Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Rogue Who Loved Me

Ah, the Rogue. Such a misunderstood character class or archetype if you use a classless system. A lot of the issues with the Rogue is it's such a WIDE concept to capture. At it's baseline you have the OD&D thief, but it can spin up into high concepts like Han Solo (pilot/rogue) or Solid Snake (Fighter/Spy/Rogue) characters. And what skill sets do Rogues exactly get? Social? Sneaky? Assassination? Breaking & Entering? Finesse Combat? What mix is valid?

Well the answer is YES! and "Depends on the setting". And that's where the real issue with the Rogue pops up. They are a Chameleon class. What is that? It's the one class above all others that adapts to the setting and rule set. This is because so much of what the Rogue does is dependant on how the game engine and setting tropes interact. Let me give you a few examples-

Shadowrun - The Face, Decker, Security Rigger, Technomancer, Stealth Ops. Seeing as how one of Shadowrun's BIG THINGS is Heist missions, it doesn't surprise me the game offers the most options for rogue-like characters. Shadowrun is way up in my "TAKE" style game play featuring a weird mix of covert action, sneaky skill use, and deadlier combat options.

GURPS - A Rogue style character in GURPS tends to be a skill monkey. High IQ and DX helps with off setting the massive dump of points into all sorts of breaking and entering skills, logistics, bluff and fast talk. And lets not forget the urgent need of allies and contacts.

D&D - Oh boy...this is half of the reason why people get confused about Rogues. There has been SO MANY types. Early on the Rogue was basically a Thief with specific % rolls on thief actions. 3E Rogues were sneaky combat machines who specialised in skills over a lot of other features. 4E rogues were light armored skirmishers who specialized in set-up tactics. And well, there are countless variants. D&D's idea of the rogue has been his huge ugly mess...but we'll get to that. Hell, the Bard qualifies as a Rogue thanks to edition nonsense.

Numenera - The Jacks of the settings are basically Rogues. Except they also are part Fighter (Glaive) and part Wizard/Cleric (Nano). To add to the confusion they get unique speed based attack options that neither of the other 2 classes in Numenera get. To fit into the setting they stand in between the two pillars of the setting and get little things to make them unique like crafting and disabling attack options.

The list goes on but notice how the Rogues mutate based on the setting and options the game engine offers them? I thought about what exactly Rogues do. This is how I came up wit the idea of "Take" game play from my earlier BIG 4 post. But let's break it down into easy to follow career paths. These are just rough central focuses of Rogues I've picked up on over the years.

Face Man - People specialist. They focus on social systems in games, exploiting character mental weaknesses. The catch with this build is a LOT of it is NPC/GM dependant. If the GM is only handing you hard line militant foes that always seem to see past your ruse, then this variant is NOT fun to play.

Breaking & Entering Expert - Maxed out skills versus traps, security systems, this build is one part engineer one part acrobat. The Thief-Acrobat of old was this class to a T. The catch is, unless the rest of the party is willing to give the B&E expert time to work he might as well be another combat character. Being sneaky takes time in game as any Decker, etc knows.

The Assassin - Most Rogues specialize in well, non-conventional combat tactics. They rarely will walk into stand up fights. Sneak attacks, dirty fighting, low blows, psychological attacks. You can boil the concept down into a sneaky assassin who uses the environment and various tools to end his foes. If you ever play the Hitman series of games, the trick was to hit your target quietly and move on. Smooth. RPG terms the Rogue from 13th Age, 4E, and variant builds from Pathfinder (Ninja, Slayer, etc) are all this. Get in, find and opening, drop foe, get out. The hitch? What if it is a social game or the group needs you to deal with traps? Then your skills don't always fit.

I highlight these 3 paths because Rogues in total suffer from what I call "Situational Overspecialization". That is to say, unless the game take the time to break down the Rogue into specialities that fit one of these 3 or offers skill packages that round out their abilities it is far to easy to build a Rogue that turns into a one trick pony. I can't tell you the number of near-unplayable Rogue builds in far too many systems because of this.

But there is HOPE!

Lets look at the Star Wars Edge of the Empire: Smuggler and it's variant classes. This is a good outline how to build a functional rogue. First you build a foundation. This is a handful of useful skills that will always help the party. Maybe a little B&E like lock picking, or security systems. A pinch of stealth. Maybe a hint of fast-talk. With that out of the way, then layer on your primary focus. Yes, this means you won't be uber specialized, but at least this way you won't fall into the niche trap that Rogues so easily do.

The Rogue is a hard class to master. It's not not quite the mental gymnastics of a caster, but it does take a very good understanding of the mechanics of the game, the expectation of the missions, and finally how to play support and overall coverage protection for the party. In many ways a good rogue doubles as a leader for a group. Not so much in the face to face (but they can be) but in the making the big picture of a game work.

It's dangerous to go alone. Take a Rogue!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Urban Minotaurs...Living the City Life.

The best modern dungeons are cities. Just think about it: Interconnected city utility tunnels, multistory buildings with unused floors and corners, maze like smaller connecting roads and back alleys, territorial gang zones and bundles of comical and industrial development, and lots and lots of decay and dangers.

But when you think about playing a urban fantasy game I often seen people fall into the World of Darkness mentality. What is this? Well, it's more a social layout of a city than a dungeon layout. Such as having a social center (Elysium), a hanging ground (bars/alleyways), and battle zones (industrial parts from Werewolf games.). But what they are missing is you can build a city around a fuller range of dungeon/sandbox play! Here are some tips:

* Most cities have an organic growth from smaller commercial/residential areas. Industrial parks on the outskirts that slowly get swallowed by growing residential needs, or other pop-up development that envelop them. Go look at say a map of Seatle, notice how the most developed areas are near rail lines, and sea ports? Then as highways came in the rail ways zones have decayed from less use? Same deal! Washington DC is a perfect example of urban planning that goes 'just far enough' around the main Capitol hill and then gets messy on the outskirts. South DC is a mess of interconnected rail lines, industrial development, when there is this messy residential growth to the north, etc. Nab a map and really study what's going on, where are the shops, the development. Etc. When planning out a self made city (if not using a real one) keep this in mind!

Or...go play Sim City (earlier versions please.) Or Living Cities, Cities XL, there are other options.

* When placing supernatural 'growths' in a city area think of them as communities! So what if goblins are making less than a living wage near a meat processing plant and they live in a decaying mess of very old 50's homes just north of it connected to a trailer park. Details like this help establish where your supernatural critters live. Or maybe a necromancer overlord rules a downtown high rise. Easy right? Okay, where does he story his bodies? In the basement? So, do any of them 'burst' out into the subway lines? Have there been attacks of 'drunks' eating people in the nearby sewers? Are the local homeless and cops afraid of going anywhere near the underground connections to the building? These are elements you need to keep in mind.

* Cities need resources, and live and die on the money they bring in. The Dragon CEO running the local stock exchange is going to want his horde of local businesses to have a steady flow of customers. He might be paying the Trolls that run the local Highway division to keep the bridge tolls low enough that commercial truck freight is affordable into the city's manufacturing plants. Orc gang bangers hanging out in empty old storage warehouses most likely won't have the power on in these places. No money means, no/low facilities and support. Little to no chance the local cops are going to come running if you call 911. You can damn well expect the local supernaturals with money are going to protect banks, businesses, and transportation of their goods.

This was one of my biggest bugs about Vampire games. Vampires had all this influence over city resources, but you rarely EVER had to deal with them in your games. The focus was more on the drama of being a monster and having crazy urban brawls than managing an empire. Hell Mage/Syndicate games were more realistic to this. I want to play a urban fairy tale version of the TV series EMPIRE or 30 Rock. It might be more interesting!

* Everyone has to have somewhere to sleep. The Minotaur may patrol the back alleyways of his territory like a bizarro horned Batman at night, but during the day is he just laying in a dumpster? Or does he have an apartment he gets for free in return for protecting it from other supernaturals? Homeless supernaturals have to deal with the same trials normal homeless do. No food, lack of heat, sickness, lack of personal property, cops pushing you around. Sure for some physical needs won't be AS bad. But the idea that a Vampire can just sleep in the sewers is okay right up until a day crew comes down to fix a phone line that is having problems and they bump into your little parlor. It gets more complicated when these 'off the radar' communities tap into local utilities. They may not notice it at first, but eventually someone is going to come along to figure out why there is a power draw on/near your base.

* Humans live here too! This may seem obvious, but normal non-supernaturals are EVERYWHERE. In an urban fantasy city the homeless or locals of a city are going to know something is up. Many will stay quiet and just accept it as a price of living there. Others might try to attack, drive off, or beg for support from your fantasy critters living there. Always take the time to think of how the interplay works. Take my earlier Orc Gang bangers idea. Eventually they might 'induct' tough humans, men or women. Hell there might be second-generation of Half-Orc Gang members who are the children of mixed race couples. And maybe they're fighting the local Hispanic gangs for territory...and this Latin gangs have slowly been getting help from members who are werewolves. Slowly infecting more members via hazing rituals.

Crazy stuff.

If you want more ideas on just how to build urban dungeon crawls check out: Urban Explorer websites, Urban Decay pictures, History channels Gangland dramas, etc. Look into real life examples and think "how can I inject some magic/weirdness here".

Eventually your urban dungeon settings will seem very alive and very dangerous.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Hobby Endures, The Market Adapts.

The only reason why I'm posting this blog is because every 6 months or so I see someone hop on G+,, wherever and they start asking the wrong questions again and again:

Why is the hobby doing so badly?
How can we get more players?
What makes RPGs less popular?

They are all wrong, all pessimistic, and very myopic to the truth of the role playing hobby in general. Let me break it down for you.

The Hobby is doing very well actually due to a number of reasons. The biggest ones I can point at is diversity of product (a great sign) and selection of vendors and venues to play. There are plenty of players out there, and more keep coming into the market, but it is on the gamemasters and other players to introduce them to the products out there. Finally, they are super popular. So much so they have become in order: a fad, a joke, a social political issue, and finally pop culture icon. What? How so? Let me break it down.

The Market is Evolving.

