RPG a Day: Day 22

Supposedly random events that keep recurring in your game?

Once again I turn to our Night Witches campaign.

Throughout the whole of the campaign, our missions were almost always flawless – we hit the target every time, did damage to it every time, and mostly came home in one piece with few injuries or lost aircraft.

On the other hand, our daytime hi-jinx were generally disastrous.  Snake eyes were common and failure almost always accompanied our every effort.  We weren’t any worse at daytime stuff than we were at nighttime stuff, but all our good rolls came up on the missions, and all our bad rolls came up on the daylight activities.  Our unit suffered more harm from us trying to acquire supplies and spare parts than it ever did from the Hitlerites.

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RPG a Day: Day 21

Funniest misinterpretation of a rule by your group?

I don’t know if this constitutes a misinterpretation of the rules, but it certainly constitutes a lapse in attention by the GM.  And it’s funny.

We were playing Blue Planet, 2nd ed.  My character was Bob, a beluga whale.  In Blue Planet cetaceans like Bob interacted with dry land situations via remotes – vehicles that were linked to the user via computer interface.  At character creation I had duly used the rules to construct a few remotes for my character – one for observation, one for stealth intrusion, and one for combat.  The combat drone had an automatic shotgun mounted in a turret.  I passed the information to the GM, who glanced at it and told me they were fine.

One of the other characters got kidnapped by the Poseidon mafia equivalent, and Bob sent the combat remote to rescue him.  Since the combat remote had speakers and such on it, I figured that I would be negotiating, but my other remotes were fragile, expensive, and unarmed and I didn’t want them shot to pieces and me left with a big bill and wrecked remotes.

The remote got to the building where the character was being held, and I contacted the mafia guys to negotiate.

They told me to come into the building and take the elevator to the top floor.

I thought to myself “Man, these guys are confident.  I mean, the GM looked at my combat remote, and he knows that there is an automatic shotgun on the top.  I told him that I was taking my combat remote, not one of the other ones.  These guys must be loaded for bear.”

So in the remote went and up the elevator to the top floor.  It wasn’t jammed or disabled, and nobody took a crowbar to the shotgun turret.  At the top floor, I received instructions to go down the hall to a specific room number.  Which I did, still expecting trouble or threats, or something.

Once in front of the appropriate door, it was opened from the inside and I was ordered to enter.  The GM told me that inside the room there were three no-neck thugs with heavy pistols guarding the kidnapped character, who was tied to a chair.

Before they could even make threats, I opened up with my automatic shotgun and sprayed them all over the walls (and yes, I hit my companion too, but I wasn’t worried – he was built like a battleship and had subcutaneous armor or something – besides, Player Characters are always tougher than mooks – it’s one of the rules of gaming, amiright?).

The GM was incredulous, and initially resistant, but to his credit after reviewing the remote I had submitted and admitting to not having looked at it carefully, accepted responsibility for letting a heavily armed remote into a room full of mooks, and let the action stand.  Needless to say we were now in more trouble with the Poseidon mafia, but that was OK.

As a bonus, I should mention that the Blue Planet rules also allow cetaceans to do two things at once, due to the more autonomous nature of the two lobes of their brains.  So while all this was happening, Bob was hanging out in a cetacean bar having sex play with a dolphin.

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RPG a Day: Day 20

Most challenging but rewarding system you have learned?

Two games spring to mind:  Hillfolk and various Powered by the Apocalypse games.  Both were challenging for the same reason – they require the GM to give up some of the control normally associated with the position.

In Hillfolk I, as GM, have to take a turn in framing a scene just like all the other players at the table.  In Powered by the Apocolypse game I have a role even more limited in many ways because I can only respond to what the players are doing, and can act decisively only when they fail a roll, which is unpredictable.  In both cases the effect is roughly the same – I need to throw away the idea of a set-piece confrontation or difficulty, and come up with a lot more content on the fly.

In Hillfolk, as GM I sit and watch the action as it unfolds between the players, and get to interpret to some extent what success and failure mean, but I have no more say over the matter than any single player does.  I am just “one of the gang”.  Only when it is my turn can I really enact any sort of agenda of my own – but by the time things go around the table and back to me, the question that is most often on my mind is “where do I hit?”  I have watched and listened to plots unfolding from all of the players, and of course each one has given me ideas about scenes of my own to enact.  But there are multiple players and multiple scenes and unless I am very lucky and very creative, I can only throw a monkey wrench into so many of them – typically one or two.  Which dangling plot thread should I yank on?  Which provides the best story?  Conversely, who isn’t tied in enough and needs a nudge to get pulled in?  Can I tie two characters together in a plot line who aren’t already engaged with one another?  Can I break apart two characters who are becoming too chummy?  What needs pushing?  What needs shoring up?  I can’t do it all so I have to prioritize with a wide view of the story as it is unfolding, and a narrow view of which players need help to get involved and tied in.  I only get my one turn just like all the other players – I need to make it count.

