probably be 7-8 years before the construction armada returns.

What this sets up:

  • The system is worth something, but is about to become worth a LOT more once the Blinkgate is installed.  A desperate warlord might hope to take over and basically retain control after.
  • It’s isolated, which means it’s not easy to call for reinforcements and the war is effectively a holding action until the Union construction fleet returns.
  • Being isolated in this way also makes larger scale piracy a rare issue for them, and in turn, the need for too much system defenses. (Pirates might want to try going for the goods on the other side of the Nebula rather than risk losing your ship inside).  The small military also means the PCs and their ship hold greater sway/value.

I’m also inspired by the Honor Harrington books, where a lot of their war issues involve considering that messages might take months to get back to central command, and this is effectively a similar problem.

The Night of War

So, if the star system is already outgunned by the invaders, what chance does the small ship have and why should it matter?

The ship is running through drills and exercise for anti-piracy operations – including laying low in the asteroid belt – which is when the attack comes.  The ship is off everyone’s radar, and by the time they receive the emergency messages – the attacks had already happened 40 minutes to an hour prior, due to time lag.

  • The ship has the one thing that has always served the outgunned – stealth.
  • The training exercises also make sense if the party is all going to be 0 level newbie characters – you take your new troops and run them through the paces and train, train, train.
  • The nature of being outgunned and possibly without back up for some time, means there’s room for discussion/argument about what to prioritize and where a small interceptor ship and it’s few Lancer mechs can make the biggest difference.
  • While everyone is talking strategy, it’s a good chance to give GM exposition about the star system and where everything is and why anything matters or what it’s history is.

Mind you, I have also written up a bit on the specific planets, major places in this system, culture, values, etc.  The players need stuff like this to make characters to begin with, but this opening situation allows me to either re-emphasize things as strategically valuable (“The research stations were used to figure out optimal Blink gate placement but also have a powerful sensor array – that could get intel on the invaders…”) or tie in the player character specifics (“Your mother and 2 brothers live on the orbital station above New Pacific.  They might be in danger… they might… you don’t want to think about it.”)

I generally try to find “opener scenes” like this that allow players a chance to ask questions, talk but also under urgency.   The first game I saw do this was Vincent Baker’s Poison’d, where the crew of pirates just found the cook poisoned the captain – and now they need to decide who the new captain is, before the British Navy catches up to them.

Thought Process

As you can see, what I’m trying to do when I set this up, is create a situation that funnels to the focus of play.  Once play begins, all the usual improv techniques apply, but the initial set up helps avoid problems and reduces the usual rough points early in a campaign.

Although we have a clear large scale conflict goal (“Repel the invaders”), I have no idea how the players will want to do that over the course of the campaign.  I figure I’d need to hash out some strategically valuable places, let the players basically argue for which they think is the highest priority and play it out as it goes.  Compelling and reasonable problems gets players thinking about solutions and directions, and allows you to also be surprised at the answers they come up with.

Unfortunately I don’t have a clear set of steps/process formula for this, but I felt talking about what I’m considering as I build Situation might help other people consider some things when they set up their games as well.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

h1

Back from Big Bad Con

October 14, 2019

This was my second time visiting Big Bad Con.  They’ve generally made strong effort towards making more inclusive spaces, but this year included a lot more POC focal space which was nice.

It’s hit the “small convention going into medium sized convention” phase, which is where there’s still lots of fun personal stuff going on, but also a large enough group that you might miss people the entire time you’re there.

I spent most of the time hanging out with out-of-town friends who were stopping by in town, but I’m thinking next year I’ll run some small group games.  A couple of friends are folks who fell out of RPGs back in the 80s, so I’m really interested in hearing their thoughts about some of the new indie games since there’s been so much variance and change since then.

Goodies!

The dealers room is small, but carried a good amount of variety – the only thing which was unfortunate was I didn’t realize the small print showcase was basically time-split for various publishers – so it’s worth checking back semi-regularly.

I bought a few dice from Lucky Hand Dice, which I’ll probably swoop up more once the full site is up and their inventory is up.

Also got a hardcopy of Girl Underground, a portal fantasy game we’ve been playing a lot of and having a great time with.

Panel

I only made it to one panel – How to Stop Working When You Love What You Do, which actually had great info, across the board about different issues when you are working in streaming / media production & freelancing.  Some of the advice included hard lines about who can get use of your time (and at what fees), some on scheduling and checking time (especially with projects that can be infinite time sinks), and a lot around boundaries.

I’m pretty excited to check out next year’s con and plan a bit better on gaming and hanging out with friends.

h1

The speed of character intimacy

February 25, 2019

When you watch a movie, or read a book, one of the highlights in a story is finding points where an event or situation is highly meaningful to the protagonist(s).  But, part of the thing is, until you know the characters, what is meaningful, or the weight of the events, might not be clear to you.  As you get deeper into the story, you know the characters better and understand how significant some things are and what it means in that context.