If your expectations of roleplaying games is the old "Friendly" Local Game Store and it's shelves and shelves of books, or say Barnes and Noble's RPG/Comic aile of books, perhaps a few books in a hobby story then your 'world' of products is shrinking. This has nothing to do with RPGs, but rather physical stores are being destroyed by the online marketplace. Welcome to the Amazon generation kids. Brick and Mortar may not die, but they won't be big like they use to be. Local Game Stores shift more to boardgames, card games, etc to make money. Magic the Gathering players pay more steady money than we occasional book buyers. We have been, will always be, a niche of a niche market to these guys. Wargamers buy armies and models at a steadier pace than we do.

To make thing worse the cost of printing, shipping, and holding onto large volumes of printed books is killing the companies that make and sell the games. If a store like Barnes and Noble can't sell product they push them back on the publisher. And when big book stores like Borders close it pinches the bottom line as all that material either has to be returned, destroyed, or sold on second hand markets. It's not a pretty picture. Book bindery costs have gone up, and international shipping (say if they print the books in China) is NOT cheap. There is a reason why smaller companies are turning to Kickstarter to get enough funds to pay for their first print run. They have to cover crazy logistics and overhead costs.

But it's not all bad really. There have been changes to the market that make things easier on publishers.

Welcome to the era of the Tablet! The Ipad, Android tablet, and various eReaders have given publishers a big open market to sell their books too. Game pdfs are by far way easier to maintain. Almost no overhead costs, updates to the book can be sent out in almost real time (errata that shows up in the electronic copy months before new printings of the books.), and finally a much cheaper market value allow for more casual buys. Sure, not every company gets that the electronic versions of their books need to be cheaper than the physical copy to make sales. (I can name a few companies.) But most small indy press guys often will GIVE their core book away just so it drives the sales of the supplement players. Also, Kickstarters often have crazy bonus deals if you just get the pdf level of books. Or seasonal sales that drive players to make impulse buys. (Like I picked up Runequest 6 this year when the core book hit $5 for Black Friday!)

And there are a growing number of places to BUY the product., e23, Amazon, Nobel Knight Games, publisher web sites, Kickstater/Indiagogo, etc. Each day new marketplaces open up, pdfs, physical books, and other materials are becoming casual and friendly places to shop. Also the advent of Print on Demand allows for minimal overhead costs on publishes. Want a hardbound/soft copy of the book, willing to pay a little more? Presto, a week to print and ship. Done.

The Players are Pickier.

The other big misconception is that somehow after the 2000's thanks to MMO's we lost a lot of players. Nope. The players are still there, they just have a LOT of other things to occupy them. Remember the key words here are "Ease Of Use". More a byproduct of the Internet than MMOs users can get online to play video games, talk to friends, update Facebook/G+, watch movies and shows via streaming. The same things that use to take people away from the hobby take them away these days. It's just there are SO MANY of them out there and they are so easy to get at!

It was something of a Catch 22. The mass media market when through growing pains, but video games lead the pack with online connectivity and play, then slowly TV, social networks, etc caught up. Roleplaying games were still having a massive identity crisis around the early 2000's on HOW to shift to online market models. To put it bluntly, we were late. To many other entertainment sources beat us to the punch so we lost market share, people. Only recently has there been a robust enough number of play options for casual players (the majority) to check out.

Projects like Roll20, Paizo's new Virtual Tabletop, WoTC's on-again off-again virtual table top, push out play-spaces that casual players can reach out too. Other tools like Skype, IRC, etc were 'okay' But it wasn't until the advent of Face Time, G+ Hangouts, and Facebooks similar group/call like programs did the virtual play spaces evolve enough to be useful to real time play. I prefer Skype/G+ Hangout btw.

So, now that we have the venues to play, we have to bring it to the attention of potential players. And remember, game masters and companies need to keep it easier to use. It has to be accessible, or the casual players will hop back on WOW or go play PayDay 2 a few more hours than bother with writing up characters. You don't have to dumb it down for them, just keep it simple and functional!

I swear, if Games Workshop finally works out how to sell virtual armies to the Warhammer 40K crowd to play on virtual battle fields, they'll bank a mint.

The Products need to Diversify.

Ah, the "Good Old Days". Remember the height of the 2000's. WotC was king and you could find every flavor of d20 product out there. Countless great games from the 90's suddenly had d20 variants, and everyone under the sun was predicting a golden age for RPGs. Then the market tanked and WotC started talking about 4th Edition. Ya, lets just say I don't remember the d20 era so fondly. Why?

Market homizination. Too much of the same everywhere. Mind you, that era gave us Green Ronin, Fantasy Flight Games, and a number of decent publishers that 'went big' in that era. But it also murdered countless non-d20 game lines, flooded the market with too many overpriced unplayable d20 clone books, and eventually tanked a lot of the small sellers who thought they had to have 1 of EVERY d20 product on their shelves. And worse, Hasbro looked at the deline of the d20 market and did silly things like kill the SRD for 4th Edition, tried to turn D&D into a online paywall market (almost an MMO, not mechanically but in market terms, model).

When I saw the d20 boom, I was excited too. But after a few months of reading the quality of the early d20 products I knew what I was really looking at. A fad. That's right, D&D had turned into a fad product. We had horrible movies about it? Check. We had pop culture chatting about it? Check. We had everyone trying to square peg the round hole by d20ing every old game under the sun/or every game concept into a d20 flavor? Check.

Welcome to bound to fail. Add in new markets in the MMO field, the Superhero movie boom, other mass media catching their attention as that generation of gamers grew up...and *POP* the fad died, the market crunched, and then we had a decade of people scrambling to capture new business.

And thankfully, I can say with out a doubt the market is STRONGER for the fall fo the d20 era. Look at it these days! We have classic systems like d100, Runequest, Metamorphosis Alpha, Open d6, Traveller all making comebacks with NEW product! We have new(er) systems out there GUMSHOE, FATE, Whatever they're calling Numenera/The Strange's system (Cipher?), AGE System (Dragon Age), The Warhammer 3e/StarWars EoTE system, you name it it's happening.

And it is GOOD! More options mean more choices for players and GM, it means competition in the market, it means new ideas and new writers, it means that if a product line dies there are a dozen more to pick from. Just like any other form of evolution, the RPG hobby must adapt or die. Thankfully it seem that much needed change is happening.

So the next time a naysayer says to you RPGs are dead. Tell them to pull their blinders off.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Never Enough Swank: Swankier Dungeons 2!

I'm going to make a series about Swankier Dungeons. Fair warning. XD

That said, lets talk about expanding your idea of what exactly is a dungeon and why Swank is important for these 'alternative dungeons' too.

The Super Villain HQ - Did you ever see the Cobra Base Playset? You should.

Say hello to the Terror Drome!

Now isn't that bloody awesome? A good Super Villain HQ is part Bond Villain base, part action playset, and all molded plastic action. Computers everywhere, secret doors, hidden bad guy gear, rec rooms, launch many launch bays. Ever wonder why Bad Guy organization X can field so many mooks? This is why! And let me tall you something, nothing feels quite so good as say taking on Xanatos in his Corporate Tower/Castle..oh wait, I'm talking about Disney's Gargoyles. But you get the idea right? No?

* Include a command room, make it nice and big with huge view screens. Odds are you main villain will have a command chair here where he lords over his minions.
* Place plenty of 'crew rooms' around the central part of the base. A great place to stow KOed baddies if you are being sneaky.
* Freaky Underground Labs where they are building new supervillians, have one break out when the PC's invade the base.
* LAUNCH BAYS! And bad guy crafts and such sitting around.
* Prison facilities for hostages.
* Death Traps!
* Bonus points if the Bad Guy base is mobile. Flying Carrier, dome, etc. Super sub.
* Self-Destruct systems. Obvious and dangerous. Why do they keep building these?

The Lost Colony - Go watch Aliens, take notes, pay MORE attention to the sets. Especially the layout!

Congrats on your space game. Be is Stars Without Number, Eclipse Phase, Traveller, and such you are now out among the stars only to be called down to investigate a colony world that has gone dark. Before you drop players into said colony it's time to think about what exactly they are going to run into.

Most colonies have a reason for being there. The colony from Aliens was a homestead world for farming. They had: Main building with admin, medical, and living quarters. A landing field for shuttles. A massive atmosphere terraforming system build by machines before the rest of the colony got there. This is essential! This is the building blocks for your space colony dungeon.

Other layouts might be like Dead Space: Giant Planet Cracker ship with refineries on board, including landing bays for ships, medical wings, and lots of engineering bays. A bridge with crew living quarters. And the lower mining colony with the massive Marker sitting there in a fresly dug out pit. All ripe for what comes next.

First you find out what the colony SHOULD look like. Then you infest/alter it!

Time to Zerg the place up! In Aliens, the Xenomorphs built a massive nest structure into the underbelly of the Terraforming system, right up against a massive reactor core! Yay fun! The rest of the colony now shows signs of battle, desperate attempts to secure the admin wing of the main building, and Newt turning the crawl ways into a secret tunnel system. Oh and if the players are feeling adventurous after dealing with the aliens, a massive crashed alien ship the next valley over. But...a disturbing lack of bodies, at least until they find the hive.

Or in Dead Space. All sorts of organic bio mechanical growths all over the Massive ship, alien living tendril 'things' in the main loading bays and reactors. Crasy piles of dead bodies everywhere that jump to life and attack you. Then below you have the Market, the slowly growing wall of flesh around it's base. Etc.

Mind you, colonies can die/change from more than nasty xeno infestations. Nano attacks, mad AIs, alien invasions. Again, think of HOW the setting gets altered by the hostile force. Give players partial information and then turn things on their head when they find the changes. LOADS of fun. Now if you want to do something more like a secure military location/colony that's a subject for a later blog. Swanker Dungeons 3: Swank Goes to War.

Temple Of The Mind - Ever play a psionic game? Or gone to the astral plane and wondered into the mind of a god? Hacked someones head trying to dig up information? Welcome to the Temple Of The Mind.

