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(Gaming) Finding My Path

Gaming 150The first game I ever ran was a Changeling: the Dreaming campaign way back in high school. My players were an eshu, satyr, redcap and sluagh, and somewhere in there I ended up crossing things over with The X-Files because I was young and didn’t know any better. Do you remember those metal spikes they killed people with by stabbing it into the back of their necks? It was cold iron given to government agents to snuff out faeries. Yeah. I know.

I’ve run sporadically since then — mostly Dungeons and Dragons in its various incarnations or Pathfinder. This latest campaign was an old idea that I dusted off and spruced up, thinking that I would finally get to tell it right this time. I quickly discovered, though, that Pathfinder can be just as crunchy with numbers as D&D, thank you, and that if you don’t really understand the system home-brew rules will seriously fuck you up.

My players are a bunch of wonderful people — they’re smart, creative, passionate and fun. I’m not ashamed to admit that there is a huge amount of performance anxiety around running something for them. I want to do something that makes one friend feel like a bad ass, gives another friend the chance to explore psychological terrain he finds interesting, provide another friend with the political drama he’s discovering an affinity for, and let another friend find an ingenious way out of a difficult situation. All while keeping a whole set of rules and story beats in my head, improvising characters and plot details on the fly, and struggling to keep track of what has happened, what needs to happen, and what CAN’T happen. Running a tabletop RPG is really difficult you guys, especially if you have good players.

I’m also not ashamed to admit that I often let that anxiety get the best of me. I’ve snapped at players once or twice for trying to tweak their characters to maximum benefit when really, that’s just how they find enjoyment in the game. I’ve taken feedback badly, and let constructive criticism blow my perception of how poorly things were going out of proportion. I take storytelling very seriously, and perfectionist tendencies, chronic anxiety and an unfocused, disorganized ADHD brain is quite possibly the worst mix of traits to tell an improvised and collaborative story with people who are in all likelihood way smarter than you.

Now that I’m diving back into the pool, I’m trying to ease off the idea of telling a perfect story. I’ve learned a great deal about the way the story delivery mechanism influences what works best, and with tabletop RPGs I’ve found it works best to keep things a bit simpler. We’ve trained ourselves to think medieval fantasy has to have these sprawling, complicated worlds with rich societies and a gigantic number of characters, but when you’re getting together with a bunch of friends for six hours once a month there is no way people can hold these little plot and story seeds in their heads. Dense, sprawling mythologies work well in stories that are a bit more permanent — TV shows, novels, even movies. But I’ve found they work less well when you’re basically sitting around a campfire.

The direct approach tends to work better. The immediacy of creating the story around the table lends itself to scenes and situations that grab your emotions by the throat. The games that are most memorable and fun are the ones where you have a bad guy you clearly hate, a tough struggle that you barely make it through, and a reason for triumph that’s personal and reaffirming. The patience required to lay down a complicated story, brick by brick, is better spent parsing how characters can grow, change and excel within the confines of the system and the world you’ve built. Making sure your story is clear enough that your players know the next thing they need to do and why they need to do it goes a long way towards making sure they can get invested in what’s going on. Shadowy figures and mysterious conspiracies work for a few games, but at some point there needs to be clear progress and a strong sense of momentum pulling the characters from scene to scene.

So what I’ve focused on with this latest attempt at verbal storytelling is crafting scenes that make for fun jumping-off points for the characters while having hooks that appeal to my players or at least their characters. It’s been fun taking the metaplot, distilling it down to a series of actions, and then breaking up those actions into progressable goals from scene to scene. It makes the skeleton of the story strong but flexible, capable of carrying us all along but bending to suit the needs of the people around the table.

I’m so nervous about running this weekend, but really excited as well. I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned to use and see how I’ve progressed as a storyteller. Wish me luck for this Saturday, folks!

