What Was I Thinking #1

Today’s offering is a guest post from a friend who I’ve asked to write about her experiences running a game for the first time. Its been so long for me, I wanted a fresh take on life behind the screen. She’ll be visiting us when she can… Enjoy.

What was I thinking? I mean… really?

So I’ve been doing the regular gaming thing for about a year and a half now, apart from a single disastrous session of Dungeons and Dragons during my sophomore year of college with my good friend Samantha. (Note to readers: Never try to reason with a dire wolf. It’s still a vicious, vicious animal.)

I have played Amber, 3.5 and 4th edition D&D, Battletech, and a number of other games that all come with their own very full, colorful worlds and strange mechanics with various levels of complexity. I have played characters that ranged from a tiny, red-headed chaos sorcerer with a cowardly dragon familiar, to a sociopathic troll that screams in Japanese and wields a deadly katana. In other words, without going into long-winded reminisces about my (better than yours) characters and the shenanigans that we got ourselves into, I’ve done the player thing, and felt like it was time I took the next step. I decided to take a stab at the game master thing.

I decided that, for my first game ever, I would run a Shadowrun campaign with players from RG’s (Rhetorical Gamer… Michael) old Shadowrun game. It’s probably my absolute favorite role-playing game (Amber just relies so much on a good group).

The world is exhilarating. There are dragons running cities and corporations. There are Corporations that run countries and organized crime families. There are troll mages with human twin sisters that build drones, drive tricked-out vans, antagonize elf-gangs and perform heists. The players experience magic wards, matrix manipulators, shape-shifters and cyber ware enhanced combat monsters that try to keep you from exacting justice, or just making a quick nuyen (money) in the future’s dark underbelly.

The mechanics are exhausting. I watched a game master and a player character do algebra for an hour once just to figure out the right amount of plastic explosive used to blow off a car tire. Combat rounds that last three seconds in the game world can take up to 45 minutes of real time. I have never seen anyone play a technomancer just because the GM’s have begged them not to. I played a rigger whose drones worked, basically, on sheer willpower and love because a whole gaming group could not really figure out how they worked. By the time we really understood it, the game was over.

My point is: Should I have picked a less rule-intensive game to run my first time around? I picked it because I was passionate about the game, knew a lot about the setting, and have seen two good game masters with very different styles run the system. I am (overly?) concerned, however, about my lack of quick-knowledge about the rules. As the game progresses, I guess I’ll find out.

Right now, my players have all played at least once, and built their characters with that experience. I’m both amazed and a little intimidated.

Questions I will be addressing soon based on experimentation:

-How much preparation is really necessary? Thinking about the paths the players could choose: Contacts, fights (you’d be surprised where players decide to pick a fight), random NPCs in bars and restaurants, etc. I will keep in mind that players will always find a way to do something that makes you face-palm or laugh out loud in incredulity.

– How much fudging will I actually do during a game? Rules and Rolling, Correctness over quickness, keeping players happy and having a good story vs. actually playing it out the way it should/would happen, etc.

-Does “mood music” add or detract from the gaming experience? Distracting? If not, what kind of music would be appropriate?

-How will my players affect the game pertaining to their level of role-play and knowledge of the mechanics? I really hope I answer this question with some really interesting anecdotes… actually maybe I don’t hope that so much.

I’ll be addressing many more questions and obstacles that I run into, and sometimes I’ll just discuss some of the unexpected, ridiculous things that I’m sure will happen. One session down and I have already been caught off-guard by my players.
Until then! Wish me luck!

-GM Lo


5 responses

  1. Game systems are merely tools for storytelling. There are some tools that very complicated and some that are not. While diverse worlds such as Shadow Run have an amazing appeal, there are two issues I have with such a system – unwieldy mechanics and gameplay balance.

    Your starting issues are going to be figuring out how everything works because there is a lot of ground to cover in terms of magic and technology. Your mid-point issues will be game balance after your players gain power, skills, or equipment. Like, how can I challenge the PCs after they have established themselves?

    It’s one of the reasons I really like Dungeons & Dragons 4th Ed because it lays out all the gameplay balance and mechanics in a very systematic fashion. I don’t have to worry too much about designing balanced encounters or treasure drops because the books help me create them. This allows me to focus more on story and roleplaying.

    My first campaign that I ran was “Fading Suns” which had a similar “all of the above” diversity and feel that Shadow Run has. And it was too unwieldy for me.

    The first “dramatic” game I ran was Cyberpunk but the gameplay balance got out of hand at the end point of the game because players had access to too much money and thus had too much power to throw around with no easy way of keeping the game balanced or challenging.

