Sunday, September 30, 2012

What's Your Favourite Game Genre?

I spend enough time talking about myself so I thought I'd ask you something about yourself.  What are your favourite game genres?  Is it the magic and mystery of mystical fantasy?  The might and magic of traditional fantasy?  Political intrigue in urban fantasy or epic fantasy?  Horror?  Perhaps it isn't the genre that you're playing right now but the sort of game you're most hankering for right now.  If someone asked you, "If you could play any sort of game right now, what would you play?"

For me I think it would be Werewolf: the Forsaken in a post-apocalyptic Fallout-style world.  1950s meets the future is pretty awesome.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Critterbug Stats (New World of Darkness)

I'm preparing for tonight's Demon the Fallen game and figured I might as well give you the mechanical details I've already put together.  At some point I'll also put up the Hacking Style I've created though its only written on a single piece of paper right now and I don't have it near me so I can't do that one today.

The Critterbug is a creature that was spawn from the nuclear radiation in the nuked side of the USA (which is everything barring the East Coast) though just like the zombies the radiation is only a small part of the picture.  I won't tell you their exact cause.  You'll need to read along the Dystopic Campaign to find out.  Since I doubt you'd use the Critterbug in the same campaign world you'd likely need to come up with your own reasonings.  Perhaps they're an ancient species of insect?  Perhaps its what happens when spirits of a certain type claim insects?  There's plenty of options.

The Critterbugs lay eggs in small clutches and the insects eat each other until their half grown at which point they grow their wings.  They instinctively don't eat any insect that has its wings.  In this way, two to three insects might survive from any particular clutch.  They have a natural lifespan of around 7 years but they grow surprisingly quickly on very little food.  Experiments suggest that they can actually draw minerals out of the ground itself.  While they can live in irradiated areas, they are normally not heavily irradiated themselves though attempting to eat their chitinous flesh is a bad idea because they are carnivorous.  They don't eat vegetation.

Attributes For An Adult:
Intelligence: 1, Wits: 3, Resolve 2,
Strength 5, Dexterity 4, Stamina 4,
Presence 3, Manipulation 1, Composure 2
Skills: Athletics 3 (Climbing), Brawl 3, Survival 3, Intimidate 1
Willpower: 4
Initiative: 6
Defense: 3
Running Speed: 16
Size: 7
Type Damage Test pool
Bite 2 (L) 10
Charge 0 (B*) 8
*Special: Knock down
Health: 11
Armour: 2 / 1 (2 against Bashing and 1 against Lethal due to Chitinous Hide)
Flight: Clumsy.  They have to make Dexterity + Athletics rolls to change direction in flight.  They must roll Stamina + Athletics if they wish to fly more than 100 feet in any direction.  Each success provides an additional 10 feet of flight.

Attributes For A Juvenile:
As above but reduce Size to 5, physical stats each by 1, and flight to 50 feet with successes providing an additional 5 feet of flight.

Attributes For Young:
As above but reduce Size to 3, physical stats each by 2 and remove armour and their ability to fly.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dystopic: The Wrong Turn Mall

Last session we had no London as his player was sick, no Leningrad because Borderlands 2 came out, and instead made do with Tokyo, Nomad 6 and Miami.  Tokyo quickly got them up to speed (a difficult task since Tokyo has Eidetic Memory and her player does not) when they found themselves in the drop ship alone (no refugee family, no London and no Leningrad) speeding through stormy clouds.  Nomad 6 tried to take them down and eventually touched base with some sort of flat surface.

They hopped out of the dropship and Tokyo recognised the brick floor as being from the courtyard as before although this time with the ashen clouds whipping around they couldn't see more than a foot in front of them.  For some strange reason, the ashen cloud didn't get up their nose or sting their eyes.  It just obscured their vision.  Hearing a noise and remembering Tokyo's tales of fear, they ran forward through the ash cloud until Nomad 6 tripped over a loose and rusty bit of chain with a butcher's hook on the end - just like the one used on the fountain.  Nomad 6 picked it up as he was otherwise unarmed and they kept running.  He ran headlong into a brick wall and bloodied his nose but soon picked out that through the window he could see static-filled television sets of the old bulky kind rather than the modern thin forms.

They get in with the quick use of lockpicks and find themselves in a television store with a Mexican porno mag half hidden beneath the counter.  Going through the door at the back they pass through an office and into a plain lino-lined corridor.  A bit of exploration later and they find themselves in the middle of a three-storey mall.  This mall was clearly from 1996 judging by the dates read on the newspapers - the ability to read being a minor clue that this place was real - which made the Fallen beneath it must be a dream all the more because the nukes didn't hit until 2022 so why would the mall have been abandoned with everything still inside it?  They also figured out it was in Dallas, Texas.

Funnily enough, they were discussing who might be enthused enough that an abandoned mall might be their dream and Tokyo correctly guessed that a teen might like it.  It might have been helped by me playing Placebo over the loudspeakers.  Tokyo also guessed that it might especially be a skateboarder wanting to grind along a public place.  I had just the person in mind before she'd spoken those words so I enthused over the player's cleverness (or at least our power to think alike) and they heard someone grinding down rails earlier on.

Through clever deductions and checking out the liquor store, newsagency, underwear store, and mattress store they figure out that its likely to be either a teenage girl or a more sensibly-minded boy of fifteen or older as there was a consensus that a boy between twelve and fifteen would have used a lot of tissues or such-like in a bra shop rather than dressing up random teddy bears with brassieres and spears which is more something either a bored and unsupervised child, older teen, or adult might do.  Ironically enough, maturity sometimes means people are more blaise and therefore silly about sex.

Of course, after several months the novelty would be bound to wear off on anyone and any childish amusement would do.

They went to find him in the Arcade but found instead that there was a giant mist-filled crater that had also taken out one wall of the arcade and that half the floor had cracked and was sloping down towards it.  They couldn't stand long because these sooty footsteps started approaching them and they correctly surmised it was dangerous and that they probably couldn't fight it and therefore fled.

Anyway, they tracked him down and Nomad 6 ran around the corner only to receive a crossbow bolt in the shoulder for a whopping four lethal.  The kid then ground down the side of the stopped elevators and hid behind a pillar below the balcony they were on.  Tokyo, reasoning that she looked fifteen anyway and correctly assuming a teenage boy is unlikely to strike a teenage girl, begged for him not to shoot and crawled down the escalator behind cover.  He spoke to her a bit but was pretty anxious - even if they weren't raiders (he seemed to be post-nuke American), he did shoot one of them after all.

Then a Critterbug broke in through an upstairs doorward on the third floor (that they hadn't explored) which is a large creature that has the broad body like a cricket and a mouth like a lipless human jaw but bigger and with pincers on either side.  They could also reach four feet wide at the 'shoulders' and ten feet long and this one was about that size. 

The kid escaped through a vent and Tokyo easily followed, slowed down simply because she didn't run up the wall high enough straight away and it took her two turns to get in.  He ended up hiding in a blanketed, supply filled 'nest' under the stairs and offered her to come in with him.  He was innocent enough looking in a hoody, baggy pants, expensive sneakers, with a straight black fringe.  His irises though were black and there was these shadowy fronds that passed across his skin as though his pigmentation itself were occasionally changing and she could see that a part of the back of his pants twitched occasionally like he had a tail.  Still, she got in after being shy for a few moments. 

When he offered her alcohol she said, "No, thanks, my father would kill me."

Meanwhile, Nomad 6 and Miami took on the Critterbug in apocalyptic form, taking a bit of Torment (they could afford it, they were ridiculously low on 2.9) and managed to repel it.  Then they followed using Nomad 6's Lore of Paths as they were a bit big for those vents (especially Nomad 6 who was defined as muscular).

They all then tried to convince the kid that he was dreaming - which the kid wasn't buying.  They learned that he was originally from Washington and heavily mutated from the nuclear fall out there, just like most of the kids.  There'd never been any raiders here, only Critterbugs and the 'ghosts' (those footprints) but he hasn't seen anyone else here.

He wasn't all too sure that it was just a dream because it had gone on for six months and, yes, he was fixed now and had other changes but he believed in the supernatural.  The dead could walk, after all.  Nomad 6 tried to convince him that zombies were known and not supernatural to which he replied, "They weren't known to exist until they were found to exist.  Same could be for whatever happened to me."

There were indications that there was a time he couldn't remember and then he was in this mall looking like he does now.  He didn't much want to wake up.  He offered to show them the mall and Dallas from the roof but the Fallen realised that out of the mall was a place they couldn't go.  Those that stepped out disappeared, presumably to their Hosts.

