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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Do you want it done fast, or do you want it done Wright?


At a recent game convention, I ran a game. It was a three-part story set in the Warhammer setting. It was dark and brutal, as is the norm for all things Warhammer-ish. There was an adjustment period for new players, and the time slots were short enough that I had to pare down an otherwise exciting story into a series of three battles connected by a few minutes of narrative. I am a storyteller and a bit of a hobby novelist, and sacrificing story for practical reasons is hard. It hurt, but I survived.

When I wasn't at my own table, I wandered about, visiting the tables of others, which were predominantly Pathfinder and Savage Worlds. I took the opportunity to observe some of the most 'successful' GMs in attendance, some of whom were published authors of game materials.

I observed the games run by these eminent 'Alpha Gamers' and 'Gaming Gods', as they ladled out their Golden Ambrosia upon their frenzied players. People guffawed at each other's outrageous accents and cried out in exultant joy when scoring critical hits. These games were fast paced and hilarious.

My game was not. No one fell out of their chair laughing at my impression of the Skaven Ratspeak. No one wept tears of joy at a well-placed attack. There was no group hug or victory dance at the end. If anything, there was a sigh of relief as the players realized that they had in fact won, and were neither insane nor mutated as a result of their encounter with Chaos. That's life in the Empire. Welcome to the Old World.

I have my moments. I am at times hilarious. At home, sometimes my game stops while everyone is cracking up. Those are good times and humor is important, but that is not my goal. My goal is drama and suspense. I use sacrifice, causality and morality as my tools. In my games, it is much more common for players to feel deep concern; about the motives of the villains and the possible consequences of their own actions. My monsters and villains don't mess around. They don't have outrageous accents. They violate, oppress and victimize innocent people and puppies. Kittens, too. There are consequences for the characters' actions, and if they fail, people they care about die. Battles are not always easy. They don't win just because they are the Good Guys. They have to do the work, and they have to watch their step and their tongues while they do it.

It is not my role, wish or responsibility to antagonize or punish my players or their characters. I want my players to feel as though danger is always close. When things are tense, players bring their concerns to me. I often reply, “I have a whole book full of monsters here. If I wanted your characters to die, they'd be dead. Figure it out.” If there is a legitimate inequity, then it is my role, wish and responsibility to alter things accordingly.

Like a good Drill Instructor, I am tough, but I am fair. I seldom have a TPK. My long time players have all each lost characters, sure, but in the big picture, it doesn't happen that often. The important thing is that they feel as though it could happen. When it does happen, it is not arbitrary. There is always a warning before a hard battle comes. In my games, when an NPC says “...from whence none have returned,” my players know that it's because there's a hard battle ahead. They don't wave off such warnings, saying, “Ah, the old man is crazy. We're heroes, dammit! We cannot fail! 'Tis our destiny to prevail!” That sort of rhetoric is often followed by casualties.

There is a payoff for all of this suffering and travail. At my table, when your characters finally defeat the villain, you may actually experience catharsis. You don't get catharsis at a fun, hilarious game. You get out what you put in. The greater the investment, the greater the reward. This isn't always true in life, but that's exactly why I make it true in my game.

If you sit at my table, you will experience stress. You will feel apprehension. As you scour your character sheet frantically for anything you can possibly use to help your team as they fight for their lives, you might sweat a little. At the end, however, there is a release. You have won! You faced the darkness and the danger, and you have defeated it. Now all that stress and apprehension, all the blood, sweat and (occasionally) tears has been turned into joy, relief and pride in a job well done. The village is saved, and your characters are now heroes. True heroes, whose actions have saved the lives of NPCs whom they have met and are invested in, and who are now eternally grateful.

That is what I shoot for when I put a story together. That is my goal when I compose an outline for an adventure. That is the prize I seek when I am at the table, making rules judgments, portraying NPCs and describing scenes.

My players are loyal because they have experienced that catharsis at some point. They come because that feeling can be as intense and as rich as any in life. If it comes from playing RPGs, then that's okay. It is no less worth the effort for being imaginary. In fact, I bet our brains and hearts can hardly tell the difference. If all human experience is filtered through the senses and processed in the brain, then what really is the difference?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

So you want to run an RPG at a gaming convention...


A game convention is happening in my town next weekend. It isn't what I would call a 'big' convention, because I have been to 'big' events that involve tens of thousands of humanoids. It's all relative. This game convention is plenty big enough, however, and there will be thousands of gamers there. I will be running a game for some of them.

I will be running a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game. The newest incarnation of this fine intellectual property is great fun. That's why I chose to run it, instead of Savage Worlds or D&D (which are also fun), like the vast majority of other GMs. In my preparations, I have found some interesting insights into the pros and cons of 'Con' Gaming compared to 'Home' Gaming.

