Category Archive: Seeing the Light

Jan 31 2014

Plot, Character, Player, or Story Driven?

This post is based on a comment concerning Episode 98 Talking About Adventures:

What do you mean when you say “story-driven” adventure/game? Are you trying to say “character-driven”? Can a “dungeon-crawl” adventure ever be story-driven? Is a story-driven adventure “plot-specific”? How would you describe the characteristics of a “non story-driven” adventure?

First, after considering the terms for a while and what they mean I don’t think character driven or story driven are the right phrases to use. I think it should be player-driven and plot driven. I also think character-driven is a tool GMs can use to promote Plot driven games.

Plot-driven: The plot of the game and moving the characters through the plot so they can experience the elements of the module or the GMs plot is king. I don’t think this kind of game is bad or good it’s just a style of playing. A lot of LFR adventures have this feel to them as do a lot of published adventures.

Player-Driven: The characters are truly the center of the story being told and their individuality and the players choices with those characters create plot points and scenarios in the adventure being played and can create future adventures. Once again I don’t think this is a bad or good way to play, just a way.

Character-driven: A character is not a player. A character is the avatar used to interact with the game being played. That means the character is a resource that is useable by the GM and the Player to make things happen.

On the player-driven side of things the player can use the character to create plot points and scenarios through their actions as the GM decides to work off the player’s choices for the characters. Then the GM can have the setting react to them. Example time:

A player is a paladin and chooses to heal his fallen enemy instead of smiting him out of existence. This gives the GM an NPC to use later and create a plot point from. Now the Paladin has an enemy who turns into an ally, or the enemy is angry and confused and acts like a wild card in the background with the players never knowing if he’s going to help or hinder their actions.

Maybe a character with the greedy hindrance stole a gem during a heist only to find out the gem belongs to a powerful crime boss who politely asks for it back. Now the players choice will inform the GM how the setting will react to them. Maybe the boss will be impressed with the greedy characters skill if the character returns the gem. Maybe it’ll be all out war to get the gem back if the character is rude or refuses to return it.

On the Plot-Driven side of things a character can be used by the GM to prompt the players to make certain choices in a very Schrodinger plot point way. This is providing the illusion of choice. Some quick examples:

The paladin is going to help the good people of the town because they’re a paladin so its easy to hook them. The character with the greedy hindered is more apt to take the job if the reward is substantial.

Moving on I also think these styles of games aren’t exclusive. In episode 96 I was part of a discussion that talked about Story, Character, and Game. I mentioned these weren’t on/off switches but most game groups use parts of all three aspects when playing. I think plot and player driven work the same way, sometimes you’re more plot driven and sometimes your more player driven with an ebb and flow during a campaigns and even sessions. It depends on group make up and the game being played.

Dungeon Crawls
Dungeon crawls can be plot driven if the location is given a story. Exploring a dungeon can be just as much about learning the story of what happened to the place but if the players decide to not explore the dungeon and the GM says, “well, I guess I don’t have anything else for us to do” the game really isn’t player driven.

Plot Driven Adventures
I feel plot driven adventures are very plot specific and those plots are GM driven or module driven if the module has a specified start point and end point.

Non Plot Driven Adventures
Some modules/adventures have no plot associated with them. The Temple of Elemental evil doesn’t really have an end. It’s just a place to explore and you can see the story at the end of play as it emerged from the players choices. That’s probably the primary trait of a non plot driven adventure. There isn’t a defined probable ending so it’s on the players around the table, and make no mistake, the GM is a player, to create an ending.

Well that was a large amount of words to try and get some terms strait. I feel it was worth the effort. I’m curious to hear what anyone might think about the things I’ve said and if I’m missing something from my descriptions or just off base and if so what is a better way to look at these terms, their meanings, and their uses?

Your Friendly Neighborhood Podcaster and GM,

Chris

Jul 25 2013

Ambiance is all about Presenation

So this post is my friend A.G. Smith’s post from over on the pinnacle forums. You can see the original post here. It’s a prefect example of how to use presentation to create the ambiance you want in your game. It’s also a great lesson on how the GM is the eyes into the world surrounding the players, ala Vincent Baker saying Vomit forth Apocalyptica. Thanks for giving me permission to re-post this.

My group is just recently returning to our Deadlands campaign (which is not entirely unlike The Flood). Up until this point, I had not fully utilized Fear Levels. Our campaign was mostly gunfights and weird science, not many Fear modified Guts checks being made.

After getting some cool creepy background tracks from the Plate Mail Games kickstarter, I was inspired to do a heavy horror session and really ham it up with a soundtrack. So last nights session the players tracked down an escaped “freak” from a carnival sideshow. The freak was sort of like an ever-consuming Faminite or Hunger Spirit, which had been caged displayed to horrified customers. It got out in ShanFan, and the players followed it’s trail deep into Stinktown where it broke into a slaughterhouse and started devouring the slabs of meat. 

I hadn’t really used Fear Levels in my Deadlands games because I couldn’t really conceptualize how they worked in play. I understood mechanically, but never really though on how to narrate them.

So as the PCs closed in on the abattoir, I started making comments to the Priest PC, and the Huckster PC, about how things felt “different”. Started just using the book examples (longer shadows, queezy feeling), and as they went inside closer to the monster, I upped it locally to Lv4. More Guts checks followed. Fear started changing Reality in a very obvious way then (seeing things in shadows, air grew cold, etc). As they went deeper, lanterns began to dim to near darkness, and the hallway stretched (like a vertigo camera zoom). In the final encounter, which of course took place on the slaughterhouse killing floor, I upped the immediate Fear Level to 5, with Guts checks to reveal the Monster. By this point, it was full on horror show. In the near darkness, The hanging slabs of meat where bleeding, others saw hallucinations of them breathing, or covered in maggots, or even mistaking them for a more sapien-like species. It wasn’t a very tough combat, but there were new things to roll Fear checks for almost every round while avoiding meat-hooks that swung wildly around. The Faminite was crawling on the ceiling like in a Japanese horror film. It was an excellent time. Eventually the PCs got it together and whomped it dead in a single round (like they do). Immediately, the local Fear Level washed back like the tide, and they were left in a damp and naturally smelly meat-packing plant.

So that was my attempt to dig into Fear Levels in my campaign. Creepy music and lots of nightmarish details that escalated until it was hideously clear how important it is to push back Fear and servitors. My enjoyment of Deadlands just doubled tonight, I can’t wait to ramp up the horror again soon.

So how do you folks at home use presentation to ramp up your games? Do you make the game you’re trying to go for obvious to your players and if so how do you do it? What makes your game Epic Fantasy? Steampunk? Noir?

 

May 28 2013

Fate Core, a primer and review

Fate Primer

I just want to hit a few thing before I get into my review because there’s some jargon in Fate that non Fate players might not be familiar with. If you are familiar with the game feel free to skip down to the review.

Basic Procedure of Play - Fate is played using fudge dice. They’re 6 sided dice with +, -, and blanks on two sides. You roll four of these dice, total the modifiers, and then add the total to your skill which will be usually be somewhere between 0 and 4, compare that to the target difficulty or the opposed roll. The oppositions roll follows the same procedure as described above. At this point aspects can be invoked using fate points. When you do this you can add a +2 to your total, re-roll, pass a +2 to another character if narratively reasonable, or add a +2 to a source of passive opposition. Now do a final comparison once both sides are finished spending fate points and compare. One of four things will happen: You fail at your attempt or choose to succeed with a consequence, you tie, you succeed, or you succeed with style if you have three or more difference.

Fate Point – The currency of Fate. You can spend these points to do a variety of things in the game from creating elements in a scene to invoking or compelling aspects.

Refresh – The number of Fate Points you start a session with if you ended your last session with fewer Fate Points.

Aspects - Phrases that lend importance to something in the game which can be Invoked or Compelled.

Invoking – You spend a Fate point to activate an aspect which allows you to add to a roll or re-roll your dice.

Compel - When one of your aspects causes you trouble you receive a fate point. The trouble is either an event occurs where your character is being prompted to do something and you now must try and accomplish whatever your character is being compelled to do or a decision where your character acts in a detrimental way because it makes sense for them to do so based on the Aspect. You can always spend a fate point to buy off the compel at the time of the compel.

Stunts - They modify how you can use your skills, make you better at using your skills in specific situations, or give you a new aspects.

The Skill Column – Skill ratings are like bricks you stack. You must always have at least one skill below the rating you want a skill at. In other words you can’t have two +4 skills if you only have one +3 skill. The +4 skill doesn’t have anything to sit on top of.

Stress - temporary harm you accumulate over the course of a scene. It goes away when the scene is over.

Stress track - the amount of temporary harm you can take before you are more permanently damaged in the form of consequences.

Consequences - A negative aspect from taking stress which exceeds the stress track.

Boost - A temporary aspect which only lasts for one turn regardless if it is invoked or not.

Extras - Rules you can add onto the core game covering superpowers, cyber ware, magic, or whatever else you might want in you game that the core game doesn’t cover mechanically.

Milestone - A break in the story of the game where advancement occurs. They come in minor, significant, and major.

The Review

Fate Core will help you build the game you want to play as long as the game revolves around characters who are proactive, competent, and dramatic. Every bit of this book is a guide to doing that, from teaching what FATE is in chapter one right down to how to add in all the extra bits like magic, superpowers, or cyberware in chapter eleven. Other games which try to do this don’t always excel at giving or explaining the tools to players and GMs. Fate Core is superb in that regard. The layout is easy to read, important information jumps off the page in bold text or in bullet lists, there are tons of examples throughout the course of the book, and the side bars are punchy and poignant. Oh, did I mention the hyperlinks for you digital readers. The table of contents is hyper-linked and there are hyperlinks in the margins to jump you to places in the book which might help you grok what’s written on the current page. Those margin notes also have page numbers for those with physical copies. This book is just another of the fine products produced by Evil Hat Productions and is the tightest Fate rules set produced to date. I recommend buying it but if you want to know what’s inside here’s a chapter break down of what you get.

Chapter one talks about the basics of Fate. It starts with the obligatory “What is role playing” section before moving on to describe fudge dice, the ladder, Fate Points, Aspects, taking action in the game, invoking, and compels. By covering all these ideas in basic terms the chapter prepares you for the rest of the book.

Chapter two covers game creation. This is a pared down version of the Dresden Files RPG city creation system but it also expands the ideas in that game to assist GMs in getting their groups to collaborate on any type of game they might want to play. It breaks down how to create a setting, set the scale of the game, get the games big issues going, and populating the game with, organizations, locations and NPCs.

Chapter three is all about character creation and how it’s also a game. Fate games use a system which tells part of a characters story and how the character connects with two other characters. From this little storytelling game you get your Aspects, which define half of a Fate character. The other half are skills and stunts. The skills use something called the skill pyramid. Each character gets four skills at +1, three at +2, two at +3, and one at +4. Characters are also capped at +4 or great according to the core rules. There is an optional rule where players start with twenty points to spend but are limited by the cap and the idea of the skill column, which is always in effect. In this version of Fate three stunts are free and refresh can be spent to get up to two more. Next Stress and Consequences are covered which is the way damage is handled. Finishing up some smooth and quick character creation rules are laid out. In short a character starts with a couple of Aspects, some skills, and a bunch of blanks filled in during the first session, adding in what is needed when it is needed. This works really well for people who have some ideas but aren’t sure how the game is going to play out and which skills will be really important.

Chapter four talks about what I believe to be the lynch pin mechanic which makes this game so much fun to play. Aspects and Fate Points. Fate points are the currency of the game and Aspects bring what would normally be background fluff to the forefront of play allowing it to be invoked or compelled. In previous books like The Dresden Files RPG and Spirit of the Century there have been chapters on the Aspect but none as comprehensive and easy to understand as in this book. It starts by defining Aspects and Fate Points, then discusses the type of Aspects: Game, Character, Situation, Consequences, and Boosts. After that we learn what Aspects do, covering how making something an Aspect makes it important to the game and get some advice on determining when the mechanics should be engaged.  Next it covers how to make quality Aspects. Here’s my favorite advice:

Always ask what matters and why?

If that question is answered an Aspect is easy to make. Following that is invoking Aspects which is the mechanical application of Aspects and hits on something I believe is new to this version of Fate in how free invocations are used. As many free invocations on an Aspect can be made at one time as there are fate points on the Aspect, even spending a fate point from the acting players own pool on top of it. Compelling aspects comes after along with the types of compels. The best part here is the idea of suggesting compels is everyone at the tables responsibility. After this are sections about using Aspects as role playing prompts, how to remove or change Aspects through play, and creating or discovering new Aspects. Finally the chapter talks about the Fate point economy, how refresh works, other ways to spend Fate points other than invoking, and how to earn them. Something new for the GM here is whenever a scene starts you get a Fate point for every PC in that scene. You can spend these Fate points on anything you want in the scene to help get your ideas going and to challenge the players.

