#RPGaDay 13

If you are not familiar with #RPGaDay, then please read this page first. For the 13th day of #RPGaDay the question is:

Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

My tweeted answer is: #RPGaDay 13 #RPG, balancing challenges & avoid being too epic.

I have tried to keep growing over the years, both in relation to myself, and also how I play/GM RPGs, I have often reflected on how fortunate I was to role-play with so many different people. From being 11 and the silly amount of D&D sessions at school, to playing with much older role-players when I was 16, to being mentored by people at my local games shop, and the great influence by gamers at college. Like other gamers, I am sure this question can result in a floodgate of reflecting and cool stories. Thus there were a few different answers that I started writing for this, each competing for the limelight. I also wrote some blog posts last year about some of my early RP experiences that fitted this question:

d6

The first role-playing game I ran greatly influenced how I saw the hobby. It was shortly after my first role-playing session, so I was still extremely new to the whole concept of role-play, and of course an inexperienced 11 year old. I came up with a very simplistic adventure idea, since I was pressed for time to prepare the game. Due to my lack of experience I struggled to balance encounters, and I escalated too quickly to being epic about things!

Thankfully one of the players appreciated that I’d been willing to run the game, since everybody had wanted to play.  Sadly I forget the person’s name now, but this 11 year old gave surprisingly sophisticated feedback, explaining why he thought my session had been clearly run by someone struggling and going overboard. His explanation was roughly:

  • It quickly became obvious to him which were my weak and tough encounters, thus the party acted accordingly. He advised mixing things up, tough goblins and monsters near death, and to give clues to this.
  • The party gained too much loot at the end. If one gold coin is valuable than a hundred is a treasure, whilst thousands is ridiculous.
  • The plot reasons I’d come up with were silly, and it was all to epic, making it even sillier.
  • He added that whilst giving out lots of treasure did make one player happy, who at the time was running around the room bragging, but for him he felt it was worthless, since it was all too easy.

This advice started my journey in thinking about plot, balance, character meaning, value and the near-paradoxes of gaming. In turn I have passed on this advice, along with other ideas, to new players and GM’s:

Explore and enjoy low level things when they are new, don’t be in a rush to throw epic encounters in.

This also led my 11 year old self to try and appreciate what was happening in a game at that moment. Not to fixate on what loot we would find, or when we next levelled/spent XP. This of course applies whether the party are 1st level D&D characters, neonate vampires, poorly equipped Solo/Street Samurai, etc., or  powerful versions of those characters.

During my teenage years this advice led me to appreciating little character details. Whether playing Warhammer or Cyberpunk, etc., that as a player epic-ness is my character’s story, and the decisions I make. That as a GM, to allow players to explore their character details, to make decisions and have an impact, and not just to ram my epic plot down their throats. The big plot event down the line will mean more to players who are invested in their characters.

#RPGaDay 09

If you are not familiar with #RPGaDay, then please read this page first. For the 9th day of #RPGaDay the question is:

What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

My answer is: #RPGaDay 9 #RPG, any game can work, don’t feel restricted by setting or system. Use the opportunity.

The following explanation provides more detail for my short Tweet answer. It also builds upon the answer that I gave yesterday, for #RPGaDay 8, so I’d recommend reading that first.

I believe that all RPGs are toolkits that form the basis of a game. They provide suggestions of how to run that game, the rules are important but always optional. To clarify, I am also a big believer in group stability, so any changes are best discussed first with the players, since they are generally agreeing to play a particular rule system. As all RPGs are about imagination and freedom of expression, then all systems can provide this framework regardless of our individual preferences.

As part of my daily checking out of other peoples’ opinions, I have come across quite a diverse list:

Primetime Adventures, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, Traveller, D&D 5e, Call of Cthulhu, or Pendragon, Call of Cthulhu 7E, Cyberpunk, Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Ed, Phoenix: Dawn Command, Paranoia, A Song of Ice and Fire, Red Aegis, Ryuutama, 40k Dark Heresy, any D&D, and many more.

The previous paragraph is a wonderful list of games, I’ve played most of them and I agree with them being recommended; this is also partly why I don’t feel the need to add a few more suggestions. What is interesting is how specific some people are regarding editions, which I would guess is likely to do with how they feel rule variations impact game flow/style. I mention this because I think such a diverse list helps to underline my point above, that all RPGs provide a framework.

