Monday, January 30, 2012

8: Dealing with Dread

Dread is a hard emotion to pull off in a roleplaying game though you'll have an easier time of it than trying to pull off a Cat Scare in a storytelling medium (unless you're good at making sudden loud noises). The trouble is that dread is also a discouraging emotion. It's that feeling you get when you don't want to take a step further. That sensation that whatever you'll find behind the door is really not what you want to find. Some people revel in that sense of dread, loving the anticipation of something wicked about to happen, but even so, consistent and long-lasting dread is actually quite draining.

So how do you evoke it?

Basically, find ways to convince your player characters (and hopefully your players) that something terrible is about to happen and slowly build up to it. Use plenty of foreshadowing. Keep them guessing. Generally, once they know what they're up against they can steel their resolve against it or react emotionally to it and that may lead to fear, sorrow, anger, or simple dedication. You can't really control which, though you may be able to predict it.

Keep them hanging on to your every word like the next hint might just clue them in to just what they'll face. Make sure most of the clues are a 'bad sign' and try to start off with clues that are ambiguous. "Oh, the front door to my house is open, maybe my wife is home?" And slowly build up to more nasty seeming ones. "Is that blood spatter on the ground? Did she get a blood nose?" Be aware, though, that once they find the corpse the tension is blown as the player character now reacts (unless you also seed in hints that they're not alone in the house and the killer might still be here).

Be aware that if the players can predict you, that if its a foregone conclusion that there's always going to be a worst case scenario like a corpse, then the dread vanishes as the players now know what to expect and will be starting to build a plan in their minds. This will allow you to build up other emotions, potentially, but we're not covering other emotions just yet. Just dread.

So play up the unexpected. The blood spatter is because the wife got startled by a noise and cut herself while chopping the carrots and when she went outside to take a look she noticed that something had burrowed a rather large hole in the back yard. She hasn't gone down there to look just yet but she's planning to because she thinks that the neighbour's kid has gone down there.

Or perhaps it's there because they were robbed and his wife was injured but is otherwise safe. Not everything has to end in death.

Just be sure that when you raise the dread there's generally a negative outcome at the end. Very occasionally it's okay to have it be a prank or a surprise birthday party but don't make too much of a habit of it. It's good if the players assume that something terrible will happen. That'll raise the tension.

Whether it's a single session adventure, a multi-session adventure, or a campaign, it's important to have 'brake pads' to the dread and action sequences. These 'brake pads' should vary in size depending on the length and needs of the game. Basically, they're calm and safe moments that diffuse the tension, allow a rest, and help people get back into the swing things. This is important both because dread is draining AND because humans habituate to constant stimuli. Just as you'll stop smelling that funky stench if you're stuck in a room with it for hours, so will you get used to dread, or just get over it. So give them funny moments. Give them safe moments.

You don't have to puncture the dread entirely with something wacky. It often works better to keep it low-key. Dry humor. A safe light-filled bar where they can steal a few hours before heading out into the darkness to face those light-sensitive beasties. An interesting NPC that steals the show for a short while. Things that inspire other emotions - and incidentally also inspire attachment, which ramps up the tension later on.

So there you have it. My tips on dread. Do you have any of your own?

See the rest of the articles in this series over here!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

For Players: Motivated Player Characters

A motivated character is a compelling character to watch. They know what they want and they have the drive to achieve it. This is especially important in sandbox games, whether LARP or table-top, where the Storyteller isn't going to spoon feed you plot. If you want to get involved and lay your stamp on the world you're going to have to figure out what your character wants. And yes, that does involve inventing conflicts for yourself that would make sense for your character. So, where do you go from here? What do you do?

Firstly, design your character. Figure out who they are and what their likes and dislikes are. Then you can brainstorm a list of optional goals that someone like that might want. A romantic Daeva might want to schmooze the harpy into a date, own a romantic hot spot like a nightclub, undermine a romantic rival, learn Majesty like there's no tomorrow, catch the attentions of a young kine woman who's the Next Big Thing, and learn the piano so that he can better serenade his targets.

These are all 'mights'. You don't have to accept all of them, or any of them, at this stage, but it does suggest other ideas. A romantic rival suggests an external conflict, which is good, as it gives you something to do. You could either generate this by talking to the Storyteller or, if they're not keen on taking suggestions from players, you could simply have your character fall for a potential romantic interest who already has an admirer. Internal conflicts could be raised if your Daeva is too prudent or principled to try to actively disrupt an existing courtship and therefore he just waits at the railing, hoping and dreaming. Perhaps another vampire, hoping to get in your good books, might assist you unawares. How would your Daeva react to that if she doesn't believe in undermining others in their romantic interests? Some nice internal conflict there.

The quest to own a nightclub could also be a nice external conflict, especially if you lack the Resource dots to simply purchase it, as you'd need to raise the income, find the right place, convince the owners to sell it to you, and then renovate it to fit. Then there's also the process of luring in the right clientele. Depending on the game world, this might all give you plenty to do in Downtimes, and a lot of opportunity to lure in other player characters to get involved. Internal conflicts here would likely revolve around how low your character would stoop to get the necessary funding.

Then there's the quest to learn Majesty. The main external conflicts here would involve 'time'. Are you spending too much time on other things? Do other training needs keep interrupting? But internal conflicts are where it gets juicy. What if he wonders whether it's rape to use Majesty to seduce women? What if he needs it so he can get easy feeding in a hard part of town? What if he doesn't care about the moral implications of seducing women with Majesty but does worry about what might happen if it becomes too easy but still needs it to eat well?

All good questions and plenty to create further conflict, further motivations, and inspire further stories. And that's the main reason why it's a good idea to pick apart the potential goals and look at their other motivations and the barriers in place. Because that can inspire further, smaller goals (raise money, for example) that require their own preparation that may take your character into all sorts of interesting places.

So the next time you're not sure what your character could do, or if you're generating a character and want some motivations, brainstorm a goal list and then see what works, discarding the rest.

Friday, January 27, 2012

My Solo Demon Game Character

Well, Adam ran me another session of a Cyberpunk Demon: the Fallen solo game and boy was it awesome! I'm playing an Eminence 5 Radiance Devil called Shaitan. Infamous, as you'd imagine, though he was never as important as the Koran would later make his namesake out to be. S/he was originally the only Namaru who wasn't given any piece of God's plan and instead wandered around, double checking other Fallen's work and making suggestions about whether, maybe, God's plan could be interpreted like this.

Generally, his assistance wasn't needed and a lot of the other angels were, obviously, a bit disturbed by his presence as it implied the possibility of failure on behalf of the First House. Anyway, the Fall happened and Shaitan joined the Silver Legion but in a goody two-shoes way that, alongside with previous history, meant s/he was annoying a Malefactor Overlady who decided to try an experiment with several fallen (Shaitan included). Shaitan was the only one who survived the process (that s/he's aware of) which involved embedding weaponry ripped from a Devourer into her body so s/he'd be a better military asset. Pre-abyssal torment was the glue as it meant s/he resonated with the Devourer's maddened, agonised state better so they forced her to sin until they were all nice and cemented.

S/he rebelled the first moment s/he got and joined the Ebon Legion as they were the only ones who'd have her. S/he then cobbled together a band of misfits, worked for the Ebon Legion, was unpredictable and bucked orders on occasion (getting busted down to Fell Knight) and then made great successes on occasion (getting raised back up to Lord / Lady). Her particular pecadillo was to make the Silver Legion suffer. Anyone s/he could get her hands on would suffer horribly if s/he had the chance. S/he would also set people against each other or trick them so that they commit a sin that would undo them in the end. Such as tricking one person into betraying their liege in such a way that the liege would find out and punish the underling.

A big part of it was a suicide wish but that aside ... there's a lot of people who hate her. Ordinarily, she'd be a little too large to fit into a host at the time she came out but Lord Grifiel had previously torn off her wings so she fit just fine. So she comes out in 2010 as a low-torment Ravener, gets quickly recruited and hidden by Gipontel until she officially joins the Cryptics and cements her low-torment attitude, goes through some merry adventures, ends up Tyrant of the city and playing some pretty high-level politics (as Eminence 5 characters are wont to do), and then gets bumped out of space and time with her two changeling pals (nWoD changelings, it's kinda a mash-up) for 50 years.

In the present day, it's a post cyberpunk world (not quite as much of a crapsack world) where a war between Fallen and Mages set the Mages into exorcising an entire city (Washington) which weakened the pit walls enough with all those returning fallen that the gravity isn't so strong as to prevent the Lords and Ladies from walking the land. The trouble is that they still barely fit, so their minds are still rattled by oodles of Torment with maybe only the lowest of the Lords and Ladies having a chance to come out at Torment 8. They make a concerted effort to scatter the existing Infernal Courts and then take up their own personal tyrannies of the fallen who were fool enough to pledge vassalage to their old liege lords. The remaining free fallen (of Fell Knight and lower status) are now in hiding.

