RPG a Day: The Essentials

27. What are your essential tools for good gaming?

At the root, the only essential elements for me to have a good game are a few friends who want to play “pretend” together and for approximately the same types of stories, rules, or experiences.

Then again, we all love our toys, tricks, and hacks.

I have mentioned before some of the things I always bring with me to a game convention, particularly my beloved All Rolled Up filled with pens, index cards and dice, dry-erase media such as my Noteboard, and a variety of card decks as oracles and visual inspiration. I also carry a blank book to take game notes and sketch scenes, and lists of names to draw from for new characters.

And here is another one I keep mentioning, but there is always one new reader who may find it useful: Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, by Robin D. Laws (Steve Jackson Games), an excellent, easily read, and inexpensive primer for new GMs.

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RPG a Day: Thank You!

25. What is an awesome way to thank your GM?

The best way I can think to thank your GM is too tell them what you love about the game they ran for you. For example:

Edmund, I loved that you put so much work into your “Land of Ten Thousand Gods” hack for Dungeon World to make sure it would feel true to both its topic and its system. Also, I love when you do voices.

Steve, I love how you craft your episodes of The One Ring to make sure they fit within letter and spirit of the setting, without resorting to railroading.

Alan, I loved the custom moves you had created for your episodes of Night Witches, and the way they propelled the story.

Christine, I loved the fun setup for that game of Marvel Heroic Roleplay, and how you storified the die roll results—even when poor M.O.D.O.K. botched so badly.

Fish, I love the gentle pace of your Golden Sky Stories episodes, and the cute surprises you come up with.

J, I love how you let us meander through your Castle Falkenstein adventures and do things in any order, even skipping parts of them if we come up with a good idea for solving them.

Mark W, I love how you seem so delighted whenever your your players do wacky things you had not planned for.

Laura, I love how you keep looking at both new games and semi-neglected older ones and bringing them to the game table for us to enjoy.

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RPG a Day: Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize!

ARU14. Favourite RPG accessory

Ah, by now you know that I have a terrible time trying to narrow down favourites. Let me share not one, but several of my favourite accessories:

  • All Rolled Up, Fil and Paul Baldowki’s creation to carry your gaming kit in style. I have the Harker Adventurer and I love it.
  • backstory-boxmockupBackstory Cards, to help quickly create strong character and setting ties.
  • Deck of Fate, which can serve not only to replace Fate dice, track initiative, or substitute for fate points, but also as an oracle or inspiration.
  • The Noteboard, a folding dry-erase mat with grid on one side.
  • Blank plastic cards, dry-erase/wet-erase
  • Plastic card stands and other game parts from Spiel Pro.
  • Dry-erase sheets
  • Transparent acrylic table stands—a letter-size one for the game poster (used at conventions) and small ones for individual character pictures.
  • Small standing dry-erase board as initiative/precedence tracker.
  • Sticky notes of all colours and shapes!
  • And online: Roll20, Google Drive, Vyew.

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Erasable plastic cards, index cards, playing cards

Moves Snowball

588th

[Note: If you’re not familiar with games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the terminology in this post will likely make no sense.]

This weekend I took my turn as game-master for the second duty station in our Night Witches campaign. Published by Bully Pulpit Games and Powered by the Apocalypse, Night Witches is a role-playing game about the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. (Edmund’s notes on the campaign are here.) By default, it assumes that the GM duties will rotate every time the regiment switches duty station or when someone’s player character is taken out of the action by events, injuries, or death.

PO-2s_Assembly
Assembling some PO-2 models for verisimilitude

I was willing to take my turn despite my current work load because I know that there was pretty much no preparation involved, and because I’ve run other PbtA games. To be honest, the Apocalypse-based games are not that different from the way I approach GMing in general, except that its techniques are codified and integrated into the mechanics, whereas I just use them free-form. I’m referring, in particular to idea of not planning where the action will go but letting it unfold by itself, generated by the PCs’ actions and the dice rolls.

In my typical games, this involves focusing the story on the consequences of the players’ choices, a logical if-then-else loop iterating constantly. In PbtA games, this is anchored mechanically by the results of certain moves triggering other moves; Vincent Baker called this, in his original Apocalypse World, the “Moves Snowball.” Night Witches is designed to have a lot of that snowballing, especially with the night (bombing mission) moves. Once a PbtA game starts snowballing, you can just let it roll down to its logical conclusion, which makes the GM’s job easy.