Chapter Five explains Skills and Stunts. It starts by defining skills, what they do in the game, and touches on the four basic actions of Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend. When a player takes action that requires a dice roll in this game they are always doing one of these four things with some skill. The best rule change from previous versions of the game is the Create an Advantage action. It replaced a bunch of old actions that created Aspects. I was always confused since they were so similar.  Stunts are covered next and this section has a fantastic “how to” on building new stunts. In fact anytime this book is giving you the “how to” on anything it is done in superb fashion with the mechanical tools explained clearly, followed up with common examples so you have a blueprint to start with when building anything. Finishing the chapter is the skill list. I think it’s worth noting there is a quality side bar on dealing with the resource skill on pg 123.

Chapter six is all about Actions and Outcomes. This chapter and chapter 7 cover the procedures of play, starting by getting in depth with the four outcomes and the four actions. Everything in this chapter exemplifies the Fantastic layout of the book. It’s easy to read and understand and if a term was forgotten the margin notes point to where to find it.

Chapter seven covers challenges, contests, and conflicts. When a single roll of the dice isn’t enough to determine the outcome these are the procedures given to decide what happens. There are some great questions GMs can ask to decide which of these three frameworks should be used. Challenges cover overcoming some series of obstacles where a single roll doesn’t seem to fit, contests involve two or more characters striving for a goal but aren’t trying to harm each other directly, and conflicts are for those situations where people are trying to hurt each other physically or mentally. The conflict section is the largest of the chapter and covers setting the scene, determining turn order, what exchanges and zones are, creating situation Aspects, resolving attacks, taking consequences, recovering from consequences, ending a conflict and all the other little gritty details of fighting, be it with words or swords. I really like the teamwork rule in this game. It’s simple. If a character has at least an Average rating (or +1) in the skill that the die roller is using a +1 can be added assuming the characters assistance makes sense in the narrative. The only caveat is if a character helps they are now subject to any costs associated with the roll.

Chapter eight is all about running the game from the GMs perspective. It covers what the GMs responsibilities are which is starting and ending scenes, playing the world, judging the use of the rules, and creating scenarios along with just about everything else. So while that’s the over view of what the GMs job is this chapter goes deep, giving GMs some options for how to guide game creation and deciding if extras are needed. Then it hits on how to make the game go during play and it starts with the Golden Rule of Fate:

Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.

It seems so simple but it’s such good advice for any game. Next it talks about when to roll the dice:

Roll the dice only when succeeding or failing at the action could each contribute something interesting to the game.

Then there’s advice on how to make failure interesting, some excellent tips about how to not marginalize characters because they failed, and what constitutes a minor cost vs. a serious cost. After that the chapter goes into how to push some of the work onto your players, setting difficulties, dealing with game time and story time, and how to use story time in success and failure to create deadline pressures. There’s advice on zooming in and out on the story, judging the use of skills and stunts, why you should leave specific measurements out of the game, dealing with the weird things that happen in conflicts, and how multiple targets of effects could be handled. It covers environmental hazards, gives advice on dealing with Aspects and how not to be weaksause (their words not mine) when making compels. Finally there is an excellent set of guidelines for creating and playing the PCs opposition. This version of Fate, like others adopts a create only what you need philosophy, which I approve of, and covers how to right-size your opposition if you want rougher or easier conflicts based on numbers, skills, advantages, and venues. I think this chapter is a gold mine of advice for any GM running most traditional RPGs and even some which aren’t so traditional.

Chapter nine covers the creation of scenes, sessions, and scenarios. It starts with defining the scenario and how to start building them by finding the problems, asking story questions, establish the opposition, and set the first scene. After that the game should just go. It’s fantastic stuff and helps GMs out by posing a bunch of Madlibs to figure out what problems there are and following it up with questions you can answer to figure out everything else. Next is support for scenes through determining the purpose of the scene and figuring out what interesting thing is going to happen. Then the book takes a few pages to help GMs get their players interested in the scene by advising GMs to hit character Aspects and calling back to the three pillars of the game: Competence, Proactivity, and Drama. Then some superb advice is given.

Whatever you have planned will always be different from what actually occurs.

The chapter finishes with some information on resolving the scenario.

Chapter ten is called the long game which defines and then gives advice for building story arcs and campaigns. They’re basically giving frameworks for spontaneous storytelling. The mechanic that helps signify the ending and beginnings of these arcs are milestones. The book takes some time to define minor, significant, and major milestones and what mechanical benefits each of them give to players. Then advancing the world is covered and the things the GM should think about during each of the milestones. The chapter finishes up with advice about how to handle NPCs over the long haul.

Chapter eleven is all about the Extras. What’s an extra? It’s anything that’s part of a character or controlled by a character that gets special treatment in the rules. These are the setting rules you’ll get in a super hero game or the magic system in a fantasy setting. To help GMs out the book has a bunch of different add-ons you can use or use as a blueprint to build your own extras. To help GMs create those extra’s they even have a great list of questions GMs can ask to help them figure out what they may or may not need. In here is also one of the coolest things about Fate. The Fate fractal. Anything in the game world can be treated like it’s a character. A car, an organization, a location, whatever. Just throw some Aspects, skills, stunts, a stress track or two, and consequence slots on it if you want. You want a Birthright campaign, you can do it, just make all the kingdoms Fate characters with skills, stunts, or Aspects, and that’s just one of the things you could do.

My personal thoughts are this rules set is the tightest Fate has produced yet. Aspects are easier to understand than ever before, there is an interesting failure mechanic where the player gets to choose if they fail or succeed with a consequence, and the game creation sections along with the extra’s chapter gives you the tools to build the game you want. For GMs Chapters eight through ten are some of the best GM advice collected in one place I’ve seen in a RPG book that isn’t Robin’s Laws of Game Mastering. As far as presentation and use of language for explaining a game is concerned I’ve always felt the best book out there was the Mouse Guard RPG. While that book is still more beautiful I feel Fate Core is at least its equal and maybe just a little bit better at teaching the rules through the text and layout. I don’t give ratings but I will say this. I love Dungeon World and I’m very fond of Mouse Guard as a book to teach a rules set. Fate Core accomplishes the goal of teaching the game better than either of those games. I can’t say it’s a better rules set than Dungeon World or Mouse Guard because it’s focus is different but as a set of tools to help GMs and players build a game I’ve never seen a book or game do it better.

Apr 22 2013

Framing

I think presentation is king, be it at the table or in the rule book your reading. When it comes to playing at the table I think framing is the best way to think about presenting the game. When I say framing this is what I mean:

The parameters you lay down to create with in X. X being the individual game, the scene, the campaign, or any variable you want to throw in there.

Now to the details.

Campaign Framing

When you’re setting up your campaign I think it’s important to have a frame, especially if you, as a GM, have some idea’s you want to put forth. To give those idea’s a chance you need to place the players in a creative box while still having a big idea, theme, or genre to build inside of. That means you give them some choices but keep the choices constrained. For example if you’re running a game in a city and you have an idea for a conspiracy / noir detective story it makes sense to create the parameter of “You’re all connected to a Private Detective Agency.” Now all the players can create something within the parameter you’ve described. If you think the “box” you’ve created is too small here’s a list of character archetypes you could have just off the top of my head. The hard-nosed private eye, the girl detective who uses all the tools at her disposal and won’t take anyone’s guff, the underworld guy who’s knows everyone but isn’t always trustworthy, the muscle you call in for hard jobs, the kid who just likes to hang around the PI’s, the tough nurse girl friend of one of the PI’s, the former client who owes a private dick a favor or two, the cop who sort of likes the PI’s and works with them because they can go places the cop can’t and vice versa. All of these could be PCs in a campaign.

Story Arc Framing

Story Arc Frames I feel are very dependent on the first session of them or the opening act. If you ever watch a TV show, read a novel, a comic book, or consume any kind of storytelling media pay attention to the first episode or first act. You’ll get introductions to the characters. The themes will be introduced. The opening conflict or hook, which should be related to the themes of the story, will be presented. An overall tone will permeate this part of the story.

As GM’s we have some options with which to push forth our themes and feel. First off we get to frame the first scene. In this frame we can set the tone with videos, pictures, music, props or whatever you decided to use but our most important tool for this frame is the words we use and how we use them. This is your first impression, the opening of the movie, the first 3 minutes of a TV show, the prologue of a book. This is your chance to hook them in and push your players to take a similar mind set as you. If I was trying to get the feel of the conspiracy / Noir campaign frame from above I would start with describing a camera shot of the office door with the name of the agency on it and then I would turn to one of the private eyes and ask them

“How are you sitting at your desk?”

Once they described that I would have there be a knock at the door and have a beautiful woman in expensive clothing walk in. Next I would ask one of the other players

“You’re sitting on the couch reading the paper when she walks in. What is your first impression of the beautiful woman? Describe her in first person.”

This reinforces the genre and tone I’m going for since Noir detective stories tend to get inside the head of the characters. Plus I’m getting the players to give some insight into their characters and keeping them involved in the storytelling instead of just talking to them. At this point whatever conflict I wanted to present to the PCs I do using the Fem Fatal as my vehicle for doing so. She offers them a job which they take since they’re PI’s and need the money since PI’s are almost always broke. Tone presented, hook set, characters involved, job done. From here it’s all fall out and keeping the tone, themes, and characters in mind when you frame future scenes which leads to…

Scene Framing

The framing of a scene is similar to the framing of your story arc except all scenes you frame from here on build upon the first scene and the scenes which came before the current one. These scenes exist to allow your PCs to make choices to push the story forward and create conflicts for them to overcome, whether it’s shooting bad guys, infiltrating criminal organizations, or hitting at the Black Jack table instead of standing on that 20, because while you both have 20 you need to win this hand and get out of here with the cash or you won’t make it to the exchange in time and your friend is going to die.

Framing these scenes by keeping to the ideas you’ve established in your campaign frame and Story Arc frame will reinforce the kinds of choices your player’s will want to make and keep them thinking along the established ideas. The words and props you use will spark the imagination of the people you’re gaming with, inciting them to make decisions which will prompt your imagination in return. Here’s an example of a framing a scene:

“You find yourself in Terry’s Place, a diner you frequent. Where do you sit and what are you eating?”

The players give their answers and you continue.

“The food tastes great as you’ve once again barely escaped a death defying situation.”

This is a great place to remind them of the death defying situation they’ve just escaped from but if you’re starting a session cold then you can ask – What death defying situation have you just escaped from? In this example the question is – How did you escape from a death defying situation the Villi Mob put you in?

“I guess the Villi Mob didn’t appreciate your interference in their most recent plans. That’s when a chair is pulled up to your booth and a man sits down wearing a black coat and a fedora. His eyes take you in mid bite as you hear the click of a gun cocking from below the table. Neither of the man’s hands are visible as he gives you small smirk.”

“Hi boys. Sorry about this but Mr. Villi wants a word with you.”

You can ask the players who the gun man is or insert your own NPC.

“You recognize the man as Bobby the Hat. A Villi mob trouble shooter and that means he sometimes shoots the trouble.”

Now we play the game of act and react.

So that’s how I think about framing. I’m curious as to how you start campaigns, story arcs, and scenes. Please let me know? I’m also interested in how you promote a tone or theme during your gaming sessions? Thanks for reading

Jan 08 2013

Finding Your Fun

I’m a narrative-gamist guy.

Ok. So what does that mean?

It means I like games which have a strong narrative component but have some gamist aspect to them. To break that down further it means I like rules which prompt storytelling or even better rules which require storytelling to make the game go forward.

Now there are other things I like about gaming but those are the big ones. If I can have a game where the story happens because I interact with a rule then I’m pretty happy. Not always happy, but generally. Games like Mouse Guard and Dungeon World have this flow going on and FATE has some of it too with a little more gamist going on.
Now these two aspects aren’t the only things which define a game. I’m not really a GNS guy. Those two terms just sort of make sense to me for the kinds of games I like but if you dig accounting for the rations in your pack and how many arrows you have then your probably into simulation or resource management type games as part of the kit which would describe you. I like those parts to be a bit more abstracted to have some baring on the narrative but not a huge part of the game.

Maybe you like having a lot of challenges thrown at you without having much say what the challenges are or maybe you like to choose the challenges your going to be facing. Maybe you like to pick starting points and ride plots to their end where you can choose another starting point. Maybe you like having decisions come up two or three times over the course of an adventure which change the adventures outcomes.

The point of that rambling was to show you people like different levels of control over the story of the game. You need to identify what you like about gaming and then find games which give you that level of control.

Do you game because you like playing with your friends or is it because there are specific types of games you want to play. Maybe it’s a mix of the two. There’s no shame in realizing the gaming you want isn’t the gaming you’re getting with your friends. All it means is you need to readjust your expectations, find people to game with who share a similar vision as you, some mixture of the two, or a solution I haven’t been able to figure out yet.

