Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I weep for the newbs

One of the people in my group from this year's Cthulhu/Pendragon group is in his mid-20s and came to RPGs via Fourth Edition D&D. Although he is hardly a 4e partisan, it's his "home" system and he has his own 4e group that he runs weekly games for; I don't know any details about his group other than they're fairly into 4e as well.

So this is one of his latest tweets:
Apparently suddenly implementing secret doors in my campaign is infuriating. Need to do stuff like this more often. #dmwoes
This is what it's come to for the latest generation of D&D players? Secret doors are somehow considered "Evil DM tricks"?

I tried Fourth Edition. It wasn't for me, but I ultimately decided I didn't want to engage in any edition wars and just sort of let my reservations about the game's current iteration lie. But when I see stuff like that, I'm reminded of why 4e drove so many older gamers into the arms of the OSR; it just seems to operate in a completely different universe. One where secret doors aren't assumed, but added as a nasty trick. I mean, to me D&D and secret doors go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but a Google search seems to confirm that they're vanishingly rare in 4e; the top two results deal with secret doors in Third Edition, most of the other links on the first page deal with secret doors in old school D&D, and the few 4e-specific links are all about "how to do it" in that edition. Most tellingly, another link is to a forum question asking "what's the point of secret doors?" Fourth Edition isn't just another flavor of D&D; it's mutating the system on a molecular level. I weep.

Monday, December 5, 2011

[Solo GPC] 525: The Goblin Market; or, "Puck You!"

Ever since reading a Dragon magazine article ("Organization Is Everything!") during my formative GM years, my process with running any long-term campaign (GPC included) is to draft a rough outline of where I'd like to see the campaign go over the course of the next half-dozen adventures or so (anything beyond that being almost guaranteed to crumble due to players taking things in unexpected directions). These aren't hard and fast guidelines; I happily amend my plans on the fly if something comes up in play to justify it. But if I don't have something "penciled in," no matter how vague or open-ended, I tend to feel a little lost. Plus knowing what's in the pipeline allows me to drop a bit of foreshadowing into current adventures.

Prior to my break, my outline for the next few years of the GPC was full of lots of question marks and vague statements. I just wasn't sure what to do with Meleri's storyline that would be exciting and different. Coming back from the break, I have a definite plan and can't wait to see how things will play out. It all hinged on this year and the adventure I had lined up. It's one of the few full-length adventures in the GPC, found in an Appendix in the back and meant to be dropped in at pretty much any point. And the best part? The adventure intro noted that the scenario was "easily adapted" to running for a lady character!

And so 525 would find Lady Meleri paying a visit to the Goblin Market...

Art by Charles Vess

Friday, December 2, 2011

Playing the Adversary

"Some days I hate NPCs. But I also love NPCs."

So says Lowell Francis in this recent post on the always-outstanding Age of Ravens blog (and if you're not reading that blog, why the hell not?); I couldn't agree more with the sentiment. NPCs are my Achilles Heel when it comes to running games. They're nigh essential to most any good game, but they present an endless source of headaches (many of which are elucidated in Mr. Francis's post, so I won't repeat them here).

For me, the biggest challenge is making my NPCs unique personas with individualized motivations and keeping them from fading too much into the background. I can usually manage to pull this off with, at best, one NPC per campaign it seems (players in my "Beware the Odd Angles" Cthulhu campaign will well remember the dangerous ingenue Daphne Bell, for example), but I'd like to have my whole cast of NPCs come alive and I really hate it when an NPC who should ostensibly be traveling with the group fades so completely into the background that the players have to remind me they're there.

To that end, I've been thinking about a nearly-forgotten (it seems) section in the old GURPS 3rd Edition Basic Set. On page 180, under the heading "Playing the Adversary", we read:
When the GM plays an NPC who is an enemy of the player characters, he should try to limit his knowledge to those things that the NPCs would really be aware of. The GM knows all about the party's strengths and weaknesses - but the enemies don't. One good way to solve this problem is to have another person play the adversary characters.  
The GM should tell the Adversary as much as possible about the characters he is to play. But the Adversary should know no more than is "realistic" about the overall situation. In particular, he should know very little about the PCs and their abilities - especially at the beginning of an adventure! For total realism, you might even want two Adversary players - one for the knowledgeable enemies who are familiar with the party, and one for stupid cannon fodder. 
The Adversary is like an "assistant GM." His job is to roleplay the foes as well as possible.
The Basic Set was literally the second gaming book I ever bought and read, and I remember that section well. It kind of blew my mind, the idea of this para-GM helping to run the game and constituting a separate brain behind the screen. As I was still very new to gaming, I wasn't sure just how "normal" this Adversary idea was. In the two decades since, however, I've only seen a similar idea expressed in one other place, and that was simply in notes detailing a "deluxe" Cthulhu convention scenario (No Man's Land) that utilized sound effects, mood lighting, and kabuki-esque assistants dressed in black. The Basic Set presented the idea of the Adversary as if it were a perfectly normal aspect of the RPG gaming experience, but I have yet to see that reflected either in real life or in other rulebooks.

Yet the simple idea expressed in the Basic Set has merit, I think. It would certainly take much of the burden of running games off my shoulders. I'd be very interested to hear from any readers who have tried employing an Adversary-style co-GM to play the NPCs or villains of their campaigns. Does anyone do it as a matter of course or is it strictly for deluxe scenarios like No Man's Land?

Monday, November 28, 2011

[Solo GPC] 524: The Knight of the Lake

My recent break from running the Solo GPC campaign came at a good time. I was starting to feel a little uninspired in terms of running adventures for a lady-centered game and wasn't sure how I wanted to handle certain emerging themes and story arcs. After re-reading Steinbeck's Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights during the break, I came back refreshed and full of ideas. Frankly, I can't wait to see how things play out over the next few years. This year's adventure would be a brief respite after the high drama of poor Sir Haegirth's quest and the beginning of new challenges for Meleri. Of course, in Pendragon, respites aren't exactly free of drama...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts on Being a Player

As much as I'm sure the title of this post will draw in a record number of Google searches executed by desperate 14-year-old boys trying to figure out how to score chicks, this is in actuality just some random thoughts on my three-month tenure as a PC, a rather novel experience for me these days.

In days of yore, I'd say my time running games and my time playing games was about evenly split. As the other members of my old high school/college group became increasingly disinterested in putting in the work and hours required to be a GM (having been lured away by the siren call of CRPGs and MMOs), I found myself taking up the slack. That was the beginning of my career as full-time GM. Over the last 10 years, I've more often than not found myself gaming with newbies or lapsed gamers just getting back into the hobby, neither category being particularly well-suited to running games. So my full-time GMing continued.

When my last campaign wrapped up in July, my wife Desiree kindly volunteered to step up and run the next game. This was more than a little brave on her part; she's only ever run one-shots or short mini-campaigns, usually just for me or, once in a while, me and one other person. Our group at the time consisted of six other players (myself included), so this obviously constituted quite a leap for her. She chose Pendragon, her hands-down favorite RPG, and I duly looked forward to getting a chance to see how things are as a player in a good-sized group over an extended campaign, something I frankly haven't experienced since John Goodman was making cameo appearances on SNL as Linda Tripp.

I was prepared for the experience to be different, but even then I had little idea (or rather had forgotten) just how different being a player in a campaign can be. I've been a player in one-shots from time to time, but that's a totally different beast from campaign play. I'd forgotten how challenging, how frustrating, and how rewarding it can be to be a player.

