Apr 25 2012

Episode #8 – Campaign Foundations

008 – Campaign Foundations :

This week we have Dave back with us, one half of the Tangent Twins, to chat a little about first sessions of campaigns and the foundations of great campaigns. We also talk about Table Top, Wil Wheaton’s new show on the You Tube station Geek and Sundry and some of our more embarrassing encounters with gaming and geek celebrities.

Show Notes

1:45 – Table Top

8:55 – Embarrassing Gaming Celebrity Stories

15:40 – Campaign Foundations

42:35 – Final Thoughts


Table Top 
R.A. Salvatore
Sons of Alamar
American Times
Wil Wheaton
Mike Mearls
Critical Hits
Fred Hicks
Don’t Rest Your Head
Evil Hat
Darth Plagueis
Dresden Files
Apocalypse World
Shining Force
Marvel RPG
Young Justice
House of M


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  1. Chris Sniezak

    Well I agree that that is an antiquated and possible method of group template and character creation. The thing is establishing these framework first sessions is a game in and of themselves and creates player authority. This is my feel for why Wargamers are not necessarily better RPG players. It’s because they are so focused on the battle they can’t tell or set up the individual stories and connections the players have with in the world or they’ve poured over the back story in their codex that they have firm understandings of the world and can set into it firmly. All RPG’s are not the grim dark world of 40K or Warhammer Fantasy. I love those worlds but sometimes the set up and the player agency the game of the set up allows us to have is just as much fun as the actual game and helps to establish the characters into the setting. RPG’s are a conversation with some mechanics to help dictate the flow of a story when the players aren’t sure what’s going to happen. War games are a battle to see which side is victorious. Are there stories in War Games? Sure. Is that the point? Not really. Story is the point of an RPG. These first sessions allow for this. They aren’t for character sheet building but for character cohesion building because after a while the we’re adventurers in a bar is just not fun anymore. But I have to run and will respond more later. Thanks for the comment. I love the debate. I also don’t think anything is wrong with your approach.

    1. Chris Sniezak

      I have a little more time so I guess I can explain a little more what I mean about first sessions and why while I agree with your method I don’t think it’s the only one. There is an idea out there that RPG’s are a creative endeavor by a group of people. That means the game is not only the GM’s and the players are along for the ride. To this we have games that have framework sessions or first sessions which act as foundation sessions. These sessions are built as little games themselves and create a fun and creative atmosphere. They are part of the game. They also do something the traditional method doesn’t and that is involve the players in the creating the story they want to tell together. It gives the players a chance up front to talk about the things they want to see and accomplish in their story telling. Games no longer have to be a ride on the GM’s train. Actually I really hate games like that. I’d rather read a book because there isn’t many GM’s I’m just gonna roll with. That’s not why I play RPG’s. I play to find out what happens and have an effect on the story. Not to be a pawn. Sure, you could do the set up stuff separate and have a short meeting just before hand but there is a lot that can go wrong and I’ve seen so many games crash when approached from that manner. Getting into the action is fine once you get going. I’m a fan of the in media rez intro or cold open for a scene where the bullets are flying and no one knows what’s going on but it’s a lot more satisfying when you know your place in the world, what you believe and have that connective tissue between the other characters so while your thinking what the heck is going on at least you know where you stand with your compatriots and in the world. Then you can pressure them.

      By the way a Bang is pressure. Banging a situation is putting a hard choice on a player. There’s no right answer but there sure is a consequence no matter what they choose. That’s pressure. It’s not just oh my god we need to stop the bugs from storming that ridge or we’ll lose the flank (Challenge) It’s we can stop those bugs from storming the ridge and save the flank of the army but if we do then they’ll over run that settlement where my wife and new born child lives. (Bang and much more grim) Will you let the people you love die or will you let your compatriots and friends you’ve fought and died with die. Now that’s pressure.

      For examples of games with first session mechanics see the following: The Dresden Files RPG, Mouse Guard, Smallville, Apocalypse World, Misspent Youth, Dogs in the Vineyard, Blowback, Spirit of the Century.

