Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"You are a failure!"

Nobody likes to dwell on their past mistakes, so I'm going to give you the opportunity to revel in some of mine. I've fucked up plenty of times as a GM, whether I was having a bad day, or railroading a plotline, or not effectively communicating with the players, there have been plenty of times where I've done something at the gaming table and looked back on it thinking "Why did I do that? What is wrong with me?"

The empty crypt!
I ran a fantasy game for a long time where the PCs had set themselves up as pseudo-permanent guests in a castle far off the common trade routes. I had established that before the castle was a farming outpost it had been initially constructed as a prison, and the lower cells had been sealed up. In one particular session there was a big, bad magical field that sprang up out of the castle's ground, however it was invisible and only the resident wizard could see it. (In my notes I had written that this was a pathway to another realm and weird ghostly entities were now squeezing through it.)
The players decided they needed to know where this thing was coming from and wanted to stop it. Since it wasn't really coming from anywhere I didn't have any information to give them, but fumbling about led them to the blocked off prison cells and in my notes I had an elf ghost laying dormant down there. They spent at least an hour at the table and a couple of days in game time trying unblock the prison pathways and all of my efforts to make the attempts fruitless went unheeded and ignored. Eventually I just gave up at trying to make it hard and said "Look guys, there's nothing down there. Your solution is elsewhere."
What I should have done: Is run with it. I should have chucked my notes aside and just let them find something causing the rift. It didn't need to be movable, and it didn't need to be indestructible either, but it would have been something to discover that would have made their time worthwhile and it would have given them a new focus.

The mini-nuke
I ran a GURPS sci-fi game for about a year where one player had min-maxed his stats starting out so he had tons of money and equipment. He asked if he could purchase a mini-nuke from the Ultra-Tech sourcebook and at first I balked then I re-considered and said "Sure! Why not?" all the while thinking "It doesn't have to be a working mini-nuke." The player would always refer to his mini-nuke as a last ditch weapon that he could use, but at the same time his character kept it secret from all of the other characters. Eventually I got tired of him bringing up it's existence and a psionic entity probed his mind, discovered where it was, and stole it from him. He wasn't pleased.
What I should have done: Give him a reason to use it. I had already established in-game that a well-funded group of criminal scientists were hiring assassins to take them down. This was a planet-hopping science fiction campaign, so I could have easily put them in a situation where they were outgunned by other starships chasing them and he could have finally had an excuse to use his mini-nuke and save the day while destroying all of the enforcers this group was sending after them.

The poisoned patient
I ran another sci-fi game, a much shorter one, where the PCs had just given refuge to a dissident from a cult. Before they could leave, another cultist had poisoned the defector and after they left the planet the poison began to take hold. His condition became noticeable when he began to suffer from mania which eventually turned violent. The PCs sedated him and put him in sick bay hoping to rid him of the toxins coursing through his system. He was an unimportant character and I narrated that he was dead, but one of the characters was a medic and wanted the opportunity to save him. I allowed a dice roll and success after success kept the patient going. I think we rolled the dice six times and he just wouldn't die, until I made a Luck check for bringing him out of stasis and he finally bit the dust. In that moment I forgot about serving the needs of the players and was focusing on trying to get the game back to where I wanted it to go.
What I should have done: Just let the bastard live. He wasn't important in the grand scheme of things and could have easily just disembarked the ship at the next port, but I was being short sighted, because the character could have also become a reliable NPC contact for the group later on.

Nothing happened today
I ran a Deadlands game once where I planned out all of the events surrounding the players and I would write then print off the front page of the local paper to show them all what was happening in their town. Except I never had anything interacting with the players, and I relied upon them to interact with the town and create drama. I realized a little too late how boring that could be.
What I should have done: Let the players be the stars, not the spectators. This was an early attempt at GMing and at that time I believed I had to create elaborate stories and backstories for all of my NPCs and the events around them. Instead of letting it fall out of the playing organically, I had written a script which the players could interact with but really couldn't change anything. In that sense, I was merely showing off.