This is a play on the idea of mind palaces. A memory technique where people create a 'home' in their heads and they fill the home with memories, data, etc so they can walk through these memory palaces to pull up information they need. In this case the Temple is a structure built on the memories of the person who's mind you are inside.

A good Temple has the timeline of a person as wings of the building. More secure, of older memories locked up in dusty, or more dangerous locations. And the Temple is defended with memories of the person. A guild thief might have black clad attackers boil out of nowhere to back stab invaders. A hot decker mind have Black IC sitting there lording over paydate in their head.

The real risk is the active mind of the person you are inside. They might have a mental avatar fighting against you. Or they might 'hide' memories making parts of the Temple disappear or be VERY tricky to find entrance too. Worse, if actual brain damage happens while in there whole sections of memory (Temple) disappear! Nothing make me grumpier when a dying mans mind starts shutting down around me while I'm digging through his memories like a 2nd Storyman.

Mix it up with invading thoughts. Like 'mind control' from a badguy is in there ruling the place. You can team up with your 'zonked' buddy and battle the control to free them. An interesting experience for a player who suddenly has to face their demons in the form of memory attackers. It's a cool place to change up expectations. Just remember, you the only thing you can take form there is memories...or data. Nothing physical unless you are THAT good. (or have access to that kind of magic/tech.)

There you go. 3 Swanky examples to get your dungeon more interesting. Have fun!

Welcome to Left Field, the lesser known game issue.

So, you've had a bit of system burn out. Big popular game X has been on your plate for years and years and frankly, you want something new.

You go hunting and pecking around various places looking when you run across a new system (new being subjective to you) that looks fun, fast, weird, and exactly what you've been itching to play. one seems interested in playing it with you.

Welcome to Left Field. Or as I sometimes call it, the Land of Misfit RPGs.

There is a LOT of great undervalued RPGs out there. Sure they may not be as well supported, edited, or colorfully illustrated but they're all functional and interesting if you dig into them. Hell, I buy RPGs just for setting material some times. (See. GURPS, the grand high Poo-Baa of setting books. At least during the 3E era.) Sometimes I buy a variant rpg to rip ideas from it, d20/OSR cousins and d100 variants are perfect for any OSR or Runequest player will tell you.

The catch, the biggest catch, when it comes to these games is finding players. Man, nothing rips my love of a game out than not being able to play it. See my love and frustration with GURPS. Love the system, hard to find local players. But, if your heart is set on the game here is how you get the players attention way out in Left Field.

1. Be willing to play online. Yep, thanks to the internet you have the biggest game table of all time. Get a Roll20 account, find a friendly IRC server, G+Hangouts, SKYPE, whatever it takes. This has issues if said game is map heavy, but Roll20 is a good solution to fix this. I know a lot of gamers, myself included are not big into the online experience due to lack of real time face to face, but while you can't find enough players locally to run Game X, odds are you'll find enough online.

2. Be willing to sale the game. Learn the fine art of writing a pitch. Remember, a lot of players are coming at this cold. Just saying you are going to run XYZ setting isn't going to get you any players. Consider writing up possible "highlights" of the game. Take this for example:

"Come join us for Chronicles of the Void where it's Javelin on Javelin Brawling! Will your crew win in the Planet Null's Battle Arenas and make it off planet with the data cluster of your Aqasoo's lost family cache? Will the contact you reached out in the Neuro Labyrinth be willing to pony up on your competitions weakness? Only you can find out, but joining my game this week! 2-3 players WELCOME!"

Sound like a TV advertisement for a new show? Yep, that's exactly what it is. The best sales I've seen of a game sound like pitches for TV pilots. Play up the action, the roleplaying, whatever feature the game you are going to pitch has that you want the players to enjoy. Other good things to do is list off possible character types, play focus, make sure to showcase the game for the player. Better yet, if you can get the game for les than $5 in pdf somewhere like say FATE CORE, or such? Post links to get the pdfs!

3. Be willing to demo the game. Nothing gets new players like a good, free, low effort fast play. Seriously, cook up some pre-gen characters, offers 2-3 demo games either at a local game story or online and let players hope into character X and then showcase the system. Pare back the rules and do most the heavy lifting for these players. (After all, you make the pre-gens you should know what they can do.) Let the players ask questions, be helpful. Just run it like a con demo. Once you get a potential player interested, THEN make your ongoing game pitch. Also consider running demos to get more players for existing games.

4. Buy pdf copies for trusted players. This is my last and riskiest option. Say you have a friend who is a borderline potential players. As long as you can afford a pdf copy as a gift (say nothing over $10) then nab them a copy! I've found that pdfs carry some weight with players. While they might never guy a hard copy of game X, if they have the pdf they might be willing to roll up a character and play. Why buy a copy vs just sharing your pdf? This way the pdf is theirs, not yours. This is important, you are basically using the sunken cost fallacy as a player fishing trick. Weird as it sounds, it works.

Whatever you do, keep the pressure on. Be willing to showcase and teach the system. Let players make suggestions and listen to them. Spread the word with Let's Plays on the various forums! Raise awareness of the game! It's the only way to support the line and play the games you want to play.

Left Field sucks, but you can works your way out of it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Signature Settings and the GM Comfort Zones

Over the years when I wasn't running pre-packaged settings from various companies I would run my own homespun settings and genres. What I found was I had what I call "Signature Settings". These are genres and playstyles that sync up nicely with what I'm cozy with running a group on.

For me I had a few Sweet Spots:

Medium/Low Powered Urban Supers - This was just so easy to run. Come up with a reason why powers, dish in conspiracy, maybe some things like rival gangs, TV news, and lots of sneaking around with super powers. I ran SO man games of this using 3rd Edition GURPS, Heroic Tier HERO System in 5th Edition, M&M 2nd Edition, and a bit of D20 Modern when I could. It was cozy really. I loved what you could call post Iron Age, Modern heroic themes. Heroes were people, but still tried to do the right thing. They were NOT supermen, just exceptional and in danger from them selves and others. A lot like White Wolf's attempted Supers game Aberrant. (Which is kinda why I loved that game, if not it's system.)

Actually if you are a fan of TV series like HEROES, Alphas, Arrow, Agents of Shield, even Smallville. This was the kinda game I was running! It was modern enough so I didn't need to explain cultural clues, had powers which made characters interesting, and with a robust enough system I could make rulings on the fly. Good time, good times.

High Magic High Martial Arts Fantasy - Take one part D&D high magic setting, throw them against Wuxia Masters who can cut fireballs with their swords, add a dash of action trumps overplanning, and allow everyone to run around kung fu fighting. I did this setting using GURPS, HERO, and M&M (see a trend?). Supers mechanics worked best for this. Eventually I ran into Exalted which looked like this in a can. Only problem was Exalted (Storyteller 2.0's) mechanics were a carry over from the Trinity line days so had a LOT of issues with defence vs damage, ping, etc. So while I LOVED Exalted setting, mechanically it was a hassle.

There are not as many multi-media examples that match this that don't look like Chanbara or Kung Fu movies from Asia. I guess you could point at stuff like Lord of the Rings, but the power level was way too low. Gandolf made stuff glow and ummm.... Now there were a LOT of 80's cartoons that fit the bill. Pirates of Dark Waters, The Golden Lance, Thundarr the Barbarian, Thundercats, He-man, etc. So there was that.

And those two are my sweet spots. Ultimate comfort, ultimate fun for me as a GM. So how do you find these in yourself?

1. Don't be afraid to make up your own home brew setting using any rule set that works for you. Effect based systems are more friendly to experiment with, but if you can refigure the match on D&D spells to emulate your unique mystic mojo in game. Do it.

2. Go off the rails a lot when thinking up characters. You have to break your limits to know them. Do this in 2-4 session bursts. Then re figure characters and try again at lower power until you find the right 'fit'. This is also how you can come up robust character house rules.

3. Benchmark, Benchmark, Benchmark. You have to find where games break and think of solutions. I found out I liked the high marital arts fantasy when experimenting with GURPS by layering it's FULL magic and FULL marital arts systems together back in the early 90's. And for me, it worked! I had no issues. So down the line I knew I could handle that. I also discovered around the same time I hated world spanning supers games because of the inability to make the PC's feel invested.

A lot of this advice boils down to experimenting and experience. And that is exactly it. Be willing to break the default limits on games, take notes on what works and then try another variant. Over time you'll find you comfort zone. You won't need a pregen setting, just a rule set you like.

Pick up the books, and yammer out the back story to your players as they build characters. Eventually you'll be able to eyeball character gen and do it even faster.

And you will have fun playing in you comfort zone.

Just don't forget to stop, let others run, or try something else for a month or two. Just so you don't get in a GM rut.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PayDay 2...the best Shadowrun game that isn't. Or, welcome to the Heist!

I know I have weird titles, but I mean it. I started playing PayDay 2 recently on Steam and the VERY first thing that hit me was, I'm playing Shadowrun. Or more correctly, I'm playing a game that tells you what Shadowrun is minus the cyber and magic. I swear, give this team the Shadowrun license and ask them to do a first person, team based game where all you do is heists and extractions. We would be in heaven.

Remember my series of posts about my Big 4 of Gaming? Talking, Fighting, Making, and Taking. The Heist, or Heist games are the core of Take gaming. The very core.

Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020, Leverage, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, you name the system and I'll point out they all want to do Ocean's Eleven. But Heists games take a bit of special GM mentality so I'm going to talk about them.

A good heist is broken up into elements that GMs need to pay attention to:

1. The Loot. Money, information (paydata), people, it doesn't matter what it is. What matters is it's precious to someone and you have to claim it. Coming up with Loot is job one. Mind you, it can be a set up and there is NO loot, but don't do that too often. Odds are the Players will want to see the Loot (legally) or do some level of recon to confirm their target is in range.

2. The Assets. These are a list of things the players can turn to their advantage. Rooftop access, bribable guards, sewer access, older security system, inside man who gives intel. Make sure you sit down and write up a list of assets. The player may not find all of them, but they should be there and give situational bonuses if/when the players use them. It doesn't matter what the setting. Modern guards, fantasy guardsmen, a dungeon sewer, a city public works vent. It all amounts to the same. Just keep in mind things like Magic/ultratech add new layers of asset options.

