#RPGaDay2015 14: Favorite RPG Accessory

RPG-a-day-2015The world’s greatest GM screen has been lauded at length on Held Action. I wound up upgrading to the landscape edition shortly before fading out of GMing games almost completely, so I never got the chance to enjoy it, but I loved its sturdiness and universality. The one drawback that screen has, which the landscape orientation helped mitigate, is that it’s so thick and sturdy than it can muffle your voice. At home, that’s probably fine, but in a convention setting, where I was doing most of my GMing, having your voice cut down in a noisy room is a killer.

Carnage Noir Accepting Game Submissions

I would be remiss in passing on the word that the game convention near and dear to my heart, Carnage, has opened up their event submissions to GMs eager to run games. The game submission form is right there on the Carnage website.

As for my own endeavors, I haven’t quite decided what to run this year. I know I’ll do a Ghostbusters game. And after the test run of my GURPS Cabal mini-setting of Martense College, I’d like to go back there, but with a better idea of what to do and how — less “step and fetch it,” more dizzying possibilities and lunatic history.

We’ll see. Five months is an admittedly long time to think and plan. And I have until the end of July before they get serious about cutting off material to fit in the convention book.

Drama Points As An Indicator That I Should’ve Said

Catching up on some neglected listening material over the long weekend, I took in a Pelgrane Press seminar from Dragonmeet 2011, courtesy of Yog-Sothoth.com. Featuring Robin Laws, Kenneth Hite and Simon Rogers, the conversation centers on the many endeavors of Pelgrane Press and related topics. One digression in particular caught my interest: what the spending of points — GUMSHOE points in the context of the conversation, but easily widened to any mechanic where a player spends points to effect a change — signifies to the GM.

Robin suggests thinking of a player spending points as analogous to the improv game Should’ve Said. In the game, the audience or the referee or whomever can demand the players change a statement, usually to humorous effect. So in the course of a role-playing game with a drama point-like mechanic, when a player spends a point, they’re really saying, “Change up what you’re saying.”

With drama points, that change-up is probably to do with the player not being happy with what the GM’s saying: “Your character takes a blow to the head” or “You don’t find anything of interest in the warlock’s study.” If they’re spending points, they’re not happy about something. Outside of the immediate redress of “Oh, it was a glancing wound,” I think it’s a good mindset to take those spends as an opportunity to ramp up engagement by giving them exceptional carrots.

In retrospect, I find it easy to fall into a habit of being stingy with handing out exceptionally nice carrots. When I was running Scions of Time last year, I think part of the reason the players didn’t take advantage of the drama point mechanic, aside from the frequent lack of need for the mechanical benefits, was the gain was rarely terribly interesting. I was too afraid of action going way off the pathways I was prepared to follow.

In fact, I think Should’ve Said would offer a fun two-way exchange. Players spend points to get the GM to change what he’s saying. The GM hands out points to get the players to change what they’re saying. It’s a little like the Fate point economy with aspects and refreshes, I think, but Should’ve Said includes the ability to keep pushing. The player can spend another point, or more, and the GM can keep handing them out until they hear something they like.

The Eternal Dance

In this campaign you’re all playing Xs.
Can I make a Y instead?
— The start of every World of Darkness game ever, original and new.

[0] Where X and Y are two different character types, often entailing different rule books and incompatible motivations and drives.

What Does a GM Do During Character Creation?

While discussing how to read verbal and non-verbal reactions while playtesting, Robin Laws made an interesting point about the GM’s perspective versus the player’s in the character creation process:

As a GM, time spent during character creation can seem dull. You don’t get to join in until it’s over. That doesn’t mean the players aren’t having a rich experience. The designer/GM must see past his own wandering attention to see how engrossed the players are. Prep can be a tedious slog, or it can be play. If it is play, a design might be ill-served by streamlining efforts that rush players through a process they’d sooner linger over.

This is a personal failing of mine. I get hugely impatient during character creation. Even when there’s a surfeit of books for players to reference, finding entertainment in their internal processes is not something I’m good at doing, or have even thought to attempt.

