Praag

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!

Published Settings: Wading Through the Muck

Of late I have been delving into the city of Marienburg, and as such have been reading lots of Marienburg: Sold Down the River. Reading through this material has kicked up my old thoughts on playing in an established setting, and I thought I would give my new musings a go...

Published Settings: Wading Through the Muck

Marienburg isn't the first published setting I've ever played in - but it is by far the most detailed. Usually, like with Praag or Into the Expanse, I find some way to bypass the majority of the information whilst still holding onto the mainstay themes - but something is different about Marienburg.

M:SDtR is such a comprehensive look at the otherwise unique city that I am finding myself both mystified by the wealth of knowledge and somewhat annoyed. I love that there are hundreds of ready made hooks for me, and I am adapting many of them, and shaping new ones from the information given, but I find something off about the process.

Whilst I am enjoying it, no doubt, I find the amount that is written is hard to wrap my head around. Unlike Praag, the setting isn't evolving naturally in my mind - it isn't built with broad strokes and then little bits are being added in. It is laid out in terms of districts, and then it goes through, important building by important building, with an important NPC accompanying each one. This is cool, because it gives me heaps of detail, but it is terrible because it references aspects that I can't find, or can't accurately remember because they were 3 chapters ago.

I'm finding that the whole thing should be written in a more concise manner, but then that asks the question, "How could it be done better?"

Principals of World Building

There are generally considered 2 methods of World Building, which are not mutually exclusive (in fact, almost every World Builder I've ever met has used both for the same world at different times). These are Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Top-Down

Top-Down World Building assumes that the World Builder is starting with the broadest strokes possible. They may create a planet, with its climate features, tectonic plates, etc, and will leave massive gaps. They will name a few countries, maybe, or even just continents.

In terms of Marienburg, this would be drawing the map, naming the districts (or Wards), and perhaps loosely outlining what each is: Tempelwijk is where the temples are, Suiddock is the main dock, Elftown is where the Elf Enclave is. Simple, and broad.

Once this first step has been done, the World Builder will go onto create the major trade centres, or cities, etc, in each country. They will probably name the government, and outline some basics about it. For Marienburg, they will talk about the Ten, and the Directorate, and the Guild We Haven't Heard Of.

They will keep going down a step when they have finished the previous level, filling in the gaps of people once they have outlined the roles and the whys.

This system is great, because it gives everything context, but is difficult because it presents to much work from the get-go. A World Builder working at this level has to think of a lot of things at the same time. So, many turn to Bottom-Up...

Bottom-Up

Bottom-Up is the inverse of Top-Down. The World Builder doesn't care about the world as a whole, but the individual. They will begin with a concept, like a guild, or a character, or even a system of magic. Suggest it begins with a Crime Lord. They will work him out, fill in his details, and then build his gang members, and then the Guild itself, then the location it is based in, then the city, country, continent, world from there.

In Marienburg terms, you'd start with the secret that St. Olovald isn't actually a saint, but a god in his own right. Then you'd make Sister Hilli to tend his shrine, then his history, etc.

This system is great because it allows more thorough creativity and individual cool ideas, as well as a much more manageable work load. It falls down, however, in that the World Builder often ends up with many small islands, barely connected to one another. Doesn't that Crime Lord need to interact with other organisations? Now you have to go back and edit!

What Does This Have To Do With Published Settings?

Everything. The way a published setting is written determines how it is read, and therefore, learnt. I suggest, like good World Builders, to create and write about a setting in a mixed way. Obviously one can't do both in book form without copying all the text twice and presenting it first by broad strokes, and then by individuals... But they could do that with a wiki...

Using a wiki program, or a wiki-capable program (like MyInfo, which I have now been using for a year) allows the World Builder/GM to slowly add to his work and manage it, whilst linking to other threads, and organising the entire thing into manageable chunks/folders/tags.

My Advice on Published Settings?

If I could say one thing about published settings it is that they will never be as good as your setting. You will always present your own setting better than a book ever can. This doesn't mean you should throw out your source books, but it means you have to make them your own.

Get a wiki together, and build it as you will use it. Don't include everything, otherwise you'll just be copying the book, but include enough that it makes sense, and allows you to access everything you'll need to, session to session. Keep it updated, and you'll manage that setting, and wade through that muck.

WFRP, A Port Mortem

WFRP, A Post Mortem

After 2 long years of running the same campaign, Shadows Within Shadows, a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game, the journey is finally over. Last night me and my RPG group, the Melbourne Organisation for Tabletop Enthusiasts, or M.O.R.T.E., completed the ultimate session of the campaign. There may be one last session as an epilogue, but the campaign itself is over - done and dusted.