Roll to climb a rock
One of my very first experiences as a GM, I had people rolling dice for everything. There was a chase in a tunnel and the PCs had to climb over a rock to keep going. I made them roll dice, and when somebody failed their pursuers caught up to them and I suddenly didn't know what to do because they were being chased by violent guys who could easily kill them. The whole session lost steam halfway through because I broke out the dice for, literally, everything.
What I should have done: Not be so nervous. I really wanted to impress everybody at the table and I could tell I was making the game exciting, but the excitement of the players fed into my nervousness and my brain just started to shut down. If I called for a dice roll then that meant I didn't have to think, until I was faced with the ultimate worst possible result of one of those dice rolls.

After I first started GMing, I ran a D&D game for several years, but for the life of me I can't think of anything specific I did that was bad. But from what I can remember, I can't imagine it was a very fun game and I don't understand why any of those guys played with me for as long as they did. At least in high school when I ran a game there was seemingly nobody else to play with.

The 5 Rules for GMing

I apologize that these have a strong fantasy flavor to them. I initially wrote all of this in a series of emails as advice to fellow GMs who run D&D or OSR games. I've rewritten it, tried to polish it up, and put it into a concrete list of rules that I can quote later primarily for my own edification and use. I've been GMing wrong for a long time, and I think I'm finally beginning to understand how a good GM operates.

#1: The rules, and the dice, are to be ignored whenever it is necessary.
When Joseph Goodman wrote "Let the rules bend to you not the other way around" he encapsulated a key philosophy in playing a tabletop RPG without actually giving it lip service. We're all here to have fun. If the rules get in the way of that fun, then they deserve to be ignored. Rolling for everything is bad too, because sometimes a character should just succeed. Every time somebody wants to do something, ask yourself "Would failure here be fun for them?" and if the answer is "No." then skip the roll. Climbing a tree to get a better view of the forest? Navigating the southern coastline? Studying to find a vital clue? Or even, examining the mountain range to find the best place to camp for the night and avoid an ambush? Ignore the dice and just get on with the game.

#2: No adventure survives contact with the players.
An oldie but a goodie. Don't construct an elaborate meta-plot meant to be uncovered over the course of a campaign, just chuck it all out the window. You might start with an initial plotline or story or threat, but if the players are smart enough to come up with something that seems like a reasonable (or better) explanation for everything you've already established then just change things up mid-game and use a twisted version of what they think up. No heavy lifting necessary, and the players will think they're brilliant for guessing something that turned out to be more or less "correct." Don't ever expect the players to follow your path or go for your bait either. Their ingenuity in the face of conflict should drive the story, not a list of bullet points you wrote five weeks before they all made characters.

#3: No lying, motherfucker!
You can have deceitful contacts, betraying employers, and allies with their own greater self interests. But the players deserve honesty. You can have secrets, but you can't have tricks. You can have traps, but their spider-sense should be tingling. You can have double-crosses, but they should know they couldn't trust that back-stabbing bastard! Always drop plenty of clues about the real intentions of your characters, you don't need to tell players outright what you're planning, but they should have plenty of opportunities to notice that something smells fishy.

#4: Don't make hard decisions when the players or the dice could do it for you.
You really want that noble to survive this assassination attempt. You don't want the players to fell your boss monster quite so quickly. You don't want the players following those gypsies to the west because what you have planned lies in the east. We've all felt these moments as GMs where what we have planned, or what we expect, is not happening the way we would like. Our story is being twisted, our awesome NPC is about to be killed, or our plot points are being ignored. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, now abandon those feelings. They're wrong. We're not sitting at this table to hear your story, or reach the foregone conclusion that you've decided between sessions, we're here to create a story together. In those moments you need to sit back and let the players' actions dictate the course of the story. Your prized NPC may die, but they have family that might seek revenge, don't they? Your dragon has just been killed and his treasure plundered, but nothing paints a target on somebody's back like spending a lot of money, right? If you abandon the story too much the action will begin to falter, and if the players aren't decisively plotting a course for themselves then you'll need to break out the dice and start cracking some skulls.

