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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Two – Terms of Endangerment

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Sorry for the darkness of the picture, it was that or a glossy shine that obscured the cover art

Day Two of the #RPGaDay challenge is ‘your first RPG Gamemastered’. Mine was Unhallowed Metropolis, a post-apocalyptic-steampunk-zombie-survival game. It’s an enjoyably batty game with one of the best settings I’ve ever read and an unfortunately flawed rules system. In running games (I haven’t actually run very many) I have found that the most important thing going in is for the GM to manage the players’ expectations and assumptions. It’s something that can be difficult to do, as it requires being brutally honest about what a game is going to involve and be about, and there’s always the lingering fear that you might end up without any players as they all decide it isn’t for them. Human beings don’t like rejection, but I’ve been in enough games where the Terms of Engagement weren’t made clear right at the start to know that it’s much better to be brutal at first and happier in the long run. I ran into this problem with the two campaigns I’ve done, Unhallowed Metropolis and Witch Hunter: the Invisible World. I think part of the problem was that I didn’t know what  was planning for those campaigns, and it was also that I hadn’t run any games before, so I didn’t understand the kind of job the GM has to do. To be fair to them, my players in both games were brilliant. In Unhallowed Metropolis, I had some who were into the super emotional backstory stuff and some who were more into the immediate ‘shoot zombies a lot’ stuff, whereas I wanted to run a horror game, so I knew that the emotional stuff had to feed into horror directly and the zombies should feel like a terrifying enough threat, even with the players’ ridiculous armoury. In many ways, I feel that my fail at setting out my campaign before it started was saved by the fact that my players were so happy to respond to where I wanted to guide the campaign, even if the combat characters didn’t always have something to do and the social characters sometimes felt like they weren’t in the right arena. I still feel pretty proud of it, even today, but it could have gone very wrong.

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‘Firefight’ by meluran. Source: http://handcannononline.com/blog/2011/08/11/unmet/

Witch Hunter, on the other hand, is a game I feel proud of but also a little sad about. I knew what I wanted to run, and could have answered easily if my players had asked, but I wasn’t confident enough to explain it fully. I particularly wasn’t confident enough to say that the grumpy anti-social woodsman and the foppish French aristocrat couldn’t easily both be accommodated by many scenarios. I deliberately jumped my own shark by including a comedy Christmas game (it involved a cakeomancer who was stealing hearts to craft his gingerbread army) but I acknowledged that trying to force the game into something I hadn’t ever explicitly set out wasn’t doing anyone any favours. Instead of full-on survival horror in an unforgiving colony, I went for action with a dash of humour and occasional moments of horror, and it worked fine. I can still make my players shudder by reminding of the Patch Jack that they thought they were escaping, only to realise it was keeping up with their horses. Ultimately, I think my players had fun, but it was only when I loosened my hold on the reins a bit and let the game be what it was going to be that it worked. It wasn’t what I originally envisioned, but it was fun. So, even if you find that your beautifully-crafted campaign of subtle political intrigue is changed by the players into a guns-blazing game of big damn heroes, try going with it and see whether it’s fun after all. Stuff I now endeavour to do before pitching a game: – Even if you don’t know precisely what’s going to happen in a campaign, make sure you have a rough idea of the tone and what you want to run. – Make some suggestions about what kinds of characters or focuses would be appropriate and if there’s something you really don’t want in the game, make it very clear from the start. – Consider the fact that players will do what is fun for them, so you may end up having to compromise. That’s OK, role-playing is a collaborative thing. If you want a story that they will receive passively and not change, write a novel and avoid the fan fiction communities. Players will get much more out of a responsive GM who allows them to explore what they want to explore rather than keeping them to a strict plot or tone. – Have a talk with your players about the game and really listen. If they don’t know much about the setting or system, explain it in a way that emphasises the focus of your game. If they do know the setting or system or have played it before, talk to them about what’s happened in games they’ve played, which bits interest them and try and root out their assumptions about the game. That way, you can either make it clear that your game is different or incorporate them rather than being surprised by them. – If possible, try and get the players together to gen. It’s a faff, I hate doing it, but it means you can have a nice talk with them before hand about all the above and you won’t end up with two characters playing the same archetype – or if you do, they’ll do it in different ways. As a GM, it’s really important to respond to your players, but it’s also important to know your own mind as well. If a game isn’t going how you want it to, instead of letting it fizzle as you lose enthusiasm, round it off with a bang over a couple of sessions and then move on to something else, or try a new pitch and new players. You actually have nothing to lose. Links: Atomic Overmind Press, which published the revised edition of Unhallowed Metropolis. I really hope they fixed the rules, because it’s a game that deserves a lot more love. Vernian Process is a steampunk band who did some songs about Unhallowed Metropolis. RPG.net review of UnMet.