There are lots of other vectors you can apply to what is fun about gaming for you. I encourage you to sit down and take some time to figure out what they are so you can discover what fun is for you.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Oct 22 2012

Nile DeLuxor by Minion Games

Recently I got a taste of Nile DeLuxor and by taste I mean I played four games of it. It’s a fun little set collection card game. The object of the game is to have harvested the most of a variety of crops. I’ll explain this in a moment if you’re confused. The crops come in seven different flavors (wheat, lettuce, flax, Papyrus, onions, grapes, and castor) but in the 2-4 player version you only have 5 in the deck, adding one more crop for each player up to six. You start with 5 cards in your hand and on your turn you take the following actions in this order:

  • Flood
  • Harvest
  • Trade
  • Play or Speculate
  • Draw

You flood by flipping over the top card of the draw pile. This indicates which crops can be harvested in the harvest phase and which crops can’t be planted during the Play or Speculate phase.
The Harvest Phase allows the player or players who have the crops shown on the flood card to harvest one card of that type and place it face down in their scoring pile. I say player or players because some of the cards are speculation cards which have two crop types on them and only one player may have a singular crop type at a time. In other words if I have flax then Jen can’t have flax.

The Trade phase allows you to trade two cards from your hand, your score pile, or a combination of the two, to do two things. You can either flip a new flood card or draw a new card into your hand. You can do this as many times as you are able to in a single turn.

Playing or Speculating is the choice you make now. Playing means you are planting crops but there are some very specific guidelines you must follow when doing so. When playing card or planting crops you can either play exactly two different crop cards into your field, two or more of one type of crop card into your field, or reinforce any crops in your field with as many cards as you’d like. The rub is if you’re planting a new crop into your field it has to have more crop cards than anyone else to be planted. If you do this then the player who now has less crops in their field than you must discard their field to the discard pile. This could probably use an example:

 

It’s Jen’s turn to play. Her flood card was Papayas and she had three of those in her field so she takes one and puts it in her harvest/score pile. Looking down at her hand she see’s four onion cards. Chris has two onions in his field and knows he needs them to balance out his harvest. She plays her four onions with a smirk as Chris gives her the stare of death and discards his onions. Now Chris starts working on building up onions in his hand to have a chance at winning. He hopes Jen harvests one or two of her onions so he can play more than she has in her field and take control of the onion fields again.

Speculation is a different bag. There are cards in the game which have two crops on them around a circle labeled speculation. Instead of playing cards you can play one or two speculation cards and if the next flood card drawn has a crop on it matching your speculation card or cards you get to draw three cards. This stacks so if you play two speculation cards with castor on them and castor comes up you get six cards. It’s a good way to build up cards but you could also get nothing, hence speculation.
The draw phase is just drawing two cards from the top of the draw pile which ends your turn.
One more thing. There’s a card in the deck called Swarm of Locusts. When this is drawn the player with the largest single crop field loses all the crops as the locusts devour them. This card doesn’t take the place of the drawn card and another is drawn after the swarm is resolved.
Now that I’ve explained the phases of a turn I guess I should tell you how the game ends. There are six season cards. The season changes when the draw pile runs out and the discard and flood pile are reshuffled. What this means is each season will get shorter as people bank cards into their harvest piles or keep cards in their hands which has no limit. Once the sixth season is over the winner is determined by the person with the most variety of crops in the largest number. This needs an example:

Chris and Jen are playing a 2 player game so there are only 5 crops: wheat, papyrus, grapes, castor, and onions. Chris has five wheat, four papyrus, grapes, and castor cards each, but only 2 onions. Jen has 3 of each crop. This means Jen wins because she has a wider variety of more cards. She had three of each while Chris only had two of each. If Chris had three onions he would have been the winner because the sets of three all balance out but Chris also has four cards of at least four different crops where Jen has no crops with four cards. I believe this is the reason you can choose to pull cards from your harvest pile to trade in for a new card or a new flood. Having 12 wheat cards doesn’t do you squat if you only have two castor cards and a grape, especially if your opponent has three of each kind, so remember to diversify if you’re playing this game.

I suppose I should throw the length of the game out there. The box says it takes about 30 minutes to play. The first game I played was with 6 people and the expansion and it took somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour. I and my fiancé Jen were new to the game but I believe the other four players had played at least once before. I took the demo copy of the game home and me and Jen played three two player games which took about 30 minutes give or take 5 minutes. Once we got a feel for the game it was really fast.
Nile is the base game Jen and I played three times. The six player game had the expansion which included three monuments and stone, another “crop” to manage. I don’t think I played the expansion enough to get a feel if it’s worth it to have or not but I do know I like the two player version. This game has a little bit of depth to it because of how you can manipulate and manage the draw pile to attempt to get the cards you want or need. It’s also important to keep an eye on your opponents so you can figure out what they’re trying to harvest and what they might have. You can do some nasty things by harvesting and holding cards they might be trying to harvest. The pace of the game seems to flow from a mad grab to get whatever you can in season 1 and 2 to trying to fill in and block your opponents from collection what they need in the later part of the game and because you can play cards to wipe out your opponents fields there’s a bit of a screw your neighbor element to the game. With six it felt like a party game. With two it was very strategic. I’m thinking it plays best with four and well with three but I can’t say for sure. I am looking forward to finding out.

If this review was helpful or not please let me know and also let me know what you did or didn’t like about it and if you’d like to see more reviews on the site.

Game On,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Oct 08 2012

My 4e Dungeons & Dragons Playbook

I usually don’t do this because I try to keep my advice general but my friend Drew is running a 4e D&D campaign for some of his friends as his last hurrah for 4e Dungeons and Dragons before putting that game away for just about good. I told him I’d share some of the things I’ve done over the years with him so I thought I’d share them with you too.

Rolling Encounters

What I mean by rolling encounters is encounters that roll from one into the next. I’ve run plenty of sessions where the game felt like one huge encounter. I do this using primarily these three methods:

  • Reinforcements showing up.
  • Changing the objective.
  • Changing the terrain.

I consider each of these three things an event or something that happens to change the situation. For example I had a battle on a bridge as the PCs were trying to move from one tower to another. All around them battle was raging in the skies as dragons and their allies battled with the occupants of the towers of Darkenspire. On the partially enclosed bridge the PCs had run up against the Followers of the Sacred Lady, a holy order who worshiped one known as the Sacred Lady. As the battle progressed more and more members of the Sacred Lady came from the far tower to help their allies. The idea of reinforcements changed the nature of the battle. Players didn’t want to unleash their most powerful abilities or press to far forward because they weren’t sure what was coming out of the door next and how many were left.

The next thing I had going on during this encounter was a dragon was hit by a lightning bolt and was going to crash into the bridge. This was going to change the terrain. I had the passive perception set higher than anyone’s passive since they were in the middle of a fight when the dragon was hit by a lightning bolt and crashing into the bridge. The thing I did to give the players hints to the event was by throwing specific flavor text into the fight about things happening around them. I use a lot of flavor text in my combat sequences so this wasn’t unusual. During the second round of the fight I mentioned a dragon was struck by a lightning bolt. All anyone needed to do over the next three rounds was say they look to the right or mention they check on the dragon. Someone did the initiative count right before the dragon hit the bridge so they were the only one who got a chance to move before the dragon hit the bridge. I had a flip mat with the bridge drawn on it. I had it folded over so when the dragon hit I marked where everyone was, flipped the mat, and had a drawn crashed into bridge with the dragon on it. Some people were crushed by the dragon, some buried beneath it, and the crashing into the bridge almost knocked a couple of people off who were on top of the bridge.

I always enjoy changing the objective or at least adding something to the objective of an encounter or an adventure. During the last part of the Drakenspire arc I ran (It was something like 8 to 10 sessions) they were in a tower where energy was being gathered and focused for some nefarious purpose through several crystals in the tower. Up to this point the PC’s were just trying to get to the last tower to kill a mind flayer named Quat Lilarack. They hated it for various reasons. In any case once they got to the last tower they learned of this energy, found one of the focusing crystals, and figured out how much time they had left before the energy needed to do whatever was happening was gathered. This wasn’t at the speed of plot. I had an actual doom track, taken from Arkham Horror. The track went from 1 to 7 and every five minutes it would gain a tick. Basically every short rest was a tick and after any 3 encounters I threw a tick up there to take into account exploration and fighting time. I also threw a tick up there if I felt they had used up 5 minutes worth of time. The thing was they could gain ticks back if they messed up the focusing crystals, which they did. It also made them conserve powers so they could skip short rests here and there to cut down on their time. It changed the objective from just killing Quat to stopping Quat from doing whatever it was he was doing. If anyone is curious he was gathering the energy from a pair of “gods” trapped beneath the mountains Darkenspire was built on to open a portal large and stable enough to allow the King in Yellow to come through from Carcosa, one part of my version of the Far Realm.

Setting this up changed the encounters and scenario from getting through to the top of the tower where Quat and the energy being gathered was to a timed situation where making stops to mess with the crystals and resource management became very important.

Enemies

So I’m not a huge fan of solos, I’ll talk about them in a bit, in D&D but I do like elites and I like encounters where some NPC’s are dependent on other NPC’s. Linking them up together or giving them abilities which make them work together in synergy. Two examples:

In one encounter I had a knight who had two men next to him at all times. As long as those men were next to him it increased his defenses so it was easier to take out the side guys first then go after the knight. The second example is a two-headed dragon with a caster who used primarily ice attacks. One of the dragons was a white dragon who could frost up the battle field. This was in an open field but the ice mage and the dragon were creating terrain with icy spots which the ice mage could teleport to and from as a move action while also being able to teleport back on top of the dragons back. This goes back to changing terrain but also shows how two different adversaries can work together to create an interesting situation for PC’s to deal with.

Sly Flourish

Mike Shea has an invaluable tool on his website Sly Flourish. It is a chart with every level of damage expression, hit points for monster type, and DC’s for skill checks. I have one of those screens where you can slide in paper inserts. It’s a great tool to have if your players go off the cuff. You can ad lib encounters from it. It’s like having wire frames for any possible thing you can think of.

Staying with Mike Shea I stole an idea he started applying to solo monsters. I always give any solo an ability where they can shake off any single effect at the beginning of their turn but they take 10, 20, or 30 points of damage depending on the tier of monster. Now there are a couple of variations you can put on this idea. Instead of shaking off an effect you can have them ignore it for a round so it has the potential to happen again the next round. You can apply some penalties to the monster along with the damage. Instead of Stunned the monster is dazed. Instead of immobilized its slowed and takes a -2 to its attack rolls. You have some options but my preference was always the monster shakes off the effect but takes damage for doing so. Now I only ever did this for things like stun, daze, and immobilized because the action economy in 4e is a very important part of the game. Having an extra action, extra attack, extra turn or even an extra move is very powerful and taking away those actions is just as powerful, especially when you’re a solo and only have a few actions each round. Having the choice to shake off a status for damage fits in with the mechanics of D&D pretty well. You’re not getting everything you want but solos should be scary things that can pound through your abilities and status effects. Making it cost the monster hp gives the mechanic some “balance”.

If you’re looking for more 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons tricks I would suggest reading Sly Flourish. It’s quite good.

The Healing Surge

The healing surge is a resource which is very plentiful in my opinion. Players have a lot of them and I have implemented a few house rules which make them a little more interesting and useable:

  • If you miss by one you can spend a healing surge to put forth that little extra effort in order to succeed on what you’re doing. I always ask for a little descriptive flavor to go along with it.
  • I implemented the use of second wind three times. Once as a minor, once as a move, and once as normal each encounter. This rule is excellent when you have situations where there isn’t a leader.
  • Sometimes I’ll tie healing surges into player’s special abilities. For instance one of the characters in a game could wreath themselves in a blue magical fire which made them more powerful when using magic (+2 to hit, +5 to damage) but it cost a healing surge every round it was activated and it required a saving throw to turn it off. Of course when it ran out of healing surges it would start dealing healing surges of damage.

The Choice

This is the last one and isn’t really a D&D 4e trick but one that can be used in any game. You have the players come up against a situation where they have to make a choice and the choice isn’t good or bad but will push the story one way or another or give them a difficult decision. For example one of the PC’s had just ripped an abnormally large amount of aberrant energy out of an angel of death. They decided to help this angel of death instead of killing her. The problem was the energy didn’t dissipate due to not rolling quite well enough so instead the PC had a choice. Absorb the energy or let it randomly fly about which might get one of his allies, possibly the angel again, and maybe it would just disperse. He chose to take it into himself. He made the choice which drove the game forward. Now he has to deal with this energy which basically makes him the incredible hulk. Giant aberrant rage monster once he is bloodied twice in a fight or knocked out once.

The thing with the choice is whatever the decision is it needs to have a consequence that is visible to the person who made the choice eventually, otherwise the choice becomes meaningless.