In our first episode at the training duty station, Engels Aerodrome, we rolled plenty of middling or low dice results which kept us snowballing. But at Trud Gornyaka, the dice rolled magnificently for the first two missions, which unfolded in textbook fashion (flight manual kind of textbook, not GMing!) The snowball simply wouldn’t start rolling because the airwomen succeeded at every piloting and navigation roll.

But at least, they had lower dice rolls during the day, which got me a chance to start brewing a conflict between Maryam and Sveta on the one hand, and the Deputy Politruk on the other. We wanted to go through a third mission during the episode so we could be halfway through the stay at this duty station, and we wanted it to be one of the two missions for Trud Gornyaka which provide advancement for the PCs.

To shake things loose and provide some adversity, I use the Deputy Politruk’s enmity and the poor supply situation described as reigning at Trud Gornyaka to send the Section out during daytime to fetch supplies, thus limiting their opportunities to gather mission points, forcing them to deal with lack of sleep and German flights, and generally putting the airwomen on the defensive a bit.

Sure enough, the last mission (with only one point in the mission pool!) was a nail biter. As soon as they fell short due to lack of mission points, the snowball started. In the end, all three planes that had gone out on that mission were totalled, three NPC airwomen were killed, and all three PCs (Maryam, Sveta, and Elena) were wounded. They earned their advancement, and the undying resentment of the Deputy Politruk…

The thing that I found interesting as a GM is that despite the mechanical elements favouring the moves snowball, I still had to nudge it along (like a real GM and stuff.) It suddenly felt a little arbitrary to make a hard move without being specifically directed! Yet it was in fact relying on the results of (disastrous) daytime moves, so it was in the spirit of the game. I had no guidelines for how to treat daytime flying, which moves to use. Since they didn’t have any bombs to drop during the supply run, I had them roll Tempt Fate to escape the German patrols.

The conclusion from all this is that even with the built-in moves snowball, the GM has to remain mindful of the fiction, of its cause-and-consequence flow, in order to provide sufficient challenge to make the game fun for the players.

The PO-2s, painted as an air ambulance section.
The PO-2s, painted as an air ambulance section.

The Joys of Hosting Role-Playing Games

FAE: at the game table
On Google+ this week, Larry Spiel asked:

Why don’t we see more women gamemasters? […] In both my gaming at home and at conventions I have seen genders getting closer to even, but most of the games that have GMs still see the men more likely to fill those roles.  I’d like to see more women doing it.

He went on to ask about possible deterrents and roadblocks, and ideas for encouraging more women into the role, focusing on presence at conventions. This was a public thread, so everyone should be able to view it and, if they have a G+ account, to comment.

Because the first several posts were from men, I didn’t initially feel like chiming in but then John Stavropoulos re-shared the question privately to his circles and, for those who wanted to answer, established some ground rules requiring that men listen in only and women be the ones to answer. That conversation took off beautifully. And after Kira Magrann re-posted her answer to the original thread, several of us decided to contribute there as well, so it got better in terms of target respondents, but John’s protected thread out-commented it by four to one. And a variety of interesting additional threads sprung from this on ways of encouraging people who are not the usual suspects to try game-mastering. One was a a series of “Why do I GM?” posts where people described what they get out of the role.

Anyhow, I decided that between all of these threads I had written enough to consolidate this as a blog post.

Obstacles

I started gaming in 1983 when I was a fresh(wo)man in engineering school. I was used to seeing 2 to 4 men for every woman in all my classes, so gaming was just an extension of this (it was at an official university club.) I started GMing a year or two later, taking turns with the rest of my gaming group. I didn’t go to a convention until 1994 or so, but again I started running games at conventions the following year. I married a gamer (so we’d always have a GM in our house), in fact the very one responsible for my early conventions fun. In 2006 we started organizing game day events and working as staff on conventions. We still do.

All this to say I’m a childless older woman, with a long habit of the milieu, attending with an ally at my side, in metropolitan West Coast areas (Seattle and San Francisco Bay) where there is a big pool of gamers. That makes everything so much easier. There are many challenges on the path, but here are the top three from my perspective.

