GM challenge: Best Practices

Ckutalik over at the Hill Cantons asked every GM’s three best practices. I wrote an almost answer years ago because, you know, I can see the future.  But I want to give better answers this time around. Or try at least.

  1. Strip mine your surroundings for ideas and turn them into archetypical subverted caricatures: I really really like creating NPCs out of people by making them a subverted caricature of the original to make them into a different entity. The same can be done with anything else: places, events, items. Caricatures magnify what’s important about the entity but the subversion gives it deeper, interesting shades. For example: I need a merchant city, so I pick Dunbarton, put it in the middle of Genoa and make it ruled by a never-seen immortal queen and her secret police. When I needed a shady broker I took my dad (a salesman) and gave him a gang of thugs. My demihuman races have Italian regional accents, but have magnified idiosincrasies (my halflings are more halflingish than yours, and speak Sicilian). Filthy Phil (a really stinky ragman and garbage-sifter in my current setting) is inspired to… well, I like dumpster diving (the best stuff you can get is free). The beautiful thing is that you can do this on the fly in games: players usually are fascinated by deep NPCs and they think deep NPCs must be important hence worth their time: oftentimes they just like them, especially if you play gonzoish adventures. Which gives me enough time to actually link them with the rest of the setting in (you guess it) subverted caricatures of existing relationships.
  2. Evolutionary game elements rock: the reasoning is that of the 10 campaign elements (npcs, odd objects, etc) you introduced in the last settings, players will pursue maybe 2. They will pursue the most interesting, because they don’t care about the others. So if you improvise you can just come up with a good/boring element ratio of 1/4, the players will kill the bad ideas by not caring about them. The morale is: stop fretting about the quality of your improv, just care about players’ feedback. If you only come up with amazing ideas, the players will pick only the most interesting so, instead of having gold and platinum in your game, you’ll have only platinum. Of course this works only if you are not a control-freak railroader. There is only trying, diversity is king, survival of the most adaptable and so on.
  3. Play with your players: the game is yours, but players live in it. I suppose you don’t hate them, so your goal is to have fun with them, not at their expenses. I’m not saying to indulge in monty haulism, but if you have a choice between doing what you want and doing something that your players find interesting (and doesn’t irk you), go for the second one: players will feel engaged (read point 2 above) and they will steer the game for a while, giving you overworked GM time for thinking about other stuff. It works best when a player goes like “I wonder if Mr X is obsessed with orchids because of an ex lover or something” and you apply point 2 and yeah, it’s because his mom loved them and he has an Oedipus complex. If your bud Dan feels supergood when his PC saves a young girl and gets closely but not necessarily sexually involved with her, you have a major player driver in your arsenal that you can use every time without fault: remember to apply subversion from point 2 above to keep things different. More in general, Intuitive Continuity works extremely well, if you don’t need to have your ego fed at every step of the game.

In general, I favour player centered design: it works with software, why not for D&D?

On Playtesting and (Unintended) Consequences

Playtesting is an odd beast: when there are no problems and the game goes well, you’re not trying hard enough.

In the past weeks I’ve not being posting much as – unbelievably – I’ve being playing games; not only some new boardgames like 7 Wonders and Colyseum, but also the last revision of the Civilization boardgame (all of which I warmly recommend you to try).

In addition some work has been done (not only by me) on putting together a faux-retroclone fantasy adventure game. I’ve been trying a variety of combat systems to find where the fun is while keeping the combat as abstract as possible and, in order to do so, a lot of gaming blood was shed. In the process some fighting systems clicked immediately, while some others were more hit and miss; an example of the latter, my favourite system treats melees as a set of fighing contests, with winners wounding losers.

A significant aspect that became apparent in the fourth playtest session was that, being the game d6-centric, matching melee +1d6 vs melee + 1d6 makes even a small difference in melee very significant: a difference of 2 means a two-fold reduction in damage inflicted and, at the same time, receiving 1.5 times as much damage. And, obviously, fighting hand-to-hand against someone with a melee way higher that yours is ground for character termination.

