So, yesterday I spent the day doing actual work to avoid blogging. Doing actual work to get out of doing fake work, what has become of me? Anyway, since I need to write about something to justify calling myself a writer, howsabout we talk about starting campaigns?
On the other hand, it gets wearing after a while. Every GM who has ever sat behind the screen knows the feeling Gabe is talking about there in the first comic. The sinking feeling that comes to every GM at some point where it’s like pulling teeth to get up the energy to run the game and you feel like everything that was good and bright and hopeful at the beginning of the campaign is gone and there’s nothing left but aggravation and the feeling that not only are you bad at this, but you were never any good at it. I’ve never actually quit in a huff, or sent a hilariously damning letter to my players, but I’ve put more campaigns on “indefinite hiatus” than I care to think about. Sometimes I even pretend like I’ll go back to them some day, but we all know that I never will.
So, we’re just going to go ahead and pretend that I’ve been updating like normal and not been a slack-ass for the past month and a half. Let’s just dive right in, shall we? Winter has come at last to the Detroit Metro Area. It snowed like a bastard all day yesterday, this heavy slurry of rain and snow that was great for snowballing and clogging the shit out of my snowblower, but not so great for staying warm or dry or shoveling without having a heart attack. Like a fool, I did all my snow removal and de-icing the walks after only five hours of constant snow, and by the time it was dark it looked like I hadn’t done a thing. It was goddamned Sisyphean. Not that I have it that that bad honestly, seeing as how Ragnarok has apparently arrived for Ross and Sam up in Minneapolis where the Æsir have become manifest and the Metrodome collapsed under the weight of all the snow.
Anyway, I awoke to a
blasted, frozen hellscape winter wonderland this morning with about five inches of snow under an inch of ice and a temperature of about a million below zero. Making my car drivable was more akin to getting this guy out of his glacier than civilized snow removal. So of course, as I’m standing there hacking my way through all the ice that entombed the Saturn while the dog and cat both watch me smugly from my office window, my thoughts obviously turn to using weather in role-playing games.
Personally, I’ve never used weather much in games, but I love it when it’s well implemented in the rules and handled by a proficient GM. Think about it. In your standard “adventure” game like D&D or Rifts or Pathfinder or what have you, how much time do you spend outside? Quite a bit I’d wager. Hell, even in urban games like Shadowrun you’re still exposed to the elements, albeit for short amounts of time. Using weather as an obstacle, or to ratchet up the drama in a situation, is a great way to add extra depth to a game session. Especially, and you knew this was coming, if there are serious consequences.
Using weather in low-magic fantasy settings, or in any setting where the GM can separate the players from easy healing, can be just as deadly as a mob of Orcs. Exposure, boiling heat, bitter cold, limited visibility from snow, driving rain, or thick fog, all very dangerous to an unprepared adventuring party. With weather and environment, players have to adjust what they wear and carry. Wearing full plate in a burning desert is just asking for trouble, as is not wearing the right kind of gear in a howling, frozen wasteland. All of this takes players, all of whom sleep in their armor at all times no matter what they claim, out of their comfort zones and makes them take stock of what’s going on around them in the game and how it affects their characters.
In our Harn game for example, every day we get a little weather report from GM Munin. Just something like “Cold, and drizzling with a stiff wind”, and this little bit of info affects the way we play. Foggy tonight? Great weather for muggings and skulking about! Cold rain and gale-force wind? Fuck that noise, we’ll go the the Hook and Capstan for some gambling or the Halean Temple for some
drunken debauchery quiet contemplation. See, since Harn is a low-fantasy middle-ages setting with little to no magic and even less conventional medicine, even normal weather can be deadly. Whenever we are out in the elements for an extended period of time, especially if we’re cold and wet, Munin has us make Body tests (we’re using Shadowrun 3 for our rules). Fail the test, catch a cold…or worse. Of course, when you’re sick there’s all kinds of penalties to important rolls (essentially you receive a number of boxes of stun depending on how bad it is). There’s a good possibility in our game, given bad luck and bad rolls, that one of our characters could die of exposure/illness/whatever due to the weather. I know some may balk at that, but I love it. It adds an extra level of immersion and, of course, of jeopardy.
