Playing

Extra Little Character Building Questions

We've now completed character generation for On the Edge of Exile, but we're yet to play the first session (that's next week). The players are still fleshing out their characters, so in that spirit, I wrote a few little questions to help them build backstories that will inform the campaign, and the themes, that we're going to explore.

Also, don't worry, I'll post write-ups of all the characters once they're finished and we get started.

These questions are optional, of course, but they act the same as the Extra Little Worldbuilding Questions, but for player characters, rather than the GM. It's a good idea for GMs to come up with their own pointed (and loaded) questions for their own campaigns, so that they better fit the themes, but I hope my list gives you some inspiration.

  1. Who are your parents? Where are they now? Do they know what you are? Do they know where you've been sent? How do they feel about that?
  2. Do you have any siblings? Where are they now? Which ones do you remember fondly? Which ones bring up complicated feelings? Anger? Jealousy? Hatred?
  3. Who was your best friend? Where are they now? Why aren't they here with you?
  4. Who was your worst enemy? What did you do to them to inspire them to follow you? What lengths will they go to to get payback?
  5. What dream did you hold, that now slips through your fingers? Is it gone now, forever? What would you do if presented the chance to get it back?

#200WordRPG: DOGMA

#200WordRPG is one of my favourite yearly traditions, despite how young it still is. This is my second year entering - last year's entry can be found here. If you're not sure what #200WordRPG is, well, it's a challenge to write an entire tabletop roleplaying game in 200 words or less, with no graphics or special formatting. It's all about the words (all 200 or less of them).
This year, I present to you DOGMA!

You and at least two others (there is no maximum) are an entire religion, throughout its timeline - from inception, to corruption and subversion.

Your religion is growing. It will do great things... Before it is twisted, and made rotten. We play to see it fester.

The first player describes a moment of SPIRITUALITY: a fact about the religion at its founding.
//Thou shall not kill.

The second describes a FABLE that explains it: written long after, it obscures the spirituality from morality into rote learning.
//St. Cain didn't kill the sinner, but cut off their hands, feet and tongue so they could never sin again.

The third describes a MISINTERPRETATION: long after the fable is written, how is it subverted and corrupted for personal gain?
//King Auger cut out the tongues of all non-believers, stating they were now, or would become, sinners. He declared their exsanguination was God taking their deaths into Her own hands.

A player who hasn't described a Spirituality begins again. New Spiritualities must reference or retaliate to a previous Myth or Misinterpretation.
//Suffer not the sinner to live.

The religion stagnates when everyone has misinterpreted something.
//Religion fades when spirituality is forgotten.

Record everything.
I also did pretty it up a little, and uploaded it here (and put it on my portfolio here).

If you play it, let me know!

A reply to a reply to a discussion about Losing


Some good stuff happening over at RPG YouTube right now. Matthew Colville began by discussing Losing in an RPG, and +John Harper followed it up with an add-on/challenge to that topic. I've posted both below, but also expanded on John's wisdom, based on how I've seen, run, and played games for the past many years.
Hold on to your characters lightly. When your characters experience adversity, that isn't happening to you as a player. Take the good with the bad, and accept that everything that happens to your character is part of the story. Look for how that can be interesting and dramatic, rather than good or bad, winning or losing.

This isn't to suggest that you shouldn't enjoy winning, but rather to encourage you to also enjoy losing, because even when you lose you can create great story. The Force Awakens would be a worse film were Han not killed (as gut wrenching as that was). Boromir wouldn't be as interesting a character had he not sacrificed himself. A Game of Thrones would not have been as compelling if Ned wasn't decapitated.

However, to cap this all off, I'm still a firm believer in what +Adam Koebel has now popularised: killing a character is the least interesting thing you can do to them. They can lose, and sometimes death is the logical result of a loss, but more often than not you can scar them, or defeat them, and allow them to live (and struggle) another day for a better story down the line.

Finally, regular readers may not that it's been a month since my last This Week - this has been somewhat intentional. I've needed a break, to refuel and to reorganise my thoughts. It's been very needed, and I feel a hell of a lot better after it all. I should be getting back into regular programming soon!

My 7 Tips for Playing Well

I talk a lot about how to GM – mainly because GMing is the vast majority of what I do. But recently, I’ve been given the chance to play on the other side of the screen a bit, and it’s refreshed my perspective of how to be a good player.

GMs see good players every session we run (if we’re lucky – in which regard I am very) and as such we have a good view to give to the other side. This is the view as I see it.

Tip #1 – Be a Fan

Be a fan of your game, and your fellow players.

Just like when you watch your favourite TV show, you should be routing for the other characters. You should be excited when they win, and heart broken when they lose. You should be cheering them on, every step of the way. Now, just like in any TV show you watch, you may not agree with everything a beloved character does, you should always at least want to see what happens next.

And just like any fandom, you should feel the urge to tell the other players that you’re a fan of their characters. Tell them your favourite things they’ve done. Share the experience with them.

If you love their characters, they’ll likely love yours as well.

Tip #2 – Develop a Voice

Develop a voice for your character – not just how they sound, but how they respond.

Often people advise players to ask themselves “What would my character do?” I’m suggesting you ask yourself “How would my character do that?”

If you’re so inclined, come up with an accent to play as your character. Make sure you can keep it up, though! Otherwise, just think about how your character acts. Are they sheepish? Are they shy? Are they assertive? Are they full of jokes, or deadly serious?

And don’t just make this static. Always be open to fill in the edges. Maybe they’re normally pranksters, but take on a cold tone when dealing with blasphemers. Maybe they’re usually a hard case, but can crack a smile now and again with everyone else.

Whatever it is, this tip is about developing a voice, not having a voice already developed… The game is about who your characters are, and who they become. We should see them change.

Tip #3 – Don’t Begin with a Finished Backstory

I know how fun it is to write massive backstories for characters. Trust me. I’ve been there! But I don’t think it’s wise, or as fun, to start a campaign with a fully fleshed out backstory.

Begin your campaigns with a clear idea of your character, but leave the details up to development (as the above tip). Allow things to grow organically. Maybe you can work some of the events of the campaign into your backstory, to allow for more adventuring hooks!

By not beginning with a finished backstory, you allow your character to grow a little more naturally into the world. You might go to a tavern and decide that you’ve been there before. Hell, it might be where you had your first drink – and the kindly woman behind the bar? She’s your God Mother…

Of course, ask your GM about these sorts of things before you start out – but 9 times out of 10 I’d imagine they’d be thrilled for the added input. And any GMs out there that aren’t – well, you better have a damn good reason why not, otherwise we need to have a talk, you and I.

Also, feel free to improve on the spot. Do you know that your character’s family died in a fire? Are you looking at a burning building right now? Maybe this is giving you flash backs. Mention this to the GM, and everyone around the table can play it out a little…

Tip #4 – Build Connections

Look for opportunities to build connections – everywhere. Build connections between your character and the world, but most importantly your character and the other characters.

This tip feeds off the last one, but always look out for the chance to hook your character onto something another character does. Has a party member just buried an old companion? Why not comfort them and trade stories about your lost friends. Maybe you’ll find out you both knew the same person. Maybe you’re both carrying a missing piece of a puzzle.

Again, let your GM know what you’re doing. They should be willing to go along with these sorts of things. Which brings me to…

Tip #5 – Ask Leading Questions

Whenever you’ve got a good idea, ask your GM leading questions – but for the love of everyone around the table, please show your hand. Nothing is worse than the players trying to pull a fast one on the GM. The GM has enough to worry about – understanding the fictional position of the game world shouldn’t be one of them.

What this tip means is, if you have a cool idea, ask the GM if it’s possible, or how it could be done. Ask them if you can use the powdered sugar from the case of donuts to dust for finger prints. Ask them if Gnomes prefer gifts of gold or gems. Ask them what you know of Giant heroic myths.

By asking the GM these leading questions, you’re showing them what you find interesting and important. You’re giving the GM an indication that in this scene, at this moment, you want to express your agency. A good GM will see what is happening, and let you run with it.

Further, most GMs will have to stop and think. Hell, what DO Gnomes prefer? Sometimes they’ll make something up, and create a twist in your story. Other times, they might just throw the question back on you. What do you think? This is them telling you run with that agency!

Tip #6 – Relinquish the Spotlight

Just as it’s the GMs job to grant spotlight moments, so too is it the players’. If you notice someone around the table isn’t as engaged, then engage them in the story! Call on their character to aid you, or to ask them for their expertise. Allow them to show off their own character traits.

This comes back to building connections. You should always be looking for ways to make the other characters relevant to your character – and to give them time to shine when you do. This will make other players enjoy playing with you, and will also make your GM very happy. It can be hard to manage everyone at the table, so if the other players have their back, the GM’s job is much easier.

For example, say you’re playing a fighter with a military history. You notice some strange terrain features in a field. You know they look a little bit like fortifications, but you’re not sure. You could maybe ask your ranger friend if they’re naturally occurring. Or you could ask your rogue friend to scout them out. Once you find out they’re actually burial cairns, you could ask your cleric companion to which culture and religion they belong.

Say you’re a scholar, and you need some protection moving through a dungeon. Why not directly ask the fighter to take the lead? Tell them why they’re most suited to this task, and encourage the player to express themselves in how they bravely journey on first.

