theferrett: (Meazel)

Some days, I think there’s only three rules you need to follow to be a good GM:

Reward Players When They Do Something Cool.  That doesn’t mean your players always get what they want – but if they make an impassioned, stirring speech to the cold-hearted Duke, begging him to free this wrongly-accused prisoner, then maybe the Duke still refuses… but the leader of the underground rebellion is emboldened to make contact.  Maybe that demon is immune to iron swords, but that doesn’t mean a pair of twin daggers to the eye can’t incapacitate him long enough to get a head-start on a hasty retreat.  If the players do something really nifty, find some way to give them an in-game benefit, because you want them doing cool things.  And the fact that the reward may be unexpected will just keep them doing it more.

Punish Players When They Do Something Dumb.  If every aspect of your world flexes to accommodate what your players do, then it’s like living in a world of marshmallow – it seems sweet at first, but eventually you get flabby and sticky.  So when they do something that wouldn’t work, have it fail.  Bad strategy to break into the villain’s lair?  Have ‘em get caught.  A hack-and-slash approach to a combat that requires finesse?  Have ‘em lose.  A cavalier attitude towards innocent civilians?  Have some innocents die, and their reputation tarnished.  Don’t go out of your way to punish them – also see: rewarding for coolness – but make it seem like there’s a distinct possibility that things could go wrong.  That encourages players to be invested in this world, since if they’re not careful, they won’t get what they want.

Inform Players When They Do Something Tedious.  Too many campaigns get wrapped around the axle in making elaborate plans that don’t matter at all.  If you know that this cross-country trip is going to go without incident, then the two hours they’ve spent detailing every barrel of beef jerky they’re going to load into the wagon is wasted time.  A good GM lets them plan for a bit, and then says, “Okay, you buy everything you need, and now you’re in Liberia.”  Likewise, if the players are spending a lot of time prepping a strategy against an enemy that you know won’t work and they have the in-game clues to know it won’t work either, then tell them how unwise their plan is and move on.

Your goal as a GM is to encourage your players to spend their time productively.  So learn to know when they’re spinning their wheels on things that won’t affect the game, and shove them out of the rut towards activities that will actually propel the plot forwards.  It’s not a bad thing to say as a GM, “This isn’t going to matter, so let’s move on to something that does.”  They’ll thank you for it, given time.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

I fell out of love with D&D when I realized that the game was tilting towards explaining everything.

I couldn’t blame them; the vast majority of players want firm stats, new feats, monsters with clearly-defined powers and a set number of hit points.  So they buy supplements that give them those hard figures… and when Wizards of the Coast figured that out, they made D&D 4th Edition, which is essentially nothing but a dry set of rules to accommodate combat.  “Why should we accentuate the roleplaying?” Wizards asked.  “The people who want to do that will just break the rules anyway.  So let’s give the players a strict framework of guidelines to run combat in, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Me?  I want mysteries.

This is why I adored Planescape, which was a world defined largely by belief, and had many things that could not be beaten by mortals.  (You weren’t taking down a God, you weren’t settling the Blood War, and there were no stats for the Lady of Pain.)  I love Delta Green, with its methodical attention to detail and its grim meathook way of dragging you into the abyss.  I love Unknown Armies, the way that there’s always some new and crazy obsession-related magic around the corner.  I love Deadlands, with its crazy Wild West History and stock archetype characters carving their way through a fragmented United States.

What I really like, as it turns out, is a detailed look into another world.  These aren’t necessarily roleplaying games for me; they’re a travelogue into a new land, with different magic systems and strange challenges.  I’m a writer, I don’t need stats; what I need are mysteries to spark ideas that I can then run with in my own campaign.  I love reading someone who’s clearly gone to great lengths to devise a land that’s both meticulously thought-out and yet still full of unanswered questions.

(…Which is why I never liked White Wolf’s supplements all that much.  They always struck me as well thought-out, but I never felt there were serious mysteries in them; rather, there were these intense political campaigns with no room for the players to squeeze themselves into.  I kind of wished they’d just write novels and stop pretending like they wanted players to interact with them.)