The challenge element, of course, was of wholly different nature from the challenges faced by a GM. It was a novel experience for me to be faced with a problem and not know the right answer. As a GM, it's all about putting pieces of the puzzle together on the fly. As a player, one has to find out what exactly the puzzle pieces are to begin with!

Ergo the frustration. I've got a great group right now and we managed to keep moving forward, keep from getting stymied, but I still found myself frustrated at times. I was frustrated at character generation because I'd frankly forgotten that with Pendragon it's best to let the dice tell you what kind of character you've got; I came in with a pre-conceived idea of the type of character I wanted to play and spent a lot of time trying reconcile that image with the character I got. I was also frustrated because, as I found out, the role-playing muscles required to play a PC are quite different from those required of an NPC. Then there was, again, the simple frustration of not having all the info in front of me. Weird!

Ah, but the rewards. In order to talk about that, I have to talk about the campaign and my character a bit.

His name was Sir Driant. Son of a sub-Roman British nobleman from Glevum (Gloucester) he thought rather a lot of himself. I envisioned him as a young James Spader in the sort of roles he used to play back in the 80s. Driant's privileged background meant he started the campaign with the most Glory, and didn't he know it. The rest of the campaign seemed to revolve around breaking Driant down and remaking him. Driant spent the campaign as an errant knight; even an attempt at an arranged marriage backfired disastrously when the prospective wife turned out to be landless and, worse, a shapeshifting murderer. Driant killed his wife personally and turned to raiding his ancestral rival, the Duke of Clarence, to support himself.

He was also a fair jouster and won twice as many jousts as he lost, culminating in the winning of a golden lance (as depicted on his coat of arms above). Driant took on a second squire just to tote around the golden lance in his wake. He and his brother knights (i.e. the other PCs) formed the Order of the Chain (represented on Driant's shield by the circle in the corner) based on an adventure in which they tried to free a giant from its underwater chain. Driant's family trait of "Swims Like an Otter" came in very handy that day.

But I mostly found myself playing second-fiddle throughout the campaign owing to my atrophied player muscles, Driant's largely negative personality Traits, and some good old-fashioned abysmal dice rolling. This didn't bother me too much, but there were still several times I seriously considered recklessly charging into combat so I could suicide Driant and start with a fresh character I might feel more attached to. But I trusted our doughty GM and persevered, and I'm glad I did.

The final adventure of the campaign took us across a giant sword bridge to Merlin's Island and thence into the mystical Wastelands. At the Turning Castle, we met the Maimed King. Attempting a Passion roll to boost my chances of solving the riddle of the king's wound, I rolled (of course) a natural 20, which in this case meant a fumble! Worse, fumbled Passion rolls mean Madness and surrender of the PC to GM control. At this point, Des pulled out some brilliant improv and had Driant, in his madness, see clearly what needed to be done - he took the Grail and healed King Fisherman.

I pledged my service to the Fisher King and Driant became a Grail Knight on the spot. His negative traits flipped to positive and he became a Religious Knight, his life now filled with meaning. The climax of the campaign was a rousing battle on the Plains of Joy against the diabolic forces of Duke Klingsor, the dastardly fiend who had been laying siege to Castle Joy. In his new white robes and armor, Driant charged with his Grail Knight brethren to one side, his Chain Knight brethren to the other. We kicked Klingsor's ass to hell and gone and Driant bid a fond farewell to his brothers in arms as they returned to the real world.

Des will likely run a follow-up Pendragon campaign sometime next year and I'll make a new character for it; Driant is effectively retired, home at last at the Turning Castle. But the experience of that story arc will live on in my memory for years to come as an excellent example of the benefits of patience and perseverance and the unique rewards that can come from being a player in a campaign.

Having said that, I'm very much looking forward to getting back to running games again. Having GM'd so often for so many years, I'm afraid it's in my blood now. The Solo GPC is back on (the next session summary is due shortly) and I'm working up a World of Darkness chronicle to run for the group at large when we reconvene after the holidays. Still, I think I'd like to make a resolution for 2012 and beyond to try and get back towards the balance I once enjoyed between playing and running games. As I was reminded, they may be two sides of the same coin but they are very different sides indeed.

WTF White Wolf?

So as you might have inferred from the quiet atmosphere around here lately, I've sort of been unplugged from the online gaming world for the last couple months; haven't been posting, haven't been reading. As I'm slowly plugging myself back in, I now discover that apparently White Wolf Game Studios is possibly defunct?

Art by Carol Cavalaris
Wikipedia paints a very gloomy picture; the unofficial White Wolf wiki is not quite as dire, but undeniably grim as well.

Regardless of the true extent of the damage and the company's (lack of a) future, this news makes me very sad. I got into gaming right as Vampire: the Masquerade was blowing up in a big way. For me, the World of Darkness has just always been there in the background, as much a part of the gaming hobby as D&D or Call of Cthulhu and White Wolf has always been an industry giant. Granted, I knew that the WoD has waned in popularity over the last decade and wasn't nearly as red hot as it was in the Nineties, but I didn't think things were that bad. Personally, I've had a bit of a star-crossed relationship with the WoD, particularly Vampire, always wanting to get into the game but being stymied for a variety of Byzantine reasons.

Ironically, earlier this month I (finally) picked up the nWoD core rule book and have been loving it. The refocus of the new edition brings the world more in line with how I always envisioned it; gone are the days of trenchcoat-wearing goth superheroes, thank god. The nWoD seems to be more of a general horror game now, which is great. A nice companion to the highly specific horror of Call of Cthulhu. But it was in the course of Googling around to catch myself up on the state of the WoD game line that I discovered the links above. My star-crossed relationship continues, it would seem.

Another pillar of my hobby experience crumbling? Say it ain't so!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Follow Us to Glory

Today we wrapped up the group Pendragon campaign my wife's been running since July. I'll write up a summary of what went on and my thoughts on getting to be a player for a spell in a forthcoming post, but I wanted to share a little doodle that came out of today's session.

The campaign culminated in a big battle against a supernatural baddie and his army, and a big chunk of the adventure today prior to said battle consisted of us going around the country trying to drum up allies. In addition to specific lords we had in mind, we wanted to pick up volunteers "on the hoof" as it were. To that end, I had my squire make a sandwich board to wear whenever we passed through a new village or town...

Sadly and inexplicably, this tack didn't get us much in the way of volunteers, but we went on to win the battle anyway.

Monday, October 31, 2011

[Solo GPC] 523: Grave Concerns

So as I mentioned in a recent post, the Solo GPC has been on a brief hiatus in order to avoid Pendragon burnout. "Unthinkable!" I hear you cry, but alas it is possible. In fairness, this was owing to the fact that Des is currently running Pendragon for our regular group (a write-up of the first phase of which should be coming along sometime in November) timed with a mild case of generalized GM burnout on my part. Having taken a break from running anything more than short mini-campaigns and painting lots of miniatures over the last two months has cured the latter condition, and being "just" a player has gotten me itching to get back into the Pendragon saddle. So regular Solo GPC sessions should be starting up again soon.