3. The Hazards. This is what the players fixate on first. Good Guards, security systems, dogs, traps, puzzles, or "time till police" counts. All the negative things that work against the players. If you are writing up your heist situation do one list of assets and one of hazards. The ratio of risk/reward determines the difficulty of the heist. If the Risk is too high, up the Look reward to make it worth it to the players. Otherwise, they'll walk away from it.

4. The Team. This is mostly players and their characters, but sometimes it is not! NPCs play a big roll in getting a Heist to work. Contacts are A#1 here. Make sure that some form of contact, info broker, or ally on the inside is present. Sure the intel may be sketch, but it's more useful to have an NPC give them aid than just handing them things. Hirelings factor in too! Hiring a good team of support cast is a BIG boost to OD&D to early 2nd Edition AD&D days. OSR players know this as gospel.

5. The Plan. Welcome to the brass tacks folks. This is the make it or break it. Once the PC's have the intel, the gear, the objective and the time to pull of the heist mission. They plan...and plan, and plan, and plan. Player planning sessions have eaten whole gaming sessions. And you know what? This. Is. Fine. Let the players plan. While they do this take notes. Write down a list of things that might cause them to change the plan. And if they are planning correctly they'll have Plan B's and fall back points if tings don't go quite as planed. Speaking of problems.

6. The Randomness. A very important factor. A good heist has randomness to it. Guard shifts his patrol at the last minute. A NPC kid spots the gear the team is sneaking. Or maybe the pass code for the safe got changed. Think up a half a dozen of potential problems, or go crazy with "wondering heist problem" table and roll up weird events at critical junctures. Just don't over do it. Randomness is great once or twice during a mission. But if EVERYTHING goes wrong no matter how good the planning, well that's just a GM being mean! Allow the player's Plan B's to work.

So my fellow crooks and conspirators. Let's make some bank. The heist is tonight at midnight. You all know your places? Good, lets do this.

Game on.

Dealing with my own biases.

Coming off my Fantasy post previously, I had to face a few things. I have strong biases as to the type of game I'm looking for and sometimes they detract from me enjoying exactly what I might need.

Let's talk GURPS. I was wrong. Very wrong. Everything I know about GURPS is 3rd Edition. I have a full collection of 4E books and they are just sitting there on my shelf for the the last, gods, 9 years. 9 years and I haven't played GURPS because when 4E came out my groups changed. I casually read the updated books and thought "I'll eventually play this." But I haven't. So I was wrong in my understanding. There is no more Passive Defence, they wrote rules into handle escalating skills, and getting killed is not as easy as it use to be. But in my mind's eye I still see GURPS in 3E term, with all the warts and issues.

How much do you want to bet my understanding of HERO 6th isn't that much different? Since I stopped playing when 6th came out.

The biggest obstruction to me enjoying a good game is ME. Sometimes I'm too much of a gronard for my own good. I had a bias in mind wen I was looking for a new Fantasy game. And no matter what other people would offer me, no matter the explanations my bias sat there in my head and heart saying "No. I want THIS." The problem? "This" was a non-reality. I had no idea what "this" was. I was really waiting for something to catch my attention and make me enjoy it. What a horrible backwards unproductive way to go about looking for games.

But it is what it is. We all have to live with our biases.

I don't like FATE very much, but I have a copy of FATE Core. Why? Because it's so well loved I keep hoping someone will run a game and give me a taste of WHY they like it so much. I can't see that reading the book myself, but I WANT to find that love. I'm sure there is a FATE game out there one day with my name on it. Haven't found it, or it hasn't found me. But I'll give it a chance when it does.

Truth be told, I should give more games a chance. Tim Kirk pointed me to High Valor a new RPG of his and I'm going to give it a look. Even though I can't look at the cover and help think Manzinger is a Fane-Lord. I'm sorry, I can't unsee it.

And hell, I know I said no levels, but maybe I should give Dungeon Crawl Classics and 13th Age another look, no?

Even though I did ready 13th Age and found the setting lacking, the rules were serviceable enough.

It's a Catch 22 sometimes, you can so easily blind yourself by setting to harsh of limitations on what you will try to play or offer to your group. But if you don't set boundaries you'll never have time to run them all.

And biases are there for a reason. They just shouldn't rule your gaming life.

Now if only I can take my own advice, no?

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Fantasy Slump: Or Trying to Find the Right Fit

Sometimes I have a hard time finding a good fit for what I want. Especially when my system desires run afoul of my setting needs. And then what happens is massive GM headbanging with out the joys of music.

So, what happened recently (besides trying to buy a house, always kills my free blogging time) is I've hit a Fantasy Slump. I've grown tired of Pathfinder breaking down past level 10, and well tired of level based mechanics in general. Mind you, I LOVE Pathfinder's wide selection of class options, the setting to play with, etc. But, it's getting a bit tiresome when it breaks in the same places.

So I started looking around for something new, something interesting to try out. And I hit a wall.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is fine but takes a LOT of Player heavy lifting if they don't grok GURPS logic. Add to that the glass (hydrogen) ninja issue of skills going past 18 causing people to explode if anything goes past their defences. I like the range of 'build' this, but need a group to kick in the time to build. That's the Biggest hitch with generic systems.

Fantasy HERO gives me the issue of trying to make sense of effect based mechanics in building a unique enough magic system and world rules. It's not the end of the world, but it can be a turn off if you are low on GM prep time.

So rather than bounce around I had to set rules for myself. (And ask friends their opinions) And well over time I started to get a picture of what I wanted.

1. A robust skill based system.
2. Options for tactical combat (but not requiring miniatures), and tactical combat is NOT dominated by magic.
3. No levels!
4. Flexible character options for combat and non-combat.
5. Skill/knowledged based magic.
6. Medium to low prep time.

And I came up with a few suprising options afer asking around:

1. HARP - The "not quite Rolemaster" HARP is fast, has a much streamlined crit table system and flexible enough magic. If you include the College of Magic book that came out recently my options double, and melee/ranged combat is not dominated by the Fireball. A good sword swing or arrow to the eye will still win the day!

2. Arrowflight 2E - This was one of my 'left-field' options but after talking to Dan the admin of the rpgnet IRC board the option looks legit. It has martial arts, multiple combat styles, custom magic styles, and fun takes on fantasy races. Combat looks interesting.

3. Runequest 6/Magic World - Just a matter of taste in complexity. I'm not big on Legend (aka Mongooses take on the same) but I'm cool with classic Runequest or Magic World's (Elric) inspired engines.

4. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy - Still a valid choice and I might have a chance of selling it to players. I'd have to keep an eye on 4E mechanically, but I know GURPS well enough the down time for relearning things won't be so long.

5. Fantasy HERO - Still a valid choice as well. Just harder sell than GURPS and I don't know how much building I'm inthe mood to do. (See buying House.)

So now comes the fun part, asking my players what they will or will not do.

So it's how I've solved my issue, kinda.

When trying to find a good fit for yourself pick a game that fits you tolerance for GM prep, combat complexity, and pay attention to flexibility to change the game to suit you needs. Make a list of priorities and then measure the systems versus this. You'll find it a lot easier than just random guessing. Mind you, asking for options to this list will give you a LOT false leads, but eventually you'll find a left field option you didn't think of. See me and Arrowflight 2E.

So keep your mind open, but have standards.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Center Cannot Hold: The Zany Threshold

Games fall apart for many reasons. I've had my share of bad gaming experiences, some caused by my inexperience as a GM some caused by the players. But I've noticed a few trends and I would like to talk about them. This is my The Center Cannot Hold series of topics. Why games fail.

The first issue is what I call the Zany Threshold.

What I'm talking about is that moment when a game breaks down in to meta humor, jokes about the setting, the game itself, etc. This is triggered by a number of reasons, either the game took a weird turn, the mechanics broke in some spectacular fashion, or player choices bend the credibility of the campaign beyond normal expected bounds.

Folks also describe this as Verisimilitude, but it's more complicated than that what we're talking about is each groups threshold for crazy behavior and strange in jokes. And keep in mind it depends on game to game. Some like Paranoia and TOON have the threshold set so low it might as not even be there, but others like Shadowrun, 40K, etc set the bar much, much higher. It's both the GMs and the players job to pay attention to the required atmosphere to run the game. In fact you could call it a failure of atmosphere more than anything else.

Let's look at 2 things. How do you gauge the Zany Threshold and then look at what causes it to be breached.

Measuring the Zany tolerance of a game is a 2 part process. The first is always the group itself. How comfortable is the WHOLE group around each other? Be careful to judge that everyone is cozy and happy if only 2-3 players do all the banter and the quiet few sit away from the others and really only talk during character actions. That's warning 1 that you have a low threshold right there. Character focused players HATE, HATE the game breaking down into mega in jokes and banter when in character actions could be going on. There has to be a balance, but if you keep breaking the mood for joviality and weird in game wackiness then you are going to loose them.

The other warning sign is when a group gets defensive about what's going on in a game. What I mean by this, is does the group get irritated when the story is moving along and they keep stressing they want to see what happens next, or they want whatever the current plot and event to played out. Sudden bait and switch wacky events will NOT go over well. Avoid changing the tone to harshly in the middle of the game to avoid irritating your whole group.

The next things to consider is the type of game you are playing. You'll noticed I mentioned 40K earlier, well, it's a weird corner case. Part of the reason why the 40K universe works is the constant black comedy it oozes. Black Comedy however requires a strong element of timing, strait playing, and then hard wham lines and events that sink in the depravity and weirdness of the universe. It's all to easy to screw up the mood and turn it into Ghostbusters with Chainguns. That's not going to work for setting purists, or those who enjoy the grimdark.

Games themselves can be flexible depending on the variant of the rules you are playing with. A serious game of GURPS Fantasy set in Yrth is way different than GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or even GURPS IOU. The game goes with different WOD games. One of the biggest issues I had with the end of oWOD line wasa the shoehorning of MAGE into the Vampire Gothic motif. MAGE, Vampire, and Werewolf had 3 very unique flavors. And it seemed the developers at WhiteWolf didn't understand that toward the beginning of the revised oWOD era, in a way the removed the needed Zaniness of the MAGE line which broke the threshold for players who sought MAGEs optional lightheartedness vs the rest of the lines darker overtones. But MAGE oWOD vs nWOD is a topic for another day.