Weather and environment are also a great way for GM’s to
herd guide players without making it feel like they’re being railroaded. For example, if characters have booked passage aboard a ship (any ship will do, even spaceships, because there’s always some kind of weather in every environment) and a nasty storm whips up and blows them off course. Here then is an opportunity for side adventures, or breaking out that new sourcebook you picked up, without making it too obvious.
So, go ahead and spring some weather on your players sometime. Stretch a little, add a little depth, and enjoy the gnashing of teeth and tearing of character sheets as your players die of heat stroke in a suit of full plate in the middle of a desert.
For example, combat in Shadowrun 3rd edition, at least the way we play it, is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. This is especially true in our Harn game, the middle-ages crime drama, where something as simple as a broken leg could have disastrous consequences for a character. See, with no magic and no really real medicine to speak of, a deep cut or a broken limb can kill a man in Harn. Granted, this is more a result of the setting than the rules, but my point stands. Brawling is perfectly acceptable, but if blades come out something has definitely gone wrong. Iron Kingdoms is the same way, right? Need a clerical healing? You better have a lot of money or a lot of luck because that cure light wounds spell will fill your body with ravenous maggots just as soon as it’ll heal you, and that’s awesome.
It’s why I don’t go for cinematic games. I like a game where damage goes through your armor, where you can’t dodge bullets, where you run out of ammo, and where a wrong step or a misplaced comment can ruin your night. My friends and I call this hilarity ensuing. I play games like this, I run my games like this, and I write my games like this. When I was writing Robotech, I kept trying to increase the lethality of the game, which of course was every bit as constructive as, well, something not very constructive. I wanted more damage output from my weapons, less damage capacity in my mechs and armor, more reason to use different kinds of munitions, and more threat. I realize that this runs counter to what a lot of people consider the spirit of Robotech, and honestly I didn’t care. I still don’t. Of course increasing jeopardy and forcing critical thinking was never going to fly in a system that was designed, essentially, to let a player win at RPGs. Oh well, c’est la vie, right?
I’ll finish with a story. When I was working on my first assignment for Rogue Trader, which was largely rules and game design, I had a long conversation with Sam about just this very thing. One rule I was writing hinged on the GM making a roll that directly affected the players and keeping the result secret from said players. Sam pitched me an alternate idea, which was easier on the players, then asked me, “So, from a game design point of view, which do you think is better?” I replied, “Mine. Things should always be hard for the players, and if they’re going to do X (where X is the rule that I still can’t talk about) they don’t get to know if something goes wrong until the wheels come off.” Sam laughed and said, “Awesome, do it.” and that rule ended up in the book largely untouched. That’s just the kind of bastard I am, I guess. When I’m a player, I ask for little mercy, and when I’m running or writing a game, I offer even less. So, you know, caveat ludius.
Welp, that’s it. Sadly, we did not all die in a nuclear fire while being consumed by a Shoggoth. There were, however, a few casualties. While we were crossing Lake Hali in a boat made of bones, Franco, our own Wayne Smith, decided he’d jump into the lake, which was made of mist, to see where the light beneath us was coming from. Of course it was the gate to Hastur’s realm, and while down there in the mist he happened to look upon the face of The King in Yellow himself and was instantly driven mad. So, there’s one. Then Yuri went absolutely apeshit when Franco started speaking to him in Yuri’s mother’s voice, blaming him for the miscarriage of a sister he’d never heard of. Yuri was then tranqued when he tried to twist Franco’s head off. This all culminated when the remainder of the party lowered the nuke into the gate and buggered off back to Carcossa and eventually back to Earth where, as we discovered in the epilogue, they were put to work ferreting out and destroying the last vestiges of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Sadly, it was during the denouement that it was revealed that Yuri did, in fact, come to an unfortunate end. After intensive therapy and behavioral modification, Yuri was brought back to operational status with the team and even went on a few missions until at last he tricked the job into killing him as a way to end his constant emotional pain.