#5: Be a fan of the players' characters.
This comes from D. Vincent Baker word for word. Your job as a GM is not to be adversarial, your job is to make things fun and interesting. You can do this more effectively by giving them difficult decisions and adding consequences to their actions than you can by simply challenging them with dice rolls or taking away their stuff. Let the characters bask in glory and never deny them the success they've earned. When they've changed the landscape through their actions let those changes radiate out into the world. You're not playing from an "official campaign guide" so you can let your world adapt to the PCs in positive ways when they succeed and in worse ways when they fail, and even if you were using some "official campaign guide" that thing is just a guide not a bible. Put the fucking thing down once in a while! When the PCs do something important then every threat should be seeing them with fresh eyes, either appraising their new strengths and giving themselves pause or finding respect in their accomplishments and forgiving past grievances. Your world should be a dangerous place, but they don't need you constantly headhunting them too.

This is a personal preference more than a rule, and doesn't really need to be heeded
#6: Magic is unpredictably strange and deadly, let it be both without being crippling.
This is pretty self-explanatory, even if it is a longer rule, and a little confusing. Magic is the ultimate hammer for any nail, but it's a hammer that can only ever be swung wildly. If a player uses magic, they should get what they expect out of it, sometimes more than they want or expect. Fireballs should incinerate things, and set nearby objects aflame, and little contrails of sparks should shoot off of metal objects. IT'S A FUCKING FIREBALL! EXPLODE SOME SHIT WITH IT! Detect Magic should detect magic but maybe it's also detecting cheese around here, or detecting the last time somebody bathed. Invisibility seems to work but any nearby dogs end up curiously following them around. WARNING: If you're playing some version of D&D, magic is a scientific formula that players will rely upon with the precision of a calculator. Just tell them they're in a wild magic zone where weird things happen or some bullshit explanation like that. You might end up running an entire adventure where the PCs just try to find out where all of the wild magic zones begin and end, and man, if that happens, you should look at that as an opportunity to constantly fuck with them!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Superworld! (notes)

I had this idea last weekend of a superhero hack for Apocalypse World. Something that included the classic archtype characters as playbooks, and as my brain percolated I started getting elaborate in some of the details. Now, here is my attempt to get some of them down.

no changing types: you pick the Psi then you are stuck playing a Psi
more than one type, but no more than three: the first Psi is as written, the second Psi has reduced abilities, the third Psi has bad abilities
choices of powers, but few new powers: starting out you get one power, then choose one or two powers, then take a disadvantage, only one improvement gives a new power
no sex moves: instead these would be replaced with tag team powers
roll 3d10: roll three and keep one, 10s explode, 6-9 is a partial success, 10+ is a success, 16+ is a power surge

the Brick:
the hulk/tick type, super strong, invulnerable, stupid/socially incompetent or prone to anger
the Psi: the professor X type, telepathy or cosmic awareness, crippled or secret criminal
the Quirk: the spider-man/daredevil/robin type, multiple choice transport (swinging, wall-crawling, acrobatics, leaping), paralysis, evasion, combat abilities, damage resistant, danger sense, teenager or social outcast
the Speedster: the flash/quicksilver type, super-speed, fighter or scientist, rapid aging or family secrets
the Paragon: the superman/captain marvel type, gets flight, invulnerability or energy manipulation, extreme vulnerability, oath or alien
the Mystic: magic-user, summons allies or warps perceptions, performs rituals, teleportation, often vulnerable or has a family
the Suit: the iron man/steel type, suit of armor, flight, weapons, public figure or stolen tech

Secret Santicore 2012

I participated in the Secret Santicore of 2012.

