#RPGaDay2019 14th August: ‘Guide’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 14: Guide

I always try and let my players guide the flow of the game but that doesn’t mean I don’t do session prep. Most of the games that I play are structured around objectives so I use those as guideposts, if I know the Jewel of the Ancients is being kept at the governors mansion I think about the obstacles that surround it but I try not to assume the approach that the players will take. Perhaps the most valuable skill I’ve learned is a willingness to throw away prep when a game unfolds in a way I hadn’t expected. Its rare that I have to throw away an entire adventure premise but I’ll regularly end up improvising entire sessions because the players latched on to an unexpected angle.

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A tale of how not to run a con game

Back in July, I sent an email into Happy Jacks RPG podcast (read on Season 22, episode 08) concerning a convention game of pure mediocrity that I had played in a number of years ago. That game opened my eyes to how not to run a con game, so much so that I have a set of rules I try to follow each and every time I am in that position. As I still haven’t gotten around to writing up the full list I thought I would instead share the email that I sent in.

Greetings Jackers,

Craig ( whodo on the forums) from the UK here. After the recent emails about bad con games, I want to share my own pseudo-horror story, which has become my go-to example of how not to run a con game. I say pseudo-horror story only because it can’t really compare to some of the ones you’ve received in the past, the GM didn’t seem like a bad person just a bad GM and not from a lack of experience. Before I dive in some context – During my time at uni, I was a regular attendee of the Student Nationals convention, which brings together university gaming societies from across the country for a weekend of drinking, gaming, chaos and some more drinking. The format is a little unusual, rather than signing up for specific games you sign up for a category and over the weekend play 2 long form games, one per day typically lasting around 6 hours. You also play with the same group on both days but switch GMs, which was the only reason I didn’t just up and leave.

So there we were the Saturday morning of the event. I’d ended up in the sci-fi category, our group had found the room we’d be in for the next two days and we were waiting for our GM to show up. 10 minutes go by, it’s clear he’s running late, which isn’t too unusual given its mostly students. 15 minutes, 20… before he finally arrives carrying a stack of Hero books and character sheets. He sits down, introduces himself… and promptly ignores us for the next 10 minutes as he finishes off the character sheets! Going forward this would form the core of my ‘how to run a con game’ mantra:

Rule 0: Do your fucking prep

I’m going to repeat myself here. Do. Your. Fucking. Prep! I don’t believe in a no-prep game, even if you’re running the most rules light improv game there is then you can prep. Read the rules, know how to set up and explain the game. Know how the central mechanic works! That’s prep. With a game like Hero finishing the character sheets is most definitely prep and not something that should be done at the table unless you’re giving the players a chance to customise characters (which he didn’t).

So we’re 30 minutes or so in before we even get to see the characters. It’s a Traveller-esque space opera setting, there’s an uprising on some of the planets and we’re all on a giant space station somewhere near the edge of the combat zone. The characters are pretty typical for the genre and I go for the one described as an underworld smuggler, thinking I can put a Lando type spin on him.

I look down at the character sheet and find that I have around thirty individual skills. I look at the GM confused. He’s busy going over something with somebody else. I look back at the sheet. I have close to thirty skills and almost all of them are a 1 or a 2. As far as I can tell I am the definition of Jack of all trades, master of none. Already running late I didn’t quibble, I’ve never played Hero before so maybe this is ok? (Seriously, was this OK? To this day I have never worked out whether the character was actually viable in the system).

Characters picked we finally start play. We’re all on the station (yay!) but we don’t know each other (boo!) and then… EXPLOSION! Somebody set us up the bomb! Maybe this is the plot, having to escape a dying space station as it… Nope. The station is ok but we’ve all been arrested as potential suspects. Ok, maybe the plot is escaping and clearing… No again. We’re quickly cleared of suspicion by a generic NPC and then in a surprising only because it’s stupid twist… hired as security for a top-secret mission. We learn from NPC exposition the bomb was intended for a delegate on one side of the uprising who was passing through the station on the way to peace talks. Therefore, as complete outsiders who were almost killed by the explosion, we’re obviously both trustworthy and competent enough to be the new security as the original team are all dead.