And I know such things exist these days; I just don’t work in a game shop any more, so I’m unaware of them.  So I’ll ask you experts: What roleplaying games do you think I’ll enjoy reading?

(Not playing, sadly.  Just reading.  I really want to run an Unknown Armies campaign now, but that’s a very acting-heavy system, and I’d need at least four people willing to throw themselves deeply into character.  I just don’t have the critical mass of local peeps to make for a satisfying UA campaign, which wouldn’t involve victory over the odds but rather people trying to come to terms with the deeply weird world they’ve accidentally opened the door to.)

I’ve given you my top four: Planescape, Delta Green, Unknown Armies, Deadlands.  If you can recommend any new RPG worlds (preferably created in the past seven years), I’d be grateful.  I’d like to get up to speed, and see what folks have done lately.


Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

If you remember my review of Fiasco, the gamemaster-less RPG, you’ll recall that I liked it quite a bit.  Playing desperate, Coen Brothers-style people in small towns is quite fun, and a very writerly exercise in trying to map out a story collectively.

Which is why we’ll be playing a game of Fiasco at my house this Sunday with our friends Tim and Dani.  The game can support up to six players, and is very heavy on acting and conceptualization.  There’s no dice rolls to hit, no hit points, just Scene and Resolution and The Turn.  Witty dialogue and surprising characterization is your best bet.

If you’re in Cleveland and would like to play, hit me up via comment or email and I’ll slot you in.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

“Do you want to play a roleplaying game with no GM?” my friend Flicker asked me.

“No GM?” I asked.  “How the hell can you play a game if there’s no central arbiter of reality?  Who creates the plot?  Who makes the rulings?”

Yet I have been introduced to anarchy RPGs through the magic of Fiasco, and lemme tell you, it’s pretty fun.

Fiasco is more of a shaped improv class than an RPG; the goal is to create a small-town, Coen Brothers-style narrative like Fargo or Glengarry Glenn Ross, where desperate people do awful things for low stakes.  (And as rewarded poorly.)  It’s also a game about story, tailor-made for writers, because the whole goal is literally to create scenes that advance the plot and reveal character.  You’re not trying to level up your wizard: you’re going, “Okay, we have six scenes left, and three of them need to end on a good note before the bad ending, so how the hell can we make it look like things are going well?”

The way Fiasco works is fascinating: you show up with no characters, intending to build them on the spot.  There’s a general situation given: a small-town news office, a crime-infested southern town, a mundane suburbia.

You roll a bunch of dice, Yahtzee-style, and then place a notecard between every playing.  Each player goes around, selects a die from the pool, and uses that die to choose a class of relationship between the two characters from a simple table: FAMILY, CO-WORKER, CRIME.  Then you choose from a sub-menu, further defining what kind of Crime connects these two people: Corrupt Official, Drug Dealer, Con Man and Mark.

Then, in similar fashion, you choose A Need, An Object, and a Place.  Within minutes, you’re all debating what sorts of characters could fit these rough outlines, making them up on the spot.  It’s literally like writing a story from a prompt.

Then, you have to create a set number of Scenes to advance the plot of this sordid story.  The trick is, when your character has his scene, you can either determine how a scene starts, or determine how it ends – but whichever you leave fallow, the other players get to choose.  So you can say that you’re going to confront the mob bookie who has the goods on you, but if you choose that start then the other players will tell you how it ends up, usually determined halfway through the scene as you roleplay it with the other people and see how it ends up.

The dynamics are fascinating, particularly because half the scenes have to end well (i.e., your character gets what s/he wants) and half of them end badly.  So you have to juggle a way to keep the plot moving, and make it appear that things are going well, but are actually leading to a horrible end.

You do half the scenes, then roll The Tilt, which is the mid-point at which things go horribly wrong, consulting another table for the way things are going to unroll.  And then you play out the rest of the scenes, and act out the denouement.

