How to discourage me from playing your game: Part 3

AaaarghThis is the third of a three-part rant discussion on things publishers do that turn me right off their role-playing games.

A big challenge in role-playing games is that they are usually read several times in greatly differing circumstances. In this section I focus on their ease of use at the game table. I’m not talking about system choices and mechanics, but strictly about how well the book supports game play.

3. Use in Play

At the game table, the reader will be trying to find specific information quickly, particularly rules information.

Continue reading “How to discourage me from playing your game: Part 3”

How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 2

Aw-noThis is the second of a three-part rant discussion on things publishers do that turn me right off their role-playing games.

Naturally, a single mistake probably won’t do it unless it’s ginormous and egregious, but a few too many and I’ll move on to the next game on my long wish list.

2. Readability

A big challenge in role-playing games is that they are usually read several times in greatly differing circumstances.

  • The leisurely reading you do on the bus when you just received your book from a Kickstarter campaign.
  • The selective reading you do to familiarize yourself with the setting and make a character for next Friday’s meeting with your gaming group.
  • The studious reading your friend is doing to prep for that same game as game-master.
  • The frantic reading in the middle of a game session to locate a particular piece of information or interpret a rule.

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to address all these needs; for example, a book may be perfectly well organized to present the setting information in an orderly fashion, but make it a nightmare to retrieve in a hurry at the game table. Today, I want to examine the ease of reading proper, all the kinds of reading we do when we are not actually playing.

Continue reading “How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 2”

How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 1

Scary-BookI’m a gaming junkie, especially where it comes to role-playing games. I’ve been gaming for decades, I have played or run at least 177 RPGs as of this writing, not counting different editions, playtests, or homebrews, and my shelves are overflowing with more I have yet to play. All this to say, I want to love your game. But it’s amazing how many published games still turn me right off because of mistakes that could be avoided with moderate effort, and sometimes even quite easily.

Not that that writing games is that easy, I know! There will be competing objectives, budget and schedule considerations, and so forth. But there are also some elements that can be incorporated in the planning, and hurdles that are make-or-break. In our cottage industry of devoted hobbyists, some mistakes are being made over and over. Even free games can be ruined so thoroughly by some of these mistakes that they lose the chance for a good review, which can’t be why you’re putting them out there!

One big challenge for game publishers is that there are several ways to approach the reader or, if you want, several opportunities to lose a gamer, so let’s look at them separately.

I’ll post the other sections over the the next few days.

Continue reading “How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 1”

How to tell the candidates what to do

 BSanders-HClinton2Last night my husband and friends voted in the California primary in what was dubbed this year “Super Tuesday IV” of the U.S. presidential election, then we watched the returns with friends. (I don’t get to vote but my naturalization process should be complete in time to vote in the November elections.)

Early in the evening I started seeing acrimonious posts on social media between friends who supported Bernie Sanders and friends who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. Some are saying “It’s over, Mr. Sanders, get behind the presumptive nominee;” which really means “STFU Bernie supporters, support my candidate.” The latter answer with “Our candidate said he was in until the national convention in July, he’s not going to fold now,” which really means “No you STFU, I’ll support who I want to.”

I understand both sides and they both have good points, but I find the bickering infuriating. Besides, the votes and in the candidates have announced their decisions — social media rants are not going to change that. So I’m going to tell you what to do too, and it involves reaching out to your candidate instead of antagonizing your friends. Continue reading “How to tell the candidates what to do”

Preparing for chemotherapy

Cancer constellation in a circleIf you have been diagnosed with cancer as I was in March, you may face the prospect of saying yes to chemotherapy — and going from whatever aches and pains you’re currently dealing with to several months of misery in the hope of killing cancer before it kills you. Here are some things you can do to prepare so this awful time can be weathered as well as possible.

Get help

You will need help, and for many of us, it’s very hard to ask for help. So think back on the times friends or family needed help, and how you wanted to be able to do something, anything. Tell the people around you what you need. Some will be able to give one small boost, and it may be just what you needed at the right time. Others will be incredibly generous, and you will feel awkward about it. That’s okay.

And yes, a few may be clumsy, overly directive, or factually wrong about the way they try to help you. Don’t take a friend’s miracle cure over your oncologist’s directions, and don’t let a well-meaning relative kindly bully you into anything. But accept the love that inspires this wrong kind of help.

Things you can get help with: Continue reading “Preparing for chemotherapy”

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. Continue reading “Saying Yes: Firefly RPG”

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. Continue reading “Saying Yes: Tianxia – Blood, Silk and Jade”

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. Continue reading “Saying Yes: Atomic Robo RPG”

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. Continue reading “Hands-off game-mastering: Yes, this means you”

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 it doesn’t.

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. Continue reading “OK, so how do I do that?”