We’re Winning

happy lady faceIt hurts, it’s true, but we are winning the fight.

I proudly fly my metaphorical flag collection: my feminist flag, my nerd flag, my gamer flag, etc. I’m usually pretty outspoken, and yet I have hardly posted about the mess that called itself GamerGate—a terrible name and hashtag, but those who came up with it are not the deepest thinkers on the ‘net. The closest I came to it was over six weeks ago when by way of contrast I was celebrating the inclusive side of gaming, the one I can be proud to associate with.

I’m not going to tell you it was because I was scared of repercussions. It’s because I think it’s the whine of self-entitled jerks seeing the territory they have lost and keep losing. I’m not afraid, though I probably should be; I’m mad as hell, but when the hot lava of anger cools down, it hardens into contempt… and a curious glow of schadenfreude, because I can see how scared the whiny gits are.

Forty years ago, it was “normal” for men to grab or slap a woman’s ass if they felt like it.

Thirty years ago, it was normal to offer a higher salary to a young male engineering graduate than to a young woman with the same qualifications.

Twenty years ago, it was still so common to be harassed in tech and gamer circles that we women hardly even noticed it above the background level.

Ten years ago, I couldn’t get anyone in geekdom to even say the word feminism, it was something embarrassing to associate with.

Eight years ago, I realized that even guys I thought as reasonably enlightened in my gamer community were incapable of seeing the problem because they didn’t want it to exist; I gradually stopped posting on gamer forums because even moderated ones allowed dog-piling against women (while stopping it for race and sexual orientation topics!)

Six years ago, Michelle Lyons started trying to get women in tabletop RPGs to come together and be recognized; we compiled a list and it was gratifying, yet too short.

Three years ago, Rebecca Watson got terrible backlash and her name dragged in the mud for saying, and I quote: “Guys, don’t do that” after describing how a male attendee of the World Atheist Convention made her feel uncomfortable in an elevator late at night.

Two years ago, Anita Sarkeesian became a target of misogynist threats of violence for having a Kickstarter funding campaign to fund a new series of “Tropes vs. Women” videos.

As the behaviours of old become something to be ashamed of, something that is frowned upon when in public view, the reactions under cover of anonymity become more and more unsavoury. It’s clear that some blame women and feminism for everything they have failed to reach or accomplish in their lives.

This year, we’re finally reaching the point where a lot of men who until now were uninterested in the problem of misogyny are finally saying, “Whoa, that shit really does happen and it has to stop.” I don’t know if you grasp the importance of this; I’ve seen people who were part of the anti-feminist dogpiling on RPG.net some years ago, then blithely oblivious and thinking women needed a thicker skin, now open wide eyes at our GamerGate friends and say, “Wow, this is wrong.”

It’s like “I’m not racist but…” people who are so angry that a black man became president of the United States, and like people who are so afraid of other orientations that they will resort to any tactic to stop marriage equality from steamrolling across the U.S. They are so angry because the world does not conform to the image they want to cling to. All these people make life uncomfortable for the targets of their bitterness, and some make it dangerous, even deadly.

But here’s the thing, fuckers: even as you make me so angry, I still smile because I know and you know that you’re desperate because you’re losing. Hate on.

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Saying Yes: Firefly RPG

Firefly RPG coverIn recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”

Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.

So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.

Firefly: The Baboon, the Browncoat, and the Chrysanthemum

1 – Prepping

A few weeks before the convention, organizer Sean Nittner was looking for someone to run the Firefly RPG, so I volunteered. Sean puts a lot of effort into lining up a good variety of games and recruiting GMs so that there will be plenty of choice for attendees. He even lent me his beautiful autographed book, then contacted Margaret Weis Productions to ask if I could get a PDF convention kit. Thanks to David Robins and Monica Valentinelli at MWP, I got everything I needed to run a game.

So I had to add my game to the schedule ASAP but I did not have a plot in mind yet, so as for my Atomic Robo game, I went for a title that would sound intriguing, and a generic game pitch:

The Baboon, the Browncoat, and the Chrysanthemum
They can’t take the sky from you, but the Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng sure can make it ruttin’ uncomfortable. How were you to know this little job would blow up like that?

(If anyone noticed that I had sneaked the Big Bad Con initials in the title, no one mentioned it.)