So now my infamous Lord Shaitan (who's form used to fluctuate between a youthful male and female visage, hence my gender trait shifts) is now in a world that alternately fears and hides from those of his standing -- or currently serves other Lords and Ladies who are oodles more powerful than him because of the very thing that keeps him human (dilute and diffuse memories, loss of an additional trait). While he's managed to pay off his infamy to some extent by some lucky pushes for Cryptic projects that helped the faction survive the LoLa (lords and ladies, see what I did there) such as a giant Cryptic University bastion; he's still technically a LoLa and there's loads of people with grudges who can now kill her off for her rank and say they "didn't know he wasn't like the other LoLa's". Oh yeah, and there's no way s/he could fight off LoLa attention as they're more badass than s/he is.

Thank goodness for Augs, as the only thing that currently lifts me up from the usual Hunter masses is my Faith-powered healing, immunity to mind control / possession, and ability to use the few relics in my possession (sneakers that flash a bright pulsed light designed to dispel creatures disrupted by light; an enhanced knife; enhanced riot armour; a ring that can pop me from the Realms into the Living World but not the other way around; a ring that lets Belphigor find me {long story}; and a rod that records up two different bodies and lets me change my form to one or the other).

Adam has ruled that as I have a new host so long as I don't use any Lores or my Apocalyptic Form, I don't have that Demon Smell about me to Awareness. Of course, certain mage sights could still figure out what I am, among other things, but it's not as obvious. Talk about deep cover! And I'm a merc, to boot.

I've gotta admit, it's really tricky playing a supernatural character and using bugger all of their powers. There's always that temptation especially after two years of playing the same character. The trick, I think, is to simply put all those extra goodies out of mind. Of course, due to my Eminence, once it gets out, everyone will know about it, but preventing that until I get some tasty, tasty Augs will be vital.

I'll let you know about the really cool ways Adam has blended Cyberpunk with Demon: the Fallen with what is largely new World of Darkness later on. The last adventure was really neat, involving me taking out five gangers with cheap, chop shop augs (one of whom was Claimed) with nothing but sedative needles, the Transfiguration Rod, and a stolen pistol.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview with a Changeling LARP Storyteller: Andrew Watson

This time I'm going to interview a long term LARP player in the Camarilla who was once upon a time a Camarilla Changeling LARP Storyteller and who is now a Camarilla LARP Domain Storyteller (he manages the local game storytellers). He's pictured to the left in a character he played at a Noctis game. I've playing in a few games he's run and I've always enjoyed his fresh and insightful style. Since he's an old hat, I've focused my questions on LARP in general with a few questions directly about his Changeling experience.

Shannon: "So, what on Earth convinced you to run a LARP?"

Andrew: "Well, I spent all this time playing LARPs and watching LARPs and talking about them so I figured it couldn't be all that difficult. I was kinda wrong. But basically the opportunity came up. Nobody else was going to do it. So I thought I'd give it a shot. Also, I just like telling stories."

Shannon: "So what's the difference between running a LARP and a Tabletop? I mean, you've done both, but how do you do a LARP well?"

Andrew: "Well, the differences are scale and chronology, I reckon. So you've got a generally much larger group of players and the game's a whole lot less linear so to a larger extent what you have to do is create the playing field and then watch as the players do horrible things to it. So part of doing it well is actually accepting that but I think that applies to storytelling and running games in general."

Shannon: "Changeling must make that all the harder, too. Trying to double guess where changelings are going is ... well, an exercise in futility."

Andrew: "Yeah, when I was running changeling I probably never got the double guessing down pat and so I made things a lot more open-ended than I otherwise would have done. So sometimes people would approach a problem and say "I do X" which is completely outside what I would've considered. When that happens, you've sort of got to have some openings in the plot for that sort of thing to happen. Since Changeling is a pretty crazy game and characters tend to be pretty eccentric that can certainly become interesting.

I guess one of the important things is to have them bounce things off each other rather than just the world around them because that's one of the main aspects of the game is the personal, almost introspective, self-psychoanalysis. Because, you know, it's Changeling it's all about loss and how you deal with it and how you cope when you can't necessarily get back the things that are gone. And honestly players are better at helping each other figure that out than NPCs."

Shannon: "What's one thing you would different?"

Andrew: "Something I could've done better was being much more willing to say no you can't play that character concept. Every game has kooky character concepts but in Changeling that can get extreme. And so if someone actually creates a character about being kooky than that can get pretty extreme."

Shannon: "What's your favourite parts of a LARP?"

Andrew: "Character development, probably. And the really intense emotional scenes that you just don't get to the same extent in tabletop, at least not very often. I've played LARP games where there's 3 - 4 characters shouting at each other, someone's breaking down crying, and it's just really rewarding and it's cathartic as well. LARP actually encourages people a lot more to think about their character as a person because it has much more of a focus on socialising and the social aspect. Even just little quirks of personality or mannerisms are much more important because they have to be displayed rather than you mention it now and again."

Shannon: "Anything else?"

Andrew: "I love the politics. I know it's not everyone's thing but the alliances and the back stabbing and the scheming.... Two of the ideal situations for a LARP is when you have a group of up to 4 players doing a really intensely personal scene or when you have 100 players who all have their own individual goals and schemes. It's just being able to go between those two extremes just allows for a huge amount of diversity that tabletop just doesn't have access to."

Shannon: "What's the three tricks you'd wish every player remembered when playing in a political LARP?"

Andrew: "Do what you're meaning to do. Don't come up with a plan or intend to do something and then don't actually follow through on it because if everyone does that it's just really boring because it's easy to go 'I'll go do this and this and this' and then not do anything.

Don't be afraid to be nasty to characters but never be nasty to players. I mean, it's politics, people do terrible things to each other but everyone's there to have fun. There's no reason why you can't create an awesome story together rather than against each other.

And be a gracious loser. It's probably the most important one. Like be prepared to lose, to fail, and rather than be bitter about it when it does happen actually figure out ways to make it a better and more enjoyable story. Say your character has been foiled in his plans to take over the city well, maybe, he's had enough and he's going to completely change his tactic and try to support the city. And in losing, you can compromise with the other players. Maybe if you're going to lose out on something maybe there's some story element where you can realise some part of your character's personal story. Say they're betrayed by an ally, maybe it actually gives them the opportunity to re-connect with an old friend whom they've become alienated from. Basically, it all comes down to work with people, not against people, but work against their characters."

"It's not actually about winning or losing so it doesn't actually matter if you lose. And if you're not having fun, take the time to step back, take a break, and calm down, perhaps for a couple months if that's what you need."

Shannon: "What's the worst thing a LARP ST can do?"

Andrew: "The thing that's specific to LARP that I'd probably say is: Don't let the characters and the players do whatever the want. There has to be some guidance. Otherwise it does just get silly. Especially when you have 20 people in the room you need to exert some control. If there's a big combat happening you need to make sure people are not chatting, that they're paying attention, and that extends to disallowing problematic character concepts as well.

And stay organised. Don't let the paperwork and the people calling to talk about their characters get on top of you. Have assistants if you need them. It's a big undertaking. And more generally, for storytellers, don't just shoot down players whenever they try something even if it's something that's outside the character's experience. It's just really frustrating if players are failing at everything they try. There does need to be a ray of light, there needs to be some hope, and not just everything going bad constantly, otherwise people don't have fun, and that makes them put less into the game."

Shannon: "All right. That should be a wrap. Thanks!"

Well, there you have it. Some advice on LARP games from an old pro. Hope you enjoyed it!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WoD To Do With Luciferans, Part 1.

Luciferans are an interesting faction in Demon: the Fallen. They're all about re-forming an army and looking for their general - Lucifer - wherever he may be so that they might serve him once more, have another shot at Heaven, and finally have some meaning back in their lives. They're divided into three sections: the Legion of Stark Defiance (logistics and supplies), the Legion of Glorious Victory (section focused on the actual war duties) and the Legion of Majestic Liberation (focused on finding Lucifer). They're not so keen on Reconcilers (who want to befriend God) and Cryptics (too contemplative and with no drive) but are cool with Faustians (driven, at least) and Raveners (one day destruction will get old and they'll rejoin the military).

Themes: Army Without Purpose; Defiance Toward God; Subservience Toward Luciferan Authority; Weight of Authority; Us vs. Them.

Moods: Expectant Anticipation; Compliance; Obedience. Think of War Movies and Survivalist tales where the only people you can trust are meant to be those in your bunker.

Plot Hooks:

1. A Research Facility has been established in partnership with the Cryptics. There's a need for scientists, researchers, capture teams, and security personnel.

2. A pack-less werewolf has offered his services as a drill sergeant to get the team to work together. His price is the destruction of those who killed off his pack. He refuses to name them until after the deal is done.