Please feel free to throw out some more interesting tricks and hacks you’ve thrown on your 4e game to make it play better.

Good Night and Good Gaming,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Oct 01 2012

A Few GM Tips

I think I want to give you a peak behind my screen. Get that sick thought out of your head. That’s not what I meant. Ok. Now that we’re all on the same page I’m talking about some of the things I do to make games flow better.

Initiative Tents

I got this trick from someone else but I swear by it now. I take index cards or some kind of paper and make tents out of them. I tend to rip the index cards in half to do this so they’re not quite so big. Then I ask the players to put their characters names on both sides of the tent. I hand these tents on my screen or put them in front of me if I don’t have a screen. When I ask for initiative in games with an initiative order I arrange the tents and then have a visual system both the players and I can see which helps games move quicker.

Plotting?

I’m a very off the cuff kind of game master. My preferred method of preparing is knowing what the bad guy wants and having him pursue that goal. So there is a series of events he’ll be trying to accomplish. It’s sort of like portents in Dungeon World. While pursuing that goal I try to give the players a reason or hook to interfere with the villain. Now we have conflicting goals while the PC’s and villains are competing and there is a track for the villain to complete his objectives.

Tangent time. I feel that Plot is a loaded word. The bad guy can have a plot he’s trying to follow and the players can have some kind of plot they think they’re following but the plot is something that happens at the table so while you might have your plot and they might have theirs don’t get to married to it because the real plot is what happened after the session is over. It’s what you created at the table, sort of like discovery writing or Improv Theater. Ideas were brought but the plot was discovered.

Wire Frames

When I’m playing a traditional game I dig having a bunch of basic stat blocks I can throw whatever skin I want on them. By a bunch I mean four or five I can use in a variety of ways. Need a goblin archer, an ettin, and a pack of wolves. Well I have these wire frames for a brute, and a bunch of quick creatures. I throw a range attack on the quick ones for the goblins, use them as is for the wolves and give them a pack attack, and throw an extra attack on the brute for the ettin and give them a little personality. Maybe shift some defensive points here and there for variety and I’m good to go. Encounter on the fly from two level appropriate wire frames.

Now if anyone shouts about balance there is no such thing as balance in a RPG. There is only the illusion of balance which is what you provide. The trick is “don’t let them see you sweat”. You know what you’re doing but they don’t. They can’t see your notes. They aren’t in your head. They might be trying to read your face though so just roll along with it like nothing is wrong, you’re not just making stuff up, and all of this has been planed right from the beginning.

Ok. There are three tricks I use. I’ll probably be sharing some more in the future and some examples of how I use them. Let me know what you think and feel free to share some with me. I’m always trying to get better.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Aug 10 2012

Entitlement

The Question: Are players entitled to the stories they want to tell in the games we play? Are GM’s entitled to the stories they want to tell?

My Answer: I don’t think players or GM’s are entitled to their stories, especially if they’re preconceived because I don’t think the game should have a preconceived plot, plot being defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern. People call it emergent gaming where the story or plot emerges from play. I think all gaming should be like that and we should just build frameworks to assist us in creating these stories. I’m pretty sure this idea is the point of rule books and modules, to help us create the frameworks to tell stories. I think it’s my biggest problem with most people who play living campaigns. They don’t understand that modules are frameworks for storytelling. Once you change your perception of them from being a plot to a framework to create a self-contained story you can manipulate them any way you would like. I suppose this needs an example.

Let’s say you have a city adventure and the first beat of the module has you learning of a thieves’ guild who’s taken a golden fist and the owner has hired you to get it back. The second beat involves a little street work and information gathering. This beat has a couple of divergent points which lead to encounters with the thieves’ guild and battling through the guild to a final confrontation with the guild leader who is defeated and the golden hand is retrieved.

If we want to have emergent storytelling in a module, be it a living campaign of some sort, a Paizo Adventure Path, or a mega campaign we need to know a few things:

  • The beginning and ending points.
  • The important NPC’s and why they’re important.
  • Any locations the scenario can’t do without which I don’t think would be any since you can always change a location to fit the situation the story calls for.

In this module we have a beginning and an ending which is get the job and the golden hand is retrieved. The important NPC’s are the leader of the thieves’ guild since they have the golden hand and the man who hires you since he starts everything off. Everything else is up for grabs meaning it can be changed if you so desire. The thieves’ guild hall might be an important location but may not be dependent on the actions of the PC’s. Actually, as I think about it, if you’re comfortable winging it all then you only need the starting scene which introduces the scenario and the end goal, in this case, gaining the golden hand. If you’re not comfortable just winging everything then having some of these locations lying around to use and extra NPC’s to pull on to help guide the players in the right direction can be very useful. One tip, games often have that emergent play feel when the players are given the free rein to create instead of being forced to follow a module from beat to beat. Let’s take a look back at our example.

Just after the introduction one of the players gets the idea to talk to a guy he knows in the city named Rommy Ten Rings. Rommy a friend of one of the players and knows the guild they’re looking for. They next ask Rommy if he can get them into the guild, their plan being to become members of the guild to steal the golden fist from inside the operation. Rommy agrees if they cut him in on the reward they get from retrieving the golden fist. Next Rommy introduces the players to a lieutenant of the guild as an illegitimate crew who’s trying to get a start in town. The lieutenant gives them a test job. Finish it and get a meeting with the big guy. Now the PC’s need to do this job to get what they want. Instead of theft they go to the person they’re supposed to rob and ask be loaned the object for a period of time. The players also give the person the cost of the item as collateral. With item in hand they return to the lieutenant who brings them to the big boss and are initiated into the guild. Being initiated gives them the chance to scope out the guild hall, its defenses, and learn the location of the golden fist. Now the PC’s can prepare to steal the hand and the item they rented. How they do it is up to them and the rest of the complications that occur during the attempt are up to the GM but in the end the players got, or didn’t get, the golden fist.

If we look at what was described here the players created a situation the GM responded to while always keeping the goal of the scenario in mind to their decisions. The GM complicated situations. The players responded with choice and creativity. This back and forth, while always leading to the goal, created an experience within the premise of the scenario but very different from what was originally given. These are the things we can do to create a sense of emergent story. So no. I don’t think players are entitled to their stories nor is the GM entitled because story and plot needs to happen at the table, not before. After all, we play the game to see what happens. Don’t we?

I’d love to hear what anyone else has to say about these ideas so please drop a comment here or on the Facebook page.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Aug 02 2012

Puzzle Piece Mysteries

I’m currently playing in a Dresden Files game. It’s a lot of fun and has a very Dresden feel to it but has had a few snafus, mostly with the mystery surrounding the emerging story. The biggest problem is our group has been presented with a bunch of leads, or puzzle pieces. I believe some of the leads were planned and some of them weren’t due to unexpected player actions. She’s improvised and done a decent job of it too. We ran down a bunch of these leads while trying to prepare for this spirit who was killing kids by the dozens. I think it was sucking the life out of their bodies but I didn’t get to ask it as we blasted it out of existence. At least I think we blasted it out of existence. I’m sure I’ll find out if that’s true or not at a future inopportune moment. Sorry. I tangented. Where was I? Oh yeah. Mysteries and the leads. Each of these leads led to some interesting scenes and clues but very little in the way of action. It was more of a gathering of puzzle pieces and then trying to sift through them to figure out what the connections were. As I write this I find myself thinking this seems like a perfectly valid way to run a mystery. I think the problem was creating situations for passive protagonists and repetitive situations. Whenever we went to investigate something we encountered a person, persons, or a situation but the only conflict was gathering information. We talked to people who gave us information or we found locations which did the same. That was it. There was no way to act on the information we were given. It just went into the case file and we moved on to the next thing. Not the most fun thing in gaming.

I think successful mysteries can have these puzzle piece mysteries but they need to be linked into other scenes where there’s a way to act on the information found, like a trail of clues to be followed. You can also spice up the framework of this style of game by interspersing scenes of action into the middle of these information gathering scenes to keep the players active in the game. If you’ve ever read a Dresden Files book Jim Butcher does this pretty well. Whenever Harry gets a clue that doesn’t quite fit with everything else something tends to happen. He gets into a fight, a complication he needs to act on occurs, or some kind of conflict he needs to deal with right then and there happens. It keeps the pace up. I think this concept can easily be used in RPG investigations. It also makes me think I need to buy and read Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws which talks about how to figure out the pacing of your game with up beats, down beats, and a few other types. The general rule is if you have three of the same type of beat in a row then next beat better be different or you suffer from boredom in repetition. In a mystery you can have an information gathering scene but think of that as a beat. If you have three information gathering scenes in a row you’re probably already boring your players. Think about it. They’re players, they have A.D.D as it is and you’re just dropping information on them like puzzle pieces to a puzzle. Throw one more info gathering scene and they’re probably gonna start throwing poo like a mischievous monkey. So what’s the solution? Vary your scenes. Utilize chases, fights, social conflicts where there are some stakes, and clues your investigating players can act on right away. This allows you to have your puzzle piece mystery as the players collect the pieces while keeping them engaged and entertained during it until they get to the ah ha moment.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jul 19 2012

A Rant on House Rules

I was part of a comment string on Google+ (Once again G+ is not a wasteland) about Never Unprepared concerning the book’s value for games that were less traditional. The comments were very civil and reasoned, which is much better than most of the experiences I’ve had on Facebook, but one of them irked me. I let it go because it wasn’t relevant to the discussion at hand. Also I enjoy the civil discussion on G+ and take great strides to not upset that balance. Still, it bothered me for the rest of the day. Actually, this subject has been bothering me since the first time I was confronted with it. It was during a discussion about how 1st edition D&D is a well designed game.

During the discussion about 1st edition D&D the person I was talking with said new games were unneccessary and new rules weren’t needed. RPG’s didn’t need new rules sets to do what the old rule set already did. That’s when I questioned him about the rules and discovered he’d house ruled a bunch of them to make the game do what he wanted it to do. On the surface I think this is fine but in my head I keep think this:

If you house rule your game then you’re not playing the game as it was intended so are you actually playing the game you’re defending?

It’s an interesting question. It’s interesting to me at least and more so when I start looking at games like Burning Wheel / Mouse Guard which are explicit in their play, or games like Apocalypse World which has been hacked into Dungeon World and Monster Hearts. Those games use the same core mechanic but are not Apocalypse World. The thing here is if you change the rules to a game you should call it something else. My 4e games isn’t 4e D&D. My players call it Chris’s 4e D&D because I’ve added a bunch of stuff to it and I understand that my D&D game isn’t the stock D&D game.

Getting back to today the comment about traditional games was:

“I don’t think those games have to be run that way, but they commonly are.”

Like I said before, on the surface I have no problem with this. Games should be fun and if someone choose to change the rules to a game and still has fun playing it then I think that’s awesome. Underneath the surface I’m wondering why you’re playing game A when game B can do what you want much better, and without having to change it. I’m also confused when someone says “this game sucks” when they’re not even playing the game the way it was intended. Maybe it’s not a bad game. Maybe this person had the wrong expectations.
And there it is. A house ruled game isn’t the game you bought, should be acknowledged as such, and the house ruled version shouldn’t be judged as a bad game just because it doesn’t do something you want it to do but was never designed to do well.

Point the Next. All RPGs are not games and shouldn’t be called Role Playing Games. I’m looking at Savage Worlds here. You can look at GURPS too if you’d like. Savage Worlds is not a game but a set of tools to create your own games. Now if you buy a Savage setting like 50 Fathoms or Necessary Evil then you’ve bought a game. It has a setting, rules associated with the setting, expectations on character creation, and a campaign built into it in the form of a plot point. The difference is the Savage Worlds core rules don’t imply anything. They’re genre and setting agnostic and promise Fast, Furious, Fun but there’s no inherent game expected except you’ll probably be fighting stuff.

Now before people jump the shark, or think I have, let me talk about D&D. D&D (this includes Pathfinder) is a game but it isn’t as explicit in its setting or what it’s supposed to be doing. fortunately we can tell what the game should be doing by looking at the rules. D&D is a game about adventurers who live apart from normal society by exploring wonderous locations (AKA going into Dungeons), overcoming foes and death-defying situations (killing monsters and avoiding traps), and gathering wealth to advance your cause (taking their stuff so you can go into more dungeons, kill more monsters, avoid more traps, and take more stuff). If you look at the rules of the game most of them are geared for this. There are some social skills but they’re minimal meaning they’re less important than the rest. I know people play this game in different ways but when they do it ends up being less satisfying or a hacked version. Doing a heist job is more fulfilling when you use Leverage. Political intrigue works a lot better with Houses of the Blooded. A game about fighting monsters works better when using D&D.