Nomad 6 tried one last time to convince the kid he was dreaming and the boy simply stated, "How do I convince myself I'm dreaming?  Jump off the building?  You can't die when you're dreaming."

Nomad 6 tried an Intelligence + Occult roll and got a dramatic failure.  "That's right.  You should do that."

"Will you come with me?" the boy asked.

"I can't.  If I step out there, I'll disappear."

"What if I jump off the cliff at the Arcade?" the kid asked.


So they went down to the Arcade.  Nomad 6's player sensed something was up due to the certainty of his character's convictions following a Dramatic Failure and because I took a bit of time in describing their approach of that cliff and how the kid looked back at him briefly and smiled before taking a leap of faith with a bit of extra encouragement.  Only to hit a ledge in the crater 18 feet down with a sickening crunch of bones.  When Nomad 6 ventured to take a look, he could see that the kid's right arm and leg were at an odd angle though he might not be dead.

Nomad 6 returned to the dropship wondering if he had indeed killed the boy and planning to head back on his own while the others dealt with business in the city so he could see if the boy were really there or if he was wherever else they had been - perhaps dead in his dream or perhaps never having existed at all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Game Translation: Silent Hill

The Silent Hill series is set in the titular town which has the ability to mutate according to the guilty secrets (or in some cases the will) of some of those who enter it.  A few cults have sprung into being having noted the malleable nature of the town and there are implications that it can sometimes be a paradise for those chosen few - though perhaps their interpretation of paradise is a little off. 

The protagonists are generally weak and vulnerable though not altogether helpless.  The protagonists are also always new to the area, though in one game (Homecoming) the individual used to live in the nearby town of Shepherd's Glen before going away for undisclosed reasons (it gets disclosed toward the end of the game).  The protagonists aren't always the only ones caught up in their internal melodrama as sometimes others are trapped there and destroyed by their own guilt (especially Silent Hill 2 and Homecoming).  Occasionally you get to meet them and learn their sordid, or simply tragic, histories. 

Sometimes, such as in Silent Hill 4, it's more of a case of wrong place and wrong time as the enemy is a madman intent on wreaking his will on the world and drawing the essence of Silent Hill into yet another location - in this case an apartment block.

The Silent Hill series is predominately a survival horror game and that is relatively easy to run though it requires a certain amount of player buy in.  The characters have to be vulnerable and if they have been powerful up to now than they have to be made vulnerable.  Players may be okay with having their characters weakened in this way if they know its temporary and is even across the board.  Hitting your Pathfinder players with a powerful curse (perhaps akin to Amnesia) where they lose the majority of their levels and are sent reeling back to Level 1 or 2 is okay. 

Simply removing their magical powers is not as it significantly disadvantages the mages.  You could also make them into glass canons by dropping them all to 2HD and reducing their saves accordingly while retaining the rest of their powers.  Remember that player buy in is essential.  It should seem like a new experience and not a punishment.  Also take care that while their characters come under threat and appear close to dying that they don't simply die from a bad roll or a trap too high for their new CR.  If they die after all their hard work because of a house rule you've used or because they trusted you with the level drop, there may well be hard feelings.  It depends, of course, on your players.

On that note, the secret truth of survival horror is that character death generally defeats the purpose.  This creates a bit of a duality.  Tension is best served when the characters keep drawing close to death (and then getting the odd safe points) but an actual character death is a solution of sorts and one that removes the problem.  At best, the attached players grieve over their loss but grief and tragedy can fade into futility after a few deaths occur.  At worst, the players either shrug it off or get angry with you over that loss - though you can mitigate that if the deaths aren't real and simply bump them out of the odd reality (only tell players of the deceased characters that this is so).  Besides, what is the player of the dead character going to do now? 

Run your NPC for you?  That's hardly ideal as they have no investment as that NPC though they may be attached to the NPC while you play them.  They'll find it hard enough to grapple with someone else's mindset (one you've created) and that'll reduce the tension for them generally.

Create another character to stumble onto the party?  Better, but the player has no real attachment to that character yet and you can't do this too often or it seems awfully convenient.

Force the player to go home or watch?  This can work in one-shots or in the last session of the adventure but generally doesn't work out in the long term.  Besides, watching players can easily grow bored and become distracting.  Roleplaying games don't play out as smoothly or as quickly as a movie and there's a lot of 'wasted time' that just aren't interesting for observers.

Boy, I've just wasted a chunk of this article about de-powering characters.  All right, let's get into the next big issue.  Guilty secrets and dark histories.  This is a necessity to roleplaying games.  While not everyone needs to have a terrible past (Henry Townshend is just unlucky enough to live in that apartment and Harry Mason is just unlucky enough to be Cheryl's adoptive father), most players would want to get in on the spotlight of having their sins come back to bite them. 

If they're creating characters from nothing this can actually be more difficult as most players like to develop character histories as they've played them and a one page document doesn't really give much of a sense of what's going on inside their own minds.  Besides, the character can soon develop in a wildly different direction that suggests a wildly different background.  Also, a character's history should interweave with their personality in the impact they have on the psychoreactive world.

If these are characters from earlier adventures, it can be a bit easier as most characters have shown flaws (binge drinking, callousness, etc.) or been involved in things they aren't proud of.  If you just sit down with them to knock out a bit more back history about parental connections and first relationships, you're bound to get plenty of usable clues.  The trouble with pre-existing characters, though, is that they've picked up bad habits (read: genre conventions) from the earlier adventures.  Characters who are used to running and gunning will take some time to figure out that stealth is the best option so you'll need to clue them in - perhaps by revealing what happened to the last lot who runned and gunned.

Silent Hill is apparently conducive to naps.
A lot of the tricks of other horror games are also important here.  Notes left behind by mysterious other people (often now dead), mutilated corpses, clues to other people's misfortune, obscure puzzles, strange sounds (which you could play at intermittent intervals), creepy or discordant music, torchlit game tables, and written props that you can hand around are all useful.  Make bullets matter by keeping track of each shot fired.

You can actually include puzzles where you collect objects from around the floorplan so long as you a) create a floorplan, b) highlight the importance of the items in such a way as they seem obvious (i.e. only thing in a room with a flashlight on it), c) allow improvisation to a certain extent, and d) ensure each room they can enter is interesting enough that they're moved to go room by room.  As this is a survival horror, this shouldn't be too tricky.  Just put the odd clue or horror trope in the occasional room and spring a monster whenever they get complacent.  Also, think about how much movement you're going to restrict and how that plays in, or against, the players' skill-sets.  Silent Hill has doors that can't be lock picked or broken down which makes a high Larceny skill useless.  Will you allow doors to be picked?  Some doors?  All doors?  Can windows be shattered?  It's really up to you.

Be prepared to improvise.  Silent Hill is a psychoreactive world that responds to the mental state of the characters.  Since this is an imaginary world you're creating it doesn't have to be based along the IF THIS THEN THAT mentality of videogames.  If you've put a lot of effort into building up a few key locations then throw a few chasms around to nudge them along certain lines but it's also a good idea to have a few maps of obvious locations (hospitals, police stations, shops, apartment buildings) and then see where they lead.  They run to the hospital first?  Remove the Big Boss from there as it's not the end of the campaign yet.  They explore that random house?  Consider making it matter with clues or threats found within.  Not every location they enter needs to matter but some do.

Also bear it in mind in the locations and resist the temptation to attach monsters to certain rooms.  Sure you can have a few set piece encounters but if the big bad is in the basement and that's the route the players take first then consider holding it back.  Perhaps when they later explore the other floors you could either have them repairing the elevator mean that entering it brings them into a nastier form of Silent Hill (with the beastie still in the basement) or you could have it that the baddie is in one of the later places they check - the Emergency Ward.  This makes you seem prescient as the enemies are always in the right places and keeps you from having to railroad them.  Your own world is far more malleable than your players' decisions so, where possible, improvise so that the game sculpts around them in an organic and hidden manner.

Bear in mind the great benefit of the survival horror game.  It doesn't have to make sense.  It just needs to be coherent enough to feel like it could make sense if only the players had picked up a few more clues or looked at it in just the right way.  Create an underlying reasoning behind it all but don't worry about it all fitting sharply within that definition.  It really doesn't have to do so and, in fact, is better if a few angles don't quite mesh well together.