3. An ancient bastion is discovered and, while it is small, it's heavily secured with Fallen traps and strange creatures. If you've ported Demon into nWoD, it might not be a bastion at all and may instead be an Atlantean ruin.

4. A ranking Luciferan has gotten himself into some trouble and the Reconcilers have him in their iron sights. It's rumored they've even gone against their usual scruples and hired Raveners to assault him. Is this true or just a Luciferan effort to knock off an obnoxious Fallen and darken the Reconciler's good name at the same tiem? One way or the other, the PCs are the bodyguards.

5. The PCs are ordered to extract a Luciferan from the Legion of Majestic Liberation who stumbled a little too far into Cryptic business and is currently being held hostage in a bastion.

6. A Reconciler witnessed something terrible conducted by the Faustians and the Luciferans need her alive and ready to testify at the local Infernal Court. The trouble is keeping her safe and protected when all she wants to do is get back to her own faction.

7. A trio of Raveners have thrown themselves onto Luciferan mercy in a bid to join their faction. Are they telling the truth or are they trying to insert themselves as double agents? The risks are high and the PCs are responsible for figuring out the truth of the situation.

8. A museum has a rather interesting meteorite that has come into its collection. The truth is it's not iron at all, or anything similar, but syr metal. The Luciferans must steal it for the Legion of Stark Defiance.

9. There's a need for skilled help and humans have better skills than some of the Fallen. Enthrall a team of experts (SWAT, Spetsnaz, etc.) to teach the Luciferan the tricks of the trade and to provide assistance.

10. An important ritual is going down in town. It's important to keep it from being interrupted lest all the Luciferans involved get wiped out by the dangerous elements. It's also vital to keep the nosy Cryptics from learning how to use the ritual. Unfortunately, ritual magic of that calibre leaves quite a mystical footprint and any Fallen in a several mile radius.

11. The Minister of Aurochs wants assistance in setting up security over a couple of strategic infernal court locations. By assistance, he means that he wants to pass the buck onto the PCs.

12. Strategic Retreat. The city is under attack and the Minister of Lions calls upon the resident Luciferans to help all the Fallen retreat outside of city limits before the calamity occurs. The trick is to find and extract the hidden members of the other factions.

13. The Raveners are getting uppity and verbal against the Luciferan Tyrant and the Faustians are jumping on the band wagon. It's important to intimidate the rebels into submission ... but how do you intimidate someone with nothing to lose?

14. A Luciferan Historian has been chronicling the history of the world so that they can come closer to locating Lucifer. Unfortunately, that means delving into some very strange places and she needs support. Guess who has to provide support as she conducts her investigations within the city?

15. There's a nest of strange vampiric creatures deep within the Undercity and they're causing trouble on the local level. The Minister of Lions wants them gone and wants them gone now. He turns to the PCs to get it done.

Next up will be Goals and Daily Activities.

Monday, January 23, 2012

7: Will you let them rest?

This is always an important one in a Survival Horror (or any horror game) that lasts for long enough. All of that running, jumping, climbing and fighting is quite tiring, as are the emotional stresses of facing your Best Friend who is now the Infected Monster. But will the player characters try to sleep? And, more importantly, will you let them?

A lot of games have a few penalties that crop up the more exhausted the player characters get - and it can be fun to unleash them - but in most games increasingly irritable and tired characters can lose their lustre. There is, of course, a compromise. If they barricade themselves in tightly enough and take enough precautions (thus respecting the danger they're in) then it makes sense to let them sleep off some of them penalties.

It can also up the tension whenever a period of Nothing Bad Happens occurs and can boost the unpredictability factor of your game if they manage to get a good night's sleep in. Heck, one trick is to see just how much they're taking their nap time for granted. The more they anticipate a good night's sleep, the less likely you should give them one.

In my caving game, there was actually an easily defended cul-de-sac built into the caving structure not far from the actual temple. It was perfect for them to sit down, eat, and nap enough to remove their penalties. It also kept them distracted while the Enemy collapsed their escape route so that they could only move forward. It worked out quite well and certainly gave them enough time to really get into that survivalist mentality.

Of course, in the end, it's all up to you, the pacing of your game, and the length of the survival horror. If it's only meant to be a few hours in-game, or a single night, this may not come up whereas in a game that spans multiple nights it's more likely to become an issue.

See the rest of the articles in this series over here!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Using Forums In A Tabletop / LARP

I've used forums several different ways in roleplaying games and I've found it to be a deeply rewarding experience.

I once created a forum with about a dozen different accounts that were all mine which was a bit of a prop / plot hook generator that was called Paradelaide and was focused on several paranormal investigation groups in Adelaide. When the vampires in the then Camarilla game stumbled across it, they got to register an account and either investigate it, encourage it, or put up misinformation, as they so chose. It allowed the chance to select interesting ghouls as well as help them find out about masquerade breaches in a more organic and interesting way.

Forums can also be used to add some between-session consistency in a game that has frequent downtime periods. I created one for my Vampire: the Requiem LARP game with a News section so I could let them know what was going on; a section for the Court to disseminate information / misinformation and chat to each other; a section for each Covenant to have a chance to get their group politics on and make plans for the future; a section for each Clan to do much the same (was less well-used) and a Your Forum for each player so that they could do their downtimes, chat to NPCs, and follow Personal Plots. It worked out brilliantly well and had a great uptake. The game only folded because of the general LARP attrition rate competed with the low recruitment rate of a personal game.

Then we have a forum for the Demon: the Fallen game which is divided into Court, Faction, and Your Forum. It's less well-used than the Vampire one but that's partially because there's fewer players and partially because, well, it's not a political game. It's an episodic investigative game and thus most of the meat is during session time. Really, the forums here are more about keeping everyone up-to-date on the occult information found in downtimes or chewed over between sessions. Adam and I are working on making the Faction sections more interesting by using multiple NPC accounts and we'll see how that goes. It may encourage more globe-trotting and will certainly give the players a greater chance to pick and choose their leads, but I'm pretty enthusiastic about it.

So there you have it. Some information on using forums in such a way. If anyone's interested, I can link you to the old Vampire forum so you can take a look around. Just leave your email address in the Comments box and I'll send you the link and Register you a Take-a-Look account.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interview with a Storyteller: Adam Lopez

So, ladies and gentleman, I give to you the amazing, the incredible, Adam Lopez! No pushing please. Autographs at the end of the article. This maaaay be my fiance and the guy who runs me my absolute more favouritist game in my absolute favouritist genre, but I'm not biased or anything. Nope. I run this blog with absolute journalistic integrity.


So, anyway, on to the questions.

Shannon: "So, why the World of Darkness?"

Adam: "The World of Darkness is a simple system but with a great deal of variety. If you put your mind to it you can make basically anything in it. Generally I wouldn't have ever said that horror was my thing but there are certain deep questions and in-depth exploration of a person's psyche that you get out of horror that you can't get anywhere else. Horror's confronting. And it's through that confrontation that you actually learn what a person is like. It's the same for characters. People who make characters for a WoD game are going to think a lot more about how their characters would react in certain situations than they would in D&D, for example, or many others."

Shannon: "Your interest in in-depth characters probably explains your complex and interesting NPCs. You have a real knack for breathing life into characters but just how do you manage to make an NPC feel so real?"

Adam: "I find that a lot of other STs and Players get annoyed when I show up to a session because I generally show up with a blank piece of paper and that's about it. I've always had a knack for envisioning things in my head and then attributing different things to it. For example, generally when you think of an alley, you might think of alleys you've seen in movies but I have a real knack for seeing the alley but also picking it apart. Seeing everything in the alley. Where doors might lead. That kind of thing. So when my players go into an alley, I already know that that door leads to the back room of a cafe or that the types of things that might be in the dumpster.

I've always also been good with people. When I talk to people I try to see where they're coming from, really put myself in their shoes, so when I think of an NPC I do exactly the same thing. I can very quickly attribute different personality traits when the NPC has a request for the PCs, I know exactly why he's doing it, what his true motivations are, how he feels about having to ask for help, how he feels about the PCs just based on what they are wearing or the way they act. I don't particularly know how I have this ability. I just always have.

As far as putting yourself in someone else's shoes, that's what roleplaying has always been for me. The desire to walk a mile in another person's shoes. Explore a life and a personality that I'll never know. And it's always fun to make yourself a little bit awesome on the side."

Shannon: "Reminds me a bit of how authors say they work. Do you ever find yourself watching a movie and putting yourself in the character's shoes? Or eavesdropping on people and trying to build a story from that?"

Adam: "Yeah. I used to do that a lot when I was a kid. Creating stories for toys I was given or that sort of thing. I used to try to write but I've never really been good at it. I've never been really good at creating a good story structure. I find PCs help with that. PCs have their own story they want to explore so things come more naturally that way whereas if you have to create the story by yourself it makes it a lot harder. I can describe a scene but I can't tell you where it's going to lead. Also when you're STing, the goal is to create isolated instances that link together toward a grander scheme.