The article I requested, "something involving time travel. Nothing fancy, but think creepy and strange ala Twilight Zone, not smarmy and cute like Doctor Who," can be seen by CLICKING HERE.

The article I wrote, "a d100 table of off-the wall transformations which might take place when drinking a polymorph potion which has spoiled or been made incorrectly," can be seen by CLICKING HERE.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

my first MCing session

I ran my first one-shot of Apocalypse World this weekend for a group that normally plays D&D 3rd edition (almost religiously). I sent them the playbooks I was willing to use and asked them to decide what they wanted to be before I got there, and then wrote generic love letters for each chosen playbook.

When I first sat down to make characters with them, the biggest thing was that they didn't understand Hx. In trying to explain it one player in particular kept trying to push for ways of maximizing their Hx, and seemed really confused that you could choose to give somebody's Hx a -1. Going around the table for Hx was also a sticky point because everybody thought it worked differently. I eventually walked them through it step by step and I think it clicked for them.

Another player was confused as to why he could choose to have armor or not.
"Why wouldn't I wear armor?"
"Because you wouldn't like it, maybe? Or it gets in the way? It's not your style?"
"That seems stupid to not wear armor."
*shrug "That's cool."
(It didn't occur to me to say "Well, an Angel who wears armor might not be trusted by everybody he meets." but then he also failed every healing roll he made, so he was more like an angel of death.)

They all asked about the countdown clocks, and after I explained how they work they all seemed a bit upset that they only had 6 hit points effectively. I told them "It's really hard to die. In the game I'm playing we had a building fall on a character at the end of a gunfight and he's still alive." This seemed to mollify them temporarily, and by the time we started playing they had forgotten it completely.

We ended up with:
a Skinner named Dusk who specialized in being a con artist and tricking people out of their money and food, everybody else thinks she's a stripper though nobody can ever remember seeing her strip
an Angel named Doc (not his real name) who really liked to drink booze and received his Angel Kit from his mother
a Maestro'd named Francois who ran a restaurant and brothel, the Mouton Noir, out of an old,huge dilapidated bookstore
a Grotesque named Blakesly who ran around town with a musician, performing dances with her drones alongside the music
and a Savvyhead named Oliver, who had been set up in the hold of Lynnback for five years now and was an often relied upon member of the community

I went around the table and found out who these people were.
Oliver was hit on by an enforcer named Foster but she turned him down cold.
Foster found Doc examining a break-in and was about to arrest him, but Doc's lack of tools slowed him up.
Blakesly shared some of her food with an old crone and some kid started a fight with her about it.
Dusk defused the situation, and she and Francois spent some time distracting enforcers who were insistent on searching the Mouton Noir.
Almost everybody fell in love or lust with Dusk.

Then I took a little break, treating it like the end of a session. The Skinner was the most active with everybody else and she had set up two of her Hx at +3, which means when everybody said she knew them better she got two experience. When I came back from my break, I handed out the love letters and instructed them to re-highlight stats as if this were a new session.

It turns out Francois the Maestro'd had the highest Hx with everybody and he got a little overwhelmed. Most everybody highlighted the best stat they had, so I tried to push for Doc and Dusk to fight a little with Hard, and everybody else I either marked Sharp or Cool.

Doc had been invited to have dinner with the leader of their hold. I went around the table asking the players "What's his name?" "What does he look like?" "Does he have a family?" "Why does he keep so many enforcers around his mansion?" and got some great answers. Rosebottom is a slovenly and overweight guy with a bald head and a scarred face, he doesn't have a family because everybody thinks they got killed when he set this place up, or maybe he killed them, but he's paranoid and protective of his house, he keeps the guards running around 24-7 because he doesn't like unexpected visitors.