On a personal game note, I've had Zany issues with games like Shadowrun where the Orc and Bug City jokes got a little too thick one game causing the focus to break down making events crawl. The Tolerance level was low for many of the players, but the disruptive few were causing it to be un-enjoyable. Same goes for a few D&D4E session when jokes by a duo of Han/Solo style players. THEY were having fun, the rest of the group was seething.

This is were the Chaotic Stupid/Lawful Stupid attention keeper players tend to push the boundaries way to often. A classic minefield of players ruining it for other players.

Still, figure out what your groups Threshold is and you can enjoy the table humor. Just not too much, not too little. Just right!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Monty Hall vs Iron Chef...dealing with rewards.

One of the classic issues that can come up in a game is the Monty Hall syndrome. Basically the party collects SO many rewards and gear they don't need anymore. Or if they find a new item it gets thrown in the pile never to be used, or to later quickly be turned into money. (For those rare few that don't know what Monty Hall refers too, it's a call back to the Let's Make A Deal gameshow. Implying that the players can trade prizes for greater rewards and goodies if they take what's behind door # 2, etc.)

My solution to this issue originally was to use a different system than D&D (where the problem originated from). Which for the most part worked because games like GURPS and HERO had way different power economies that relied more on the players creativity to use their points and background bonuses to meet the needs of the game. 4E D&D tried to fix it by enforcing itemization at a balanced rate, but later recanted in the DMG 2 and offered non-item stat rewards that did more or less the same.

In the end the problem came down to an imbalance in raw utility of the items vs the need in the universe. Once you hit a point of diminishing returns on things like raw +1s and movement items what's the point? It's just window dressing then. You overpower your foe and move on.

Which is when I hit upon the solution to my problem. I need to tackle itemization like Iron Chef.

Iron Chef?

Yep. The idea is pretty simple. You give the players raw material. Now I'm expressly NOT talking about 4E's residium nonsense, that's to easy. You need to give them in D&D terms masterwork raw materials and quests and optional goals to find the enchantments to power up the items. This is not to dissimilar to how GURPS or other enchantment systems work. The potential for the upgrade is there with the character, but unlike them finding random items that may or may not fit their theme (and most players have a theme for their character) you give them the direction the must go to customize. So like Iron Chef, you get an ingredient and the tools to make what you want, but have to adapt to what the ingredients is each day.

It's like you find a chest full of adamantium ingots. No one locally can forge them for you, but you hear of a smith in the capital...and it just so happens to be near where your contact is waiting. Or maybe you find scrolls with spells, and a blank book to scribe them into. Etc, etc. This also works in non-D&D games. Like finding fuel rods, or weapons kits to upgrade you weapons later.

The trick is every once and a while something complete needs to show up. This adds that zest of randomness to the game and makes it NOT feel like Planet Ikea.

That said, this runs into problems if the players don't have the skill to know what they are finding. Appraise and Craft skills are very useful in these kinds of games so make sure warn the players. There is nothing more frustrating than picking up random materials and not knowing what to do with them.

This can get a little out of hand though. In some games where salvage from monsters and broken items becomes useful players will go skinning EVERY dragon they slay, they'll rip the bark off trees, and generally go around harvesting the world like klepto-locusts. But hey, if they are having fun, let them do it.

It gets even better if you give them possible options for item creation from the raw materials they are collecting. Bat wings mixed with the ruby of Yarl, and the strange sky metal rod might make a wand that drains health, etc. Be creative and have fun giving them 'discovered' recipes. Half the fun as a GM at that point will be coming up with strange item mixes!

Now if you'll pardon me. That apple looks delicious!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

System Emulation and the Dirtest GM Trick

Update becaue I don't want to get into a semantics fight: No system is robust to handle ALL situations. No GM can think of all player interactions ahead of time. Sometimes you have to wing it, but do so in the spirit of the rules. It is not cheating the players in the classic sense, it's keeping the game going by understanding the mechanics behind the rest of the system. It's common. I don't understand people who say they don't do this, but then talk for hours about house rules and home brew. I'm just talking about doing it faster and on the fly.

Been a GM for a while? Let me ask you a question, do you cheat? Do you cheat a LOT to make the game flow nicer when the system get in the way? Do you learn a rule framework well enough that you can make instant judgement calls and situational rules breaks just so it's more fun for the group? Have you figured out the right balance of just making stuff up but giving the players a sense of impact in a fictional world?

No? Then you must be new, or a stickler to the By the Book ideology.

For the rest of us, it's all about system/setting emulation and the fine art of "close enough". Yep, you are literally making stuff up that doesn't exist on the fly just for the sake of the game.

What am I talking about?

GM's who spend a LOT of time reading, playing a game system being to internalize the logic of the game. We see the overall framework the game is hung form that the developers used when creating it. If need by once that level of familiarity is hit we can make up foes, attacks, effects on the fly that are "close enough" to the game that players don't notice or care that it's on the fly nonsense and they enjoy that session's twists and changes. What you make isn't rules legal, but fakes being so well enough the players don't notice...much.

Some games have their framework naked for players. GURPS and HERO are two prime examples. Once you learn the core system you learn the framework and it's easy to bs a foe or event. Other games are more obscure.

D&D 3.X/Pathfinder is a classic example. Problem events like Save or Suck/Die spells, CoDzillas, and such are because there are optimal choices buried in the fluff and charop (character optimization) players and GM find them and can abuse or use them to their liking. This is why people talk about the "sweet spot" of 3.X play being around the 5-10 range level wise. it's in that cozy middle ground where the player options and GM options are mostly balanced and you haven't hit the rocket tag, instant death situations.

When playing ANY game system a GM has to dedicated a lot of time learning the ins and outs of how system interacts with players. GM's develop signature system and mechanical sub-systems they are cozy with.

Like in my case I grew up deep in the world of GURPS 3rd Edition. I 'grok' generic or generic enough system. This translates into me deconstructing games like D&D, L5R, and such mechanically so I can have a feel for the break points in the logic. Games with more crunch like Exalted, Star Wars EoTE, Shadowrun etc are more my cup of tea. I have serious issues with more narrative games like FATE, Cortex+, and the like because I don't see where the mechanics plug into the characters. I loose my world emulation feel and it's VERY HARD for me to wing it in those games. Bugs me to no end. Dungeon World is a cozier middle ground because of the naked mechanical subsystem at work behind it.

That's me.

Other GM's have their own tastes and systems of choice. If you find a GM who's run for a long time and they have the right mix of tight rules calls and decent bs hiding going on, they you should be in for a great time.

I'm cultivating that skill set with Pathfinder and OSR games.

I have it DOWN with games like GURPS/HERO.

I'm loosing it with games like Exalted and NWOD from lack of use.

Good GM bsing on stats is a skill you use or loose. So my GURPS is rusty but my HERO is more solid. Given time I'll have Pathfinder mastered but will need refreshers in other system.

I'm going to keep learning mechanics and pulling stuff out of ether for my players because it's fun.

learn the mechanics and the system logic so you are better at making stuff up on the fly. Players will thank you for it if you can do it like any good stage magician.

Smoke, Dice, and Mirrors.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Michael Bay School of GMing.

You've seen a Bay movie I hope? Stuff like random chase scenes, explosions for the sake of COOL, and random sexy bits mixed with frantic action with a plot held together with sticky tape and a prayer? It's not very intellectual, but it's damn fun for a few hours of mindless explodium fun.

The funny thing, in roleplaying you can use the Bay-logic as I call it to spice of a slow sessions. This use to be called "Shot and Roll Dice" but it's a bit more complex than that, at least at first. Let me break down a good Bay-logic injection into a game:

1. There has to be an existing setting. Something like a solid foundation. The reason why Bay movies don't fall completely apart is he takes an established fan base (or trope) and then goes wonky with it. So like the Transfomers fandom and franchise. There were already established fans, people who are invested and will over look some of the derps in logic for the sake of cool. (There IS a limit to this and gronards will get pissy if you do it all the time much like Bay, but we're just talking about the occasional Bay moment.) So if I was going to do it in a RP I might take Forgotten Realms, or an established game I spent some sessions building up around.

This doesn't work in already Bay-exploded settings like Exalted or Paranoia. But stuff like Shadowrun, or L5R, you'll have jaws hitting the floor. Just keep that in mind.

2. Next is pacing. The first rule is: Don't give the PC's time to plan beyond their next action. You need to put pauses in the action, but these are forced breaks. Like a very solidly set "your character's have 10 minutes to rest", or the car trip is an hour long and no one has caught onto you yet, do you want to nap? Stuff like that. Make sure you set hard defined limits on down time. Do NOT give the PC's more than a few hours of non-action. Avoid giving them time to plan traps, counter attacks, etc.

3. Start with an explosion. It doesn't have to literally be something blowing up, but that helps. It can be an assassination, like a friendly NPC suddenly gets a dozen arrows in his back and the city guard blames them! Or anything with an obvious physical thread to their characters or property. (Or NPC's under their protection.) Remember, it's action movie logic. You can have ninja dropping from the roof if you have too, the point is to up the pressure in controlled burst to get the PC's moving. Give them a possible 'safe' zone they can run too. Out of the City, an old ally's place, safe house, etc.

Got the party running? Good, ready for the next part? WHY DO THIS?

Here's the reason why Bay-logic can be useful.

1. The Group is stuck in an adventure and you need to push them towards the next clue or NPC that will update the game. Giving them an injection of ACTION will get them excited even if later action slows down to more logical and skill based exploring/research. Great for early GUMSHOE sessions!

2. As a drum up for major NPC foe introduction! Having a sudden attack, chase scene is great for setting up why NPC X is dangerous to the group.