Thing is, I like Fiasco because it’s very act-y, and very write-y, and totally interactive.  You’re all trying to tell a story together, so you share that common bond of “Fuck, we’ve written ourselves into a corner” followed by the thrill of “Oh my God, we know how to make this better!”  You’re tossing around ideas for how your characters could work, moving towards the end game.  And since there’s no authority to break ties, it all comes down to a collaborative effort that is kind of awesome in its effervescence.

In fact, I think Fiasco is so awesome I’m going to run it at ConFusion next weekend, in Detroit.  So if you’re interested, hit me up.  I’ll show you how this works, because it’s great.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Without getting into details, last night my older daughter got some very bad news – the kind of news where you stay up all night, staring at the ceiling, wondering about an uncertain future. She sat on our couch, numbly, while we tried to comfort her.

“Do you want to see a movie?”

“…no, I don’t think that would help.”

“Do you want to walk down by the docks?”


“Do you want to go hang with some of our friends, who are wise and may provide comfort?”


“You wanna hack up some orcs?”

Now, it must be said that I am not a naturally improvisational DM. Oh, I’ll roll with the punches once the game starts flying – but when it comes to roleplaying adventures, I can’t just do “So you meet at the inn” and then make up stuff on the fly.  So I ran downstairs and searched through my collection of RPGs to see what I had in terms of canned adventures that I could run my daughter through.

Mostly Call of Cthulhu.  Hrm.  Not the sort of one-shot you want to give to someone who’s down on life right now.

All right, said I, this will have to be in a world I’m familiar with.  So I flipped through the Planescape Monster Manuals until I found an appropriate monster to hunt (a Sword Spirit), then called my kid and my wife downstairs to take them back to the campaign I ran for five years: Sigil, heart of the multiverse, the Casablanca of the planes.

I handed her a character sheet for a character she’d played twice, tentatively, back when she was seventeen, a Harmonium officer/ninja called “Officer Sunshine.”  Gini stepped back into her role of Ardenal, rock-demon ninja.  And so began an elaborate campaign that involved the usual Sigilian assortment of phoenix egg-juggling thieves, baatezu weaponsmiths, the best book shop in the planes and a rain of illusionary halibut, a trip through the dregs of the Hive and a chance to save some impoverished souls from certain death from an exploding weapons cache, culminating in a climactic battle against a whirling tornado of magical weapons.

They defeated the Cuisinart using teamwork, Ardenal distracting it while Officer Sunshine made a called shot to the spirit in the center that powered it.  And two and a half hours later, it was done.

My daughter hugged me, smiling for the first time since she’d gotten the news.  And I thought: this is why roleplaying has endured.  I remember getting kicked around in middle school, the constant slaps and stings of bullies, failing my classes, feeling like a loser.  Yet when Bryan set up that DM screen and I became Delvin Goodheart, with my improbable loot in the form of a +5 vorpal sword and my Invulnerable Coat of Arnd, for a while I could wander around in someone else’s world and be a hero.

Last night, I managed that for someone who needed it.  And I all I could think was, “Play it forward, man, play it forward.”

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

GM RIDLEY SCOTT: So you’ve all been in cryosleep for two years now, on a mysterious mission to the stars.  Your bodies lie in capsules, tended to by -


SCOTT: What?

FASSBENDER: I’M A ROBOT OH BOY!  I never need to sleep.  I’m gonna spend the whole trip watching movies, and running around the ship, and playing X-Box… It’s so cool!  Wait!  Does the ship have a gym?

SCOTT: …I guess.

FASSBENDER: I’m gonna ride a bike and shoot hoops!  Because I’M A ROBOT!  How do I do when I shoot?  Huh?  Tell me how I did.  I bet I did awesome!!!!!

SCOTT (rolls some dice): Sure.  You get it through the net.

FASSBENDER: I do it again!  Look at these stats on my character sheet!  They’re through the roof!  Being a robot is awesome.  I bet you wish YOU guys were all robots…

CHARLIZE THERON (whispering to fellow player STRINGER BELL): Hey, am I a robot?  I can never make sense of these character sheets.

SCOTT: Okay, yeah, Fassbender, you make a lot of hoops.  Then the ship shudders to a stop and everyone wakes up.  Your bodies cry out for nutrients…

STRINGER BELL: I smoke a cigar and set up a Christmas tree.