Dusk was invited to this dinner as the entertainment and she fumbled around trying to keep the focus off of her because she didn't want to have to dance for Rosebottom or any of his enforcers. Doc was keeping an eye out for Foster since they had bad blood but he wasn't around. Odd that. At the end of the festivities Rosebottom told Doc there was a patient he needed seeing to and they took Doc downstairs into the basement, where the entrance to an underground mine was hidden. In the mine, Rosebottom had slaves digging up some sort of coal that electrified the air around it. One of the slaves had these weird white lines along his skin, almost like they were scars but growing out from the inside of his body. Doc sat down to work on the patient.

Dusk meanwhile was rousing Francois because she knew Doc was being held prisoner. While Dusk was trying to convince Francois that they needed to go up and save Doc, a fight was brewing at the entrance to the Mouton Noir. When I asked Francois "What do you do?" he said "Nothing. This is why I hired Rum to be the doorman, he can handle it."
"Cool. You hear a gunshot and when you look up Rum is flat out on the floor, looks like his face is gone."

Blakesly's musician friend, Krin, was fighting with Rum about their unborn baby and didn't shine to his dismissive attitude towards her, and Rum had just split her face open. (None of the players ever learned this because they never took the time to properly interrogate her.) She was now losing blood and it looked like her lips and nose were permanently fucked. Dusk and Francois disarmed Krin, and Blakesly insisted on taking her to Doc, at this point also learning that Dusk thought he was being held prisoner. They took Krin to Oliver, because they knew she had an infirmary in her workspace, and after patching up a now-unconscious Krin they headed back to Rosebottom's mansion. (There was some confusion about Krin because I had named another NPC Crine, something I'll have to keep better track of in the future.)

Dusk had hypnotized one of the guards earlier and was now calling favors. They were let into the mansion and found most of the guards sleeping off the party from earlier. In the basement, they found Doc being guarded by an enforcer who was also in love with Dusk (she had been busy). They managed to get him out of the building just as a rival gang was rolling into town and shooting the place up. I ended with the Savvyhead acting under fire and trying to escape, she rolled an 8. Because nobody got hurt throughout the whole game, I asked "You can either take a bullet in the back as you're fleeing, or you'll have to kill one of Rosebottom's guards with your crowbar in order to sneak away." She chose to kill the enforcer.

If we could have kept going with these characters I was left with a lot of great leads.
Foster is hurt really bad in the fighting and Doc is called upon to heal him.
It's pretty obvious that Oliver killed one of Rosebottom's guards and they would be pissed about that.
Dusk has left a trail of broken hearts and compromised enforcers, who are all going to be scratching their heads about why they suddenly don't feel so loyal (read as: hypnotized) anymore.
Blakesly managed to keep her head down, but she was seen along with the rest of them wen they were all over Rosebottom's place, so that makes her an accomplice in the enforcers' eyes.
Francois's entourage were basically escorting them all to go get Doc and Rosebottom saw them all. Like I said, he's going to be pissed.

All in all, everybody had a great time. And it's always a little scary to play with new people but refreshing to play with people who are eager to play.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Initiative vs. Reaction

The real beauty of Apocalypse World, and the thing that has most changed my outlook, is that there's no initiative. Since the GM never rolls dice but only reacts to players' rolls, initiative is a non-entity. If somebody declares they want to do something, they simply do it, unless asked to roll for it. Then they either succeed and do it, partially succeed and get a little fuckery on the side, or they fail and the GM gets to make their own move against the PC. There's no binary of succeed/failure. I may actually adopt this GMing technique for every game I run from now on, because now I can't shake the feeling that initiative is a cudgel used to parse the story into a sequence of actions that don't really make any sense.

The "GM only reacts to rolls" style would seem to massage what a player wants to do with their character as well. If a player wanted to attack somebody and the GM called for initiative, what would happen if he rolled the lowest? An entire turn of combat would happen around him in reaction to an attack he had yet to make. The narrative of the story is now forced into "Everybody could tell Baker was about to attack Gogol, and so everybody started shooting around Baker, leaving him and his gun useless." when the story should be "Baker pulled his gun and shot Gogol in the face, and that's when all hell broke loose..."