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The topic of RPG design, and how systems affect game play, has been an area of much discussion over the decades. By emphasising certain words and overall concepts, a game designer can influence how some players will initially perceive a game, and thus how they play the game and discuss with others; in psychology this referred to as Priming. There is definitely something to be said for an RPG being specifically designed to focus on a particular aspect of role-playing, be it combat detail, social options, flow, etc. For example: Primetime Adventures is a quite different style of RPG, it explains the idea of running gaming sessions like a TV series, and so if I was forced to pick a specific system to answer this question, then I would pick that. But as I wrote yesterday:

Whilst systems certainly matter, how they are implemented matters more.

Although RPGs are generally considered to be open ended, there is nothing stopping a campaign being short, and even a single session (one-shot). For example: one the RPers that I follow on Youtube, goes by the handle Nolinquisitor. Today he posted this interesting explanation that most of his group’s games are 10 sessions long:

This is a great suggestion by Nolinquisitor, since I think he and his group provide a great example of how get to play the ever increasing list of RPGs.

#RPGaDay 08

#RPGaDay 08

If you are not familiar with #RPGaDay, then please read this page first. For the 8th day of #RPGaDay the question is:

What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

My answer is: #RPGaDay 8 #RPG, any game can work, don’t feel restricted by setting or system. Use the opportunity

I am not trying to dismiss the question with my answer. The question is certainly a good one, since not every role-player is a veteran; also, not every veteran has the same opinion or experiences. From my experience, and from chatting with others, any game can definitely be run in a way that makes it great for a 2 hour or less session, even games renowned for having system mechanics that are quite time consuming.

I believe that whatever the duration of a gaming session, all the normal considerations for running and playing an RPG apply. When determining how time affects a gaming session, I have presented three key considerations with responses:

  1. How much time a group spends on mechanics, and in particular combat.

I have known gamers play rules lite games and spend a lot of time processing things, whilst other gamers quickly process more complex systems. There all sorts of ways to help a group learn a complex system, and play it easier. Whilst systems certainly matter, how they are implemented matters more.

I’ve known role-players that like to embrace the ritual of dice rolling, making the process longer. As well as groups were all the participants excitedly discuss possibilities before the roll, cheer/boo the results, and delight in chatting about the new implications.

  1. How flowing everybody normally is in regards to decision making and describing their actions; this includes the GM.

I don’t believe that a role-player needs to be very experienced to be able to quickly make decisions, or stay focused on a game. Whilst I appreciate gamer experience helps, as will familiarity with other participants’ gaming styles, I am highlighting that I’ve met a few novices who have grasped proceedings quickly.

Role-playing and flow-state is something I have been thinking about for a while, but I’ll go in to depth with this another time. This is a subject I have been researching for my role-playing guide for years.

  1. The amount of non-game conversation.

The dreaded RP issue of a game being plagued by people talking about random things. Whether it’s the usually referencing of films/TV, debates about rules/powers, etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, after all having fun is surely the main goal of a game, but for most players I assume they also want to play the game. I’ve had many different groups, and groups that have changed its requirements over time, and I’ve even had ‘hardcore role-players’ want to mostly socialise on odd occasions. Ideally discuss ideas before a short session (see below); one never knows if players fancy a change, maybe just this once.

Interestingly, having a deadline can greatly help with regards to keeping the game focused. By discussing with my group that there was a time issue for that particular session, we were able to decide on plans, and then get promptly started. It’s not always fully worked, but having a deadline was still a positive aspect.


Options

A possibility is for the GM to design encounters that are almost guaranteed to be a lot of dialog. Keep mechanics to a minimum, especially if mechanics are normally a bit of time drain in your group, but not if that is what the players typically love. Part of the skill of GMing is to avoid be railroaded by your own ideas, you can always use what had been planned another time; any encounter can be tweaked and even used in a radically different way, so don’t worry about having wasted any preparation time.