In the meantime, here's the long-overdue summary from our last session, which we played, uh, a while ago. First week of September, maybe? At any rate, posting it now is rather timely, as the session turned out to be pretty creepy and well worthy of All Hallows goings-on...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

GURPS Horror 4th Edition; or, Why I'm a Ken Hite Fan Boy

After the Mentzer Red Box and the 3rd edition GURPS Basic Set, GURPS Horror (the 2nd edition with the badass Michael Whelan cover) was one of my very first gaming purchases. I still have the copy I bought over 20 years ago, although I have little need to ever read it again, having practically memorized it with multiple re-readings over the course of my adolescence. It is a title that's near and dear to my heart.

I picked up the latest edition of GURPS Horror on Tuesday and have been happily devouring it since. Like all GURPS books worth their salt, it has broad applicability to anyone wanting to run a horror game, not just GURPS players. This edition (like the last one) is primarily authored by Ken Hite (although some passages from earlier editions remain; it's been amusing picking them out - I wasn't joking when I said I practically memorized the 2nd edition!); Hite is easily my favorite gaming author working today. He never disappoints, and GURPS Horror 4th edition is no exception.

Chris Kutalik of the likewise always-excellent Hill Cantons blog posted yesterday about the disappearance of the idiosyncratic authorial voice from RPG products, a major pet peeve of mine as well. A couple commenters rightly, I think, identified a big part of the problem as the "design by committee" approach to RPG writing that has come to dominate the industry since sometime in the 90s. One of the reasons I enjoy Ken Hite's work as much as I do (other than the fact that he's an amazing font of gamable inspiration) is that he's one of the few "mainstream" authors who has managed to retain a distinctive and entertaining authorial voice reminiscent of games of old (like my beloved 2nd edition GURPS Horror) or indie games today.

By way of example, here are a couple of my favorite passages so far:
Flare Pistol (TL6): This single-shot, break-open weapon is the best thing to shoot at mummies. Ever. Inflicts 1d burn per second for 10 seconds after impact while merrily illuminating the whole tomb - or at least a 5-yard radius.
[From the section describing how to stat up an animal horde.] Example: A jilted vampire fills a football stadium with bats.... [The swarm is] dispersed after losing 800 HP - by which time the vampire will have absconded with her unrequited quarterback love.
I love it when an RPG book inspires me, fills my head with visions of how cool a game could be. Hite's writing is full of these sort of throwaway brilliant ideas, and hardly a page goes by without one cropping up. By way of other examples, I'm now dying to run a short campaign set in a Roman border fort, the PCs dealing with a druid-cum-manitou reaping vengeance for the displacement of the local Celtic tribe; a medieval procedural investigative one-shot featuring a werewolf-as-serial killer; a good old fashioned psycho killer romp (taking advantage of the Psycho Killer template that features the awesome Ghostly Movement ability - turn your head and he's gone!)...and I haven't even gotten through the bestiary chapter or made a start on the campaigning chapter.

::sigh:: So many ideas, so little time. If you want to be as gleefully frustrated as I, GURPS Horror 4th edition comes highly recommended.

What, you want more? Uh, here's a cool movie trailer:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Wot's been going on

Been a little quiet around here lately. Just one of those months, I guess. For myself, my absence has been for the right reasons: I've been pretty immersed in funtime gaming projects. As predicted, having a turn on the player's side of the table has been really refreshing, and I've been happily scribbling notes and assembling folders in anticipation of my return to the GM throne. I've also been doing a bit of minis painting, so expect a picture post in the near future.

I have a Pendragon actual play post that's due up soon, but the GPC campaign is now on break while Des is running the Pendragon group game. We decided we didn't want to burn out on the game and jeopardize either campaign. So in addition to making plans for what I'll be running for the group once Des wraps up her Pendragon campaign, I started cooking up a little mini-campaign to run solo with Des. Since it's just the two of us, I get to be a little experimental with both rules and concept.

A couple months ago, after seeing some interesting GURPS-related blog posts and Christian's excellent GURPS write-ups in his Loviator zine, I started thinking about the system again. Longtime readers may recall that GURPS and I parted ways a while back, but I never completely swore off the system and I think I'm ready to approach it from a fresh angle and see how things go. We'll be using GURPS Lite on the player's side, GURPS Ultra-Lite on the GM's side, adding rules and such on an as-needed basis. In terms of scope, I'm following my own advice and starting very small in terms of both setting and power scale, then moving out in ever-expanding circles. The campaign concept is a sort of Supers-Illuminati mishmash. My "elevator pitch" conceptualization is, "What if X-Men: First Class had been written by David Cronenberg and directed by John Waters?" Needless to say, I'm very much looking forward to finding out.

(Oh, and as long as I'm talking GURPS, Peter Dell'Orto [of GURPS Martial Arts fame] has started up an excellent blog that looks at running classic D&D-inspired fantasy with GURPS. Check it out!)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Guess Who Likes You?"

I received a most unexpected surprise on my doorstep today: a mystery benefactor sent along my GM badges in pin form via Cafe Press:

With apologies to Scott Driver for stealing his Hipstamatic
The pins are really top notch quality. I think I'll stick them to my GM screen, or maybe decorate the lapel of my leather jacket like so. (Seriously.) I'm really flattered that someone would see fit to send along a gift inspired by this humble little blog. Mystery Person, you made my week!

Monday, August 22, 2011

My GM Merit Badges

Just too many great GM-related memes circulating all of a sudden! Hot on the heels of the Hill Cantons Challenge comes this brilliant concept courtesy of Stuart of the Strange Magic blog. Mirroring the merit badge system of the Scouts, the idea is to choose those aspects of running games in which you excel as a sort of shorthand to describe your GMing style. Here are mine:

 I like to play rules "by the book" for the most part. Although I won't bring a game to a screeching halt to look something up, if the rule is easily accessible via the Index, chances are I'll take the 30 seconds required to look it up. Even then, if the rule seems too complicated for the situation I'll probably hand-wave it, but for me it's "rules, then rulings" most of the time.

 I was converted to the One True Way of letting the dice fall where they may when I ran a campaign via OpenRPG, which has all dice rolls occur on the screen in front of everybody. Lo and behold, it did not wreck my campaign, nor cause hurt feelings amongst the players. If anything, it added to the game experience and the overall fun. This badge also, I feel, covers devotion to random results, of which I am a big proponent. Considering my narrativist leanings, I feel this particular facet of my GMing is the only thing that keeps me from being a total railroady douchebag. ;)

When it comes to intra-party dynamics, I'm all about the drama, in service to a better story at least. I like a group that will create connections between their characters and NPCs in the campaign and then milk those connections for all they're worth. I know I've done a good job as GM when players talk about NPCs as if they were real people.

By and large, I like to encourage playing characters who are destined for great things. Note this does not necessarily mean Epic Heroes. The PCs in my last Cthulhu campaign saved San Francisco from an incursion by Yog-Sothoth and made the Tenderloin District less filthy-awful than it is in our own reality, but in so doing all but one of them died or went insane - and the lone survivor ended up stranded 85 years in the future!

 As I mentioned in my own Hill Cantons Challenge post, I can hardly be accused of shunning pre-published material. For one thing, I've always felt most comfortable riffing off established worlds. Secondly, I wouldn't get to game nearly as much as I'd like if I was having to create adventures and settings from whole cloth. Why re-invent the wheel when you can tinker with one that's already been built?

One of all-time favorite Jeff Rients essays is How to Awesome Up Your Players. Two things give me great joy as a GM: working random results into an established scenario (see above) and facilitating my players' awesome experiences at the table. If players want to do Activity X, I'll go out of my way to make that happen (even if I personally think it's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard - you never know, it could be I was wrong to despair and the idea was awesome after all!). And if, during idle chatter, they come up with a theory about Villain Y that totally kicks my own idea's ass, I'll happily (and quietly) adopt the players' idea and run with it.

