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Posts Tagged ‘gm’

screw subtlety

I’m running another role-playing game right now, and several times of late I’ve found myself saying the same thing:

“Screw subtlety.”

It happens because I’ll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players — people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was “Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet.”

In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters’ thoughts. They don’t know they’re in a story (not unless you’re writing something very metafictional), so they won’t reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that’s obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it’s frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader — but since the reader isn’t actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.

So this is why I keep saying “screw subtlety.” Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn’t tell you what’s really going on. You’ll have to work to get the rest.

Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it’s a cousin to the notion of “burning plot” — making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there’s something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn’t work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.

Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?

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a question for the gamer types

As you probably don’t know, Bob, [profile] kniedzw and I are running a Dragon Age game right now, using the Pathfinder system. A couple of our players have decided to go into business — they basically staged a hostile takeover of the trading contracts belonging to a certain noble house, since they knew in advance that said house was about to go down in political flames.

So now we’re trying to work out how to handle the business in a way that will make it rewarding and worth the investment of skill ranks/character effort/etc, without flooding the game with so much money as to completely unbalance things. I have some ideas for how we might do this, but I also know this is something other people may have dealt with in their games, so I thought I might as well toss the scenario out here and see if anybody has suggestions.

For context, these are level 5 PCs, so average character wealth is roughly 10K-11K gp. There are two PCs involved in the business. They took out a loan to foot the bill for buying out the contracts; we haven’t specified how much money that was, since the whole economy of D&D is borked in the first place and putting numbers on things would only highlight that fact. What I’m aiming for is a) some way to measure the scale of their enterprise, b) some way for them to draw off limited amounts of cash as profit, based on that scale, and c) some way to link the maintenance and growth of the business to their skills. (One PC has Profession: Merchant, and the other has a wacky good Diplomacy score.) As I said, I’ve got a potential framework in mind, but I’m interested in other ways of handling it. Thoughts?

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Books read, March 2013

I almost posted this yesterday, because really, as such posts go, this one is a joke. I did many things in March, but reading books? Not really one of them.

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett. Returning to my leisurely saunter through [personal profile] swan_tower Finally Reads Discworld. I have now been properly introduced to Sam Vimes, previously encountered as a minor character in Monstrous Regiment (before I started reading things in order). I like him, though not as passionately as some people seem to — possibly I will grow more attached in time? I liked Sybil quite a lot, and the reflections on how her brand of confidence is both personal and class-based. I was mostly meh about the bad guy’s scheme, but on the whole, much fun.

the memoir that is still untitled Re-reading the second book of the series preparatory to revising it (which is what I’m in the middle of doing now). It still needs a title. I will have to fix this soon.

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, David Gaider. Read for research, as [profile] kniedzw and I have begun running a Dragon Age game. Not really worth your time, unless you are a rabid completist for that franchise. It offered little in the way of worldbuilding information I didn’t already know, and, well. This is David Gaider’s first novel, and boy howdy does it show. Hopefully he improves with the later ones, since I need to read those, too.

This entry was also posted at Comment here or there.

for those with an interest in LARPs

My friend mikevonkorff has been doing a series of posts about live-action roleplaying games — their design and execution, what players look for in a game and how they pursue it, etc. Chewy stuff, especially since a lot of his commentators are part of a circle that has played a bunch of games together, but I’m coming from a totally different gaming community. Makes for some very enlightening comparisons.

I’m taking a particular interest in this because kniedzw and I are likely to be running a one-shot LARP based on Changeling: The Dreaming in a few months. (If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, will be around Memorial Day weekend, and think you might like to play, drop me a line.) I haven’t done a lot of LARP-running, so it helps to watch other people talk about the stuff you need to consider, and the different ways those topics can be approached. Especially when those people do things very differently than I do.

Anyway, if you have any interest in the topic, check his posts out. And feel free to jump in, even on the older posts; the more perspectives, the merrier.

this one’s for all the gamer geeks

Tonight’s Random Game Concept that sprang up in my head:

(Old) World of Darkness game, cross-genre. Let the players make any kind of PCs they like — Kindred, mages, changelings, mummies, whatever, and you play a short prologue.

Then the barriers get torn down. All of them. The walls between this world and the Umbra, Shadowlands, Dreaming, Yin and Yang Worlds, all the rest of it.