I try to avoid now the temptation to take inspirations from movies and books that I've read and that sort of thing and insert it into the game because it's often recognisable and it can often create attachment to NPCs that you probably shouldn't have. There should always be the options for your players to react badly to an NPC or to not like their personality. Forcing them to deal with someone who they wouldn't is pretty bad practice. Also making anyone appear to have power beyond that which is obtainable of the PCs is also a pretty bad move unless they're the villains, of course, in which case numbers should still be able to take them down."

Shannon: "So are there any tricks to breathing life into characters?"

Adam: "Give them flaws. Real people are fractured individuals and those fractures have a root cause which blends into things. So when you spend enough time digging, which I shouldn't do but I do, you start figuring out what makes people human and once you can figure out why people do things that you think is irrational, you can bring that into your NPCs reactions in a very natural way and that's what makes them intriguing."

Shannon: "That explains why I find their reactions to things so intriguing, but how does a person portray a different demeanor? Y'know, that set of subtle behavioural cues that is so identifiably them?"

Adam: "I guess the best way to say it is stereotypes expanded. If you have to depict a dock worker, everyone has a preconception of what a dock worker will be but a stereotype of a dock worker is not going to engage people and isn't very accurate. So you take that stereotype and you add things. Maybe instead of being a gruff, grumpy man from the wrong side of the city, he's kind, light-hearted, perhaps even cultured, but then you ask yourself 'why?' Why is this person different from what I assume he would be? What if he has a child? What if he is raising a child without a partner? Now he's having to work long hours at a bad job but for the best of reasons.

Or maybe if we take the stereotype of the gruff dock worker to another extreme, what if he's on the take? What if it's his job to work these kinds of hours so he can tell the PCs that he sees nothing? That they're looking in the wrong direction? What if that same dock worker who's on the take is scared of the people he's taking money from and takes the cash from fear? Will he help the PCs or go with the party line? What if that's why he's so gruff in the first place?"


So there you have it. He really does do awesome NPCs, by the way. I just wish I could somehow find a way to crack out the last few secrets so I can do it myself. My NPCs are generally 'good enough' but they just don't seem as alive as his do.

Anyway, next week we'll have an interview from a Changeling LARP Storyteller.

Monday, January 16, 2012

6: Tactical Battle Maps

For the first half of the caving adventure, I didn't bother with a map. I simply drew cards to highlight the random nature of the tunnels they were taking. The second session revolved around an old Lancea Sanctum underground temple, however, and was quite a closed and simply environment of around twenty rooms. During that session, I had drawn up simple floorplans on grid paper sized for their miniatures and I laid them out when they reached a new area - covering up the rooms they couldn't see through and uncovering the ones they could.

Was it successful?

I'd say so. It helped them think strategically, which was vital as the enemies were more powerful than they were, and it encouraged a focus on the environment. They looked at cover and flashbangs and how many people they could fit down the corridor but they didn't spend an overly long amount of time on these issues. They didn't really need to. A lot of the answers to their questions was staring them in the face. Especially since the corridors, like most real life corridors, were only five feet wide which doesn't give a lot of space to manuevre.

It cut back on immersion-breaking questions like: "How many doors? Which ones have we searched? Where do we go now?" They could see doorways they hadn't tried. They knew which corridor they had yet to turn down. I could focus on atmospheric descriptions and leave the nitty gritties to the visual. The miniatures also helped because we could figure out, and have a visual cue, for where everyone was standing and in what order.

I mean, it still wasn't a miniatures game. We used the maps more as a tool for our game than fashioned our game around the map. When the combat got truly engaged, we could ignore the map and miniatures and come back to it when it became useful again. But it did help people figure out where they were and where the enemy was standing. It helped them gauge how long they had.

And thus it worked.

I would whole-heartedly recommend a simple floorplan + miniatures when you want your players to think strategically about a situation while still cutting down the spatial questions. It's not so good if you want to emphasise chaos, confusion, and claustrophobia, on the other hand. Especially if you want the environments to seem strange and unfamiliar.

In an earlier game, I created a 3D area complete with paper tree miniatures, cardboard box walls for warehouses, little crates, a few machines, internal walls, and other bits and bobs. Until they entered the building, it would have a cover over it. Once they'd entered it, I'd lift up a room roof top tile. I wish I'd taken a picture because it was actually a lot less effort to make than it sounds. Anyway, it actually made a brilliant pacing tool. When I lifted the tile and they saw the tent sitting there, surrounding by little blood spatter papers, they grimaced. When they'd explored everywhere in the 3D model and were in the final yard, poking around in the straw, they knew it was coming.

Again, I didn't over-rely on the map. For example, while I dumped a series of rat miniatures on them when the Devil that has the 'inspires hatred in animals' flaw headed in, I never put in a miniature for the gunman on the roof. When I described the locations, I generally made eye contact and drew it in their minds rather than pointing to everything in the map. When they hunted for clues, we moved away from the miniatures and toward verbal descriptions.

But, oh, does it worry people when you make them tell you who is entering the room first and just where they're going... It makes them pay attention to every clue in their environment.

So do tactical battle maps, and 3D maps, help? Yes.

Should you rely on them? Well, if every one of your games are like those two sessions, than sure. But generally, I wouldn't bother. They make for a great garnish but I'm sure they'd get old quick. I've only used a grid map once and a 3D design once as well. Twice out of forteen games ain't bad but it does show that while I'll use them again, they aren't the be all and end all of the game. I get the feeling that if I used them much more regularly and they'd become a crutch for vivid descriptions and a focus on our own imaginations.

And we wouldn't want that in a horror game, would we?

See the rest of the articles in this series over here!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Damn I'm Excited About Amy

Now this is a videogame that I'm really looking forward to really getting my teeth into. I love horror games of all stripes, from gothic horror to action adventure with horror elements, but my absolute favourite type is Survival Horror. Fingers crossed it will play as good as it looks.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

For Players: Creating compelling characters

Compelling characters make for a compelling story. Just think of the difference between the games run by a Storyteller whose characters can make you laugh, make you cry, make you fear for them ... and the ones who would make a piece of cardboard look deep and interesting in comparison. The same can be said for the protagonists themselves -- your player characters! After all, the PCs are what the game is about and they, by definition, have more screen time than anyone else. So if they're boring then it's not going to do the game any favours.

Now, obviously, different game worlds, genres, and player / Game Master preferences are going to have different requirements for complexity. I'm not saying that every player character should be a work of art nor am I necessarily talking about creating realistic characters. Some of the most compelling characters out there are larger-than-life. Anyway, with that disclaimer out of the way, let's begin.

So what makes a character compelling?

A strong need, urge, or desire. This runs deeper than a simple list of goals. This is what your character is searching for and it colours everything. It can change over the course of the game, and the need you choose during character generation might not quite fit the character once you've started playing him or her in earnest, but it still helps to settle on something. Possible needs include: Lust, Companionship, Truth, Security, Safety, Recognition, or even an ideal, such as a need for all children to grow up in happy, safe environments.

Other than survival, Barry really wants to goof around with Alan.

Quirks when grounded in something. Your character jangling his foot, carrying a lucky rabbit's foot, or knocking on wood may be quirky and help people recognise your character but it doesn't mean much on its own. Perhaps the quirk is there to either provide contrast to your character (the torturer pats the dogs head when thoughtful), define the character (who flips a coin in the mean streets of a Noir Fantasy) or grounded in history either real (the quirk is a custom from a historical era to added authenticity) or fake (either a made-up foreign custom or something passed down through the family).

An exceptional skill or a well-trodden niche. Give your character a skill, or a style, that will help them stand out from the party. What makes your Rogue special? How does your WoD Daeva distinguish themselves from others?

Dare to be Different. What a lawful rogue who works with the town guard and investigates crimes? Or the chaste Daeva? Take the expectation and twist it 10% to keep people interested.

Give the character something, or someone, to care about. This could be their horse that they ensure is well-watered, the familiar they play around with, or another person. Doing this helps make them sympathetic, even if their regular activities are anything but, and it also adds a little depth to the antisocial orphan so often found in games.

Don't try to be flawless. Flaws are what makes us both human and interesting. Don't try to create a perfect anything. Give your character a trait that is less than savoury. Perhaps they're a bit too lusty, miserly, or slovenly. It's especially important to ensure that your character fears something -- whether an overt one like a phobia or a subtle one like fear of failure.

And now The Big One.

*drum rolls*

Change. You've generated your character, given them one or more of the above, but now an equally important trick is to let them grow, develop, and change over the course of the game. A common mistake is to build up a personality and then assume that they'll behave the same before a war as after it. It's far more interesting for everyone else to watch as the highs and lows of war affect your personality, revealing and concealing different traits and potentials as time wears on.

Barry changes to get with the program.