Now, I realize the the guys I play with and I may be in the minority here in regards to what we think is a positive outcome, but all in all it was a great way to wrap up a long and epic campaign. Sure there was a lot more Munin could have thrown at us, he could have kept us busy for years. It was better to go out on top, though. So now Shadowrun’s over and it’s time for me to take over as GM and run a Rogue Trader game. The RT game is already shaping up to have every session end with “and hilarity ensued”, so it’s looking good at first blush. I’ll keep you posted.
- Who: Who is involved? In particular, who are the player characters, and who are their allies and adversaries? Using the CSAR team in the above example, in a team of eight (your typical number of seats at a con game), you’d have some medics, some comms guys, a scout, and some marines maybe. When you make characters for your con game, make sure they fit both the story and with each other. Make sure each has specific skills and/or talents that will have a direct impact on the game. No one wants to pay a couple bucks to play a game and then sit around picking their nose for four hours because you only made one hero and seven hangers-on for the game. As for NPCs, typically a name and a few stats will do. Don’t over-do the NPCs, you really don’t need to. My NPC enemies are typically a few lines on a 3×5 note card. The basest combat stats including any weapons or powers, useful attributes, and a couple notes about their personality.
- What: This is where your story goes. Continuing with the CSAR example, say that a carrier battle group was in transit through hyperspace, and one of the ships developed a problem with its FTL drive. That ship drops out of transit, and the rest of the group carries on with promises that they’ll send a CSAR ship back for them. Okay, good. What happens then? What happens when the CSAR team (our players) finds their lost ship? Is she okay? Still intact? Crew alive? Since this is a con game the answer to all of those questions is probably no.
- Where: This question deals with your setting. The where is typically dictated by your system/game of choice, and not specifically the con game itself. A good con game, one with a good enough premise, can be run in any setting. I have a con game whose premise is “Ambassador is murdered at gala opera opening” that was actually inspired by that time Chechens took a whole theater hostage and the Spetsnaz gassed the whole place to catch them. Since it doesn’t say anything about specific setting, that adventure could be run with any game from a hyper-modern near future game like Shadowrun to an old-west setting like Deadlands to even a higher-tech fantasy style world. In fact, I first ran that game as an Iron Kingdoms game set in the dwarven capital city.
- When: Honestly, the when isn’t that important. The when is essentially now, with now being whenever you run the game. Check your events guide for run times.
- Why: The why explains the story’s set up. In the above “ambassador killed” scenario, the why begs the question, “Why was the ambassador murdered?” Well, there could be any number of reasons, and it’s up to the players to find out.
Once you’ve got those questions answered, you’re pretty much ready to go. Some other things a con game GM needs to keep in mind are:
- Pacing: Let’s face it, con games are artfully designed railroad games wherein the GM leads the players around by the nose. To mitigate the players’ feelings of lack of control, the GM needs to walk a fine line between railroading and allowing free play. This makes sure that the players can affect the story through their actions, and that you can finish on time so you can get to the dealer hall before it closes. The way I do it is that I have a set opening, like the opening credits of a movie (Ambassador is killed, theater is locked down) and a set ending (players uncover identity of murderer) and everything else in between is the players’ responsibility. I make sure there are checkpoints along the way, goals I want them to achieve to move the game along, and players typically get to them no problem. If not, I’m there to give them a gentle push via clues or NPCs. Lead you players to the game’s conclusion, don’t push them, no one wants to have a GM just tell them a story for four hours and not get to do anything cool. Trust me, I paid money to be in a game like that once.
- Prep: Do your homework. Roll up strong characters, give each one a little bio to help introduce them to the players, have your NPCs ready, know where the story is going, and above all, be ready to think on your feet. Even though a con game is pretty linear, players can and will go off the reservation and you’ll need to be ready. Hell, at the end of one of my modern horror games, the players, who were all cops mind you, turned on one another like jackals and engaged in a firefight in the basement of an old hotel that was under construction. I certainly didn’t see that one coming, and neither will you when everything goes all sideways and the players start messing up your narrative. Be flexible and let them run. Encourage creativity at the table, but make sure you still get where you’re going at the end of the story.