 

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Grappling Nightmares

Gaming 150I play in a Shadowrun game about once a month with a few local friends, and I’m enjoying it. My character’s concept — and if you know me, you know that of course this is how I roll — is that he’s a member of the Sioux nation who’s been goblinized later in life during puberty. His parents, being a fairly extreme “back to magic/nature” set, took this as a sign that he was destined to be a great shaman. He spent the next seven or eight years learning the finer points of magic, until his sister disappeared in Seattle and resurfaced in Tokyo.

Shadowrun is a pretty classic cyberpunk role-playing game, by the way. The idea is that a new age of magic has arisen somewhere in the early 21st century and the world has gone through a series of upheavals trying to incorporate it. The setting is a heady mish-mash of ultra-powerful mega-corporations, crazy cyber-technology and old-school magic mixing with near- and retro-future concepts. It’s insane, and that’s great. But one of the things I’m learning is that for a character like mine to hang, he needs to be really, REALLY good at the things within the niche he’s created for himself.

That may include things like “unarmed combat”, which turns my blood cold and makes me immediately apologetic to the friend running the game. I’ve played in any number of systems during my now two-decade (!!) tabletop gaming career — everything from D&D 2nd/3rd/4th ed to White Wolf’s Storytelling system to RIFTS/Palladium to FATE — and almost all of them share one common feature despite all of their differences. They all suck eggs when it comes to laying down rules for fist-fighting.

It’s such a simple thing to want. You take a look at a really great martial-arts movie or a gloriously ugly fist-fight in a gangster or action film, and you want to make a character who can do that. But in almost all of the settings you play in, the designers assume your standard adventurer is going to rely heavily on melee or ranged weapons. For some reason, introducing your bare fists — or Frith forbid, improvised weapons — introduces this extra layer of complication that either breaks the game or bogs the system down with so many situational rules it’s often just not worth it.

In RIFTS (which, to be fair, is a completely broken system anyway), taking martial arts beefs up your physical attributes to a potentially insane degree. In Pathfinder (an offshoot of D&D 3.5), unarmed combat is a labyrinth of rules that shifts depending on conditions. Entering into a fist-fight there is a lot of work for very little pay-off; the system is designed so that it’s way, way easier to just swing a sword and tally the damage.

The only system I’ve seen that deals with unarmed combat reasonably well is the FATE system, and that’s because it tries to be as malleable as possible. Everything you want to do has one or two effects: it either deals direct damage to your opponent, or places a condition on your opponent or the environment around you that lets you do something else a bit more easily. Done. It’s quite elegant, and works roughly the same as every other form of combat.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule, and it’s kind of amazing to me that the simplest form of fighting has the most complicated rule-set within the world of tabletop gaming. Why IS that, anyway?

So I’m throwing the question out into the ether. Why do you suppose unarmed combat is so hard to get right in tabletop games? What’s the best example of an out-of-the-box system of rules getting it right? What sort of house rules have you implemented to make unarmed combat less of a headache? I’m, um, asking for a friend.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in RPGs

 

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Pathfinding Problems

Gaming 150I’m in the relatively early stages of Book 2 of my Pathfinder campaign. So far, the group has uncovered the existence of a war between shadow cults that have been slowly but steadily engulfing the civilized world. After beating back the cult that plans to do the most damage and forming an uneasy alliance with the other one, they’ve been travelling around the kingdom of Elsinore surveying the damage done to other towns and warning those in power about the fight that’s been brought to their doorstep.

The first “book” of the game was a success, I thought. There were a number of great character moments, some truly memorable sessions and the characters ended up quite empowered by their experiences. The second book started off with an intriguing hook that took advantage of one of my player’s shaky schedule — we swapped out his previous character with one that opened up a different aspect of the game and made it easy for the player to miss a game or two if he had to. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary; and it turns out that the new character has introduced a few interesting wrinkles in the party dynamics.

But the past few games have been misses, which have thrown me into a crisis of confidence. New mysteries aren’t clicking well, encounters expose flaws in my game master abilities and my understanding of the system, and the momentum of the story has suffered because of that. What was meant to be a highlight of the game so far has turned out to be kind of a mire. I’ve written myself into quicksand and I’m struggling to write my way out of it.