So, there you have it. A bundle of ways to make your player characters more compelling. These tricks can also be used for NPCs, obviously. And yeah, I know, some of you like to wing character creation, throw dots on the sheet, and let things grow organically but using tricks like these might help you retain control over your compelling character to ensure that you still like what you're playing at the end of it. And besides, it can't hurt, can it? If what you've decided doesn't work at the game table, then feel free to change or discard it.

You can find more player tip articles here.

Anywho, happy gaming!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Complex Character Generation

In tomorrow's article, I'll give a bunch of hints and tips on how to actually generate these ideas so you can use the same tricks as I have in order to help flesh out your own characters. For now, I'm just going to show you one I'll prepare in about fifteen minutes which I'll be playing in the Pathfinder Adventure Path: Carrion Crown.

So, the original concept was a highly feminine female sorcerer. I've done a gritty Paladin / Gunslinger and I've done a bratty young Psion and a rather pragmatic Cleric, but I've never done someone who could be called feminine.

So what makes someone highly feminine? Brainstorm time: vain, impractical clothing, anxious when personal hygiene standards drop, nice hair, make-up kit, few physical skills, turns to men to do the heavy lifting, doesn't swear, is flirtatious with handsome men, flirtatious with handsome men, and (in that era) requires privacy to maintain decorum, swoons a bit from horror and seeks out masculine protection.

I decided to make it more complex by making her a fae-blooded Changeling sorcerer which will influence her to be easily distracted, superficial, highly emotional, find beauty in the strangest of places, a bit vague, innocent of the actual dangers, and a staunch romantic.

Her internal motivation will be a drive toward Self-Empowerment. It's a rather vague drive, so it fits, as it's deeply personal and, unlike a drive toward Power, doesn't have easily measured benchmarks. After all, one person's Self-Empowerment is another person's personal hell. So she'll be curious and enjoy exploring things. She sees it as a journey of Self-Discovery (but that's just a blind) but in truth she spends too much time 'feeling' than 'doing' as it is and thus it's more about overcoming her personal barriers and becoming a more 'whole' person.

She may rant and rave about being forced to abandon all of her pretty possessions for a slog through the swamp but will be quite happy once she's done it and realised it wasn't so bad. Especially since she saw the most beautiful swampy sun-set and those black twigs were kind of artistic, anyway. And, ooh, next time she'll be the one keen to try the road less travelled just so she can see something different.

So, by the 90% / 10% rule of strange, 90% of the time she'll seem the predictable princess but every so often she'll show compassion or change to accept something new. Which should hopefully keep her from being too irritating.

She even has a secret that will whomp her in the face when she learns about it. Her history is that she came from a failed aristocratic family who sent her off on this 'journey' with what was left of their earnings because they knew they were going into the poor house and they killed themselves rather than face poverty. Too many gambling debts. This may come up during the game, or at the end, or not at all if she dies or the Dungeon Master chooses but it certainly flavors things and suggests the style of her upbringing.

Anyway, hope you found this somewhat interesting! Happy gaming!

Player Tip: What's Your Motivation?

Any writing course can tell you that one of the most important components of a protagonist are their wants, needs, and drives. I say the same is true for a player character. Unfortunately, due to the compromises inherent in creating a personality only tangentially related to a plot narrative that the player knows little to nothing about, this is the one area most often glossed over or abandoned in favor of providing the Game Master greater ease in propelling your character forward through the story.

The trouble with that is it often leads to rather aimless characters who aren't particularly motivated to stay on the railroad tracks but require the tracks to keep them off the couch watching Daylight Soaps. This issue can particularly plague characters made along 'realistic' lines as most people would realistically avoid danger for safety. Of course, one can argue that the game world is full of such realistic characters. They're called NPCs.

A PC is a protagonist. An internal motivation and propensity to act makes for a far more compelling character than one who has to be dragged along through sucker punches like 'kidnapped loved ones'. And such motivations can be quite vague. Think of the differences between a Ventrue who has a higher order drive toward Perfection, Control, Power, Possession, or Affirmation. Sure, their personality might be somewhat the same, but there'll be lots of little distinctions between HOW they behave and what choices they would make.

Of course, I think part of the blame for de-motivated PCs rests with the Game Master. It's difficult for a player to fully understand what sort of character would work in the game (presuming it's a character type they would even enjoy) and it's doubly hard for a group of players to create characters that are actually complementary with each other. So the compromise is to create characters that make fewer waves by wanting 'what the plot wants them to want'.

So, to put my money where my mouth is, my next post will involve me creating a multi-faceted and motivated character to insert into a Pathfinder pre-written campaign. I'll then let you all know if it works out to be complementary rather than problematic, given that we're obviously 'on rails' to a certain extent. If I can pull it off there, the rest of you can pull it off anywhere (presuming your Game Masters aren't complete turds).

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview with a DM: Christopher Riese

Shannon: “So, Chris, how long have you been a DM, approximately? And other than D&D, what games have you run?”

Chris: “I have been running D&D for roughly 12 years now and Dark heresy for perhaps the last 2 or 3. I can’t be sure anymore.”

Shannon: “How did you get into Dungeons & Dragons?”

Chris: “Well, Shannon, it was the year 2000. I was but a young lad of 14, wide eyed and full of youth perusing the PC games section at Target when I discovered something that would change my life. I passed my first search check and found 'A small blue box with a golden trim and a strange sigil on the cover depicting two elf heads. One light, one dark, merged above and below each other like a ying yang'.

It was Baldurs gate 2, and within a few weeks of its addictive, deep, intuitive game play - all my friends were into it as well - I found myself heading into the city to a now closed down RPG bookstore to buy the Core 3 for DND 3.0 and a Starter box containing some pre-generated characters, cardboard tokens covered with depictions of various monster portraits and a book of missions... I intuitively knew that I wanted to run the game, as I had always been the creative sort - spending endless hours scribbling RPG ideas and drawing map lay outs to create on Unreal Editor when I should have been doing homework.

It seemed that within no time we were slaying goblins, saving unicorns and sneaking past sleeping ogres (though in later years the old sleeping ogre was no longer very scary, and could be quickly destroyed with a coup-de-grace). I had found a game that fit me and my friends like a glove, and I still game with those same 3 friends to this day (albeit many new faces, including that of Shannon and her spouse Mr. Adomo have been a part of the story).”

Shannon: “What is it about D&D that continues to appeal to you?”

Chris: “Well despite the obvious sex appeal that comes with being a Veteran of many dnd campaigns *cough* I would have to say that there is a definite charm to the "Great-Grand-daddy-of-them-all" that appeals to me. (Alright, maybe 1st ed is probably the grand daddy ... let’s call 3.5 the great, great, grand foetus of them all). I just love making dungeons and writing missions. I love rolling up new towns, fleshing them out and spending long hours into the night bringing everything to life like a painter. It’s my Art and my hobby, one I love sharing with everyone I meet. And I’m not ashamed of it ... within a minutes of meeting someone new, I usually fish to see if they have ever role-played. I have found many new players in doing so.

The game can be as deep or as shallow as you want it to be. Whether you want a Beer and Pretzel style "Force the door and Smash the Ogres" night with a high character turnover and many good times to laugh about - or a Deep, complex series of intertwining character interplay in a dangerous world where every place has its story, ever nation has its politics and every monster has its niche. You can do it with DND. You can make it your own.”

Hard At Play

Shannon: “Well, it’s been awhile since I last played with you, but by my recollection, you’ve always had tremendous skill in describing combat in a way that is both slick and epic. Any tricks to the trade?”

Chris: “I’d like to think I've only learned and improved over time. The days of role-playing with you and Adam are sorely missed :) but I have 2 places that are always open should you ever choose to return (sneaky plug). But I digress, I take inspiration from movies, TV, games and recycle whatever cool imagery I have seen and use it to make combat scenes both visceral and satisfying. Such as the no holds barred violence of Sparticus, ludicrous action scenes in Xena or spell effects from Harry Potter.

People WANT to feel potent, but they should also be reminded that they are not "drunken gods". Thus, my character deaths are equally visceral. I have seen players disintegrated, torn limb from limb, chased down and eaten, sucked dry or enslaved by vampires, dissolved by gelatinous cubes, turned to stone and shattered apart, turned to salt, exploded, throttled to death, have their soul destroyed, thrown off a mountain, devoured by scarabs, turned into a chaos beast, killed by the party clerics’ own healing magic, hand-mashed by a giant demon, die from starvation down a pit trap, and much, much more... I seem to recall you being diced apart by your own blade barrier spell at one point as well. :) RIP Linda the cleric.

I guess the Tip in all this is not to baby the players. Let them live and die by their own dice rolls. Don’t be slack, cater to every skill and make sure if a player has taken it that you have covered it. Communicate! This is the most important one, make sure EVERYONE knows that you understand what their character is all about and how they fit in your world. If necessary ADAPT TO SUIT THEM. Don’t control the game with narrow options. Give them a selection of options and take their ideas onboard. If they are too out there, explain what you’re angling for. It really helps.