A campaign based around Silent Hill, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers because its about as strange as they come and therefore full of thrilling challenges.  Explorers can go almost anywhere and each room is a new experience just waiting to unfold for them.  What's not to like about that?  Investigators may adore the unfolding plot, especially if they enjoy a horror game, and will be eager to explore the locations as fully as the Explorers to ensure that they gather every clue and get as close to the answer as they possibly can.

Action Heroes will generally hate it unless they're Explorers at heart and able to enjoy the locations and seamless set pieces.  You can certainly draw them into to being fans of survival horrors if you're clever and they have a high level of curiosity.  Be quite obvious that the big scary Pyramid Heads of the world aren't to be messed with but include the odd weaker monster that can be crushed.  Turn the Pyramid Heads into an event, as well, so that they don't just need to hide from it but need to run, jump, and throw smaller monsters in the way.  If you have one of these players in your game, keep it as fluid as you can.  While Explorers and Investigators may be happy enough to see pre-established scenery and, well, investigative games often require a somewhat railroaded approach anyway considering the amount of clues that are required, Action Heroes tend to really hate restrictions that bite into their cool ideas and hi-octane thrills.  Giving them a certain degree of flexibility within certain parameters means that they can still get their kicks out of beating the odds while still maintaining a solid horror approach.

Tacticians can enjoy it if they're given the same sort of flexibility as Action Heroes but might never quite enjoy the game as much because they like to think that there is a right way to go about things.  Survival Horrors aren't big on the best-laid plans being all that successful and while clever tactics are always useful it won't always be clear whether it helped or even what the objectives themselves should be.  Stress to the player that the game will unfold around them to an extent and that if they feel directionless, like there's something they SHOULD be doing, its generally an illusion.  If it's not an illusion than the direction will become clear.  After all, much of the Silent Hill games involve a lot of wandering between seemingly unconnected locations and if it weren't for the chasms and the road blocks most of the locations would never have been visited.

Communicators will find plenty of scope for roleplaying and character development but might get distracted by the lack of clear objectives and lose steam and motivation.  Why?  Because most people thrust into an insane world are likely to simply try to hole up somewhere and sit tight until its over.  These players are keen on playing out all of the intricacies of their character's mind so it goes against the grain to act out of character simply to keep the story moving.  Oh, they'll do it when necessary but their definition of neccessary is different to most.  Ensure that they have a clear external motivation such as a missing child or wife to keep them motivated. 

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Silent Hill 2 used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Project Zero, Forbidden Siren, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, Borderlands 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Borderlands 2.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Endless Possibilities

This is the article where I brainstorm a number of different possible climaxes - which I referred to as endings to cut down on the number of inadvertent double entendres.  I realised in the Comments section of the last article that when the word 'ending' is a loaded word and that my particular use of it is more in keeping with the term 'climax' and so I will actually start using it occasionally.  I'm talking about the grand finale, rather than the Ending which covers everything from the final build up to the finale to the aftermath which is far more difficult to plot out and generally is best left open.  Bear in mind that these don't have to be for the end of a campaign.  They could be simply major highlights at the end of adventures during long running campaigns. 

Perhaps the players might need to transport an important cargo by a specified time.  Examples: Returning a kidnapped princess or information on her whereabouts to her father before he declares war.  Bringing much-needed medical supplies to a clinic to save a loved one or perhaps bringing a dying loved one to a medical clinic.  Transporting food to a besieged populace to prevent a surrender (or a riot).  Or the more obvious delivery of weapons, armour, or fuel before a battle.  The climax would involve the final obstruction and this need not be based around combat.  It could involve a cratered section of road, a burning building, swimming through a submerged series of pipes, a mine field, a damaged wing, or maintaining consciousness while the air runs low.  Try to think up something that requires multiple rolls using multiple skills (a burning building might require Stamina + Resolve rolls, Athletics rolls, Survival rolls, and Strength rolls) or a number of smaller solutions so that it runs similarly to a combat rather than hinging on a single die roll.

Perhaps the players must need to fight their enemy to stop a certain outcome.  This could involve a straight fight between them and the enemy but it doesn't have to be.  It could revolve around an ambush of superior numbers (in which case much of the effort is around setting up and the actual ambush may be over quickly).  It could involve knocking out the enemy or taking them prisoner (again, most of the action might involve preparation such as if a sheriff kicks in the target's door while they're naked in the bath).  It could be an assassination - perhaps sniping a sorcerer before a nasty ritual is completed (the major effort could again be preparation in getting into position OR it might involve a shoot out with the cult).  It could be an old-fashioned cover-based shoot out or a stand up fight directly between the player characters and the enemy. 

Perhaps the players need to kill someone but they don't need to combat it.  This might even include vehicular murder such as running them down in a car, crashing a helicopter into the cult or driving a petrol tanker into the monster.  It might involve setting explosives and then blowing something up from a distance.  It could involve convincing a computer to trigger a security system against your enemy or perhaps you route poison gas through the air vents.  Technology and traps are your friend here.

Perhaps the players need to protect something from an assault.  They might have to repel thieves or killers by setting up their own security system and then get to watch the defences spring into action and make the buildings' rolls against a set of enemies.  It might be fun for them to get to be like the enemies they so often have to face and so long as they get to make the rolls it shouldn't be dull at all for them.

Perhaps the players need to get information from a person.  They might need to trick a defendant into implicating himself in a court (vampire, legal, whatever).  Or get a courtier to have a politically unsavoury outburst in front of the king.  Or torture information out of an enemy that will change the direction of an army.  Or honey trap a bad guy into making the right sort of pillow talk with a microphone nearby.  Or goad a villain into boasting about their plans.  Whatever it is, it needs to be definitive and solve the major threat facing the players or it will just be another action rather than the main event.

Perhaps the players need to get information from a place.  The computer needs to be hacked but there is a system admin on the other side.  The code needs to be found and broken in a thrilling few minutes of letter substitution code breaking that the players themselves have to undergo (some people would love that sort of thing).  Your best bet here is to set a time limit and, again, make the results definitively important.

Perhaps the players need to deal with a particular trap that is important enough that the story hinges around it.  An obvious example would be defusing an Unexploded Bomb in a British Home Front situation or a bomb left in an airport in a modern day scenario.

Perhaps the players need to build a case.  The final crime scene has the clues that will get the enemy apprehended.  The lab is so close to proving that a hurricane is about to hit and they need to put forward a case that the other information is false misinformation sent by an enemy state happy to have so many killed during a parade.  Once the case is made, the threat is solved.  The enemy is thrown behind bars.  The parade is called off.  You also have to make it obvious that this is the definitive encounter to build up the tension - some genres will make this automatic (i.e. police procedurals).

Perhaps the players need to talk someone down.  They have all the information they need and just need to defuse the situation with the hostage taker.  Or perhaps they need to talk down the suicidal informant from a ledge.  Or they need to convince someone that they don't need to kill their enemies and should let the law handle it.  Or perhaps they need to be convinced not to declare war or place an embargo on another country or call down martial law.  Whatever it is, it needs to be important in the perspective of the story at hand.  A game based on Historical Drama might simply be able convincing a man not to undertake a duel or abandon his wife while a game based on Global Superheroes might talk down Dr. Megalomania from using his Destructobeam that would blow up the world and him with it.

Perhaps they need to use a certain technology (magical or scientific) themselves.  It might be accurately using all of the ingredients so far gathered in a ritual to banish an enemy or using an exorcism while surviving a ghost's attacks.  It could be that they need to repair an aircraft so they can get off the island or cleverly manipulate the various energy systems on a spacecraft so that life support stays on a little longer.

Perhaps they need to steal something, ideally without even being spotted.  They may have to avoid traps, security systems, roaming dogs, cameras, and patrolling sentries on the way in and, more difficultly, getting out without the missing item being noticed.  Throw in a final complication that should be difficult to surmount but take care not to let all their effort disappear in a single die roll.  Perhaps have that failed stealth roll simply make things harder when the enemy is now on alert and has changed up their search patterns.  Or perhaps that failed Spot Hidden doesn't mean they step out in front of the enemy but they get lost in the building and have to find their way out.  Each failed roll should generally simply move them further away from the objective as statistically they're bound to fail the occasional roll (1 in 20, at the very least, in Pathfinder or D&D). 

If you make a failed roll, almost any failed roll, a guaranteed Lose The Mission roll then you've just invalidated all their previous effort and made such stealth operations impossible.  Luck should influence a stealth mission but not rule it.  If it's a super-important die roll or if the players have been profoundly stupid and you've given them a die roll to see if they can pull it off, then go right ahead.  Otherwise, try to have it be a series of bad rolls / bad decisions that auto-fail the mission and even then its best to have them be consecutive failures.  Anything else can just add further complications and therefore simply ratchet up tension.