Try even making suggestions about possible links in the campaign. If you know your paladin friend is searching for an ancient mystical shield, and you see a shield on the wall of a far off tomb, shout out to them that maybe it’s the one! Then get out of the way, and let that player take over the spotlight for a few moments. They’ll be happy that you did.

Tip #7 – Take a Turn GMing

Every player should GM at least once. The very act of trying out the other side of the screen gives you so much perspective and appreciation for exactly what the GM does that it’s invaluable. You’ll be an infinitely better player for this one act than any other, because you’ll understand what the GM is doing, and be able to help them in little ways like wrangling the other players, or keeping track of HP, or whatever.

Tell your GM what you’re doing and why, and I guarantee they’ll help you in whatever way they can. GMs love making new GMs, and having a chance to sit back and play once in a while.

Play More Games!

And a final bonus thought for you… Play more games. All sorts of games. Play everything you can. You’ll learn lots (even if it’s just which games you like, and which you don’t).


Have fun out there!

Problems with D&D 5E: Legendary Resistance

There are two things many of you may know about me:

  1. I've been running Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition for about 2 years now in a campaign called Ameshirel: A World Undone.
  2. I hate Dungeons & Dragons.
Now, the second thing has always come in waves. I see a new edition, I play it, I like the new things, but the old shitty things continue to piss me off. I then realise that Dungeons & Dragons doesn't do the thing it claims to be best at any better than a handful of games. So I end up switching to something better...

But I've stuck with 5th Edition because I honestly believe it is better than all previous editions. However, that doesn't mean it is good. Just better.

Luckily, we can make it even better!

Now I'm not sure if this is going to be a series, or just a one shot, but I'd like to start looking at individual mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, pointing out why they suck, and then reworking them to be a little more interesting. The first one I am going to target is:

Legendary Resistance

AKA, "nah, fuck your cool signature spells... I'm a bad-ass and don't want to be hurt." AAKA "I'm a Game Designer and needed a way to make this super powerful creature actually powerful, but refuse to fix the broken system around it, so will instead invent a bullshit rule."
Legendary Resistance (3/Day): If the <creature> fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.
This ability is given to a number of monsters - basically anything that's considered a stand-alone boss fight. The problem is, with Dungeons & Dragons's weird combat system, stand-alone monsters aren't really feasible. The PCs will have infinitely more chances to act than them, making their super powers only useful a fraction of the time. And the amount of crazy PC abilities means they'll whittle it down before it's acted more than once or twice. So we see Dragons, and Vampires, and Demons, etc, all sporting this rule.

Why is this bullshit? Well, because spellcasters (and Monks) rely on saving throws for a lot of their abilities. These same classes also rely on limited resources (spell slots, Ki points, etc). They also, usually, don't get to do much in their turns except cast a single spell, or whatever.

So when you have the Wizard dutifully wait around until it is finally their turn (because combat in this game takes forever), and then to use their favourite spell, which they get to do for, maybe, 10 seconds in a 4 hour session, you pull this shit out. It tells the player that, no - in this case, for no apparent reason, your awesome ability didn't work. Doesn't matter what kind of saving throw, either.

White Dragons are massive, so they can probably resist Constitution saving throws. However, they're also described as being stupid. They're also, as I mentioned, massive! So it's arguable to say they can't dodge all that well, nor hold onto their wits like others can.

This rule decides to shit all over the lore, and just tell the players that, in this case, the monster is OK.

It also becomes a war of attrition. The spellcaster has 3 spell slots? Well Legendary Resistance has 3 uses. Looks like you're not getting your spell off - Tim the Enchanter. Oh, what's that, you DO have a 4th slot? Well we could either let you just use your damn spell, or we could waste 3 rounds of combat until the monster has no more charges left. Because that sounds fuuuuuuuuun.

I haven't ever used this ability against my players. And I never will. It sucks... Unless we can fix it.

Fixing Legendary Resistance

Now that my rant is out of the way, here are some ideas on how to make it not terrible.

At its core, it's a useful ability to have - it makes the big bad guys actually difficult to defeat. What can we do to make it better?

1) We give it specific saves it can bolster.

Firstly, we tie the ability into the lore. What is this monster good at resisting? What is it bad at resisting? We can foreshadow all of this in game as well, so that we give the players an early idea of how they might be able to win this thing. 

Is the monster afraid of cold attacks, and can't use their Legendary Resistance against anything cold? Then we put lots of warm fires in their lair.

Is the monster dumb, and can't use their Legendary Resistance against Intelligence saving throws? Then we make it perform stupid actions. It chases its tail if it isn't sentient. It can't speak properly, or bumps into things, or whatever... You get the idea.

This allows the players to strategically choose which spells they're going to cast. If they know this monster is super wise, and they're going to use a spell that needs a Wisdom saving throw, then they should second guess themselves. If they don't after all this foreshadowing, then it's their fault.

2) We make it a bonus, not a trump.

Secondly, we make the ability a bonus to the monster's saving throw, not a flat out "it fucking wins". Make it a big bonus, to reflect the nature of its Legendary status... However just by rolling - and rolling out in the open - we give the players a fairer chance. We're telling them that the mechanics are granting them the possibility of succeeding, but because this thing is a bad-ass, it's slim.

For argument's sake, let's make it a +10 bonus. Big, crazy, bonus.

3) We make it a strategic choice.

Thirdly, we tie it to a limited resource for the monster - like Reactions. Maybe we give them a second Reaction each turn, to make it more possible for them to use it, but we tie it to something like this. Why? Well, this allows the players to drain the monster's resources.

If the party knows the Wizard is going to lay down some hurt, but they need a clear shot when the monster doesn't have Legendary Resistance, they can help them out. They can purposely provoke Attacks of Opportunity, or they can cast minor spells to expend uses of counterspell, or whatever. Basically, they can set up the Wizard's spell.

The awesome thing about this? Well, it makes everyone involved feel responsible for the awesome spell going off. The Wizard made the spell, but the Monk made the spell possible. Now we've got some team work.

And GMs, don't choose to save the Reaction for the Legendary Resistance. If the players tell you they want to try to provoke the monster so as to distract it so it can't use its Legendary Resistance? Bloody well let them. That's awesome. That's tactics. That's what the game is about.

Conclusion

The age-old rule of "Yes, but..." applies to mechanics too. Don't make a mechanic that shuts a player down, or invalidates their favourite moves. That's not good game design. That's laziness. We're all better than that, and we can work together to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition better than that too.

Sorry if I've been too critical of the game. I do have parts of it I like. But I have other parts that I despise. Hopefully, if you scrape off all the vitriol, you'll get some good advice!

What I Learned About Characters from Watching Marco Polo

My favourite thing about roleplaying is growing. I love finding something I'm not, building a character about it, and testing that personality out. It helps me in many ways: it broadens my repertoire for NPCs, it increases my real-world empathy for different view points, and it allows me to explore myself better. Am I actually the way I think I am? Am I different? What would I do, were I in a different situation? Were I a different person?

I believe every character a person makes is a little bit of them. Maybe just a tiny detail - but in some way, from heroes all the way through to villains - our characters reflect who we are.

I recently started watching Season 2 of Marco Polo, and the first two episodes begin with a pretty big bang. This bang inspired me to write an article. This article will have spoilers of a sort, but I'll keep the details out of it. The keen observer will be able to figure out what's happening, so if you care about that sort of thing, turn away now.

I'm also going to make random conjecture, and suggest possible endings to the show without having seen the end of the Season, so take everything I say about the show's events with a grain of salt.

I'll also be throwing around the term good a hell of a lot. By good, I don't mean the opposite of evil. I mean "well-rounded", "interesting", "engaging", "dramatic", "exciting"... Basically, I mean a character that you'd want to read about. You may hate who they are, but not how they're told, or the story they force into existence. By good, I am assuming that you want your roleplaying characters to exemplify the traits I mentioned above. If you don't, ignore everything I'm about to say...

Good Characters Have Motivations

Every good character I know has something they want. More to, they have a reason why they want that thing. This goal and reason together forms their motivation. A motivation is more than just a base want. It is everything that surrounds the want that makes the want interesting.

Let's look at two motivations from Marco Polo:

Kublai Khan wants to be a great ruler, but mainly he wants to be a great ruler so that he's considered better than Ghengis Khan, the greatest Mongolian ruler ever. Many people want to be the head-honcho in the series, but it is because of Kublai's obsession that he is so compelling.

Kaidu wants to be Khan to prove that the Mongol way is right. He believes that Ghengis Khan's original message of expansion has been deformed and broken by Kublai's reaching, and wants to, in his eyes, redeem the Mongols. He hates the weakness that he perceives comes from trying to be Emperor of all Mongolia and China.

Here we can see two very similar goals, yet vastly different motivations. Already, the keen GM should be thinking of future plots where these two characters could come to blows...

Good Characters Have Limits

Now, character motivations aren't anything new - we've had roleplaying games that have mechanised motivations for years now, and to very good effect. They work well, but I believe for true dramatic gaming, they need to be pushed. Motivations need to be tested, otherwise the game is just a script.

Does Kaidu kill Kublai to take the throne?

Without limits, of coarse he does. If he has the option, the means, or the chance, he must kill him. It would fulfill his motivation, and he'd win.

However, what makes the character's so compelling - and what can make your characters so compelling - is the limits that are placed on them, by themselves. The characters know what they can and cannot do to achieve their goals.