The Powered by the Apocalypse games are similar, in that I need to be thinking at all times about what will work best for the story, but I don’t even have a specific time set aside for taking my actions.  I need to wait for players to fail a roll or ask me “what happens next?” for me to take a move, and the moves I can take are largely prescribed.  I need to constantly be reassessing the plot and the characters – who hasn’t been engaged in the current scene?  Who needs a nudge?  What would be exciting and stimulating for the group?  What is appropriate for where the group has moved the plot since my last move?  And how do I execute the move?  What narrative and mechanical resources do I employ?  For Hillfolk the mechanic is so simple that I can use it any time, but do I want to set up a one-hour fight in Dungeon World when I make a move, or do I want to fiat it and say “this happens” and deny player agency in affecting the outcome for the sake of the plot?  Are we near the end of the session so I should be setting up a cliffhanger, or are we in the middle of a session where I need to provide something that will move the plot along?

Questions, questions, questions.  And questions are a good thing.  Having to act on the fly keeps the narrative fresh, keeps me as the GM interested and focused, and allows everyone in the group to take advantage of unexpected results to move things in a desired direction.  When you sit down to run a D&D module you have a pretty good idea of where the plot is going to go – you have the dungeon, you have the monsters, and overall the player characters are either going to win (probable) or lose (improbable).  For Hillfolk and the Powered by the Apocalypse games you are the William Paley’s god – you create the watch and then throw it out the window to the players.  From the moment play begins it is they who have control of what happens to the watch – they can let it tick along as you intended, they can monkey with the workings and turn it into a mechanical music box, or they can smash the damned thing on a rock, build a quantum powered star-ship, and fly to Alpha Centauri.  And all of those things are okay.  Your job as the GM isn’t to set up the plot and then let them run through it, it is to set up some parameters so that everyone understands where they are starting from, and then let those parameters stand, fall, or be modified according to the desires of your play group.

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RPG a Day: Day 19

Best way to try a new game?

I am going to split this in two, because I think that the answer is different depending on the sort of game you are playing.

For medium or high complexity games

The best way to try out these games is to have someone who knows them teach them to you.  At a minimum a GM with experience in both running and playing the system should sit down with you and help you create a character, guiding you through any pitfalls in the system (“Yes, illusionists seem powerful, but 50% of all threats you will face are immune to illusions, which will leave you as an unarmored character fighting with a pointed stick –  so it may not be a good choice.”).  Under certain circumstances having other players in the campaign be knowledgeable about the system can be a plus, but this can also lead to problems because a) players want to play, not spend time helping the newb make a character, b) too much feedback can sometimes be intimidating – having five other people all telling you what is wrong with your character build, why you should build it differently, and how to plan your build up through level 20 can be confusing and overwhelming.

For low complexity games

Sit down and play it.  If a GM is required, maybe have them create a few pregen characters for people to try out.  But if you are making characters, make them as a group – its more fun anyway and it gives better results.  The only caveat is that everyone should know in advance that nobody, including the GM, has experience with the game so that they can get into the spirit of the thing, and people should have the opportunity to read over the rules first.  Most won’t, or will give them at best a cursory glance (gamers are a lazy and impudent bunch) but the one or two that do should give the group enough knowledge of the game to get started).  Make sure that there is plenty of good food and be prepared for jokes.


RPG a Day: Day 18

What innovation would RPG groups benefit most from?

A decent indexing system for rules.

Yes, I know that doesn’t seem like it would be much of an innovation – indexes have been around since Roman times, and alphabetized indexes by subject have been around since the 18th century.  But indexing is trickier than you might think, and far too large a percentage of RPGs either a) have indexes that are near useless, or b) for some reason think that an insanely comprehensive table of contents can take the place of a good index.

RPG a Day: Day 17

What fictional character would best fit in your group?

Philip J. Fry

Most fictional characters seem far too busy doing more important things to be good gamers.  They’d miss too many games due to saving the world, pulling off the big heist, outwitting the Cardinal’s guards, etc.  As a GM I would rapidly get really tired of spending time crafting a special story arc only to get that last minute call telling me that one of my players couldn’t make it because they were defusing a cobalt bomb on Venus or something.