Character creation is certainly an interesting time. In a lot of games, it’s the time when the players have the most creative control. They’re calling the shots about who their character will be, at what their character will excel. Around a table of excited players, concepts come flying thick and fast, so that it can be difficult to pick just one on which to focus.

It’s also the time when a GM can start gathering information about what the players want to see in the game. You can infer from the choices they make in skills the tasks they expect to tackle in the course of the campaign. So take that opportunity to either figure out how to accommodate their expectations or let them know those points or slots could be better spent in other ways.

Pandemonium Books’ Iron GM Competition

Down in Boston, Pandemonium Books is observing their twenty-first anniversary with a spectacular role-playing event, among other festivities: the Iron GM Challenge. The chairman of the Pandemonium Gaming Academy named seven ingredients for this year’s contestants to use in their adventures:

  • 21
  • Wall(s)
  • “Future Legend” by David Bowie (see below for full text)
  • Mars
  • A chest or steamer trunk
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Boston
  • Spiders

And no, no, it’s not enough to declare that the adventure is tracking down the first of twenty-one spider sculptures fashioned by Leonardo da Vinci, each containing one part of a device designed to travel to Mars, which is hidden in a steamer trunk behind the wall of a Boston brownstone, guarded by fleas the size of rats that are sucked on by fleas the size of cats. Oh no.

The academy chairman also declared scoring criteria, in which players on the adventures fill out a ballot with sections asking questions like: “How well the theme ingredient was incorporated into the game (1-5 points).  Were the unique traits of the ingredient brought to the fore by the GM, or could something else have been substituted without much change to the adventure?

Pandemonium’s anniversary celebration runs through the weekend of November 12th through the 14th, with schedule slots for the Iron GM challenge on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Hie thee hence, Boston area role-players!

Happy Birthday, Held Action!

Today marks the one year anniversary of Held Action‘s first publication, from the day I made my post of introduction and reported on local Free RPG Day activities. Those posts actually date from the brief period of time when I blogged on Dreamwidth. A couple weeks later, I got tired of the limitations of the cloned LiveJournal interface and crossed over to WordPress. That also pushed me to think of a name for the blog, and it wasn’t until I had thought of something I liked better than “Tyler’s Game Blog” that I bought the domain and set up this blog on WordPress.com.

What a year it’s been. First I chose a schedule to keep myself to, then I had an enormous spike in things I wanted to say, then I fell back into the more comfortable schedule I’d originally chosen. I’ve run through most of the material I wrote in other times and contexts, so now it’s all fresh, usually sparked by something I’ve read or heard elsewhere. And that’s what I wanted in a gaming blog: a place to publish the thoughts and ideas I had that I didn’t feel like putting in someone else’s discussion forum, but still wanted to make public.

According to WordPress.com, here are the top ten most popular posts of the last year, least to most. It’s amazing what the viral bump can do to hit counts, isn’t it?

  1. National Library Week 2010 Drumming up enthusiasm for an endeavor that inspired Saturday gaming at the local library.
  2. The Art of Board Game Storage When I get a game room of my own, I’ll use this technique.
  3. Game Master Mistakes: Not Really Listening I know enough to fess up when I make mistakes.
  4. A Screen for Every Game Promoting my favorite GM screen, the customizable sort.
  5. Physical Evidence Extolling my enjoyment of Propnomicon‘s Lovecraft-inspired creations.
  6. Labyrinth Lord: Downward to Adventure! My actual play report for International Traditional Gaming Week.
  7. The Lurker at the Threshold Expands Arkham Horror One of my inconsistent moments of pseudo-journalism.
  8. Scouting and Dungeons & Dragons Most mind-boggling is this one posted last week and it’s already number three in terms of hits.
  9. The Arkham Horror Expansion Guide One of those wonderful moments of blogging came when I saw someone else recommending this post on Boardgamegeek.com. Ah, gratification.
  10. How to Make a Pamphlet Prop I really do intend to get back to making that Ghostbusters proper suitable for download. Honest.