Even if the session is in the midst of a campaign, then maybe for this particular short session there all sorts of possibilities:

  • If the GM has big time pressure, maybe let someone else run something.
  • Use the opportunity to try out something new. Many games include pre-generated character, and an introductory story, which is ideal for this sort of thing.
  • Use the opportunity to flesh out backstory, flashbacks to something that was skimmed over, maybe a dream sequence. All of these ideas can be cliché, but can work wonderfully if handled well (avoid being too epic, keep it personal).
  • For some games the session could maybe be used as a downtime/blue-book session. This will be a chance to work out things, maybe each player details characters connected to their PC.
  • Role-play different characters in the setting, maybe relatives or allies of the PCs. Maybe the relatives/allies have found vital information, but since the PCs are in a dungeon, or at sea, the chat is about what to about things. If rarely done this can be a nice way of foreshadowing things.
  • A lot of other ideas, I am sure you get my point 🙂

As there are plenty of posts by other role-players giving system recommendations, I went with my gut reaction to this question. I believe this question raises a deeper issue regarding how gaming styles, session plans, and system mechanics combine to influence what is considered ‘good’. I hope that by highlighting the above I have been helpful to a few people.

I’ve not called any system out, as per my blog mission statement and the guidelines for the RPGaDay event about keeping to positive answers:

 

Health Before Word Count

Recently I’ve managed to make a blog post weekly, but this week I’m a few days behind. I have done some RPG design work, but as I wrote about an idea I realised I needed to be explain something else first. The next part of my series Role-Playing Game Types is a summary of things that I wrote years ago for my role-playing guide, but those ideas were about 200 pages in, which is why writing a synopsis has proven so time consuming for me.

On Monday I had the urge to rush something out; the thought kept stressing me out. Even though I had written things, I wasn’t going to complete anything in time, and I was trying to stick to a deadline about posting at least once a week. Sadly the stress caused a severe pain spike to my normal pain levels, meaning more breaks were needed. As I mentioned in Healthy Pacing for Deadlines, personal goal setting can only work if the person is realistic about the pace they can set for their work, which also has to take into account health considerations. Estimating how much that is, is a daily struggle, as my health can still fluctuate a lot each day.

Whilst my improved workload is not a return to the vast amount of work I used to do, like a lot of 80 to 90 hour weeks I did whilst at KJC Games, at least things are a bit better than they were a few months ago. I think I am getting better at the daily appraisal in regards to determining how much work I can do before further aggravating my body. The Spoon Theory is a good way of explaining energy management, it mostly applies to my situation, but explaining what my thoughts on this is a blog post all to itself; yep another one for my TODO list.

BatIdeaLoop
A dangerous loop to avoid, finish things, iterate, iterate, iterate.

Thankfully one strategy that improves my odds of reducing problems is to lie down whilst dictating. Sadly this method only really works for my fiction writing, or when discussing a design idea out loud with myself, since I don’t need to keep looking at a screen. If I had the money, maybe I could setup a screen on a very adjustable stand. Or something outrageously expensive:

I am also doing a lot more around the home, as well as looking after my dad whose health recently has rapidly declined, all of which takes time and energy. Each activity is a chance for me to do a bit too much, and as per The Spoon Theory to run out of energy (spoons). I believe the fact I am doing what I’d previously consider to be pathetic levels of physical activity is the area that I have been badly estimating, but I am thankful that I am doing more in general.

I have blogged about The Bestseller Experiment before Writing Curious/Crazy Experiment; I am still thoroughly enjoying the show and will blog more about it soon. Word count is a subject that has been discussed a lot, and the many outstanding authors being interviewed have given great advice about this subject, which so many writers obsess over. So, even though I know about the arbitrary nature of tracking my word count, I still fall victim to it. I really appreciate Ben Aaronovitch’s advice, which is roughly that quality words are what matter.

Although it’s been a year since I wrote my mission statement for the blog, I haven’t changed my opinions for blogging, and what I am slowly building towards. Life still comes down to carefully allocating priorities. Although I’m not in a position to return to professional game design and writing yet, I am striving towards that goal even if my work rate is currently terrible. I was amused that the writer Max Landis, whose work I love, posted this video whilst I was contemplating this blog, and what to do about the days when I end up with a low word count.

Healthy Pacing For Deadlines

As I attempt to slowly escape from my pain tunnel, and return to a consist level of health, I have resumed working on projects that have lain dormant for years. This is in addition to my very slow writing. Whilst speech recognition really helps, it is also annoying since there are still errors and navigating is a pain, plus I used to be able to type so quickly, thus it just feels slow.