Home Gaming is what I've done for most of my decades of gaming. I like it because it allows a game experience that more closely resembles real life. It is a loosely oranized event that happens semi-regularly, and runs from 'when enough players arrive' until 'when most players have to go'.

The playing style is likewise organic and free-form. Game sessions are often a continuation of the previous session. The beginning of a campaign is always very clear, but as sessions come and go, it becomes less and less clear when the campaign (if it can be called that) has come to an end. True, the villain of the moment may have been destroyed and their lair thoroughly looted and pillaged, but like in life, there are always numerous loose ends, tangential side missions and subplots, so that it is easily possible to simply continue playing indefinitely. This is how some game groups develop Ten Year Campaigns. It just never ends.

This happens in my games because I enjoy a little causality. Every action the players take has consequences. Those consequences ripple outward through the world their characters inhabit, and things change. Characters respond to these changes, making more ripples. And so on...

We usually go until it becomes too difficult to get everyone together for a game day or when the collective attention of the the group drifts to some other game. Then we set the campaign aside, usually to return a year or two later.

The benefits of Home Gaming are many. It provides a much more immersive and engaging roleplaying experience, due to a more satisfying storyline and more depth in character development. The drawbacks are a significant time commitment, occasional frustration when things aren't going well, and some may experience a reduced sense of accomplishment due to an unclear perception of beginnings and endings amidst all the ripples of causality.

Con Gaming is an entirely different experience. There are restrictions on time and space. You are playing with strangers. People pay money to participate. The effect of these conditions on the game experience can be daunting for some, but can be very rewarding for the prepared.

A Con Game is usually about 4 hours. If you are accustomed to Home Gaming, then this is a dreadfully short period of time. At home, if I tell everyone that the game starts at 10am, it's usually noon before everyone has arrived, and after the chit-chat and settling-in rituals are complete, we usually don't start rolling dice until somewhere around 1pm or 2pm. That's four hours right there!

At a Con Game, there's no time for tardiness or mucking about. These people have paid money to be entertained, and the conscientious GM must deliver or face scorn and derision. You start with whoever is present at the time and you do your best to work in the others as they arrive. The GM's pacing must be tight, because things need to be wrapped up at quitting time. Most of the players have other games to attend once the current game concludes, and it is rude and unprofessional to make them late to their next game.

A Con Game is typically capable of accommodating up to six players, perhaps eight. There are dozens of games going on at any given time, and even a well coordinated Con has only so much space available. This can work in the GM's favor, though. You usually won't have to manage a large group.

Due to those two restrictions alone, the well-prepared Con GM will have a tight, concise story in place and six or eight pregenerated characters that are custom made for that story. This is a tremendous benefit, because it allows the GM to tell a satisfying story, from beginning to end, with specific characters that possess the exact abilities needed to complete it. Everyone enjoys an exciting conflict, followed by a clear resolution. A skilled GM might even be able to squeeze in a twist or two in there to kick things up a notch.

It is true that Gamers are special snowflakes. Each plays for their own reasons, and takes enjoyment from different aspects of the experience. An astute GM should take this into account when preparing to run a Con Game. The first preparation should be the characters. Some games are elegant enough to allow six to eight diverse snowflakes to create their own characters in a game they've never played before, all in a half-hour or so. They are rare, but they're out there. The truth is that most games cannot provide that, so it behooves the GM to make pregenerated characters for the game.

Pregenerated characters are a GM's friend. They allow the GM to customize the cast and plot, weaving a story into a nice, clean 4-hour tapestry. Allowing players to make their own characters makes for wonderful variety and storytelling opportunities, but this will cost you time and effort at a Con Game. A GM skilled at ad hoc storytelling can manage this fine, though, with varying degrees of success, depending on the game they choose to run.

Finally, playing with strangers can be an exhilirating experience where people connect and dynamic relationships are born. It can also be a migraine-inducing frustration, as disparate playing styles and conflicting personalities clash for four long hours. This is a critical aspect of Con Gaming, and is the most common reason for players who dislike Con Gaming. Getting along with strangers is a skill that every Con Game player should cultivate. Likewise, facilitating group cooperation and managing group dynamics are skills absolutely vital for any successful GM. Con Gaming is a test of all these skills.

Anyone who enjoys RPG gaming should try out a Con Game. Most major cities will have at least one Con a year, and it is my recommendation that any player or GM that is serious about their craft attend, play and participate as often as they are able. It may be that your Home Game experiences are perfect for you, and that there is no need for improvement in any area. Like in life, however, such an opinion is usually an indication of stagnancy.

Without change, there is no growth, no improvement and no excitement. Probe the boundaries of your comfort zone. Expand your horizons. Find new games and meet new gamers. You won't regret it.

Alternately, you can stay at home, where no one challenges you and you can surround yourself with the comforts of your AD&D books, VHS movies and whatever else you hoard to protect your fragile psyche from the outside world. You are a special snowflake, and I'm sure your insulated individuality adds something to the world somewhere.

