Wednesday, May 31, 2017

You all happen to be in the same tavern, at the same time.....

How to begin.
Starting a game can be hard.  You want the players to have the freedom to make whatever they want.  Too often this ends up with a tavern, in some town somewhere, that has five rugged strong silent types, and one wizard.  And then you are forced to engineer some set of circumstance to motivate them to interact.

Granted, what I described is a sort of stereotype of gaming.  But it happens.  The question is, how do we prevent it.  We want the characters to be unique (most of the time) and the players to have agency when they create them.  But they will ultimately need to mesh, unless you are specifically hunting for a game that prioritizes a lot of PC to PC conflict.

All Aboard!
You can dictate the types of characters, races, classes, enforce requirements for certain background elements, establish some sort of structure that all the PCs are placed into, and then work with the players to come up with characters and backgrounds that mesh with the story and world you have set up.  It's like railroading except there are choices.  And you're not dictating the story, you're establishing a framework for players to use when building characters.

Examples might be a game where all the PCs are part of a military unit, or governmental agency.  Maybe your game world has no races other than humans.  Maybe you're doing an Elf only game (but why?).  You get the drift though.  There are reasons why the characters need to fit into certain fairly open parameters.

When you do something like this, make sure the players know in advance.  If anyone wants to be something outside the established framework, get their reasons.  See if there is a way that it can be worked into the framework.  In a recent game one of the parameters was that all of the PCs were from a specific country, or in service to the country.  One of the players wanted to be an Elf (they have their own country) so we decided that he was in the army of the game country, and had been for some time as part of an officer exchange sort of thing.  Granted, the Elves gave us someone, but didn't want anyone in return.  They are a bit xenophobic.

As long as everyone knows and understands why you want this framework, there shouldn't be any issues.  The players will have some level of common ground and stand a better chance of surviving the initial 'getting to know and dislike you' phase of the game.

In Medias Ras.
In the midst of things (in English) is another way you can start.  Don't start with how we got together as a team, let's jump into some action, moving forward through the story from a point after the beginning.  Then do flashbacks.

Flashbacks are great in TV, unless you overdue them.  I'm looking at you CW!  There are a lot of ways you can 'trigger' a flashback in an adventure.  I recommend not doing it in the middle of a battle, but in moments of tension they can be fun.  Freeze the scene, then ask the player who is currently in the spotlight and about to do something crucial a question.  "When was the last time you did this with the group that it went poorly?"  Have them set the scene.  The focal point is that the same skill arability is the center point of the flashback.  Once they set the scene, let everyone chip in a bit of how that situation played out.  We're trying to build a shared history that defines the relationships that we have artificially created because we began in medias ras.  Once the scene of this previous failure has been described and everyone sort of has an idea how it went, come back to the 'present' and then pick one player who is not the person performing the action and tell them, "This reminds you of that time [we just described] what, if anything, would you say."  This let's you create the past and it can also help the PCs relate to one another.  Does this PC say something encouraging, or do they remind the person about their failure, or do they say nothing and only mention it after the situation is resolved.

Howdy Neighbor.
We're all from the same village/neighborhood/complex.  Established common ground, maybe the sole survivors of a tragedy (how many 'sole survivors' can there be in one place?).  They all know each other to some degree, even if it's just by reputation.  Then go ahead and have them all meet in the same tavern, it's not far from their homes after all.

Closing thoughts.
Freedom is great, but make sure that they know enough about the world and your skill as a GM that they aren't going way out of your comfort zone when they build a character.  Five strong silent types who mind their own business make for a lousy adventuring party (unless that's what you need).  

Don't be afraid to say, "That just doesn't fit, but....." and offer something as an alternative.  If your group is a good one they should totally understand the need for some structure.  You're not oppressing their creative freedom.  You're trying to run a game that everyone, even you, gets to enjoy.

Do you have any favorite way of getting the PCs to become a group?  Share them in the comments below.  I'd love to know what you think.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Is it on your equipment list?

The case for and against equipment lists.

I'm sure if you've GMd more than a few games you've had this happen.  A player says something to the effect of "Um, I don't have [insert item here] on my sheet, but it seems reasonable I would have one, right?"

I'm sort of a jerk when I GM.  My traditional answer to this questions is, "What are you asking me for, I just run this game."  It's not to say that I don't care about the answer on some level, but I think the players should be able to answer a question like that most of the time.  But there are all those rules and equipment lists!