And you run the rest of the chronicle as a post-apocalyptic Exalted game.

It’s a new Mythic Age, not the one from the Exalted books. You’re throwing out all the setting information, so you don’t have to worry about why your ex-mummy Solar Exalted is cooperating with an ex-mage Sidereal, etc. You get all the fun of apocalyptic world destruction, with GIANT MAGIC POWERS, a legitimate reason why the PCs might be able to really reshape all of reality. It would be EPIC BEYOND WORDS.

. . . I think I want to run this.

more Scion tidbits

I’m a bit proud of this idea from the game I’m running, so I wanted to share. It will make the most sense to those who already know the cosmological setup for White Wolf’s Scion system, but for everybody else, I can quote the nutshell description I gave when I posted about my concept for the game:

The underlying enemies in this scenario are the Titans, the parents of the gods themselves. They’re truly impersonal, elemental powers: the “body” of the Greater Titan of Fire, for example, is more or less equivalent to the D&D Elemental Plane of Fire. However, Greater Titans can manifest more concretely as avatars, which are god-like beings reflecting a particular aspect of their concept. Prometheus, for example, is an avatar of the Greater Titan of Fire; so is Kagu-tsuchi, but they embody different things. The Titans aren’t precisely evil, but they’re not friendly to the world, and their influence usually isn’t a good thing.

Got that? So, it mentions in the books that some of the Titans were never bound. Hundun because it’s the Greater Titan of Chaos and can’t be bound; Logos because the Greater Titan of the Word struck a deal with the gods. Etc.

I was trying to decide what to do with the Mississippi River, cosmologically speaking. I failed to turn up any useful info on how tribes along its length viewed the river — no deity names or anything — and I knew “Old Man River” was a relatively late concept, but at the same time it seemed necessary and appropriate to have some kind of unifying entity for use in the game.

What I settled on was this: that Iteru, the Great River, is a Greater Titan, and it, like Logos, struck a deal with the gods way back in Ye Old Mythic Times. Part of its body now serves as the Godrealm for the Pesedjet, the Egyptian gods. (In the game books, Iteru is the name of that realm, and it’s also the Egyptian name for the Nile.) Major rivers around the world are avatars of Iteru, and they individually formed contracts with the gods of early civilizations along their banks: the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Ganges in India, the Yellow River in China, etc. Old Man River is just a recent (from the viewpoint of game-time) name for the Titan avatar that is the Mississippi River, which hasn’t had a contract with any society since the decline of the Mississippian culture exemplified by Cahokia. But since this game is in part about the attempted land- and people-grab of a whole bunch of pantheons, you can bet they’re all courting Old Man River’s favor . . . .

Anyway, this is what happens when I let Archaeologist Brain out to play with Folklorist Brain. I come up with ways to mythologize and then translate into RPG terms the frequent pattern of early civilizations forming on the banks of rivers.

Next task: figure out what I’m doing with 1876 New Orleans.

why I love gaming

In the midst of summarizing tonight’s session to kurayami_hime, I typed the sentence “And then they went and burned down San Quentin Prison.”*

Gaming, my friends, lends itself to gonzo behavior I would never put into a novel. (Other writers might; I’m just not that sort.) Torching San Quentin ain’t no jet-ski down an elevator shaft, but it amused me anyway. Random destruction of public property for the win! Guess that historical preservation thing won’t be happening after all . . . .

*Before one of the players corrects me: the xiuhcoatl was the one that actually burned down the prison. But it was the PCs’ fault that happened, so.

Once upon a time in the West . . . .

I mentioned early this year that I was running a Scion game set on the American frontier. Well, it recently occurred to me that the players have gotten far enough into the story, and uncovered enough of the metaplot, that I can now divulge publicly what the game’s about.

To follow this, you need to know three things:

1) Scion is a game about playing the half-mortal children of gods in the modern world, starting out as “heroes” and ascending in power and fame to become demigods and (if you survive) eventually gods in their own right.