SCOTT: …what?  This is an enclosed spaceship!  Where the hell did you get a Christmas tree?

STRINGER BELL: Right on my inventory sheet.  I come prepared.  You’ll also see I have three freeze-dried Chihuahuas, a can of shark repellent, a case full of silly string, and a tin full of Mexican jumping beans in my left pocket.

SCOTT: Okay.  You set up a Christmas tree.



SCOTT: So you all meet inside the gymnasium.


SCOTT: No, you do not.  You’ve never met these people before.  Now you have to introduce yourself.

SCARY TATTOOED GUY FIFIELD: Wait a minute, we’ve never met each other?  Weren’t we all in cryosleep on a multimillion dollar mission into space?  Didn’t we at least have some kind of pre-ship meeting?


FIFIELD: What, did they wheel us onto the ship in cryosleep?


SCOTT: See?  Mikey wheeled you all.  That’s how it works.  In space.

THERON: Christ, Ridley, it’s a roleplaying cliché if we all meet at the inn when the plot-coupon guy hands us an adventure… but at least that makes sense.  As adventurers, we’d be drinking at the Inn.  We didn’t take some techno-roofies and lay down in a vaccubed to be shanghaied seventy million lightyears into space, only THEN to be told what the fuck we’re up to.

SCOTT (grumbling): Like you girls know anything about roleplaying.  Girls don’t do anything.  They don’t even give birth in this campaign.


SCOTT: Nothing.  So you’re all at the Inn…. I mean the gym….


MILLBURN: Whafuck, there are DEAD ALIENS here in the compound?  That shit’s bad news.  I’m leaving.

THERON (facepalming): Millburn, you’re a biologist.  This is the first non-Earth biological structure you’ve ever laid eyes on.  This should be your holy fucking grail.  Why do you want to leave?

MILLBURN (waving character sheets): Look at this guy!  I’ve got no combat stats at all!  I’m toast in combat.

FIFIELD: Holy crap, you’re right.  Who the hell gave me 90% skill level in – what the hell is geology?

SCOTT (facepalming): The study of rocks.

FIFIELD: Why the hell would anyone wanna look at pebbles?  I wanted to bring weapons here!  I’m all bad-ass!  I have tattoos and a scraggly beard, and you’re telling me I’m not ju-jitsu expert, just the master of dirt?

MILLBURN: Yeah, screw this noise, let’s go back to the ship.  I’m not gonna get myself killed.

SCOTT: Fine.  You go back to the ship.

FIFIELD: So what’s happening there?

SCOTT: Nothing.  It’s the ship.  All the adventure’s over in the, you know, deeply alien complex I made this gigantic map of.

MILLBURN: You’re telling me there’s nothing to do back here?


MILLBURN: Shut UP, Mikey.  All right, fine.  We go back to the alien complex and wander around.

THERON (horrified): Do you… Want to tell anyone where you go?  Radio in?  So people know what happened to you after you left?

MILLBURN: Nah, we’re cool.



STRINGER BELL: So, you wanna have sex?

THERON: You know, I think this is what passes for character development in this game.  Why not.

FASSBENDER: THIS SLIME IS SO COOL.  What happens if I feed it to Holloway?

SCOTT: Wait a minute, you find the alien muck that you don’t know what it does, on the same ship with your ailing master who you’re programmed to protect at all costs, and you’re just going to… Feed it to someone?  In the hopes of what?

FASSBENDER: I’m a ROBOT, man! I don’t think human!

HOLLOWAY: Wait a minute, I don’t want to eat alien slime.


SCOTT: Yep.  He bamboozles you.  Down your hatch the alien slime goes.

HOLLOWAY:  What?  I don’t even get a save?

SCOTT: It was a very good roll.

HOLLOWAY: Oh, for Christ’s sake.  Charlize is right.  Hey, Noomi, you wanna have sex?

NOOMI RAPACE: Baby, let’s make character development all night long.


FIFIELD: GOD, this game’s boring.  So they went back to the ship and didn’t tell us?