This is technically the first long campaign I've ever finished. I have finished smaller campaigns of 3-5 sessions before, and mini-campaigns all round. But I have never finished something this long, with approximately 70 sessions all up over the course of the game. 70 sessions with, all up, 11 different players featuring, and ending on a group of 9 wonderful players, each of whom holds my eternal gratitude.

Finishing this game has left me with many thoughts - I've learnt a lot from this experience, and I hope I can shed some hard-earned lessons with you all. These aren't just about gaming - some are about everything in life - but they are born out of gaming. And that is my first lesson learnt:


1. Always Be Willing To Try New Things

The entire concept for SWS was new to me - a large group of characters, all within a doomed city, barely scraping by, and trying to save everyone who essentially didn't want to be saved. It was a lock-in campaign. I had to fill the city with enough menace to last 2 years... And I went a bit over board on that one!

But I am glad I tried this style. It wasn't perfect, and I didn't do it as well as I could have. But I tried. I learnt my strengths and weaknesses as a GM. I learnt that my sessions run best with a plan on my end, instead of complete freedom for the PCs. Which I will get to next...

So please never turn down a new experience, unless you have a damn good reason not to. My group is filled almost completely with players who had never played before and many of whom were shaky to begin with... And it has caused us to bloom life-long friendships, forge relationships close enough to share a house together as room mates, and even been a vessel for love to blossom. No, I shit you not.

But that brings me to lesson 2...


2. Direction is Good

Every GM I've ever met has been terrified of railroading their players, and every player has lashed out at the concept of being railroaded. If a GM told a player that their character was tired, they'd scream and thrash and kick a fuss and stay away for a month...

Well, not really, but you get my point.

I once thought this way, that the only way to have a successful and "fun" game was to let the players do whatever the hell they wanted with the tools available. I thought giving them the ultimate decision was right on the money in terms of GMing chops.

I, like many others, was wrong. Players, especially new players, are coming to a world that exists for the first time only in the mind of the GM. The GM may see all these avenues to solve any problem, and they certainly know all the lore necessary to plan against and exploit. But players probably wont know it as well as a GM - and that is how it should be. If they knew everything, then there could be no surprise.

But this also means that they cannot possibly envision the world as well as the GM can when left to their own devices... The solution, then, is direction. The GM needs to direct their players - subtly, of coarse - with the use of NPCs, rumours, chatter, and general goings on. The GM should have a plan of what happens in the world, and make the PCs react instead of act first.

So, instead of saying at the beginning of a session: "What are you guys going to do today?", instead begin with "The commander of the city guard was found cut in half and nailed to his door frame this morning... What are you guys going to do about that?". (Note, that is actually how one of my sessions started. Not word for word, but the quest hook was the same.)

Eventually, your players will grow into their own and become used to the NPCs and information channels, and will start acting before things hit the fan - so long as you give them enough shadows preceding misadventure. Which leads me to my next point...


3. Trust Each Other

GMs, you have to trust your players. Players, you have to trust your GM. Trust me, you will both enjoy the game more so if you do. Everyone spouts off about the "Rule of 'Yes'" for GMs, but they never get into the nitty-gritty of it. Why are so many GMs reluctant to say 'Yes'? Because doing so towards an untrusted player could mean the unravelling of the GMs hard work. This is a real fear... And why do players often become defensive and guarded towards their GM? Because doing so protects the part of themselves which they have exposed to play the game.

RPGs are incredibly personal. A campaign, even written down word for word, would be different if played by a 10-year-old male GM, than if it was run by a 25-year-old female GM. Or two siblings. Or hell, even two twins. The mind of the GM makes the world, and no two minds are alike. Likewise, the minds of the players make their characters, and again echo the world created by the GM and make it their own. So, if you have a GM and 5 players, there are 6 echoes of the same world playing concurrently, which are all unlike anyone else's world...

If you don't trust the people around you to enter your world and leave it for the better, it can never truly be beautiful. It may feel natural to hold each other out, only letting them effect the world with your say-so, but that is wrong.

Trust me.

When you place that trust in each others hands, the emotions born from it are intense and incredible. The stories told become legendary, and they feel like they've happened directly to you. Because, really, they have. You are your character, your character is you. You are your world, and your world is you.

But this is generally a lesson for everything you could find. You will find that the simple act of trusting another human being will open them up to you, and the trust will flow both ways. I can't say it very well without sounding weird, so watch this video, and it should clear up what nonsense I spout.