Kublai Khan has no qualms with killing Kaidu for threatening his throne... He'd even enjoy it, and has been hoping to cross blades with him for some time. However, he's limited by the law. He knows he can't turn down a challenge given within the law, so must accept to undergo an election of sorts. This chafes at him, because even though he has legitemacy, he lacks massively in diplomacy. Kublai, with the greater army, and the greater claim to the throne, fears for his position because his weaknesses can be exploited. This will lead him to compromises that he might not be happy about...

Kaidu has diplomacy. He also has the backing of the law (see above). He knows that Kublai's armies are meaningless if he fights him in an election. But that means he has to sway lots of other chieftains, many of whom are loyal to Kublai. This brings together a great scene, in Season 2 Episode 2. I won't spoil it, but from it we learn that Kaidu has a second manifestation of his core motivation - he believes acting like Ghengis is more important than being Khan. Whether this works out for him or not, is yet to be seen...

From these limits, we get tension. Characters must play to certain rules which dictate their actions and their methods of attaining their goals and achieving their motivations. The best limits are those that make their motivations harder to attain, which leads us to...

Good Characters Make Choices

The moment a character has to make the choice between their motivation and their limits. Does the character accept that their limits are there for a reason, or do they break past them and trust that the ends justify the means?

Kaidu, in the example above, chooses to stick to his limits. He'll figure out another way to achieve his motivation, even if he makes it harder for himself along the way. He's a man of honour or principals, regardless of the morality or righteousness of his motivation. He plays by the rules he's set himself. In old-school terms, he'd be Lawful.

Kublai, on the other hand, faced with several threats to his throne, chooses to dance around his limits. At first, he claims a certain act is unthinkable. Then, he knows he must do it. Then he is convinced against it... Just as we're certain he's turned the other cheek he... Well, I won't spoil this one either. However, the final scene of Season 2 Episode 2 is so perfectly on-point for interesting choices that I urge you to watch that episode, even if you don't care about the rest of the show.

The point is, Kublai isn't certain that his limits are set in stone. He's willing to listen to council, and to change and bend as a person to achieve his goals. Therefore, the drama becomes about what he will decide to do. What choices will he decide to make? He's what we'd call Chaotic.

The main point I'm trying to make, for GMs, is that the best moments of the show - and the best moments for your game if you care about personal and characterful drama - are when you give a player the chance to achieve their character's goals... But then you test their limits. Do they take the leap and risk who they are to become what they want? Or do they sacrifice their dreams to hold firm to their morals and inner voice?

THAT is what I've learned from watching Marco Polo...

#200WordRPG: MegaCorp

It's time for #200WordRPG again! This shall be the first year I'm participating. Pretty excited for it, to be honest. If you don't know what it is, you can read all about it here, or see an example from this year by Steve D here.
Please note, this game hasn't been tested. It might suck...
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You’re suits pulling the strings of a MegaCorp. But the ‘Corp is falling - you and your associates have been picking it apart for months now. You want as many assets as possible before it crashes. But not the most, nor seen to be responsible for the crash - they will be charged with fraud...
To play, gather: 2-4 players, a Scrabble set, and a Jenga tower.
Separate Scrabble vowels from consonants. Players take 5 vowels and 9 consonants each. Players make words in secret (minimum 3 letters). Oldest player begins.
Players have a conversation - when asked a question, answer it - attempting to goad the other players into saying one or more of their words.
When a word is said, the player who owns it immediately halts play, reveals it, and replaces the letters. They draw new letters of the same amount, then either remove or replace Jenga pieces up to the amount of letters in the word (minimum 1). They then restart the conversation.
The game ends when the Jenga tower falls, and the knocker loses. The player with the most Jenga pieces loses hardest. Whoever has the second most pieces wins.
Lather everything in Cyberpunk and describe it.
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I'll be playing it over the next few days to see what it's like. If you've got an idea for a 200 Word RPG, let me know in the comments below, and then submit it on the site!

What I Learned About Political Intrigue from Watching House of Cards

Political intrigue is one of my favourite genres. From the outside, it might look reserved and placid, but when you get into it, and get to know the characters, you realise just how tense, how brutal, and how damaging the smallest actions can be.

I recently began watching House of Cards for the first time, and by doing so my mind started ticking with ideas for roleplaying games (incidentally, this is my benchmark for whether a TV show is good, so add my stamp of approval to HoC). My main brainwaves came as a revelation on how 'attacking' can work in political intrigue, so below I've listed out a few examples of what I noticed.

Note: This post has some super-minor spoilers from Season 1, though I've left character names out of it and am replacing them with placeholders (let's say, Sam and Jean). I'm also obscuring the sequence of events and the specifics, so you should be fine if you haven't seen the show yet. Also note, I'm using Fate Core Skills for the skill/characteristic examples. Luckily, Fate is so broad it should be very easy to translate them into appropriate examples for your chosen system. However, if you are playing Fate, you could just as easily use all these instances to Create an Advantage.


Example 1

Sam sits down across from Jean in her house. Jean is framed by a beautiful and expensive couch, with walls surrounding them featuring their accomplishments.

Here, Jean could 'attack' Sam using Resources - her wealth, reach and prestige - to make Sam feel invalidated or out of his league. Sam would resist with Will to see if he is swayed by these trappings.

Example 2

Jean offers Sam a drink of very fine and aged Whiskey - an incredibly potent and sophisticated variety.

Here, Jean could be setting a passive obstacle for Sam to overcome, with Sam needing to test his Physique to not cough and splutter when he takes a sip. If he does, he'll show his unsophisticated palette! (Heaven forbid he do so!)

Example 3

After taking the sip, Sam wants to unhinge Jean by mentioning something they're ashamed of in their - or their parents' - past.

Here, Sam 'attacks' with Lore, attempting to remember dirt he learned long ago, or perhaps to flashback to some research he did before the meeting (in a manner similar to Blades in the Dark's fine Flashbacks). Jean resists with Will to prevent herself from being put out by this remark.

Example 4

Jean's partner walks into the room, and Sam decides to use this chance to cut the meeting short. He stands - and being a rather handsome and 'well made' individual - makes a subtle yet provocative twist of his waist to show his posterior to Jean.

This, believe it or not, is an attack! Sam attacks with Provoke, and Jean resists with either Will - to resist the temptation to sneak a glance - or Stealth - to sneak a glance without being noticed. Her choice. Either way, if she fails, then her partner will notice and become jealous - a vulnerable position to be in!

Conclusion

As you can see, in political intrigue games, the concept of an attack becomes a lot more free form - essentially, anything that gets your opponent, or any one for that matter, to start doing something differently counts.

I hope this list has been valuable and useful for GMs and players alike! If you have any more examples you'd like to share, especially from other media sources, please let me know in the comments section below.

Research & Dragons: Fate Accelerated

Last night I ran the first game of a new project of mine - a series of RPG experiments where I take a new system, a new style, and run it in a method I have never done before. This session began after mid-day, and went until midnight, with teaching the rules, planning the game, character creation, and finally play all occurring at once. This is Research & Dragons.

For the first session of Research & Dragons, I chose the following variables to test:
  1. System: Fate Accelerated.
  2. Style: Period Political Intrigue.
  3. Method: Zero Preparation; Player’s Create the Setting (at the table).

Needless to say, I was terrified, but in a good way!

So how this is going to work is I will outline how the session went, and then I will break it down into an analysis of these three variables and discuss my findings. At the end is the Verdict, where I trace out my findings and advice. If you don’t have time to go through everything, at least read those three short paragraphs!


Session Rundown

We began play at 3:00 PM on Saturday 12th, September 2015. The idea for this particular experiment was born in the car heading back from a camping trip, and immediately after a short Facebook conversation about some themes, and organisation. We came to the idea of running a no-magic “medieval” courtly intrigue game with no direct combat. All ‘combat’ would be social intrigue. We had some ideas for the setting - such as a warmer planet with 2 suns, a culture of veiling yourself in public, and some ideas pertaining to noble title passing by right of virtue rather than familiar bloodline.

Then came game day. The limit of my preparation was to print out character sheets, the game creation sheet for Fate Core, and a list of names for males, females, and places (I chose Babylonian names, as I haven’t used them much before). With our materials gathered, myself and four players - Alex, Amelia, Felicity, and Genevieve - sat down to discuss the game.

I quickly sketched out the core rules of Fate Accelerated. In brief, you roll 4d6 (we used normal dice instead of Fate Dice, and substituted 1-2 for a Minus, 3-4 for a Blank, and 5-6 for a Plus) and add your Approach (a score from +0 to +3) to beat a target number or an opposed roll. You have Aspects, which can be words or phrases that describe a factor about your character. You can invoke Aspects to gain +2 to a roll, or to reroll your dice, but this costs a Fate Point. You regain Fate Points by having your Aspects be Compelled by the GM or other players to make something bad happen to your character as a consequence of their nature. Done. Rules sorted.

Next was setting creation. I began by prompting my players with a few questions, but very quickly they began riffing off each other’s answers, and I had to madly take notes. They developed in full steam ahead of me, with me throwing in suggestions here and there to liven up the tension. Using the Fate Core Game Creation Sheet I was able to guide this a little better, and asked them for the major movers and shakers, as well as the centres of conflict, and the current issue and incoming issue of the world.

In the end we got some truly unique results. In addition to the features I mentioned above during our Facebook back-and-forth, we developed that the world was in a pre-Dark Ages, Iron Age level of technology, with a political landscape similar to that of the Roman Empire, the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and in some ways the tribal nature of Dark Ages Scotland.