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day One – Jacking In

cyberspace It’s August, which means it’s #RPGaDay month. Day One is ‘The first RPG you ever played.’ For me, it was D20 Modern with a fan-made Matrix mod. Today’s blogpost is going to be about cyberspace or its equivalent in games because while the game was fun (and the Matrix mod was generally pretty good), being inside the Matrix was pretty annoying. Obviously, that’s what a big chunk of the game was about, so it was an early critical awakening for me. Cyberspace/dreamspace/the Matrix/the Ether/the Astral is a concept that has a great deal of potential for roleplaying games. It allows you to work with impossible places and concepts that already have their roots in pure imagination. It also allows for more cinematic fight scenes and spurs the players to be creative. For instance, we’re all familiar with the leather-clad Matrix versions of the escaped humans (called residual self images, or RSIs in the game). Getting a player, even a fairly new player, to describe ‘how your character sees themselves’ is a powerful engagement tool. However, I don’t think I’ve been in a game that handled the concept of mental projections and the implied change in character stats that comes with it well. It makes sense that the strength of a character’s mind might be important in a cyber/dream realm, and in fact it can add a really cool dynamic to play if their ability to understand the concepts of a realm of pure thought gave them an edge (but also put them at risk). Some systems take the approach of having the same stats in the real and cyber worlds, but that is always a little odd – if the muscle-bound fighter is strong in real life, why would he or she be strong in a world where their physical muscles have no bearing on their strength? If, instead, it is based on the way they think of themselves (so they may even be slightly stronger in the other world), then why can’t the braniac imagine themselves super strong as well as already being super smart? If they can’t reshape the world or bend the rules of physical reality, surely that’s losing some of the point of having a dream world? I won’t go into all of the different iterations here (partly because there are many) but here are a few examples:

  • The Matrix mod used people’s mental stats as were and then substituted their mental stats for their physical ones as well. This was sub-optimal, as it meant that the physical characters were terrible for half or more of the game.
  • Cyberspace in Cyberpunk 2020 involved a whole new set of skills which were dealt with separately, but as Netrunners were only one kind of character, it was fairly rare that they’d get to go and do Netrunning, and the rest of the characters would be sitting around while they did so.
  • The Astral in Mage: the Awakening is a place that any Mage can go to, and they will have the same stats, but their magic may well work differently there, their willpower becomes their health and someone who isn’t skilled in the Astral and goes outside their own personal dreamspace is likely to get eaten by gribblies. Unfortunately, without an Astral-focused party, it’s a specialisation that comes up relatively rarely. At least when it does, everyone can join in.

This all attests to the difficulty of handling the concept of an electronic/dream/conceptual world for the characters to play around in, but it’s such a rich source of cool visuals and badass fights that it seems a waste not to use it well. To that end, I think that in a setting with a conceptual or intellectual other world, the characters’ stats should remain the same (so a character who can punch stuff can still punch stuff) but the other possibilities should expand. The games master should encourage creativity in dealing with problems, since the possibilities are endless. Options might include having a dedicated skill to interacting with the dream environment and shaping it, but assigning the stat (assuming a stat + skill system) based on what the character is trying to do and what stat they would use for it in the real world. Alternatively, you could give characters a kind of template to put on top of their physical world characters when they go into the conceptual space. So the fighter has strength and weapon skills, but when they go into the dream world, they are essentially given another short bit of character creation with extra feats, merits, powers or whatever that provide them with things that other characters can’t do. All characters should be able to go into this other world and do cool stuff. It’s ridiculous to build in a system that alienates some characters and uplifts others in a game that should be about playing with what those characters can do. It means that spending a decent amount of game time in this other world is fun.dreamspace I am sure that there are games out there doing this stuff, or much better stuff, with conceptual space already. I am so excited about WILD because I want to see how it handles dream space play. However, in closing words to this ramble, I would encourage GMs to consider the dynamics of cyber/dream spaces in their games if they’re planning on including it, both in terms of mechanics and how well it will fit into the narrative of the game (will it slow things down? How many characters will be involved? Will I have to come up with tenuous reasons to send people there?) before including them, and fiddle with the mechanics and setting to try and make the most of an amazing opportunity to wow your players with impossible beauty and inspire them to think creatively.