DICE the Stacking

Unfortunately, every so often a game can fall flat. It may be a lack of player engagement, a bad system or a poorly prepared GM. Back in July I wrote in to HappyJacks RPG (season 22 episode 8) with a pseudo-horror story of GM mediocrity. That experience inspired my essential rules for con game prep (a topic for a follow-up post) but the discussion on the podcast has also inspired a mini-game!

My tale of bad GMing culminated peaked with the fact that I had spent much of the game building dice towers, going so far as to purposefully buy extra dice during the lunch break. Dave from MonkeyFun Studios took it upon himself to create a simple dice game that could be played at the table without disrupting the rest of the group. That game is DICE the Stacking and the simple rules can be found on the MonkeyFun website.

You can find MonkeyFun studios full range of games, such as Spirit of ’77 and Bedlam Hall, on their website and at drivethruRPG.

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RPGaDay August 13th

13th) Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I actually have a few examples for this one but I want to focus on one, which served to codify my opinions on running convention games. The UK Student Nationals is a convention that brings together student societies from across the country for a mix of RPGs, wargames, LARP and boardgames. I went a number of times but one in particular sticks in my head for how bad one of the games was.

The convention works in that you pick categories then play two long games, one each day with the same group but different GMs. You never quite know what you’re getting, the particular year in question I’d signed up for scifi and the Saturday game was a bit of a disaster. Not horror story dickish GM disaster but a sequence of small errors that just compounded one another. The game was close to six hours long, under half way through I was building dice towers and the only reason I didn’t walk out was because I was going to be playing with the same people the very next day.

The signs were there from the start, the GM was late (not too unusual given the combo of students and drinking) and hadn’t finished the character sheets. Not one. So there went 15-20 minutes as he filled in the missing details. In the end my character turned out to be a smuggler / con-artist, with 20+ skills to his name (the game was in Hero system, I’ve no idea if this many skills was normal).

The opening to the game wasn’t much better. We were on a space station (yay) in the middle of some galactic civil war but none of us knew each other (boo). There’s bombing and we all get rounded up as suspects. Ok I think, maybe this is the central plot, that we’re all innocent and have to escape so we can prove that fact. Nope, we’re quickly cleared of the charges and then asked to work together as security for a delegation aiming to negotiate a truce.

Seriously?

So we head off on this space ship as the security team, a group of characters that don’t know one another and who were recently suspects in a major attack. Then there’s a murder, a threat from an emerging AI and an attack by a splinter group who have embedded themselves in the ships crew. A trainwreck, but a couple of things quickly become clear. The first is that both the characters and the adventure were based on a previous campaign the GM had run and the second is that only one of the characters was going to be central to the plot, the rest of us were just along for the ride.

The real kicker though? From that long list of skills I used only three or four. Total. In around 6 hours of play.

That game really changed how I looked at convention play and the extra responsibilities GMs have when running games. One of these days I might write out the mental checklist I’ve put together for convention games, the aspects that I personally think are important.

Suffice to say that was the last time I played at the Nationals. Every subsequent year I attended I did so as a GM, fully prepped and determined to run as good a game as I could.

Planning for the Nationals: The Final Characters

Okay so I forgot to hit post on this on Friday before I left for the Nationals so ignore the ‘Hopefully the players enjoy these as much as I do’ as they all did and most of them wanted to keep their character sheet at the end of the game.

I’ve been posting up the progress and design of my character sheets for the Nationals over the last few weeks and the big event is now mere hours away (it’s Friday morning as I write this and this post should go up on Saturday while I’m away). As the final planning for the nationals post I feel its only appropriate that I post up the final artwork and character sheets my players will be receiving. I’ve always found that the character sheets are an often under appreciated component of convention games. A good convention sheet should be look good, contain enough detail for players to get into character and also have enough details on the mechanics that players can easily tell what their character is capable of. Finally any aspects of the system that are not being used during the scenario should also not be present on the character sheet, a section for spells for example is a wasted space if you’re not playing a mage. In taking this approach I therefore took the approach of dividing the pages up into mechanics, character and extras.

Mechanics became the main page, listing the attributes, skills, initiative and life points arranged around a small version of the character portrait. I chose to include the portrait on this page (in addition to a standalone A4 page) to serve as a visual reminder of the character given I expected this page to be the one players would have in front of them most of the time. This main page also include the names of the character, one male and one female so that each player can feel free to play any character rather than feel they are directed to play a particular gender.

The next section, character, came to two pages in all. The first was the aforementioned full page portrait, there to provide a visual representation of the character. I was lucky in being able to get a friend (Andrew Docherty of Imperious Press) to draw the characters and hopefully the players will enjoy them as much as I do. Personally I think the inclusion of the portraits elevates the sheets to another level and it is certainly something I will look at providing when I run convention games in the future. The second half of ‘character’ was the bio page, which included both a short biography in addition to the assets and complications which provide mechanical encouragement to stick to character. Finally are the extras, the pages which don’t fall into place easily. For most of the characters this was simply the equipment list and a space for players to make notes. For the mages in the party this also included a page listing their spells, each of what are unique to their style of casting.