We discovered that there is pseudo-religious tension between those who worship the suns and walk freely beneath them, and the aristocracy which believes in veiling themselves from the sun and living nocturnal lives in veneration of the moon. We learned of the divided nature between ‘puritan’ aristocrats who believed in more traditional monogamous and insular (read: almost inbred) families, and the ‘liberal’ aristocratic movements where a matriarch and a patriarch of a noble house have countless suitors and mates, and the children of an entire house belong to everyone.

We discovered two guilds: The Guild of Roses, for female courtesans who traded their skills for the fruits of their own wombs (taking in children to use as wards and playing pieces in foreign courts), and The Guild of Thorns, for male courtesans, who trade in information garnered from their attentions. We learned of the strict laws that forbid the two from consorting with each other for fear of the power they would wield.

We also learned of a curious custom where nobles have “Senses” or “Censers” (the richer you are, the more you have) - servants who act as an extension of your body for that given sense. So a noble could have an Eye who is expected to observe and tell their master everything they see, or an Ear who listens to another noble’s Mouth, or even Feet who carry you on palanquins, and Hands who give and receive gifts and signs of affection. The play of veils, and the use (and ignoring/recognition of a Censer) becoming the main dance of these ridiculous nobles.

And the beauty of all of this? I did very little. I sat back, and watched as my players became not only engrossed in the world they created, but deeply invested and engaged - plotting and planning openly.

It was, therefore, time to move to character creation. We began with High Concept Aspects, and then Troubles, which were easy to determine given the nature of my players’ engagement. Next came, in a similar style of Fate Core a process of each player dictating a situation in their past for which they gained another Aspect. Another player would then jump in and dictate how they made it more complicated or helped, and in turn gained an Aspect and determined a familiar bond between characters.

By game start, we had a well fleshed and interesting setting, with 4 characters who were ripe for political intrigue. What we didn’t have, however, was a starting point. This was quite difficult for me, as the players and I knew the issues at hand, but the characters didn’t. I was faced with the weird job of cleverly and interestingly informing players about things they already knew. Luckily, my players were willing to just banter at each other, and the awkwardness I felt in my ability to deliver the beginning was quickly overridden.

We played for several hours, during which the characters learned of several interlinked plots to overthrown the Queen, a mysterious southern continent that was at the centre of this web, and also learned of the major players. We didn’t, however, have time to finish the session with anything remotely close to a satisfying ending, and perhaps this one-shot will need to be extended out to a mini-campaign (or more, depending).

My Findings


The System: Fate Accelerated

The Fate Accelerated system, augmented with bits and pieces from Fate Core, is truly wonderful. Whilst it required a little bit of explaining up front, the mechanics were simple enough that players were experimenting with them right out of the gate and having a lot of fun even during character creation!

The flexibility of the Aspect, Stunt, and Stress systems allow for exactly this sort of game. However, I am wary of the advancement mechanics and the utility of the system for anything more tactical.

Fate Accelerated seems entirely suited to political intrigue and social combat, with the Actions and Stress system making immediate and perfect sense. You try to butter up the Queen? That’s Creating an Advantage. You’re discrediting an opponent? Attack them with your Clever!

Interestingly enough, and this was proved through play, the mechanics work best as a player-vs-player system, which was incredibly enjoyable. Combat took some time to do, but it was mostly because we were working through heavy intrigue. Even still, everyone was keenly engaged during the play experience.

Perhaps my favourite facet of the system is the transparency of the game. There is no illusion that the GM is the authority, and that the other players are the audience for the GM’s story. In truth, I was a casual observer for much of play, and merely stepped in to provide rulings (and even then, it was a discussion at some points). This is a wonderful thing because, without prior rules knowledge, within a single session players (who themselves have never GMed before) were able to grasp and adapt the rules to the situation.

There is one thing I will say about the system, though. You cannot play Fate Accelerated, or Core I presume, and think to win. This is a standard of all roleplaying games, but in Fate it is painstakingly obvious. If you want to see your player characters succeed over and over, then find another system. Fate is about exciting and dramatic tales involving exciting and dramatic characters - and drama means things go wrong!

The Style: Period Political Intrigue

Political intrigue is hard. I was terrified that it wouldn’t work, and am entirely indebted to my players for it working. Without them as strong and motivated characters (and players), the game simply would have fallen flat and been an utter disaster.

However, there were a few key things I noticed that I can impart:

Fewer NPCs who have greater weight between them is good. If there are too many NPCs, it becomes confusing to follow, but if you have a powerful few then it flow a lot smoother.

Allow the PCs to drive the fiction. No matter what you as the GM may feel is interesting, the players are the ones who will engage and give you your greatest resources, so listen intently and throw back everything they do. For instance, one of the greatest points of tension came about because a player failed a Careful test in their scheming, and a powerful NPC just happened to be there. This was emergent - I had no intention of the Queen being near the discourse, but it was the most exciting and dramatic thing that could occur at the time, so I made it so!

I will definitely be running more political intrigue games in the future, and this single session has given me so much fodder and experience already.

The Method: Zero-Prep, Player Setting

This was terrifying. Honestly, don’t do this if you’re inexperienced. I’ve been GMing for 17+ years, and I found it stressful at times.

However, it was also amazingly liberating. This game was the first game where I truly felt that they players owned the fiction as much as I did. I don’t think anyone left last night thinking that I did a good job running it, but rather than we all ran it together amazingly!

Despite this, I feel there are steps to take to prepare oneself better for this kind of session. A list of questions to ask the players would be ideal, rather than a flat open expanse of nothing to come with. Whilst I was lucky enough to have the players run away with the idea and build it themselves, it could easily have led to Blank White Paper Syndrome, in which case a few ideas to bring it back on topic would have been useful.

I would also suggest reading appropriate fiction beforehand. I have been reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, and I found myself more than once falling back on ideas and assumptions about how to improvise from the way the characters within the story act and improvise. Because the book is largely political intrigue, it enabled me to well picture how a session should run, and the outlines of the objectives:

Someone wants something for some reason. They can’t use violence to get it. They must convince, coerce, connive, and mostly corrupt to get it. Go from there.


The Verdict

 Fate Accelerated is an amazing game that can be taught in minutes, and can be extended out to infinite settings. It does seem, however, to be limited in the play styles it supports. If you’re looking for crunch or tactics, look somewhere else. You will not find that here. This is a system about flexibility without forsaking depth.

Fate Accelerated can be downloaded for pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat Productions.

Political intrigue is a tricky style to play, and requires deep player engagement. Do not attempt to use it with guile - ironically - because it won’t work. Be up front to your players that intrigue is the state of play and that there is no room for shooting/stabbing first. You can’t do that. It won’t work. But that isn’t to say you can’t defeat people. Political intrigue is all about rising to the top, and you can only do that by stepping on the people below you!


Zero preparation, in addition to letting the players create the setting on the day of the game is a scary but rewarding experience, and will allow you to grow as a GM. It isn’t for the inexperienced, but is something I feel every GM should try at some point. Lastly, even though it is zero preparation, prepare to be unprepared. Read what you can, know the rules well, and know your players. They are your setting, your cast, and your entire game. Play them.

Here's a Gift: Triskell's Tower

Hey, it's been a while.

I have a lot to discuss, but not enough time to discuss it all. So, I am going to give it all in dot points for possible later discussion!

  • My group finished Marienburg: Sold Down the River. It was awesome, and I intend to let you know more about it. It involved a prison break, a fight with undead elves, summoning a dragon, and a whole lot of death.
  • I started another game, called Ameshirel: A World Undone, which is currently being run live in a Hexcrawlly sort of way. Check it out on Obsidian Portal (as I've actually managed to convince my players to update it!) It is using Dungeons & Dragons 5e, which is a new and strange experience for me.
  • I'm now running a game using Fragged Empire, an indie RPG in development that was successfully Kickstartered a little while back. It is being posted up in Vod form on Another Dungeon, so check it out!
  • I got a new job! I now work for EA Firemonkeys in Melbourne, and am an actual paid Game Designer in full now. No more split titles here, no sir! I'm having a lot of fun, and working on Real Racing 3 for iOS and Android. You should check it out, because it is one of the best racing games on mobile.
  • I'm still planning Verum Arbitus, and it should be launching in a few weeks. Very excited!
  • I've been playing in lots of games, recently, including a Cthulhu Horror game using a hacked homebrew system, and a Terry Pratchett meets The Office meets Better Off Ted style game. Very odd, but loving it.
  • I've been watching a crap load of itmeJP's YouTube channel, especially Steven Lumpkin's West Marches and Adam Koebel's Swan Song. Check them out.
Anyway, because I have been neglecting you all so much, I decided to wrap up a present for you early and release it here!

This is an adventure / dungeon I wrote for Ameshirel, but it can easily be transported into any DnD5e game, or really any game, so long as you're willing to hack it a little. So enjoy the Mad Wizard Triskell's Tower!

(PLAYERS OF AMESHIREL PLEASE READ! Do not look at the PDF above. It will spoil the adventure. I mean, go ahead and read it if you want, but Triskell will know... And he'll get you.)

Regent: A Free & Easy Card Game For Infinity Players

Regent is a game I came up with today on the way to work... Seriously, I'm not kidding. I wrote this in less than 10 minutes, and I have no idea if it will work or not yet, so I am hoping some of you play it and give me some feedback!

