Category Archives: Game Mastering

The Not-So-Scary Carnival

Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.

But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?

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Ruminations on Amber, Gaming, and other Stuff.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.

I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.

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Coming to Theory: A few thoughts

I am often skeptical of “theory” when it comes to gaming. While I agree that there is an art and a science to running a good game, the variety of what constitutes a good game and the ways to achieve that seem to be far more rooted in individual preference and group-based communication principles than game design…

That said, I am also fascinated by the variety of games in existence and the attempts to parse out the endless variety of “what happens at the table” into thoughtful mechanics. While I sometimes struggle with some of the more radical approaches to “story game,” I also find many of these creations to be overwhelmingly awesome in terms of what they are trying to accomplish.

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Interesting Times – The Campaign Newsletter

Around the year 2000, my girlfriend was going away for the summer. In order to stay in touch, I planned to write her a series of letter-style short stories which would seem to come from a fantasy world based on the city we lived in and its surrounding areas. I only did a few of those – but the planning for that project led directly to the creation of my longest-lasting homebrew world, Irona, which became the setting for my 3rd edition D&D games and later was adapted to work with Warhammer Fantasy RPG, second edition, 4th edition D&D, and even Barbarians of Lemuria as I tried out all of those systems.

Over the last 14 years, Irona has grown and changed quite a bit. I’ve tinkered, jiggered, added in suggestions from players, built histories and delved back into the past. Ultimately, it’s become a big place with a lot of information written about it.

As I started my 5th Edition D&D game, I went back to Irona and my creations there. I decided that I was going to start over – in a way – and begin the game with the same timeline and set up which originally shaped that first 3rd edition campaign. After all, only one of my players had ever played in Irona before – this is an almost entirely new group with no history or connection to this world.

And as that presented a problem of its own, I dug into my DM toolbox and pulled out another old tool I hadn’t used in a long time – the Campaign Newsletter – an information sharing technique I’ve used with several games before and that I find very helpful. I thought I’d take a minute to explore my way of structuring one of these, show an example, and offer my insights about what works and what doesn’t. I’d also love to hear anything any of you are doing in a similar manner.

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Blind Difficulties and Hidden Trouble

I’ve been tinkering with Fantasy Flight’s newest takes on the Star Wars RPG quite a bit lately, transitioning from Edge of the Empire to Age of Rebellion with a group that ranges from fairly new roleplayers to old hands. We’ve been having fun and despite a few oddities, the game is well put together and fun to play. One of those quirks came up recently and I’ve been running over it in my mind a lot trying to think through my feelings on the issue. The issue of course is blind difficulties.

To try and explain what I mean, let me set the scene of what happened in game. So I was using an idea from an old SW adventure as a starting point for my new game and this involved a droid that the party meets who is in the employ of a really impressive slicer. The party’s computer expert (who is really good) wanted to check into transmissions being sent by the droid but these transmissions are being overseen by the droid’s employer (the slicer). So it’s an opposed roll. And I didn’t consider when planning things out that I was going to come to that moment when the PC looked at me and said that they wanted to check this out and I had to assign them a difficulty pool.

Of course, the whole point is that the droid is undercover so by assigning this huge difficulty pool (5 difficulty with 4 challenge dice), the party learns exactly what the computer skill of their opposition is. More than that, they learn – no matter what else happens – that the droid is definitely not what he seems. Not that they suspect it, they know it.

Admittedly, only the players know, not necessarily their characters, but it’s no longer a point of suspense or conflict – it’s clear knowledge.

And with this roll, I realized that in this system it is nearly impossible to “keep secrets.” This was such an odd moment for me that I actually did something I’m usually loathe to do and paused the game to discuss and consider the issue with my players.

We kicked around a few ideas – that the GM just make the difficulty pool and roll it “behind the screen” – and compared it to other games such that, “hey, I rolled a 30 and still failed, there must be something going on!” This was good brainstorming, and I’ve considered these ideas more fully since then but honestly, it’s still a difficult piece of design to navigate. Sure, in a game like a d20 system rpg, a roll like the one mentioned above does make a difference – but the player is still in the dark about the bits “under the hood” of that difficulty check. Why a 30 failed is a different question than, “why does this robot have a 5/4 stat/skill split when that doesn’t jive with his story at all?” It’s a different level of information being presented in a very straightforward manner. The other idea about hiding rolls is untenable as well – as the game engine is so built around the very transparent nature of dice pools and the resultant narrative-shaping symbols.

Information is powerful and shapes decision-making even when we try to ignore it. More importantly than metagaming, this type of information creates a situation where very straightforward revelations are made that do not exist in other aspects of the game. Combat, for example, uses standardized difficulties with upgrades for NPC qualities like “Adversary” but as my group has learned, combat is another quirky bit of the game where the margin between the PCs winning easily and the NPCs wiping the floor with them is very swingy. Even so, combat still contains surprises because even though you might suddenly learn who is a nemesis versus a rival… you probably already had some indication of that going into the fight from other in-game information that had little to do with stats. This same issue exists with any area of the game that could benefit from “hidden information” from Stealth rolls to Social Interaction rolls.