My first decision to make: use the characters from the television show, or some of the many customizable templates provided in the book? I asked around in my online circles and received much useful advice. In the end, I agreed with the majority who recommended using the Serenity crew in order to build on  players’ shared understanding, but set the adventure a little prior to the television pilot and limit the cast to Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, and Inara. Read the rest of this entry »

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Saying Yes: Tianxia – Blood, Silk and Jade

Tianxia Front CoverIn recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”

Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.

So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.

Tianxia: To Live and Die in Băo Jiāng

1 – Prepping

On Saturday afternoon I ran my first game of the wuxia fantasy Tianxia: Bood, Silk & Jade from Vigilance Press, which builds on the Fate Core system from Evil Hat Productions. I believe this was the only Tianxia event at the convention. I decided to expand on one of the story starters provided in the book, setting it during a big Moon Festival for colour and action. Here is what I wrote for my game summary in the program:

To Live and Die in Băo Jiāng
Forgery, theft, treachery, ambition. Diplomats, courtiers, and Imperial scions. A holy day and a parade. And kung fu. All of Băo Jiāng is topsy-turvy when a secret treaty is negotiated under cover of the Moon Festival — while daring thieves plan to rob the Imperial Seal. And did we mention kung fu?

The scenario in the book includes a premise (the imperial seal which is in the hands of Princess Ju, travelling incognito, will be “borrowed” and counterfeited by a master forger), suggestions of ways to entangle the player characters and possible consequences, and the stats for the two main non-player characters (the princess and the forger). While I liked this beginning a lot, I needed a backdrop that would incite to action as well as additional story hooks, because I had to drive all this to have lots of action and some sort of resolution in a four-hour time frame with a group of relative strangers at the table. Hence, adding the secret treaty negotiated under cover of the Moon Festival. Read the rest of this entry »

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Saying Yes: Atomic Robo RPG

Atomic RoboIn recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”

Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Tianxia: Blood, Silk and Jade, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.

So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.

Atomic Robo and the Invisible Invaders of Inverness

1 – Prepping

On Friday afternoon I ran my first game of the pulpy action science game from Evil Hat Productions, Atomic Robo RPG. It is based on the Atomic Robo  comic book by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, who were also involved in creating the game along with Mike Olson.  I confess, I had never read the comic until Evil Hat started announcing the upcoming game, so I caught up by reading the free samples on the Atomic Robo website, then buying a few of the collected trade paperbacks. When it was time to schedule games for Big Bad Con, I thought this would be a good choice since the RPG would only be a few months old and a lot of people might want to check it out.

We ended up having several other Atomic Robo RPG events at the convention, but I think mine may have been the only one set in the current day. Anyhow, at the time I put my games on the schedule I did not have a plot in mind yet so I went for a title that would sound in-genre, and a generic game pitch:

Atomic Robo and the Invisible Invaders of Inverness
TESLADYNE INDUSTRIES IS HIRING! All departments — Armory, Intel, Research & Development, and Transport. We need capable young Action Scientists who have what it takes to get the job done! From its humble beginnings in Nikola Tesla’s lab on Houston Street in New York City, the company formerly known as Tesla Heavy Industries has grown into the global phenomenon it is today. Tesladyne offers competitive salaries, a matchless benefits package, and the opportunity to travel while working on cutting edge Science!

This is actually important to my approach to GMing. If I have a more specific idea for a story hook, I will certainly throw it in; but I try not to go too far down the scripting path. Read the rest of this entry »

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Hands-off game-mastering: Yes, this means you

The Big Adventure, by zazBI wrote a post recently about the single best way for game-masters to improve their role-playing games: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying. I received a number of comments on this blog and in social media, essentially: “Yes, it’s true, except in this specific case when I do have to drive my players along the plot because X.” I wrote a second post about one of the values of X: “I’m using a module, how can I let go of the plot?

Today I would like to answer  a few more X objections. In all of these, I’m going to assume we are talking strictly about whether or not to give priority to the pre-determined plot over player ideas. I’m also going to point to my husband’s companion post, which addresses why GMs should rarely say “No” to player ideas. Read the rest of this entry »

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OK, so how do I do that?

Now You Be GoblinsYeah, this is yet another post about role-playing games.

On Tuesday, I wrote my pro tip for the single best way for game-masters to improve their games: shut up, forget the story you’ve built in your mind, and listen to what the players are saying. But of course, that seems easier said than done: how, practically speaking, do you run a game without a plan? And what if you’re using a published adventure? So let’s walk through the process.

