#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:

 

#RPGaDay 01

Chatting with role-players online and researching is something I quite enjoy, although like most people I do worry about the time sink factor. Yet despite that I’ve decided to take part in #RPGaDay, which was started four years ago by Dave Chapman:

A few years ago I felt there was a negative undercurrent in our hobby. Sorry to say that, but I felt it was there, and inspired by one of those “aDay” things for bibliophiles I thought that I could try to get the world talking about tabletop RPGs in a positive and encouraging way.

Besides the fact it is something I find really interesting, I debated with myself about the time factor. I have so much going on currently, plus my health/energy management to consider, but I finally convinced myself using the following key arguments:

  1. It will be more good writing practice, since RP is my primary passion. I will want to write a lot, but also not just waffle.
  2. Given the number of tweets, I am likely to come across interesting points.
  3. A few friends have recommended that I blog more.

Since leaving KJC Games I have too many unfinished projects. Of course I have run a lot of other peoples’ games, but until recently not my own. I imagine a few friends will remind me of previous conversations: “Finish your RPG Guide, and stop procrastinating by doing another decade’s worth of research.” Although I’ve not double checked with them, I think they will be happy that I am using this month as extra motivation. I believe it will provide me many chances to re-examine ideas from a fresh perspective; due to lots of editing I am somewhat sick of reading my own stuff.

The following is the list of questions for this year:

#RPGaDay

My answer to the question for day 1: What published RPG would you like to be playing right now?

Anyone who has read my recent blog posts on Cryptomancer won’t be too surprised by my answer involving that lovely game. Although I’ve not blogged about Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) yet, it is one of my favourite RPGs; I’m one of those people that has 10 favourite RPGS, 10 favourite bands, etc. I’ve been running the same L5R campaign since the game came out, so my group and I have a lot invested in the game; one player has the same character he started back in 1997. As my campaign has ‘featured’ the Shadow a lot, and secret organisations, I think Cryptomancy would fit right in; I’ll expand on this idea another time.

I nearly choose Tales From The Loop, as I am quite intrigued by that. I love the book Roadside Picnic, the Stalker computer games, and of course Stranger Things. A friend backed the Kickstarter, and loves the finished product. There are so many other games I’d like to be playing: Numenera, FATE, WoD, Aberrant, plus many more to get in to; we are living in an RPG rich age.

Although I have written a lot about this today, I am not planning on writing so much for each of my answers. I likely will, but this will be another chance to practice: if I had more time I’d have written less.

If you are interested in #RPGaDay, and you’d like to know more, then check out Dave Chapman. Also of note is Brigade Con, as Dave mentions on his page, they have been helping to run #RPGaDay, also check out Casting Shadows blog. There is also a webpage https://rpgaday.com/ providing a feed of the numerous tweets.

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.

RPG Power of PBM: Social

This post about RPG and Play by Mail Games (PBM) continues on from the previous article RPG Power of PBM: Time.

When discussing PBM RPG, occasionally someone will be concerned that there is a lack of social interaction in such a game type. They envision a lone player reading something like a Choose Your Own Adventure, or Fighting Fantasy book. Even before the explosion in email access or the World Wide Web took off, PBM games were very social. Granted some players were playing a smaller game with none of their local friends involved, and they had to wait for a letter to arrive by post from other players. Whilst phoning someone was possible, back then the cost was off putting, particularly an issue for younger players; the further back in time we go the more likely players did not have telephone access. These days, none of these concerns are an issue, if you have access to email or the web you are good to go.

It’s understandable that some players of tabletop games, and in particular LARP, would assume that socialising is an issue in a PBM game. Consider how many people refer to the online world as not being real, there is just something detached about a lack of physical presence. This lack of face-to-face interaction does not prevent a PBM player from developing strong social ties. Besides curiosity, many games promote alliances, and given the strategising power of PBM, contacting other players is normal. Obviously other players are going to form alliances, and information gathering is vital.

Direct social interacting, face-to-face, whether physically or virtually, is not something everyone wants to do. There could be any one of a number of reasons, such as: illness/injury, bedridden, social anxiety, autism, and returning to the previous article’s point about time. Please don’t think of PBM games as being just for mental health sufferers, non-neurotypicals, or the disabled, this list just highlights another benefit of this game type.