So, do you have any other ideas of main ways of ending the plot?

The main Endings article (and all the various links) can be found over here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dystopic: The Jazz Club

In the session before last, only two players could attend (Tokyo and London) and as everyone was on a helicopter at the last game it wasn't easy to come up with a reason why the other three weren't involved.  So instead I improvised.  Tokyo and London were spirited away into some sort of courtyard, found themselves in their most familiar well-worn clothes (Tokyo in her work uniform; London in typical detective-wear), and experienced a few hints that they might be unconscious (Tokyo's cyberware placed their GPS coordinates as traveling over the Arizona desert; London tasting dirt which suggested he passed out and crash landed as he was using his wings to fly).

After a number of creepy incidents in that courtyard including a puzzle involving hooked chains and a moving statue and a few encounters with something they didn't want to look at, they made their way out of the courtyard and through a narrow cavern (Tokyo's spelunking came in handy here) into what looked like a crappy little flat.  They looked around and found behind the curtains no window but a series of pinned up photographs of London during his days at work.  The only door was really hot to touch, putting London in mind of when the flat next to his caught on fire, and he and Tokyo set up protecting themselves from fire (wet blankets, etc.) before attempting to open the door, careful to step aside in case of a Backflash of flame.

No fire.

Just flashbulbs and sounds of cameras going off.  They walked down a red carpet into a Jazz Club where most people's smiles seemed pinned up to their cheeks (meaning their smiles showed a lot of gum) and where most of the people sort of burbled in the background like Extras and only spoke when spoken to (sounded like English to London; Japanese to Tokyo).  The bartender knew their favorite drinks.  When they tried to read the menu, it looked like Chinese to London and Arabic to Tokyo - both languages they couldn't read.

The only semi-real person there was the Jazz Singer with vibrant red lips, too perfect skin, and pointed elfin ears but she wasn't interested in talking to London, thinking he was just trying to chat her up on her break.  When she went back onstage, he poured a drink on the light that was on her (it was an uplight at the edge of the stage) but she just looked annoyed and went to stand before the next light without stopping a note. He did it again, and she started looking real agitated and went to the last one, which he then destroyed with a drink.  During their next conversation London tried to convince her that this place wasn't real.  She threatened him with bouncers ("Where are they?" demanded London), warned him about the Nightclub Manager ("He's not coming," said London).

The Nightclub Manager appeared with a great big smile and expressed his surprise that they were there.  He indicated knowing London (negatively) and London assumed he was a demon, perhaps from the Ebon Legion, whom London had fought during the Long March.  The Nightclub Manager then expressed how he was sad that Tokyo had left his side, the right side, and that she had spent so much time on the wrong side of the war.  He had apparently liked her.  The implications were that he wasn't a fallen angel ... that he might well have been an angel.

He stepped forward when London threatened him (or insulted him about the Jass Club, I can't remember) and became a multitude of seven duplicates.  London grabbed the Jazz Singer and dragged her into the Backstage with Tokyo and then through a corridor where London demanded the Jazz Singer tell him a way out.  She didn't know one so they went into her dressing room.

Tokyo searched for clues or a way out while London tried to convince the Jazz Singer that this wasn't real and that she should help them escape.  He focused on the big questions and while she couldn't answer them.  "Who's your bass player?  What's his name?" London asked.  "He's new, he's just the bass player," said the Jazz Singer.

Tokyo noticed the calender was full of Fridays and that behind it was a crack that she couldn't enlarge.  The Nightclub Manager started pushing through the walls, his face slowly outlined as though he were pressing against a sheet of white opaque gladwrap.  London managed a question that really put a chink in the Jazz Singer's sense of reality and the crack widened.

Tokyo got in on the action but she focused on small things.

"Do you have any family?" asked Tokyo.

"Er, yes?" said the Jazz Singer hesitatingly.

"Who?  Mother?  Father?" asked Tokyo.

"Oh, my mother.  I never knew my father."

"Where is she?" asked London.

"Uh, I don't know," she stammered.  "At home?"

"How did you get home?" asked Tokyo.

"I don't know."

"Bicycle?  Bus?  Do you use your own car?"

"Bicycle.  I ride to work and to home.  I can't afford a bus or my own car.  I have to look after my ... my mother and my little sister.  Ma can't work and my sis has school."

Slowly they unpicked her memories and realised that she was actually a black woman from 1943, New York, who had sung in jazz clubs to pay for her mother and little sister who lived in a small apartment.  She had been lured by a rather friendly and hypnotic gentleman, the Nightclub Manager, who was going to lead her to the lap of luxury but she ended up here.  The crack widened and opened and the three of them held hands and fled into a thorny place filled with thick trees and weedy shrubs.  None of the thorns hurt the two fallen but they kept scratching at the Jazz Singer, though London and Tokyo tried to shield her.

They paused in a clearing to recollect their senses and the Jazz Singer, Eliza Owen, realised that her hands were white and her ears sharply pointed but London and Tokyo managed to distract her from it.  Eliza ended up creating her own story that she was kidnapped by some kind of Nazi experimenter, or perhaps Japanese experimenter, and that London was a British agent and Tokyo a Japanese double agent, who had come to rescue her.  Satisfied with her outlandish but nevertheless more realitic version of events, she followed them through the thorny undergrowth.  They heard something huge stomping past and came across its giant footsteps before finally reaching a road strung with paper lanterns that lit up when the two fallen stepped on the road but stayed off when Eliza stepped onto it.

They ended up finding a little pond with two trees standing side by side that created a natural archway filled with flickering motes of colour (or so it appeared to the Fallen) and they activated it with a little will and some Faith and, all holding hands, they stepped through.  Unfortunately, wherever the girl went is not where they appeared.

Ahh, the tricks of finding it hard to justify the diappearance or NPCishness of most of the party while still running the game.  In the following session, I only had three of the five and one of those three turned up late enough that I thought he wasn't coming so went with the next weird installment of this strange series.  I'll tell you about it later.  Probably Thursday.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Skill Under The Spotlight: Crafts

The Crafts skill is generally treated as a fluff skill simply there to allow you to round out your character and justify the fact you're playing an interior decorator or a carpenter.  The only times it generally comes up is when people want to craft explosives or repair a damaged vehicle.  There's more to it then that, though, if you're clever and your Storyteller is willing.  You can design, build, create, and make functional things.  You can also repair damaged electronic or mechanical devices.  Possible specialties include carpentry, cooking, drawing, painting, pottery, architecture, sculpting, knitting, demolitions, disarming, implosions, placement, remote triggers, timers.

So what can you do with it?  Well...

Sabotaging a machine (Intelligence + Crafts)
Repairing a fuse box to bring the lights back on (Intelligence + Crafts)
Rig a generator or battery charged out of appropriate goods (Intelligence + Crafts)
Designing a bomb blueprint (Intelligence + Crafts)
Building a bomb (Dexterity + Crafts)
Disarming a Bomb (Wits + Crafts to figure it out; Dexterity + Crafts to accomplish it)
Building or repairing furniture (Dexterity or Strength + Crafts)
Draw an identikit - draw a person based off someone else's description of them (Wits + Crafts)
Make fantastically fashionable clothing (Wits + Crafts)
Engineering a new design or improving on an existing one (Wits + Crafts AND Dexterity + Crafts)
Urban Planning designs that work (Wits + Crafts)
Understanding local architecture and their purposes - such as to find a secret room or determine an odd addition (Intelligence or Wits + Crafts)
Understanding what a particular tool kit is for without other guidance - such as recognising a bomb kit when you see one (Intelligence + Crafts)
Cook a sumptuous meal (Wits + Crafts)
 Refine medications or other chemicals (Intelligence + Crafts)
 Convince others that you're a builder, mechanic, engineer, etc. (Manipulation + Crafts)
Teach others your skill or give a speech on a crafts subject (Presence + Crafts)
Build a back up power generator for the bastion (Intelligence + Crafts)
Make a gun fully automatic when it's not meant to be (Dexterity + Crafts)
Realistic artworks - paintings, constructions of people, etc. (Wits OR Dexterity + Crafts)
Convince others of the merits of your designs or your general skill (Manipulation + Crafts)
Cover up the masquerade by explaining how technology could be designed to do that (Manipulation + Crafts)
Build prosphetics (Intelligence + Crafts)
Create fancy make-up and costumes (Wits, Intelligence, or Dexterity + Crafts)
Building a house / bastion (Varies)
Forging a weapon (Strength + Crafts)
Installing air conditioning, etc. (Intelligence + Crafts)
Repairing a car (Wits + Crafts)
Adding modifications to a car or other vehicle to make it handle better, go faster, etc. (Wits OR Dexterity + Crafts)

The reason why I place realistic pictures under Crafts than Expression is because I define Craft as what is used to produce accurate designs so if you want to paint someone how they actually look you could use craft just as you'd use craft to draw an architectural design. If you want to create a painting that expresses anything - the aristocracy inherent in the subject, a mood, anything like that - than you'd use Expression.