So where am I going with this? I think people should be more open to understanding RPG’s because there isn’t a one size fits all game out there. Different mechanics highlight different things in games. Different games will influence and create better games for you and your groups in the future. I house rule or hack most games because while I have the mechanical set I want for 80% of the game I want to run I’m always missing that last 20 which irks me and leads me into the realm of design. This is how we got to the games we have today. We built them on the foundations or in direct opposition of the ideals of older games. We cobble together the bits we like and dislike. The thing I see as I read more games is there is probably a game out there to do what you want it to do and while it might be West End d6 it probably isn’t.

To finish I would just like anyone who reads this to ask themselves a question. How much have you had to change your game to get it to do what you want it to do? If the answer is more than I realized or way to much then maybe you’re not playing the right game.

Now I feel better. I’m sure all four or five of you who read this probably think I’m nuts or have un-subscribed by this point but if you haven’t and you have something to say I’d love to hear it.

Game on,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jul 12 2012

Red Herrings

The Red Herring

A red herring, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a clue which is intentionally or unintentionally misleading or distracting from the actual issue.

I’m not a fan of red herrings in my games. Mostly because I’m invested in the Core Clue concept put forth by Robin Laws. Give players the clue but don’t tell them what to do with it. Still, the topic was broached with my friend Drew during one of our discussion about RPG’s and I think it’s worth looking into. Especially since I’m always trying to put more tricks and tools into my GM bag. To do this I’m going to approach red herrings from the idea that I want to seed some in my game and in doing so I want them to be interesting and purposeful. So how do I do that?

I would make sure even a red herring lead to interesting situations even if they are dead ends. Here are some examples of how I would do that:

  • Lead the players into a trap or danger of some sort. Danger always creates drama and if the point of the clue is to steer investigators into a danger that can’t be linked to the primary clue, even better. They can overcome the danger and go back and hit the next lead. The point is there’s something to overcome so there is something to accomplish.
  • Create a mini story with a beginning, middle, and end which has nothing to do with the ongoing investigation but gives the players some sort of closure and feeling of accomplishment.
  • A red herring can be a great chance to show off a part of the game world you wouldn’t otherwise be able to explore. Just make sure with the world building you include something interesting for the players to do.
  • Make the red herring(s) a part of a set of clues the investigators in your story need to sift through. Make sure they have a chance to figure out which clue is the real one and set some detriment to the outcome if the investigators choose the wrong clue. This way there is a consequence to their action or even inaction. This is great for serial killer styled scenarios. The serial killer gives his next set of clues creating a situation where the investigators need to figure out which clue is the right one or someone dies.

A few more points about red herrings in general. Make sure the players can attain enough information to make an informed choice. If it’s all random then there’s not much fun for the players. If you want them to run down a bunch of possible leads make sure the situations you highlight with screen time are interesting and please don’t just use these situations for a chance at exposition. It’s always better to show things through actions and drama in your games than just having your players be related a story by an NPC.

Now I’ve just started wrapping my head around the idea of using red herrings in games again. What do you folks out in internet land have to say about them? I could use a little feedback on this one. Can’t wait to hear from ya and Game on.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jul 05 2012

Perpetuating the Hobby or Starting to GM

Last night I was chatting with a friend who has been running a Leverage game for us on Friday’s when we get the chance. This is her first go around at GMing and I’d have to say she’s doing a mighty fine job of it so far. The people in the game also find her to be doing a good job but she’s having some confidence issues and asked me if I was ever nervous about games I’m about to run. I told her no, not anymore, but I also understand where she’s coming from. I used to get nervous. I used to be worried. I’m not anymore because I have a firm foundation for my gaming and GM philosophy fall back on. I told her all of this and then gave her some of the base idea’s I work with.

1. The most important thing a GM does is make sure everyone is having a good time. This statement is a little deeper than it seems. The first part concerns everyone. That means the GM needs to make sure they’re having fun too. The game can’t be geared to entertain the players if what’s entertaining the players isn’t fun for the GM. That way leads to sour gaming all around or no gaming because a GM who isn’t having fun is probably not going to run the game. This leads to the second part of the statement which is figuring out what is fun for your players. This can be done in any number of ways from having conversations, trial and error, or even questioners. All I’m saying is what is fun for one person might not be fun for another and the GM needs to find out where everyone’s fun zone is.

2. The GM needs to figure out what the game their playing does and how it does it. Once again this is a little deeper than just the statement. The Leverage RPG is trying to simulate the situations and plot developments seen in the television show which is about thieves pulling off a heist. In a session of Leverage no one dies. That means the game is about how the job goes down. This happens through the complications the GM can put on the job as ones are rolled by the players. The complications in the story are more like twists in Mouse Guard, they make things interesting. Once you understand your agenda as the GM and how you can push that agenda it becomes a lot easier to run the game.

3. The GM needs to figure out how to make themselves comfortable when running the game. This takes a bit of trial and error and self analysis. It helps to ask yourself some questions like what kind of notes do you need? How many people can you handle at your table? Do you need a quick reference rules sheet. Do you prefer rolling in the open or behind a screen? Mini or not to mini? Pens or Pencils? Index Cards or Sticky notes? Outlines or Paragraphs or Power point presentations or whatever? There’s a ton of tools out there you can use to assist you. It’s up to you to figure out what works best and that means trying things out. I use different tools for different games but I almost always like to have an outline of things that could happen, a list of NPC’s along with some tags for their personalities and quirks, a name list when I need to make up an NPC on the spot, and the motivations for the scenario. Everything else after that is game dependent for me. 4e I want some miniatures. In other games I might just need a piece of paper to scrawl the map on as they explore. Sometimes I might not need anything but some note cards to write down NPC names on as the PC’s meet them so they don’t forget who they’ve met. I suggest you just think about what you might need for a given game after you’ve got your scenario hashed out and then go with it. I will also recommend Never Unprepared: The Complete Guide to Session Prep. It’s a solid book for doing such work.

To conclude I’d like to say to the GM’s out there. Start encouraging people in your groups to do a little GMing of their own and if they ask for advice think about what works for you and why. Then let them know this is what you do and why you do it. It might not be the same for them but it might give them some idea’s because your strengths as a GM might be their weaknesses and their strengths might be your weaknesses. Beyond that I can recommend some other books to help GM’s with the craft:

Robin’s Law’s of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws
Play Dirty by John Wick
Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley
Never Unprepared: The Complete Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione
Masks: 1000 Memorable NPC’s for any Game by Engine Publishing
Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters by Engine Publishing

I’m sure there are other books out there and I’d love to hear about them. If you know of any I’d love to build a list of GM help books for people to reference.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 28 2012

The Idea and the Mechanic

I have a lot of discussions with a friend of mine named Drew about games, mechanics, how to implement them, what’s good, what works and why. Recently he was telling me about how one of the guys in his group mentioned Dresden Files and how a campaign starts with characters who were already set in the world and interconnected. Drew’s player then mentioned it was something Drew did for them in a Savage Worlds Deadlands game. This brought up the concept of Idea’s in RPG’s and how they can be imported from one game to another.

My favorite idea from a RPG is the Core Clue concept from Gumshoe by Robin Laws:

  • If there’s a clue give it to the players but don’t tell them what to do with it.

That’s the idea but the mechanic changes a little bit in the Gumshoe system:

  • If there’s a clue in a scene and a character has a point (training) in the field they find the clue. If they choose to make a spend, and there is extra information to be gained, they learn it.

The mechanic leads to a game where it pays to have people specialized in a variety of investigative fields offering some niche protection along with a resource management mechanic. Once you spend a point in one of your fields you won’t get it back until the next scenario. Even if you hit zero points during the scenario you’re still considered trained so will find any Core Clue associated with the field, but are tapped out from finding the extra information.

I’ve only played a little Gumshoe but I like the idea more than the mechanic. The problem is if you want to use the idea you still need some way to implement it since mechanics are the implementations of ideas. My mechanic is a little less mechanical and relies on one guideline:

  • During an investigation scene a core clue will be found as long as a character states they’re participating in an action that would find it.

In other words, if the core clue is the gun wrapped in plastic and dropped in the back of the toilet seat then an investigator stating they’re searching the place is good enough to gain the core clue. Now if I’m playing a D20 game or Savage Worlds I’ll have extra information gained, if there’s any to be gained, on a successful roll or a raise. I might introduce a complication if the roll is failed and a complication makes sense. Either way the clue is found so the story continues and we move to the next question. Now that the players have the gun what does it mean and what do they do with it?

These are the mechanics I use in a D20 or Savage game with an investigation. The idea behind them is the same as Gumshoe but my mechanic puts forth a slightly different agenda. I require my players to interact with the scene (I think Gumshoe also does this), there is never a dead end in my investigations, and I use the mechanics given to me by the game I’m playing to facilitate the idea given to me by Gumshoe.

That’s only one example of porting an idea from one game to another. I’ve done it with FATE points and aspects into D20 and I’ve used different campaign framing devices similar to Dresden and Smallville. It’s all about understanding the idea so you can build the idea into the games core mechanic.

Say you want a conflict resolution system in your Pathfinder game for social situations that’s a little more robust than a single diplomacy roll and less fiated than just talking it out.

First I identify the core mechanic:

Pathfinder uses a D20 roll plus a modifier vs a difficulty number to determine success or failure.

Second I identify the idea from another game I want to use:

I like how Fate and Dresden uses stress tracks to determine how much you can take before your taken out. I also like the idea of setting stakes before the conflict from a variety of games.

Third I figure out how they can be melded together to create the idea from the second step into the mechanic from the first step.

This one takes a little work. I think I’m going to need a stress track. Charisma is force of personality and I feel it’s the best ability score to use to build a stress track. Design wise I think a social stress track in Pathfinder should be 2 + your Charisma modifier. Now that we have a way to build a stress track we need a way to have the conflict. This means guidelines.

A conflict like this should be something that is a point – counter point situation, maybe includes more than a single point, or has different angles it can be argued from. If the conflict is of sufficient importance then stakes must be set. Stakes are what one side is looking to achieve vs the other sides goal.

Now that we have a guidline for what constitutes using this system we need to resolve it. I break a little from convention here and would have each side argue one point and make opposed rolls using d20 + diplomacy, take the difference and divide it by 5 rounding up. Whoever lost takes that much stress on their track. Repeat this until someone is knocked off the track.

To make things more interesting I would include a couple things:

  • If you get knocked off the track you can take one complication to save yourself from being taken out but your track becomes full. A complications is something the player and GM create to make the characters life harder in the future. It will never be good and the GM can pull it out whenever they want. For example if the character is having a conflict with the local lord and gets taken off the track but decides to take the complication the GM and player decide the complication is the local lords ire. This means the GM can pull the local lords ire complication out once in the future at any time he wants as long as it makes sense in the story.
  • If the character has some advantage to the situation they gain a +4 to their rolls. Having incriminating documents, witnesses, a drunk opponent, a crowd favorable towards the character, ect.

That’s all I got for today. I hope this sheds a little light on how to transfer an idea from one game to another. It’s sort of a 101 on hacking games. If you have anything to share or insights on the topic I’d love to hear about them.

Game On,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 21 2012

Never Unprepared: The Test and Review


This weekend I ran another session of my longest ongoing campaign but the new twist was I used Never Unprepared, by Phil Vecchione, and published through Engine Publishing, to Prep for it. I’ll be honest, it was really useful. Using the process of Brainstorming, Selection, Conceptualization, Documentation, and Review prepared me to pull off the session I wanted and gave me enough foundation to improvise when necessary.

I consider myself a very good improvisational GM. I can do quite a bit with very little. Heck. One time I designed a game engine and ran a game of it off the cuff in fifteen minutes. It was a solid a two hour session with a complete story and satisfied players. One of the reasons I’ve trained myself to do this is because I’m one of those people who wanted to do less prep. I’ve run games off a half a sheet of notes, a bullet pointed list, a couple of notes cards, and kept searching for ways to do less prep because it wasn’t fun. Coming up with plots and trying to figure out what the antagonists were up to was fun, creating interesting situations was a blast, but I didn’t have a way to organize and access all the idea’s in my

head at the table. So once I got Never Unprepared I did a test. I read the book cover to cover and then went through it step by step to prep my next scenario.

Through this exercise I realized a few things about myself. I try to hold to much information in my head, I have terrible note structure, I’m bad at coming up with names on the fly, my NPC’s are hit or miss when I make them up on the fly, D&D 4e has too great a reliance on Stat blocks and I need to figure out a better short hand or system for them, and I waste a lot of time preping because I don’t have a system. I got all this from one pass through Never Unprepared and am well on the path to fixing a fair amount of these issues.

This leads me to believe Never Unprepared is more like a self help book for GM’s who feel overwhelmed with prep. It doesn’t tell you how to do things but breaks down the steps of prep into digestible chucks and then guides you into building a system for yourself based on your GMing strengths and weaknesses. For example the books tells us to use a session template and then scene templates within the session template. This makes sense because most of our games are just a series of scenes, the scenes being the places where the camera closes in on our characters. The nice thing is the book helps GM’s discover what is necessary to them because what is good to one person might not be for another.