Not that I would compare my writing to that of the Lost staff, but I imagine they must have felt like they were in the same situation when people started to complain about the dip in quality between seasons 1 and 2. You can’t keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, but at the same time the expansion of the mythology isn’t as entertaining as you thought it would be. What do you do in that instance? Do you walk it back? Do you scrap what you’ve planned and find a new way to connect the pieces that have already shown? What can you do to right a story that’s gone off the rails when you can’t go back and retcon easily?

I’m faced with that dilemma. I’m in the middle of a failure with my game, and I’m trying to figure out how to fix it. My players are amazing, down to a man, and I want to provide a story worthy of them. That hasn’t happened for a little while, so it’s time to take a step back and regroup.

This has happened before in other games. Usually what happens is my crisis of confidence gets worse and worse until I freak out and let the game fall apart. I’m sure this admission is a reassuring one to my players, if they’re out there reading this. But this time it feels like things aren’t out of my control; I can still step in and fix this.

It’s all a matter of realizing what works, what doesn’t, what to keep or change or discard. I’ve learned that telling a story through gaming is quite different from just writing it down. Your players are variables who take the story in all kinds of new directions that are often so much better than what you could have come up with on your own. Capitalizing on that is almost never a bad thing; integrating bits and pieces that intrigue your players into the main narrative elevates the character’s stories and the over-arcing plot. If a wrinkle that you’ve introduced lands with a thud, it’s all right to simply, tidily address it and move on.

In my particular case, I think it might be a good idea to simplify and clarify the narrative. Learn what the players and their characters are most interested in and work with that. And for goodness’ sake, learn how to deal with the Pathfinder system so I can either make sure the rules work with the story or at least get them out of the way so I can do what I want to do. One of my biggest mistakes starting out is making the assumption that Pathfinder is almost exactly like D&D 3.5 with a few minor changes. It differs in many surprising ways, and I’d do well to get my hang of the system.

So that’s my project as it concerns the Chronicles of Oak’s Home — simplify the story, make sure the characters (and their players) are re-invested in it, and gain control of a system that I didn’t know as well as I thought I did. Piece of cake, right?

Maybe not. Then again, maybe the problems in the game aren’t as bad as I think they are — I do tend to harsh on my own stuff quite a bit. But it’s not unmanageable, and that’s worth noting here. This is the first time I’ve encountered this problem, took a deep breath, and kept my head. Things aren’t working out the way that I’d like them to. What can I do to course correct? With a cool head, you can bring any ongoing story back from the brink — Lost, Fringe, The Newsroom and Supernatural have all bounced back from weak seasons with some of their strongest work. Those are the shows I’ll look to for inspiration. And maybe Heroes for a lesson on what not to do.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2013 in RPGs, Writing

 

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Friday Fiction: A Primer of Oak’s Home

Gaming 150I run a home-grown Pathfinder game about twice a month that I’ve been having quite a bit of fun with. Through 18 games, I’ve taken my players up to level 7 (about a third of the way through their progression) and get this — they’re still with me. I’ve had pretty bad luck before with running games, and a lot of those wounds were self-inflicted. Still, it feels great to be running a game that people are into, and that I’m managing fairly well.

The players are all villagers in a small woodland community called Oak’s Home. Recently, there’s been quite a few changes to the village and their characters have stepped up to navigate their home through some difficult times. With one immediate threat put to bed and the world expanding to reveal others lurking in the shadows, I thought it would be a good thing for my players to see how their village looks to the outside world.

So I wrote this, an entry in a fictional travel guide. I rather like the way it came out, but I’m curious to see if it makes sense to anyone who hasn’t been playing in the game.