3. To throw them off a clue! Do the reverse, if the group is solving your puzzle too fast, throw in a random event like this to make them get distracted for an hour or two. Especially if you are padding a night's session. Let them figure out what npc's later had it out for them. You'll need to be flexible to write in the reason for the attack logically later. But for now, it's a nice way to let the PC's show off and get away, or fight off an attack and then pull out their PRO hats and solve why it happened.

4. Kill of NPC Y. Need to kill off an NPC? Is the PC's pet NPC helping them too much in this adventure and you want to motivate them to solve a problem on their own? Assassination action chase scene with clues as to who did it is a great way to motivate them. But WARNING! If you do this, allow the PC's some form of revenge down the road. Let them arrest, kill, undermine the NPC faction who Bay'ed them.

Bay-logic is a short term action movie trope that's a great little tool to give the PC's a slap to the narrative face. The explosions don't make sense when they happen, you are focusing on the action of the moment. Allow the PC's to come up with solutions as to why and then MAKE IT REAL! Or, maybe just give vague hints and turn it into a plot for a later follow up adventure. Yes, I'm saying plot padding can turn into a main plot later.

Michael Bay...kind of Throwing Dice and Shouting! Who knew eh?

The Swankier Dungeons!

It's all just brick walls and mold everywhere! Oh Noooo!

I feel like so many DM's need a Queer Eye for the Strait Guy on their dungeon designs.

Basements, tunnels, and larger cavern structures are fun but what we need is more tombs filled with pictographs, natural formations jutting through structures, actively used old buildings with local friendly or no natives to deal with. Or just take a moment to think what was the roll of the Dungeon before it became what it is today.

Lets talk about layout:
I see a lot of dungeons have a hap hazard design. Like the person just HAD to fill in the grid map. Which is fine, but consider living in that place, much less using it. Who the heck has maze like hallways unless the dungeon was specifically designed as a labyrinth to fool invaders. And if that is the case did the designer ever put in road marker clues just so THEY wouldn't get lost? What if the dungeon was a specific use like an old prison? Wouldn't large open work yards and smaller cells make more sense? What about guard rooms and facilities for them? And if it is a castles treasure room, where is the layers or protection, hallways suck at this.

When thinking up a dungeon's lay out look at the entrance, and local buildings. Think about what had to be pulled in and out of there and what the designers would do to get the most out of it. it can be dank...sure...but why? Why not have someone clean it here and there. Have Orc guards keeping an eye on well lighted areas. Have peek holes, and hidden supply closets, etc. What if it was just a mass elaborate trap?! You have to consider these things.

Take a minute or two to ask yourself the following -

What was this dungeon used for?
Is it maintained?
What structures would be useful for it's previous owners?

Now lets talk about location:

I guess it's easy to build a dungeon under a castle or into a mountain. But what happens if you are in a desert? Or if you have a massive island nearby? Or if you want to hide it in a city?!

Location, Location, Location!

The classic dungeon tends to be located in crypts, keeps, mountains, etc. Look at a lot of the art of the dungeon itself and you wonder if you are trying to traverse the fantasy version of the Maginot Line (note to self...) with all the weird interconnected tunnels and rooms. But environmentally you have other options. Look at Pathfinder's ruins from the Runelords. One dungeon is under a massive bridge complex, another is a giant face carved into a mountain like something out of Zardoz, and there is my all time favorite scratched space ship. (Which D&D did first, yes and it was a damn good module.)

But also look at JRPG games to see Dungeons that run from large crystal caverns, weird old techno ruins, the living guts of a massive boss, floating sky castles, and other fun and dangerous variations. The better dungeons I've played in really cranked up the environmental hazards around and inside the dungeon itself. Half Flooded? Suspended over lava! Go for it.

Finally it's more than just window dressing:

Good Dungeons live and breath based on the elements you use to describe them. Lets look at Earthdawn a moment. The idea behind Earthdawn was to cook up a setting that took all the tropes of your classic D&D setting and give them a semi-logical reason behind them. The Horrors taking on the world, the massive underground cities, the strange casting mechanics, etc. But what sells the setting is the Kaers themselves, the massive underground city shelters that civilization used to avoid the horrors. All the adventures into one detail the actual layout of a real town full of people. There is something very FALLOUT like about the descriptions, magical support (life support) rooms, artificial light gardens, tunnel warrens of homes, community centers, and then they invert it into horror when one of the demon-like Horrors (big H here) breaks in, undeads everyone and runs the Kaer like their own puppet theater. And you get to enter into this. Right there, just the creepy effect of "people actually use to LIVE here" ups the tension, make the classic dungeon 100% nastier, and keeps the players on edge.

Other good descriptions include actual real world ruins. Did you know Egyptian tombs actually have traces of paint on the way over the hieroglyphics? Or imagine running across orc cave paintings like the early human works found in caves? Mix in things like Mayan Sacrifice pools, maybe a dash of ball courts, and a pyramid INSIDE another pyramid (common practice!), and things get a LOT more interesting.

The classic 10x10 room has it's place in D&D history and it's always fun to run into a classic Tomb of Horrors or Undermountain, but they do get boring. Keep trying to spice up your underworlds, your castles by keeping the suggestions in mind. It will spice things up a little and improve players expectations.

And make things Swanky!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stars Without Number and Starbound

Welcome to my dream game.

Are you a fan of the open world explore/build style games like Minecraft or Terraria?

Have you heard of Starbound?

In a nutshell, you play a member of 6 (7 now) races who are exiled from their homeworld for various reasons. They have a ship, a mining tool, and precious little else. They travel around finding random planets, weird monsters, lost gears, and mine/build/and survive their way to a new micro civilization.

I love these kinds of games. I also love Sandboxy Space games like Traveller and Stars Without Number.

See a theme here?

Well, I've been pondering a mix of Kingmaker (Pathfinder fame) mixed with SWN using the theme of a game like Starbound. Land on a world, fight monsters and pirates, set up a colony, manage and grow it, and eventually take on those that cast you out from your homeworld.

The cool thing is SWN supports loads of random world generation. You can find space ports, civilizations in various stages in development, lost relic tech gear, etc. And it's all very easy to run since it uses the OSR base.

The only thing I'd have to crib up is a base resource management tree. Something to track how much gear and or material the group has to spend at one time. This is where the Ultimate Campaign book from Pathfinder comes in. They have a Kingdom building rule system. (And a base building option) All I need to to is translate the credits into resources of a techier setting and some of the structures need to be updated to space friendly options. Tada!

And if I wanted to get tricky I could throw in Other Dust's ruined city rules!

Mix and enjoy the space exploration and building!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Games I Play, Games I Collect.

So, how about a bit more about what Joe's doing these days? I'm an avid gamer and I love all sorts of games. I can give you a guided tour of my TMNT, Cyberpunk days later, but lets talk about the here and now. I buy a lot of games, sure more pdfs today, but in the end either via tablet or print I have a lot of material to play with. (Note, I've been migrating what I can to pdfs, but some stuff I want print material...just because it's hard to share a tablet mid game. And I don't like lending my peeve.)



Pathfinder -

I've actually GMing Jade Regent of late. Been running that adventure path around a year or so. A lot of the exploits of my "CRISIS ENTRY" style players comes from this game. They just LOVE entering dungeons backwards, or from the side, or they just knock down walls. I enjoy running this game but run into the typical high level Pathfinder system issues of rocket tag, and keeping various saves etc up to date on characters. Combat can get crazy when you have 4+ buffs going on timers and various status effects in play. My advice. 3X5 cards with the spell buffs so the players cna keep at tally on what's on the 'field' so to speak.

For me Pathfinder is a continuation of what I liked about 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons. I was enjoying the game at it's height of Eberon, Psionics, and all the bells and whistles turned on. I really didn't even LOOK at Pathfinder until I heard about the Advanced Players Guide with the new classes. It was around then that it looked tempting and boy was I happy I did pick it up. I understand the mechanics, warts and all, and can make the most of the setting they give us.

I most look forward to new classes with the Advanced Class Guide and the upcoming adventure path Iron Gods. Because honestly I was MADE for a game inspired by Thundarr The Barbarian. It's my thing you see.

Deathwatch -

Not really MY kinda game. But I like the players and it's about the only time I get to see this group of friends. The game itself is fine, but the 40K universe gives me the willies sometimes. Then again I get to play a mean Iron Hands Tech Marine who walks around shutting down NPCs asking obnoxious questions. "So, will you tell me what's going on here?" Me: "NO." Then I watch the GM chuckle and the NPC get flustered as they try to get information out of the rest of the party. They are more than happy to have my guy act like the bore so they can do their usual barge in and ask questions later style.

Mechanically the game is functional, but I prefer OTHER FFG products which I'll get too.


Stars Without Number -

There is just something about SWN. The right blend of OSR and Traveller. It's easy to use and it's sandbox mechanics do a decent job of running a society sim. I'd love to see a program that allowed for societies to be rolled up and to give them a 'rough' AI based on their ideology just to see what happens as the timetable plays out. The rules for combat are OSR brutal, but the mystery is there. It is basically a near perfect deep space sandbox sim and I wish there were more games like that these days.


My big go-to. Or it use to be. I use to play SO MUCH GURPS. Back in 3E my goal was to have ALL THE BOOKS, and I nearly did. But 4E came along and I slowly dropped everything and picked up the new rules. This thought me 2 very important lessons. You often do NOT need every book in a game line to enjoy the game. The core rules are what matters, and just ow flexible they are in play. And...getting rid of the old for the new isn't always the best option. You see, while I HAD all the 4E books I haven't used them in close to a decade. That's bewildering. But my 3E books, I could play them blind. I had internalized the rules so much. 4E is similar but different enough to throw me off in places. Lack of use with the big G is saddening.

Legend of the Five Rings -

4E is SO pretty. And it was my first power isn't everything game. It told me social mechanics are not a bad word and living forever in character terms is meaningless if you can die well. So, I still pick up the books slowly. Once 4E ends I'm not bothering with 5E. I'm going to own an edition and be done.

Mutants and Masterminds 3E -

Just in case I start playing supers games again. If anyone remember my Meanwhile podcast you'll understand how profound that statement is. I LOVE supers but I don't need to play them all the time. I use to have a LOT of the 5E Hero System books and 6E all but killed my interest. I picked up Champions Complete and called it a day. 3e M&M is light weight enough to play with that I can bend it to my will. Even though I dislike the d20 mechanics and M&M's stun lock death spiral combat.