To start us we’re given a huge example list of things we could include in a template but only two are thought to be necessary. The Purpose and Closing.

The Purpose of a scene or session reminds us of the why. In a scene a few examples might be “an interesting trap for the party to overcome”, “a conversation with the king to give the players a chance to gain his trust”, “to have an action packed chase through the streets”, or “a fight to decide the fate of the universe.”

The closing is an end condition or two for the session or scene. Take the last Purpose example, “A fight to decide the fate of the universe.” The Closing could be “The universe falls into darkness” or “The universe’s fate is decided by the PCs.”

I throw NPC’s and their defining traits along with some notes on rules or motivations in my scene template. Some people would want to have different things like Combat tactics, bits of Dialog, maybe the Weather, or any number of things. The point is getting to a place where you feel comfortable behind the screen.

I hope this wets your appetite for the book. Before I’m finished I just wanted to say a few more things. This book has been lovingly edited and laid out. It reads smooth, never feels preachy, and has some nice anecdotes about Phil’s life as he’s preped for games which helps with the books flow. The art style is pretty interesting, going for a concept art look which is more like finished art with a concept art feel. Of course the book is hyper-linked but being less of a resource book and more of a GM help book it’s less important than Masks or Eureka but implemented well.

So as I check out from my first sort of overview of a product I do want to give my opinion. I got as much from reading this book as I did from reading John Wick’s Play Dirty or Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley. I think it’s an invaluable read for GM’s who want to take their games up a notch and even more for those GM’s who are starting to feel the time crunch of their life. This book will save you time. This book will help you keep your games going. Just because life is filling up for those of us with families, work responsibilities, and anything else life demands, doesn’t mean we need to stop gaming. Pick up Never Unprepared. It’ll help if you let it.

Game on,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 14 2012

Does System Matter?

I fall on both sides of this question so I’m going to split myself into Pro system Chris and Con system Chris.

Opening Statements

Pro system Chris: Systems are important in conveying the feel of the game through its mechanics. They give us guidelines for creating stories with specific focuses and feels, help us tell the stories we want, and play the games we expect.

Con System Chris: The system is meaningless in the face of the story which should always trump the rules in every way. Besides, all the mechanics need to do is give the players a way to decide a conflict when it comes up, be it the logic pass-fail dichotomy, or the bargain with consequences, and that’s only if something more interesting can’t be decided at the table.

Evidence

Pro system Chris: Let’s take a look at Fiasco. This game presents us with all the tools necessary to create a story which will simulate movies like The Hangover or Fargo. The play-set sheets create situations for the players to improvise these stories within a framework. Each player has the interesting choice of setting or resolving several scenes while giving the other players a chance to work their agenda based on what’s interesting for the story and the relationships created from the set up. In the middle of play we run into the twist, creating the same kind of complications we find in movies similar to the previously mentioned ones. In the end we have the montage to wrap up each characters stories based on how many dice a player has accumulated and how close to zero they total when rolling them. This is determined by subtracting the black total from the white total. This game’s mechanics create a framework for telling a total story in one session through scene pacing, interesting selections, and game created player agendas.

Con system Chris: I give you Savage Worlds. Savage Worlds is a generic system which claims to be able to do any game and any genre. It does Pirates, Weird West, Flash Gordon Pulp, Solomon Kane, Sky Ship Post Apocalyptic, Victorian Horror, Super Heroes, Epic Fantasy, and many, many others. All these different styles, genres, and themes are played using the same rules set. So does the system really matter as long as it’s playable? Based on this I’d say no. You don’t need different systems for every game. You can play however you and your group want and just have a generic system in place to assist you when a decision can’t be made by consensus. The feel is in the flavor and not the system.

Cross Examination

Pro system Chris: So you say Savage Worlds is a generic system which can run any type of game.

Con system Chris: I do.

Pro system Chris: Then how do you explain setting rules?

Con system Chris: They still fall within the realm of the generic system.

Pro system Chris: Yes but they are distinct rules to help create a feeling for a specific setting so those mechanics wouldn’t feel right in a different setting.

Con system Chris: Possibly, but everyone hacks games to get what they want anyways.

Pro system Chris: I’ve never hacked Fiasco.

Con system Chris: But you pick different play sets to get different themes and settings. The structure is always the same. One system with many different possibilities.

Pro System Chris: This is my cross examination.

Con System Chris: Well then, maybe you should do a better job.

Pro system Chris: Hmm…You do make some interesting points but you did say you hack games to get the feel you want. Why would you do that? Why not just come to a group consensus or use the simple mechanic?

Con system Chris: Because the simple mechanic doesn’t always satisfy what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes you need something a little bit more robust or variable.

Pro system Chris: So you’re admitting you sometimes need some mechanics to play the game you desire?

Con system Chris: Yes, but not all the time. It’s not a black or white issue.

Pro system Chris: I agree.

Final Thoughts

Time to cram the two back together. I’m really not insane but I do like to have these discussions with myself from time to time. It helps me sort out how I feel about certain topics, trying to come at them from different points of view. I think system does matter but is not king and you can have a great time playing a generic fantasy session using Rock, Paper, Scissors as your core mechanic just as easily as a game like Dread. That’s the Jenga tower game where the longer the game goes the more tension is built because the tower becomes more unstable. Hence, Dread. I am curious as to what any of you readers think about concerning how important the system is to your gaming experience. Please drop a comment here or on our Facebook page and let me know.

Game on,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

May 24 2012

Building Worlds One Character at a Time

I’m really into character driven stories these days and that includes plot and such. So plot is defined as being the events that make up the story and how they relate to one another. By a character driven plot I mean the villain of the piece is a person who has motivations causing them to enact whatever plot they need to so they can accomplish their desired goal. I build my worlds from these individuals out and then find or create the pieces of the world to connect the PCs to the story. Some would say this is pushing the world to the background but I think it’s making everything interconnected. Now I’ll try to explain.

The villan of the piece is an immortal and powerful tyrant who was trapped within a sword, put there eons ago so only the oldest legends remember him. Over the years the blade has passed from hand to hand until it finally found a home in the Whitemore family, a lineage of lords who served the King faithfully and have held the western borders of the country of Kingshaven for the past two centuries. The magic bindings on the sword have slowly faded over the years and for the last hundred or so years the tyrant has been able to exert influence over its wielder and has done so in an attempt to find a way to get out of his prison. Finally he learned a way to escape and tried to drive the wielder of the blade towards his goal but it only ended in bloodshed and a less than desirable reputation. This got the sword locked up in the family crypt.

Ok, my villain is trapped in a sword, or basically imprisoned. He wants to get out. This is his motivation for acting. In creating this situation I built a well known magic sword, a family as its caretaker, a hint at their standing in a country called Kingshaven, hinted at an event concerning the sword, and created the sense of an old world with magic in it. Heck, I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. That’s just the villain’s set up and the goal he’s trying to achieve. To continue I need a way for the tyrant to get out in the world to achieve his goal.

Janus Whitemore is the current Lord of the Whitemores. In a tragic turn of events the Whitemore holdings are attacked by the king’s men. One of the king’s soothsayers had a vision of a Whitemore destroying his line. Janus survived the attack and went to the crypt looking for power and found the sword. With the sword he killed every one of the king’s men who attacked his holdings and avenged his murdered wife and child, but in doing so gave himself over to the sword. This event gives us very little about the world we didn’t already know but it moves the villain’s plot forward so we can have more options for world building.

The tyrant in the sword knows he needs to clash with the white blade of Hope in order to break free from these bonds. The problem is there aren’t any Knights of the White Blade these days. They only arise during times of strife and war. Now that he’s more in control of Janus they can work together to build an army and rampage across the lands. Janus for vengance and the Tyrant for his opportunity.

Now we have the plot of our story. The bad guys want revenge and freedom and their plan, or the plot, is to rampage across the lands. This means the lands need to be created and referenced as this army of darkness crushes country after country. The PCs will likely be affiliated with each other in some way opposed to this army of darkness and Janus Whitemore. You now have the white sword and its history of heroes who’ve wielded it before. All that’s left is dropping the PCs into the situation as this army starts tearing up the world and hook them into the White Sword side of the story.

All that comes from one tyrant imprisioned in a sword.

I think the trick is asking yourself what comes next. I try and find the most logical way to move the bad guy’s ambitions to the next plot point in the story. After that I wait a little for the players to come up with their characters. At that point I build up a little bit of the world around them so they feel a part of it. Sometimes this gives me some excellent side plots, sometimes it doesn’t. In any case the world is building itself one character at a time.

May 17 2012

Storytelling and Pacing

This might take a second but I promise I’ll get to the gaming part of it in a sec. So I had two interesting developments occur today. The first was having one of my sit downs with my mentor/professor from my college. The second was seeing some of the things we talked about in a movie I watched.

I go to Empire State College where most of the classes are independent study, and you meet with your professor once every couple weeks to talk about your progress. You can also email or call them any time if you have questions. I’m taking Screenwriting this semester and that’s it. I graduate with a bachelors in Creative Writing which I can then use to go back to school for my masters so I can teach. Yay. In any case the conversation was interesting because we were talking about the screen play I’m writing for the class. It’s based on a game scenario I helped write which will be published in the future. This led to a discussion about RRGs and what they are. I almost always use Fiasco as my example of an RPG these days because of its minimal rules and relation to movies I can reference like Fargo, The Hangover, The Big Labowski, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or any movie in that Coen brothers or everything goes to hell style. Once I got that out and explained how the game is like a long form improvisation with a few simple rules for guiding the story she understood and actually was sort of interested in the concept. We spoke for a few more minutes and in the end I pretty much let her know some of these games have more rules but the premise is all about storytelling. In essence, gaming, and the way most of us game, is about storytelling. I’d like to talk about the bare bones of storytelling. I’m sure I’ll leave things out and a lot of this stuff will just be my opinion so you’ll disagree. That’s cool. I want you to disagree and bring your own opinion to the discussion so I can see what other people think. It’s a great way to learn.

So I watched a movie with Jen, she’s the woman I live with and love. It was One for the Money, that movie with  Katherine Heigl, where she’s broke so she becomes a bounty hunter and is chasing down this cop who skipped out on his bail. She gets caught up in something way over her head and blah, blah, blah… You still with me? Good? Sorry, but I do want to explain. Jen and I enjoyed the movie because we like movies. It entertained us for a couple of hours and it told a story. That means the movie had a beginning, middle, and an end. It introduced characters, developed them over the course of time, and gave them choices to make, some good and some not so much. There was an established setting, world building, and there was a pace. All these things are part of storytelling and I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. The question is how do I use these bits to allow for the creative explosion of storytelling at the table. I’ve covered some of this stuff in previous posts like From the Other Side – A Players Perspective and Worlds of “Our” Imagination. But I wasn’t explicitly talking about storytelling. Now I’ll try.

From the GMs side of the table I think the most important thing you can do is try and manage the pace of the game. Pacing is paramount in any good story. Track the up and down beats, find those transitional moments where you can move things from act to act whether your using the three act Hollywood structure, or any of the other various storytelling methods. Don’t be afraid to build in choke points in your stories, places where all the strands of your plot lead to. You can do this with out railroading. Just because the strands lead to a single event doesn’t mean you can’t have the world react to the events leading up to this single event and change how it begins, progresses, and/or resolves. Railroading is more about making the players choices feel unimportant than guiding them to a specific event. They won’t care if you’ve let them take actions that matter to the story at hand.

As players we can watch for the story beats too. We can take actions that help guide the story in ways we want for our characters, pace our stories, and exert pressure on the over arching plots. Some people would think of this as a tug of war between the GM and the players but I feel that’s the wrong way to look at it. Groups with excellent chemistry, and I’ve seen this in campaigns and conventions games, will get into a flow, almost like the tide rolling in and out, where each person gives and takes in a rhythm creating that perfect pocket of gaming. There’s no one way to do it either. Each group has their own pocket based on the people involved, the game they’re playing, and the perceived expectations. It’s the groups own personal rhythm.

I know this seems hypothetical but there are ways to help create this storytelling “zone”. I just happen to think pacing is the most important part of setting yourself up to achieve this. To help with pacing I suggest buying Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws, but if you don’t feel like it you can always try this. Make yourself an arrow. Whenever there is an up beat turn the arrow up, down beats you turn the arrow down. If you ever have three up or down beats in a row make sure the next beat is different. This will help keep your pace interesting to the players. If you’re a player and notice the games had to many beats in a row of one kind or another push to create that opposite beat. If you’re not sure what up and down beats are I’ll try to explain. An up beat is where something good happens in the story and a down beat is something bad occurring. There are also lateral beats where something happens but nothing really changes. Make sure you don’t have to many of those in a row either.

