Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Looking Forward: Play on Target Ep. 38

This episode Play on Target looks forward to 2015. After some technical difficulties delayed it, we finally present our predictions and resolutions for the year. Originally we’d intended this as a companion to our "Year in Review" Episode. So you'll hear a couple of out of date references. Still I think it came out decently. While we have a few obvious picks for the year, I think we go off the beaten path in a couple of places. Take a listen and see what you think.

As we say in the episode, we want to get more listener feedback this year. We record each episode in pairs, coming up with ideas in the week or two ahead of the recording. We try to keep a list of old ideas that didn’t make it on a master sheet, but often we drop some out of the cycle. Some of these are our personal hobby horses (hence the Supers episode!). This year we want to draw more on listener concerns and questions. What do you want to hear?

Sidebar: I had an interesting experience a few months ago. I saw someone complaining on G+ that the various RPG Podcasts he’d listened to didn’t cover topics he wanted. I asked what he’d like to hear. He responded that he didn’t have time to detail the kinds of material he wanted. I know I’ve done that in the past- been dissatisfied with something, but unable or unwilling to articulate what I desired.

If you have topics you think we need to talk about, questions you want answered, issues we ought to return to, or things we should examine, please tell us. That’s especially true for the GM Jam series. Are there distinct settings or systems you’d like to hear about? Games you’re curious or hesitant about that GM insight might help you with? We’d love any and all of that. You can leave comments, pm us, geekmail us, etc.

On the flip side- tell us about things you think we need to improve. Like Lowell talks too much (which he does). Or we don’t hit on some concerns or we should structure things differently. We’ve had some advice and we’re working to improve. We nicely got a nomination for the Golden Geeks this year, and that’s cool. But what I’d really like to see is people saying they listened to the show and got something out of it. (I recognize the irony given that this episode’s more internally focused.)

Speaking of quality, you may notice a drop in it this time. I hope not. I edited the episode this week, my first time working with Audacity. I did video editing a long, long, long time ago (on big machines with 3/4” tape). Various blog posts and online videos made the process incredibly easy. I remain continually shocked by how simple it is to learn how to handle simple (and not so simple) tasks, tools, and repairs. I hope that the sound quality’s decent! Having listened to the episode several times now, I’m acutely conscious of my quirks, volume, and vocal tics…for better or worse.

I’d like to figure out how to do some modern video editing. It would be cool to reshape some of my RPG History Lists into video presentations. Plus I often see employers hunting for those skills. But I’m unsure what’s the best tool for handling that. If you have suggestions, please give me a heads up. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Friday, February 27, 2015

GM Prep Survey Results

Earlier this month I put together two surveys intended to gather self-assessments of the level & kind of prep work GMs did. Originally I focused on sessions, but many commented that campaign prep fed into their session prep style. So I created the latter survey with aid from several people. Yesterday I closed out the surveys and downloaded the info. I haven’t had a chance to seriously dig through it yet, but I wanted to put the raw data and a “graphic” version out for anyone to look at. I’d thought about this project for some time, but RPG Blog Carnival topic, "How and Where I Write and/or Game Prep.", created by Leicester's Ramble pushed me to put it out there.  

Keep in mind this survey’s rough and unscientific. It has no controls, the question wording hasn’t been checked, and there’s some serious limitations to the format. So why do it? Because I’d seen many threads about prep online. Often they escalated into a game of one-upmanship. If someone talked about having done a ton of work for a session, commenters would pop on to say they’d done more. Threads about “prep light” approaches had wildly differing definitions. Sometimes participants engaged in a race to the bottom to declare no or negative prep. I understand those kinds of comments. We feel strongly about the process we’ve invested in. I wanted to see, removed from comparison signposts, how GM’s self-assessed what they did.

We ended up with 313 responses for the Session survey and 106 responses for the Campaign survey. I have three documents for those interested in the details. Survey Monkey generated two compiled pdfs of the data. You can get the Session Prep material here via Dropbox. You can get the Campaign Prep pdf here. I should note that weirdly the former includes the “Other, Please Specify” details, but the latter does not. I’m not sure why it generated it that way, I suspect there’s a space question (I wouldn’t let me output whole indivual response material as a pdf due to those limits). I’ve also put together the individual responses and details in a Google Calc table. If you’re looking for the crunchy bits and associative data, check that out. I’ve stripped out IP identifiers, but left the comments intact.

Feel free to check out and play around with this data. Consider it released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 InternationalIf you post something about it, a link back to the blog and a heads up would be appreciated. I hope to offer up my own thoughts on this in the next week or two.