Of course, my last paragraph suggested a possible “halfway” solution to this. It is possible that I could just come up with a system of standardized difficulties – such as with combat – and then upgrade the dice (or use setback dice) as modifiers based on the opposition. While this still reveals the caliber of opposition, it is less directly revealing than providing the opposition’s dice pool exactly. So, creating a talent similar to Adversary for different types of NPC actions such as awareness or slicing, etc. It’s a step but not necessarily a solution.

I’d love to hear any thoughts about FF’s Star Wars games, the idea of blind difficulties, or navigating this terrain in game. I think my follow up post to this one will discuss how I let the PC’s set their own difficulties on a recent occasion and how ridiculous space flight is in this game. But all that is still to come.

As always, thanks for reading and comments are welcome.

Time and Expectation in RPGs

This is a post about expectations and the interaction of reality and fantasy at the table. I don’t want to bog myself down thinking too much about the extremes of reality in games where people can throw fireballs and routinely get attacked by undead creatures. Overall, that dichotomy doesn’t bother me too much, I genuinely enjoy fantasy. But I’ve noticed that certain expectations are dictated as much mechanically as they are narratively, and the interactions are sometimes jarring for me.

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Villains and Plots

I wrote a while back about the way I like to GM. Read it if you like but here’s the short version – I like to be a reactive GM. I prefer when my players take control of the campaign and I just have to occasionally give them a little push. And I really enjoy winging it. I’m a big fan of just improvising whole sessions and seeing what happens.

But I got into a conversation about railroading again the other day (I really hate those conversations – so unproductive) but in this case it wasn’t just about railroading it was about villains. It started with Caine. It always starts with Caine – stupid Amberite.

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Somebody **** on the Coats!

I know he’s not as fashionable now as he was a few years ago, but there was a time when people were listening to Dane Cook. One of his skits rambled out of my ipod the other day as I was driving around and I realized that it was a really accurate depiction of how I GM. Well, it was an accurate depiction of how I GM when I feel like I’m doing it well… No, when I’m doing it the way I really want to be doing it.

Dane tells this joke about going to a party and going into the ruum (it’s just how he says room, I guess) where everyone is stashing their coats and just taking a dump on the pile. The joke is – that at some point – someone is going to wander out of the coat room and announce…

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Everything Is an Argument

When I was teaching writing a few years ago, we would get approached by vendors from various publishers – hoping that we would adopt their book for our classroom use. One such book that I got a sample copy of and used a few times was titled, Everything’s an Argument. The fundamental idea is that everything is persuasive. Students were exposed to the idea that they were surrounded by argument in their lives and attempted to prepare them to not only analyze arguments but to write their own effective arguments.

While I find some value in that approach, I find that overall I’m uncomfortable framing the world with the idea that everything is an argument. I mention this mainly because I think one of the things I find myself disappointed with in most of the conversations I read about gaming these days is the idea that the players and the gamemaster are in an argument-space when they are playing. Even if not specifically adversarial I get the sense that the belief is that the players and GM are in some form of opposing alignment. And I think that is a fair characterization of many games but I would propose a different perspective.

Everything is a conversation.

I know, before you ask, that I am splitting hairs. Sometimes the players and GM are going to work to persuade one another (and I’m completely okay with that) but I find that shifting the basic premise from persuasive argument to collaborative conversation is a small rhetorical shift which potentially pays big dividends. Characterizing the interaction as collaborative conversation – if everyone is willing to go in on that together – has often been enough to improve my gaming experiences.

Here at the Rhetorical Gamer I’ve made little secret of my love of the Amber Diceless RPG. Amber and 2e D&D are the games where I truly cut my teeth as a gamer. 2e D&D taught me a lot, but Amber taught me how to really be a GM. I didn’t have to supply adventure, didn’t have to worry about playing “DMPCs,” or feel like I was working at cross purposes with my players. Amber taught me to relax and just embrace the flow of the game. I learned how – or perhaps taught myself – to just be a part of the game at the table beside my players while still existing in a space where I was able to help them shape the game, adjudicate their encounters, and set stages as needed. Usually, in Amber, I was the most comfortable I ever am when running a game.

Because the game is a conversation. The rules are so light but so useful that I can improvise anything I need to. More than that though, the game creates an incredible space for just diving headfirst into the play experience without pulling up short. I am able to embrace the spirit of conversation with my players.

And while I don’t want to speak ill of rules-heavy systems – I am a very happy Pathfinder player – I can say with confidence that one of my favorite things about the old school spirit of Adventurer Conqueror King System has been the fact that I feel that same freedom to embrace the play experience and just immerse myself in the conversation of the game. When I was running 3.5 and 4e D&D I often felt constricted – like if I didn’t know the rules inside and out I was somehow letting my players down. But have you seen the Pathfinder rulebook? It’s hefty. And I know that my attitude about the game is my problem. But it’s a fair cop to say that Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, reward player skill in the form of system mastery over other values.