OAK’S HOME PRIMER

OVERVIEW
Oak’s Home is a small village comprised of some 500 souls. It is located deep within the Lunsym Forest 75 miles west of the capital of Splendor, and 50 miles east of the western coast of the kingdom. It developed at the intersection of the Lunsym Road, which runs east-west from the port town of Break Cove to the capital; and the Aileunid Trail, which runs north-southeast from a few half-elven settlements near the Barbarian Lands to the jungles of Drakkar, the kingdom to the South.

The village used to be a major stop along the trade routes, with merchants traveling between Splendor and Break Cove with supplies and exotics from the western lands beyond the sea, or the jungle tribes of Drakkar. However, its prominence in the kingdom has diminished as the world has gotten smaller. Over a century ago the Lunsym Sea changed, and no one has managed to successfully navigate its waters without disappearing or going mad. Some fifty years after that, the port towns fell to madness and supernatural forces, and fifty years ago the forests surrounding Oak’s Home and other towns became enchanted. Trade has been increasingly dangerous, and that has degraded the standing of both the village and the kingdom at large.

These days, Oak’s Home is known mostly for its natural resources and the trades that have sprung up around them. The hills that curve around the town to the northwest are rich in ores, woods and natural magical materials that are hard to find elsewhere. As such, the village supports businesses that typical places of its size doesn’t, such as a magic shop, blacksmith, mason, tailor and pastry chef.

Most of the village’s farming land is situated to the north of the city, where the soil is believed to be more arable and less prone to magical influence. Wheat, potatoes and other root vegetables, apples, peaches and corn are all grown for sale within the town and the nearby baron’s keep. This is supplemented by livestock (mostly sheep and chickens, with a few goats and cows), wild boar, venison, quail and wild berries that can be found in the forests. Mushrooms, truffles, spices and herbs can also be found with patience and luck.

The population of Oak’s Home is mostly human, though there is a significant minority of gnomes and halflings in town. Dwarves are practically non-existent, though ancient passageways beneath the village suggest that they once had a very large presence here. There are a small number of elves and half-elves in its borders. Despite the ever-present threat of magical animals and supernatural creatures in the forests, Oak’s Home is usually not threatened by any organized group.

Recently it was discovered that two cults had been organized within Oak’s Home in secret — the druid-like Group of the Agathion and the sinister Servants of Sslinosh. The Agathion Group has been declared a heathen group by the dominant religion of the kingdom, the Church of the Holy Trinity. Even still, the town enjoys a cool, if friendly, relationship with them. They partol the town’s walls and forests, identifying and neutralizing threats before they can harm the population. The Servants of Sslinosh have been driven out or killed for attempting to cause chaos and mass murder.

The Servants of Sslinosh are believed to be the cause of a phenomenon known now as the Flash, a supernatural event that caused roughly ten percent of the villagers to be changed into supernatural creatures. These people — called the Changed — have been accepted as part of the village, and there is an ongoing effort to re-integrate them into society. Homes and parts of town are being reshaped to tend to their needs, though this transition has been far from easy. Elementals, beast-men and deathless make up the bulk of the Changed, though there are a few more exotic creatures amongst their number. The Changed are a subject of great curiosity in arcane circles; it’s long been thought that creatures of a certain type couldn’t help but be evil, and this appears to be a refutation of that.

In addition to renewed interest by the arcane and holy communities, increased attention has been given to Oak’s Home because of its unique and seemingly plentiful natural resources, and the crafts-people that have been working with them for generations. A recent immigrant to the community, Allanaea Audalis, has spearheaded a campaign to get the unique works of Oak’s Home craftsmen noticed by the kingdom’s elite. It appears to be having some effect, and the small forest village looks poised to rise back towards its former prominence at last.

 

AT A GLANCE
Official Name: The Barony of Oak’s Home and Surrounding Lands
Population: 520 souls (55% human; 18% gnome; 12% halfling; 9% “Changed”; 5% elf or half-elf; 1% other (orc, half-orc, dragon)
Land Area: 7 sq. miles (including the road leading to the Baron’s Keep as well as the Baron’s Keep itself)
Date of Establishment: June 1st, 1854 M.E. (Modern Era); 498 years old, roughly

Ruling Noble: Baron Foalooke Aileuneid, by grace of Count Jamesmuth McGee the Sixth, under Duke Edward Willingson, by command of King Lensith the Great.