REGENT:
A Free & Easy Card Game For Infinity Players

Regent is a card game which can be played with any number of players above 2, with normal decks of cards (you need 1 deck per player) and probably 30 minutes or so to spare (though this is merely conjecture at this point).

Objective

The aim of Regent is to defeat the other players - all aspirants for the Throne - by destroying their Holdings, which represent their military and political might. The last player standing is the Regent and gains the Throne, winning the game.

Set-Up

To play Regent, you need a normal 52-card deck of playing cards for each player. Once you have these, shuffle them all together and place the massive pile that you'll have on your hands in the centre of the playing area. 

Deal 20 cards face down to each player. This is their Holding Deck. Then deal 7 cards to each player which they may look at. This is their Hand.

Everyone declare how many Royals they have. The player with the most Royals goes first. If you have people with equal amounts of Royals, then the one going clockwise left of the Dealer goes first. Play progresses clockwise from this player.

Playing The Game

At the beginning of their turn, players draw a card if they have less than 7 in their hand.

During their turn, players can perform up to 3 Actions and play a Court Member. Outside of their turn, a player may Defend, Exploit or Assassinate at any time.

Each Action is assigned to a particular suit of cards, and to perform that Action, play a card of that suit. The number on the card represents the power of that Action. There are four possible Actions:
  • Attack (Club): Pick a target. Remove Holding cards equal to the power. You must declare your target before defence.
  • Scheme (Spade): Look at up to power number of cards on the field (in players' Hands or Holding Decks) and rearrange them as you see fit, though maintaining the amount in each location. You need not declare your target before defence.
  • Favour (Diamond): Draw up to power number of cards and add them to your hand. Discard down to 7 cards before taking another Action or finishing your turn.
  • Heal (Heart): Draw up to power number of cards face down and add them to either the top or bottom of your Holding Deck.
Instead of using them as an Action, a player may play one Royal per turn to their Court, face up. Doing so prevents any other player from being able to use that same Royal for as long as that card remains in their court, though the player who owns that Royal may still use them in Actions. Additionally, if you have all three Royals of a suit, you gain +3 power to cards of that suit. This may only be done in your turn.

Additionally, at any time (in your turn or off-turn) you may remove a Royal from your Court voluntarily to use them in an Action (though they never re-enter your Hand, so you must use them immediately or discard them). Once this has been done, you may not add an additional Royal of that same type to your Court this turn. I.e. You may not have a King of Hearts in your Court, remove him, use him, and play another King of Hearts that you hold to your Court.

Defending can be done by any number of players when another player plays an Action, but each player can only Defend with a single card per Action. To do this, play a card of the opposing colour to the Action (Red > Black, or Black > Red). Reduce the power of the Action by the power of the Defence. If an Action's power is reduced to 0 it failed (but still counts to the total Actions used). This can only be done in your off-turn.

Exploiting can be done by drawing cards from your own Holding Deck. This can save you in a tight spot, but also harms your 'health'. This can only be done in your off-turn.

Assassinating can be done by playing a Joker Card and removing a Court Member from an opposing player's Court, thus allowing another player to add that same Royal to their own Court. This can only be done in your off-turn.


Winning The Game

Once a player's Holding Deck is reduced to 0, they lose, and their Court is disbanded (and discarded). When there is only 1 player left, they win.

Clarifications

Once a card has been used to perform an Action, Defend, Assassinate, been Assassinated, or is discarded, it goes into the Discard Pile. Once there are no more cards to draw from the Deck, reshuffle in all cards from the Discard Pile into the Deck, and keep going with play as usual.

Royals are worth the following amounts: Jack (11), Queen (12), King (13). Ace is worth 14, but is not a Royal and cannot join a Court. Further, Jokers are worth nothing and cannot be played in any way except to Assassinate another Royal. You may also never have multiples of the same Royal in your Court so as to "hold" the space. Only one Royal of each suit can ever be in a Court at any one time.

Cards used to Defend do so to their full amount. Any excess 'defence' left over does not get stored anywhere. Therefore, if you use a Defend card of 5 power against a 2 power Action, the other 3 power is simply wasted. So choose carefully!

As I say, please give this a try and let me know in the comments.

[EDIT #1] Thanks go out to Robert for making me realise I forgot some things in the original write-up, and for suggesting some changes. I'm a goof.

[EDIT #2] Thanks to Amelia, Laith and Sam for playtesting this over the weekend. It's fun, though a few issues need to be ironed out, so I will likely have to make a 2nd Edition!

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #3 - Involving the Other Senses

Woo! Back after a long break from a great many things, I am ready to start writing again. So, I'll get to continuing my oldest/newest series.

This is Part #3 of a 5-part series. For the other 4 parts, go to these links: Part #1, Part #2, Part #4, and Part #5.

Since the beginning of versamus my writing and my GMing has grown considerably. As such, I felt it would be a good idea to re-write the first series I ever released on here - Emotion in Gaming (1234). This post is a continuation of last post, Involving the Senses.

This series is useful to GMs and players alike who want games that really stay in your memory, long after the session in which it was played has come and gone.

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #3 - Involving the Other Senses


Last time I talked about Sight, Sound, and Smell in RPGs, but now I am going to finish up this 2-parter with Touch and Taste. Both of these are massive categories, so I had to split it up a bit.

You don't have to go full LARP to create immersion - though it couldn't hurt.

Touch

Touch is perhaps the most difficult sense to employ, but one of the best when used correctly. This comes in via props - in-game letters that you've prepared and handed to the players, 'magic' rings you've found, precious stones, coins, and the like.

Whilst making these items is possible, it can take a lot of time. Except in the case of letters, which are pretty easy (just get some parchment paper from your local craft store, and either print out your notes in calligraphic fonts, or get a fountain or quill pen and have some fun!) What you can do instead is raid local garage sales, thrift shops, and your parent's attic over the holiday break.

Anything from old jewellery, to pewter tankards, to a pipe, a hat, a broken doll, a wooden box. Anything. You should be able to pick up any old item like this and craft a story around it, or using it, or at least think of a way your players would love it. If you're playing a Sci-Fi setting and a friend of yours has a broken computer, laptop, tablet or other device, see if you can steal the broken pieces and make your own 'Tech' with it.

Coins, and in-game currency, has always been a close one to my heart. I've always wanted to be able to thrown down a bag of money in front of my players, and have them use it as they would in the game. However, currency represents a few problems: how do you get enough of it to be usable? And how to you make sure the use of it doesn't overshadow the game?

Several services now exist for in-game coins, the best of which would have to be Campaign Coins. However, Campaign Coins are quite expensive, and unless you can easily afford it, it is an expense that shouldn't be high up on the list for GMs (as coins don't add THAT much to your game).

Another alternative is to use metal washers, or other circular tokens. Again, getting enough of them is an issue, but can be done with a little investment. One method I have used is when I went to Japan I saved all the small Yen currency coins and brought them back with me. A few hundred 1 Yen coins work wonders as silver coins! Don't use native currency, as it has the issue of having immediate monetary value, and can become confusing if someone has their wallet out at the table.

Or, you can do what I do and offset some (or all) of the money with paper notes which can be printed in the same way as normal parchment notes above with a little photoshop skills to make the design. I've done this very successfully with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Dark Heresy in the past, so I highly recommend this! (And if anyone wants the files I made for these, feel free to ask)


Taste

Taste is probably my favourite sense to use in games, as I do love to cook. It can be done cheaply and quickly - serving coffee (or ReCaf) in a tin cup when your players are fighting in the trenches of Cadia - or slightly more expensive on time and money - by serving a full multi-course Russian meal when your players are the guests of honour in a Boyar's court. Cooking is great, because you can have everyone bring something else to the table when game day comes around, and it fills your play area with smells, and tends to get everyone in a good mood before play begins.

You may wish to serve food before play begins, eat, and then get into the swing of things, or eat during play, but remember a full mouth is a misunderstood mouth, and the GM may want to hold back during dinner time. My advice would be to either serve before hand as stated, or plan for some PC planning or discussion - an intrigue scene where you can talk as an NPC instead of narrating. Have someone bring the bread, and someone else the wine-spirits-or-beer as dictates, and either cook something yourself, or get another player who can cook better than you to bring the main course.

Trust me, it will make a memorable game. It has for me many times.

Next post will be about the Cardinal Emotions.


Have you ever used touch or taste at the tabletop to heighten the ambience, and create more memorable moments? Did it go well? Did it go poorly? Let me know!

The Lightest RPG Ruleset Ever

Don't worry, I'm still writing the next part of my recent series.  I haven't forgotten! This is just something I thought about on my way to work this morning...

The following is a ruleset for a light RPG you can play in any amount of time, even less than 30 minutes. Character generation takes 10 seconds, and combat (if you even have any) takes a single dice-pool per 'side'. It can be used for any setting, ever.

Each player chooses 3 things their character is good at. This could be anything, from Strength, to Running, to Talking People to Sleep.

Each player ranks these traits from +1, +2, and +3. You have to use each, and you can only use each once.

To make a test, a player rolls a d6. If they are testing an action against something that they have a trait in, they roll that many more dice and add all the results together.

The GM sets the Difficulty of an action (or in the case of a contested action, the other party rolls and compares the highest). Difficulty 4 is the base-line.

