[Mage: The Suppressed Transmission] To Follow the Sun

Mage: The Suppressed Transmission is a Mage: The Ascension campaign I ran from the summer to winter of 2005 at Quarterstaff Games. I think of it as my first “real” campaign and present my session reports, mostly written just after the action, exactly as they are, excepting the occasional corrected typo.

This brings the reposting of my actual play reports for this campaign to a close. The game went on for two or more sessions after this, but I didn’t record them. I had become frustrated with what I perceived as the players declining to take the initiative and my own ability to elicit more engaging interactions from them. That the group had shrunk in size to two returning players over the five months it played did nothing to make me feel that it was a success.

In retrospect, my thinking was silly and self-important. The two remaining players kept coming back. That meant they enjoyed the game. I should have taken that fact and run with it, and really paid attention to the questions their characters asked and things they tried to do. Obvious advice that I had read before running this game, but tunnel vision gets all us when we’re emotionally invested in something.

Anyway, on with the play report. Continue reading

Nearby Gamers

Nearby Gamers is a website designed to help tabletop gamers find each other. It’s a fine purpose, one which many other website owners have given themselves to since this internet fad caught on. For a hobby like tabletop games, which relies so heavily on in-person interaction, it can be amazingly difficult to find fellow enthusiasts in real life.

Given there are so many different sites intended to bring gamers together, what makes Nearby Gamers stand out? Two things in particular; the first of which simplicity. Rather than lots of check boxes and categories of interest for a user to fill out, Nearby Gamers uses a wiki-like system of tagging. A new user inputs their name, geographical location and list of games they like to play. This list can be as straightforward as “AD&D, Cosmic Encounter, Rifts, WitchCraft.” All tags are editable, so they can be given explanatory text and outbound links, as well as redirected to other tags, which is the really awesome part. That user who put “AD&D” on their profile can, through the magic of tag redirection, be included in the larger “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” tag without any work on their part, thus improving their odds of finding a fellow user who also enjoys that game, leading us to the second stand-out element of Nearby Gamers.

Where other tabletop networking sites use a series of nested geographical category containers — nation, state or province, etc — Nearby Gamers takes advantage of Google Maps to display graphically users by their location. This way, a user can tell by glancing at a map who’s physically nearby, which I find much more helpful than staring at a list of entries sorted by user name that reel off information like city and state without putting it in relation to my own location. Nearby Gamers can also pull together a list of users within a certain distance of your account’s given location, made helpful as it’s sorted by distance, rather than user name or some other less relevant criteria.

One of Nearby Gamers’ strengths is also its greatest drawback. The tag cloud is enormous and unwieldy. Anything typed into the preferences field becomes a tag, typos and bad copy-paste jobs alike. I’ve spent a fair bit of time myself helping redirect bad tags to their correct counterparts, but there are always more mistaken duplicates and nonsense tags to clean up. It’s a Sisyphean task, but that’s the nature of wiki-based tagging. It’s indefinitely expandable, but it’s also especially susceptible to “Garbage in, garbage out.”

The lesson here is: when you make an account, make sure you’re putting in good tags other people use. After that, Nearby Gamers is a great resource that presents a very straightforward way to find other gamers.

Judging the Cover

Image copyright Steve Jackson Games.

Image copyright Steve Jackson Games.

Arguably, the cover of GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition Revised, published by Steve Jackson Games in the 1990s, is plain and undramatic, without a strong central element upon which for the eye to focus and then travel around the scene. (For an example of that, check out the cover of Mutants & Masterminds, Second Edition.)

I first ran into this piece of work during one of my many near-hits with roleplaying. Someone on a Doctor Who mailing list — probably the now-gone House on Allen Road, maybe Jade_Pagoda — posted a link to the basement of Steve Jackson Games’ Warehouse 23, where one can roam around, opening crates in the archetypal repository of the bizarre and impossible. Eventually, I went from the warehouse to the company’s GURPS pages. The concept of modular design, where you buy books with the rule and setting elements you need to facilitate a particular concept, really appealed to me, to the point I spent a lot of time mulling over which books I would like, even though at the time I had no way to utilize roleplaying game books or even a strong conception of what roleplaying entailed.