THERON: You didn’t tell us where you went!

FIFIELD: At least you’re having sex.  If I’d known I could have had sex with you, I would have totally spammed that attack, if you get my drift.

MILLBURN: Okay, we found some more dead bodies, and there was some kind of blip over there, and so now what?

SCOTT:  It’s an abandoned alien complex.  It’s been dormant for two thousand years.  There’s not that much to do.

MILLBURN:  Fuck, man, throw us a bone.  Make a roll on the wandering monster table or something!

SCOTT: Fine.  Fine.  You want random fucking monsters?  Okay, a… A deadly alien snake rises from the muck.  It looks like a cobra, flaring its hood at you and swaying back and forth.


SCOTT: It eats you.

MILLBURN: Man, that is so UNFAIR.


SCOTT: All right, Noomi, that was some pretty amazing work.  You exit the autodoc, stomach stapled, alien extracted.  I totally thought you were hosed.

NOOMI: I find Mikey.  Fucking Mikey.

FASSBENDER: HI NOOMI!  YOU’RE AWESOME!  That was so cool, the whole “zip” and “snap” and “slurp” thing!

NOOMI: Now I’m going to kill you.


NOOMI: Because you just tried to kill me.  By implanting an alien baby inside of me.  I assume you’re either trying to destroy me personally, or are generating aliens as part of an elaborate biowarfare program.



FASSBENDER: I just wanted to see what would happen.  Dude, it’s cool, you’re alive, I’m alive, now let’s go meet a alien!  I found a frozen one.

NOOMI: …how did you wake it up?

FASSBENDER: I pressed a LOT of buttons.  They went beep!

NOOMI: What are you going to do when you meet the alien?

FASSBENDER: I’m going to tell it that my dad wants to lick it.  ‘CAUSE I’M A ROBOT.

NOOMI: This I gotta see.


SCOTT: So you kneel in front of Weyland, in service, and clasp his hand.

THERON: I’ll do what you want…. (pauses dramatically) …father.

(Entire group GROANS in anguish.)

FIFIELD: You really went there, Charlize?  Calling him Dad?

THERON: SOMEBODY has to roleplay here, you ass!

SCOTT: You shut up.  I think it’s cool.  Fine, Charlie, he’s your dad.

FIFIELD: 1979 just called, man.  It wants its plot twist back.

SCOTT: Will you shut your pie-hole?  You’re ruining my game!

FIFIELD: I’M ruining it?!?  Dude, I’ve been dead for an hour now!  I’m bored!  Way to DM, lameface.

SCOTT: What do you want me to do?  You fell in acid and DIED.  There’s not much to do after you’re dead.

FIFIELD: …what if I came back as an alien zombie, revengeous for blood, and attacked the ship?

SCOTT: That makes no sense.  On the other hand, I did stat all of these NPCs who I never gave names to.  Okay, fine, roll it up.


SCOTT: All right, Charlize and Noomi!  The alien ship is tumbling from the sky, landing on you.  It’s falling in a completely straight line.

NOOMI: I juke left.

THERON: So do I.


THERON: …what?

FASSBENDER: You’re probably a robot, too!  That’s how you find out!  I bet you run real super-fast, like a rocket, when your life is in danger!

THERON: But the ship will crush me.


THERON: …fine.  It’s not like I’m missing out on all the excellent plot twists if I die.  Ridley, what happens if I run in a straight line?

SCOTT: You get squished.



SCOTT: Okay, so the pilot and his two friends killed themselves out of boredom, Fifield and Millburn killed themselves out of boredom, and the only people left are Noomi, and -


SCOTT: Noomi, you wanna play again?

NOOMI: Can I stuff Mikey’s head in a bag so he shuts up?

SCOTT: God yes.

NOOMI: I’ll be here next week.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Thinking about gaming, I’m just sort of putting down some random rules I have as a GM that make for better play:

Make Sure Each Player Will Have Something To Do.  
Some of the most frustrating games I’ve been in were where I told the GM, “I want to play a sniper,” and all of the combat turned out to be in hallways, leaving all my skills to atrophy.