While this might seem a bad combat system per se (and sure it seemed to me when I noticed), we must not forget that no rule exists in a vacuum, that rules drive the game in specific directions. That we put rules in place, ultimately, to make players win in the easiest way they can come up with.

For example an expert swordman might have no problem entering a low-level dungeon with no armour, knowing well that mobility and skill will protect him enough, allowing for a fast extraction (of treasure), while a more modest fighter will don heavy armour, a large shield and surely bring plenty of mates, preparing for long and worrying fights.

For some we want some games we want melee skill to impact heavily in fights: fighting against a way better opponent should be deadly: in this case using d6s instead of d20s makes for a less luck-based, more strategic game, where fights are treated seriously by at least one side and, at the same time, makes clever use use of terrain, cover and missile weapons critical. It makes for a game where being slowed by the burden of heavy armour can be fatal as not knowing when to flee from a one-sided fight.

More playtest sessions will follow, both Sunday at the Glasgow University Occupation Charity Gaming Fundraiser and Monday at the usual Glasgow Indie Gamers meetup. If you happen to hang around western Scotland, come join us! 🙂

bits: me and the OSR, Dungeon Design Patterns

Sitting exams is a pain. The fact that I’m 9 years older than my coursemates is kinda depressing. So, I’m not really writing or playing nowadays, just revising. But two gamey thoughts surfaced.

The first one is that I wish I could write what Sham, Robert Conley and Zak S. write, and with their clarity. Despite being quite fluent in English I can’t really write clearly enough at times. And that’s frustrating, as even before thinking about clarity and stile it’s obvious that they manage to come up with way more interesting stuff than I do. And it’s ok to feel that you’re not as good as the finest of a given field, I think. Probably I should stop writing about gaming and start writing and playing games, or write software related to games, or explore ideas about games presentation. Or chill a bit. Having free time would be good.

The second thought is that Sham mentioned some dungeon design patterns in his last post, and that piqued my interest big time and I’m so looking forward to read about them. Design Patterns were introduced by A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al., which describes a set of archetypal repeatable generic solutions (patterns) used many, many times in different civilizations to solve problems related to settlements, such as communal space organization, ventilation, comfort, control, access, relationships, privacy, separation of concerns and so on. And those are problems that we meet also while writing dungeons.

On the OSR and its legacy

We all know that the OSR managed, in a really short timespan, to create a huge quantity of gaming material.

A good part of this creative endeavour is at least of “good enough” quality. Which is way better than what got published in the early 2000s for the d20 system, IMVHO.

What I’m concerned about is its great fragility, scarce organization and searchability. The wiki is a first good step addressing the second problem, but we can’t stop there. Because server faults can make documents unreachable forever, like happened to Microlite 20, where a change of maintainer wiped all the available material off the web, except for what’s in the Wayback Machine.

What would be optimal would be a (possibly replicated) OSR archive containing all the gaming material created by the OSR, properly licensed and indexed. While I’m not arguing to actually save all blog entries (too much noise and faff), at least saving all collections, like Kellri’s CDDs, the various retroclones, and similar self-contained materials.

The SRD by itself doesn’t allow to save the published material to make it publicly available and I don’t really know how it would interact with Creative Common licences like CC BY-NC-SA.

The question is: can us, the community, afford to lose the legal access to useful game material without resorting to cloning it? For example Robert Conley’s Blackmarsh is a very good freely available sandbox setting, but some of its parts are Product Identity and therefore it maybe should be “cleaned” before redistribution, if Rob hadn’t cleverly published a stand-alone Blackmarsh SRD. Other authors haven’t been so thoughtful.

