Category Archives: Game Planning

Tips and tricks for planning your game.

New Star Wars D6 Campaign

So how would you like to see the running of a new campaign from the GM’s POV, from the first scribbled notes to running the actual game? This would be everything step by step: musing of arcs, planning and dead ends, characters and plots. The works.

Should hopefully be fairly enlightening, there might even be guest articles by the players (assuming they don’t read the notes too carefully…)

UK Accents

While looking up videos to get a better handle on the Welsh accent of a character I’m playing, I ran across a fun little video of all the major accents in the UK (with examples) as done by one woman. Brilliant.

I’m not sure how absolutely accurate she is, but it’s a good starting point for further research.

Unfulfilled Expectations

GamerCache002_byXechon
Not all wizards are played by Sir Ian McKellen (Click to Enlarge)

Even if you are not playing a team-killing Munchkin, there is a certain wisdom in keeping tabs on what the other Player Characters in the group can and can not do. Not all Elves are good with a bow, not all Dwarves know how to use a forge, and (as shown here) not all wizards have Giant Eagle friends.

There is an enjoyment to be had playing against archetype though, the entire Knights of the Old Republic comic book series (Dark Horse, John Jackson Miller) was approached from the point of view of a good-hearted Jedi who was frankly terrible at his job. He did the best that he could with a motley group of friends and the story was that much better for it.

Next time you play a “known” type of character, be it a dashing gunslinger or wise old wizard, make sure to throw in something completely against type. It makes for an enjoyable change to explore, as well as helping keep things from getting in a rut. This goes doubly for a GM! If the party fingers the goatee-twirling Grand Vizier as the obvious bad guy, let them discover his secret line of hair-care products while the Harmless Old Stablehand plots his oddly-efficient demise of the King. Always check your horse’s saddle straps, folks.

Surprise yourself and surprise your other players! However, don’t be so obfuscated as to cause party fights or needless PC deaths. Being a little different from the pack is good, but try to keep whatever it is from getting the whole party killed. You’ll never live it down.

Player Alignments

Most gamers, even the casual ones, know about the Classic PC Alignment chart. Say it with me my friends…

PC Alignments Lawful Neutral Chaotic
GOOD Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
NEUTRAL Lawful Neutral Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
EVIL Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil

While a good chart, there have been a few additions over the years. The standard sub-classifications of a few of the slots on the chart (in no particular order) are: Lawful Good Paladin Asshole, Lawful Stupid, True Neutral, Neutral Apathetic, Neutral Psychotic, Chaotic Schizophrenic, Chaotic Greedy, and Scenery-Chewing Over The Top Chaotic Evil Ham.

T-shirt (C) Gamercache 2008
Evil Overlord Rule #138: Theatrics is its own reward.

We’ve argued these alignments over character actions for decades now, laughing and accusing in equal measure. It wasn’t until 1983 that anyone decided to apply the same methodology to the Players themselves:

Jeff Okamoto and Sandy Petersen:
The whole thing started around 1983 or so at a party at Pacificon at the Dunfey Hotel in San Mateo in which the idea came up of classifying the different styles of roleplaying. They came up with four different types, which are explained below. Special credit goes to Perry Caro, Chris Guthrie, Rick Heli, Robert Allen, and Ken Kaufman, to name a few.

The Real Man
    The tough macho type who walks up to the attacking dragon and orders it to leave before he gets hurt.

The Real Roleplayer
    The intelligent cunning guy who tricks the constable into letting you all out of prison.

The Loonie
    The guy who will do anything for a cheap laugh, including casting a fireball at ground zero.

The Munchkin
    [Rules Lawyering Min/Maxer, ed.] Need we say more?

If you’ve never read it, check out the complete classic RRLM table by Jeff Okamoto, Sandy Petersen, and lots of others.

Let me see that sheet...
Clockwise from Top-Left: Real-Roleplayer, Real-Man, Munchkin, Real-Man, Loonie

Hours of entertainment have been found applying the RRLM definitions to fellow players and either embracing or denying the charges.  Personally, I tend to play the Real-Men/Real-Roleplayer types, but never let that stop you from enjoying a witty Loonie player. When they’re not disrupting the game, that is.

GM:   “The ground opens up in front of you. Your enemy, the Silver Knight, hovers above the chasm. What do you want to do?”
Kyle: “I’ll make another sign.”
GM:   “What does it say?”
Kyle: “Do not play on or around crevice.”