Barrier No. 1: The Jerk Factor. For me GMing was always easier for friends than strangers; I wager that is true for most GMs regardless of gender. But as many commenters pointed out, it’s worse for women because a lot of people talk over women or address only men (yes, “people” because it’s true that I’ve met one or two women who did this, but they’ve been rare). In my early years, I looked for gamers and hoped they would become friends; but eventually I decided that I had it backwards. Now I invite nice people because I think we can be friends and I hope we can game.

At conventions, though, you take the luck of the draw. Fortunately, I usually have my husband and several friends around, that offers some social scaffolding even if they’re not playing in my game. But just like you can pick the gamers in your regular group, if you’re in a good gamer area like I am, you can pick the conventions that are most likely to be women-friendly. Do they have a policy on harassment? Alcohol? Emergencies? Giving back to the community? etc.

In my experience, smaller conventions with an indie/story/hippie game and community focus (like Go Play, Nerdly, Good Omens, Big Bad Con) have a higher quality of staff, game-masters and players. They may sometimes be tone-deaf just like any other, but your odds are better.

Barrier No. 2: Family + Money. I’ve noticed when we organized free family-friendly game days, we got entire families and near numbers parity between men and women (forgive me if I don’t have clearer gender breakdown here.) But when I worked on staff for the regular, weekend-long conventions that charge a fee, I saw mostly the males of the species. When I had a chance to talk to some of the people I kept seeing, I asked and the women all told me they could afford neither the time nor the money for both to attend so the ladies largely stayed at home with the kids or at best bought only a day-pass.

Barrier No. 3: Exhaustion. When mothers DO show up at a convention, this is their weekend to relax and have fun. They haven’t had time to prepare a scenario, and they don’t feel like playing hostess to a bunch of ingrates; they want to play some nice escapist fantasy, by gum! As others have pointed out above, acting as GM has an awful lot in common with traditional women’s roles; in fact, I’ve said on occasion that three quarters of what I know about GMing boils down to what my mom would call “being a good host.” So when you’re tired and want your gaming fix, this may sound like work, not fun.

What to Do?

Some ideas for encouraging GMs among those who are not the usual suspects:

  • Establish and post a zero-tolerance policy on harassment. There are good models online.
  • During the year, form a local club and encourage new games and new GMs.  (I once wrote a wiki entry on how to do this on RPG.net.)
  • For the convention, recruit GMs personally, by invitation.
  • Organize a women-only workshop event (best if actually organized by women.)
  • Invite women GMs as panellists and ask them to share tips, to talk about why they do this and why it’s fun for them.
  • Have a special “merit badge” or other trinket for women who sign up to GM a game. (I love collecting buttons or ribbons at conventions!)
  • If you have a newsletter, social media page, podcast, or website which you use to publicize your event, invite women (and non-binary, non-white, disabled, etc.) gamers to write or talk about the hobby and the event.
  • Ask all the women gamers you can find in your area to ping their women gamer friends. (While you’re at it, ask them about their previous experiences at local conventions, and whether there are known problem-gamers that haunt the circuit…)
  • Make it easy for couples and families to attend: discount, day care, kids’ events, etc.

One of the spin-off threads resulted in Emily Care Boss creating a site called Our Many Games where people can post useful starter kits and convention playsets to make the GM’s job easier while showcasing “games have been created by people of color, women of all ethnicities, people with disabilities, trans folk, queer creators and other people from under-represented groups.”

At Tony Lower-Basch’s suggestion, she also started a Google+ community to promote these same games and provide resources for convention organizers to include more of them on the roster.

Why do I GM?

  • Because a game catches my eye and my brain and won’t let go.
  • Because I love to see the magic happening at the table, when we get together to create a story never read or seen before.
  • Because I love to introduce new gamers to the hobby.
  • Because I love giving back to my gaming group so other GMs can have a turn at playing.
  • Because I love giving back to my community by helping make conventions a success.
  • Because nothing is more exciting than hosting a game for a group of enthusiastic, creative, and generous people. (Generous because it’s best when everyone is trying to make others shine.)

Sure, I still get the jitters. I run events at every convention I attend but to this day, I’m still nervous before every game, especially the first of the weekend — something I know also happens to many of my male friends who GM. But by now I know things generally go better than I think they will, and I can accept the occasional “Meh” game without completely destroying myself over it.

I love this hobby and I want more people to get good experiences with it, whether as new players or new game-masters.


Credits: The top picture is an illustration by Claudia Cangini for Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Accelerated.