If you wanted to be a painter, you're better off just getting Expression but people will excellent hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills might also have Crafts because of it. Of course, World of Darkness kinda compresses a lot of skills into one so you could argue it either way.  After all, a super chemist doesn't necessarily know anything about anatomy but it all rolls into Science in the end!

You can find the core article with all of the other likely links over here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Power Dynamics At The Game Table

Let's talk about something that is generally only ever whispered about around the water cooler: visible power dynamics on an out of character level. In other words, who has the power? Who is in charge? Who controls the game? This can vary quite a bit and while every group will naturally have some sort of power dynamic where one or more people have more influence than others, the rule of thumb is that the power should be shared as equally as it comes amongst friends. Some people may be content to mostly just watch but should they decide to stand up and take the reins, they should be encouraged to do it rather than forced back into submission.

Now let me first add a disclaimer: Anything CAN work if it works. However, just because its what you've all been doing doesn't mean its actually working. If people are getting hurt or upset by it then something needs to change. If people are struggling over who has the power, then something needs to be worked out.

This particular article is about whether the players, the Game Masters, or even the Game Developers must necessarily have the most power at the table?

I'll give you a moment to think about your own opinions on this matter.




In my opinion, it all depends on your perspective.

The game designers have created the world but you've chosen to run it and, in running it, will lay your own stamp of originality on how it all works out. Some people want them to have all the power and will try to cleave as closely to the canonical themes, stories, mechanics, and game play as possible. When in doubt, they'll ask the developers. Others are keen to take the basics, mix in a lot of other things, and then churn it up. So long as you buy the books, you're doing right by the developers so while you can certainly give them a lot of power over your game, you certainly don't have to.

The Game Master is the one who just spent hours every week designing an adventure for you. They've slaved away over rule books, searching forums, and inventing cool new scenarios for you to strut your stuff in. They arbitrate the rules, settle disagreements, select the monsters, and decide how the world reacts to the player's actions. A Game Master can theoretically say: "Rocks fall on your character and he dies" and make it true.

That is a lot of power. Or is it? They're committing quite a lot of time and effort and are being paid in personal satisfaction, player's smiles (or fear or tears or whatever the point of the genre), and a chance to investigate the sort of stories that interest them. Okay, true, sometimes they're being paid in power and control over other people's lives but that's not generally the case. If the players are hating the game, then the Game Master is likely to end up pretty miserable as well. What's the point in running a game that the players hate?

If they're doing their job right, the Game Masters are catering to their audience (the players) and making all sorts of compromises to ensure that everyone has a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I'm not a big fan of mechanics but I read up on every antagonists' mechanical abilities so I can play them right. I've had preferences for NPCs only to have players adore a different one I never intended to bring up again. I've even swapped out my first preference of investigative horror game for less preferred (but still enjoyed) games such as piratical action adventure and post-apocalyptic high adventure games as I knew that was what my players adored and where most of their talents lay. I even finished the Pathfinder Crimson Throne game more out of obligation than true interest.

So in other words, they're a bit like mothers. If they're doing their job right, they may find they have a whole lot of control but not a whole lot of power as a lot of their job comes from catering to the whims of another.

Does this mean the players have all the power then?

Umm, probably not.

Players can vote with their feet but they might not have any alternatives or might not want to hurt a friends' feelings. They're vulnerable to their Game Master's machinations and have to simply have faith that the NPC antagonist figured out the holes in their plans because of behind the scenes elements and not because the Game Master didn't like having his plans destroyed.

They generally aren't responsible for creating a campaign, or even choosing game style and genre, and I've found that they generally don't want to be. They may be happy to vote between campaigns but too much choice can be paralysing as they can often see the merits in a lot of different games. Besides, what looks good on paper might play terribly in reality. How many players truly know what they enjoy or what they're good at anyway? (I know I don't.)

If a player rebels, they can wreak havoc in the game world or at the table but the Game Master can theoretically retro their actions out of existence. Subtle sabotage works better but, contrary to some people's beliefs, players don't generally enjoy it. They lash out or zone out due to frustration, boredom, or resentment, but would much prefer simply enjoying their game time.

Generally all they have to sacrifice is a few hours out of the week, rather than a Game Master's far heftier contribution of effort and time, but those few hours can feel like an eternity as there are only two things a player can draw enjoyment from at the table. The game itself or out-of-character chit chat and the last option can easily be outlawed if it becomes the primary motivation of the players - and therefore disruptive to the less enjoyable gameplay.

To make matters worse, there are many perfectly good players out there labeled as 'trouble players' because their gameplay style clashes heavily with a game that doesn't cater to them at all. In a game that's all about dungeon crawling, a player who adores investigation or slice of life gameplay can quickly get labeled a bore who keeps trying to slow down the exciting combat with useless Knowledge rolls, dumb questions, and boring conversations. In a game of political intrigue, a player who craves action and excitement could be labeled a brutish idiot who just can't go five minutes without causing trouble for themselves. They're not bores or idiots. They're just in the wrong game.

A richer experience can be drawn when multiple gameplay styles are included, even if a few are favored over others, but if this isn't recognised or wanted than players with diverse interests can end up feeling like there's something wrong with them.

The other issue that bars a player from having all the power is that players are plural. Outside of the odd solo games, players must make numerous concessions and compromises with each other and that dilutes what power they do have. Kill the dragon or spare it. Steal the gem or leave the tomb intact. Befriend the suspect or intimidate them. Who drives? Often times this can be a source of resentment or irritation between players as the one area they get to decide - what they do and how they do it - gets broken up into multiple portions.

So which group naturally has the power?

No one. But then, who needs it?

I think that's the trick. Not just on a moral level but on a realistic level it must be recognised that no one in a roleplaying game HAS the power and that its not really necessary for anyone to have it anyway. The whole enterprise is a great big negotiation where competing objectives, stories, and styles play out in a way that can lead to a rich and enjoyable experience or can collapse into an entangled cacophany of misery and woe depending on people's tolerance levels and ability to recognise their own needs and where they clash with other people's needs.

As a Game Master, I ran a Pathfinder campaign I wasn't all that keen on and when casting about for the next campaign to keep my players happy I stumbled across one that excited me. Pirates and privateers, naval combat and excitement, high adventure with a tinge of horror. When I mentioned it, the players were so enthusiastic they had their characters figured out by the end of Crimson Throne's fifth book.

I've certainly enjoyed it. I've produced treasure cards, shopping lists, miniatures and short but sweet adventures revolving around high adventure elements where I will generally look to see how they can succeed. After all, in high adventure even dumb and desperate ideas can succeed, albeit by the skin of their teeth. My players have generally went with cunning plans but I'm happy to tolerate dodgy risks and ill-thought-out plans.

My players understand me and allow me to inject my little tinges of horror (Nidal's influence), my touches of realism (influenza plague in Diobel), the odd over-powered but realistic encounter (vampire in the box), slow experience track, more modern engineering in the ships (as I love Napoleanic rather than medieval oceanic warfare), and my stuff ups (too many ghouls causing a near TPK).

My players also accept each other. They accept Proteus' players' itchiness and wanderlust and desire to get moving and DO something. They accept Lhyes' players' desire to iron out the kinks in people's plans and his desire to use tactical considerations such as stealth and guile where possible. They accept Lunjun's interest in sitting back as he slowly builds up his wizardly arsenal. They accept Archer's players' keenness to gather the facts first and write them down and refer to them later and the fact that his actions are motivated by a feeling or righteousness.