(Note: All this will assume that everyone in the group is showing good will. Personality problems and player sabotage are outside the scope of this discussion.)

Some Background Resources

Before we get into the details, let me point you towards some useful resources. If you can only get one, I urge you to read Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering from Steve Jackson Games, by Robin D. Laws. It’s only eight bucks for the PDF and no GM should be without it.

If you’d like to read more along those lines, you may want to take a look at three books from Engine Publishing: Never Unprepared, Odyssey, and Unframed. Many published RPGs also offer excellent GM advice; my favourite of all times is found in Josh Roby’s wonderful game Full Light, Full Steam (Callisti Press).

Letting Go of Your Story

So in order to prepare, the GM has to have some idea of a story, right? How can a GM run an adventure for a group of players without a story in mind?

The answer may not be “No story” so much as “More stories.”

In the resources I listed above, you will find different ways of preparing plots so that players are not forced to go through all you prepared scenes in order and exactly the way you envisioned them. As you probably already do for all adventures you create, start with a situation that will make the player characters want to act; add interesting non-player characters to interact with, and give them agendas; set up some locations where interesting things could happen; and let the players come up with the rest.

This makes your role one of attentive listener and entertaining describer, alternately.  By all means, give your descriptions and explanations, but then zip it! and listen as the players come up with their own plans and ideas. If they fall prey to analysis paralysis, nudge things forward by having events unfold as the NPCs pursue their agendas, leaving consequences which the PCs will need to deal with.

The secret is not to plan the end of the story, but to sketch out many different ways it could unfold. What if the PCs try to talk their way past the opposition rather than fighting? What if they sneak, or bribe the guards? What if they don’t rescue Sir Bedevier in time? You don’t have to come up with the details in advance, just sketch out a few different ways things could unfold and have at least some idea how this would impact events.

Chances are the players will come up with something you had not planned on anyway and they should be rewarded for it, not punished. If they decide after all this that they will use a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak, for heaven’s sake, let them unless it’s really inappropriate or game-breaking in an irretrievable way. Everyone at the table will have more fun playing through the groups’ own spontaneous ideas than your scripted plot.

Let’s Be Goblins

VorkaAnd what if you’re using a ready-made adventure instead of writing your own? Does that mean you can’t use these wonderfully time-saving modules? Of course not.

I thought it would be both useful and fun to work through an example of published scenario and how to bend it to an open, listening game-mastering style. Two of the failed adventures I discussed in my previous posts were official organized play events run under the auspices of the Pathfinder Society, I thought they would make good case studies, especially since the scenarios are available as free downloads: We Be Goblins! and We Be Goblins Too!, both written by Richard Pett, were released in 2011 and 2013 respectively as Paizo’s contribution to the annual event Free RPG Day, and won acclaim as whimsical, delightful romps offering a break from classic dungeon-crawling.

Let me clear up a couple of things this is not about: it’s not about the two particular GMs who ran these adventures, except inasmuch as they are part of a general trend. I believe whole-heartedly that they were doing their best and wanted the players to have a good time. It’s also not about the published modules, which are well written and entertaining. What it IS about is how one can use a published scenario without turning the adventure into a railroad operation.

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead, which I will hide behind the cut. I think it’s perfectly possible to run through the modules and fully enjoy them even after reading them, but I would hate to ruin someone else’s fun if you prefer to maintain the surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Surest Way to Become a Better Game-Master

TL, DR: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying.
Heavy Metal -- Ard

[Edit for Redditers: I noticed a number of new readers arriving from Reddit thought I was a "pure-player" and wondered "She claims DM is such an easy job once you let the players play loose, why is she just playing?" I actually love to GM, and after this article I posted five more on how to follow my own advice as a GM. They are linked at the bottom of the page. I hope they help!]

The last six role-playing games I played in during September were, uncharacteristically, all d20-based systems (Mutants & Masterminds 2e, Pathfinder, 13th Age, and a heavily home-brewed Spycraft version) with six different game-masters. The first five were at a game convention, and the sixth at a game-day event at the friendly local gaming store. And the first of the six was a lot of fun — while the last five were awful railroads. My husband and I have told the story elsewhere (note that he had one more bad Pathfinder game which I didn’t sit on, making his own record 1 for 7), but here is my analysis of the common points. Read the rest of this entry »

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