Finally don’t play the "hand of god" to keep your game running... If players will escalate to PVP for legitimate in-character role-play reasons - there is nothing that should stop them short of a legitimate distraction or talking them down in game through an NPC.

The final tip is learning to say no to people, and following it up by explaining why. Also, be open to debate but do not do it at the table. People who aren’t used to hearing the word can ruin your game if you don’t nip it in the bud early.”

Shannon: “Where do you get your inspiration when designing adventures, encounters, and the like?”

Chris: “I read a lot of source books and constantly find more inspiration relevant to what I am currently doing through my ample Stack of Dragon/Dungeon Mags from way back when. I also perused forums, use generators (both hand rolled and online) and borrow heavily from ideas I have used in the past to create fresher ideas. I love my dungeons to be Fair.

I don’t purpose build anything or purpose place anything to suit anyone in particular - often I will make sure that an encounter is tailored to the background information given for specific creatures.

Oh and steer away from making small dungeon rooms. Bottlenecked combats are never fun, always give the players and the monsters space for strategy unless it’s part of the encounter (such as an ever shifting maze with a crypt thing and a 2 displacer beasts).”

Just Another Evening

Shannon: “What’s been one of your favorite moments while running the game?”

Chris: “I have many... Most recently I would say running a serious D&D campaign for the first time with my nephew and niece. In one scene they were overrun by a hoard of water rats. During the fight my niece, suffering many rat bites and scratches to her forearms and hands, grappled and stuffed a rat into her backpack before handing it to her brother - who then messily power-slammed it into a wall. Violent but effective. But for nostalgia sake, I would have to say my favourite moments would have to be when my players add to my game world not only with content, but with in-game jokes (such as the devout sorceress who blessed her dice by ritually intoning "Shar you whoar!" before casting spells, or the deep imaskari ninja who could hide so well we all said "She's hiding in the sandwich" (literally, she could make SNIPE attacks in melee whilst hiding in plain sight).

It is the things players contribute, that i find are so much more important than what you yourself write. The game is never just about the DM. It’s about cooperative fantasy.

Shannon: “So many true words spoken there. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.”

So, everyone, there’s an interview with an old DM of mine. By the way, he has an old play-by-post over here if anyone’s interested. It was finished awhile ago but you might like to take a look.

If you have any further questions for him, you can post them in the comments section and I’ll see if I can get some answers for you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Combat Interruptus

Warning: This article has mild spoilers for the start of Book 4 of the Pathfinder Crimson Throne Adventure Path.
Last night, in our Pathfinder game, my intrepid adventurers were ready to cross the 400 foot bridge that spans the gap between crater and Castle Scarwall. The druid had already accidentally triggered a rain storm from the heavy black clouds overhead through casting the Lightning Storm spell. Yeah, I know the spell doesn’t normally do that but it just seemed right to have it happen. Gargoyles were whipping down towards them but being startled back with lightning bolts as they went. Anyway, when they were midway across, when a squad of enemies came out from the gatehouse and headed across the bridge to reach them.

The party waited at their point on the bridge managed to whittle down the enemy at their approach and were just mopping up the remnants by knocking over the skeletal nightmare when a shrieking roar sounded above them and a huge dragon with arched windows rose up over the bridge (it had sneak-flown around the castle from just above the lake and then landed on the bottom of the rather stoutly made bridge and then crawled along the edge towards them with its Hide in Plain Sight abilities going).

The dragon revealed itself and all but the Oracle, Guenmarcus, made their saves against its Frightful Presence. Of course, due to their level, even Guenmarcus was only shaken. It followed up its appearance with a Darkness spell to help it hide and then hide it did. Cue a battle of breath weapons, attempts to hide, and then all out attacks on the paladin.

Anyway, the point is that it felt more organic with this interruption to the regular routine than if the dragon had been in its appointed place awaiting their attack or even if it had ambushed them later. It worked out because the gargoyles were more of a distraction / environmental hazard that the druid managed to cope with for them. It was also important that the party had plenty of time to take out the approaching squad (which was all of low to very low CR to them) so that the interrupting dragon didn’t mop the floor with them. They weren’t low on spells. They weren’t surrounded by difficult baddies. They’d gotten a difficult cherry on top of the rather easy icecream.

And it worked out nicely!

In truth, this is just an article to say that this form of Combat Interruptus, when done well, can really boost the flavour of the game and add to the immersion value without damaging the ‘fun’ value like most elements of realism tends to do to the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Gender Norms and NPCs

This is a fantastic article from TV Tropes on the different media expectations, tropes, and reasoning behind certain gender norms on television and in other forms of media. There's no real way for me to summarise all the brilliant details here but I do encourage you to take a look. It'll help you understand why your NPCs don't seem feminine or masculine enough to people and what the perspectives behind the issues are. It's also just, well, an interesting read.

5: Hateful Enemies and Nasty Environments.

When designing your horror adventure, you should spend a bit of time selecting your enemies and locations to ensure that it's all thematically appropriate for a true dash of Hi-Octane Nightmare Fuel. After all, your set dressing is vitally important for creating the right vibe.

So where do you get your inspiration for what might work?

Well, often times your adventure begins with an idea that you can work from. Perhaps you want to throw your characters against vampires. Or perhaps you have a world that reacts to the victim's mind. Or you just know you want to run an adventure in the woods. Maybe you have no clue at all as to what you want to throw at people. Let's look at each of these possible options.

The Critter Idea. Vampires. Brainstorm what you think makes vampires scary and figure out ways to emphasise that. If your list reads mental violations, corruption, rape analogies, and physical invulnerability you'll want to run them differently than if your list includes things like undeath, unstoppable hunger, physical invulnerability, and super speed that keeps you form running away. Read up any canonical representations of vampires in your system (i.e. check the Bestiary in Pathfinder or the various bloodlines in Vampire: the Requiem) to see what fits best for your tale. Think about how you could tinker with the rules to make a variant monster or bloodline to make it fit your image better. Perhaps brainstorm a list of possible locations that would best showcase your monster to its full advantage - either by contrasting it against a place completely unsuited to it, combining it with weather or other environmental hazards / obstacles, or by emphasizing it against a place that really fits it.

The Concept. You don't know the monster or the environment but you know the cause. Perhaps it's a curse on the land. Or a nightmare world that plays on your fears. Or an infectious disease that transforms the people and the place. Any which what way, your best bet is to look at the characters and see how you can reflect them into the concept. This is fairly obvious with a psychoactive world like Silent Hill that plays off your character's hates, fears, and sins (list them) but it also works for infections that warp a place or curses. It'll be more personal to them if it affects a place they know. If you're tossing up between a few different places / monsters, list out their pros and cons. A hospital will provide a different experience than a prison which would be different to a lighthouse, in terms of hazards and equipment.

The Place. You know where you want to place your adventure, whether a working prison or an abandoned temple to Saranrae, but you don't know what the players will be facing there. Figure out why you picked that place. Is it because its secluded or urban? Is it because of certain hazards you have in mind? Is it because of what it represents to the players or their characters? Figure out all the reasons for that location, then list them out and brainstorm ways to really put it all together. If you want a prison because it's a place of corruption (or the temple because it's not supposed to be) than figure out ways to emphasise that. Perhaps the prisoners are becoming twisted by their violence into something inhuman. Or perhaps it's more about claustrophobia and living in a cage, in which case, perhaps have something prey on a captive audience.

In my case, I had a creature (a Malefactor Earthbound), some pre-established enemies, and I just needed a place. I'd already established that she was somewhat out of the way, in Nairne, and in an earlier campaign set in the same place I'd established a cave network established by previous foes that earlier characters had cleared out. This gave me a location with history. It also happened to be near Nairne AND the players had recently been told to avoid it. It played to the Malefactor's strengths, being underground, and prevented the characters from being able to escape easily. I then figured out how the Earthbound might adapt the location and what sort of hazards might naturally remain there.

So yes, hopefully all that advice will help you when it comes to figuring out your

Oh, also, you can find a list of the other articles in this series here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Tips On Clue Tokens

Using Clue Tokens (read about them here) sometimes feels like using a walkthrough, I'm sure. You get stuck. You used a Clue Token. Sometimes you get a solid hint. Or a common sense answer. Sometimes a new option opens up. Sometimes I give a short list of potential avenues of investigation. But in each instance someone else is intervening and using their brain instead of your own. Some players might love a casual walkthrough but mine are a bit leery of over-using it. There's another option to use it as well.

Last night, in Demon: the Fallen, my players released a Luciferan Devil called Nakreem out of the sword he'd been sealed inside by an Earthbound. It was quite convenient for them since they'd promised the Luciferans to summon one of their ilk. They'd gotten him a body (a corpse freshly arisen with Awakening) and then contacted their Luciferan contact in Tokyo to find out when he could come and get Nakreem. The Luciferan, Grifiel, told them that he'd get in touch within the next 24 hours when everything was set up.