We don’t want to lose the OSR legacy and its artefacts to Internet obsolescence. Think of the children… 🙂

There are dangers, in the vaults

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Men-eating ghouls, rat as big as hounds,
distant eerie tunes, creepy glowing runes,
dragons of flame, elves of deadly aim,
slimes that eat your flesh,
birds that gouge your eyes,
stirges that bleed you dry
(not to talk of the vampires),
and the whole lots of goblins, ogres and kobolds,
not to forget of the Great Underground Hobgoblin Empire.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Vorpal scythes,
swallowing pits
disintegrating purple rays
poisonous darts,
electrifying plates,
and don’t try to pull
any of the five chains.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Gold shining, gems glittering,
tomes full of forbidden lore, relics of the kings of yore,
riches making honest men
greedy like fallen dwarves
and things ending up in strange places,
steel blades beneath shoulder blades,
hemlock in wine bottles,
people left in deep pits.

There are dangers in the vaults.
And,
trust me this time,
the meanest, darkest,
nastiest,
most disappointing of them all, are
“Adventurers armed and dangerous”.
people you used to call
“mates”.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
You don’t get to
pick yours, son.

emergent plot – stirring up the sandbox

Aye, I know. I dropped the “P” four letter word in the post title of a supposedly OSR blog. The OSR police will come here with their 1d100 hirelings wielding glaive-guisarmes and hook-fauchards and lay siege to my parents’ place (I’m visiting) until I repent or burn my copies of Ravenloft and Tales of the Lance (those fools don’t know the dungeon/basement has a hidden exit).

Anyway: as previously mentioned IMVHO one of the most important hats DMs have to wear is the MC one: ensuring that everything’s running smoothly and that everybody’s having a good time. Not winning, but enjoying. Most importantly, keep the game going and provide players with stuff to interact with, while feeling more and more a part of the game world and able to intervene on it. Deconstructing the game to its bones you just need to provide players with 1-3 “encounters/events/interactions” for every gaming hour.

One of the most productive ways to do this, for me, is to come up with overly ambitious NPCs and villains, and to make sure their brilliant secret plans to fame/sex/their parents’ approval/gratification/power/gold/munchies are coherent with the setting: this way, for scarcity of resources, as there’s only so much land/gold/etc available, conflict will arise, and the NPCs will be at each other’s throat in no time. Note that NPCs might not even know that they have conflicting plans, or who is opposed to them and in which way, or even that there are opponents… I’ll call these kind of NPCs “big players” (call them factions if you want, but they’re not factions di per se).

Best bit, they’ll be hiring PCs to do the hard/nasty work: this way PCs will possibly ingratiate their patron, get money and experience, push forward the patron’s plans and set back his opponents. Doing this they’ll get a bit of reputation (good or bad) as the words of their deeds spread, eventually being known to other big players in the campaign, which will try to interact with them in various ways: murder, bribes, blackmail, appeasing and so on. This should “automagically” create something that looks like a plot, making it emerge straight from the interactions between campaign elements. The situation should be unstable so that players tipping in a direction or the other can cause things to happen differently.

It might be that PCs will understand what’s going on and decide (probably later in the campaign) NOT to be hired, but to play their own part in the big game, becoming “big players” themselves in what’s “traditionally” D&D endgame (or Ars Magica first “summer” and then “autumn” Covenant seasons).

The most typical way to propel the plans are either “trigger driven” or “time driven”:

  • Trigger driven: things happen when player’s actions (or inaction) trigger them; for example, the Tyrant of Syrak decides to send his war navy to blockade Marchil when the PCs arrive to Syrak, just in time to see the galleons leaving the harbour in full sail, or even better to join them as privateers.
  • Time driven: NPCs do things all the time, interacting with the PCs just by in-game means; for example, the first of March the Emperor sets his armies off to new campaigns, armies that will take a proper number of days of overland travel to reach their destinations, a proper number of days to lay siege to cities and so on. As the time goes by, other “big players” will react accordingly as either their minions will report to them or simply rumors spread.

Note that in both cases I deliberately made the action noticeable to the players, either through rumors or direct interaction: making developments noticeable to players is very important, and justifies spending money for spies and the like. Some kind of rumor mill is needed, possibly with the players spending resources toward having better information sources. Of course some information will be worth a lot.