“Who is this character and why does the player care about them?”

For Narrativist play in RPGs, this is a core point of play.  The juicy part is where the fictional bits are meaningful to the character, and all of that is meaningful to us – the people playing/creating/witnessing the game.  To be able to consistently deliver on that requires an understanding of the character(s) which I’m calling Character Intimacy.  (There may be other people who have coined this idea, maybe with better terms? I don’t know, I’ve been out the theory circles for a long time.)

Being able to answer “Who is this character and why does this player care about them?” is how you can set up the right kinds of pressure and conflicts that allow us to see those points in play where the character (and player) is dealing with something that is laden with meaning.  But getting there isn’t instantaneous.

Getting fluent in the character

The first issue is that you don’t know the character until you play the character.  You might have an idea, you might have some backstory, but the real personality of the character is something that will only really come out when you have to see the character in play – a lot of ideas about who this character is can only be improvised in the moment.

Depending on the game and the player, becoming fluent in the character depends a fair amount on what kind of pressure(s) and situations the character is placed in, and the players’ own investment and desire to express the character through play.

In many long-form traditional games that are not set up for explicitly Narrativist play, I see a lot of times it takes 5-6 sessions for characters to get any kind of expression up to where players can start figuring out what matters.  (Given that most of these games are set up for Illusionist/railroading play, the ultimate fact is that what matters to the characters or the players is irrelevant and never really tested in play.)

But in games that are better at it, I usually find it’s a 2-3 session turn around (maybe it could happen over the course of a single session if I still ran/played 4-6 hour sessions instead of 2-3 hour ones.).  The first session is everyone asking “Who is my character?” and the second session being “Who is my character in relation to your character?”, sometimes well enough we get a good feel for them.

Designed Solutions

There are some ideas that allow you to do this more reliably and/or faster.  The common one I’ve written about in the past is Flag mechanics.  However, I’ve also explained as well that usually the Flags you see at the beginning of a game are guide posts and your job is to better nail down more accurately what is the real emotional punch for the players.

A second solution is games that tie a high pressure Narrativist bit to a core play mechanic.  Ben Lehman’s Drifter’s Escape, for example, forces the player to choose between bad choices most of the game, so the pressure tester of “who is this character?” comes out relatively quickly.  These mechanics, however, still depend on the group to quickly pick up character intimacy and better apply the pressure mechanics as you play, otherwise it rings hollow like most “morality choices” in videogames.

A third mechanic is anything that lets players set up the scenes and conflicts.  While it is not interesting to a person to constantly be the only one setting up conflicts for their own character (see the Czege Principle: “When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”) – it can be helpful sometimes for players to be able to set up their own character’s adversity in order to highlight to the rest of the group what kind of things are important to them as a player and what conflicts/pressure is fun for that character to be enmeshed in.  And, of course, if players can set these up for each other, it allows players who are invested in each others’ characters to also set up things as well.

Obviously, this is not a full list, but a few common examples.

“Are we there yet?”

You’ve hit character intimacy in a game when a situation pops up and you can immediately identify what it would look like as “This THING is the worst possible thing to happen for THIS particular character”.  (“Frank finds out John has been lying? OH BOY.”  “They’ve just given Mary the perfect chance for revenge?!?”)  It’s that sort of thing you can see coming in a TV or movie drama and you just know it’s going to be intense.

Character intimacy is when you can identify the overt motivations of the character, but also see the nuances that complicate it – their doubt, fear, conflicting motivations, and so on.  And, of course, beyond just understanding what makes the character tick, being able to reliably put them in situations that turn up the pressure for their particular needs/desires/fears.

For me, I find this is easier to attain in the conversations and down time between game sessions.  Taking time to reflect on what choices the characters made, asking questions of the players that are out of character but highlight motivations, and so on.  If the game depends less on a singular GM, it’s helpful for those ideas to be available to everyone – no reason you should be stuck to only learning about a character during play, if you can extend some of the play time to provide ideas outside of it as well.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

h1

Pointer Scenes

September 19, 2018

I’ve been running a D&D game, but doing something very different than anything I’ve done in the past.  Each session, I try to include a scene completely untied to the current situation – a flashback, or a meanwhile scene that points to NPCs or situations tied to the characters, but not in any way that will affect them in the moment.

This might be a flashback to how you first learned swordfighting, or perhaps why you left your noble house.   It might be something happening back in the safety of town – an ally talks about how you once helped them out, or perhaps a helper NPC is struggling to get to where you are to deliver an important item.

I call these “Pointer Scenes” because they point to the player character and/or the setting even if the core situation for the PCs is relatively straightforward.  That said, it does have more to it than just “throw in random flashbacks and cut scenes”.

Be a fan of the PCs

This first rule is lifted straight from Apocalypse World.  But basically, think of these scenes as a chance to learn about a player character and see why everyone should care about them.

Did your player say they had a Fighter who grew up as a Gladiator in their youth?  What was that like? How did they feel about it?  Did the Bard say they’re on the run? Who did they anger?  What was their closest call like so far?  