If a player rolls equal to or above the Difficulty, then they succeed. If they get equal to or more than twice the Difficulty, they have performed a Critical Success, and they can describe the extra awesome things they've done.

Combat is fought by both sides adding up all their dice and rolling it as a single dice-pool. The side with the highest total wins, and the other side loses. It is up to the GM and the players to decide what this means.

Weapons and armour, and other gear add more dice, or have cool effects determined in the moment.

Rules of Thumb: Don't be a dick. Play to have fun with everyone. Trust each other. Do these things and the system will work.

Have fun!

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #2 - Involving the Senses

This is Part #2 of a 5-part series. For the other 4 parts, go to these links: Part #1, Part #3, Part #4, and Part #5.

Since the beginning of versamus my writing and my GMing has grown considerably. As such, I felt it would be a good idea to re-write the first series I ever released on here - Emotion in Gaming (1234). This post is a revision of the second part: External Influences, which I am renaming Involving the Senses. I'm actually breaking this one into 2 different posts, as it was getting a little long!

This series is useful to GMs and players alike who want games that really stay in your memory, long after the session in which it was played has come and gone.

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #2 - Involving the Senses


Often the greatest barrier between your players and their emotions is, oddly enough, your game. Not the story, or the characters, or anything on that kind, but the fact that you're all sitting around a table and playing something. Whilst true immersion is impossible (and not even ideal), you do want your players invested in your game world. The best way to do this, I have found, is by influencing your players' senses.

As I touched on last time, we have more than the 5 senses that good ol' Pliny put down, but we can hardly include proprioception into a campaign. What we can do is influence Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, and Taste. Some of these tips are elsewhere, and last time I left them out if they were, but not this day.
Procrastination, always putting things off till another day.

Sight

Sight is the easiest and cheapest trick in a GM's book. A GM can go to really any length on this spectrum, from finding good image boards on Pinterest (of which there are many), and checking out the two Greatest Damn Art Resources(1, 2), to making PowerPoint presentations or AfterEffects clips showcasing the art, all the way to performing your own "holograms" like I described last time.

Really, anything can be mocked up easily for your players' benefit.

Not only is sight easy to trick, it is also quite effective at rallying your players behind a single mindset. A map is great to give a sense of scale to a journey, and a monster image will help build the epicness. But all of these techniques are surface deep.

The best use of sight I have ever done was in limiting it. By controlling the lighting in your sessions you can build fear and apprehension (much as I did, by making the corners of the room difficult to perceive). This can be done in any way from replacing electric light with candles (or those "electric candles" you can get from craft/homeware stores) to a dimmer switch.

Sound

Sound can be a great addition to the tabletop for building emotion, but it can be a distracting tool for the GM to use. Building playlists around themes may work for some, but I often find myself either ignoring the playlist completely, or tripping over it as the mood changes.

Luckily, fantastic alternatives now exist! Syrinscape, a subscription-based system enables you to more seamlessly integrate sound effects and music into your game. However, there is a lot there, and it might not be to everyone's taste. Therefore, a free alternative (though you really should donate!) is Tabletop Audio, a lovingly curated background ambience web-player. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Music should be played at low volume so that when only one person is talking (hopefully the GM, not players talking over each other) it can be heard in the background, but when everyone is getting into the spirit, it doesn't make you raise your voice. Sound works best to create emotion when you match the flow of your own voice to the music, so make sure to describe those dark caverns in a slow, deeper method than a pirate swinging from the riggings!

Smell

Smell is a very difficult sense to trick, especially so at the tabletop when you don't have anyone behind the senses. Whilst I used to think incense was a good idea at the tabletop, it can be very distracting if done incorrectly. Instead, I now advocate for mixing Smell with the other senses:
  • If you're using candles for lighting, consider scented candles (or maybe even church candles if you want to get that waxy smell really strong),
  • If you're cooking (see Taste next post), make sure you do it shortly before playing, so the house smells strongly of the food,
  • If you're not directly cooking, put some spices in a pan for a few moments, or brew some coffee, or make fragrant tea,
  • Spray a little perfume under the table at a pivotal moment,
  • And so on...
Smells should be used sparingly. Not everything needs a physical smell, but you should always describe it at least. However, if you have a villain who always smells like sickly lavender, and you spray some under the table every time they appear, the next time your players smell it yet you've said nothing they will go into frenzy.


Next post will be about Touch and Taste, my two favourite senses at the tabletop!


Have you ever used sight, sound or smell at the tabletop to heighten the ambience, and create more memorable moments? Did it go well? Did it go poorly? Let me know!

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #1 - Group Dynamics

This is Part #1 of a 5-part series. For the other 4 parts, go to these links: Part #2, Part #3, Part #4, and Part #5.

Since the beginning of versamus my writing and my GMing has grown considerably. As such, I felt it would be a good idea to re-write the first series I ever released on here - Emotion in Gaming (1, 2, 3, 4). This post is a revision of the first part: Group Consensus, which I am renaming Group Dynamics.

This series is useful to GMs and players alike who want games that really stay in your memory, long after the session in which it was played has come and gone.

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #1 - Group Dynamics


Emotions play a massive role in tabletop gaming, whether it is the anger felt over someone building your route in Ticket to Ride, or the sense of conflict-camaraderie when you push back the Barbarians in Settlers of Catan: Cities & Knights. Whilst these experiences are fun, powerful and memorable, they do not hold a candle to those had during a roleplaying game... Our group still shares a few moments of silence when Saint Ghanima's name is mentioned.
Is it that I don't like Catan? Or that Catan doesn't like me?
These emotional responses create long-lasting memories for players. Everyone around your table will remember the time when the young innocent barmaid is sacrificed for the greater good, or the villain slays a party member who then miraculously (and dangerously) comes back to life. (I'm getting chills writing these examples, as they are all excerpts from my Praag campaign!) These events will create a shared narrative around the table, and represent the height of the GM's craft - you've created events so real to your players that they count as 'memories'.

However, this isn't for every group. I'm lucky in that my group trusts me to run damn near anything. I've scared the shit out of them with sadistic cultists of Khaine, and I've brought (at least a few of them) to tears when their gruff mentor himself broke down weeping. I've been lucky in that my group are happy to experience these greater emotions. Not that we don't play for fun, but we are far from a beer-and-pretzels game.

But not every game is this way. Along with your Standard Table Contract, you'll want to discuss what emotions and topics people don't want to explore, and which ones they do. Some people love horror, others hate it. Some want romance in their games, others are uncomfortable about it.

To go through this, I advise three levels of gradation with each topic and emotion: 
  1. Green: The topic / emotion is completely fine. No issues with it being included.
  2. Orange: The topic / emotion is fine thematically, but keep it 'off screen'.
  3. Red: The topic / emotion is out-of-bounds. Keep it away from the game.
In the case of a Green topic, it's fine, just leave it, and let everyone know they can always flag it with Orange if they get uncomfortable. 

With Orange, discuss as a group how best to present it: "fade-to-black" is my personal favourite, where you say how it begins, and then allow the scene to explain itself in player imagination while you change the scene. 

With Red, just leave it out. If it is thematically necessary, discuss it with the group, but it is better to not have compromise. Nothing is worse than a player feeling out-of-character uncomfortable at your table.

Discussing these issues will help your game significantly, as it will allow your players an idea of the games you want to run, and the mindset that they should be coming to your game with, because at the end of the day, if the players don't want to feel a certain emotion, you're going to have a very difficult time making them...

Have you ever used a strong emotional response in your games? If so, let us all know! These tend to be the best stories from the tabletop, so keen to hear about them!

Marienburg is Born!

I do apologise for the lack of A-to-Z posts recently... I've been working a crazy amount at SportsBet, so I haven't had many evenings in which to write, and the next few days are likewise filled with lots of fun (though I will be posting about all of that), so the last few letters will have to wait a little while. I'll try and do a few tomorrow and stack them up, but no promises.

Last night I finally held my first WFRP related event since the end of Praag, and it felt awesome. Everyone gathered around at our usual gaming table, and we had a Round Table Character Creation session. We discussed the campaign, and I handed out the Starter Kits, and everything was in good WFRP cheer!

The collaborative Character Creation, though, was a lot more successful than I thought it would be. This is what I did:

  1. Everyone around the table had the chance to give a 1 sentence explanation of their character. This ranged from submissions as succinct as "Pirate", to multi-clause sentences about Half-Ogres and Blood Bowl teams.
  2. Everyone got the chance to veto or question any of the choices. Some questions were thrown, and ideas changed dramatically (I kid you not, one of the characters went from "Axe Cop", to what is essentially Vinculus from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - a charlatan who dabbles in fake magic, gambling, and anything to make a quick copper).
  3. Everyone expanded on their ideas, and added bits of flavour. This was anything to additions of back story, or what have you.
  4. Again, everyone could veto or question.
  5. Everyone described what they would be doing during a usual session, and we got some clear ideas of the party intentions. Surprisingly, there was very little combat focus, so the campaign is going to be more Everyman than I expected, which could be very interesting!
  6. I then laid out two scenarios for the party, and asked them where they would fit into the scenes - they got to colourfully describe what they would be doing*:
    1. The first was a bar fight, where all patrons are being involved in the scrap.
    2. The second was a carnival on a holy day, which was full of attractions that they could make up.
  7. Second to last, the players had to pair off with two different other players and create "memories"**.
    1. How this worked was that each player joins up with one other and creates a memory that they both share which is a "good memory". They need not know each other was involved, just so long as it is a shared experience in their past which they both find good. We had players inadvertently helping each other out, and some who became friends before the start of the campaign.
    2. The second was the same, but with a "bad memory", and another PC. This meant that every player would have a good and a bad memory, and would be linked to two other players. This necessitates that talking to any one of the players means that you can trace a web of interactions to every other player.
  8. And last of all, we rolled up our characters, using the Expanded Character Module as an aid in random skills, talents, trappings, and doomings.
* This process was perhaps the second best thing I did, because it gave the players the chance to directly tell me where in a situation they want to be.
** This was perhaps the best thing I've ever done during character creation, and I will likely write an entire article about this. It allowed the players to really understand each other, and to build a shared history for the city.