What the actual fuck?

Which brings us to:

Rule 1: Unless you have a plot-relevant reason have the PCs already know one another.

Seriously, we’ve all been there. You meet at a tavern, accept a job from a mysterious stranger despite not knowing one another and go on an epic quest only to be stabbed in the back by the douche who is “just playing their alignment.” It’s a cliche that needs to die in a fire. Just have the characters know one another from the outset. Have bonds between them that explain why they trust one another and aren’t waiting for the knife in the back.

I won’t bore you with the actual plot, in part because I zoned out so much of the game that I can barely remember it. Suffice to say it made little sense, there was the inevitable attack by separatists who just happened to comprise half the crew of the ship the delegate (and thus we) were travelling on. Then there was a religious cult and finally, an emergent AI which only one character could actually interact with. My jack of all trades smuggler, well of the 30 odd skills I had I think I ended up using no more than 5 over the course of the session and most of the time that was in a supporting role, hence:

Rule 2: Give each PC opportunities to shine

Another no-brainer here but if there isn’t an opportunity for each character to be in the spotlight then why are they there? A good con game should be filled with opportunities for each character to do their thing and have an impact on the course of the plot. This game didn’t but as the hours wore on we learned that the GM loved the characters and their previous adventures. Their numerous previous adventures. It transpired that each of the characters was lifted directly from his long-term campaign, that had been running for multiple years and that the events of this game were the compressed highlights of that very campaign, which provides an instant and easy…

Rule 3: The con game is not your campaign

I don’t care how cool your campaign was or how amazing it was when character x finally got retribution on big bad y, the con game is not your campaign. Now don’t get me wrong, one can inspire the other but if you, the GM, can’t separate the two and let them take divergent paths then stop and do something original. I, the con player, have no nostalgia for something I wasn’t a part of and won’t appreciate the jumbled up mess of a plot made up of supposedly awesome moments. Go back to rule 0, do your prep and actually plan out a coherent one shot.

Now based upon all that my final rule will come as no surprise:

Rule 4: Pay attention to your players engagement

Seriously, it’s not hard to see if people are actually paying attention. Are they contributing and asking questions? Are they playing on their phone or, as I was for most of this game, building dice towers? I was so unengaged with the adventure that during our lunch break I went out and bought extra dice from the trade hall so I could build more stacks. Should I have tried to re-engage with the GM and his story? Probably, but by that point, I’d checked out and just didn’t give a fuck while the GM was either oblivious or just didn’t care.

So that’s the basis of my do’s and don’ts for con games. I’ve added a few more since then, such as all characters should have female, male, neutral and blank options for names. The few times I attended the Nationals after it was always as a GM and I hope I never ran a game that was that mediocre. So maybe something good did come from that game, just a shame it wasn’t a fun lesson to actually learn.

Fall of the Immortals: Room for Improvement

We’re now four sessions into our D&D campaign Fall of the Immortals and it’s shaping up quite nicely. The PCs have reached level 2, the players are beginning to find their feet and we’re slowly establishing the details of the world in an approach that is somewhere between traditional D&D and the PBTA trappings of Dungeon World. I’m making an active attempt to ask the players to define details without overwhelming them.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the screen and based on our most recent session one of mine is that I need to improvise less. This seems counter-intuitive in many ways as my progress as a GM over the last few years has been squarely towards improvisation. Going into our last session my concrete notes were little more than

PCs infiltrate noble party looking for the scroll. Upper echelons of gnome society; modron like mechanical creatures used as guards.

However, when it came to running the session I felt that while I was able to introduce scenes I felt like they lacked depth and that the connecting elements were paper thin. I had little sense of how the mansion was designed, of who the host was or of how the PCs might uncover the whereabouts of the scroll. When the PCs chanced upon an interesting location, such as the library where monodrones were loading and unloading books from cages that were slowly rumbling past, I then failed to provide proper context. The PCs decided to follow the cages of books, which led them to a room where dozens of shackled scribes were working away furiously on… something. My mind was blank, I just couldn’t think of a good explanation for them existing beyond trying to explain elements of the previous scene.

