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?

playstarbound.com

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 tech...pet peeve.)

Anyrate:

GAMES I PLAY

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.

GAMES I COLLECT

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.

GURPS -

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.

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.