I find that small shift in perspective also makes a significant difference at the table. It changes and shapes the conversation at the table. And that’s a fair trade-off if that is the gaming experience you want. I try to embrace the spirit of conversation even when running a rules-heavy game but it’s harder. The weight of the rules tends to overshadow things and the desire to create argument tends to creep back in.

As I write this I understand (and kind of discover) how counter-intuitive this seems. It would seem to follow that a tight, comprehensive rule set would discourage argument more than a loose, interpretive rule set. But I find that my players relax more too when the rules are more open. No one is quite as tense to make sure that we are “doing it right” or taking advantage of every corner of the rules. Trust between players and GM is one of the hallmarks (perhaps the most important) of a good game in my mind. Framing the game as a conversation really makes that so much easier.

This attitude is also why I can’t frequent gaming forums anymore. The contentious nature of most boards is painful to observe. I have to wonder if those people are even having fun at their home tables. If they are, good for them.

But I suppose for me the game only really works when I work to remove the sense that Everything is an Argument and re-frame the table space as an ongoing conversation larger than one session, one fight, or one character.

Thanks for reading.

GM Constraints… Wait, WTF?

I’ve been chewing on writing this post for about a week now. I feel like a spend a lot of words/energy talking about why the GM/DM/Judge is significantly, uniquely important to the experience of a role-playing game as opposed to the experience of any other game. I feel like it’s one of those weird intersections of the gaming populous that leaves me thinking that – to me – it feels self-evident but clearly it isn’t.

This rumination started with reading Rob Donoghue’s post, GM Constraints which is focused on FATE games but it led me to a weird place. I’ll admit, when I see a post with the title, GM Constraints, it’s almost irresistible bait for me. I’m only a little ashamed of that. Ultimately though, his post didn’t rile me up and get my nerd-rage flowing. It just confused me.

Of course, I admit freely that I don’t understand the appeal of FATE games anyway (that’s a lie – I understand their appeal at a cognitive level, I just don’t really see the payoff). It’s possible that my overall confusion stems from that fundamental disconnect but I don’t think so. I’m going to put two statements out there…

    1. GM constraints don’t make a game better.
    2. That said, the best GM constraint is the players.

Here’s where my confusion starts with the post:

I have been chewing a bit on the mechanization of GM restrictions. Often they take the form of things that the GM cannot do, but such restrictions are usually designed to curb abuses. While that’s admirable, it often has elements of fighting the last war, which feels wasteful.

But what if you begin from a position of high GM trust? It’s the position I like to take – I am happy to empower any GM who is good enough to know when not to use that power.

Do you see my confusion? Beginning from a position of high GM trust. Connect this next statement to my above statements:

    3. If the players don’t trust the GM, the game has already failed.

If you don’t trust your GM, why are you playing with him/her?

The rest of the post goes on to discuss creating a set of mechanized GM choices which restrict the available actions to attempt to push some different kind of creativity out of the GM which he or she might not be able to achieve in a completely freeform environment. While I’m all for thought experiments, I find the entire concept of mechanizing “gamey” restrictions to be an odd choice for trying to make a better RPG experience.

He continues,

The trick, of course, is to make the direction useful. If it’s merely random, then it’s likely to produce random results. The constraint needs to be something that moves play in rewarding directions. This is, on paper, what a GM is often trying to do when “railroading” players, but in that case it is based on the GM’s decision to trust her sensibilities over the organic direction of play.

I’m not entirely certain that I agree with his definition of “railroading” in the above paragraph but that is a word I think we – as a community – have used so poorly and so often in our anti-GM rants that it has lost all useful meaning. Railroading is another of those intersections of ideas in our culture that seems to have taken on a magical life of its own that ignores the necessary role of the GM as gentle director of the action. A GM can railroad as effectively by simply describing a scene a certain way as they can by only putting one door in every dungeon room. I didn’t even use sarcastic quotes when I wrote that… be proud of me.

The point I’m dancing around here is that the GM is not the most important player of the game at the table but he/she is the one that the other players place the most trust in. Everyone is working together to make the game good (one assumes) but the GM is burdened with everyone else’s fun along with assuring their own. And as someone who is the GM for 90% of my gaming experiences, I can say that there is a skill to it. You practice making the little tricks and nonsense work to ensure that everyone (including you) gets to have fun. But that also comes with the group as a whole agreeing that the GM gets a little more latitude than everyone else because you know, it’s necessary.

Forcing the GM to work toward some arbitrary (even if well-defined) end creates far more problems than a GM forcing the hands of the players. Sure, it might be fun for the GM to take on a challenge like this in a specific, limited context once in a blue moon but it probably only works well if it is kept from the players.

In the post he comments on the difference between the GM acting based on some imposed order of action vs. simply trusting his or her own sensibilities. For me, that’s precisely the wrong tack to take. What we need to be teaching our GMs to do is be better at using their sensibilities and interacting with their players to protect the organic growth of the game while also preserving the unique nature of the RPG experience which is only truly achieved when the GM is unfettered. That’s why I’ve devoted so much of my life to playing these games versus any other hobby I could have picked up… because they are unique experiences, and the role of the GM is the most interesting innovation of RPGs.

Just my two cents.