A lot of storytelling in gaming is about knowing what the parts are so you’re aware of them. Many of us can tell stories intuitively because our society has so many of them. We can flick on the TV, open a book, power up our eReaders, or play a video game. Almost everything in our lives having to do with entertainment has some kind of story associated with it. We’re immersed in storytelling. Now ask yourself what goes into telling a story? What are the parts, the bits and pieces, comprising a story? That question is a lot harder to answer definitively. Hopefully this idea of pacing and story beats helps get you on the road to understanding, and getting more enjoyment out of, your games.

May 10 2012

Worlds of “OUR” Imagination

I’m firmly in the house of world building with your players. I hear tell of the “this is the GM’s story and the players are just following” mentality. Is that still a mentality? Do people still play games like that? This whole idea of the GM deciding what game we play and then building their home brew world in a vacuum so the players can experience their creativity seems a little counter intuitive to the idea of the Role Playing Game, especially the sensibilities of the modern Role Playing Game. I would even argue the games people have enjoyed the most over the years, at any table, are those games with cooperative world building even if the group didn’t realize they were doing it.

Lets take all those people who’ve played the Temple of Elemental Evil, *SPOILER ALERT* the classic adventure written by Gygax and Mentzer. When you read it, there’s nothing there. It’s a town with some people who might have a motivation or two but most of them are blank slates. The moat house is also just a dungeon with a bunch of monsters, mostly intelligent, and Lareth the Beautiful, the shining hope of chaotic evil. It doesn’t say what his plans are or what he’s doing in the moat house with this small army of intelligent monstrous humanoids. There’s no story. It’s left up to the GM to decide and it feels like a mad lib. Some GM’s make decisions right away and lock into those without deviating from the story. Nothing wrong with that and I’m sure those players probably had a good time, but there are other GM’s who waited to see what the players did. By waiting the GM was inspired by his players choices and fed into them making the game about the players characters. These choices not only further the story but make the players feel like the story is about them, giving them authority to bring more ideas to the table and helping to flesh out the setting or build the world.

Think about the interactions the players characters had or could have in your Homlett. They probably created relationships and inspired personalities the GM hadn’t thought of. Maybe the black smith fighter PC decided to befriend the local black smith brother Smyth. They had conversations which brought up topics the GM latched onto and made part of Brother Smyths character. Maybe one of the PC’s got in Kobort the Fighters good graces and befriended him. Maybe this made the GM think Kobort might end up being more loyal to the PC than to Turuko, the Monk who Kobort worked with to ambush weakened adventurers coming back from their expeditions. This makes for a dramatic point where Kobort decides to not ambush the party with Turuko and part ways with him. Now Kobort is a loyal friend. This isn’t in the module and is a player helping to build the world or flesh out a character through their actions. These are examples of player inspired world building and they’re just two of the many examples of incidental world building I’ve seen at my table. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think GM’s have been doing this since Arneson started delving under Castle Blackmoor. From everything I’ve ever read and listened to about his style of play it seems about right. This incidental world building isn’t the only kind that has existed from the early days. In GURPS, you can take the Enemy disadvantage. You just created a foe in the world for yourself. It’s something you wanted and now it exists. That’s a little less incidental than the GM just cuing off players actions. The Traveler character creation system also has some potential world building involved with it. Your character can be older with a life path filled with character building experiences. Those experiences probably had interactions with people, organizations, and events. Even if the events and organizations are established by the setting the people may not be. These are things created because of the player.

Today a lot of RPG’s take this world building idea and give more control of it to the players and I think it’s on purpose. I believe RPG’s have more focus. With more games and media we have more choice. If you want a challenging dungeon crawl where you fear death around every corner and you want a less arbitrary feeling to the situation you can play Descent from Fantasy Flight or several other board games in the dungeon crawl category. This is because RPG’s aren’t inherently balanced to make for a fair play experience. RPG’s are built to allow you to tell stories. If you want mass battles you play table top war games like Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy Battles. If you want the story of being a heroic warrior wading through hordes of enemies then you play an RPG. If you want a game about managing a kingdom and dealing with the month to month of sending out armies, spies, and managing your kingdoms resources you can play board games or viedo games like Civilization or Nobunaga’s Ambition. If you want to focus on being the king and his court dealing with the intrigue, political manipulations, and interactions with the people around you and the story that unfolds then you play an RPG. It’s about story these days and part of the story is creating the setting your playing in. Games like the Dresden Files understand and do this well with the city creation system. The players get to help create the cities important locations, themes, and NPC’s from scratch. Dread asks the players a bunch of questions before the game starts so the fearful things in the game can surround the players. Smallville has a great system for creating relationship maps which build up the story of the setting. In a Wicked Age keeps things vague so the players can build upon the pieces. Fiasco is the same way. Roll up a bunch of elements, but let the players decide as a group what the world is really like and the people present in it. It seems the trend it to give players more authority over how the world is shaped.

One of the best tricks I’ve seen to get players invested in a world is to have each of them tell the GM about the lands they come from. Society, life, commerce, culture, whatever they want, but every bit the players give is a boon to the GM: It’s little less work, more creative material to pull from, and when the stuff a player created shows up at the table they’ll be more invested in those moments. That energy can and will infect your other players creating a win-win situation. I heard this trick from Chad on Fear the Boot. I also have been using this trick without realizing it for a while. Once and a while I ask my players for things they’d like to see in the game which gives me bit of inspiration to work with and lets them assist in building the world.

A lot of these ideas come from things I’ve heard, read, and internalized. Maybe they’re not for every one. I’m not above thinking I’m off here. Inventing relationships between players and NPC’s might not be considered traditional world building. Maybe its plot or conflict construction but I still think anytime a player engages in an activity which creates something, be it a relationship, NPC, plot, race, country, or world, I consider it world building. They’re creating history with every action. They’re creating something everytime they speak in character or act. I just think GM’s shouldn’t just listen to players when they’re acting but actively encourage them to build up the world right along with them.

As always feel free to comment. I love a good discussion and am always trying to learn more.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

May 03 2012

From the Other Side – A Players Perspective

I GM most of the games I play in these days but a few years back I was playing in a weekly game and running a weekly game. It was pure bliss. All the while I was learning all kinds of things since I got to see how things worked from both sides of the screen. I dealt with the frustrations, triumphs, trends of my dice (both good and bad), the twists and turns of the story, and all the up and downs as GM and player. Today I wanna talk a little bit about the things I learned from the player side such as player expectations, what I can and can’t get away with as a GM, and what gets players excited. I think the most important thing I learned was players have just as much responsibility for creating a fun and exciting gaming environment as the GM. That means we, as players, are not to wait for the GM to entertain us. Let me say it one more time because it’s important.

We are not to wait for the GM to entertain us.

Ok, now that I’ve said it twice I suppose I should explain what I mean if you’re not sure. If you think you know just keep reading to see if we agree. If we don’t leave a comment so I can see what you think. I’m always trying to learn.

I believe it’s the players job to help engage the GM and the other players at the table and here are some of the ideas players can use to do so:

  • Bring energy to the table. If you bring energy to the table as a player and believably to your character then any GM worth their salt will feed on that energy. Now energy doesn’t just mean be over bearing and bouncy. It mean come with an interest in what’s going for all the characters and be supportive to the story.
  • Give the other players at the table insight into what a characters belief structure is. So you’re bent on vengance because your father murdered your mother while you stood by and watched helplessly. You probably have some issues. How would a character act if this was their defining moment? What other defining moments does this character have? How would those affect their development? Once you answer some of these questions the only thing you need to be aware of is this game is about cooperative storytelling. That means you need to find a way to open up this information to the rest of the group. It doesn’t have to be all at once. It doesn’t even have to be nice, but try and remember the basic structure of the game your playing and work your story into it. It helps to find another character who is most likely to help you tell your story which leads to the next point.
  • Help each other bring out the backrounds, quirks, and stories of the characters. If you find ways to relate to each others characters stories or create sympathetic strands between the characters lives the information goes from being something in the backround of the game to a tool binding the characters together. This helps drive group decisions and creates group cohesion. This also gives the GM’s fodder with which to work. Now the GM has more tools to create compelling situations specific to things the characters care about.
  • Make a declaration and roll with it. Just because you haven’t said it yet or don’t have it written on your character sheet doesn’t mean it can’t be true. There are plenty of times in storytelling when we find out something about a character that we didn’t realize before but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Trust me when I say writers don’t always have these connections and background bits in some master outline they write from and never stray off of. Sometimes they just write in things that make sense for the character and help drive the story forward. You can do that too. Things aren’t truths about the game world your playing in until they’re stated and even then they can be changed through perceptions and preconceived notions.
  • Don’t dominate the table. If you have a big mouth don’t take the spotlight all the time and when you do take the spotlight try to share it with others or shine it on someone else. I know a guy who shows up all the time to games and is a decent player but he’s a spotlight guy. When the spotlight is on him he’s engaged and doing his thing but when it’s not he’s just sort of sitting back and waiting for his time to come around again. There’s nothing wrong with this but I always think of games as ensemble casts. Sometimes the ensemble is helping build the scene together, sharing ideas, and including people in them. Recognize those moments. Push to be inclusive and not a solo act. It will allow you to act more often and engage the other people at the table.
  • The GM should not be the sole creator of content for your games. Depending on the game you can suggest things you’d like to see in the game. This can be through character conversation and action, asking the GM, or you can just declare it if the game give the players that much narrative control. Some GM’s will chafe at this style because they aren’t good at improvising but those GM’s will hopefully realize this actually makes their lives easier. It means they don’t always need to come up with the plot or the story. The players can take some of that responsibility for starting these arcs and it’s on the GM’s to help the players resolve them for good or ill.
  • Don’t be afraid to give the GM idea’s, especially if they would cause you more trouble. RPG’s are about telling stories which is a kind of fun. Stories are about drama and drama is created through conflict. Since trouble is just a kind of conflict that means trouble equals more fun. So giving your GM idea’s to cause you more trouble is actually giving your GM ideas so you can have more fun. Can you ken it.

That’s all I got this week folks. Let me know what you’re thinking and if you have other ideas to bring more fun to the group from the players seat.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 26 2012

Beyond Skills

I always love those moments in stories where the main character looks like a beaten broken mess on the ground but they just keep getting up and digging a little deeper to keep going. It not because their tough; they’ve already gone way beyond their limit. It’s because the character has something worth fighting for, something beyond their training, and beyond physical limitations. They’re fighting for an ideal, a goal, something that matters to them. They have the Will to push through and succeed. Those are the kind of moments I want to have in games. The question is how do we get there?

I’m a fan of Aspects in the FATE system. For those who don’t know what FATE is it’s a game system developed by Evil Hat Productions and is the engine behind Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG. FATE uses Fudge dice, which are six sided dice with a plus symbol on two sides, a minus symbol on two sides, and two blank faces. In FATE you would roll four of these dice, total up the pluses and minuses, add or subtract the total from the attribute you’re testing to accomplish your task, and compare it to the challenge rating to see if you succeed or fail. Your attributes or skills in FATE range from one to five so this mechanic can have some serious variability on the success or failure during a test.  I like to think of this dice mechanics along with a characters skill set as one half of the FATE engine. The other half comes in the form of FATE points and Aspects.

If your skills define what you can do your Aspects define who you are and what you care about. FATE points allow who the character is and the things the character cares about to matter mechanically. If you find yourself in a situation where one of your Aspects might matter you can tag it and get a plus two bonus to your roll. If you remember most skills are rated from one to five so a plus two is a huge shift. It means who you are matters as much as what you can do in this game. The mechanics make it so. Now this isn’t supposed to be a FATE review or me gushing about the system. The point is the concept. I want my games to have characters where who they are and what they can do are of equal importance mechanically. This also needs to help reinforce the storytelling that occurs within the game.

I play a fair amount of D&D. I’m trying to move away from it and change the culture of the gaming groups I’m in. The thing is I don’t want to move sideways. What I mean is I don’t want to play Pathfinder because that’s just another game where who you are is much less important mechanically than what you can do. I’ve considered Savage Worlds because of the benny system but it seems a little weak to me. GM’s in Savage just sort of hand out bennies for whatever they feel like. A lot of times it’ll be for playing up your hindrances which is very cool along with being FATE like. Just for reference Savage Worlds did come first but their hindrances evolved from disadvantages from GURPS while FATE’s aspect system evolved from the traits found in Over the Edge. At least if you follow the game design family tree it looks that way.