Aside from getting to know them, also consider if you can set scenes which will show positive sides to the character and admirable qualities, especially early in a campaign.  (We need to care about characters in order to accept their flaws, whereas characters who start off jerks tend to have a much harder time winning empathy or interest).

Spread the spotlight

Try to spread these out among all the PCs.  This may not be possible every session, but do try to give everyone a little space to shine.  If a character doesn’t seem to have a lot going on, consider what backstory or distant events might make their situation more interesting or immediately relevant.

The snobby noble character hasn’t gotten much going on.  Maybe something like a Meanwhile scene where their uncle is trying to pressure the PC’s parents into setting up an arranged marriage for politics.  Maybe a political group like a church or temple is seeking to set up the PC to be made example of.  Because the situation isn’t immediately in the player’s face, they have time to start thinking about how they want to handle it and it’s not a complete surprise when the problems start coming in.

If the scene has little or no choices/interaction from the player, make it shorter

A few of the scenes have no player interaction or choice – such as a meanwhile scene happening, or a flashback/montage.   When you use these, make them short.  They can add context, give info, quickly hammer out something you’d label exposition, but they’re not as interesting as actually playing.

I like to try to also give these scenes ties to what is currently happening to the player character.

In my current game, the elven paladin had a flashback scene to his homeland where people are slowly dying from the heavy poisonous pollen which floats in the air… I tell the player the character is a bit shaken up when one of their companions starts coughing as they go through the forest. 

This both ties into why the character might be remembering this, but also gives the player a chance to roleplay based on the prompt… and mind you – stoically keeping it to themselves, revealing a little concern, or having a very hard time are all equally valid and interesting ways it could go.

Include likable NPCs in many of them

No one wants to be a hero if the world is full of assholes.

Give players lots of people to like – decent folks, brave folks, clever folks, fun witty characters, caring mentors, siblings or best friends, etc.

My basic rule when coming up with these characters is that they want to do right by the PCs (and presumably other NPCs in general) and they may have certain values or ways they go about it.  If you show that off, players will get into them on their own… and the players will choose on their own they need to protect a given NPC or that they want to go track down a character from their past or be very excited to finally meet the character from the meanwhile pointer scene you made.

One of my players has a character who escaped an arranged marriage.  I introduced her aunt who taught her martial arts, then eventually helped her escape the marriage and fake her death while fighting monsters.  ALL of the players love this NPC.  So now there’s a character I know to bring back at some point that will be fun that everyone’s invested in, and I’m pretty sure if I just drop a hint, the players will go looking on their own.

NPCs also allow you to point back to the player characters as well.  You can have scenes where NPCs are talking about what they admire in one of the player characters, what they feel about the risks and choices they’ve made… or, if the situation warrants, if they feel disappointed or betrayed.   First the players have to care about the NPC to even care what the NPC thinks.

Flesh out your setting

Settings are fun.  Worlds of magic and fantasy, sci-fi and alien cultures.  The thing is, the giant setting no one knows about (other than you) isn’t in play.  The setting that is in your notes but not in gameplay, is also not in play.

However, with the power of Pointer scenes, you can flashback or do a meanwhile to events happening long ago in a very far away place.  In other words, you can highlight a lot more of your setting in play.  And teasing these elements gets players eager to start seeing other places and poking around.

The flashbacks to the elven homeland have got the players very curious about what’s going on over there, but they’re some time away from getting there… but it sets up excitement, all without me having to draw a huge map or do a lot of exposition.

This also allows you to drop in bits of setting in snippets rather than one whole infodump.  This is how most forms of media actually do build up their settings – you see bits as needed and then you learn about the fictional world as you enjoy the immediate story with the principal characters involved.

Up the Stakes / Why this matters

Along with telling us who the characters are and what’s going on in this world, make sure at least some of the scenes also point back to the current thing the player characers are doing in the moment.  What’s at stake?  What can be gained if they succeed?  What can be lost?

The players are currently on a quest to get to an abandoned observatory to make a current, accurate, map to help the army deal with an invading force.  One of the scenes was a meanwhile scene showing one of the characters’ mentors having a strategy discussion with a leader and it boiling down to “We don’t have many odds in our favor and this is going to be ugly.”  So… the players feel a bit more pressure to succeed, but it’s not like the characters know this is what’s happening.

Also notice that as the players become more invested in having their characters resolve past issues, meet with NPCs and so on, part of the stakes become how the characters do things, lines and values they won’t cross, and what the NPCs think of them, as well.

Extra Notes

My games are currently about 2 hours long, with each player (4) getting one of these scenes, which usually last 5-ish maybe up to 10 minutes.  While these don’t make up the majority of play, they do add a lot to the party’s interactions with each other, to the roleplaying in general, and to the excitement about each other’s characters.

My game podcasts are on Soundcloud.  Terrible audio quality, but we’re having fun.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

h1

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.