They accept Lenny's players' desire to play out a borderline Chaotic Evil barbarian motivated only by greed and Lenny's player accepts that she needs to see even a payment of a few gold pieces as being enough motivation because the other players shouldn't have their characters weakened just to let her play out her character. This is made all the easier because I look at the characters in terms of wealth rather than treasure received so if they gave her an expensive trinket in payment that would count against her wealth level rather than theirs and thus the players don't lose anything unless she repeatedly demands the lion's share (which she most certainly doesn't).

Who's in charge during the game? I am. But I am only in charge because my players let me be. Power implies dominance, or at least the ability to be an autocrat, and games are democracies whether we want them to be or not. My control is a gift and therefore any power that comes from that control is an illusion. They need me to do what I do and I need them to surrender certain privileges to me (such as deciding if its an empty room or there's a hydra in it) in order for the game to work.

Sometimes I complain because I feel powerless as a Game Master because I must change my own desires to cater to theirs. Sometimes I do the same as a player for the exact same reasons. But that's life and that's negotiation and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Game Translation: The Suffering

The Suffering is an Action Horror game where you control a character called Torque who has been put into prison for murdering his wife and children in a fit of anger - which he may or may not have done depending on your actions during the game. Torque's defense is that he doesn't remember the crimes. It obviously doesn't go so well as he ends up in a prison on Carnate Island. It gets worse from there when, after a few days, an earthquake happens and Torque's fellow prisoners are killed off one by one by monsters.

One thing to consider is whether you want your players actions in-game to also determine their characters' actions prior to the game. Are they guilty of the crimes they are accused of? Well, maybe. It'll depend on how good or evil they are (or if they're somehow balanced between the two). Of course, you'd need player buy in before you start with this as it requires a lot of trust for your players to let you decide such an important feature of their characters.

One way to do it is to keep it transparent and provide them with moral or immoral points as they go along and then tally up the totals. Its a bit mechanical and a more story-focused version where you make the decision holistically might work better but not every player will go for that. If you involve some form of amnesia, whether natural or supernatural, you may gain a bit more buy in. You could also provide them with pre-generated characters as players are generally more receptive to decisions made about characters that are not truly their own.

Another thing to consider is whether you want to include an 'inner monster' that the player characters can tap into to better defeat their enemies. In this videogame, you have to kill enough monsters to tap into it through some sort of inner rage meter. You could do something similar here by giving them tokens or points when they kill something but, if so, you might want to keep the required number of kills low as fights often take a fair amount of time to get through. You could have other enraged actions count as well such as verbal abuse or signs of cruelty.

This kind of game really needs symbolic monsters so you will need to generate appropriate monsters that are defined by the sins of the character or, in the case of the Suffering, the sins that are resonant with the area. Drug abuse in the Suffering, for example, is shown by crawling, emaciated creatures with glowing syringes in their eyes that attack you with their needles. Men buried alive burrow through the ground and attack you with hooked chains.

To create these, brainstorm up a list of possible signs of human cruelty that have occurred in this area and figure out the back stories behind them so you can lay clues in the game for the players to learn more about their situation. Then take those sins or cruel acts and figure out what something like that might look like or how it might attack someone.

As an example, let's look at a series of car accidents caused in a particular location by a lazy council not willing to spend the money and a reckless populace not willing to slow down. What enters your mind when you think of a car accident? Write down a list and then pick out the most poignant aspects. For me it'd be the sound of rending metal and shattering glass and the way the car sounds when its moved as the crumpled metal slides back. The other poignant detail for me would be the visual of broken glass on asphalt spattered with blood.

The next step I would take is to think about what might make that sound or leave those glass shards. How about a figure whose flesh is studded with hunks of metal and glass that drag across the asphalt? Its head mostly hangs down, as though its passed out, or perhaps has a broken neck, and it swings as it walks. It hurts you by charging into you with arms outstretched as though for a hug. Perhaps it looks adolescent. Perhaps an adolescent male to represent the stereotypical crashers or an adolescent females to represent the stereotypical passengers.

"Come on, the first one's free."

This monster also leaves a trail of blood spatters and broken glass behind it that will tear into your shoes if you don't try to avoid it. It also wears a hoody (teenager imagery) and you can only see a few bits of metal jutting out through slits in the fabric as it slouches along until it throws open its arms and you can see its mangled chest and devastated face. I'd figure out how damaging it is depending on how lethal it is. In the World of Darkness its charge would probably have a risk of knockdown that deals bashing and cuts them with one lethal. That way I could use them in small groups.

A campaign based around The Suffering, or including elements of it, should appeal to Action Heroes as you can be a badass while taking down interesting threats that change up the battle scenes occasionally. Plus, who's to say they can't change it up all the more in a roleplaying game with the odd car chase, rigged explosion, or tactically trying to set enemies against each other. Explorers will enjoy the history and strange places that are being warped by the odd situation.

Tacticians will enjoy the urban element and finding the best routes across dangerous terrain but they may also have an instinct to hole up or try to herd survivors safely rather than leaving them to fend for themselves after an initial rescue. You'll have to either discourage this early by showing in-game the tactical disadvantages of attempting to keep any safe house or pointing out that survivors are more at risk around them than away from them.

Communicators won't find all that much here for them but could still enjoy the character development and chances to interact with colourful characters so ensure that each NPC is as interesting as you can make them and give the odd rest spot for the characters to grow and develop. Investigators can be tempted along with their eye on the prize. Some grand conspiracy or question that needs answering that can be discovered along the way. Who is the bad guy? Why is this happening? Drop enough clues to keep them motivated.

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that The Suffering used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Silent Hill, Project Zero, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Dracula: Origins.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Following the Path to its Rightful Conclusion.

An adventure is like a path winding up a mountain. Some of the sections are up a steep slope with the characters wheezing and slogging and working hard every minute and other bits are more relaxed, calm, perhaps even beautiful with a little bit of sightseeing and character growth along the way. The conclusion is right at the top of the mountain when the pacing has peaked and that last stretch of path is generally the hardest. Not always, as its a roleplaying game and not a movie and therefore you've got more flexibility with pacing, but at its best it gets tense and the stakes go up before the end.

The trick is ensuring that the game gets to its rightful conclusion. This is a tricky thing to do because the right conclusion isn't strictly about what you think is best and so you can't just rely on your own beliefs.

If you don't have the time to prepare for your ending because you're improvising it or the players have changed it up within the session you're currently running, then you'll need to go with your gut but pay a lot of attention to what you're hearing. If your players are getting really excited about setting up an ambush to take out the enemy, then consider letting it at least be partially successful.

Maybe it'd be too short and flat an ending to just let them snipe the Big Bad or maybe you know that the enemy has already been tipped off due to player actions or the set-up just wouldn't be conducive to their plans, but its often easy to make a few simple changes to let them get something out of their ambush. If their actions have built up to it, it would be flat for them to get nothing out of their efforts.

Especially as a good ending in any story is based off what the protagonists are doing and how that interacts with the antagonist's goals (or the threats' actions in the case of a non-sentient enemy). The players are always in control of the protagonists of the piece. Always. Other characters can be important and they can influence things but just like you'd be annoyed if you saw a Bond movie where some other character took care of the major plot threads for Bond, so will your players be annoyed. Hell, they'll be even more annoyed because its their spotlight you're taking away from them.

If you have the path skip right around their actions, therefore, they'll be irritated.

Having said this, if you've got the time to think about it you might be able to craft an even better ending by making more of their actions count. If they tipped off an informant and the enemy reacts accordingly, then that's good. If they scare someone into being an informant from the opposition due to their blundering, then that's even better. Cause and effect. Consequences. Not that you should string your players up by their necks for every mistake but the more you can tie in earlier actions with later outcomes the better.

So if you have the time then think about what the main characters have been doing. What choices have they made? Who have they been talking to? How did they talk to them? If they've put in a lot of effort to talk down the enemy, then even if you know that's an impossibility it's still worth letting that matter. Both on the thematic level of having to deal with someone who's too stubborn to live and on the level that perhaps the enemy is willing to discuss things over a trade in bullets - each shooting at the other when they get the chance while they talk it over. Sure, the bad guy doesn't get talked down but the players figure out a bit more about his motivations and his actions. They at least earn a more complete picture than they would have gained if they hadn't tried to talk him down.

Sometimes it can help to plot out all of the players' major actions if its been a particularly long adventure or if the campaign itself is coming to a close. Identify any loose plot threads and see if they can be resolved before the main action. It might be impossible to tie them all off as a campaign can quickly gather up a lot of partially completed plots and suggestions of further adventures, but perhaps there's a few main ones that can be dealt with.