2) The underlying enemies in this scenario are the Titans, the parents of the gods themselves. They’re truly impersonal, elemental powers: the “body” of the Greater Titan of Fire, for example, is more or less equivalent to the D&D Elemental Plane of Fire. However, Greater Titans can manifest more concretely as avatars, which are god-like beings reflecting a particular aspect of their concept. Prometheus, for example, is an avatar of the Greater Titan of Fire; so is Kagu-tsuchi, but they embody different things. The Titans aren’t precisely evil, but they’re not friendly to the world, and their influence usually isn’t a good thing.

3) One of the Scion books included material for how you could do a WWII-era game. In this, they proposed that Columbia (of the U.S.), Britannia (of the U.K.), and Marianne (of France) were all sisters, daughters of Athena sent out as an experiment in governance. It also proposed a Yankee pantheon, made up largely of tall-tale figures (Paul Bunyan, John Henry, etc), headed by Columbia and Uncle Sam.

So here’s what I did with those three things . . . .

U.S. history, as seen through a mythological lens.

Mechanical difficulties

I haven’t run a lot of games. (In fact, I’ve run precisely two: Memento and the ongoing Once Upon a Time in the West, plus one almost completely rules-free LARP session.) In the case of Memento, going into that game, I had a large amount of familiarity with the LARP mechanics for Changeling (i.e. what sorts of things their powers did, though there were occasional points of massive discrepancy between the two sets of rules), and a similarly large amount of familiarity with basic World of Darkness tabletop mechanics (i.e. how combat and such worked, though certain Changeling-specific rules were new to me).

That isn’t the case with OTW, and man, is this an eye-opening experience.

With all due respect to certain readers of this journal who were involved in the design of Scion, there are some honking big holes in the mechanics, which I mostly find when we fall into them headfirst. For example, there’s a first-level Justice Boon which allows you to accuse somebody of a specific crime and know if they’re guilty or not. The rules specifically tell you that the roll isn’t contested by the suspect’s player. So, in theory, a brand-new Scion of Tyr could walk up to Loki and say, “Loki! You arranged for Baldur to be murdered!” And know immediately that Loki was guilty. Erm, no: I respectfully submit that a trickster god should not be so easily caught, unless he wants to be. Also, there are a truckload of Manipulation knacks that have no mechanic for resistance; you could just say to Loki, “Tell the truth!” and he would have to obey, at least briefly. This seems unbalanced to me.

But the interesting thing to me — and the point where I diverge from some of the attitudes I saw expressed on the Forge, back when I was reading their forums — is that I don’t think house-ruling is necessarily a sign of failure on the part of the game designer. I do think the examples I’ve just given are things that would have been better fixed before I got my hands on the book, but that isn’t true of everything. For example, I prefer to have Legend increases (which are kind of like level increases) happen at narratively appropriate points, rather than whenever a given player saves up enough XP to buy the next dot. Ergo, our house-rule is that I announce when the PCs all go up in Legend, and in return they don’t have to pay for it. That’s a personal choice, not necessarily a flaw in the original design.

Then there’s the stuff that isn’t broken, I just have to learn how to use it. Boy howdy, does it make a difference how familiar you are with a system before you start running it: things like “what difficulty should this roll be?” and “will this opponent be somebody the PCs can take down?” and so on are tricky enough when you’re trying to remember which of the eighteen different White Wolf dodge mechanics this system uses, and a good deal harder when you start throwing in system-specific powers that can really change the odds. Scion has a particularly brutal setup on that front, I think, because of the way epic attributes scale. I think the scaling is appropriate — we’re talking about characters on their way to becoming gods, after all — but it makes me remember that the one thing I like out of D&D mechanics is the nicely mathematical formulae for calculating challenge ratings.

And yet, I wouldn’t want to run D&D, because I find its rules too confining for the kind of game I want to run. (Or for that matter, play in: most of my D&D experience was in a game that was really just a Forgotten Realms game, a world for which D&D happened to be the system. We regularly threw the rules out the window, and got by on group consensus.) It all just hammers home to me that whatever some die-hard fans preach, there is no such thing as a perfect system: there are systems better or worse suited to what you want to do; there are systems you know well or poorly and navigate accordingly; there are systems with more or fewer obvious mechanical holes. Only that third aspect rests in the hands of the game designer.

And that’s why we don’t live in a world where every game runs on GURPS or d20 mods. But I admit, there are times when I think about how much easier my gaming life would be if I only had to know one system. 🙂