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!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The D&D Headache

This is me bitching. Sorry.

Vanilla D&D is the bane of my gaming existence. You see I reinvent myself every few years gaming wise. I was all into Supers recently then put that aside to try the indy push. Recently I'm getting into Pathfinder and a bit of the old school Star Wars/Shadowrun kick I use to enjoy. I still have my GURPS books but haven't really played it since 4E went live.

Now D&D is a love/hate relationship with me. While I enjoy and experiment with the new editions what I dislike is the D&D I like, the weirder fringe material always shows up at the end of the lifecyle of the line. So for me, the new D&D edition drops, I get use to it in a few months and then I grow bored with the material. Hell, I wasn't interested in Pathfinder until they did their Advanced Players Guide. The sweetspot for me was in the height of D&D 2E when Planescape was running. I loved the 2E Psionics rules, I enjoyed the speciality priests, and while I had issues with some of the lack of non-combat options it didn't bother me yet. The Skills and Options showed up and man did it get messy. My 3E sweet spot was at the height of Eberron, psionics were out, they were experimenting with Book of 9 Swords (which was optional at the time) and stuff like Incarnium. There was enough weird new out there to actually play with. And then they dropped a new edition on me.

I hear the arguments, you can keep playing, you can just use your old books. But that's the catch, the players go where they see support eventually. If it wasn't for Pathfinder I'd think a lot of 3.X games would have dried up, at least in the short run. And truthfully I wanted to experiment with the new system. I wanted to try out the 'new' takes on old classes. I'm sure when D&D Next comes out I'll examine the new edition in curiosity.

But then I run into the paradox. There seems to be a fantasy purist vein that GMs and players who enjoy more the OSR experience use to justify cutting out different options from the older editions they don't feel is genre. Psionics is one of my BIG BEEFS. I love Psionics. I feel it has just a much of a place in the D&D pahtheon of play as Rangers and Clerics. And to hear that in Next they are just another class variant of Wizard makes me a little sick. Same goes when they don't 'get' it with other classes. A Druid has evolved from the Cleric that it was based on. There is room enough for dozens of unique character concepts. This was part of the reason why I moved on to Generic systems after my D&D phase ended.

What happens though is I start to see the d20 era and 4E's fracturing of the D&D development and fan base as a problem for me. I like elements of Pathfinder, 13th Age, D&D Next, and the various other d20 children. But none of them (with maybe the exception of Pathfinder these days) have enough development to draw my attention in. Golarion is a fine setting, but I want to see Paizo branch out! Sure, don't do the 2E era of a new setting a year, but maybe 2 to 3 main settings? Or what about WoTC getting off their asses and giving me Eberron again in a NON-4E package. I want D&D Next Psionics to be unique and to play well with the other children.

So, D&DN will most likely gather my money down the line more. When the setting and supplemental material keeps me buying. Pathfinder is loosing me, but Mythic and the Advanced Class Guide might pull me back in.

But my D&D Headache continues. I have to find players willing and find a version of the system robust enough for me to use with out problems.

And then..and then..I might capture the mood I'm looking for.