Final Words...

I learnt many more lessons in this journey, and perhaps some day I will be able to articulate them, but for now I feel I have said all I can on the matter. Finishing SWS has left me feeling both insanely proud of all my group, and free of the burden of the world. But it has also left me a little hollow... It is weird to say, but in the two years of GMing my group, I think I fell a little bit in love with each of the characters. How can you not, when they play inside your mind that much of the time?

But I am stupidly, insanely, pathetically grateful for all my group. Thank you for letting me run this campaign, and thank you for sticking by me throughout it. I know it wasn't always a great ride, and I know some of you probably hated me at times... But it was an amazing ride, and I hope you've learnt as much about yourself as I have through the experiences.

I will never forget this campaign. Thank you.

O, Nine's just a few.

RPG Puzzles: A Post Mortem, Part 1

RPG Puzzles: A Post Mortem, Part 1

In my weekly Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition campaign, my players recently stumbled into a secret underground, Chaos-infused, giant magical lair. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds.

This lair had at its front a giant door with four keyholes, and the party had it explained to them that they needed to solve four separate puzzles to open each lock and progress.

When planning for this session, I wanted to make 4 separate and unique puzzles, each that will reward the players in a different way. Whilst we haven't finished all four of them yet, the players did complete the first two last night, and so I am going to break them down, go into what worked and what didn't work, and then analyse the results.

Puzzle #1: The Hall of Paintings

The Hall of Paintings was the first puzzle my players encountered. It consisted of a small room with 5 hooks on the walls, 5 empty and unique picture frames, and 5 unframed pictures. The players were given 8 clues between them, and 'control' over the clues they were given (I.e. they held the clue note, and chose where it went and how it applied).

The puzzle was essentially a logic puzzle, except that I printed out and created the frames and paintings for the players to actually hold and assemble as they saw fit. In retrospect, I think this is what sold the puzzle to them. Further, the clues were essentially riddles - short and to the point, which hinted at one aspect of each painting and each frame. The players had to determine if the clues referred to the placement order, or the framing, or what.

In my experience, puzzles such as this without the visual components, often become a situation of everyone sitting back bored whilst the one or two smartest puzzlers in the room figure it out on a sheet of paper. However, with the visual aids, everyone could see what was happening, and everyone could move the components around.

When I introduced a penalty for placing the wrong painting in the wrong frame, tensions rose and everyone around the table took it in turns to place one painting. You could have cut the suspense with a knife.

It was perfect!

Conclusion

Logic puzzles and riddles can work great, despite their general dislike in the RPG community, so long as the GM provides a visual aid for the players. Always have something that everyone can look at and get their hands on. Just like combat needs a battle map and miniatures, puzzles need puzzle pieces.

Feel free to download and try out the Puzzle for yourself! (Note, GMs only. If you want your GM to run this puzzle for you, ask your GM to download it, as it contains the solution and spoilers.)

Puzzle #2: The Hall of the Hydra

The Hall of the Hydra was the second puzzle encountered in the crazy lair/laboratory. This puzzle consisted of a Hydra with four different heads (one for each Lesser Daemon of each Chaos God, so there was a Bloodletter head, a Plaguebearer head, a Daemonette head and a Horror head), as well as a pattern sequence surrounding the Hydra, which had the four icons of the Chaos Gods in the following order:

Slaanesh, Nurgle, Khorne, Tzeentch.

The Hydra would attack the closest player to each head each round with their special abilities, until such a time as the players figured out the puzzle. I wont give away the puzzle here, for I intend to upload it so that other GMs can run it for their players, so...

WARNING: IF YOU ARE A PLAYER, AND YOUR GM MIGHT RUN THIS, PLEASE SKIP TO THE CONCLUSION SECTION.

The trick lies in the sequence with which the players kill the Hydra heads. If they kill a head out of order, it regrows and sprouts a twin. Thus, the players need to systematically kill each head in correct order, otherwise they will be knee deep in Hydra heads.

Every GM out there should be shaking their heads at how moronically simple this puzzle is, and how obvious it would be for the players, but it was surprisingly effective. The players enjoyed the ability to overcome the puzzle and figure it out. They took great pride in not spawning a single extra head throughout the entire battle, and I rightly congratulated them at the end for their cunning.

Conclusion

Simple, combat-based puzzles can work really well if they are based on a clever trick which doesn't take a genius to over come, but if failed, can really hamper the players. My players enjoyed this puzzle because it gave them a chance to all shine in combat whilst tactically defeating an enemy in a way they had never had to before (one after the other, instead of a mass murder-fest).