One of my OSR conceits. I don't believe in designing "balanced" encounters. If a new-made knight in one of my Pendragon campaigns wants to take on Gawaine, he better be prepared to get his ass kicked. Although I like to facilitate awesome experiences and great destinies, I firmly don't believe they should be handed to the player on a silver platter.

This ties in directly with my Destiny and Drama badges: I want my campaigns to tell a story in the end. Mind you, that's in the end. Someone once said that RPGs are stories that are told in retrospect, and never have truer words been spoken. I don't mind players going off-track as long as its eventually in service to a good story.

As much as I respect rules and published settings, I also understand they're not carved in stone. I have no compunctions about tinkering with rules or settings/adventures as written, either before the campaign starts or (even better) based on actual gameplay experiences. It's for this reason that I tend to prefer simpler, more robust systems - there's less of a chance that changing one little rule will throw everything else horribly askew.

Although Stuart first envisioned this as a way to facilitate online pick-up gaming, I can see its use as a tool of self-analysis. For example, I was surprised to see that I had both the "by the book" and "rules tinkerer" badges, but after thinking about it, it made sense. I also mentioned in a comment on Stuart's blog that these badges form a sort of ersatz graphic tracker of one's preferred style. Returning to the badges periodically to see which ones still apply, which ones you'd drop, and which ones you'd add is a great way of tracking your changing style and preferences as a GM.

[Solo GPC] 522: Missed Connections

This year Des once again demonstrated her ability to put her characters through the emotional mill by involving them in tricky affairs of the heart. She certainly didn't make things easy for herself in choosing to pursue a love affair with Sir Lamorak, the prototypical knight errant. This year, dealing with a trickster fairy on her lands would be the least of Lady Meleri's worries...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Hill Cantons Challenge: Building a Better GM

I think game blogs are at their best when they're either (a) facilitating a free and fecund exchange of ideas; or, (b) providing insights into how other people game, both in terms of the behind-the-scenes action as well as the actual in-game philosophies. This very blog leans heavily towards the (b) end of things (it's basically why I bother posting my Pendragon actual play reports, for example), so I was delighted to see the inimitable ckutalik of Hill Cantons post a challenge for all us GM-bloggers (aka 99% of us) to extrapolate on our creative techniques:
1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?

2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?

3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
Before I get into my answers, I just want to address the opinion expressed in the comments to the original post that this sort of thing is a waste of time because GMing, in essence, can't be taught. As someone who had to teach himself how to run games with almost no outside input, I to this day greatly appreciate concrete insights into other folks' GMing approaches and very much enjoy sharing my own as a way of passing on the shared oral tradition of GMing to folks who are just starting out. Sure, GMing is largely a question of instinct and experience, but there's also a major cognitive component to the activity. I doff my cap to the "thousands" of GMs back in the 70s who, apparently, were able to intuitively run endless dungeon crawls through bottle cities with "minimal guidance" but - call me jejune, if you will - I for one have always appreciated adding any hands-on analysis of GMing style to my creative quiver.

At any rate, with that mini-rant out of the way, here is my constructive attempt to add to the conversation via my answers to the challenge:

1. I'd have to say my three best practices as a GM are: preparation, pacing, and characterization. Of the three, I'd say I excel at preparation (as explained below).

2. When I talk about excelling at preparation, I'm not talking about statting up NPCs or writing detailed, plot-heavy adventure notes, both of which I actually find a bit tiresome (although I'm working hard to change the former). In fact, my adventure notes these days, whether adapting a published scenario or running one of my own, tend to be in the form of tersely-worded bullet lists. When I talk about preparation, I'm talking about research. If the game is set in the real world, I research the adventure locale and time period extensively. In a fantasy environment, I look for real world analogues and weave them into the setting. But most of my games these days tend to be set in the real world or something based very closely on it, partly due to my penchant for research. When I ran my Cthulhu San Francisco game, I had at my side a 1924 California travel guide and a poster map reproduction of a map of the city circa the mid-1920s mounted in a cheap frame. My players were very appreciative whenever I hoisted that map up to show them where things were happening in relation to each other; it really gave them a sense of place. Players can also tell when you've done your background research properly; it comes through in the game in many subtle ways.

Pacing is something I worked on for years, and I'm quite satisfied with how I pace my games at this point: I always keep one eye on the clock and make an effort to not only wrap things up on time but also in a satisfying manner. If that means wrapping up an hour earlier than planned, so be it. If the scenario is finishing up that day, I make sure there's enough time to handle after-game tidying up (skill checks, experience points, etc.). If I can tell we won't be able to finish the scenario that session, I make sure we leave off at a suitably dramatic point (a cliffhanger, if I can at all swing it).

Of the three practices listed above, I personally feel that characterization is my weakest, but at the same time I have received many compliments on how much my players love to hate my villains, or on managing to successfully run multiple NPCs at once. I feel like my NPCs "pop" because I put some effort into differentiating them while simultaneously not making it overly obvious at first which ones are the "plot NPCs" and which ones are there merely for local color.

3. Getting a handle on pacing is partly a matter of knowing your group and how quickly they work. It doesn't take that long to do this. I started a new group made up entirely of strangers back in February and by the third session I had an excellent idea of how they worked together (which is quite quickly and efficiently, as it turned out!). Probably the best advice I got on pacing came from John Tynes in an old Unknown Armies essay online (link long since lost, unfortunately). He suggested watching movies, particularly thrillers and capers (I remember Heat was specifically called out), with an eye towards how the director paces the scenes, alternating intense action with dialogue-heavy sequences. (GMing advice really came into its own with the internet; some of the bet tips I've picked up have been from online sources.)

The internet has, of course, also been a godsend for my preparation-related activities. As much as possible, I try and prepare visual aides, and the internet is great for finding fodder. My Pendragon games are full of color printouts of heraldry, armor, actors-as-NPCs, and maps, for example, all culled form the internet. When I run Call of Cthulhu, I go out of my way to create "realistic" handouts: if there's a photograph-cum-clue, I find a suitable subject on sites like Shorpy.com or the photo archives of major metropolitan libraries and then print it out on glossy photo paper; if a note is supposed to be crumpled, I crumple the paper. Nothing too over-the-top, just enough to let the players' imaginations fill in the gaps (good GMing advice in general, incidentally).

I've always been a bit of a mimic, so my characterizations sometimes feature different voices. I don't go overboard with this either, but if the PCs are talking to a Russian count, for example, I trot out my best Russian accent. Working on mastering a broad range of believable accents is one of my great ongoing goals as a GM. For differentiating multiple NPCs without resorting to cartoon accents, I can't recommend enough simply listening to audio books (available for free from your local library). Just as you'd closely watch movies for their pacing, so too should you listen attentively to how the reader gives each character a slightly different inflection. Listen also to how male readers read female characters and vice-versa. Stephen Fry's readings of the Harry Potter series are particularly excellent. It doesn't take much to give an individual NPC some vocal character and you certainly don't have to resort to hammy acting or cheap theatrics to do so.

I think that about covers things, but if I've glossed over anything feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments. I hope this has been some help to fellow GMs out there, veteran and novice alike. Thanks again to ckutalik for posting these excellent questions in the first place!