Scarcity, genre conventions, a figuring out what works.

The issue of equipment really comes down to is it important for the genre and the game you're running.  In a post apocalypse game I think a detailed equipment list is part of the genre.  When scarcity is an important part of a game, then knowing what you have should be an important part of the game as well.

If you're playing a game set in a modern world and the players have access to all the modern conveniences it seems less important.  But it would and should still have limits otherwise you might have players circumventing a challenge with a previously unknown piece of tech that they just decided they have because it makes sense.

If the game requires the players to keep track of everything, then that's what they're going to have to do.  You see this a fair amount in D&D and other fantasy genre games.  Players are often out away from civilization on perilous adventures in exotic locations, so it's sort of important to keep track of gear.  You might hand wave things like water and food unless survival is part of the adventure.

Consistency is optional.

You don't have to be consistent about this either.  If you, as the GM, decide that the trip from town A to town B will be an interlude where nothing happens, tell the players and move forward.  If, on the other hand, you intend the journey to be arduous and require keeping track of food and water, perhaps requiring the party to loose time to hunting and gathering food or water, then make sure you make that clear to the group.  They might just say, "We buy extra pack animals and make sure to bring along more rations than we need."  If they can afford to do that, there isn't any reason to prevent them.  But, I'm told some monsters find horses to be delicious!  Just say'in.

An economy of equipment.

Sometimes though, you might want something that's not quite hand waving and totally not a detailed equipment list.  My solution, which is a solution I have used for a number of things over the years, is the poker chip.  Now, I ordered mine online with custom lettering.  GEAR in gold letters.  It was for a modern day super hero game, and we were reaching a point where some of the players were asking that question "You think it's okay if I have one of those things on me?, It seems like I might have one, especially after that one time last month."

This also applies to the larger world.  "Is there a fire extinguisher in here?"  Might come up.  As a GM I like to let the story surprise me sometimes (I'll get into that in another post) but there is a trend now for game systems that allow the players some agency over the world so I wanted to use these chips as a way of giving them that agency.

For most characters in the game I gave them 2 GEAR chips.  If it seems reasonable a character might have more (gadgeteer, rich, kleptomaniac) then give them more.  There might be a mechanic in your game you could piggy back off.  an example might be like Luck in some games.  Make a gear related version that allows the character to have more chips.

They get spent to have something.  "Is there a fire extinguisher in here?"  To which you might answer, "Do you want there to be?"  and the player then nods, tossing a gear chip into the pile.  They now have the fire extinguisher they always wanted.  This lets them change the world a little, or just quantify that they have something that isn't what you might think of as an everyday item.  Mobile phone, car keys, Swiss Army knife, quantum stabilizer....wait, what?

You don't have to go out and buy special lettered poker chips, you can use little glass beads (my wife calls them slow marbles because they roll VERY slowly), or any other kind of marker.  When you get into games that have many markers, then color coded or labelled ones make more sense, but if you only need one kind of marker you have a lot of flexibility.

I hope this idea can inspire you to solve the sometimes prickly problem of equipment and characters.  What are your ideas for handling this particular issue?  What have you done that worked, and what have you done that failed?  Share with us in the comments below and until next time, keep playing.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Everyone needs a background, even if it's wrong.

Everyone needs a background, even if it's wrong.

 Backstories are not homework!

 Mandatory character backstories are not homework, and they shouldn't feel like it.  Sometimes, when you're starting a new campaign or introducing a new player to your campaign, you want them to be fleshed out some.  For a lot of players this feels like it's homework.  This can especially be true of new players. 

I'm not going to go into the types of players.  It seems that every few years someone comes out with a new set of humorous descriptions for the various kinds of players.  They dive into the gaming psychology and come up with a list of the five or seven or three kinds of players.  To me, those are sort of like astrological signs.  Some people believe they are really important to understanding people, and some people think they're stupid.

Some GMs are offended by the one line backgrounds that some players are so fond of.  "Parents dead, no siblings, loner with no connections.  Likes beer."  Sometimes I get it.  It's the mid-week game, mainly we're at the table to unwind, throw dice, kill monsters and rummage through their pockets for loose change.  The player has made the effort to write up the character, and depending on your chosen game engine that might have been a major undertaking.  So it's okay to let them slack off on the background, because.....