I hadn’t seen any new Player classifications in years, not until a game last week when a fellow Player described a person in his other game as a True Dickhead Gamer. It sounded a bit harsh at first, but then he presented unto us a convenient new chart by Blue Boxer Rebellion:

PLAYER Alignment Chart
PLAYER Alignment Chart

Ladies and Gentlemen, Elves and Dwarves of all ages, we have a new chart to annoy fellow players with. Sure it’s a bit rudimentary, and could probably use a couple more spokes for Harmless Loonie vs Campaign-Killing Loonie, but it’s a great start.

Let the accusations, denials and gleeful acceptances commence!

 

Doing your homework

The Hunt for Red OctoberToday’s post is in honor of Tom Clancy, unparalleled techno-thriller author who died this morning.

I have sometimes made comment about how I end up learning the oddest things while GMing. Generally speaking, when I sit down to plan out a campaign or upcoming session, I try to make it a believable  as possible. I certainly hold myself to a higher standard than Hollywood! I have found myself researching Napoleonic infantry formations for use in Mecha games, quantum physics for use explaining hyperdrives, evolution of languages for a game set during the Crusades, European and Asian heraldry for use in East meets West steampunk setting, various phrases in many languages for any number of games, and a hundred other odd topics.

Even so, you’re still not going to be an expert in the topic! However, I’ve found that knowing something about the topic is better than completely making crap up when it comes to portraying a given thing in your game setting. Why make up some babble that sounds sort of French when you could grab a cheap phrasebook and actually learn a few real phrases? The party going to be in turn of the century London? Go look up a few articles about famous buildings and people of the time. Mentioning a popular kids game, juicy scandal, or political debate from the time period can really help get Players immersed in the setting.

The GM is not an expert

Try to do the best you can, enjoy learning new things, and try to make the setting as realistic as possible (with respect to the style of setting itself, of course). The trick, as with many things, is to not over do it! There’s a balance between having the party’s Cop/Detective Player fill out a printed form on the crime scene (fun!) and making the Player learn every single facet of criminal law (boring!) If your Players start looking like the Economics class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off you’ve gone too far. Dial it back some, abstract the paperwork or procedures with a Bureaucracy or Protocol roll. If the character knows the skills and the Player doesn’t, that’s fine. That’s sort of the point of role-playing. Let the story unfold and keep the action moving! Even Tom Clancy himself would occasionally go into just a bit too much detail at the expense of keeping the story going. Sometimes you just have to say “Cool rifle bro, let’s not discuss the history of its bolt mechanism”. Well, not unless it’s the key to the murder mystery…

A writer cannot do too much research… though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel. Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.” –George R.R. Martin

It’s a bit like that middle chapter in Snow Crash, the one where you learn the Complete History of Sumerian Mythology with a side of CDC Viral Biology Reports. It’s painful, it borders the very bleeding edge of what your audience can be expected to sit through, and it’s utterly needed for the plot to make any sense at all. A bit of a conundrum, really. It’s the sort of Info Dump that most GMs issue as Handout Packets, short stories, or the occasional “Go watch this movie before next session.” The key is to find out how much the Players are willing to follow/learn to enjoy the game. Showing your work that the Quantum Cosmic Teleportation Blinky Lights Machine is based on 36 hours of physics research you did is utterly irrelevant if the explanation isn’t critical to the plot or the Players are bored silly. Bored players blow stuff up. Probably using the Quantum Cosmic Teleportation Blinky Lights Machine.

Remember, if a player gets up in your face about the intricate details of a thing that you only researched slightly you need to either incorporate their expertise (which is invariably being used to break your plot) or calmly enforce that you’re the GM and what you say goes. “In this setting, it works in the way I described” can get you out of a lot of arguments so that you can get on with the fun. We’ll talk about dealing with Power Players and Munchkins in more detail in another post.

 

If it’s not on the equipment list…

…Don’t be afraid to add it!

Czerka Heavy Blaster Pack
Czerka Heavy Blaster Pack (C) J. Ryan Decker

Just as long as it doesn’t break your game setting, that is. In this case a player needed a large blaster pack to power a Steadicam-mounted hip blaster. Think the big guns from Aliens meets a deck-sweeping stun cannon…. yeah. It was a bit over the top, but it did do only stun damage so I allowed it. It’s one of those judgement calls that a GM has to make that at first doesn’t sound hard but in hindsight can ruin an entire campaign with unexpected balance issues.