- Presentation: I’m a sucker for props. Character dossiers, maps, photos, charts, you name it I’ve probably used it in a con game. Hell, I even have a specific Iron Kingdoms GM Kit I use when running an IK game. They help set the tone and immediately get the players in the proper headspace that usually takes weeks of sessions in a regular game. If you’d like to know more about using props, check this post out.
That’s about it. Honestly, while it seems daunting, prepping and running con games is a breeze. Intellectually taxing sure, and hard on the voice, but fun and rewarding too. Just think of it like directing a long movie with a lot of improvised dialog. Also, I’d recommend having a stock of con games available. I’ve got a big ol’ binder full of pregen characters and plot notes that I can whip out at a moments notice if needs be. So, go for it. Get yourself a good idea, gin up some characters and have a blast.
Sad thing is, this isn’t really discussed much in favor of the aforementioned dinosaurs and dick-guns. There’s no real down side to playing these characters, not in a rules sense. Sure, Juicers die young because the drugs they use consume their bodies at an alarming rate. To your typical Rifts player however, the five to seven year life-span of a Juicer isn’t much of a downside. Think about it, how long does your average campaign run? Not long enough for Last Call. Same goes for Crazies, super soldiers who accept brain implants which improve their natural abilities and make them psychic at the cost of their sanity. Of course, in typical RPG style, the mental illnesses that Crazies can accumulate are treated in a flip, offhand manner and all crazies end up being wacky, unreliable sociopaths who spout non-sequiturs all the time ’cause they’re sooooooo crazy. Then of course there are the Rifts Cyborgs who have no drawbacks, at least none as written in the rules, and are free to become walking tanks without so much as a twinge of conscience.
Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, two of my favorite games, are the opposite side of this coin. Each has a specific attribute, Essence in Shadowrun, Humanity in Cyberpunk, that is essentially a reflection of the character’s soul. The more metal you graft on to your body in the form of cyberware and bioware, the more of your soul is whittled away. Every time you get a new implant you die a little more inside, and it is reflected in your stats and in social interaction difficulty modifiers, among other things. For example, my SR character Yuri started with the standard six points of essence. During character creation as part of his backstory, I bought a shitload of cyberware for him. Essentially he was blown up and had to be reconstructed. His essence as it stands now is .64. Yes, you read that right, he has less than one point of essence. This causes all manner of trouble for him in social situations, gives him some serious psychological problems and makes him a hoot to play. The essence loss rules are there to give me as a player a framework to work within. They encourage me to play Yuri’s illnesses, and reward me when I do. It’s stuff like this that brings the idea of becoming a monster to better fight one closer to home when you see it have a concrete effect in game.
I know what you’re going to say. But, Jason. You don’t need rules for that, that can all be handled through role-playing! I agree, but role-playing needs a solid foundation of rules to rest on or there will be total chaos. If there’s no incentive in the rules for a player to make hard choices and to role-play out the consequences of those choices, why should they? Why should they buy the whole cow when the get the milk for free? Gamers are, on the whole, lazy and won’t go out of their way to hamstring a character unless they get something out of it like extra build points or XP. Rules like these also force the characters to actually make the hard choices. Is this new implant really worth yet another piece of my soul? Is the cost/benefit ratio beneficial enough? It better be, because once that piece of you is gone it’s gone, and there are precious few ways to get it back. That right there, that choice, is a good motivator right there. So, next time you’re at the cyberstore looking at this season’s hot new eyes, ask yourself, are they worth it?
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whys and wherefores of the hobby. Specifically, what is it that drives us, largely grown-ass men and women with jobs and families and mortgages, to sit around a table on a regular basis and play pretend. What, for lack of a better term, is our motivation? I touched on this a little in last Friday’s post when I talked about our characters as avatars of ourselves that portray us as we’d like to be. But why? Why do we pull on the cape or the body armor or the pointy hat? Why do we take up the plasma rifle or the staff with the knob on the end? That’s the question that fascinates me, gentle readers. That’s what I want to touch on today.