Edit: A couple other things to add from my GMing toolbox that don't fit the "big three" I came up with above but are definitely worth mentioning:

  • Accept the "iceberg theory" of GM prep: there will always be more going on behind the screen than the players ever see, and that's a good thing. Having a few notes on an NPC's background, even if the players never find out about it, can help you determine the NPC's motivations and actions in the moment.
  • Random elements are your friend. In fact, the more randomness the better. It helps keep you from turning into a railroader, and it's just plain fun. Don't forget the "G" part of "RPG": these are supposed to be games for everyone involved, including the GM, and figuring out a way to integrate off-the-cuff random elements into your precious story is a tremendously fun challenge that can open up possibilities you'd never previously thought of. It's one of the reasons I love Pendragon so much: the trait and passion rolls can drive PCs and NPCs alike in completely surprising directions.
  • Don't shy away from using published scenarios, but make them your own. There's a certain snobbishness, particularly in OSR circles, about running your own material in preference to using modules or published adventures. The poor reputation that published adventures enjoy, I suspect, comes from GMs who simply run them as-written, reading blocks of text out loud, their noses buried in a book. As someone who, due to time constraints, more often than not will use a published adventure if at all possible (it also helps that my two favorite games each boast repositories of literally dozens of scenarios), I can firmly say that running someone else's stuff in no way need hamper your own creativity. Take the published stuff and make it your own. Replace NPCs in the text with NPCs from your own campaign. Add or drop encounters. Change place names. Change MacGuffins, motivations, and anything else you don't like. Don't simply read the flavor text aloud; extemporize off the text the same way you would your own notes. Over the years I've observed that, doing this, the players legitimately can't tell the difference between when I'm running a published scenario versus one of my own devising.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The GM As Frustrated Player; The Player As Frustrated GM

A few months ago I had a rather startling realization hit me upside the head. It was a long-forgotten fact, a suppressed memory if you will, that once remembered seemed so strikingly obvious I couldn't for the life of me fathom why it had slipped down beneath the waters of my sub-conscious for so many years.

The suppressed memory was simply this: when I first got into RPGs, I was interested in them as a player, not as a GM.

As someone who has spent the bulk of two decades in gaming as the guy making them happen, this was a real revelation. But I suddenly got back in touch with those feelings that had flooded my fevered 12-year-old brain after picking up and reading through the Red Box: I'd imagined the badass characters I'd create and run up to high level, their epic exploits blazing a saga of glory across the imaginary worlds I was about to enter. The monsters and treasure were things for me to kill, loot for me to take, not things to unleash on others. Had I managed to find an established gaming group into which I could have inserted myself, character sheet in hand, I would certainly have followed this course. It's impossible to say now whether I ever would have felt the siren call of running my own games, but in reality I pretty much had to start running games right off the bat since it was either that or not game at all.

It's, I think, fair to say that one of the truisms of traditional RPG gaming is that the act of running a game is an utterly thankless labor of love. Despite persistent rumors about "professional GMs" the vast majority of us do it for free, enjoying at best the simple compensation of not having to pay for the pizza or what have you. Many (most?) of us, if offered money to run games, would not take the opportunity, wanting to keep the experience "pure" and unsullied by filthy lucre. (For the record, I am not one of those ideologues, in case there are any millionaire GM-less gaming groups reading this post...)

There are probably as many different reasons for why people choose to take on the task of running a game as there are individual GMs, but I suspect these could be lumped into fairly broad categories. For me, the reason I started running games was because I was a frustrated player. I wanted to play RPGs, but didn't know anyone else who could make that happen.

Of course, eventually I got to be a player too. But by then I'd been running games so often I found it hard to turn off my GMing brain. I'd silently judge the GM, thinking about how I would have done things differently. Or, deprived of a campaign to work on between sessions, I'd start cooking up something to run "when this campaign's over" - and then get so excited about what I was working on, I'd lose interest in the game I was playing in. In effect I'd gone from being a frustrated player to being a frustrated GM.

These days, of course, I'm happy to be playing RPGs at all. I know a lot of folks in the "adult world" don't have that luxury, so I'm appreciative of whatever gaming time I can get in. I still feel little twinges of the old frustrations: when I'm running a game, I envy the carefree fun the players are having; when I'm a player, I can't wait to get back in the control seat. I have managed to work past the silent judging thing, at least.

I'm curious, though. Any other frustrated players running games out there? How about frustrated GMs? How do you deal with having to slum it in the peanut gallery? And more broadly, if you do run games, why do you do it?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

[Solo GPC] 521: Her Father's Daughter

Another one of those years that crop up periodically during the canonical GPC: wherein the PC is given the chance to witness and play a minor role in episode from the stories. This year happened to feature one of my favorite tales and Meleri found herself stuck in the middle, having to mull over where exactly her loyalties lay. In the process, she proved herself to be every bit the daughter of Sir Herringdale, much to the chagrin of one Sir Damas of Levcomagus.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Pendragon Appendix N

When I first started running Pendragon in a major way back in 2006 I quickly found myself seriously out of my depth. My comprehension of Arthurian mythology, my understanding of medieval history, these proved rather patchier than I would have liked. So I hit the books. And the movies. If you're looking to run a Pendragon campaign (or any medieval-drenched fantasy campaign - Dragon Warriors, I'm looking in your direction) I heartily recommend the following:

Le Morte d'Arthur: When most people think of the Arthurian myth, it is the version laid down here by a mercenary knight at the tail-end of the age of chivalry that they're thinking of. On the advice of the "Suggested Reading" section at the back of Pendragon I picked up the Penguin edition, which does a nice job of balancing readability with archaic diction. But I also have a "modernized" edition I can turn to if I just want to quickly reference a particular section to use in a game. Apart from Gawaine and the Green Knight, I have yet to read any other medieval versions of the myth like the Vulgate or the Mabinogion, something I hope to correct in the near future.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck. T. H. White gets a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but his take on Arthur is just a bit too idiosyncratic for gaming inspiration purpopses. For a modern treatment of the mythology, this is my favorite collection.

The Arthurian Companion by Phyllis Ann Karr. Absolutely indispensable. An encyclopedia of people, places, and things exhaustively compiled from the full range of available medieval sources.

Castles by Alan Lee. In some ways this was where it all started. I received this book as a gift (birthday? Christmas?) back during the height of my childhood interest in things medieval (about age 11-12). I still reference Lee's gorgeously evocative watercolors (example at left) for inspiration, and the well-written "thumbnail myths" that accompany them (scribed by David Day) have provided both direct and indirect material for some of my past scenarios.

Medieval Knights by David Nicolle. This is a representative entry for children's books in general. Yes, kid's books, the greatest friend of the harried GM ever invented. Particularly books on history, mythology, and other fun subjects. The big quarto or folio-sized, full-color jobbies with lots of pretty pictures are the way to go: like the veritable mother bird preparing to feed her nestlings, flip through their pages and gobble up the visual inspiration for later regurgitation at the game table.

Life in a Medieval Castle and Village Coloring Book by John Green. Another representative entry. Forget Osprey - there are tons of great, cheap Dover-style paperbacks available with original line art depicting arms, armor, castles, and scenes of daily life. My most recent addition to this list; I wish I'd had these sorts of books from the get-go.

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. The 14th-century was arguably the Middle Ages at their worst, and Tuchman paints a brilliant picture of church corruption, mercenary knights, plague, excess, war, famine, and peasant revolts. Indispensable for depicting the darker side of chivalry and the Arthurian cycle.