      1. Hoff

        To reply to your reply:

        I think you made a few assumptions on what I was saying because the buzzword ‘wargming’ was used in my post.

        The first and biggest thing, is that I am not referring to combat solely when I’m talking about pressure. Combat is a form of pressure, but there’s a lot of things you can do to open a campaign with some conflict that doesn’t involve combat. In fact there are a lot of ways to get the ball rolling with conflict and not even have the PCs in any form of danger.

        Secondly, I’m not talking about railroading the PCs down a set path. I also hate those campaigns. PCs still need to shape their actions to how they want to handle problems. That is up to and including ignoring them if they don’t apply to their interest. However, I also don’t think you need to sit back as the GM and wait for the PCs to poke your world with a stick to see what happens. Stories, plots, happenings, etc. are supposed to be going on with or without them that will affect them no matter what.

        Where I think we disagree is that story is not the point of an RPG. Fun is the point of an RPG, and story is just one of the major tools. The most important in my opinion because that is what RPGs offer most strongly compared to other gaming options. My experience in getting people to have fun with a game, is to hook them quickly, give them something to hold to from the beginning and create the momentum so that they do evnetually take the reigns. Easing PCs in to a setting and awaiting them to figure out what to do only works in veteran settings with a group that knows each other. It’s a specialized approach that isn’t as useful in the majority of situations. And can be much less effective when you’re looking to recruit new people into the group, or more importantly, into the Hobby as a whole. And a GM has the important role of being the gatekeeper of that fun. Yes the PCs are playing in the sandbox and can do whatever they want, but somebody has to put the sand there.

        And remember; my rose tinted glasses are always from the perspective of 1.) getting people to have fun, 2.) getting new people into the gaming hobby who normally don’t/”can’t”/wouldn’t do it.

        Getting people to have fun: Is tougher in RPGs because there are even more approaches to it then other games. You’ve got to come at it divorced of preconceptions and assumptions and tap into each player’s personal niche enjoyments. However, I always believe it is better and more effective to GET them to have fun by creating momentum then merely sit back and LET them have fun and hope for the best.

        Getting people into the hobby: First sessions are even more critical. This is the chance you have to get them hooked, and confirm their suspescions were correct: this is something they will enjoy and want to do well after this one time. This makes preparation as a separate experience more critical. You need to have a chance to go over rules, sheet building, questions then and there so that when they start the action, they are diving right into it, having prepped with you to build up a framework of comfort and get them into the heart of the game.

        Again, what you view as something to do in a first session, I view as preparation work. Group e-mails discussing character backgrounds, connections, etc. Meeting for cofee, conference calls, whatever. Also again; helps ensure people wouldn’t miss a first session, all info is established, questioned, answered and locked in before the dice roll. Before the first session people should know their character. First session, they should be the character.

        As far as my criticism on the bangs, it’s the semantics behind it. Or more importantly, it’s the fact that you take something that should be consistent and natural, and codify it. Tools are important in RPGs, but the more you take something like plot points, or dilema, or conflicts and break them down into various kinds of bangs with many different labels, you’re only a few steps away from ending up with ‘Bang Charts’ in which a random dice role can plug in an orphan suddenly because that is what the bang demands. Conflict can come suddenly, but I’d say thinking in those terms begins make it move from a natural occurence to a staged and more artificial feeling occurence. I see the need, but I see it also being the root of something cumbersome.

        1. Chris Sniezak

          There’s a lot there so I’ll try to address the points paragraph by paragraph:

          – Putting pressure on the characters is easier if you know who the characters are and that initial session can make that happen a lot easier because the ideas are flowing and is a creative atmosphere.

          – I don’t think you should rail road and I don’t think you should sit back and wait for the PC’s to poke the world with a stick. Once again the first session allows for people to get the idea’s they want out there so the GM can mesh them into a story everyone is interested in. It actually makes that first game play moment easier because you can hit them with something their characters care about and make them move easier.
          * I once again say the method of doing this over email or whatever social media you decide to use is really the same thing. It’s no different. I’ll get into why doing it face to face at the table these days is more fun in a bit and I’ll also get to the Fun is the point comment right now. It’s one of those pet peeves of mine.