The things I like about this cover, enough that I remembered the image from that fleeting contact years later when I really got into RPGs in mid-2002, are the combination of diverse elements, the questions they ask and overall austerity of the design.

There’s a castle, what look like mysterious ruins in the foreground, a rider on the horizon and jets taking off, all while a neighboring moon or planet hangs large in the sky. That covers a wide swathe of genres in a way that, for me, provokes questions: why is the rider going to the castle? Are the jets attacking or on patrol? Is there supposed to be a galaxy naked to the visible eye, or is that what provoked the rider and the pilots to action?

Plus, it’s a nice landscape. I wouldn’t mind a print of that to hang somewhere.

Monsters in the Green Mountains

Joe Citro, author of Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls & Unsolved Mysteries and a whole canon of further books on the oddities of Vermont and New England, has a new book out: The Vermont Monster Guide. In “Vermont’s dark side,” the Brattleboro Reformer hits some of the highlights:

  • A vampire vine that grew from coffin to coffin
  • Bighead, an alien seen driving a private vehicle on Interstate 91
  • Bigfoot and catamount sightings

Like his other works, this is a mix of a good read and source of inspiration for modern horror games. Plus, The Vermont Monster Guide was illustrated by Steve Bissette, who has a long list of horror and fantasy works to his credit, including Swamp Thing with none other than Alan Moore.

How to Make a Pamphlet Prop

A helpful pamphlet for any recruit new to the dynamic Ghostbusters International organization.

A helpful pamphlet for any recruit new to the dynamic Ghostbusters International organization.

One of the little things I did for The Lurker in the Limelight was create a short orientation brochure for new employees of Ghostbusters International. I used it as a way to get a laugh at the start of the game, help give the players some useful lingo and an idea of how a bust goes down.

A glossary and breakdown of the ghost classification system give them some lingo to throw around without feeling they’ve been spoon fed, plus they have something to refer back to. The meat of the piece, six and a half steps to finding and busting a ghost, not only give the players an idea of not only how the action will go down, but also the nature of their characters’ employer, through the cheesy corporate doubletalk, as well as some helpful game mechanics tips.

I ran across the idea of an explanatory pamphlet many moons ago, on RPG.net. Someone linked to a brochure they’d written for their Nobilis game, entitled “So You’ve Been Ennobled.” It was a quick primer introducing a newcomer to the Nobilis cosmos, in the guise of someone explaining how things work to a newly ennobled Power. It was also very clever, and I was taken by the idea.

Another game that would benefit from a prop like this would be Paranoia. There are already props like printable table tents to help troubleshooters identify team members like the leader, morale officer and hygiene officer. A “Welcome to Alpha Complex, Citizen!” pamphlet would be a hoot, as well as helping newcomers get past the barrage of lingo and newspeak that too often serves as a barrier to getting what’s fun about the game.

Making a pamphlet is easy with a little word processor fu. First I tried screwing around with premade tri-fold brochure templates for Open Office, but decided that they weren’t very good and not the worth the effort. Here’s the quick and dirty way: Continue reading

I’m Glowing a Little Bit

This afternoon, I checked in with the schedule managers for Carnage. More than half the games I’m running are filled up with preregistrants. That’s a personal best for me. I really didn’t think that would happen with Highway to Niflheim, but even that one is topped out at six players. It’s a little intimidating.

I was about to type I’ve never run a roleplaying adventure for that many people, but then I remembered last year’s horror scenario Band on the Run. It was kind of a chaotic kerfuffle with players abandoning the plot for their own devices — which I rolled with, natch — and the general lunacy may have put a young girl off roleplaying completely, but most of the players said they enjoyed themselves.

This year, my goal is to roll as flexibly as before, but exert a stronger force melding their actions with events somewhat resembling a plot.

[Mage: The Suppressed Transmission] Ash and Water

Mage: The Suppressed Transmission is a Mage: The Ascension campaign I ran from the summer to winter of 2005 at Quarterstaff Games. I think of it as my first “real” campaign and present my session reports, mostly written just after the action, exactly as they are, excepting the occasional corrected typo. Continue reading

Game Store Memories

Flashback! My first visit to a game store, local institution Quarterstaff Games, happened some time around the age of twelve. I had asked for a Spelljammer box set for Christmas, having greatly enjoyed the tie-in novels. The Waldenbooks clerk forewarned us I would need special dice, and could get them down the street — why someone that knowledgeable neglected to mention that Spelljammer stuff was an add-on to the basic Dungeons & Dragons game, I’ll never know; confused, I wound up returning the box set for store credit, spending that on — probably — TSR novels.