I have more than this, but I'm not dedicated to them. Mostly pdfs and such these days.

I might add Exalted 3E to that list of must haves. But we'll talk about that...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Problem Player Series: Along came a Joker.


As in the DC Comics, Batman villain of the same name.

That horrible halfway point between Loonie and Power Gamer.

In PC terms they are about as close as you can be to the "Boss" of Saints Row with out falling into pure camp. (And some do fall into camp.)

What I'm talking about is a type of player, and player behavior, that is THE most destructive to the enjoyment of a game outside of real life drama. It's the player who has no investment in the game or the setting. They are willing to ruin other players fun just because they can. A lapse of compassion devolves into the worst kind of Solipsism. This goes WORLDS beyond my Grand Theft Morality. Welcome to a player character psychotic break.

So what causes it?

Well, in the case of usually good players it could be boredom mixed with a lack of consideration for the rest of the group. If suddenly a normally rational player starts murdering NPCS, or botching missions with lame excuses as to WHY, then it might be time to pause the game and ask the player what is wrong. Often they didn't consider the long term impact of their actions might ruin the fun for others. Worse if the behavior is started by a group of players, say 2-3, and it derails the game in ways that don't seem logical. This campaign hijacking might be claimed to be "in character", but honestly if the character is that caustic to the idea of going along with the rest of the group...why are they even there? Again, stop the game and ask the player whats going on.

Those are the more typical, reasonable issues where a little GM tending of your flock can fix most things.

Then you get the jerks, the pure numbskulls who just like causing chaos in games.

The BIG difference with these guys is it's habitual. You'll have a few cases of 'wtf'ery followed by hollow excuses. Then the next session it happens again, and it escalates. You can tell it's happening because the problem player is testing you, the GMs, boundaries. Each time upping the ante on just what they're trying to get away with. NPC murder, and theft, mission derailment, inner party bickering, etc, etc. And it just keeps happening.

That alone should have caused you as a GM to pause and ask them what's going on. And odds are they said, "Sorry, just having fun. I'll tone it back." and then they don't. Congrats, you have the worse kind of problem player. These types are rare, since this kind of griefing is easier to pull off on FPS games or MMOs and they get a faster 'buzz' of trolling another group. The real monsters are the ones who want a challenge and seek out groups of players to ruin and troll the player.

There really isn't any way to redeem these types, I'd suggest you just kick them from your game. It may be painful if they are friends with other players, but DON'T PUT UP WITH IT. You wouldn't want them around if you were playing chess and they kept knocking the pieces over, or you wouldn't want them there to watch a movie if they kept spoiling the plot or talking in the good parts. Same thing here, they are ruining the fun for the group.

Now I've heard that some younger players don't know that the behavior is mean, and they might be turned around. But at some point you have to draw a mental line. If the player keeps crossing it, call it.

The Joker isn't there to make you laugh, he's not there for your fun. He just wants to see you suffer, and your game goes up in flames. Just for the luz.

Batman had it wrong. The best way to beat the Joker? Laugh at him and stop playing his game.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Player Bait! Time To Reel' em In!

Plot dragging? Need to get player X into situation Z to help the rest of the group? Player turtling up in game because they don't want to get their new toys hurt (or themselves)?

Than good GM's it sounds like you need PLAYER BAIT! (tm)

Welcome to the fine art of baiting (in a good way) players into playing.

To properly player bait you need to track 2 elements in play.

The first is the character's motivation. If you are playing a classic dungeon romp game odds are there is a piece of equipment or a spell, or some class based motivation your character is seeking. Some players will just flat out tell you what they want. Others will telegraph during the game. Mind you this gets more complex in games with romance, social, or honor based plots. Sometimes the players WANT TO LOSE, but do so in a fittingly dramatic and awesome manner. Remember GM's don't be afraid to fail...with style!

The second is trickier. You need to track a player's motivation. One way to start this process is to catalog what type of player you THINK they are. (This is only for early guesses. Players are people are more complex than stereotype, but yes...I'm basically asking you to profile your players. You'll see why.) So if the player is a Builder then they tend to make things, build castles, relationships, etc. Others might be Slashers and only crave murder and bounties. Some are more chatty look to RP in character. Take quiet notes as to your guess at their top 3 motivation. This is just a guess based on your experience with them. If your guess doesn't pan out in later steps, guess again and keep experimenting with the player. You'll eventually find out what they like. Profile them as players NOT as people, duh.

Now comes the fun part. Link up the Character to Player motivations to tailor the right plot bait.

So lets give a few quick and dirty examples.

Character is Sneaky Thief and Enjoys anything dealing with getting riches or rare items for his collection; Player is introverted and worried about exposing his characters to violence, but likes doing plotting with other players. =

Player is approached by art dealer who is looking to unload a questionable artifact IF the player helps them to do this they'll get the artifact by cheating a buyer, or money by not cheating them. Either way, player has a chance to win and will risk himself a little for the prize.

It's in the comfort zone of the player. It's what they like to do and matches up with character.

Now lets get more complex:

Character is a powerful diplomat with ties to many clans. His favor seems to be to his mistress but it's doomed to failure because honor demands he marry this rival's daughter; Player is a go-get em adventure junkie 90% of the time and this time is playing a diplomat character in a very GUNG-HO manner against the traditions just for a lark. =

This player does NOT want to fail. They want to buck the odds and marry the mistress. I need to offer them a way out, a way to turn the rival to their side with out needing a marriage. Perhaps he can foil an assassination, or barter for another even bitter rival to offer peace at the price of marriage. Either way, having the character loose and die romantically isn't in the cards.

You have to play it close to the vest but over time you'll be able to read a player pretty closely. Give IN to their play styles and they'll reward you with more action and drama. Work against it if you want the game to get bumpy.

I had many players I could walk into plots and they didnt' fight. One player was known for his deals with the devil with me. I actually had him sell/pledge his soul to a higher power in a game no less than 3 times if it offered a chance to stick it to an authority figure he didn't like.

If you keep at it, you'll have openings with players to advance your games like this.

Have fun fishing!

The Depressed GM's Lament

So, I stepped away from my blog for a few weeks due to Real Life smacking me upside the head. Add on top of that an Exalted Podcast I'm 2 months tardy on. And well, my work and such is part of why I haven't done much but another is both simple and frustratingly complex. Depression.

Now, I'm not going to go off on a wild yarn about the causes, or such. But I am going to talk about GMing when Depressed. Or more correctly the lack and quality there in.

Every GM hits a slump or a burn-out phase. But a GM Depression, that's the worse. Nothing irritates the depressed that someone, especially demanding players, saying "Well get back on the horse" "Kiss your sad spot and get glad" "Game for the fun of it, you'll feel better." It frankly doesn't work that way. Unless you take time to face the source of your Depression, build up the mental reserves to handle it, and then find a way to cope. It's like forgetting to breath, you either know how to or not. And sometimes it comes and goes depending on how lift is treating you, like the tide. You can't fight the tide, at least not easily.

So it's sad and all, but what does that have to do with gaming?

When Depressed GM's tend to fall into what I call mono-plotting. Depressed GMs fixate on some feature of the game and grow increasingly frustrated when the players deviate. It's not railroading per say more a passive creep towards defeat. After all the GM is losing his plots, ideas, and desire to game what's one more loss to the players? That's right, the players themselves can batter a Depressed GM into retreat.

Depressed GM's also give out warning signs. proto-Depressed GMs tend to call game early, they tend to have a hard time with game prep, react badly to massive character change, grow quiet to distracted for long periods of time during game working on other things. They also can be overly fond of attacking the players in fights, or having plots resolve badly just for the sake of resolving them. I call it Suicide Via Railroad (plot). The GM is more or less trying to throw the players off so the game stops. If a great GM suddenly takes a massive DIP in quality of game and interactions, you might be looking at a Depressed GM.

Why do they keep playing? Well GMing is fun most the time if you like to GM. They are desperately trying to run a game, but they are really running themselves into the ground.

But you as players can help!

Like catching GM Burnout, watch for Depressed GMs. Look for signs of the apathy that creeps in. Stop the game (at the end of a session, or during a break and talk to them.) Don't confront, but come at them with offers of help.

Ask the following:

Can we switch GMs for a while to give you a break. I love your game and want to continue playing, but if you need to relax and just chill for a while that's fine. I'd rather you feel good while GMing so you enjoy it too.

Is there anything we can do to lower the stress while you game? Is the group being to catty? Are we doing things that bother you? It's a 2 way street gaming, be open with us and we'll try to accommodate if you are willing to compromise.

Do you want to take a break for a week? Next session we do a movie night and have a big meal/snack/beer/whatever?

Sometimes you need to run a new game, take a break from the existing story. Other times a short to medium break is all that is needed. Others, the GM needs to step away for a while to sort their life out.

I've read that No Gaming is Better Than Bad Gaming. But it's hard to say that in the face that a lot of gamers enjoy gaming. It IS their release from the day to day. And well, bad gaming is them trying to enjoy the game. Especially if Depressed.

Just something to consider. Try to catch a Depressed GM before it gets out of hand.

As for me? I'm better, it has been a trying few months. Being a Papa, Career minded fella, and gamer is a juggling act. But in a weird way, blogging about my experiences IS therapy for me.

The Problem Players Series: The Loner's Path

Heya folks. Took a little break from blogging to work out what I wanted to cover and some RL issues.

This time I'm going to do an informal series on problematic players and my own experience handing them. I'm going to start off covering the Loner player.

The Loner is a player who likes to play the so-called isolated solo characters. The tragic hero types that don't make friends and take care of business on their own. (See Wolverine, Blade, The Dark Knight, most 80's action movie heroes)

The problem with this is screws up party dynamics and does murder to the ability to keep everyone working together when their character wonders off to do something dark and foreboding and suddenly the group is down one of their critical members.