    The first real “storytelling” game that I would consider a success was D&D 3.0/3.5. The mechanics were still unwieldy, but I had an easier time balancing out combat and keeping things challenging because of how the rules limited player abilities.

    But nothing beats running Amber. However, it is completely reliant on gamemaster fiat.

  2. Personally, I would have picked something else to start with. I seem to recall having this conversation before, but perhaps some details were missing.

    I haven’t played Shadowrun, but I’ve read most of the core rules for the 4th edition and it seems to require an amount of preparation that makes me hesitate to run it as a reasonably experienced GM. As a new GM, you’re probably going to be overwhelmed.

    I suggest a system with less specific rules to start with. You mentioned DnD; I recommend either edition as simpler than Shadowrun. Also, though I don’t think you’ve played it, 2nd Ed. Warhammer Fantasy RPG is actually very simple to run. Dark Heresy is only slighyly more complicated than WFRPG, and what complications it adds are pretty straightforward.

    Regardless, I doubt you’re going to switch systems, so you’ll need to do something to mitigate Shadowrun’s complexity. You’ll need to work with the players to do no more work than you have to. Figure out what they can do, and what they want to do. If none of them can astrally project, then don’t bother preparing astral locations. If they want lots of violence and “shoot first” diplomacy, skip the stirring speech by the sympathetic villain. The goal is to cut the prep work down to the bare minimum. This is much easier if you know your players pretty well. If you’re a new GM with unfamiliar players, honestly, you should just start another game.

    You should try to learn the rules well enough that you do not need to look up common things (How you shoot someone, how initiative works, how you cast spells if there are magic PCs, how to heal, how social interaction works at a basic level). Once you have those down, focus on less common things that are specific to the PCs (the limitations of that one spell the mage always casts, what the martial artist can and cannot do while holding someone, etc).

    Also, keep in mind that if everything blows up in your face, it’s not the end of you GMing career. You’ll just need to juggle systems and players until you find a good match.

  3. Last weekend, I ran an 8-hour D&D 4th Ed campaign at paragon level just to see how it would run. After doing our first encounter, combat took 4 hours and we still had a long way to go to finish the story.

    I told the guys that I was scrapping the system in favor of the story. They were fine with it. We played loosely with the rules and just used the dice to add flavor to the outcomes.

    I will qualify this, however. This was a strong core group of roleplayers whose favor roleplaying experience was an Amber game I ran for them. They trust my fiat when it comes to gaming.

  4. I think the complexity of the system may have made it more difficult for your first time GMing, but a less complicated system will not solve the problem of trying to figure out mechanics. In 4th ed. D&D, even though it’s pretty straight forward, we still have taken over a half an hour discussing whether or not a move was legal – so mechanics will always have the potential of being game stoppers. This is how I’ve more or less tried to deal with it:
    * Learn the game mechanics as well as you can. It’s important that the GM knows the basics of combat, skill challenges, and whatever else. It’s not so important that you know from memory what the exact skill combination is needed for a particular challenge, but it is important that you generally know what could be needed and how to look up specifics quickly.
    * Make your players learn their characters well. Unless it’s a one-shot, there is no excuse for the players to not know how to play their character. You should know generally what they are capable of (which, as Paul points out, can help with generating game material), but you shouldn’t have to babysit them. Really, being able to trust your players that they can take care of their own characters helps a lot.
    * For mechanic disagreements – set a rule of discussing it for a set time (like 5 minutes), and then make the deciding call. Note it so you can look it up later, but for the current game, just keep playing. This prevents the game flow from completely halting. At the beginning of the next session, explain what the actual rules are, and continue playing.

    These suggestions really will depend on the gaming group. One-shots, games at conventions, or any situation where the group could be a set of strangers, it’s more important for the GM to know the game backwards and forwards. However, for a group of friends, who are in a long term campaign, the above works out well to keep the mechanics from interfering with the story.

  5. @Paolo

    I wouldn’t say that Amber is completely reliant on Gamemaster Fiat. If that were the case, we’d just ditch the book and tell each other stories, like Munchausen. I think, if anything, Amber is even more about the players. Heck, I rarely had to “prepare” for Amber sessions, because, since the PCs could do practically anything, what was the point? I think of Amber as being the Most-Player-Driven RPG I’ve ever experienced, from both sides of the GM screen.


    Very good points. I would suggest though, for cons and one-shots, knowing the game backwards and forwards is good, but also, being able to make a call and stand by it is just as important. Be consistent and keep the game flowing would be my advice for a convention game.


    Thanks for the guest post. I’ll be setting you up as an author so you can drop by again. I know your game is on hiatus for two weeks, so, I’ll expect to hear from you when it’s up and running again.

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