          – Fun is the point of all games. Saying the point of the RPG is fun is sort of a silly statement. It’s like saying the point of watching TV is to be entertained but I’m still not entertained by Jersey Shore even if I’m watching TV. The point of an RPG is to tell a group story because that’s the kind of fun your looking for. People play war games because fun for them is models, skirmish or large scale combat, and those kinds of things. Peopl play board games because the fun there is about… well that’s a totally different topic because board games cover a vast variety of fun. So yeah, sure. The point of an RPG is to have fun but it’s a type of fun that’s within the storytelling medium. So maybe it’s better to say the function of an RPG is to allow a group of people to tell fun stories, ergo they have fun, ergo the point of an RPG is to tell a story. Now that my logic is established I can make my next point about games and fun. Actually look for my next blog post on Thursday May 3rd where I’ll talk about finding your kind of fun in gaming.

          Now for a quote:

          “Getting people to have fun: Is tougher in RPGs because there are even more approaches to it then other games. You’ve got to come at it divorced of preconceptions and assumptions and tap into each player’s personal niche enjoyments. However, I always believe it is better and more effective to GET them to have fun by creating momentum then merely sit back and LET them have fun and hope for the best.”

          – I don’t think it’s tougher anymore. I think it’s tough if you rely on games like D&D and the more traditional games. Newer games or “cutting edge of design” games, someone said that to me on facebook while they were arguing and I had a pretty good laugh at it, first sessions are games in and of themselves which create the momentum. I don’t let players sit back and hope for the best and I recommend you GMs out there don’t either. Go read the games I mentioned and do so divorced of preconceptions and assumptions and you’ll see what I mean. Now I’m going to be a little insulting and I’m sorry but I need to ask these questions to see where I should take this debate. Have you seen what games are doing these days? Do you understand that the stuff that people called prep work and was thought of as boring is now being used in design to create fun games for people to play? That’s where we’re going. I can understand how you feel about this topic if you haven’t. There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant to a subject. It’s one of the reasons I write these things so I can help people see there is more to gaming than just D&D, Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds. Those are all fine games but there is so much more out there now and it’s easier to get at than ever before. Yeah technology. If you do know about those new things going on then you either have a preference, which is fine, or you don’t like change, which is less fine. I don’t think it’s change because you seem pretty divorced of preconceptions and assumptions so I would suggest checking this stuff out. I’ve had lots of people who are just turned off by Traditional Games and the character creation of the games, because some people don’t like making characters or doing any of that work, love these games because character creation is a group activity, a social activity and RPG’s are social games. Now they want to play the games. It doesn’t even have to be a super deep first session system, and many of them aren’t. For instance just to put a little glue to a party you can do something as simple as this:

          “Look to the person on the right, write three sentences on an index card about how your character met that character.”

          After that we read them out loud so everyone knows then I would say:

          “Look to the character to your right. Tell me why you stay with that person. Only restriction is you need to have a reason and cant say you don’t want to.”

          Now my group has glue, it took 20 minutes, and it showed the players they have authorship of the story.

          After doing this five or six times and getting second place in Iron GM 2010 with this as my starter I started thinking maybe this player authorship over stories and using a game at the front end for the players might have some legs. Sure enough the many, and I do mean many in hundreds, of people I’ve run games for since then have richer gaming experiences from these set up games and first session games we use.

          You call it preparation I call it fun and try to make it a game.

          – Lastly on Bangs. If you don’t want to codify it that’s fine but things have definitions, they just do and just because it’s codified doesn’t make it a rule. It’s a tool. I’m very against this nebulous natural evolution of GM’s. I wish I had things like the Story Games message board and Play Dirty by John Wick when I was starting out as a GM. You’re assuming these things will turn into charts. That’s a fear technique and really nothing but propaganda. It’s like saying you shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun because eventually you’ll go out and shoot someone because you think they are evil. I mean come on. There’s no Bang charts coming and if some game designer does make a game that uses them, well, don’t play that game. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of RPG’s out there today all using different mechanics in different ways to tell different stories.