Never underestimate the power of praise and the joy people feel from understanding the rules and using them to success. It is the same reason board games and strategy games are so fun, so why wouldn't it apply to tabletop RPGs as well?

Final Conclusion of Part 1

Puzzles tend to get a lot of flak in the RPG community, but, so long as they are used sparingly, and not the focus of every session, they can be a great set piece that the players will enjoy greatly and remember for a long time to come.

Just remember, though, that your puzzles can't be static - there has to be some limiter (wrong moves = penalties/a time limit/something trying to eat you, etc) otherwise it becomes boring, and you end up with one engaged player and the rest sitting bored and left out.

I hope you enjoy the puzzles, and I hope you make some of your own. If you do either, let me know how they go!

New House, 7500+ Posts, and Much More!


Greetings everyone!

I do honestly apologise for the lack of posts lately, but I have suffered the worst of any malady possible - yes, that's right, I've been without internet.

You see, the move went ahead as expected, but the internet was only just connected last night, and then a whole host of problems stood in the way of its use. Let's just say that the Omnissiah took pity on our plight and those problems have gone, because, I am clearly now online...
Unless it is all just a dream...
Onto the matters at hand, though, as I am proud to announce that sometime in my absence we tipped 7500 posts! Something must be going right, because the time between this milestone and the last was significantly shorter than the time before 5000... Lets just hope this continues, eh?
7500+ and counting!
My Qantm studies have begun again after 2 weeks of (not really) holidays (during which we did more work than in the last week of actual Qantm for no reason at all) and I am getting back into their full swing. My IEP group, after some initial bloodboiling, have stumbled onto something amazing and will be presenting it tomorrow for a green-light. I am oh-so-excited to start posting about it, but I don't want to until I have talked it through with them all after our green-light.

I've made some progress on Into the Expanse which I will share in a later post, and my players in my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign continue to get themselves into increasingly hotter water... Also, a KickStarter project I backed a while ago now, Pad of Geomorphic Intent was completed and shipped, and I have been having fun drawing up lots of geomorphs which I will begin posting to versamus as soon as I have everything set up for that. In the mean time, though, check out the man's webstore (Squarehex) set up after the success of the campaign!

Thanks for reading, now and before, and I will be back to you as soon as I can!


Blogging WFRP A-to-Z: P is for Praag


If you had to say one thing about Praag, it is that it is cursed. Utterly, utterly cursed.

The city sits on the River Lynsk, bordering to the north the Troll Country, and to the south Kislev. Due to this location, it is often the first stop for the Kurgan hordes invading the Empire. As such, Praag suffers every time.

During the time of Magnus the Pious, when the Great War Against Chaos was raging, the city of Praag was hit harder than it ever had before. The walls were surrounded by the damned, and the soldiers on the inside were out matched. However, their stout Kislevite hearts weathered the worst of the war and managed to keep the city standing for several weeks. That was, until Magnus was on the march.

Knowing they didn’t have long, the Kurgan hordes mustered for one last push. And the walls and gates of Praag fell, and the Winds of Chaos blew through the streets, twisting the landscape and scarring its people. When Magnus finally made it to the siege, he crushed the Kurgan’s surrounding the city and pushed through their broken lines to see the fate of the doomed city. What he saw was not meant to be.

Men were fused with the stone walls of houses, and cobbled streets ran with blood from between the cracks. Trees howled at those around them and the windows of the houses grew eyes and glared through those who saw them. Praag was a bastion for Chaos, and its once proud people were slaves to Chaos, or dead.

Magnus ordered the city burned, and, once the war was over, fled back to the Empire, thinking the end of Praag was assured. However, the Kislevites endured. They rebuilt their city, brick by tainted brick, and rose a new Praag on top of the old. They had no idea it was still tainted… That was, until strange things started happening. The main market street started displaying strange writings every morning, seemingly made from the cobblestones itself. Dark figures followed civilians at night, but never got closer. Dark howling could be heard in the Square of Kisses in the darkness. And yet, Praag lives on – a magnet to the forces of darkness through the Old World.

If you want to read more about Praag, I guess this is as good a time as any to make an announcement. I am currently writing a revised version of Praag (that is, revised form what is in RotIQ), and I will begin posting about it regularly on versamus after this month. It is planned out as a massive source-book for the city, filled with everything you could ever want to run a campaign in a terrifying urban setting!