All in all, everyone ended up player characters that they otherwise probably wouldn't have thought of. We have a wonderful band which are stuck together due to a shared company interest, as well as a shared history. Among the characters are:
  • A male Halfling "Carpet Salesman" who specialises in rolling up corpses and throwing them off bridges.
  • A male Marienburg-born Norscan Bouncer who shares his Minstrel father's love of the innocent.
  • A male Tilean Painter / Art Forger who has deep ties with both the underworld and the upper class.
  • A male Marienburger Ferryman / Smuggler / Family Man who is always on the look out for more money-making schemes.
  • A female 15-year-old Bretonnian Pirate who has already done way worse things than any of the other characters have even seen in their lives.
  • A male Marienburger Charlatan / Mystic / Gambler / anything else that can con people out of money.
  • A male Half-Ogre Blood Bowl Quarterback who is looking for a leg up in the competitions.
  • A female Marienburger Ex-Black Cap / Rat-Catcher who is searching for the man who framed her, and a way to make her massively extended family proud.
Can anyone say GM fodder?! I'm going to have some fun!

Marienburg Starter Kit

As it is Sunday, and we're not to post the A-to-Z on Sundays, I thought I would do a regular post today... This one is just for something I've been cooking up recently.

A while back (7 months, ago, I believe) I wrote a little article about Player Starter Packs so that you could get everyone at the table up to speed, and involved in the campaign from before character creation. Now, as many of you may know, I've been planning a new WFRP campaign called Marienburg: Sold Down the River recently, and in many ways, this campaign diverts from my lasts campaign.

As such, I decided it would be best to create a Starter Kit for my players so that they would be able to jump in and get used to the new Old World quickly. It's not finished yet, but thus far I have the following items ready:

I'm also planning on adding in a few more things, like quick rules, and prices for common items and services, etc. All of these will be printed out on parchment paper and made into a handy folio for my players.

Anyway, that's it for today. Hope you're all enjoying your Sunday!

Co-GMing & One-Off GMs

First of all, let me say that it is nice to get back to posting. I've had a crazy few weeks what with starting a new job (having money is really nice) and Impossible Worlds being registered and the website built (more on this later). I've had plenty to talk about, and have half-written more than a few posts, but I haven't been able to take the time to sit down and get anything major out. So I changed that.

Co-GMing & One-Off GMs

Let me just preface this post by saying that, whilst this is an article about advice for GMs and RPG groups, it is also (like so many of my posts) an exploration into my own campaigns, explaining how I came to the advice I am giving as well as how I am employing it.

Having said that now, let me describe to you a little system I have cooked up for my up coming campaign Marienburg: Sold Down the River (for those of you who have been following me for a while, my RPG group, M.O.R.T.E. finally cemented down which campaign we will be playing). The system is based on the results of a difficult issue I was having a little while back wherein I had so many players that normal games were becoming impossible to run whilst maintaining the fun. It is also based on my love of getting new people to GM.

Put simply, during my campaign I will be having 2 fellow players act as Co-GMs to a small degree - they will be informed of the main NPCs, places and plots of a given session, and they will be tasked with running those facets as a normal GM should the party split up. This information will be shared week to week, based on what the party is doing, so it will be given in small, easily digestible chunks.

However, I have added some craziness to this original idea, and that craziness comes in 2 parts.

Crazy Part-A: Rotating Co-GMs

I have decided that the role of Co-GM will not be static in my campaign, and that players will have the option, week-to-week, of electing to be a Co-GM. At first I will choose my 2 Co-GMs as normal, and for the first session (probably first few) they will stay in the role. Then, I will open the job up to others.

It will work on a first-to-volunteer gets the job, sort of deal, with the first player to put their hand up getting to run it. However, there will be a few extra rules in place.
  1. One of the two Co-GMs assisting me has to have done the job before.
  2. A new Co-GM always takes precedent over one who has already Co-GMed (so even if they volunteer after, if they have never done the job before, they will bump to the front of the queue).
  3. A Co-GM Combo can be vetoed by me at any time (this is just to prevent two Combat-specialist Co-GMs from running together when I might need a Social-specialist Co-GM for a session).
Co-GMing will grant the player extra XP for helping me out, as well, so there is some incentive beyond just the fun to do it once in a while.

It is my hope with this system that A) the starting Co-GMs get a chance to be normal players every now and again, and that B) a player who would otherwise be terrified of committing completely to Co-GM would feel free to jump into the shoes at least once so they can test the waters. If they don't like it, fine, it is only for one night. But if they like it? Well, they can go onto Crazy Part-B!

Crazy Part-B: One-Off GMing

In addition to the rotating Co-GMs, I have decided to add in interlude games. Once every X weeks (I am yet to decide the exact amount, but it might be anything from 4 - 8) I will open the floor to a player who wants to run their own adventure. For this adventure alone, their character would be on the side-lines (not even featuring) and they would command the same authority as I would otherwise as a full GM.

Like all Sold Down the River adventures, their adventure would be planned as mission that could be completed in 1 session, and they would be accompanied by Co-GMs (one of which will always be myself).

I would sit as a Co-GM only to guide the proper GM - making sure that nothing happens which crosses any continuity in an irreparable way, and making sure that nothing gets out of hand for the GM. I would only actually take the reins on the request of the GM, and would for the most part just spectate and "play".

That being said, I (like any Co-GM) will be fully briefed on the adventure before hand, and will have a cheat sheet on the NPCs, places and plots taking place.

Much like the rotating Co-GMs, there are a few extra rules:
  1. One-Off GMs are "first-to-volunteer gets the job", with players who have never GMed in the campaign taking precedent.
  2. To be a One-Off GM a player must have already been a Co-GM.
  3. The One-Off GMs other Co-GM must have also already been a Co-GM.
  4. The potential One-Off GM must first pitch the adventure idea to me before being sworn in as a One-Off GM (this is merely to make sure the adventure idea fits the tone of the campaign / makes sense with the rest of the campaign / doesn't cross any boundaries with any of the players).
It is my hope with this system that I will get a chance to introduce every one of my players to GMing in some way. This system would work great for new GMs as it is an established campaign with established NPCs, places, plots, rules, and everything, meaning that all the new GM has to bring to the table is a willingness to try and a cool idea. It will also means I will have less to prep some weeks!

Have you ever had a Co-GM in one of your campaigns? Have you ever held a similar role for your GM? Have you ever wanted to GM but felt intimidated with the prospects of a new game with new rules standing in the way? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

Handling Large Parties - Part 3 - The Solutions

For my last two posts I have been discussion the issues involved with having a large player base. In Part 1, I discussed the maths behind having more players, and pointed out how exponentially time slips away when you have more players sticking around the table. In Part 2, I discussed the issues involved with having multiple conflicting player types at the table, and how those issues are exacerbated when large groups of players are involved.

For the final post in the series, Part 3, I will be discussing the four solutions that I eventually decided upon being feasible, and I will go into the Pros and Cons of each, and finally will reveal the solution that me and my players came to.

This, in fact, brings me to my first and biggest point.

Talk to Your Players

Whilst writing this series, and struggling with the issues, I decided that I would arrange a general meeting of my entire RPG group, spanning several campaigns. Most of the players had all played together in at least one of my campaigns, so everyone, bar the new blood, knew each other from an in-game perspective, as well as an out-of-game perspective.
It was a Round Table Discussion, but unlike you've ever seen before...
At this meeting, which I tried to make as informal, yet organised as possible, I expressed each of the following ideas/solutions, and then the group took it in turns to talk about each solution and why they liked/disliked each one. We then voted, myself included, and we came to a mutually agreeable solution. Not everyone was insanely happy with the solution we did come to, but at least everyone understood it, or was given the chance to understand it.

Anyway, onto the solutions.

The Solutions Themselves

Solution #1: The GMPC

Normally mention of a GMPC is cause for pitchforks to be grabbed and a lynch mob to be rallied - but this system is slightly different, and was actually originally given to me as a comment for [[Part 1]] of this series by another roleplayer in the community. The idea is that the GM informs one or more players in the campaign about several campaign secrets, and fills them in on lots of information, enough so that they can essentially run specific scenes throughout a session (or more, if needs be).
GMPC: In the party, yet knowing what's coming next...
Basically, they are a mini-GM, but they also have a character in the game that takes a back seat, but is there to guide the players. I like to think of this role as the First Mate to the GM as Captain of a ship. The GMPC acts as an intermediary between GM and players, and has the ability to run some of the players through a situation with little to no supervision form the GM.