During a tabletop game, and even more so with LARP, the emotional intensity and sense of connection can be quite intense. It may seem that PBM will lack this level, but just like with any other role-playing games, whether playing with others, or reading a turn result by themselves, players can still achieve emotional highs from succeeding or failing. Given the strategy aspect I previously emphasised, having a long-time ambitious plan succeed certainly provides an emotional high. Other players also tend to be interested in what is going in the game, so there are still plenty of chances to socialise with others and froth, as well telling friends about your latest game exploits.

The raise of the modern Massively multiplayer online (MMO) owes it roots to tabletop RPG, Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), and PBM. Within these games large number of players come together to form alliances, either to compete with other players, or the game world. Organising things with other players is a big part of the MMO genre: fleet co-ordination in EVE Online, dungeon raids in World of Warcraft, etc.

Coalition

As mentioned above, players were forming alliances in PBM games decades ago, and some professional games were quite popular. Playing a bigger PBM means more players to interact with, and this scaling of game size translates to more people to keep up to date with. The end result being a player can spend a lot of time communicating with other players, and this certainly addresses the query of socialising with a PBM. For some players they can be communicating with many players a day, all year, a level of socialising tabletop or LARP rarely achieve.

My first PBM game was Quest by KJC Games, which I eventually ended up running and redesigning as a moderated RPG. As a kid I had seen PBM adverts in the old White Dwarf magazine (Games Workshop), but the money I earned from my paper round went on RPG books and wargame models. Whilst at college I met some other gamers, and via these people I eventually gave Quest a go. Their Quest alliance consisted of only people they regularly hung out with, partly to keep in game information secure, and partly just because they were friends. Before a tabletop gaming session they often discussed their PBM plans, and this eventually resulted in devastating attacks on their enemies. When Magic the Gathering came along, the group would often bounce PBM ideas around whilst playing cards; fun times. I appreciate I was lucky with regards to joining such a organised group of players.

In the next article I’ll tackle a question I have been asked many times: “But how do you actually role-play during a PBM?”

RPG Power of PBM: Time

This post follows on from my overview of Role-Playing Game Types (RPG), and is another step towards finally publishing my role-playing guide. I think play-by-mail (PBM) is awesome, and despite what some claim it has not died out. To help justify my opinions on why PBM can be such a powerful way of role-playing (RP), I’ll explain some core aspects that form the essence of this type of gaming.

Over the decades PBM became an umbrella term covering more than just games played via a postal service. The term PBM has variations like: play-by-post (PBP), play-by-email (PBEM), play-by-Internet (PBI) or play-by-web (PBW). PBEM has probably been the most common playing method since the 90s. I prefer to use the PBM abbreviation as an umbrella term for all the types. Whilst PBM can be a way of running downtime for a tabletop group or Live-Action (LARP), I am focusing on dedicated PBM RPGs.

I’ve found that trying to explain what PBM is, by giving diverse game examples just complicates matters. Many PBM games have nothing to do with role-playing, such as chess or Diplomacy. Chess and similar turn based board games are easy to envision being played by post. Introducing a PBM RPG to a few role-players is met with confusion, their initial thought is that someone writes they rolled a 6, and then imagine a really slow postal conversation filled with tedious haggling about results, rules, and a line of character dialog. PBM games are generally a lot more sophisticated than this, and from a certain point-of-view RP is carried out in a similar fashion to a tabletop; more on PBM and RP later.

Batjutsu PBM Dice
PBM is not about sending dice by post, or “I rolled a 6!”

How long a PBM is played generally comes down:

  • Until a particular win condition is reached, like Civilization.
  • Until a set number of game turns are reached, for example a turn a week for a year.
  • A game could be open ended; some professional PBM games have been running for decades, and there are possibly amateur games with similar timeframes.

A game turn could represent a character’s day, a scene, an overview of a week, or a more abstract number of time units. The general idea is that only events of note are described. This applies whether a player is running a single character or vast empire, like Civilization.

A PBM game tends to work by providing a player an initial starting turn, the player then works out their orders that they submit in time for the turn deadline, and then wait for the turn result. A turn deadline could have any timeframe; many of the games I played or ran had a weekly turn deadline.

Anticipation for the results of my next PBM turn was something I always appreciated.

I think the key advantage of any PBM game is that they give you time to think about different strategies. This is why PBM Chess works so well, and has played for centuries. As one of the best-known strategy games, and a tool commonly used in movies to highlight a character’s intelligence, I think chess wonderfully highlights the power of PBM with regards to thinking time and strategy. Of course every type of role-playing game allows for some strategising, but with the vast majority of PBM games a player has the luxury of time to explore different ideas. Even for very knowledgeable and quick thinking players, having more time to think is beneficial, and most of us aren’t that reliably brilliant.