There’s no good guide to go off of here, except perhaps the personal judgement of the GM in regards to the Player. If you have a Munchkin on your hands, by all means do NOT let them start making up weapons! You’ll end up with rocket-powered head-seeking drills filled with explosives. Trust me on this one. But sometimes you will get something amusing like the Players wanting to add pressure-triggered tasers into a box of doughnuts to disable a few beat cops in order to steal something out of the Evidence Room. It’s amusing, it’s certainly creative, and there’s a good chance that it will fail spectacularly–so go ahead and let them try it.

If it fits the setting, fits the tech level, won’t take an entire R&D department a year to develop it, and won’t destroy your campaign then it should be considered. Who knows, it may drive the story in a new and interesting direction. Heck, the entire plot of every single MacGyver and A-Team episode revolved around exactly this!

If things start looking uncontrollable, remember this:

That which the GM can give, the GM can taketh away.

 

 

 

Introduction to useful NPCs

Settine "Spooky" Lestrade © J. Ryan Decker
Settine “Spooky” Lestrade © J. Ryan Decker

The Difference between a Good story and a Great story are the people you meet along the way.” –Xechon

We touched on the use of NPCs last post to help guide the plot. It is absolutely one of the best uses for the NPC, and one that I use often. It is often stated that while the Players are each running one character, the GM is running the Entire Rest of the Frickin’ Universe. While it is impossible to flesh out the desires and motivations for every single person in the Multiverse, and it can even be a bit hard to make the inhabitants of a single town more than 2D cutouts or archetypes, care should be taken to make the people that the Players meet most often to be just a real as the Characters themselves.

If I know I’ll be using an NPC for more than just a scene, I make sure to fill out a character sheet as if they were a real PC. Generally I’ll do this if they are notable friends, additional filler party members, and especially if they are recurring Big Bads. The fastest way to sink a story is to make the Antagonist a mustache twirling “Bad Guy” doing it for the lulz. The opposition should have just as many hopes, dreams, desires, skeletons in the closet, and personality flaws as the main Player characters–probably more! The Emperor was a bit of a scenery-chewing over the top comic villain, pretty forgettable really. But Darth Vader was a Tragic character with a backstory, desires, and enough regrets to drown a planet of Mon Calamari.  Which kind of Big Bad would your Players most like to see? Which one will they be talking about years after the campaign wraps up?

Personally, I try to find character reference photos or draw them out by hand. It helps cement the NPC in the player’s minds more. Next, mannerisms or even accents make an NPC stand out in a Player’s mind. A turn of phrase that the NPC likes to use, or (if you’re rushed) a wacky but memorable schtick will help differentiate them from the crowd. If your Players are actually calling your NPCs by their correct names and not “That One Guy From The Tavern” or “Lord Deathmetal Dude”, then you’re doing your job right.  I have a few NPCs from previous campaigns that to this day the mere mention of their name brings debates among Players as to their true motivations, allegiances, and Dark Side redeem-ability. Makes a GM smile. 🙂

I plan on occasionally posting the Character Sheet for NPCs that I’ve used in games, feel free to use them in your own campaigns and settings (just don’t go claiming any of my personal Copyrighted material as your own, eh?). We’ll be starting over the next several days with six rough and tumble types that I used in a Star Wars D6 campaign in an arena deathmatch. In this case one Player was in the arena, but instead of having the other six Players sit around bored I had them randomly draw a pit fighter to play. All of a sudden it went from “boring arena fight we have to watch” to “Hunger Games, it is so on” in the span of 30 seconds.

Maegan: “So it’s your first game session [with us] and you’re fighting your boyfriend in the Thunderdome. Going to go easy on him?

Katie: “Oh Hell no, he’s going down.”

1024th Executive Officer Games Lineup

Nudging the Plot Wagon

GamerCache001_byXechon

Plot wagons do not drive themselves, somewhere between cracking the whip over the unstoppable iron rails of your game notes and the free-form storytelling of a plot-less LARP lies a sweet zone of good gaming. Although, as you may of guessed, how to keep the Players on track has always been a bit of a trick. Various GMs handle this various ways, some tend to fall back to the old AD&D way of doing things:  Have you ever been reading a novel or playing a game when the Heroes walk into an establishment at the local town/garrison/starport, and suddenly the locals become oddly useful spewers of information–handing out quests and dolling out tidbits of trivia like a Chekov’s Gun on automatic. It seems forced doesn’t it? Rather unrealistic even? Suddenly you’re mentally playing an MMORPG where the game designers didn’t have the time to get the information across properly* or the game has no way of telling where in the story arc you are, so it just vomits out this information whenever you get close hoping to pull you in.

Novelists and Game Masters do not have this cop-out.