A simple example follows:

Up and Down the East Coast

  • On the East Coast there are two Kingdoms (North and South), separated by tribes of marauding orcs.
  • Kingdom South has lots of alpacas and needs iron for its heavy cavalry. King South is an epicurean slob, but cares much about his people, who loves him back (mainly because of light taxation and reasonable justice system and code of laws).
  • Kingdom North has iron and needs nice and warm textiles because winters there are horrible. King North is very greedy and (as you’ll read) has a nice business going on.
  • Kingdom N and S are very good commercial partners and enjoy a long military alliance against the orcs. There is a sound that would enable them to trade by sea avoiding to sail around the big Isle of Nasty Waters, but it is home to a strangely active dragon (currently trying to assemble a big hoard to attract a mate). No one goes in the Dragon Sound… almost no one.
  • Oversea trading is done via the Trading League, a trust of ship-owners owning galleons seaworthy enough to double the Isle of Nasty Waters. They have bought out, brought in or sunk all other trading companies in the two kingdoms, and talked the kings into taxing imports not coming from the the kingdoms, resorting to pretty much anything to keep on being the real “king of the hill”.
  • Marks on the borders of the two kingdoms would like to be independent, squish the orcs, grab & settle on their lands and join in a league, thus securing an inland trade route. If they could get rid of the dragon they could also secure the Dragon Sound, the Isle of Bad Waters and make the Trading League’s operations less viable unless they get a nice share.
  • Independent pirates try to capture ships for ransom around the Isle of Bad Waters, sometimes fleeing in the sound, where they pay the dragon for protection. They could team up and settle in the sound, as the kingdoms’ war navies are not that big.
  • In the North big landowners are a bit grumpy because of the trading guild, as local winterflax (a kind of flax that lives north) is not commercially viable anymore. Their distance from their Capital makes them not really politically powerful or active. The King doesn’t care as he owns the iron mines, financing fortresses and mercenaries with money gotten from the mines and its thieves guild.
  • Said mercenaries can kick orc asses before breakfast, no sweat, but want to be paid. Or else.
  • The Archery Commanders in the South see the whole heavy cavalry thing as an overly expensive exercise that not only takes away a lot of their prestige, but makes the South Kingdom reliant on foreigners to equip their army, and would like for this shenanigans started by young hipsters to stop and return to the old traditional mounted archer. The “new” heavy cavalry Commanders are a smart bunch of young and brave officers that study military theory, fight very effectively (think winged hussars) and are a bit annoyed at their gramps using strategies and tactics from a few centuries ago.
  • Two thieves guilds (one per city) buy stuff from the pirates and, at times, sinks or capture foreign ships or buy their mutiny; this is done mainly to fix prices (at times both guilds and the trade league act in concert) and both have vast hoards of iron and wool hidden in both cities and their surroundings: the relative scarcity is at the moment created by the Trading League and the Guilds. The North Guild secretly pays his king a quarter of its gains every season, also secretly recruiting spellcasters to curse the local nobles and their lands so that winterflax doesn’t grow well, while the South Guild is tolerated by his king and nobles as they source them with the good stuff anytime they want. Or else.
  • When the players will realize the stupid amount of gold and iron the dragon is sleeping on, they’ll start drooling over themselves.

Guest Post: The Rise and Fall of a Game Master

We were cooling off after one of our three-hours long gaming sessions and, as it often happens, we drifted to campaign building, sandboxes and all the usual topics.

Somehow I ended up retelling how campaign building, to me, was totally different when I was 16 years old. And yes, this assertion makes me sound like a wizened old moron.

When I was 16 I didn’t have to prepare anything before a session. In fact I could go on for hours, events and people would play around in my head and in my players’ eyes, all of it made up on the spot, coherent, a bounty of gaming opportunities.

In fact I recall starting one of our most tasty campaigns ever, one which my players still recall fondly even if it ended in a total party kill*, with just this thought floating in my head: the main character is a young noble coming back from the war, where he finds that his father has left, along with most of the cash and the entire family entourage, for a distant land.

