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 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 regular reader Dangerous Brian'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...
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