Fry would be a good addition to the group.  Sure he’s not as sterling as many fictional characters, but he’s laid back, into gaming, a genuinely nice guy and mildly entertaining.

Bonus if he convinces Leela to come too!


RPG a Day: Day 16

Historical person you would like in your group?  What game?

Emily Dickenson, in a cyberpunk game.  Because she was clearly a shut-in nerd gamer just waiting for rpgs to be invented.

And because you KNOW that she would rock the house with an assault cannon.

“Because I could not stop for death…”


“… he kindly stopped for me.”


“The carriage held but just ourselves…”


“… and immortality.”



RPG a Day: Day 15

Your best source of inspiration for RPGs?

My players.  Hands down.


RPG a Day: Day 14

suspect that if I got all my old RPG friends together in one place it would look a bit like this.

Your dream team of people you used to game with.


I love and cherish the friends I have made through gaming, and I love and cherish the friends that I have gamed with.  I’m not going to pick and choose between them.

My dream team is all of you, my friends.  I love gaming with you and I wish I could do it more often.


RPG a Day: Day 13

The comic tells the story of students who get pulled into the "satanic" world of roleplaying, eventually leading them to actual death.

Not really a successful campaign.

What makes a successful campaign?

  1. Campaign organization.  There is a lot to unpack in this one – an overall plotline to keep things from being just a disorganized series of encounters, knowledge of the game system, knowledge of the characters and their capabilities and weaknesses, having the rules organized in such a way that reference can be found within 30 seconds or so.
  2. Buy-in.  There’s no point at all to having a masterfully executed campaign with 20 notebooks full of dungeons and a fully annotated rulebook if you can’t attract players.  Most of the time there has to be a balance struck between the players and the GM – GMs should not have to run games they have little or no interest in because that’s what the players want, and players should not have to play in games they have little or no interest in just because the GM has spent time writing them up.  Most groups playing in a campaign have played together before and have (formally or informally) determined the parameters of what they are interested in, but flexibility is still a very good characteristic to have when approaching buy-in.
  3. Time.  Nothing saps the energy right out of a campaign like having the GM put together a kick-ass campaign (players:  that takes a lot of work, you know), players putting together a bunch of kick-ass characters) (GMs:  those characters are a road map of what the players want and you should pay much more attention to them than just assessing them for whether their points add up), everyone having a great first game – and then everything stalling right out because the group can’t get together for 2 months.
  4. Friendship.  This is not to say that you have to invite only friends to your campaigns.  Making friends and being social is part of what gaming is all about.  That said, however, poor social interactions between participants can be a bane that shatters campaigns like a crystal goblet smacked by a mace.  In any group stuff comes up over time, but trying to mix players who don’t get along all that well is a recipe for balkanization, fragmentation, and dissolution of the campaign.
  5. Interest.  Similar to buy-in, but directed more towards people who are not gamers (in particular, but not limited to the non-gaming significant others of gamers).  Non-gamers can make really fun and innovative contributions to a gaming group.  However, non-gamers who play just to humor their significant other and have no real interest in gaming – or worse yet consider it to be not fun or a waste of time – can be disastrous.  It takes all kinds of weird mental gymnastics to figure out the social mathematics of “How much is Bob going to add to the campaign” vs. “How much damage is Jordan’s disinterest going to subtract from the campaign”?  You can give yourself nosebleeds thinking about that stuff.  As a general rule, people interested in playing should play and people not interested in playing should not.
  6. Respecting the hobby.  This is different from friendship because it focuses on an understanding of the group dynamics required to put on a regular roleplaying event.  Roleplaying is a group event.  It takes several people in order for a roleplaying campaign to work.  Moreover, it usually takes some specialized roles for things to work out well.  For most games someone must take on the responsibility of running the game and acting as its administrator, which can entail several hours of extra work per session.  Someone needs to host the event, which requires cleaning, possibly some cooking, and in general making sure that there is comfortable space conducive to an enjoyable time available.  There may be people responsible for transport of one or more other participants.  There may be someone responsible for organizing food.  Even for those without such added responsibilities, however, there is a need to understand that participation is a necessary component.  Missing games can damage GM plot lines, as well as the development and fun of other characters.  It’s a bit like being in a musical group – any time someone doesn’t show up, their particular contribution will be absent from the performance, and quality will suffer because of it.
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