I recall, during the middle of the first session, that I told myself: “Sure this father of his was mighty crazy to leave land and title behind for a random exploration, what sort of family would follow him?”. The abandoned castle exploration turned into a tour of the family’s follies, from the weird underground theatre where ogres were showcased and trained to perform circus exibitions, to the endless labyrinth of tunnels that Aunt Greta had magically dug to loose herself, finally succeeding, never to be seen again. The exploration went on and on for multiple six-hours long sessions, all of it was entirely made up on the spot, without effort and without worry.

I wonder if the style of that campaign, and others, could be defined as being a sandbox. There surely was no story arc for the players to follow, at first, then all of my ravings started to be pushed consistently in one direction by the players together. It somehow climaxed multiple times before, at last, the aforementioned showdown on the flying steps, versus a dozen Balrogs.

After that golden period though, I entered a dark age, from 17 up to 20 and maybe a bit beyond, everything changed.

My mind was empty, I felt a kind of suffocation, no matter how powerful was the initial idea for the campaign, after a few minutes into the first session I was lost into a bleak landscape and my players began to watch tv in the meanwhile.

I must have aborted a dozen campaigns after a couple hours of struggling, painful “play”.

At first, of course, I blamed the players, who would loose interest before I could enter “the flow”, which, I told myself, would certainly happen after a session or two. But, while it was true that I was never allowed more than one session to prove the worth of the campaign, the whole concept of just needing a couple sessions to start properly GMing was bullshit. I am now sure that, even if we had endured dozen of hours of the gray void I was evoking at each attempt, nothing good would have come of it.

Like the efficient customers of a product marketing simulation, my players killed my campaigns just in time, as I was starting to truly feel the pain. I guess that their perfect timing was due to the fact that they were feeling the same pain.

Witnessing the abortion of so many campaigns I started to put in more and more time in preparation, something which I never had to do before. Yet, all of the preparation in the world did not let me run a successful campaign; and, towards the end of the dark ages, I tried hard enough to know.

How did I leave the dark ages? In my humble opinion I never fully left them, or, better, I never could return to the golden age. Maybe that’s because we are unable to meet for whole afternoons thrice a week, but it’s also because I now only partially manage to enter the flow.

I start with a fine scenario, but it must be fairly detailed. I must have a good idea of all the entities involved in the core of the scenario and what are their goals and personalities. Then I fill in the rest during the game, and it works. I tend to begin with no more than a couple “forced” adventures to warm up the group and to provide ways for them to show interest in one or more of the seeds. The introductions are definitely part of the scenario preparation and I prepare them to introduce as many seeds as possible without messing everything up.

Unsurprisingly, this structure is pretty much the same that popped up in the golden age. During the dark ages, starting from this very same structure (albeit unconscious), I made a full circle, from totally unstructured “The characters are crazy deamons” campaigns, to meticulous “On the 6th of Larane the Agrikan knights leave Dirisa” epics, and finally back. All equally unsuccessful.

One very telling detail of the good campaigns is that, for all the preparation, almost nothing which actually proved memorable to me and my players was prepared. Most of the stuff that was really great, we invented on the spot, just like in the old days of yore. The difference now is that the great stuff is not present in such quantity as to be self-sustaining, I need solid, reliable, pre-produced mortar to support and breed the rest.

A few examples of the stuff that really worked great :

  • The merchant Galibaf, who will cater only the best stuff to the best adventurers, but who always leaves the PCs feeling like they have been duped, because, you know, Galibaf always wins a bargain, hands down.
  • The welcoming folks of the city of steel and coal, Volkgrendel, who speak like operetta nazi yet always gawk at the players and ask why THEY speak with “So veird an achzent!”.
  • The goddess Berella, who switched sides from being a dark and evil goddess into a purported goddes of light, thanks to her timely bedding with the head of the light pantheon, just as the fortunes of her previous partner, the god of violence, were waning. The switch meant that the PC who was worshipping her, as a professional assassin, found himself a paladin one week later. Yet, at crucial moments, he manifested peculiarly sinister powers, which hinted at the true nature of his Lady. He unofficially began to hail her as “The whore of heavens”, as she was often too busy “working” up the hierarchy of light, to answer his calls.