Role-playing is, at its heart, escapism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the various stresses in our lives, it’s good to have a way to unwind, to blow off some steam or work off some aggression in a controlled environment. Some people work out, some meditate, we pretend to be super heroes of one kind or another. We all have our reasons for it, some healthy, many not. Whatever the reasons, and there are as many reasons to play games as there are gamers, I think the escapism we have in the hobby falls largely into two types; Running to something and running from something.
Running to something is what I think most gamers do of a session. When my friends and I, and most likely you and your friends, sit down for a game, we’re there to play pretend for a few hours. We whack some bad guys, get ourselves into and out of trouble, succeed brilliantly, fail miserably and generally have a bunch of fun and laughs. A player running to something is playing so that they can pretend to be someone else for a while. They’re pretending to be another person who, while obviously a near super-powered distillation of all our inner wants and desires, is still a walking contradiction full of their own wants and needs and all the little, constant failings that make a person human. They think in terms of character motivation, and build their characters around concepts and ideas as opposed to building them around the right kind of numbers.
For example, I’m a pretty average guy, right? I’ve got a wife, a kid on the way, a house, pets, self-cleaning oven, the whole bit. I live a pretty average life in a pretty average town, and all in all I’m pretty happy with it. I certainly don’t fight fishmen in dark warehouses or blow up heads of secret police forces for a living. My Shadowrun character Yuri, however, does all this and more on an average Tuesday. He gets to carry around an AK, thinks in kilos of explosives, can get through just about any kind of security system imaginable in the Sixth World, technological ones at least, and generally gets to do a whole bunch of awesome stuff that I don’t. He’s also a walking ball of personality disorders and self-destructive behaviors. He drinks too much, is barely in control of his emotions (which is only exacerbated by his drinking) and he tends to outsmart himself constantly. That’s on a good day. That doesn’t even get into the fact that due to being blown up by a Bratva counter-bomber he’s at least half metal and myomer which has mostly unhinged him, and that he’s starting to show signs of PTSD with hallucinations and anxiety attacks and everything else that goes along with it. I love playing him both because he’s so awesome and because he is so flawed. I love his ability to succeed and his potential for catastrophic failure. Through him I can live out some fantasies, knock some heads together and do so in the aforementioned controlled environment, in our case Shade’s basement.
Players running from something are playing a different game altogether. These are the guys who are the punchlines of our hobby, the min/maxers or munchkins or power gamers or whatever you want to call them. Their characters are nothing more than collections of stats, skill, feats, edges and flaws combined just so to achieve the unachievable, “winning” at role-playing. They have, or perceive that they have, something horribly wrong with their lives or themselves, and they play to not be themselves. It’s an unhealthy kind of escapism where the character takes the place of whatever is missing in the player’s life. These characters are invincible and infallible. Nothing bad ever happens to them and there are no consequences for their actions. They tend to be made so that they never fail, so that they make up for whatever frustrations or disappointments or perceived lack of control over their lives that the players may have. God help the gamemaster with one or two of these guys in his group. They want all the attention and they don’t want the rules to apply to their characters (because maybe they feel that failing in character hits a little too close to home). They’ll piss and moan and pout and throw fits when bad things happen to their characters or, heaven forfend, their characters should get killed. They will always, always be looking for that role-playing “cheat code”, that loophole in the rules that will make them invincible, give them unlimited money and ammo, and allow them to do whatever they want.
Now, I’m probably alone in this kind of thinking, or at least in the minority. It’s true that I tend to sometimes over-analyze things or look for meaning where there isn’t one. I guess what I’m trying to say here is, that along with being fun and hilarious escapism, role-playing can also be a good way to take a look at yourself and your thoughts and feelings. What does your character, and his actions, say about you the player? Does your character expose some personal need or desire? Do you play a character to get into character development and some personal exploration, or are you in it solely to win, to fill some hole you have within yourself? Next time you sit down to throw some dice, do me a favor. Ask yourself which way you’re running, the answer may surprise you.