So down I went to Quarterstaff with my mother, along Church St. through the cold, slush and shopping crowds. It was, at the time, a relatively dim store, partly thanks to the sparse lighting left over from its previous existence as a bar and the dark wooden decor. The counter, once a bar, and trim all around the store, was stained dark. It was, to my mind, very atmospheric, especially with the torches in their sconces and crossed spear and quarterstaff behind the counter.

The store was also ridiculously over-crowded with merchandise. Every available surface space had something on it. I remember in particular the stacks of dragon miniatures piled on a railing enclosing a raised level. At the time, I didn’t get how such intricate, colorful miniatures of dragons, of all things, could be packed into a flat little rectangular box.

Most of the visit is a blur now. I do remember asking the clerk what dice I would need and walking away into December’s early twilight with two of each type of polyhedral die, plus a third d6, in the inner pocket of my winter jacket. Those dice never saw action, sadly. They gathered dust and eventually disappeared.

But that marks the beginning of my relationship with Quarterstaff Games. I remember going back to browse the RPG books, and was particularly fascinated by the Encyclopedia Magica series. Later, when I encountered Magic: The Gathering in middle school, I’d make many repeat visits to the store, racking up enough purchases, with my brother, to earn the 10% discount card. I still remember the afternoon I went there with school friends and watched one of them sift through a newly-purchased starter deck to find an Aladdin’s Lamp as the rare — not that I got the concept of card rarity or how packs were sorted then.

After I got out of Magic, just as the Homelands expansion released, I didn’t go back to Quarterstaff for years, except maybe the occasional visit to admire the bizarre mix of enticing products and clutter, like the fleet of Lego pirate ships that lived in the back room with the Gauntlet arcade machine and Han Solo cardboard cut-out figure.

More than fifteen years later, Quarterstaff Games is still my go-to shop for RPGs and board games, as well as playing board games there most Tuesday nights. Admittedly, part of that is there’s little in the way of choice in Vermont for hobby stores of any stripe, but it’s also because I have history with the place. That counts for something with me.

A Shaky Start to the Convention Experience

Despite my current position as a big supporter of game conventions as part of a healthy local gaming scene, I’ve had a rough history with them. When I first got seriously interested in roleplaying games in 2002, I was a sophomore attending college in Syracuse, NY. I had no idea where to find people with whom to roleplay.

Being a staunch Vermonter and not really into the central New York scene, my web searches eventually turned up Carnage, which then was Carnage on the Mountain at Mount Ascutney. The bummer there was I had no way to get there, since it happened mid-fall semester. But lo, I found a consolation prize: my hometown, Burlington, had its own game — and anime convention — Bakuretsucon.

Continue reading

Game Master Mistakes: Not Really Listening

September’s RPG Carnival topic — I’m a little slow on the uptake — was that of Game Master Mistakes. It’s a subject on which every GM can comment. We’ve all made mistakes. I, personally, continue making mistakes every time I GM; my saving grace is rarely committing the same mistake more than once.

Take, for example, my old Mage: The Suppressed Transmission campaign, the actual play reports of which I’ve been posting on what I’ve informally dubbed Actual Play Friday. I made a ton of mistakes in that game, which doubtless contributed in some degree to a number of original and prospective players’ independent decisions to stop playing.

Very early on, the first session or so, in fact, I made a classic blunder, all while telling myself I wasn’t. To get the group together, I concocted some vision or other of oncoming darkness. This piqued one player’s interest in particular, and every time he brought it up, I — foolishly — waved it off, saying, “Oh, I just made that up to get you all together. This game is really about what you all want to do.”

Thing is, that is what at least some of them wanted to do: find and push back this oncoming darkness. I ignored the very plain signs telling me what interested the players in favor of following their lead as expressed by what the players chose for their characters to do.

It was very silly of me, when I look back on it in hindsight.