This comes from a few bad assumptions. First off the Loner character is rarely a 'loner' in sense they don't interact with others. If you notice using Wolverine as an example, he's often with the X-men, featured with a partner or 3 in his own book, or has a lot of "NPC" character he talks with and has to deal with. The other flaw in the logic is that the Loner isn't awesome because he does things on his or her own, it's because they do things different than the rest of the group.

The truth of the Loner is they are following the internal path, an introverted ideology on how to solve their problems. Mind you, those doesn't mean they don't work well with others. As much as the character Wolverine protests that the group cramps his style he often is seen looking out for his allies, and tries desperately to keep his personal drama out of it. Not that it works, but that's good story telling for you.

One of the methods I find with debugging a loner is to allow them to write a backstory element that shows up in the main plot. Such as Logan's lost memories, time in Japan, and strange dealings with Weapon X. The Loner character wants his character's highlight scenes to be meaningful. The trick is you have to see if the player feels he never gets the limelight, or is it more to do with his need to write his character's journey/tale down.

This is where bluebooking comes in. Bluebooking, for those that don't know the old term, is a process of non-game time mutual background writing and event extension. Think of it as extremely rules light narrative building. Give the Loner player room in their background and down time to fill in what they think of the past adventure, blog or wiki it for others to read (after all the Loner wants an audience for their monolog.) and then give them optional paths for the downtime activities. Then..hit that player and group with the results the next session. You might soon have the whole group bluebooking if it works out. Otherwise, it will blunt a LOT of the Loner's need to monolog and solo play DURING an existing session.

Being firm with the player works, but they have to understand that they have a role in the group dynamic. The loner follows the internal path, the path of the outsider looking in. Having them walk around outside the main activity doesn't showcase that at all! Warn them of this. The Loner is interesting because of their outsider perspective. They need to be in the thick of it to have chances to roleplay the interesting tangents their plots would bring to a game. Otherwise, what they really want is Solo RPing. And honestly, if they are there weekly to game...that's NOT what they want.

Not all Loners are spotlight hogs, but some don't understand how to play a Loner in a group and still be productive to the whole game. There are ways to fix this, but like all problem players. A little TLC is needed.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Gumbo Method of Game Mastering

Ever read the story Stone Soup?

The rough idea is if you don't have a solid idea on how to handle something you pull (trick) others into helping you and eventually the mutual effort of everyone improves the final product. Either you get a fine and delicious soup, or a fun and fantastic roleplaying experience.

In RPG terms I call this style of GMing, the Gumbo Method. Gumbo as a dish is make up of stock, shellfish, thickener, and various spices, meats, and other vegetables to make a spicy dish that is unique to who made it and when it was made. No two pots of Gumbo taste the same, but they have a combined flavor that anyone who knows good Gumbo can identify. As a descendant of Cincinnatian parents I have a similar concept with a regional dish called Cincinnati Chili, a meat stew that has Greek origins. (But I digress.)

I call it the Gumbo Method because unlike Stone Soup, the players will contribute, but there actually is a recipe to this that have ingredients that they willingly or unwillingly add to the mix. The Stone Soup analogy is what I started the ideas as but built on over it through the years. Today, I call the method Gumbo rather than Stone Soup.

The Gumbo Method involves getting your players involved in a game, the beauty of a Gumbo game is you can start the method at any time even during existing games. The first trick is to find the thickener, in this case some RPGs provide you instructions on this. Dungeon World has it during character creation where the PC's establish ties to the other PC's in their character sheet. It's embedded social element of the game, and some players opinions the most important part of character gen.

But what happens if you are already in an existing game of say Pathfinder and you want to 'thicken' up the PC back stories and connections a bit?

Well, one of my favorite methods is what I call a "Sticky NPC". This is an NPC who latches onto the players either via backstory or current events. Sometimes this shows up as a a team pet, a young child or weaker NPC who needs their help. Another is the criminal who knows everyone, including the PCs, or perhaps the lost love who also happens to be family of another PC! All sorts of crazy wacky ideas work, just remember to apply soap opera logic to get them to 'stick'. Yes, you might wind up with the PC's Sister Cousin's Aunt Brother's Childhood Friend Secret Rival, but whatever. If you want to build a Sticky NPC who latches onto everyone in the party, go for it, no mater how crazy it seems. Either the NPC idea works or you pull a surprise twist event that establishes a link between one PC to another.

Another thickener is the common bad guy! Same idea as the Sticky NPC but with negative applications. Sticky NPCs are great, but you can also have common causes, old factions the PC's use to belong to, common home town, whatever works to bond the PC's in casual or bizarre ways. Sometimes weird bonds are the best!

Next you need the meat and stock. The stock is the setting, this is easy. Pick what game world you want to play in and go with that. The Meat is the crisis at hand. Prince is kidnapped, Dragon attacking the city, Kobolds causing problems, your runners need some fast nuyen, there is a space hulk that just warped in near a Empire homeworld. Whatever. You can be as generic and trope tastic as you want to be. In fact, the MORE generic and tropey you are with the primary meat of a game the better. Remember Gumbo has a strong and filling base meat, that's just to give the Gumbo heft. Any GURPS GM who knows how to grab 3 random GURPS setting books and make a combined setting for his players knows you can have really weird stocks and still make it work. So don't get caught up WHERE it's set over what's the problem. K.I.S.S. your primary issue, and set it anywhere. Outer space Disco being attacked by kobolds? Got the books to support it? Sure. Do it.

Now comes the tricky part. The second meat!

That's right, you need to add a second crisis or problem. The best choices here are hostile NPCs. A second faction of adventures, a cult trying to turn people into bugs, Darleks secretly experimenting on everyone during the main crisis. This extra meat is critical for good Gumbo, it adds a switch up to the flavor. It's the sausage to the Shellfish of the dish. 2 pieces of advice to the second crisis, make it subtle (so the PC's don't spot it right away) and make it tangential to the main plot. Like in the cult idea, the cult is capitalizing on the Dragon attack. Or the second faction of adventures lead the goblins to town, etc. It might have been the cause of the first problem, but the primary issue needs to take the limelight in the early sessions or hours of a game.

Once you have a thickened, meaty stew it's time for flavor. Let me tell you right here, there is no better spice to a game than paranoia! Seriously, get the players talking about the crisis at hand. Offer up conflicting clues to the primary crisis and the secondary one, and false flags mixed in. Then let them theorycraft in character or not about what's going on. Make around 60% of their theories true, 30% kinda true, and the last 105 false. You can eyeball the %'s through.

Besides the spice of paranoia, you need the hearty vegetable of rewards. Now, these can be money, gear, npc support, mix it up. Just like good Gumbo has onions and bell peppers added in, mix up the rewards the PC's can gain from their actions.

Once you have the ingredients in the pot, start the game, or keep running it if you are doing this to enhance an existing game. Let the paranoid and Player's banter continue, drop the primary meat (crisis) on them, spice with fear and plotting, slowly simmer the bonding agents of NPC connections and back stories so the PC's gel, finally add the second crisis/foe and put the heat on. Playing the game is cooking.

And the flavor, and the fully tummy? That's after you finish the session with happy players. And if you did it right you'll have weeks of leftovers for later session.

Isn't Gumbo Gaming grand?

Washing Dishes in the Setting Kitchen Sink

Griping about D&D made me think. One of the main elements I like about a system and setting is the "Kitchen Sink" factor. Really fleshed out worlds give me as a GM enough play things to grab onto and build an adventure with out overwhelming me with 'you game must be this'. In essence it's a blend of crazy huge setting, detailed back story, and a writer/developer understanding enough to let me break their toys when I use them.

My most favorite Kitchen Sinks:

Exalted's Creation
Dark Sun
Shadowrun's Earth (Ya Chummer I sent out of Seattle in my games. CallFree baby!)
Traveller Universe
World of Darkness

And these are just he published ones. I often would create my own Kitchens sink settings like my Final Fantasy and Ninja High School inspired games during college.

One of the joys of D&D 2nd Edition was all the well developed worlds. I think that's what TSR did right, they build world and gave enough specific toys to let the players go explore in them. What they and WoTC did wrong was fill these settings with too many god NPCs and world metaplots from the various novels, etc that it bogged down the enjoyment of players who liked the raw but heavy setting that was given to them. I call it the Forgotten Realm effect. FR is a Kitchensink gone wrong. It's what happens when the creator doesn't let the players drive the plot. Something you may notice in the Golarion Pathfinder APs is the players can very easily rewrite huge parts of the world (take over a nation, estabish a free nation state from devilish control, unlock secrets of the lost past, etc. World shaking, campaign world altering adventures. But when you pick up the next AP the events of the prior are optional.

They called this the not-quite-a-meta plot from the days of Exalted 2E. You have to have setting hooks to get a player and GM interested. Let's talk 13th Age a second. Mechanically it's interesting, I like the system and it's hybrid 4E/3E D&D logic. What I don't like is the setting. The Dragon Empire is TOO trope tastic and iconic. Worse, if I wanted to ditch the setting I could, but there isn't anything out there (yet) interesting enough with unique powers, ICONs, and backstory to get me to want to play it. I think Monte Cook got it right with the amount of backstory fluff in Numerera. While I may not entirely like the way the GM intrusion system works, I've got no issues with the 8 prior worlds, the vast earth like world and the strange elements of the setting. (With maybe the childish evil monster baby making golem things people are throwing a tizzy about recently.)

When I cook up my own worlds I try to build from strangeness outward. The core element the PC's need to enjoy is the ability to be unique in their own way while having enough stability in the surrounding setting to contrast against. After all, if the ENTIRE world is ninjas and super heroes, what's the point if you are a super ninja? I call it the Saints Row effect. The early games the main character was the extreme example in the game, but as the series went onward the whole world got progressively wackier. What was the point of the Saints when you fight aliens, government super agencies, and luchadores using grenade launchers.

Getting the right mix of kitchen sink OPTIONS with stable environment is the key. Even settings like Eberron and Exalted have consistent internal rules for how the world works. The players break the boundaries and introduce the chaos the setting needs. Well, them and the main badguys.

So next time you are playing a kitchen sink game just remember, where's the fun? You're soaking in it!