As a writer or storyteller, you should know exactly where your Players are in the plot-line you created. Even if they have jumped the rails so hard they can’t see the tracks, you have the ability to adjust right then and there how the people of the town/garrison/starport react to them to get them back to the plot. Get creative! Don’t have the barkeep blindly tell them about the 3:10 to Yuma on the tracks they so blatantly left behind, have the Saloon Girl saunter up to them and suggest a hot bath to weary travelers. Rooms are only a nickle and the food here is warm. Say, why don’t you take a seat? Put your feet up while we get you a drink and tell us what you’ve seen out there Stranger.

Stan Cam by J. Ryan Decker

Is a conversation with an NPC better than an information spew? Of course it is, it flows. It feels natural. Sure you may be itching to get them back to something resembling your game notes, but you need to do it subtly. In the first example above, the GM gave the player no real reason to get in the cabbie. The character had no incentive to walk into a trap, and the only reason they were even following along at all was because it was obvious that the GM’s entire plot arc depended on it. It was, admittedly, hilarious though. In the second example, with the help of a friendly barmaid the GM lets the Player’s Characters settle in to the inn for a bit. They get to know the local colourful NPCs over the course of the conversation before someone, a scruffy Deputy Marshal or a Mysterious Stranger Eyeing the Hobbits Warily From The Shadows Of The Inn, steps in to lend a hand and push the story back in the direction the GM had originally intended all along.

Never underestimate the value of a useful NPC! If you have a Player that you know can’t resist a good Scooby-Doo mystery, then by all means have the sultry Femme Fatale Widow in the slinky black dress walk into their Private-Eye Detective Agency on a rainy night begging for help and offering the irresistible allure of Adventure. If it’s good enough for Film Noir, it’s good enough for you! As a GM, you get bonus points for getting the Players to think it was their idea. 😉 We’ll get into the art of crafting of believable NPCs in later posts.

 

*Despite GMing being a verbal art, an old adage still rings true: Show, Don’t Tell

 

Transcript of Comic:

GM: “A steam-powered black cab buggy pulls up in front of you, blocking your path to the train station. The logo on the side bears the mark of Hellstrome Industries. Do you want to get in?”

Player Me: “Why would I do that?!? No one but the bad guys suspect I’m alive, the town is littered with my Wanted posters, and the next train back to New York leaves Union Station within the hour.”

Player Josh: “Shut up and get in the plot cab!”

 

AD&D © TSR and Wizards of the Coast

Deadlands and Hellstrome © Pinnacle Entertainment Group

Strider and the Hobbits © J.R.R. Tolkien, may the Elves sing to him nightly from all the beautiful hills and vales of the Undying Lands

 

 

T-12 Hours until Gameday…

It’s 12 hours until the game starts and you suddenly realize that whatever fired your drive to write tomorrow’s session has decided to stealth off to the nearest dark corner to hide. The notes are jotted, the maps scribbled out, and the NPCs lined up (I’ll go into more detail on all of those steps in later posts)–but the verve pour la vie that was riding high when you thought of the scenario is missing.

Usually the session you’re running is taking place days, if not weeks, after you planned it. Whatever excited you to come up with the day’s scenario may have long since drifted away into mere mild interest. The Neal Stephenson cyberpunk book was finished weeks ago, the inspiration was high, the scenario was dutifully planned, the game day approaches… and you’ve been reading Star Wars sourcebooks for the past two days. How do you get back into the zone for a dark and gritty future on the mean streets of the post-apocalypse when you’ve got a head full of magical samurai monks in flying spaceships?

For each person it’s different, but it’s always a bit like settling in to character before a theatre performance. It’s hard to get into the mind of Hamlet when sitting at a sunny Starbucks sipping a latte, but it’s rather a lot easier when surrounded by people in costume, the ring of swords, and the brooding lighting of a well-built set. The same trick can be used when GMing to “get into the mood”: read a Star Wars graphic novel or watch a movie before running the players up against a Hutt Cartel on Ord Manrell, re-read the intro chapter to Snow Crash or toss in The Road Warrior before hitting the oily streets of Night City, crank up an old Mechwarrior game soundtrack before landing a dropship full of party battlemechs into a Marik ambush, etc.

It doesn’t take much to get back into the excited zone you were in when you wrote out the scenario in the first place, but it is always worth the effort. Nothing kills a game faster than a bored GM. Not even a Jawa at the controls of a Xim War Robot… but that’s another story.

Required Viewing
Star Wars, a nutritional part of this balanced dinner.