So rather than ramble on further here’s the final portraits and sheets. In case any other Demon Hunters players happen across this then please note that the assets and complications have been rewritten especially for this scenario. The animate ability in particular has been extensively rewritten as previous experience has suggested the version in the core rulebook is significantly overpowered for its cost.

Blayze (character sheet)
Doyl (character sheet)

Dr Hatter (character sheet)
Rahul (character sheet)
Shrub (character sheet)
Stephanie (character sheet)

Planning for the Nationals: More Character Portraits

I’ve written already about my desire to present my players at this year’s nationals with a visual representation of their character. Today I received a complete set of drafts for the characters and while I should probably wait for the final versions before I post them I’m too excited to bother with that. So without much ado I present Chapter Tau 19 of the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch.

Planning for the Nationals: Character Sheets

As I’ve been putting together the characters for my upcoming Nationals game I’ve also been thinking about how to present the information to the players, especially given I expect most (if not all) of them to be new to Demon Hunters. In doing so I’ve tried to break down the sheets into segments, grouping together information based on their importance. The first page is a full scale image of the character, which will be attached to the front of the folder presented to the players. Second is the main character stats – Attributes and skills, separated by a smaller version of the character portrait. This page is the one I expect players to need to reference the most, while inclusion of the portrait allows them to keep that mental image in their head.

Third, the bio. This page is designed to provide the personality of the character, through use of a short bio in addition to their advantages and disadvantages. For Doyl and Blayze an additional sheet details their primary spells (5 each). Finally is the equipment and notes sheet, for you never know what extra equipment the players may wish to acquire during the course of the adventure. While they still need some work I’m fairly happy with the basic layout at the moment, the main aspect that still needs to be added is the wound / stun track and a system cheat sheet. The current draft template for Doyl can be access through the below link:

Character Sheet: Doyl Levett

Planning for the Nationals: Character Portraits

One of the components of my Nationals planning this year has been to commission a series of character portraits of the characters for my Demon Hunters game. While this has an obvious cost attached to it I felt that the characters for the game were unusual and wacky enough that the players would greatly benefit from the visuals. One of the PCs is, after all, a mystically animated plastic Christmas tree that also happens to be a ninja.

Today I received the draft image for the first character, Doyl the coffee mage. Being honest it was the character I was most worried about, not because he’s a difficult character to draw but because he is my PC on the few occasions I get to play Demon Hunters. Luckily for me the sketch has come out brilliantly, capturing the concept of Doyl perfectly. I’ll probably post up the rest of the characters once I get them but for now here’s Doyl:

doyl-draft

Planning for the Nationals: Character Design

I’ve a handful of games at conventions in the last few years and during that time I’ve slowly built up a set of guidelines that I attempt to follow when designing the player characters. What I’ve never done though is sit down and formalise that list, so I thought I’d do it here to aid in prepping for Nationals 2013.

  1. Character gender should be optional: I’ve been lucky during my gaming career to have avoided the stereotyped all male groups so having a mix of male and female characters is something I’ve come to expect. A lot of convention games achieve this by having a simple mix of male and female characters. The problem I have with this approach is that it still limits player choice, as the gender is then automatically associated with that particular skill set. Getting around this is simple, each character sheet has two names, one male and one female from which the player can then choose.
  2. Each character should have a unique specialisation: This is the guideline most commonly followed by GMs. Simply put each character should have a unique specialisation around which their abilities and skills are centred and which should come up during the game. This provides the opportunity for every character to shine, keeping the player involved and interested.
  3. Characters should have personality and background: During a convention game players are coming in blind so having a written background for each PC provides an immediate jumping point as to how to play that character. This is particularly important in games such as Cortex and Savage Worlds where playing to the background / personality defined through their advantages and disadvantages can have mechanical effects (such as earning plot points / bennies).
  4. The group should have a clear reason to be working together: Whether they’ve worked together in the past or are all breaking out of the same prison the PCs should have a clear reason as to why they’re together and more importantly why they would stay together for the duration of the adventure.
  5. Characters should be balanced: This is partially a personal ‘how I run’ aspect but is also an important factor to take into consideration when choosing advantages / disadvantages, feats, spells etc. Essentially this boils down to each character having an equal role to play within the adventure, with no one character being able to mechanically dominate the game. This is particularly important when considering abilities designed for campaign play. The Vampire advantage in Demon Hunters is a prime example of this. This advantage provides significant bonuses to strength, agility and toughness which are balanced out by the high chance of the character loosing control of their hunger and turning evil. In a campaign this ends up working out as the GM can frequently tempt the PC by placing them in situations where their willpower is challenged. A convention game, however, is a different story. Either the hunger is ignored during the game, leaving the vampire overpowered compared to the rest of the party or the temptation is introduced, risking the PC turning on the rest of the group part way through the session (likely ending in multiple PC deaths).
  6. Everybody should have combat options: This is going to be dependent upon the system but as a general rule every PC should have something they can be effective at during combat. A player with nothing to do during combat is likely to become disengaged and bored, each time this happens it will be harder to get them back on board once you drop out of combat. An important note here is that I don’t necessarily mean attack options, just an ability or skill that allows them to act and affect the flow of the action.

I’ll probably add to this list at a later date and as I become more experienced with convention games but I think the above is a good starting point to work from.