Romantic interests, missing parents, an unexplained assassination attempt, that can be revealed to them beforehand. See if you can find a way to fold these through the main plot. A romantic interest is kidnapped and professes their love when rescued. Information on that missing parent comes up when they go to speak to their police contact about the nemesis. Perhaps their nemesis even reveals the information to try to distract them off their trail.

"Hey, your mother was killed by the police commissioner to get you to back off on the Macey Case and he's about to retire and move to Tahiti. You can track him down now or you can chase after me. Your choice."

Be prepared, though, for the above gambit to lead to a player character running off at the last minute if they're not suitably motivated to stick around. If so, make it clear to the player that their character won't be involved in the main event if they chase that lead and ask the player if there's anything the plot can do to keep them sticking around. If they insist, let their character ride off into the sunset (the villain's success) and contrive a way for another person to get involved. Its all good. If a character can die before the main event, they can get lured away.

In truth, your best bet is to know your players and what they love. They are your audience AND your co-writers. Its important that you know what they would love to witness as your audience and what they would want their characters to have to deal with. If your audience hates moral choices and always avoid them in-game, then don't include them even if you love them.

If your players have already had reason to become suspicious of you for taking the ending out of their hands and dragging them along your own path, then you'll have some making up to do. Take all the more heed of their plans and see what you can do to really help the players craft their own endings. Trust is something that takes time to set up. Once damaged, it takes all the more time to repair. But don't worry. Once you've regained their trust they'll be less resistant and you'll all have a more enjoyable time of it.

Well, that's been my experience of it anyway. You guys have any advice to add?

The main Endings article (and all the various links) can be found over here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

When The Plot Winds Down

One of things I've really noticed is the difference between a good plot and a good story - especially when it comes to roleplaying games or, heck, a television series. Sometimes what might be realistic or interesting story-wise can end your plot threads and provide too much closure.

If you want to play a game indefinitely then closing off your options is a bad idea. Sometimes you can find that you've painted yourself into a corner plot-wise and the next bit is either going to be very dull or very strange.

Normally the issue revolves around conflict. Perhaps the main conflict has become resolved or, worse, isn't really resolvable. Maybe you can introduce a new conflict but that could change what people were looking for and reduce the fun factor of the game. Or you might just not be able to think up anything interesting for the campaign anymore.

It hasn't come up with me much but it has a couple times. What about you? Ever had the plot wind down due to poor choices or just the plot resolving itself too soon?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Experience Point Apathy

My players are strange. Very strange. While they're quite keen on treasure and leveling and other important considerations, they just don't seem to notice the little things. Like experience points. Sure they want them. But they'll never poke me about how much they got at the end of the session ... or even at the start of the next one.

Several sessions will go by without any thought of experience points at all until I realise that too much time has passed and that I'd better calculate it now or I'd forget what they've done. This is most obvious in Pathfinder but also comes up frequently in my various World of Darkness games.

In Troupe Vampire I constantly updated their experience points in their own personal forums so they didn't need to ask for it then but in the other World of Darkness games they aren't bothered with their experience point totals until they want to purchase something. Which can be a bit tricky for me because the only place I have to record it is on their sheets, really.

And yes, I know I could just get better at handing out experience points. This isn't a rant or a complaint. Its more just a funny observation. Hell, it might just be that we're all too Australian to poke our heads out and go: "Rewards, now, please" because its almost like we're saying we're deserving and entitled rather than just being laid back and accepting the due rewards when the Storyteller thinks of it.

Either that or they know that I'll eventually get around to it so they can just leave it in my hands. Anyone else have this experience?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Horrors on the Home Front

I think its time to confess something. I've been working for quite some time on creating my own roleplaying game. Originally it was going to be a module for BRP but I realised that I wanted to do more with it. Rather than tweaking existing mechanics I wanted to build mechanics that flow from the developing style of game so that the mechanics could help support it. I wanted to create its own little world with enemies that fit within the themes of the game.

Its already 260 pages long and will max out at 300 - 310. I'm holding some of my research aside (of which I've done plenty) for further supplements like Espionage on the Home Front and Mysticism on the Home Front.

So what is this game about?

Well, its about that peculiar point in history from 1939 - 1945 when Britain had mobilised for Total War. Its about the perils of the Blitz, the paranoia concerning fifth columnists, the mobilisation of the workforce, the terrors of invasion, and what might seep out from that.

I've done a lot of research on it. Dozens of books, plenty of web-sites, lots of videos, and I'm cross-referencing what I learn in one book with what I learn in another book to double check my facts. Don't worry, it's not going to be dry text but it is going to be accurate.

I had it suggested that I should probably talk about it on the blog. Let people know what I'm doing and how I'm doing it so I figured I may as well do that. This article is only really letting you know it exists. Later ones will go into more details.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Game Translation: Skyrim

I think Skyrim is what most fantasy roleplayers are really looking for. It's immense, its immersive, its evocative, it gives a lot of choices and it really has that epic fantasy vibe. Heck, it even features a lot of dragons. So what are some tricks we can learn from it to provide a Skyrim-like experience?

A coherent and richly detailed world where much of the back history can be learned in dialogue, gleaned from mission objectives and locations, or through voluntarily read documents. A lot of Game Masters either fall so in love with their history and write up so much of it that they require the players to learn all of it or neglect it entirely. While there's nothing wrong with coming up with a 75 page setting document, you have to come to terms with exactly what writers and game designers have been learning for years. The audience, or players, will only see about 5% of the effort you've put into the game and that's okay.

So what to do with it if you've got it? Weave it into the setting, the NPC personalities and behaviours, the missions and the environments, the monsters and the artefacts left behind in the dungeons, and perhaps create a few brief props here or there or allow appropriate Knowledge checks that reveal the juiciest tidbits when they arrive at a new location. If you have more information than those tidbits, feel free to offer the players more information.

"Okay, so you rolled 25 on Knowledge Local about this town. You've heard that the two honey mead companies are staunch rivals and that the windmill was recently built by some grateful wanderers who were given refuge here for a month during a terrible snow storm. The farmers are pretty protective over their chickens as they believe that the egg is sacred to their Gods. Would you like to know more?"

If they want to know more about the honey mead, then give them a one minute spiel on it (if you have a full minute of it). Or if they want a brief expansion on all those other three then you can do the same there. Don't deny the players the chance to learn more as they might be quite keen on it but also don't assume that they want to sit there and listen to five minute speeches. Odds are they won't be able to remember that much anyway so if you have something that really deserves five minutes - i.e. a religious festival - than work it into the storyline. Have them arrive during it. Or have them try to stop it.

What if you don't have much setting to play with and don't want to put in the hours to create some? Pick up someone else's rich world setting and read up on it. Pathfinder has a very rich and interesting world in Golarion - though some of the countries still have few details released. Skyrim itself is a possible game world you could run. Then there's the numerous fantasy series that you may have read or watched that you could co-opt.

If you want to create your own setting but don't know how then go to the various fantasy writer resources online about creating your own game world. Heck, just google 'fantasy world creation guide' and you'll get several options.

Skyrim is also a very beautiful and very expansive world so brush up on your descriptors. If you're not so good at improvising it alongside everything else, then jot down your location descriptions on small pieces of card so you can easily flick between them. It also looks less messy than having a whole page in front of you and it can be easier to arrange them. Especially if you number them and then tie those numbers to an overall map of the location that you place in front of you.

Remember to make such descriptions evocative and focus on the telling details that can suggest many other details rather than simply going through a shopping list of what, precisely, is there. Again, how-to-write advice covers this better than I can (as they have whole articles and chapters devoted to it) but here's an example:

"The windmill stands twenty feet from the two Honey Mead places that are on either side of it. The cobblestone road is five feet wide and there are five chicken farms on one side of it and the Honey Mead places and the windmill on the other side. There's a town sign that stands beside an old cart filled with barrels."

To make it evocative of a safe place you might have:

"A rustic sign hangs over an old barrel-filled cart as you come in along the cobblestone street. Chickens cluck quietly as they scamper across the farm yards to the left of you, digging amongst the grasses. One has even gotten into the fenced off kitchen gardens and is quickly digging up the carrots to get at the bugs. On the other side stand two almost identical Honey Mead businesses, Bees 'R Us and Sweet Brew, which flank a windmill that creaks in the warm spring breeze."

On the other hand, you could make it seem dangerous by writing:

"A weathered sign hangs crookedly over an old barrel-filled cart whose wheel has rotted and burst out from under it. Chickens dart across the cobblestone street, making their way loose from the broken down fences. The windmill creaks in the icy breeze but the fans are too shredded to catch enough wind to turn. Honey Mead businesses flank the windmill, mostly hidden behind a high stone wall topped with outward facing spikes."