Primary Businesses: Farming, Mining, Trapping, Crafts
IMPORTANT PEOPLE
Baron Foalooke Aileuneid (dragon)
Baron Aileuneid is the owner of Oak’s Home and the surrounding forests; he was given the land by King Shaesbon the II some sixty years ago. The Baron is a just and popular ruler who seems to be more laissez-faire than most nobles in his position; perhaps this is why the villagers hold him in such high regard. Taxes are reasonable, he sends his personal guard out in defense of the town when he sees there’s a clear need, and he visits the village twice a year — during its birthday in the summer, and again during the Winter Festival near the close of the year. Through the duration of his reign, it was believed that Baron Aileuneid was an elf; however, he has chosen to reveal himself as a dragon three months after the Flash.

Regent/Assistant Carwen Elms (human)
Sir Elms is the regent of Oak’s Home when the Baron is away on official business; otherwise, he serves as his chief advisor and head of staff. He is an older gentleman with a serious demeanor, his wispy white hair and furrowed brow making him look perpetually harried and unhappy. However, he is devoted to his work and serves the Baron without question. It is known that he wears a Prisoner’s Ring connected to a Jailer’s Ring worn by the Baron — far from the relationship this implies, it actually signifies a bond of great trust and care from both parties.

Recently Sir Elms has established residence within Oak’s Home, making sure the Baron maintains a closer presence within the village in the wake of cultish activity. He has been replaced as the Chief of Staff of the baronial keep.

Sheriff Anthony Hardin (Changed)
Sir Hardin has held the post of sheriff for almost a decade, and for most of that time he’s had to deal with little more than busting up a tavern brawl or determining the particulars of a dispute over cattle. The last several months have been excessively exciting.

He lost all of his deputies to cult activity, and both he and the people he conscripted into replacing them were changed in the Flash. Instead of a reasonably fit middle-aged man, the Sheriff is now a twelve-foot-tall, four-armed monster with goat’s legs, huge curved horns and solid black eyes. Despite his fearsome appearance, he remains the same man he always was; business-like, forever wary, straightforward and stoic. He prefers peace and quiet, and likes to see things in order. Of course, he’s not above using his new magical nature to encourage rowdy townsfolk to make sure things are as quiet as he likes them.

Father Philo Greeves (human)
Father Greeves is the newest addition to the town; he has filled in as priest for the village since Father Seabring has been called to the Church’s headquarters in Splendor a few months ago. The father is a man just entering old age; his body is fit still but beginning to fail, and grey is beginning overtake the brown in his hair. Still, he radiates a quiet, powerful contentment that can put almost anyone at ease. This comes in handy with his new post, as the revelation that the town has recently become the front lines of a secret war against a fallen god has stirred up some uneasiness.

He can often be seen visiting the villagers at their homes with one of his acolytes, Elburt or Tobin. The other acolyte stays at the Church to manage things there, and that autonomy has seen both of them blossom in different ways. Elburn has taken to updating the scrolls and digging into the maps and histories of Oak’s Home, while Tobin has developed a keen interest in the healing arts.

Dame Jenoiella Clearwater (elf)
Dame Jenoiella is an elf whose clan hails from Splendor, one of the few elven families who’ve remained behind in the world of men. She has been a mainstay at Oak’s Home for quite some time and has fashioned herself something of a leader of culture and arts. She has established a Seamstress’ Circle and invested money in many local businesses for a number of years, always hoping to put her personal stamp on the final product. Her relationship with the local tradesmen have diminished somewhat, leaving her free to establish cultural events and assume command of town festivals. She has a reputation as a busybody and a gossip, but most villagers will grudgingly admit that she gets things done and her events are quite memorable.