Excalibur (1981). Movies were my real introduction to the wonder of Arthur and the Middle Ages. I saw a TV-edited version of Excalibur when I was about 9 years old and it rocked my world. This movie is still my touchstone for what an epic Pendragon campaign should feel like, and Nicol Williamson's Merlin will never be bettered in my opinion.

"Come father, let us embrace at last!"

The Lion in Winter (1968). Great sets, great costumes (especially for the time it was made), absolutely indispensable for court politics and the true heart of Pendragon: the rack of human relationships.

"Poor John. Who says poor John? Don't everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!" "Let's strike a flint and see."

Knightriders (1981). An under-appreciated entry in George Romero's oeuvre, despite its modern setting this movie is the best treatment I've yet seen of the clash between chivalric ideals and hard reality. Plus, if you want a treatment of Merlin-as-hippy as an alternative to Nicol Williamson's take, look no further. (Oh, and Des thinks Tom Savini is sex on toast in this film, for what it's worth.)

"No, it's just getting too tough. It's tough to live by the code. I mean, it's real hard to live for something that you believe in. People try it and then they get tired of it, like they get tired of their...diets. Or exercise. Or their marriage. Or their kids, or their job, or themselves...or they get tired of their God."

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). The most obscure entry on the list, apparently this was a comedy movie released by some nobody British troupe back in the 70s. Mainly useful for its fantastic attention to detail in sets and costumes and the following clip, which is an apt summation of what happens when every knight in your party fails their Valorous rolls.

"We'll not risk another frontal assault - that rabbit's dynamite!"

Bonus Section: Ludography

As per a regular reader's request, here is my personal list of Pendragon supplements I've found most useful, given more or less in order of precedence. All are available as PDF and/or POD selections from DriveThruRPG.

The Great Pendragon Campaign: Absolutely indispensable, even if you don't plan on running the whole hog. Jam packed with scenarios, regional detail, NPCs (although, unfortunately, not their stats; see the GM Characters PDF for that), and a background narrative that keeps you up to date on what's going down with the wider world.

Greg Stafford's Pendragon Page: Not a book per se, but just as useful, Greg Stafford's personal Pendragon page is a wonderful cornucopia of essays on the setting, new rules, house rules, regional details, and lots more. The biggest problem with this page is deciding what to include in your campaign and what to leave out!

The Book of Knights and Ladies: The current (fifth) edition assumes you're creating knights from Salisbury in the year 485 during the reign of Uther. This book opens character creation up to knights from any part of Britain (and beyond) in any period of the saga.

Tales of Mystic Tournaments: All the "Tales of..." collections are worth a look (particularly Spectre Kings) but this is my favorite. As the name implies, it collects three adventures centering around tournaments, plus it includes rules for feasting and events therein (always a favorite part of my group's Pendragon experience). This is the collection that includes "The Grey Knight" and "The Tournament of Dreams", either one an excellent way to kick off a campaign (although I'd bump the latter up to the 530s at the earliest in order to fit in better with the chronology).

Blood and Lust: The best of the early-90s regional sourcebooks thanks to the inclusion of "The Heart Blade" story arc, my all-time favorite Pendragon adventure.

The Book of Knights: Greg Stafford is understandably cool towards the Green Knight-era Pendragon publications, but I have to say that this is my favorite treatment of the core rules: excellent layout, editing, and presentation provide an ideal introduction to Pendragon novices (GM and player alike).

Savage Mountains: As much as Blood and Lust is a sentimental favorite, I'll admit it's a bit uneven as a cohesive sourcebook. This sourcebook on Cambria (i.e. Wales) presents an integrated collection of information and (outstanding) scenarios that would allow you to run an entire campaign set among the eponymous mountains. If you're running the Great Pendragon Campaign, be aware that some of the scenarios in here have been placed into the GPC chronology at specific points.

Beyond the Wall: Does for Scotland what Savage Mountains did for Wales. The scenarios aren't quite as good, but there's lots of truly outstanding information on the kingdoms and Pictish tribes of the region to make up for that. Plus the simplified Battle system in the Appendix has become my go-to system for handling mass combat.

Honorable Mentions
Not exactly essential, I've nonetheless gotten enough out of the following titles to feel I'd be remiss in not including them.

Pendragon 4th Edition: You've got the 5th edition, why would you need the older version? Mainly because it gives you options to expand beyond the narrow scope presented in the current version of the game. If you have a player who really wants to play a sorcerer or enchantress, the rules are here. Details on Salisbury during the height of Arthur's reign are worth the price of admission alone if you're running the default campaign.

Lordly Domains: Until the Book of the Manor is available in PDF, this is the go-to source for rules on domain management (albeit at a rather more complex level that the BotM). It also includes a much more detailed system for hunting and falconry that's a lot of fun to play around with if your players are particularly interested in that side of play.

Perilous Forest: Most of the material in here dealing with the Wastelands is repeated or expanded on in the GPC, but this is still a useful reference if you plan on running a campaign set in the North and features a couple well-written scenarios that will likely be making an appearance in my own Solo GPC campaign.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

[Solo GPC] 520: Many Meetings

I'm starting to get a feel for running these Lady-centric adventures. As anticipated, they're much heavier on the role-playing and personal interaction side of things. This session saw nary a dice rolled in anger, but the dice that were rolled often carried with them heavy implications or repercussions. Again as anticipated, it's been a nice change of pace, but I'll be honest: I'm looking forward to getting back to a knight-centric framework. I'm not above admitting this is due in large part to simple creative laziness on my part; it's much easier to come up with set piece encounters centered around physical challenges than social or emotional challenges. This may be why our two Meleri adventures so far have both run rather quickly; about two hours of game time each. Also, there's just so much material out there for knightly adventures. I'd love to create or contribute a Book of Ladies' Adventures to rectify this situation, but I don't have enough ideas at the moment to do as such. Anyone want to come onboard as contributors?

At any rate, to the year at hand. When we left off last time, Meleri had departed for the Forest Sauvage to stay as a guest in the court of the Sauvage King for the winter...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Complexity vs. Playability: A Question of Campaign Scale

In the historical miniatures wargaming world, there's a widely-understood truism, almost a mathematical formula really, that states that as the complexity and detail of a set of rules increases the scale of the fighting depicted on the table shrinks. This is especially true for World War II miniatures rules: if you're tracking each individual soldier's morale and supply of grenades, if you're paying attention to the type of shell the tank is firing and tracking individual systems' damage levels, you're going to be playing with maybe 30 figures to a side and a vehicle or two in support. Outside of special convention exhibition games, if you want to field anything more than a platoon of troops per side and actually play a game to completion, certain concessions have to be made to "playability" - streamlining the process, boiling things down to a single die roll or two.

Reading through Christian's excellent Loviatar zine and his progress updates pertaining thereto, I was struck with a thought about how this scale could apply to RPGs. See, "PC freedom" is for the most part one of those RPG sacred cows. If you're planning on running a campaign that restricts players in any way, you better advertise it well in advance or you'll be facing mutiny. So most GMs (myself included) tend to plonk down on the side of "whatever's clever" and leave it at that. The thing is, Christian's running his game with Pathfinder but he's restricting action (for the time being) to a single city block.