The stuff that I prepare, instead, even that which I consider to be top notch, which I often expect to astonish and gratify the players, the Blunderbuss, Dago and other cool stuff which does not belong to this post, is rarely a huge success. Sometimes it’s memorable, but it is not such a force in the campaign as I would have expected. I finally came to the conclusion that I must strive to prepare the best, most interesting stuff without hoping that it will guide the campaign. No matter how central I may believe a prepared piece of stuff to be, the central NPC in the main campaign seed, it will always be just context for the players, it’s the stuff I make up on the spot to react to the players actions in that context that becomes central and truly drives the campaign.

[And now, for something completely different: you would not believe it, but I just witnessed a snow avalanche while typing this. I’m on a train and while exiting the Gotthard tunnel I glanced out to see a previously green valley being engulfed by tons of snow sliding from mountaintops]

Finally, to wrap up this endless jaculatory with an endless closing, here follows my take on my shifting and ebbing performances in game mastering, and read carefully, because this is going to be utterly simplistic and obvious, proving that if there was any entertainment to grasp from this post, it was certainly located upflow from here:

Since the same campaign structure has both succeeded and utterly failed, which is the difference between the golden age, with its effortless and huge success, the dark age, with its serial failures, the silver age with much more technique and fair results?

A child’s unrestrained imagination, finally replaced by technique and experience?

Imagination, yes, but I think it has but a weak relation to brain age. The fact is that between 13 and 16 I was living and breathing my games. I didn’t invent all of that stuff on the spot without preparation, that’s nonsense. The preparation was there, it was pervasive, entertaining and completely unstructured. It took up most of my free time, even if I was apparently doing something else.

Lots of what I happened to see would push me to broad fantastications. Not plain stuff, as one might expect when picturing the way a child’s mind works, no, I was never inspired by a bus or by the bleak church standing beside my flat. It was the clouds, the mountains encircling Turin (which I could see once a week when pollution and fog were lifted by the odd windy day, thanks to the city’s marvelous weather), roman ruins, castles, NASA images, the Silmarillion (never a book was more boring, but such style!), maps, ancient pieces of furniture, game books, avalanches…

The good news is that this kind of stuff still has the same effect on me, it sparks my imagination. I just became good at focusing on “important stuff” and I didn’t let the multitude of inspirations around me run their full length in my head.

That’s what killed my games when I was a teen. I suddenly became focused on mundane stuff : school, technology, girls, friends, parties and the time my brain spent on thinking crazy was reduced to near-zero. What a waste!

Dedicated, time-boxed efforts to prepare the campaign resulted in a drift towards rigid adventures which killed the campaign even sooner than usual.

The first fine campaign I was able to run after the dark ages (the one which in fact marked the end of it) was run during a very peaceful period of my life, with little or no worries. Then I noticed that I had switched back to fantasticating and understood its relationship with the quality of my gaming sessions.

I’ve come to value my absent-mindedness, it’s what keeps me out of the dark ages. I’ve begun to breed it rather than the campaign itself and I’ve found that things have started to work, a bit, once more.

In one line: to me, the most valuable preparation is preparing a state of mind.

[*] : but it was a full-party kill set on the flying steps leading to the altar holding the ultimate sword of power, the only one capable of stopping the war between two races by proving that none was superior, but both were inferior to the now extinct smiths of said sword.

I asked Carlo, my GM to write a guest post, after the discussion mentioned at the beginning of the post. He runs a GURPS 4th edition campaign. It’s a rules-heavy sandbox and my character is a monk, whose order I shall label “celtic shaolin” for lack of better words. Anyway, he mostly does software engineering, not RPGs, so don’t expect to find about dragons & daemons in his blog. Yet.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 2: your players are unique snowflakes a.k.a. psychographics are lame

All the posts in the serie here.

Picking up where I left last time

This post was supposed to be about players psychographics and what drives them and how to deal with that but the topic has been discussed, dissected & bled dry so many times I don’t feel the need to even go near it.