All of these descriptions give the same locations, objects, and visible animals but each one imparts something different. The first is pretty ordinary and doesn't give much away. It has no emotional depth. The second one raises a number of assumptions of quaint cottages and friendly rivalries. The third one suggests a poverty stricken town that may well be under siege from something. Perhaps the rivalry is a little more intense?

If a regular picture is worth a 1000 words, this one is worth a million.

The other trick of Skyrim is that you can do very ordinary work if you would like. Why not try your hand at being a lumberjack? In a roleplaying game, you could always pass a couple weeks with a few rolls and some relevant 'this happens' comments from the Game Master.

You can also overhear comments from the local townspeople and see them go about their business. A little trickier to do as it tends to draw the players' attention and lead to assumptions that it's important, if you focus on the dialogue rather than character descriptions than there more likely to pay attention to what is said rather than to who is saying it. Just describe that 'two merchants stand by their stalls talking about how the recent frosts have damaged their crops' or if you want to draw all the more interest to it than actually act out the dialogue (perhaps with your left hand up when you're one person and your right hand up when you're the other). Yes, the characters might go and talk to them but that just adds to the immersive experience.

Now of course the game is a sandbox one so having multiple adventure hooks (ideally getting the players to list them so they don't forget) and multiple adventures at hand (or an ability to improvise) is really important. Improvisation is probably your best bet as it means you can just slowly draw out the map as they explore it. Bestiaries (or Monster Manuals) and sets of NPCs at different levels will all be very useful to this. I talk more about sandbox games and techniques in the Fallout 3 article I've done earlier.

A campaign based around Skyrim, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers who will adore roaming around an entire country and discovering all of the interesting bits and pieces hidden within a richly drawn world. Their main drive is to have a new experience after all and they'll be happy to meander around and take the plots as they come, choosing whichever one seems to offer the most unique experience. Action Heroes will adore the sword and sorcery angle and will be quite happy to explore dungeons, kill beasties, and engage with whatever social conflicts or wars are going on. They'll certainly approve of any interesting approaches or settings you throw them into as they do enjoy themselves a setpiece battle more than most.

Communicators would love it, too, but will likely want to enjoy some Day In The Life style plots where they can simply indulge their senses and see what it might be like to actually live in that world. Expect a lot of conversations and some attention on the more mundane aspects. These guys could well enjoy just being a lumberjack for awhile and actually roleplaying it. Tacticians will want a bit more flexibility to pick out the most efficient and effective way for dealing with threats so try to bear that in mind when you design dungeons by including possible stealth passages, hidey holes, and methods of poisoning or otherwise taking out some of the enemies with minimal risk.

Investigators will have the least to gain from a Skyrim game per se but could still get a lot of enjoyment in a fantasy world like Skyrim. You'd just need to include more mysteries that require solving and more clues that there's something bigger going on - such as conspiracies, assassinations, and other such details.

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Skyrim used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Silent Hill, Project Zero, The Suffering, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be The Suffering.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cultivating a Decent Default Ending

Top points if you can recognise the game that the picture (to the left) is from. While you're figuring it out, onto the article's premise. Cultivating a decent default ending. Firstly, it's funny how divisive the idea of a pre-planned ending can be and how different games tend to have different rates of accepting it.

Pathfinder and D&D Dungeon Masters and players tend to be more accepting. You're meant to take note of the players' actions and allow them to go off the path but people acknowledge that the sheer amount of preparation time involved in mapping, monster building, NPC character sheets, loot builds, and other such odds and ends means that straying off the path completely can lead to a premature session end unless the Dungeon Master was given advanced notice by the players' actions in earlier sessions.

True, the players expect to be able to change *how* they confront the threat but they're generally willing to accept that the threat's location and responses are likely to be well-established. I think this is also why those occasions when they truly re-write the ending by luring the lich out of its hidey hole or talking down the ogre becomes all the more memorable.

In investigative games like Call of Cthulhu people's opinions on pre-set endings are more mixed. You're expected to have a default ending (as the enemy is meant to have their own plans) and a horror format allows some gentle nudging towards a certain conclusion (i.e. fight the cultists AS they're summoning the byakhee and not beforehand) but you're meant to play fair and if they change the entire ending than that's an acceptable option. After all, the enemies don't have to be painstakingly folded into locations, traps, and supporting enemies. You can even re-use old sheets.

In storytelling games like World of Darkness people can be quite against the idea of pre-set endings. This is probably because its designed to be a sandbox game and so character choices are meant to really matter. Your choices define you and they should define your experience. Also, enemies are arguably easier to create than in many other systems and you don't have to read up on Darkness rules and the effects of terrain beforehand. Since it's easier to wing it, the players won't be so forgiving of any form of rail roading - no matter how gentle.

Now that we've gotten a bit of a background, let's break it down. I'm going to use the term 'pre-set ending' to refer to cases where the ending is inviolate and unchangeable and 'default ending' to refer to cases when the ending is subject to change but the Game Master still has an option up her sleeve that ties into what came beforehand.

Is a 'pre-set ending' somehow immoral? No. It's a tool and like any tool it can be used well. Having complete control of the ending allows you to tell the tale in a way that fully links to the beginning as well as the story themes and provides a sort of message for the players. It generally should be kept for adventures that have as their backbone a very moving story that is best told in a particular manner.

If the players HAVE to sacrifice one of their own into the machinery to slow down an enemy that they HAVE to fight with fire that may set the hospital alight, then that is just fine if you're telling a tale of tragedy and misery. However, is there any reason why the players HAVE to walk right up to the lich in a dungeon crawl without taking advantage of stealth, freed prisoners, and rigged cave ins?

Bear in mind that its easier to pull off a pre-set ending in a one shot adventure as the players have less time to exert their influence and it gets a little illogical if their multiple attempts to change the course of the game fail. Also remember that any constraints on their actions in the ending must be based on realistic in-game constraints. If the players manage to surmount those in-game constraints then, well, let them. Making the world inconsistent will just make your ending jarring and silly anyway.

If the freed prisoners are too frightened to help than a paladin's speech and Aura of Courage SHOULD shore up their will. If they're level 1 Commoners (and always have been - players can tell when you shift the world just to say no to them) then they won't be much help in a distraction and using them will likely just get them killed. If the players are okay with using a crowd of prisoners as a meat shield and manage to bully or cajole them into doing it then let them. Yes, it won't give you the heroic ending you were after but if the party are keen on that angle then you weren't going to get that anyway. Heroism based on the inability to be evil isn't heroism at all.

Perhaps you want to use a pre-set ending because you are in love with that idea and it was the inspiration for the entire adventure. This can be risky as it can tempt you to keep it even when it no longer makes sense. On the other hand, it could truly be a cool idea that your players will enjoy. You could always get player buy-in but once they're roleplaying their characters they might drift off the path. Your best bet is to start with the Ending. You want to explore the cool, crazy factor of a sinking ship? Don't let the characters get a whiff of the sabotage plot until after the ship is sinking. That way you get your exciting adventure premise sooner and they don't feel railroaded.

Now onto 'Decent Default Endings' these are just endings that you have up your sleeve in case the players don't come up with another option and just take the predictable path. It keeps you from being left on the spot when they head into the villain's lair. It gives you a rough gauge on what the bad guys are doing and how far along they are likely to be. It also gives you a chance to come up with something that is cinematic and in line with the players' experiences thus far.

If you're worried that you might fall in love with a 'Default Ending' despite the label then push yourself to create three plausible endings that are equally viable. This is often a good idea, anyway, as it can keep the players from getting stuck if they don't make a leap of logic to figure out your idea nor are sufficiently imaginative / logical to come up with a reasonable alternative. One of the big dangers of investigative or occult adventures, particularly during a sandbox game, is that if you don't think about how it could be solved or the threat dealt with than it might well become an unsolvable plot. Resist the urge to make any of them the Bad Ending (unless its a horror game where Bad Endings can be the best). You can always bear it in mind but try to have multiple Good Endings.

Creating a decent default ending often involves looking at the threat's goals or it's nature and the characters' abilities and interests as well as the likely reactions and behaviours. Then stick the label 'default' on it, write it down and accept that something not used never existed ... and thus can be used later.

Hope this helps you somewhat.

The main Endings article (and all the various links) can be found over here.