Ban the Man

I’m feeling more than a little mentally glazed today. Which puts me in mind of a pair of traits I’m looking to overcome in GMing role-playing games: brain farts in general and more specifically: the sudden inability for the GM — i.e., me — to be any more descriptive than “The man attacks you.”

It happens to me a fair bit, usually when a fight scene’s dragging on longer than I expected. When health conditions and attack modifiers start piling up, it takes my attention away from making the action descriptive and engaging. Furiously slashing broadswords give way to swords that do seven points of damage or miss. If my energy starts flagging mid-session, non-player characters often become “the guy” or “that woman.”

I consciously work against this most of the time. During the Labyrinth Lord game, during a melee with a clan of troglodytes, I found myself scouring memories of Labyrinth of all things for inspiration on how to inject some humor into a bunch of short little putzes taking on a party of adventurers. Two elements I used were physical comedy in how the troglodytes attacked — usually expressed by mimicking their over-enthusiastic axe-swinging and fooling with over-sized helmets; headgear of any kind can be a great physical prop for a character to fiddle with or struggle against — and voices. I decided to play these guys high and squeaky, like the goblin hordes of Labyrinth. I think I confused everyone who’s actually familiar with the source race, but it seemed to work for the moment and gave me another characteristic around which to build a lively presentation.

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Greg Poehlein’s Adventure Outline Sheet

In the summer of 2009, during her Mags the Axe School of Gamemastering series on All Games Considered, the titular Mags mentioned an adventure outline she found useful in devising adventures that she picked up from a seminar course conducted by Guy McLimore and Poehlein at Gen Con in the early 1990s. It’s an adaptation of the kind of beat sheet television and film writers use to map out the rises and falls of a story.

I found it pretty useful last year writing Lurker in the Lobby and Highway to Niflheim. So I went to find the file tonight to help lay out the structure for my next two, only to fail to find it on my hard drive. Turns out I just wasn’t being clever enough about search terms, but that did send me off to the Nachtmedia community, where the PDF is still available for download. With the demise of many Ning networks, you can still find Greg’s outline available as a PDF at the top of All Games’ Considered‘s links for the original episode.

If you’re new to writing role-playing adventures or having a hard time getting started, a form like Greg’s is a great place to start. Filling in the blanks helps you not only order your thoughts, but see what elements you may not give due consideration.

Thanks again to Mags for doing the legwork to make this available to the general gaming public.

[Link to PDF amended 10/14/2010.]

Happy GM’s Day 2010

March 4th is GM’s Day — “march forth,” geddit? — a time to give recognition to the hard-working game masters who put the time and energy into creating the imaginary worlds in which our characters run amok — and, in the convention world, care enough about their game of choice, role-playing, board or otherwise, that they’ll teach it to a table of strangers.

He's Gary Gygax and he is *roll roll* . . . pleased to meet you!

The idea for a day to recognize GMs came up back in 2002 on ENWorld. Gary Gygax‘s passing on the same day in 2008 cemented the date . Now it’s become not only an occasion to thank one’s GM — possibly with the purchase of role-playing books, as RPGNow would like you to do, given their massive sale; so massive, in fact, I’m having difficulty finding anything I want amidst the torrent of niche material — but a day commemorating the role-playing hobby on the whole and remembering its proud parents, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The hobby wouldn’t be what it is today, or maybe even exist at all, if not for Gary, Dave and everyone else who participated in the conception of Dungeons & Dragons.

I plan to mark the occasion with game night in the traditional sense tonight: friends getting together at someone’s house for food and tabletop fun. It’ll be board game tabletop fun, in the shape of Age of Empires III, but still. And this weekend, a Savage World of Solomon Kane one-shot in Rutland.

One of these days I will get on the ball and have something really appropriate planned to run on GM’s Day, or get the local store involved or something. TARGA‘s International Traditional Gaming Week isn’t that far off. If I’m industrious and persuasive, I’d like to get some people together for an old school dungeon crawl. There’s no dearth of dungeons and retro-clones to utilize, after all.

Thanks again, Gary and Dave. You invented a truly unique hobby, which I and so many others love dearly.