Over the last two years whilst I’ve had a lot of bedrest I contemplated how best to make use of my time once I was a bit better; sleep deprivation didn’t help with thinking, but at least I did have a lot of time to think. Making plans was difficult, since for a long-time I had no discernible improvement. When I did have a day where I felt a tiny bit better, there was an urge to instantly declare it a breakthrough. I eventually learnt that those days were not something to base plans upon. So ultimately I made plan making itself a goal, to make small goals, to make tiny notes.

Healthhourglass

I am now at the stage where I can work at a computer for a short while without instant agony. I came to realise that my problem about goal setting is not much different from a healthy person’s situation, that it’s all about pacing and being realistic. Clearly I need to be more careful, to take constant breaks, and keep to small tasks. If I am lucky I can manage what used to be a few hours of work, is now spread out over the whole day, maybe even a week. Doing work like this is also a form of physiotherapy, I need to get used to being more active, and since my level of activity is so low, this makes a big difference.

This means I am now able to implement realistic deadlines, albeit feeble ones. As I get a better understanding of my new pathetic work rate, I can alter my deadline projections to better reflect things. Then as my health hopefully keeps gradually improving, I can adjust further.

The urge to do more is ever present. I have already plenty of experience of slowly healing, then carefully going back to work, to find out that it was too much. It’s odd to think that whilst being careful, I was in fact rushing. There is a difference between a typical injury, even breaking a bone, and chronic problems, but understandably most people have not grown up with chronic problems so we haven’t learned about the differences, and how that affects recovery. When long-term bedrest, and thus atrophy, is a factor, things are further complicated.

health chart

I made the chart above to help remind myself to be careful. The vertical axis represents a hypothetical percentage of health. I didn’t think there was any point tracking my progress over time, since my healing has been so slow, and it’s only recently I can realistically do a variety of things. Even when I get to a theoretical average health level, I’ll be far from fit. I have broken the habit of exercising a lot, but my mind still wants to make comparisons, and of course reminisce about my old healthy days; as much as people say mind over matter, and focus on positive thinking, I am not in a position like I used to be of simply training hard to get stronger.

My recent story writing has been very slow, due to doing other things. It’s not that I feel burnt out, it’s that I have a deadline for the end of this month to make progress with my Elemental role-playing game I am started running in May. Although I started work on this project thirteen years ago, there is still way too much to do, my own fault for designing something astronomical in scale. I have also started work on a comic for a PBM style role-playing game. More on these two projects soon.

Escaping the Tunnel

To maybe help speed up my slow healing, and in particular to help alleviate stress, two groups of friends invited me to stay with them. I got to once again visit the wonderful country of Sweden, and thankfully the trip didn’t spike my physical problems. I kept up my physiotherapy exercises, and even started doing a little bit more. The stress relief from being in holiday mode really helped, ignoring the stress of travelling. In addition to spending time with friends, some great walks I also got to spend time with a lovely dog, and then a pride of cats.

Sadly the last few days of my trip were undermined by some jaw pain, that escalated, and by the time I got home it had become quite horrific. I was prescribed two antibiotics, which heavily affected my ability to eat and sleep; this lead to some drastic weight loss. Thankfully my dentist gave me the all clear regarding no damage to my teeth, but it did leave me wondering how I had developed the problem. I don’t know whether the infection was so bad due to my lowered immune system, but that was surely a factor.

This life update highlights how escaping from long-term chronic pain and sleep deprivation, seems to be like crawling out of a very long tunnel. For the last few months it has felt like I was finally nearing freedom, to escape in to the light, and I could return to a more productive and healthy life. It even seems like my metaphorical pain/illness tunnel has minions dragging me further back in.

I did manage to get some speech recognition writing done, both on my fiction and game mechanics, but obviously I could have gotten more if I was healthier. This was partly why I didn’t blog for two months, but at least things are improving again. Also, after thirteen years I finally started playtesting a game I’ve been working on, but I’ll write about that in a later post.

I had contemplated making some drawings for this post, since I couldn’t find what I envisioned. So I made a simple stick figure drawing as an idea bouncing exercise, but my wrist RSI started to flare-up, so I didn’t get beyond:

batcrawl

I then decided to keep things simple and photograph something; this also meant I had an extra reason to walk, which is great physiotherapy. I took some pictures of the Blackpool North train station underpass. I thought it would make an interesting photography location given its local significance, and the painted walls give it some extra character. I appreciate I could have used some lovely free artwork, like on https://pixabay.com/

Bat station

RPG Lessons From Watching Games 3

Part one can be read here, and then part 2 here.