          I know I come at this stuff a little academically but I see nothing wrong with understand the concepts of the games we play so we can maximize our fun. In fact one of the biggest problems I see in game design is a lot of the big books and big games don’t tell us how to play their games so we can get the most out of them. Remember, once you house rule something you’re not playing the game as it was intended. I’m not saying you shouldn’t house rule things but I just want you to be aware of that. Newer games are more focused or give you tool boxes to create the games you want. D&D and Pathfinder are pretty explicit in their rules but I’ve never met anyone that plays those games by the book. It makes me wonder why people still play those games sometimes. Probably because they’re used to them. That’s actually a whole other topic so there’s two I’ve gotten out of this discussion. Thanks Mike and I’m looking forward to your response.

  2. Hoff

    (Please read all of the following in a positive, constructive tone, and not a whiney-gamer-complainer-criticizer-who-comments-about-stuff-that-they-can’t/won’t-do-themselves-waste-of-flesh)

    I applaud another entertaining podcast, but I disagree, good sirs, to your methodology behind campaign foundation.

    Let me make sure I have the points correclty (If they are not correct, or I misinterpreted, I may well be in the wrong with my own points later, so please check them):

    1.) You have a first session just going over background, connections with PCs, etc.
    2.) First session only has one encounter. Maybe. Which I assume is after hours of talk and paper work.
    3.) You are ‘easing’ your players into the game. (This is how I interpret your approach is summed up)

    I DO agree that the first session is the most important, but I think you are going about it in a way that is not maximizing fun or effort. And this is something I’d love to debate with you.

    1.) Before you do a session, a real and true session, you should have all prep work done with PCs including background, character design and plot points that lead them to the opening moments of the first session. It may be beneficial to have an initial (and brief) MEETING beforehand to let characters discuss this among themselves, especially in the case of a party that starts of knowing each other. They can also make sure they all know about the time and place to meet, and scheduling conflicts can be resolved and addressed (This one is for you Mark.) But all of this is PREPARATION not something to be done during an actual session.
    2.) The first session should get to the action AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. It’s like roping in anyone to a book or show or any form of entertainment, you’ve got to get them hooked with something BEFORE you mill around with super deep character interaction/development. And how you do this is: pressure. Put them under pressure immediately. Tough decisions, danger, introducing the ticking clock they need to beat, obstacle to overcome. Forge all you want through the pressure of something or things that are forcing them to MOVE. Forget ‘bangs,’ they will lead you to dark and boring places, Chris. Bang indicates quick sparks and bursts. Pressure should weigh upon your PCs like a heavily wollen cloak draped about their shoulders, it’s weight and drag an constant companion they must wrestle with if they want to survive, always changing forms and deft based upon the winds of change around them. You can make a person think about their character all you want with prep, and talking, etc. But you get them to CLING to that character by putting them through trials and hardships. And again, that needs to be done AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to make them care.

    THIS is what I was saying before that Wargamers make better RPers, Mark. We understand the necessity of flow and timing with pressure, and danger. You fellas need more Grim Dark in your games. We 40k types know that you gotta ‘Get Stuck-in, Boyz!’

    (As an example of Grim Dark: Mark, if I were a PC in your campaign, and a Goblin were selling dolls of my likeness, talking to people name ‘Joe Cuppa’ and ‘Harriet Dicebag’ and I found out a famine was caused because someone had a fascination with spaghetti sauce, I would kill myself to escape this nightmarish landscape in which my life has no meaning, for surely the Gods themselves have either abandoned us all to a world lacking any true divinity, or have trapped us in this twisted hell-scape to laugh at our trivial plights)

    Discuss! I am open (and hoping for) debate.

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