As a GM, I’d be loathe to let someone play a sniper – it’s the kind of role that invariably involves splitting the party, and it’s hard (not impossible, just hard) to come up with consistently interesting combat challenges for someone who works best from half a mile off.  But if you’re going to tell someone, “Okay, put all of your points into ranged attacks and a weapon with a slow reload skill,” then you owe it to them to put them in a situation where they’re often going to be useful.

It’s way better to veto a player’s choice than to get them all jazzed up for playing a ninja, only to discover this isn’t really a stealth game.  If you give someone a skill, make sure they have regular opportunities to use it.

Give Each Player A Clear and Unique Role.
There’s a reason the classic D&D party is a Fighter, a Mage, a Cleric, and a Thief.  It sounds good, having two sword-swingers around, but the danger of imbalance becomes clear very quickly.

See, if one of the swordsmen gets notably better at something (due to levelling up faster, or better weaponry, or better stat-whoring or whatever), then suddenly as a GM you have this situation where you’re stuck with one of two challenges:

* Make it challenging for the big tough guy, at which point the weaker character is helpless.
* Make it something the weaker guy can handle, at which point the big tough guy eats his lunch.

Plus, when you run into the inevitable “Ah ha!  This monster is invulnerable to swords!” then suddenly half your party’s sitting around with their thumb up their ass, completely helpless, which is frustrating.

This is not to say you can’t have multiple fighters – but have them serve different roles.  Maybe it’s Mace-Man and Sword-Woman.  Maybe it’s Crazy Barbarian and Nimble Fencer.  But find some way so that their roles in combat are different, and that they fight the enemy in very different ways.

Avoid The Roll-Fest.  
The most boring combats I’ve ever been in involved the times where I realized I had no other tactical choices but to keep attacking with my main weapon and hope I didn’t die before he ran out of hit points.  At which point the excitement of combat boiled down to this:

“I roll an 16.”
“You hit and do 8 damage.”
“I roll a 7.”
“You miss.”
“I roll a 14.”
“You hit and do 12 damage this round.”

That’s not roleplaying, that’s math.  What you want is to provide characters with multiple workable options in combat, where taunting the bear to draw its attention or trying to trip it into a pit or rolling a boulder onto it are all options.  Once your players realize that there’s precisely one way of doing damage, then it’s all about the dice.  And the dice are the most boring things about your game.

The best way you can avoid the roll-fest is to:

Treat The Environment As Another Enemy.  
DMs spend a lot of time statting their enemies, but with every session you should think of the terrain they’re fighting on as another potential villain.  Fighting on a flat plain with nothing in sight is not only visually dull, but it’s tactically barren.  When you’re in the arena, your only choice is to close in and fight.

So why not have them fight in a maze of steam-filled pipes, Empire Strikes Back-style?  How about fighting in the middle of an avalanche, or on a set of rocks teetering over a pit of lava?  One of the most memorable games I ever ran involved a castle that got teleported into the upper atmosphere, and the characters had to fight in free-fall as the hallway plummeted to the earth.

Always have something interesting at hand during combat – innocents to protect, things to grab in combat as impromptu weapons, places to hide, items to blow up.  The reason Raiders of the Lost Ark is so fucking awesome is because every action sequence follows this rule.  You do likewise.

Conversation Is Combat.
If you’re going to have NPCs talking to players, give them a goal to accomplish that they get in and get out on.  Hands-down, the most boring games I’ve been in were where the GM had dudes come in and ramble at us for an hour at a time while we tried to guide the conversation in the right direction, only to learn that there was really no point in running into this yahoo.

Which is not to say that conversations should be quick – you can have some really fun things going – but in combat, the villains have a clear goal: kill the intruders, drive them from their temple, escape with the foozle.  Your conversations should have a similar goal: get the PCs to help them, deliver a piece of much-needed gossip, try to seduce a player in five minutes or less.

Give them a clear goal so that you can have a sense of rhythm and ramping to each discussion.  Also see: The King’s Speech, which has some delightful fiery interplay between characters who want very different things in every scene.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.


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