They had to babysit him until then.

Of course, Nakreem had been out for a bit and was quite close to a Mage and didn't much want to go back to an Army he knew little about. They didn't realise that he'd been caught by the Earthbound at the same time as the Mage so didn't make the connection. So he champions for a chance to party (they put him in the body of an english punk rocker so it wasn't a surprise) but they took him to a jazz club instead. He picked up a girl (a supernatural, no less, who they ICly think may be some kinda vampire and OOCly believe might be a Changeling). They follow him, one of them watches the shenanigans to ensure he's safe, but eventually they all go home and leave him alone.

So he legs it.

The Malefactor Luciferan, Anaphriel, pretends to be his angry girlfriend to the supernatural the following morning (they don't know if vampires burn in the sun, so it's still ICly possible to them that she is one - or maybe some kind of nymph). The supernatural (Mira), tells her that he borrowed her phone the night before at about 2:00AM and spoke to an Englishman. They get the number he called from her phone and track it back to a motel. Arriving there, they find the two have already left.

My players were sitting around in Demon: the Fallen brainstorming possible methods of tracking down a Luciferan Devil and who he might know in Adelaide since they knew he was shoved in a sword over in Russia. My co-storyteller, who was getting to be a player in that session and knew nothing of the connections here, spent a Clue Token for assistance.

Since everyone was busy throwing out options in a group brainstorm, I basically just told him 'hotter' or 'colder' to people's ideas and underlined certain phrases they mentioned that seemed important to him. Things like 'someone he knew'. This worked out a charm because, to progress, they had to rely on suggestions the players made 100% but I gave them a little direction through a few nudges here and there as little intuitive nudges.

And it worked well!

So for all of you using Clue Tokens or a similar system, perhaps try using them that way on occasion.

How A Little Player Preparation Goes A Long Way

Generally, Game Masters spend a fair bit of time on preparing for games while a player's preparation for game generally revolves around snack purchases and leveling up their character sheet. This is the custom but it's not always a good idea. A little preparation can bring your play skill up from good to excellent and boost most games from fun to fantastic.

Now, I'm not saying that there's no place for plug-and-play gaming where you do little to no preparation. In casual gaming, where the Game Master spends very little time in preparation, is also not really the place for anyone to spend time outside of the games thinking of the game. Even in more complicated games with detailed game worlds, you can certainly get away with a good game that you only think about while you're there. Hey, some Game Masters run just fine by the skin of their teeth. Or they just simply prefer it. The same can be said for players.

But hear me out.

If you're playing a game with a supportive Game Master, you'll get more mileage out of your game with a little preparation. This could involve (articles to come):

Creating compelling characters,

Goal lists so your character has adequate motivation and things to do,

Writing and reviewing the clues and leads you had from the last session,

Writing up plans and then running the ideas past other player characters,

Research your character concept and skills (for example, researching about WWII for your newly Embraced vampire or about how a police officer's day works out),

Learning the rules beyond what's on your sheet,

Knowing your canon (where it applies).

Knowing yourself, what you want, what you enjoy, and what you dislike so you can communicate that to the Game Master.

As a player, I've found I get the best out of games when I actually put a little bit of preparation into it or out-of-game details. In the Camarilla LARP, I created a forum based around a play house and sold trivial boons for access to it. I also went around recording all the information I could find out about them in a document. These things really helped in my experience - especially compared to the times when I didn't use them. These tricks have also helped in the solo Demon game I'm playing which has a strong political and investigative element so it doesn't have a LARP-only benefit.

The truth is that in most situations, with most Game Masters, a little preparation - even ten minutes before a session - can make a lot of difference. Look to the series of articles to come.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Kanban Encounter Method

I haven't tried it yet but it looks good. Take a look over at Justin Achilli's take on the Kanban Method for GMing in this article and this one. Basically it involves keeping track of whether your encounters / adventures are still in the Planning, Foreshadowing, Ready to Use, or Re-Visit stage. Perfect for those more sandboxy adventures!

Me, I normally just sit down and list out the grimy Left Overs from the campaign to date (always best to clean them off the plate early before I get distracted by new stuff) and the too cool Hooks that have already been foreshadowed (some of which haven't been fleshed out but seemed a good idea at the time). In most sessions of an open-ended sandboxy campaign, I write them down to ensure that there's some closure from the Left Overs and some more juicy progress on the old Hooks. In my more episodic Demon campaign, I do it ever so often when it's getting backed up or when the players have done something that's too full of delicious repercussions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Gripe With nWoD

I started playing old World of Darkness so, of course, I turn my nose up at a few things that the new World of Darkness does and I generally do so because it's different to what I liked about the original game. I actually liked merits and flaws because it gave the players a chance to have a say in the sort of game they wanted to play (Haunted, Hunted, and Infamous). I also liked the added realism that the severe wound, healing times, and movement penalties gave.

Over time I've come down off my white horse and accepted that a lot of the changes do make a sort of sense.

But my other gripes are more because while they made the game more player-friendly they pulled away from the Horror Genre. Take a look at Justin Achilli's article on how the rules used (and skills given) are the designer's way of encouraging the use of certain skills and abilities. It's like Chekhov's gun, if you put it in the game, expect it to be used.

In the same way, if you make combat less lethal and more player-friendly, they'll turn to it more often.

In oWoD, you had merits and flaws but very few of them involved combat. There was a Strong Right Hook which gave you a slight damage bonus, but that was mostly it. Different gamelines doubtless had a few more but there weren't oodles of them. Now there are more Fighting Styles in the various core books than Social OR Mental Merits. While I approve of the complexity this can give combat in the game, I disapprove of what such a focus on these styles indicates to players.

Also, long healing times can irritate players so I understand why they massively reduced them. It's not very player-friendly. Of course, most supernaturals have a way to heal themselves so you can continue your more brutal vampire-vs-vampire or werewolf-vs-spirit games but also, in a real horror game, players should be trying to avoid their characters taking damage. Health points just don't cut it. Especially when there's nothing backing it up.

It's hard to say "that really hurt" when the characters are otherwise unaffected by losing, say, four hit points.

I've seen a player about to charge his character in to combat on a -2 penalty with two health points left in oWoD. When I told him that his character would be crawling at three yards per turn, he changed his mind and decided that the injury actually was too grevious.

Also, more lethal games mean characters have to be clever about avoiding damage and taking out their targets at range. Why do you think most successful Call of Cthulhu characters are the ones with Dodge who know how to use Explosives?

Of course, the downside is that Horror games are more constricted and less accessible to players. Most players want a chance to feel Awesome. They're attracted to games that allow them to feel that. Most 'horror' players generally want to take part in dark fantasy games, nasty thrillers, or action with a backbone of hi-octane nightmare fuel. They don't want to spend their whole time running from bad guys, looking for clues, and getting themselves killed all the time.

nWoD catered more to that style than oWoD and kept threatening to give my players bad habits. But even so, I stopped bitching about nWoD's changes with Armory Reloaded and it's wonderful Combat Hacks. Now it's quite easy to make the game as Wire-Fu or brutally horrific as I'd like to be. In truth, I like it somewhere between oWoD's One Shot Can Incapacitate and nWoD's You Can Take Three Shots With Little Effect But The Fourth Will Kill You!

On the other hand, nWoD's three tracks of damage is pretty awesome. Fill up on Bashing and you start filling up on Lethal. Fill up on Lethal and you start taking aggravated damage if anyone hits you or simply fails to heal you. Nothing raises the tension like having your character pass out from damage while there's still time to keep them alive!

So yeah, I guess that after three years of playing nWoD, I can put the banner down and accept that with a few tweaks (many provided nWoD itself), I can have my cake and eat it too with an updated rules set that does iron out a lot of kinks.

Rant over!

Interview with a Keeper: Mr. Handy

Well, I've always wanted to learn more about how different Game Masters / Keepers, etc. do it so I figured I'd just go track a few down and ask them. The first interview is with Mr. Handy, a Keeper from who is currently involved in running (and playing) several Call of Cthulhu and BRP homebrew settings on that same Play-by-Post forum. Here we go...

Shannon: "So, I’ve been playing in your Zombie Apocalypse play-by-post game for a few years now and I remember that it was originally run by somebody else. Tell me what inspired you to take it up and keep it going for so long."

Mr. Handy: "That's right, Zombie Apocalypse was originally created by Welsh, who was the first Keeper. It began on No Mutants Allowed, a fansite for the Fallout series of computer games. This was actually not his first attempt to run a game like this, but like any good zombie, it refused to stay down. Unlike his earlier attempts to run it, this one really took off. I started out as a player at the very beginning in June 2006.