Recently her family has taken a bump in reputation, with the revelation that her son, Annais Clearwater, and an old family friend, Kenneth Grossman, were both Servants of Sslinosh. However, her nephew and young ward, Allanaea Audalis, has stepped up to prominence with the Baron’s blessing. Like the rest of Oak’s Home, Dame Jenoiella is looking forward to a renewed prosperity.

Allanaea Audalis (Changed)
Allanaea is a recent transplant to the village of Oak’s Home. When he arrived, the villagers understood that he was an elf from Splendor who needed to retire to the country for a strange affliction that would get better with rest. He has been anything but restful — first he was conscripted to become a Sheriff’s Deputy, and had a major hand in discovering and thwarting the Servants of Sslinosh. For his efforts, he has become one of the Changed — a humanoid silver dragon — and been given ownership of the town’s Tavern and Inn.

He has also attempted to bring together a collection of merchants under the Audalis family banner, introducing an audacious plan to offer discounts to services at the Tavern and Inn if certain goods are purchased. He’s also traveled to Splendor to strike alliances with merchants there interested in selling unique goods that come from Oak’s Home.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in RPGs, Writing

 

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Writing Projects, All in a Line

It’s been just over a week since Clarion’s ended, and since then I’ve taken a small break from writing quite so intently. What’s surprising is that my writing hasn’t slowed down much at all — I’m still averaging about a thousand words a day — but that productivity is suffusing through a number of different projects.

I run a Pathfinder game once or twice a month, and we’re currently going through a small dry spell where there won’t be a game for a while. I’m taking the opportunity to get my ducks in order. We’re coming up to the end of the first big arc, and I want to make sure that major questions are answered in a satisfactory way, a new status quo is settling in so that my players know what they’re working with, and when the first arc is over everyone’s demonstrably grown while there are any number of obvious ways they can progress further. It’s all the structure and plotting concerns of, say, episodic television, but with characters you don’t control.

I’ve played under several good Game Masters, enough to know the benchmark I’m trying to hit. And I have to say, it’s really hard. In a really excellent role-playing game you want a little bit of wish fulfillment for your players, an engaging and entertaining plot, and a surprising, twisty mystery that keeps your players guessing. It’s really hard to nail all three, and when it’s done well it feels like your GM has performed an excellent magic trick that extends for weeks and months.

Some folks are naturally gifted at telling that kind of story. I’m not sure if it’s my inexperience or my inclination, but I’m finding myself struggling with the juggling act. I tend towards being heavy on the plot, which I’m sure is enjoyable, but I constantly worry about making sure the players have enough room to explore what’s interesting about their characters. What happens if people are interested in something entirely different that leads them away from the plot? I’ve never been good at that, but I’m learning.

With that taking up most of my organizational and creative energy, I’ve sunk most of my fiction-writing time into simple stories that will (hopefully) provide a thrill to a few friends. They’re going slowly because I want to make sure I’m using a consistent mood through the story (which is only five to eight thousand words) and that every part of the scene is interesting in its own way. It’s hard to write with confidence, and that timidity shows. Hopefully my friends don’t mind being guinea pigs for a while as I search for a voice that I’m comfortable and confident with.

This year I’ve been trying to focus on getting stuff done and out there, regardless of whether or not it’s good. I’m hyper-sensitive to feedback because I want to be great already, past this whole stage of fumbling for it without any idea of how to achieve it. I like to think that I have such trouble writing because I have such excellent taste in stories; I know when something is done exceedingly well and I want to do that. Never mind that I don’t have the tools or experience yet to get it done. Let me be great now!

But for now I’ll have to settle for being productive now, great later. I have a lot of mistakes to make and learn from, and many of them will come from my role-playing game and my stories.

What about you guys? What are you working on? What writing mistakes have you made lately? This is a judgement-free zone, so feel free to be honest! I won’t tell.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2012 in Writing

 

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