Fortunately, the PCs didn’t dig too deep and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players hadn’t picked up on my troubles but even so it is bothering me. The solution is likely that I need to prep more, taking those few sentences of notes and expanding them slightly. For example, going into the last session I knew the PCs were infiltrating the party so a few notes on the mansion would have helped. I knew they were after the scroll so I could have made notes on where it is and what might be protecting it. I’m never going to go the way of full on adventure paths, with every detail described in advance. I have neither the time or the inclination to put that much restricting prep in. But some more prep would have been invaluable without preventing the addition of elements on the fly.

Putting it all together: My gaming kit

This post was originally posted over at Nearly Enough Dice.

As you’ve probably realised the various contributors to Nearly Enough Dice love gaming accessories and a number of the products we’ve reviewed for the podcast now form the core of what constitutes my gaming kit. With that in mind I thought I’d share my approach and invite the readers to chip in their suggestions or ideas.

The General Kit

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For Science!

At the core of any gaming kit is (IMHO) one thing, dice and like most gamers I have collected a considerable number over the years. When I’m playing, however, most of those dice are unused. In an attempt to streamline my kit I’ve, therefore, cut down the number I carry to 4 polyhedral sets which covers me most games and can be rapidly altered should I join a game that requires more of a particular type.

But what to carry them in? How about an All Rolled Up (ARU), which Liz reviewed recently for the podcast? Having just purchased the one pictured I can also now attest to both the quality of the product and the service (I ordered Monday afternoon and received it on the Thursday).

As well as dice my ARU stores a number of other important parts of my gaming kit. First up are pens, a basic component that people forget on a regular basis. Second is my noteboard, another recent purchase and which Liz reviewed for the podcast (and Mike put to good use for the War of the Dragons game). Although the noteboard really falls into the GM kit category it’s simply far too useful an item for me to leave out so it’s got a semi-permanent place in my ARU. Finally to round out my players kit is a selection of extra whiteboard markers in multiple colours, there just in case the noteboard gets used.

My basic gaming kit
My basic gaming kit

The GM Kit

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Hiding in plain sight

The basis for my GMing kit is, unsurprisingly, that of my player kit but with some notable differences. First is more dice, because it’s apparently up to the GM to have spare in case players forget their own. If required I then add in my GM screen. I’ve tried multiple system specific screens but these days I default to the Savage Worlds Customisable Screen (see my review for more information). The ability to add to or alter the panels as required makes this screen indispensable, I find it particularly useful for tracking characters disadvantages so I have a ready list of hooks I can tap during the session.

Most of the other additions are system specific, poker chip tokens or a deck of cards are added as needed, stored in my ARU or dice bag in order to keep it all together.The final essential component of my GM kit is my moleskin notebook. Between games it lives in whatever bag I’m using that day so I can jot ideas down at a moments notice, which often turns out to be on the train during my commute to work. While I’ve tried digital approaches such as Evernote my approach to note taking is too haphazard for a digital approach, mostly due to my frequent use of multi-directional connections and non-sequitur notes.

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All together now.

The Online Kit

Obviously the vast majority of this kit is only of use when playing together as a group in a single location. Online gaming is, however, a growing market and probably accounts for half of the games I’ve played in the last year. Three websites really provide me with all I need on that front, Google Plus, Roll 20 and Obsidian Portal. Google Plus, combined with Roll 20 provides both the table around which players assemble and the tools such as dice roller, initiative tracker and battle map for playing on. The quality of the Google Plus video hangouts astounds me each and every time, sure lag is an occasional problem but thanks to it I’ve been able to join regular games with players spread throughout the globe. Between games Obsidian Portal serves as a centralised location to store notes and game progress in a convenient wiki format which is currently undergoing a redesign. While an extremely powerful tool I’ve found that the majority of use is by the GM and it predominantly falls into a planning tool and place to keep notes that can be revealed to players as they experience the world.

So there you have it, the basic kit that I make use of on a regular basis and a question for the listeners / readers, how do you do things? Am I over prepared or maybe missing out that one item you consider indispensable to gaming?

Disclaimer: This is not a product placement post, I purchased each of the items described here and none were received for the purpose of a review. I merely happen to think that they’re all awesome.