In October 2006, Welsh no longer had time to continue running the game. Rather than see it die like its previous incarnations, he asked me to take over as Keeper. I loved the game and wanted to keep it going too, and we both knew that none of the other players would have been able to do it. Over the next couple of months there was a transition period where both of us ran the game together. I started out writing smaller parts of the game that gradually increased.

When Chapter 2 started in 2007, I was flying solo. Welsh created the new characters for Chapter 2 between chapters, and he still had creative input and helped with some of the new characters for Chapter 3, but since then I've been running the show.

Zombie Apocalypse has always been a labor of love, and there are several reasons why I've kept it going all this time. The game is a lot of fun both to play and to run. I love games with apocalyptic settings, and I enjoy Romero's zombie movies, which are one of the inspirations for this game. The characters are great too, and even when ones that I've grown attached to die, I can always bring in new ones. I also like the complexity and the sheer chaos of the game, and the possibilities of where it can go are limitless. It is a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it."

Shannon: "In Zombie Apocalypse, you have several different zones in play at the same time. For example, in Chapter 6 you had a variety of simultaneous locations ranging from a school to an army base to a ranger station to a barn with different characters in each. There is also an element of travel involved with characters in cars passing several locations. How do you keep it all straight in your head? Are the locations based on real life places? And, if so, do you use Google Maps or some other program to identify where things should be?"

Mr. Handy: "Zombie Apocalypse started out in a very small area, in a truck stop in southwestern Nebraska and its environs. It remained there for the first two chapters, though there were references to events in different places and communication with some of them. The game started to spread in Chapter 3 as the characters were split up, though most of it still took place around the truck stop at that point.

It isn't easy to keep everything straight, but everything important is written down somewhere. I use one thread to keep track of the locations and weapons of the surviving characters, along with hyperlinks that allow you to trace each character's story. This is helpful to the players as well as to me.

Only some of the locations are based on actual places. Warren Air Force Base is a real place. The cities and towns that characters pass through and visit are real. Most of the locations in the story are ones that I make up. I make them up as needed, but the major buildings and areas are typically designed between chapters, when I have more time to work on them. Minor ones that I wasn't expecting to be used I can create on the fly. I have used an actual house layout for one such house in the game. In a play-by-post game, there's enough time between posts that this isn't a problem. I do use an online map site called Site Atlas to figure out where things should be. Welsh had given us a link to it at the beginning so that we could see where the game took place, and I've found it very useful for the various road trips and helicopter flights."

Shannon: "Us players can also pick up to three characters from a largely pre-generated list, often in different locations, and run them with all the risk of death that entails. I'm guessing that's why you have so many NPCs so players can take them over. What surprises me, though, is how you roleplay them until a player takes them over. You have literally dozens of NPCs at any one time. How do you keep them all straight? Their goals and their personalities? Also, how do you create so many differing personalities?"

Mr. Handy: Actually, you are allowed a maximum of four, though three is the recommended number. Any characters not played by players are NPCs and are usually available for a player to take over. It isn't easy to keep them all straight, but I do have details (including secrets, which often suggest goals and motivations for a character) written down for each of them. Each character also has a one-line quote that is a helpful reminder of each character's personality.

It's not easy to keep them all straight, but the play-by-post format helps with that. In fact, this game probably wouldn't work otherwise with so many characters. It would be nearly impossible to keep everything straight in real time, but when you have hours or even days to think before you post, it becomes managable.

Another trick I use is to have many characters fade into the background. The Omaha section has by far the highest population of any part of the game. I created nearly fifty characters in Omaha alone for the start of Chapter 4, expecting many of them to die. However, the players did such a masterful job that there wasn't a single character death in Omaha for the entire chapter, and only one death in Omaha in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 changed all that. However, most characters only have their moments in the spotlight before stepping back and letting others come forward.

Throughout Chapters 5 and 6, the vast majority of characters spent most of their time in the school cafeteria eating dinner and then dessert, only being brought into play as appropriate. Amelia Delacroix, the cook, was in the kitchen for a long time but came out late in chapter 6 to do something important (and likely saving the life of one of the PCs as a result).The Sword section is a lot easier to manage, as it has always had the lowest population, so each character gets frequent opportunities to shine and they all see a lot of action. Sword has also proven quite deadly, which has kept its numbers down in spite of me adding new characters. It almost didn't exist. The fairly large Under section of Chapter 3 experienced a near Total Party Kill, with one character who only barely survived to brought into Sword when I started it in Chapter 4.

Creating many different personalities and keeping them distinct isn't easy. I have plenty of ideas for character concepts, and I'm not sure where they all originate. Many of them are inspired by characters in books, movies, and TV shows, though I give all of them some original aspects. I also often mentally cast them as actors, sometimes even putting pictures of those actors in their character sheets. For example, Emily Montrose is inspired by Madeleine Stowe's portrayal of Dr. Kathryn Railly in 12 Monkeys, and I used a picture of her from that movie in her character sheet."

Shannon: "So what made you choose the Call of Cthulhu system for it?"

Mr. Handy: It was Welsh who chose the Call of Cthulhu system, but I agree with the reasons he gave. The Sanity mechanic was the key reason he chose it. It reflects very effectively the downward spiral into madness that would be common in an apocalyptic scenario such as Zombie Apocalypse. Sanity increases are very few and far between in this game. I awarded a 1d10 increase for characters who survived Chapter 1, but there are only a handful of those still alive at this point.

Characters also get a 1d10 increase when reaching a "safe haven" location for the first time, though "safe" is a relative term. Generally, Sanity tends to decline more and more. A few characters have clung to high Sanity, but most of them have taken significant hits as the horror keeps mounting. The lethality of the game does mean that it's rare for characters to live long enough to go completely insane. Only a few have made it down to single digits. One of them was hovering at 1 Sanity for a very long time. He did eventually hit zero and go permanently insane as a direct result of the player's own choice of action. I have one NPC at 3 Sanity. While he is quite, quite mad, he has some important things to say based on what he has seen and his insane insights. Players will need to filter out the signal from the noise when interacting with him.

Another advantage of Call of Cthulhu is that the rules are simple and very easy for new players to learn. Zombie Apocalypse has introduced a lot of players to Call of Cthulhu for the first time. When I joined, it was the first time I had played CoC in about ten years, but I was able to pick it up again quickly and even get to the point where I could run the game myself. Welsh was already familiar with CoC, as he was running a game at Play@Yog-Sothoth at the time and playing in others. It was he who introduced me to the site and encouraged moving the game there.

Also, combat in Call of Cthulhu is very quick, realistic, and deadly, which makes it fitting both for the medium and this particular game. Play by post games are slow enough as it is. Lengthy battles can really cause them to bog down, so it's good to keep it moving fast. Combat versus zombies is even easier, as the zombies don't even try to defend themselves and cannot attack unless they're close enough. The realism and lethality are important to the theme of the game. Characters are ordinary people, not superheroes. When they engage in battle, death is a very real risk."

Shannon: "So what advice would you give someone hoping to start up a play-by-post of their own?"

Mr. Handy: "I'd say start a lot smaller than I did. Use a shorter published scenario (such as The Haunting) to get your feet wet. Once you've got that under your belt, then you can move on to larger and more complex scenarios, including those that you write yourself. Zombie Apocalypse is massive and difficult to run, but well worth it.

You'll also need a lot of patience, as play-by-post moves very slowly. A scenario that could be played in four hours around a table may take months or even a year to run as a play-by-post. Your players will also need long attention spans so that they will stick with the game.

However, play-by-post also gives you advantages that are hard to achieve with tabletop games. You have plenty of time to think of a response and plan things out. You can also increase suspense by limiting player knowledge. When the party splits up, make separate threads for each group and do not allow the players to read the threads of those who are not in their group. This way the players won't know if something horrible has happened to the others, and if something horrible happens to them, they won't know if the others are in a position to help them. Spoiler buttons and private messages are a good way to give information to one player without the others knowing. Take full advantage of these techniques. Play-by-post also allows you to add to the experience by posting images, videos, and sound files, not just raw text. Even text can be formatted and displayed in different colors and sizes. All of these things can enhance the game for the players."

Shannon: "Thank you for doing this interview with me, Mr. Handy."

If anyone would like to view Zombie Apocalypse, you can find it here but if you don't have an account with the forum yet, you'll need to register and get your account activated by posting in one of the visible threads. (Blame the spammers!) Activation happens pretty quickly, though, and it's well worth the look.

So there you have it, my first Keeper interview. I'll aim to have one up weekly (ideally on Wednesdays) but it'll obviously depend on who I can get and when. Next week I should have a D&D tabletop Dungeon Master. After that, I'm hoping to get a few different Camarilla Live Action Roleplay Storytellers of different genres. If I'm lucky, I might even get to interview a Player or two. We Game Masters, etc. love to talk. It'd be interesting to hear the views of a player about their side of the fence.

Stay tuned!