Sorry I got a little side tracked. Back to my point about D&D and how I’m trying to move away from it and change the culture of the groups I play with. What I do is insert ideas from other games into D&D. With the idea of Aspects and FATE points I’ve tried a few things. First I tried just hacking Dresden and D&D 4e together and had great success. I used the Dresden City creation to make a Barony with my three players. I had them create 7th level characters mechanically and then I had them go through the background creation found in Dresden. This created high concepts, troubles, and stories where some of the other characters would guest star in other characters stories. I also re wrote the progression system from Dresden for this game since Dresden doesn’t use experience. It has milestones. I decided people would never level up but could get advancements of the minor, medium, or Major type and had guidelines for all those things. Since D&D uses a D20 I changed tagging Aspects from a plus two to a plus four and also had some specific rules for certain players like the druid. If they wanted to shape shift into something they couldn’t normally change into they could with a Fate point assuming it was within reason. I’d probably rewrite that to be a little more grounded these days but it worked for the game we were playing. Also, all the characters could basically stunt their abilities with a FATE point as long as it stayed within the characters high concept.

In the end I really got what I wanted from that game. There was still a nice level of tactical combat but the characters desires and beliefs as pertaining to their aspects mattered just as much. They played into the combat and social situations. It made the more cinematic scenes have more weight and option for the characters other than trying to figure out what skill to use. It just made for a more robust game. It also took a lot of work.

There are quicker ways to get more in character actions than hacking a game like that. You can just use a benny like system and tack it onto your D&D or Pathfinder game. It works really well. In D&D4e you can use a character theme or a couple of backgrounds as tags for gaining chips. Act along with your characters theme or backgrounds and get a chip. Spend a chip and re-roll a d20 roll. If you don’t like re-rolls and your more interested in having a resource that can accomplish things make the chips +2 bonuses on a d20 roll you can use after the roll. Make it more useful by saying a player can spend as many of the chips on a single D20 roll as they want to make something happen. If you want a more gambling mechanic you can ask the player how many chips they want to spend? If you want to be nice you let them keep the chips if they don’t accomplish the task. If you want to be mean you take the chips even if they fail. In any case the point is if the character is played to its theme or background the player gets a chip. That single change right there will give your players more incentive to play to the characters character instead of just their skill set. In Pathfinder you can use their themes in much the same way. You might have to make some adjustments to things like spell casting saving throws, maybe a single chip equals a negative one on the saving throw or negative two. I’ve never done it in a Pathfinder game but I’m sure you Pathfinder players can figure it out now that you have a concept work from.

Well there it is, an idea for how to make the mechanics of your game support the characters character. Please feel free to let me know what you think here in the comment thread or send me an email at chris@misdirectedmark.com.

Keep on gaming,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 19 2012

My Love Letter to Pax

I had the fortune to attend Pax east this year. Now that I’ve had a week to absorb the experience, and deal with our largest local Gaming, Anime, and Fandom con, (AKA UBCon) I wanted to write about the experience I had as a table top gamer at a predominantly video game fan convention.

I love Pax East. Of all the conventions I attend it is the most different for me. There are video game companies set up in the Boston Convention Center with massive booths and displays showing off all kinds of incredible games. Some of them have life sized statues and others have vehicles they got inside the convention center as part of their displays. There were even a few paid actors dressed up as characters from the games to help promote them. It’s was an intense weekend with fifty thousand attendees all there to experience the things they love. I was there for Wizards of the Coast to help DM D&D games for anyone who wanted to play. I ran my fair share including a play test for the forthcoming D&D Next and participated in the DM Challenge competition. I came in fourth. I wasn’t pleased but that just means I’ll have to get back there next year and win. For you gamer’s out there the DM challenge this year was to bring your best seventh level adventure around the theme of the elemental chaos. You bring everything; the characters, the adventure, and all the skill you have. You run the game for a table of five to six people you’re randomly given for four hours and then they score you on several categories such as presentation, story, skill as a DM, characters relevance to the story, ect. The winner is the person with the highest score. This year is was Melissa Lewis-Gentry. I got to chat with her for a moment afterwards and Melissa was very gracious in her victory. She was a little busy so I didn’t get to hear what her adventure was about but I am looking forward to competing against her next year.

As much fun as I had with the DM challenge and the D&D Next play test (I can’t talk about it. I signed an NDA.) I think the best part of Pax is playing with the people who aren’t RPG table top gamer’s. You get a lot of people like that at Pax. The crowd is more into video games. I enjoy this situation because the players don’t come to the table with a lot of preconceived notions. If they do they aren’t very solid and I blow them up in the first twenty minutes. I feel like it’s a chance to show off the hobby to people on the edges of our type of game, bring new players to the fold, and give back a little to the hobby which has given me so much. Les Foster, one of the marshals for organizing the tables, said it best:

I like Pax because of the all the happy gamers who are here. I’ve been able to look around and see parents playing D&D with their kids and friends having a great time together. Marshaling is work but it’s worth it to be in this atmosphere. Seeing these people who don’t normally play D&D with smiles on their faces hanging out and having fun together makes Pax for me.

Like I said, Les couldn’t of said it better and I agree with him. That’s all I got for now. Talk to you soon and keep gaming.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 12 2012

Don’t Fight the Police

There’s a saying Jim Rome of sports talk radio fame uses quite often whenever some athlete gets in trouble with the law.

“Don’t fight the police because they have friends.”

I’m sure your asking how this relates to role playing games. Well, if the game you’re playing has a civilization of some sort there will probably be law enforcement agencies associated with it.  Players are notorious for being vagrants and while they might be able to take out a typical law enforcer the problem arises when those guys call their friends. If it’s a modern or future game those friends are just a call away. If it’s a lower tech game then the posse can get mounted up and constantly hound the offenders until they’re caught or killed. Plus, there is always the network of wanted posters and criminal lists floating around to cause your players trouble. My point is aimed at the GM’s out there. Law enforcement is a viable organization you can use to hound your players.

If your still not sure about law enforcement as an opposed force to the players just think about how upset we get as a society when someone attacks a police officer. What happens when they get arrested? From everything I’ve heard they come out of the clink with a lot more bruises than they went into it with and I’m sure it wasn’t the drunks or thugs in there with them who dished them out. A lot of us might think rebelling against the man is a romantic idea, and it is, but what happens when you inject a little reality into your games. If your players want to fight the law I like to give the law a good chance to kick’em in the head. Nothing wrong with a little beat down. Law enforcement agents should be good at what they do. They work together.They have training. and their learned skills lay in the ass kicking spectrum. Even that moderately over weight cop who likes donuts and coffee knows how to shoot his gun a lot better than your average Joe, and probably better than the punk who owns an illegal weapon. Part of these guys jobs is to train and keep in shape. They drill and workout, get time on the shooting range, spar, and they tend to do this together making for a tight unit.

Remember how I was talking about how you shouldn’t fight the police because they have friends. Well what happens when the shit hits the fan and the regular law enforcement can’t handle the situation. You go up the ladder and start calling in the heavy hitters. SWAT comes to mind for local law enforcement but if you you start messing with governments and those levels of organizations you start running into the CIA, FBI, and NSA level groups. These people are bad asses and not just because they can beat you senseless. They have resources beyond what local government could have, information streams that reveal your players hiding places, friends, families, and those other things that matter to you. At that point you can start using Big Brother to keep your players on their toes and bring a real sense of being hunted. Make them feel the paranoia and insecurity they’ve brought upon themselves. Work it into a lower tech setting and you can have the dark lanterns as they do in Eberron or the Marshals like they did in the Wild West. Be creative but make them threatening because they shouldn’t be pushovers.

To close I’d just like to say using law enforcement as an antagonist can be fun but you need to be careful to not over do it and frustrate your players. Still. If you happen to have a group who likes to ignore the law in civilized places arrest them, thrown em in a holding center with some of the drug dealing, assault charged, doped out scumbags of your world, and don’t be afraid to have them sleep in urine, preferably not their own.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 05 2012

Gaming as a Conversation

I was reading someones post as a referral from the Old School Gamers group on Facebook. I lurk there and read stuff but don’t say to much. In any case the blog post had some comments in it about skill checks being like buttons the players can press similar to video games. In other words the players will say things like

“I want to roll diplomacy to convince the guy.”

or

“I want to roll athletics to jump over the gap.”

That’s a viable play style. I know people who play their games like that. I’m not interested in that kind of game at all. I’m also not interested in games where the mechanics get out of the way of the game. Like those sessions people talk about where no one rolled a die and we “Role Played” out everything. I don’t even know if this is a play style. It’s more like an improv exercise, which can be fun, but where’s the game. If your GM made you make some decisions, like forcing you to choose between things your character values, and there were repercussions, then sure, you were playing some sort of game, even if you weren’t engaging the mechanics of the actual game you’re playing. I’m not so interested in this game either. Sure, it can be fun, but it’s lacking something for me.

Somewhere in the middle is a blend. Games where you’re telling a story and the mechanics support the story being told. I especially like games with the idea of having a conversation and the mechanics of the game intercede at points of drama. I got this idea from Vincent Baker, creator of Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Kill Puppies for Satan, and other great games. Apocalypse World has the game set up as a conversation where the GM has an agenda but the agenda is about creating an interesting game for the players while staying true to the setting and fiction. In play the GM and players have a conversation, trying to stay immersed in the world as much as possible, and when something in the fiction occurs that requires resolution the mechanics engage, dice are rolled, the situation is resolved, and the conversation continues with the aftermath of the conflict to be reacted to as part of the fiction. There’s a lot more to it in Apocalypse World than that, but the idea is the game is a conversation, and the mechanics engage when necessary to support and move the story.

Apocalypse World works as a rule book because it tells us how we should play the game. A lot of other games are more vague. They give us mechanics to resolve situations or actions but they don’t tell us how those mechanics interact with our stories. They’re more like tool boxes. I like tool box games because they’re freeing. They leave it up to us as GM’s to design what we want out of the game. It’s important to realize what these tool boxes do well and what they’re weak at resolving. Once we understand this we can change our games to achieve the feels we want or pick a different game that does.

I try to run games with a conversational feel. Even in the midst of super tactical gridded combat I insert conversation. When the initiative rolls around to an NPC and the bullets are flying, or spells are being flung, I would suggest you don’t stop the conversation. Engage your mechanics then go right back to the story every time. When you don’t quite hit your target number give it a moment in the fiction to say how your character just wasn’t good enough or how the baddy you were going after was really impressive in that moment. Maybe you’ll find an aspect of the game you never realized you were missing.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Mar 29 2012

Bang, now what do you do?

A bang is a situation you throw at a character or group of characters and watch how they react. There isn’t something to overcome, just a choice.

Bangs are something I heard about on a podcast. Go figure. Me, hearing about something gaming related on a podcast. It was on the Walking Eye during a conversation between the shows primary host Kevin and Clyde from Theory from the Closet. You can hear their conversation here. From there I went on to check out story games (a forum dedicated to bringing more story out in all games) and started reading about bangs. Then I moved onto the best of Story Games section on their forum and started reading about bang types. You can check out the whole post here but I’ll try to summarize.

Bang Types

Dilemma Bangs: You take two things the character values equally and make the character choose one over the other.

Multivariate Bang: The character has no clear choice but can do “anything”.

Unary Bang: The choice comes from a single value instead of two as in the dilemma bang.

Escalation Bang: You do the same bang as a previous bang but alter the stakes slightly.

Raymond Chandler Bang: The universal survival bang. People come in guns blazing but the bang comes not from surviving but in the dealing with anything going on during the situation, innocent bystanders, valuable objects, ect., and the aftermath.

Omnipresent Values Bang: Bang a value that is accepted as universal, such as sexuality, family, gender roles. Something a character might not have on their character sheet but a person will generally have some reaction to.
Identity Bang: You challenge some value central to the characters identity.

Win Repercussion Bang: You take a clear win and confound it.

The credit for this list should go to Mike Holmes and Josh Roby. Mike put the idea’s out there and Josh shortened the list to three sections. The above are types of Bangs. Josh felt there were player responses and ways to apply bangs.

Player Responses

Batman Bang: The player chooses not to choose and raises the stakes of the situation in some way in an attempt to choose all values. Think of the Riddler situation at the end of the third batman movie.

Player Instituted Bang: One of the other players creates a bang in the fiction with his character. This is not a bang off a bang but just a player creating a bang. It might feel like PvP but I suggest you just run with it and facilitate the situation by involving all the players.

Accidental Bang: Sometimes you don’t mean to set up a bang and it just sort of happens. A player is confronted with a difficult choice. These are gold so pay attention to the outcome as it will tell you and the player a lot about their character.

Ways to Apply

Multi-Player Bang: This hits more than one character in terms of shared values.

Cross-Player Bang: This hits more than one character but each character has a different value affected. This usually leads to lots of character interaction.

Emergent Bang: You throw out a situation in which you know it will affect the characters values but your not sure which values the characters will attach to the situation so you feel is out and react to the players as you play. The bangs result emerges through play.

As I said earlier these are ideas I’ve heard about and started to look into. I know I’ve been doing them for a long time without realizing it. Now I have a name and concept to associate with so Bangs are a solid tool in my GM tool box. Check out the links and go through story games. There’s a lot of good information there for all types of games.
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

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