Instead I’d like to go meta on that and spend a couple of words on the relationship between your players and your game. If this sounds like utter poppycock to you, leave a comment:

  • they’re all different: different people means different needs means different things they get out of playing, and different ways of moving in social spaces. If you’re friends with them, cherish the thought that you know how to handle them in meatspace and realize that it takes great people to completely separate what happen in game and what happens around the table, because by its own nature of gamespace is subversive and used to behave in ways not possible in real life. Don’t pidgeonhole players in the usual G/N/S or whichever taxonomy they invented this month: as you have 5-10 people and not 5-10 hundred thousand, you can afford to treat them as unique snowflakes. This allows you to put treats and challenges in your game for all of them. It’s not so much work…
  • on a more general level, in all games, but in RPGs evermore so, every participant is perfectly able to spoil the fun of everyone else, so partially responsible for everyone else’s fun. Don’t play with dicks, and don’t be a dick yourself. This applies even more in sandboxes as there’s no shame involved with derailing the plot, killing important NPCs or torching villages.
  • ask them for feedback: what makes them tick and what ticks them off about how you and other players play. There are some games I’ve run lately which seemed totally lame to me but, after soliciting feedback from my players, were great fun. To get better you need to learn from your errors and your successes, but to tell them apart you need feedback. Also, when things happen at the table take a note (mental or otherwise) of how people react: feedback asked might be not totally genuine for a number of reasons, so understanding how they react to events is very important. Think ethnographer.
  • you’ll see patterns of behaviour: for example, my group never scouts any location. Never ever, and their retinue has a number of rogues. Yours might always scrutinize every corner of every room for treasure, or they might always play wiseguy with all NPCs. If and how you want to use this knowledge as DM is up to you: plot is a metagame element usually absent from sandboxes (at least in its traditional sense of “predetermined string of events that are the focus of the attention”) but you can always metagame in other directions.
  • knowing what they want is easy: ask them! They probably don’t need exactly what they want, but it can be a nudge in the right direction. In general in a sandbox they’ll pursue activities they like (think Pavlov’s dog) and avoid what they don’t, so if they never scout it might be because they don’t like it or because they don’t like falling back or running away (also known as: I’m insecure and I don’t want to fail also in gamespace).

So, yes, you created your world and it’s a shining and beautiful gem but to remember to think of how your end users will interact with it.

How I learnt not to suck at running games

I remember my first RPG session: I ran S. Andre’s Amulet of the Salkti for a bunch of classmates in primary school. It tanked: as I was basically the only one that was up for running games I didn’t have much to learn from so I kept on tanking for years, improving slowly. After a while I learnt that with what we would now call hexcrawls peppered with published adventures players enjoyed more (and allowed me to sneak in locations and plots if I felt inspired or simply rolled up something myself).

Fast forward a few years, there’s a single piece of writing that changed the way I run games: Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here).

Go. Read both parts. Come back.

Ok, it’s not that mind shattering. But I realized three things:

First: I had a list I just needed to fill in to have enjoyable sessions.The first adventure I ran with this was a campaign reboot (why the campaign needed a reboot is a nice topic for another post) and the players were glowing. It almost never happened before. The following adventures were the same. Maybe it works for me because I just needed a “metagaming crutch” to make my games better: perhaps with more significant encounters, maybe because it’s focused towards the game user model.

Second: my left-sided brain realized that a GM is at the same time a content creator, an entertainer and an MC. GMs have to put adventure materials together, make a nice session out of them and keep the evening enjoyable and with a nice rhythm. Players have great responsibilities and RPGs are no democracy, but instant recall is always an option.

Third: you can’t get better than content created specifically for players. Sure, engaging all the PCs is good (I see it as a failure if it doesn’t happen) but I feel that engaging  and entertaining all the players is the holy grail of RPGs (and downright impossible with a new group). Forget about deep plots, coherent settings, verosimile NPCs if players want gonzo sandboxes filled with ducks and flumph civilizations.

User Experience is King.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.