Part of my personal evolution as a gamer these past few years has been in moving away from complex systems like 3.x/Pathfinder or GURPS in favor of more flexible and "lighter" systems like Castles & Crusades and BRP. But I'll be the first to admit that more complex systems have a certain charm - a well-written stat block for Pathfinder or GURPS is truly a thing of beauty and, as Christian's reminded me through his Loviatar efforts, kind of a hobby unto itself.

I've toyed with the idea of giving the players a complex system while keeping things simple on the GMing side of things. But maybe there's another way, too. I could actually see myself returning to GURPS or diving into Pathfinder as a GM, but with one caveat: as with miniatures games, with the complexity and detail of the rules increasing, the scale of the campaign would have to be proportionately smaller. That is perhaps the problem I've had with more complex systems: my ambition and desire to bow down before the altar of "PC freedom" has far outpaced my ability to actually interface with the rules. Running an open-ended and/or world-spanning campaign using those more detailed systems was just asking for frustration and overwhelm on my part. In terms of WWII miniatures games, it's like I was trying to put on a recreation of the Battle of the Bulge using Battalions in Crisis.

At this point, I'm mulling small-scale campaign concepts that could fit this new paradigm of complex rules/restricted setting. I'm thinking they'd have to be fairly role-play intensive, but with meaningful combats interspersed. Physical scale would be restricted by necessity; Christian's city block is a great example. For a fantasy milieu restricting races, monsters, and other variables would be desirable. I think a campaign that had a definite arc envisioned from the get-go (and discussed with the players) would be a good idea, too.

Off the top of my head, here are some campaign ideas that fit those criteria:

  • A Roman gladiator campaign where maybe (and realistically) one in four sessions actually features combat in the arena; the rest would be politics of the ludus and associated patrons and their power games.
  • A cyberpunk campaign set entirely in a single apartment block or urban project in an arcology; the group's only contact from birth with the outside world is through the 'Net.
  • The (mis-)adventures of a pirate crew and their ship of fortune; perhaps Irish pirates raiding the English from their coastal village base or converted Europeans operating out of a semi-independent piratical city-state.
  • To take a page from Christian's campaign, a GURPS Goblins game set entirely in a single ward or district of Regency London.
Heh, looking over that list I see it betrays my other burgeoning tendency: a greater and greater interest in running campaigns set strictly in our own world history, or something very close to it. But that's a topic for another day...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

[Solo GPC] 519: Enter Meleri

After far too long of a hiatus, Pendragon is kicking back up into high gear around these parts. This past Sunday Des ran the first session of her Pendragon campaign for the Meetup group. Including myself, we had five players. We've got two others who have expressed interest but couldn't make it that day due to scheduling conflicts and even an eighth(!) player on a waiting list. For a supposedly obscure RPG, Pendragon sure is bringing all the gamers to the yard, as it were.

(And yes, it was awesome to be on the player's side of the Pendragon experience again.)

During the preceding week prior to the Sunday session, we managed to get the Solo GPC campaign up and running as well. Following the death of Sir Herringdale, this session was to be the beginning of a new chapter tracing the exploits of Des's next character, Lady Meleri, Herringdale's black sheep daughter and heir to Broughton Manor. I took the opportunity to reassess and re-calibrate some of the rules I'd been using since we started the campaign in January of 2010. As I wrote way back then, we started with all core and optional rules in effect and more than a few house rules culled from Pendragon websites and message boards. I've since learned that in a solo game, simpler rules are often better. We'd already abandoned the excellent system presented in The Book of Battle for a more streamlined system. Now, as I prepared for the next adventure, I also made the decision to switch to the simpler Narrative economic system presented in The Book of the Manor; trying to balance the books in-game wasn't adding any fun to this particular campaign experience - we get enough of that in our real lives! I also adopted these excellent Yearly Event and Kin Event tables to flesh out the Winter Phase a bit more. Finally, I made lots of notes on the direction of the campaign in years to come, including themes I'd like to explore and ideas for allies and foes to toss at Meleri.

With all that prep done, I somewhat paradoxically prepared a simple adventure for this year. This was both because it had been a while since we'd played and because a lady-centered campaign was going to be such a dramatic switch I wanted to allow both of us to get a feel for it through a simple, rather straightforward adventure. Sort of like the introductory scenario in the core book taking nascent knights through the basics of jousting and opposed combat rolls, this would take us through the basics of how Meleri's adventures would play out in court and in the wild.

Monday, July 18, 2011

[Rifts:2112] Europe Again

Apart from the occasional playtest one-shot, I've yet had a chance to really take my alternate version of Rifts for a spin. That's going to change this week as I fire up a casual pick-up game with a couple friends who have voted on a Rifts Europe campaign.

Although sessions will be sporadic, this still represents a real shot at putting some of my BRP conversions (yes, after a brief flirtation with Savage Worlds, I'm back on the BRP bandwagon for the time being) to the test and further develop my version of Rifts Europe, which long-time readers will recall differs markedly from the canonical setting. Expect a couple more posts on this topic as I make hay for the new campaign: some fleshed-out details on the British Archipelago and (finally) filling in some details on the long-neglected Mediterranean with much material courtesy of a couple readers hailing from that region.

I spent some time today assembling a document of vehicles commonly found in the Neue Deutsche Republik (NDR) and other inhabited regions. It's sort of the steampunk answer to the original Triax and the NGR sourcebook: lots of nifty tech. My inspiration came in the form of a treasure trove of Lego steampunk vehicles on the net. There's a whole subculture of Lego steam engineers sharing their creations online, it would seem. Who knew, right? I have yet to stat anything out, but selecting the various creations got my brain working in terms of how transportation in post-apocalyptic Europe works. Here's what I came up with:
As nearly all of Europe's roads lie in impassible ruin, the NDR has sunk a considerable amount of time and effort into building a network of rails across its interior, linking all the Member Cities as well as important mining, farming, and commercial centers. The tracks are always built in pairs, allowing two trains to move along any given stretch of rail simultaneously (usually in opposite directions). This configuration has also led to the development of the NDR's justifiably famous "Railships" - massive rolling fortresses, the largest of which run on both sets of tracks. The Railships are used to protect and patrol the rail network, serve as convoy escorts, or transport important parties in maximum security.

All other vehicles in the NDR, civilian or military, tend to be built with rugged off-road travel in mind. Accordingly, non-tracked vehicles as a general rule run either on tracks or on articulated legs capable of clambering on and over even the most untamed wilderness land.

However, given the choice, when rail travel isn't available many travelers both within and outside the NDR prefer to fly. Gargoyles and other flying monstrosities still pose a threat, of course, so most airships are well-armed for defense, but by and large air travel is much safer, faster, and more comfortable than roughing it overland.

Due to the limitations of steam power, flying machines in Europe are almost always built as dirigibles. The NDR's military airships are rigid in construction, sporting thin armored casings over their gasbags. Civilian ships are non-rigid as a general rule. Rigid or not, most airships sport sails for use when winds are favorable. This helps extend the range of the ship and its fuel.

There is a type of airship increasingly found around the British Archipelago that does not fall under the category of dirigible: sky riders. These ships gain their lift through magic and rely on propeller engines to provide thrust. Because they do not need large gasbags, sky riders are generally sleeker and faster and are much prized by air pirates when they can get their hands on them.
Gotta have air pirates, you know?

Here are some of the inspirational creations in question, the first five courtesy of the amazingly talented Raillery:

All this steam-tech stuff has got me going in an even steamier direction (although not in the carnally interesting sense, sorry) for my European tech. Today reader Reese F. sent me some modified digital mock-ups of steam-tech guns.