Your character history is what you know about your past.  True or not!

You have a lot of options with those players who issue a one line background for their character.  They have a rich past you can insert anything you want (within reason) into.  Those players who gave you a novella for their character background have taken great care to provide you with plot hooks and opportunities.  So did the players who gave you a single sentence, they just didn't realize it.

If you have a player that gave you the a background like the parents dead example I gave above might have a good reason.  Perhaps in previous games they've been burned by the GM killing off all the people they love off screen or worse right in front of them using bad GMing techniques to prevent the hero from saving them.  So accept whatever background a player gives you, because you can always change it!

Players who love story tend to also enjoy twists.  Especially twists they later realize they were he seed of.  I ran a super hero game years ago for a group of people who were not comic book buffs.  They had a very limited knowledge of comics and super heroes, but they knew they wanted to try the genre.  Well into the campaign another player joined the group.  This person had an extensive knowledge of comic books and worked with me to help develop their background so that it would seamlessly mesh into the game setting.

The character they played was a psychic, and on a number of occasions in role play scenes with other characters she commented on how she never feels like she fits in, like she's living in the wrong time.  It was partly that the player was new and so they had not developed a groove with the other players.  Partly it was from her backstory, orphan who was in the care of a foster parent (also super powered) and never felt like anywhere was home.

About a year into the characters time with the group little bits of information started to surface that led the group to think they had found the characters birth mother.  A super hero that had fought in WWII with the allies.  This led to a lot of excitement and investigation and was a side plot that eventually ended up being a main story arc when the team traveled back in time to save one of the NPCs from being stranded.  They discovered that the young hero they thought was the character's mother turned out to actually be the character.  They had to go back to their own time before they could get to the bottom of it, but eventually they found out that the hero had volunteered to be frozen as a precaution to there not being any more super powered people being born. 

The player's comments about never feeling like they fit in and maybe living in the wrong time ended up in my notebook, and inspired the story.  The player was excited, and then shocked, and then more shocked when they realized they had given me the idea.

Players write the best adventures.

 So, even if they only give you a single sentence, you can fill in the gaps or make note of the things they say.  Introduce old friends or former lovers, or their real parents.  Just because they wrote you a short background doesn't mean they don't want to have an interesting back story.

What was something you did as a GM to take a character backstory into an exciting direction that worked out, or even that didn't?  Let us know in the comments down below.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Welcome to the party!

Welcome to the beginning of what I hope will be a long and rewarding relationship.  I've been a table top RPG player for a very long time, and most of that time has been spent running games.  I hope to share with you some of the things I've learned over the years and maybe learn a few things from you as well.

For years I've had friends say that I should write down some of the things I know about being a GM and gaming in general.  It sounds easy, and then I prowl the internet for a while and discover that there are plenty of other people out there sharing advise and starting conversations with the role-playing game community and think to myself "Someone has already covered what I could cover."  and that has been enough to discourage me.

Recently I've started to try and get my creative juices flowing by diving into some creative efforts.  Blogging and You Tube video creation have topped the list.  And that brings us to here.  A blog, one of several, where I share my expertise and knowledge with the internet and see what happens.

About me.  I'm in my late 40s and have been playing table top RPGs for about the last 35 years or so.  I've played in and run a lot of systems.  I've seen some of the evolution of mechanics and story telling systems and been excited about the changes in the industry and the hobby.  Unlike some of my gaming friends I don't have strong love/hate sorts of feelings towards game engines.  Mechanics are there to give us a framework to operate in.  They should be complex enough to handle what the group needs and wants, but ignorable enough that if they start to hinder the story or the flow of play the group can comfortably hand wave some things.

I can't honestly say I have a favorite genre either.  My moods have taken me across a wide and varied landscape of game genres.  More often than not enjoying a game has very little to do with the mechanics or the genre.  If the story and the characters are compelling, I will stick with a game for a long time.  Conversely, if the game is meh, but I enjoy the players interaction and have fun I will also hang around.  Gaming is a social thing, so no matter what the people involved need to be part of the fun.

Over the course of this blog I'll talk about game engines, and mechanics, and genre.  I expect the majority of what I talk about though to be how to tap into the will of the players (not the characters) to craft your stories.  After all, the title of the blog is Players Write The Best Adventures.