This system allows the group to divide up during play (as groups of any size invariably and should do) and run a combat encounter, or a social encounter, whilst the GM is handling the main action. That way, those players involved in the side action aren't sat there bored out of their brains whilst the main action unfolds, and the GM doesn't have to break the entire session into 'turns'.

This system, though, does require an incredibly amount of communication and trust between GM and GMPC/s. The GMPC/s have to be subservient to the GM, otherwise continuity and cohesion issues will arise, and will result in a break down of the game. Furthermore, the GMPC/s have to be given enough authority and freedom that they themselves aren't hard done by (and they still have fun) and also so that those players who are running under them don't feel like they're getting a 'lesser' form of the game.

Solution #2: Run Multiple Games

Now, this one is kind of straight forward, and will be instantly dismissed by most groups (as it was with mine), but I felt it was important enough to mention, and as such will mention it here as well. It is always possible to divide a group into two different groups, and run two different games.
Two herds of cats can't be any harder to wrangle than one, surely?!
However, this system is wrought with problems off the bat. If the GM doesn't have time for two, there is no way it can happen. Even if the GM does, it will invariably mean that both campaigns are less involved than one would ever be, and that neither are filled with the same level of planning as one big game is.

Further, if you have a tight-knit group, and you divide it into two, then there can be some social awkwardness. Do people choose to play a campaign based on what it is, or who is in it? Do people still have time to hang out in the real world as much, or have as much to talk about when they're not sharing weekly forays into a fantasy world? (You wouldn't think these would be issues, but they are.)

But, then again, this system can work wonders for a group that can handle it. The GM gets to experiment with different games, and has the option of trialling something with one group, and rehashing it for another. The groups get a chance to trade interesting stories about their adventures, and compare campaigns. And so on.

Solution #3: The Players as Rivals

The third solution and the fourth are based on a similar premise that I will get out of the way now: both involve a single campaign with multiple groups running in it at the same time.
Gary Oak, you've destroyed the validity of the word "Rival"...
This option supposes that there are two rivalling groups that are contending for the same great prize, but are fundamentally unable to defeat each other. They cannot harm each other, only compete. This could be that they're all members of the same company, just different divisions (like L.A.P.D. vs F.B.I.) or they are being watched by some governing body that would be very unhappy were they to kill each other. Yet, there is still competition. Whoever solves an issue first gets the rewards, and then gets the fame/money/whatever.

This system requires a lot of out-of-game communication, as well as a lot of trust between GM and players, and players and other players. We don't want players to take the actions of rival characters to heart, and we don't want anyone feeling like one group is being favoured by the GM.

And yet, this could lead to a situation of friends talking on the weekend about how they've been going and bragging to each other in a rival-like way. It could breed a beautiful campaign. Or it could breed resentment.

Furthermore, it invariably means either each group plays only one in every two session, or the GM runs a second session a week... This might not work for some schedules.

Solution #4: The West Marches

If you're unfamiliar with The West Marches, please head on over to ars ludi and read through at least the first page describing it (there are 5 posts in total, and they're all good, but only the first is pertinent to understanding).
West Marches is approximately this awesome...
In brief, the idea is to have a pool of players, and to run two sessions per week. Players decide which session they're in, and can only choose one per week. Then, each week, each player is playing with a previously organised collection of players from the player pool.

This has the benefit of keeping up the social connections between all the players, as well as enforcing contact and "story swapping" between sessions. Players benefit from sharing information, and can do so with much greater ease. 

However, there is a much greater risk of segregation in this system. Bullying is possible (without people even realising it) and players who are naturally more inclined to one play style will consistently play with others of their same style, until such a time when dedicated factions have almost formed in the group. This can result in hurt feelings, etc, etc. It, again, requires the GM to put more time into the game due to more sessions.

But, then again, West Marches is so damn cool!

The Solution We Chose

In the end, after much debate and discussion and serious thought, me and my group came to the consensus that Solution #1 benefited us the most. We're a pretty close group, and there are many within I would trust to act in the GMPC roll. Further, we all have pretty hectic schedules, and we only reliably have one day a week to play, so the other options would be a stretch.
Yeap, Gandalf won.
However, in the end, the biggest deciding factor for me was that we're all friends, and playing RPGs together has made our group so close-knit and amazing that dividing ourselves up would be a massive blow. Sure, we'd still all be friends, but we wouldn't laugh and cry together as the blows fall.

WFRP, for us, will be a hard act to follow. But we certainly wont be following it by splitting up. Only by sticking together will we recreate the same sort of magic that lived in that campaign, and I really look forward to spreading that to our new players.

Sure, we've grown massive, and we threaten to continue to grow, but some of my players are ready for the next step into becoming GMs, and I feel that Solution #1 gives us the chance to both play together and to nurture new GM talents.

I hope my insights and solutions will be able to help you in a similar issue, or just to help you think about your own group in a new way.

Keep having fun, and we'll be getting back to our regular programming soon.

Handling Large Parties - Part 2 - Conflicting Player Types

Following on from my last post, I am now going to discuss differing player types, and how having lots of players can exacerbate player-type conflicts that may already exist. Get ready for lots of political jokes...

The Variables

For this study, I am going to be using a 2-axis scale, using the variables Loud vs Quiet and Solitary vs Social. Let me just define those for you now, and quickly outline the pros and cons of each.

Loud

The Loud end of the Loud vs Quiet axis is, obviously, for players who are louder at the table than others. This end is for players who tend to lead discussions and, by virtue of this, grow into leadership roles within the group.

Loud players are good for a party because they represent a rallying point for ideas, and they are often able to push Quiet players out of their bubbles, but they can be troublesome because they can overshadow a Quiet player. 

Furthermore, multiple Loud players leads to a Parliament Stagnation, a situation where multiple people are yelling about their view points, yet not actually listening to the other side so as to allow any chance for them to be dissuaded from their ideas.
With leaders like these, we can't be far off World Peace, right?!

Quiet

The Quiet end of the Loud vs Quiet axis is for players who tend to speak up less, and who are more happy to watch events unfold and react after the fact, instead of asserting their views early. This isn't to say that they never speak up, but they are rarely the ones to whip a group into shape before the shit hits the fan.

Quiet players are good for a party because they are usually more contemplative, quietly working on an issue, listening to the GM, and solving problems before presenting them to the group. Additionally, they are generally more accepting of leadership roles within the group, allowing for smooth movement. However, they can be troublesome in that they have a tendency to hold back useful feedback for the group and GM, meaning that they can become discontented, or cause others to become discontented during play because of their inaction.

Multiple Quiet players often leads to the Stalin Lack-of-Initiative, where in everyone is too afraid to say anything to break the silence, resulting in Loud players dominating play when they have no more right to than the Quiet players.
"It seems like we should attack the Orks from the south..."

Solitary

The Solitary end of the Solitary vs Social axis represents players who are happier playing their "own game", following side-quests and generally acting on their own during a session, instead of travelling or conferring with the party as a whole.

Solitary players are good because they can help the GM build suspense by revealing secrets to one character (but saying them aloud to the table), causing some players to squirm with the fun-frustration of In-Character vs Out-of-Character information. They also help explore extra parts of the world, and allow the other players to see sections that they otherwise wouldn't have under the main game. They can be difficult, however, due to the fact that time spent on Solitary players is obviously time spent on only one player, leaving everyone else twiddling their thumbs.

Multiple Solitary players leads to a Stooge Paradox, of everyone running in multiple directions, resulting in the side-quests getting more screen time collectively than the main quest. Naturally, this slows down play considerably with so many split parties that you may as well be running multiple games.
Not sure if photo of TV show or Player Characters...

Social

The Social end of the Solitary vs Social axis is for players who are happiest when discussing tactics and events with other players, and following along with the group's agenda, rather than any individual goals.

Social players are good because they get the main quest line rolling, and maintain group unity and direction. They can cause problems, however, because they tend to prefer discussion above action, leading to slower sessions.

Multiple Solitary players leads to a United Nations of Inactivity, where everyone discusses situations ad infinitum, and never actually accomplishes anything. This obviously has the downfall that nothing ends up getting done, in the end.
GMing for 9 people doesn't seem so bad when looking at this...

My Group

Now that I have outlined the variables, it's time to look at the main topic - my ridiculously sized group.

I have filled out my players on the axis listed above, and I received the following graph:
As you can see, due to the large amount of players, I have a pretty even split between the four variables. One would think this is a good idea, but one would be wrong. An even split is good when you have 4 players, because one can fit in each niche, but having more than 1 in each niche causes problems. 

Lets have a look at the specific interactions, shall we?

Multiple Loud players results in often the 3 loudest dominating discussions, with the other 5-6 quieter players either not saying anything or forming factions behind the 3 - this causing division within the group, as well as boredom for the unheard Quiet players. This also means that often very good ideas coming from the Social/Quiet players are never enforced, and the Social/Loud players tend to bring discussions to a stand still with neither side gaining ground or convincing each other. It is a debate where neither side is listening to the other...

Multiple Solitary players results in more than half of a games session being taken up by side-stuff, like Side-Quests and book keeping, etc. It also means that I literally cannot remember the last session where the party wasn't split at least 3 ways. This means either each group does not much in a session, or favourites are played, and that is never fun for anyone involved.

Now, neither camp would be a bad thing if there were only a few of them. An ideal group will have at least one person that fits into every corner of the graph, but the above does not represent ideal... Therefore, something needs to be fixed. And that's the topic for next time.

Play more games!!! NOW!