Reese explains:
The weapons fire solid projectiles propelled from a reservoir of compressed steam. A recent thought that I had was that you could easily make these weapons inflict the necessary damage by giving them the same types of rounds as with the TX-5 Pump Pistol.
I love this idea. For those of you unfamiliar with the weapon in question, it's sort of like a hybrid grenade-launcher/shotgun; it fires small cartridges that explode on impact with a blast radius of about a yard. It only stands to reason the NDR would have developed this sort of technology to combat the "gargoyles" and boosted Brodkil that press at their borders. It also introduces a uniquely European gun technology to contrast with North America's more advanced chemical slug throwers and laser weapons (not that those won't be present in Europe as well, just in much smaller numbers methinks).

I'll leave things off here with some more inspirational pics in the vein of my first Europe post. These pics have been culled from around the Web, often from secondary sources. If you spy your art here and would like credit, please don't hesitate to drop me a line and let me know and I'll make the appropriate changes. On with the show then:

Sea Gypsy settlement in the British Archipelago.
New Camelot
Further details will be forthcoming in my post on the British Archipelago, but I'm turning The Eternal City into a trans-dimensional trading port run by Dickensian Goblins in the vein of those presented in the criminally underrated GURPS Goblins sourcebook.

A Millennium Tree
The City of Ys 

A manufactory in the NDR.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

[Campaign Analysis] Secrets of Yog-Francisco

Something I'd love to see more of on Ye Olde Blogs are analyses of campaigns, both those that wrap up successfully and those that fall apart. What worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign. To that end, I'll be posting the very thing whenever a campaign wraps up.

Oh, look - I had a campaign just wrap up yesterday. Talk about good timing!

I've just now dubbed the campaign Secrets of Yog-Francisco. It didn't have that name going in. I know some folks like to name their campaigns right away (and most folks don't name them at all); for the duration it was being run, it was simply "the Cthulhu campaign." It was set in San Francisco from 1923-24 and made extensive use of Secrets of San Francisco and a couple adventures from White Dwarf set in SF.

This campaign marked my first stab at putting a group together over the Internet since 2002. The '02 experiment was, for me, completely unsuccessful, even resulting in my own personal brush with Creepiest Gamer territory. Ironically the group I convened carried on without me for at least a couple years (after they kicked out the Creepy Gamer, of course). Just call me the Gamer Matchmaker, I guess. In all seriousness, they were perfectly okay with playing "tabletop Everquest" - grinding through dungeons and wilderness encounters, killing things and taking their stuff. Not my style, but to each their own. It definitely put me off the idea of gaming with strangers, though.

With the brief exception of 2002 my preference has always been to game with people with whom I am friends or at least good acquaintances with. It tends to cultivate a sense of shared goals for what we all want out of gaming, since we're all by definition sort of "swimming in the same waters" to begin with. I've also almost without exception been the guy who introduces RPGs to others. Whenever I'd put a group together or find a new person joining an existing group it was inevitably an RPG newbie or newbies sitting at the table.

So this campaign represented quite a departure from my usual M.O. on several levels. Not only were these strangers, but about half the group were not just familiar with RPGs, they were actually hobbyists like myself. Another major change of pace for me was the group size: it started with two players but added a new player each session until it topped out at five (and even six on one or two occasions). My high school/college group took years to get up to four players; five was undreamed of and six was just completely ridiculous.

As a result, my preference does tend to run towards smaller groups - I consider three players the ideal balance - but I had a great time running this campaign nonetheless. It's hard to turn people away who want to play, especially if it's a game like Call of Cthulhu; non-D&D campaigns aren't exactly a dime a dozen, especially in a smaller city such as mine.

I really think the secret of success was primarily the fact that I was running a non-D&D campaign. I've alluded to this in recent posts, but it bears repeating: if you're looking to put together a gaming group, it pays to run something a little quirky and off the beaten path. Casting a wide net by running a vanilla D&D campaign (as I did in 2002) pretty much guarantees that you'll get a wide mix of people, which is good for filling seats but also significantly raises the odds of ending up with incompatible aims and goals.

Speaking of aims and goals, the main adjustment I had to make with running a campaign for a larger group was not in the actual running of the game but rather the planning. I suspect there's an inverse relationship between group size and the influence a GM has over the campaign. That is to say, with smaller groups (or solo games), as a GM I have a greater voice in punching up certain themes or recurring NPCs. The larger the group gets, the more autonomy the players can exert. Themes emerge more organically. NPCs, both beloved and despised, tend to emerge organically.

This is not to say these processes don't occur with smaller groups. But I've found, looking back on the just-wrapped campaign, that almost everything emerged organically. At the outset of the campaign, I sat down and made a list of themes, adventures, and NPCs that I wanted to see featured in the campaign. I'd say over 95% of that list went untapped.

Instead of my intention to feature Nyarlathotep, we saw Yog-Sothoth emerge as the central dark force behind many of the campaign events. Recurring themes grew up on their own: ingenues in peril, Pinkerton detectives, sorcerers, and trans-dimensional travel. Although I still prefer smaller groups, I have to say I really enjoyed the organic development that came with the larger group.

What Worked Well
* I have to give myself a pat on the back for pacing. I kept adventures cooking along while seeing each one increase the deadliness bit by bit. The first PC death didn't occur until the penultimate session. Yesterday's grand finale allowed me to pull out all the stops, and we ended with two deaths, one permanent insanity, one PC reduced to a single Sanity point(!) and indefinitely insane, and the only intact PC stranded 85 years in the future in present-day San Francisco (and ready to be dusted off if/when I run a modern-day Cthulhu campaign).
* I think I did a good job with creating a sense of place. There's not much point to setting a campaign in a specific locale if it's indistinguishable from Anytown, USA. Having lived in San Francisco for five years (and the fact that so much of that city has essentially remained unchanged since the Twenties) allowed me to draw upon visceral memories to paint pictures of the city's geography, architecture, public transit, weather, and more. I even have a poster map reproduction of San Francisco in the Twenties that I'd haul out to provide a visual aide at times. If you're running a campaign in the modern era, there's a definite advantage to running a campaign in an area you've lived in and are familiar with.

What Needs Improvement
* About halfway through the campaign I realized that although I was doing a great job with creating a real sense of place, I was seriously lagging on creating a sense of the times. That is, there was little to demonstrate the fact I was running the game in the Twenties other than occasional references to Prohibition. Once I realized this, I started paying more attention to how I was describing NPCs' outfits and other physical props, but I'd be curious to hear others' feedback on how they create a sense of the times with historical games.
* I started the campaign with an omnibus list of "creepy encounters" to throw at the players periodically, intended to keep them off-balance and ratchet up the weirdness factor. I forgot the timeless lesson of The Gazebo: the more something seems like a non-sequitir, the more meaning the players will assign to it. I'll have to work on integrating creepy events into the main narrative or else presenting them in a way that the players can't really follow up or act on them.

All in all, I was tremendously satisfied with how the campaign turned out and the great group that gelled around it. So what's up next? After some discussion over a post-campaign feast, we settled on...Pendragon! Muahaha! This group likes the off-beat games, and for that I am eternally grateful. Even better? I get to be a player this time; Des has volunteered to fill the GM's chair. It'll likely be a brief campaign by Pendragon standards - probably "only" 20 to 40 years of game time...
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