This is the continuation of the story from part 2 about the time I watched a Vampire the Masquerade game in the 90s. Over the course of the gaming session my friend asked me several questions, some were rules queries, and some were requests for feedback on ideas he was pondering. I politely reminded him that it was not my game, nor did I know the house rules, so even if I quoted the rule-book it wouldn’t matter. My friend explained that he’d only asked me questions so he could bounce ideas around; he only did this when the Storyteller was busy with other players.

The person running the game did not complain, instead choosing to focus on running the game. I am sure my friend’s actions were a bit distracting, but my friend was not trying to ruin the game, and had been considerate in regards to quietly chatting with me whilst he was waiting for his turn.

The game was good, and thankfully nobody seemed annoyed by my attendance. I thanked the Storyteller, and apologised if my presence had been disruptive, he said it was fine; I had sensibly turned my Presence discipline off. To my friend he then said:

“Next time, leave your pet Storyteller at home.”

On the walk back to my friends we had a good laugh about me being his pet Storyteller. He expanded his previous explanation, to help explain why he did not view his actions as being disruptive. He thought by bouncing ideas off me, he was helping to keep the game flow, so he could speed up his interactions with the Storyteller, since besides not having to check rules he could additionally have his ideas developed. I appreciated that his goal was to be more efficient, and to take up less Storyteller time, which was in theory commendable.

The lessons of note:

1) Ask about deviating from the group’s normal playstyle

I think my friend should have asked the Storyteller before the game started, if it was okay to discuss ideas with me whilst the Storyteller was busy with other player. It could be distracting to some, especially since the person running the game obviously has an opinion on rules queries, and it could be viewed that having an external person agreeing about how things could work is a form of ganging up.

One of my common answers to questions about how best to handle things in a group is whatever the group’s preference is. Despite what some may think, there is no perfect playing style, so therefore the opinions of the members of a gaming group are what matter, not those of an evangelising article written by somebody that is not involved.

Upon reflection, after the initial query by my friend I think I should have added “It is not my game, maybe ask the ref if they are okay with you involving me.” I guess I didn’t to minimise my impact on the game, I thought what I had said would have deterred my friend earlier.

Batjutsu Pet DM close
Batjutsu Pet DM/GM

2) Perception of fairness still matters, even in co-operative games

This may initially seem like a strange thing to mention, since role-playing games, especially tabletop, are co-operative not competitive. In a game part of what is always involved are the feelings and reputations of the participants, since nobody likes to be seen as foolish, or less important.

Consider that if one player is receiving a private peer review before they discuss ideas with the Storyteller, then their ideas might be better on average than others, leading to all sorts of potential gains for them in game, such as resources or implementing clever plans over enemies. Over time another player might become resentful at this sort of special treatment. The point is to be aware that even something as small as this can have an impact, and thus it can affect others; after all if it was not worth doing, then the player asking wouldn’t be doing it. This issue is likely avoided if a group regularly discusses ideas, and even an individual player’s action, thus everyone’s ideas gets a chance to be discussed.

3) When to tackle concerns

I think the Storyteller handled the whole thing well. They did not become emotional at what could have been deemed as disrespectful. I appreciate that whether the incident counts as disrespectful is subjective, my friend certainly didn’t mean to be, and saw an opportunity to help the game. A DM/GM/ST will consider whether something is going to escalate, and thus some things may be deemed as needing sorting out as soon as possible. Although often patience and respect for others will reveal that there was not going to be an escalation, and confronting a tiny problem could make it become major.

Batjutsu Pet DM dice
Batjutsu Pet DM/GM

An extra bit of the anecdote is that once we got back to my friend’s place, we continued a solo Vampire Elder game we had been playing for the last week. Elysium: the Elder Wars had not long been out, and as long-time Vampire players it was interesting to explore the mind of a much older Vampire. The relevance of this is that week of playing an Elder vampire lead to my massive Methuselah campaign roughly a year later, and from that to my 16 player Night City campaign.

Due to this being a busy month, #CampNanoWriMo and I am also getting ready to play-test a boardgame I have been working on. So I will write about the big games next month.