I'll be running my game at the Con, for a bunch of strangers, many of whom have never played the game before. The particular game I chose has its challenges, which are mostly time related. I have made preparations which will allow us to enjoy the magnificent glory of this rich setting and the dynamic versatility and creative flexibility of the game system. I look forward to the experience, as I hope my players do. I will come with heavy bags full of game materials, an open mind and a sack full of dice, and fun will be had by all!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gods Among Us


I have always loved mythology. I don't know if it was those old movies with the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animated critters and monsters, or if it was something I read when I was a little kid, but it started early. So early that I don't remember ever not thinking about it.

The gods, heroes, monsters and witches were more interesting to me than the boring life of a kid around the house. I learned to entertain myself by shifting my perception. Everything around me became some kind of creature or vehicle or building or something. The house or office or car or wherever I was at the time was another world; a world populated by little people and robots and spaceships.

Like Pandora's Box, there was a price to pay. When I was a little guy, I almost died a few times because of this. I was playing by the pool and when my blue elephant piggy bank/submarine/spaceship fell into the water, I went in after it. I got rescued from the bottom of the pool by an alert and decisive neighbor. Three times. That was before I went on a journey across LA for about seven hours when I was four. The police eventually found me some miles away. I'm lucky to be alive.

I was always in the Other World. It was an effort to take my attention from it to reality. Elementary school was okay. I was in the 'gifted' class, so I was allowed to play and go nuts in the craft room when all the other kids were learning how to read. I had been reading for two years already by the time I was in kindergarten.

When I had a fever? Oh, it was entertaining. I saw things. The thin gossamer veil that kept me barely grounded was gone. It was scary as hell, but I made it through okay.

But when I got to middle school/junior high, classes couldn't keep my attention. I started drawing robots in class and making rocketships out of my pencils and so on. When I picked up a D&D Basic Set (Red Box, old school, babay!), everything changed. This was a life-changing event. It was a permanently open door to the Other World and school couldn't compete. They had lost me. I was gone.

I got by. I did the absolute minimum, I did what I had to in order to get through school, waiting until I could once again travel to the Other World. High school took me six years. I finished with a sweet 1.3 GPA. My poor dad. He knew I was a smart kid. Why wasn't I doing anything? I had no answer. I didn't know at the time that it was because I was never present. I couldn't see the forest for the beautiful trees.

After high school, I joined the military. I did my time. As I grew older, reality would intrude upon me, and I would deal with it, and then I would go back home, to the Other World. Through D&D and other games like it, I would take my friends with me. The kept coming back, so I think they liked it. I started writing, too. It was easier for me than drawing and it looked like I was working.

As an adult, the real world had more to offer me than it had before, so I would spend more time there over the years, but always the door to the Other World was open, waiting; the oldest, most natural and reliable aspect of my life.

Mythology is the key. The tales of heroes and monsters, presented as though they were actual history, also teach the lessons of life. How to be a Human. How to be a man. How to be a woman. How to be a member of society. For me, and many others throughout history, mythical tales were the only way to reach me. It worked. I eventually grew to become a responsible member of society.

These days, I make my own myths. I tell the same tales, because they are timeless, but I use my own heroes and monsters. I use my own worlds.

I use the same gods, though. Something about the old myths resonates within me. The idea that a small number of great men and women have shaped our cultures and nations appeals to me. Whether they are Ancient Aliens, idealized leaders or subconscious archetypes, we may never know. In my worlds, though, they were once men and women, who became great leaders, and then grew to become gods and devils.

These gods also have powers. They have flying contraptions and devastating weapons. They have rainbows in their eyes and they are frightening. Beautiful and terrible at once, they walk or fly among humankind and bring them wisdom. They have secret knowledge of the way things work, and for better or worse, they teach these things to the best and brightest among their people.

In my worlds people can achieve these things themselves. A character made in my games can Ascend, and become a god. Of course, this isn't easy. You won't become a god by slaying enemies and amassing treasures, no matter how much you kill and acquire. It requires an awakening from within and a transcendence from worldly, material things. No player's character has achieved this yet. That's okay. If it were easy, there would be a lot more gods.

When we travel to The Edge, the players' characters begin having been awakened. They have a one step head start. They have a better chance than characters in any of my other worlds, but their ascension is not guaranteed. They must still earn it.

If it never happens, that's okay. The journey is still an adventure. We still enjoy going through that door. We explore those worlds and meet strange folk. We face terrifying monsters and we win glorious treasures. As I have known since my earliest childhood, the journey is its own reward.

I was made for this. The presence of that invisible door and the ability to guide others through it is my gift; my honor; indeed, it is my calling. I have been doing it my whole life

I have many wonderful people and have had many exceptional experiences in my life. I live my life much more richly now than when I was a tyke. I live in both worlds now. I shoulder that responsibility gladly. It is what I was born to do.