For many role-players, organising a gaming session is usually the biggest problem. This can be a major problem for LARP due to the number of players involved and the issue of booking a location, but this is still a common issue for a tabletop game, even if the players are playing online. As gamers get older this problem tends to increase, a player’s busy adult life makes it harder to allocate time to a gaming session; there is also the additional issue of an increased likelihood of having to miss sessions. Timeslot issues are rarely a problem when playing a PBM. A player can ponder game information and orders during quiet moments, such as when travelling, waiting in a queue, preparing food, et cetera. Players then just need a bit of time, usually a few minutes, to finalise their orders and send them off.

Next time, the power of PBM with regards to physical and social considerations, RPG Power of PBM: Social.

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.

RPG Lessons From Watching Games

At 16 I spent a lot of time visiting my local gaming shop. Due to this I got to regularly chat with the staff about gaming, often helping boxing up train or tram kits; it was a rite of passage. Being at the shop also gave me access to lots of other role-players, and particularly GMs. Thus I gained exposure to a wide range of opinions, about all sorts of games; in the early 90s it was rare for people to go online, so this was the best local place to go.

Occasionally a group would leave an open invite at the shop for a new player, or an individual seeking a group. So I made use of the invites and tried out several groups. It was a great way to try out different games, as well to hopefully become a regular in yet another great group. One of the groups I joined suggested that I just watch, which I initially thought was odd, since it’s normal to join start playing immediately. Why watch a game when you can play? This particular GM said it was a chance for me to see if would enjoy being in the group, without disrupting the existing game.

Being an observer at a game was surprising. Despite all chats I’d had with different people, playing with different groups, as well as reading articles, I hadn’t considered what watching a game could teach me. Nowadays with some groups filming their gaming sessions, and in particular popular celebrity groups, it has become easy to watch games, but back then it seemed alien. Whilst the celebrity gaming videos are focused on entertainment, not on education, they could still prove useful to someone wanting to analyse them.

d6

As an observer I had a chance to perceive things in a different way, since the situation was impersonal I was able to strive to be more analytical. One of the first things that struck me was that since I didn’t know any of the group, and thus their anecdotes, I found it extra annoying when a player disrupted the game to mention random things. Doing so is generally referred to as going Out Of Character (OOC), although I think OOC is a misleading way to phrase the issue; my opinion likely requires some clarification, so I’ll write about that another time.

I got to see how the group handled focusing everyone back on the game. It was surprising, to my young perception, how often individual players helped the group to refocus on the game. Even though I knew that my players sometimes helped my games out, I had thought I was predominately the one refocusing the group back to the game.

Confirmation bias is funny like that.

Since I was not invested as either a player or GM, I got to watch a bunch of strangers energetically chatting and unwinding. Because I did not have to think about running a game, or how I’d play my character based upon some new stimuli, this allowed me to track their levels of fun. Even when a player was going OOC for quite a while, the group didn’t complain; likely due to the difference between school kids and adults. Whilst I am sure my presence influenced the players and the GM at least a little bit (Hawthorne Effect), I don’t think it was overall an issue. Mainly because I kept quiet, but also because the GM had done this with their group before. Finding that balance of how to prioritise the game whilst hanging out and relaxing friends was something this group seemed to have found, they were not pretending for my benefit.

During my first few years of GMing, at 11 and 12, I had it often felt that I needed to quickly get the game back on track. The idea was driven by concern that the actions of one or two players would become too disrupting for others, and thus risks annoying the others. A major reason for my thought was due to trying to cram as much role-playing as possible in to my lunch break whist at school; I wrote about those sessions here: Role-Play meets Lord of the Flies. At 14 I was running Warhammer with a different group of players in the school library. Later in 1990 we changed to Cyberpunk, and I started running day long sessions. Whilst we had long periods of keeping IC during the 10+ hour sessions, we did have OOC tangents, but they were uncommon.

This links to another lesson about not being as self-conscious when running games, as well as to stay relaxed when being observed by others. This would prove helpful when later running games, be it tabletop, LARP or PBM, as well as talking to customers. As well for games when I’ve had a player observing.

For the next blog post I’ll write about another lesson I learned whilst at another group I watched. Part 2.

RPG Lessons From Watching Games by Batjutsu