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to fill out these surveys. I know they weren’t quick, especially the Campaign Prep one. I might try something like this again the future. If I do I’ll definitely crowd-source the questions to get a tighter approach. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Codici Malefactus: Rats of NIMH Meets Evil Hogwarts

I'm still recovering, but the arm's letting me work a little longer at the computer. I wanted to put something up, so I thought I'd post a project from 2010 that ended up not going anywhere. Gene did some pages for it, so I've posted a couple of cutaways from that. Right now, I'm thinking I'm thinking about how I might rework some of this into a gaming set up. Maybe for an rpg or a board game....I've sketched out a couple of things. In any case, this is the two page pitch I put together for this fantasy animal-based story.  

Awakened to awareness and intelligence, the squirrel Kinder escapes from death into a new world. He gains sanctuary among a band of animals-- also transformed by accidents of human magic-- living in the walls of a sorcerous workshop called the Codici Malefactus. But these mages are not benevolent and discovery of the escaped animals means destruction. Kinder finds himself isolated from human and animal alike, trying to survive and avert disaster spawned from the very magic which created him.
The Rats of NIMH in a maleficent Hogwarts.

A fantastic half-workshop, half-laboratory, we see a boy, dressed in worn robes and the scraps of an archaic school uniform. He pulls out a small brown squirrel from a cage. Clutching it tightly, he consults from a battered tome. Then he speaks strange words that hang like ideograms in the air. The squirrel shivers and transforms as a force of magic coalesces in the air and enters it. The squirrel size doubles, forcing the boy to shift his grip. While still vaguely a squirrel, it seems unnatural with strange eyes, thorny horns and a bushy tail dotted with thorns. The squirrel cries out in the same hanging runes. Without a backward glance the boy drops the new beast over a half-wall into a makeshift pen.

But even as the squirrel lands, we see it change back-- though not completely. The glow has vanished, but it leaves behind traces of the horns and tail. Now it is simply Kinder, a squirrel forever altered by this magic and suddenly filled with intelligence and awareness. Wrestling with this new state Kinder stares at his own paws. Then his eyes track upwards into the maw of another enormous transformed beast. Kinder understands one thing: he is dinner.

But this monstrous beast rears back, crying out. Then, like Kinder, it reverts back to its original form, Leather, the slightly dopey boar. Multiple changes have made him slightly ape-like and marked with eyes gone burning yellow, armored scales, and metallic bristles. Still terrified, Kinder comes forward, trying to come to terms with his state. Leather looks at him with a mix of fear and wonder-- the squirrel having somehow driven out the alien spirit within him. The boar calms Kinder, and explains that the changes will take time to get used to. The sudden return of the student feeder interrupts their bonding.

The boy realizes something has gone terribly wrong and grabs up Kinder-- deftly avoiding the barbs and binding him in his pocket. He hunts about for a scapegoat, settling on Nevral, the least talented of the apprentices. Kinder hears and comprehends the shouting of an outraged master and fleeing apprentices. The squirrel tears free from the student's pocket, racing across the workshop, but finds himself trapped in a corner. The unjustly punished student spots him, but hesitates. He stares at Kinder but leaves him be, alone in this new and strange world.

Wandering through the dangerous world of this sorcerous workshop, Kinder escapes death with the intervention of another transformed animal, The Indomitable Lady Rekhavyk (“my full name, thank you very much...”). This heroic and self-styled Puss-in-Boots savior to the lab animals drags him along. Disoriented, Kinder finds himself led into the walls of the workshop-- only then realizing the scale of this new place. Once a palace, it now hosts this strange faction of laboring mages and their apprentices. Rekhavyk incompletely explains the new art of the human wizards, one which summons otherworldly forces to transform animals temporarily into powerful magical servants. The real secret hidden from the humans is that over time this transforms the animals not only physically but mentally.

Kinder stares in wonder as Rekhavyk leads him into the refuge of those awakened animals who have escaped-- a sanctum built into the walls and abandoned areas of the workshop itself. Over years they have built themselves a labyrinthine sanctuary out of the cast-offs from the workshop itself. Kinder and Rekhavyk scurry through abandoned rooms with cleverly concealed makeshift bridges and moving platforms. They rise higher, to the ruined towers of the lab. Kinder looks out to see a city below; for a brief moment he has a flash of a glorious mecca. Then he sees the real city broken and black, huddling under dark clouds and half buried by gray snow. Rekhavyk draws him away into the sanctum of the animals.

Here Kinder sees a host of animals, all showing signs of the transformation-- a bizarre menagerie of woodland creatures partially overlaid with the bits and pieces of nightmarish monsters. Brought before the leader of the group, Wrethe, the squirrel learns of the animal's origin and of the magic which created them. However his own revelation startles the assembled group. Each gained knowledge and weird changes over time, but Kinder awoke in a single transformation. A greater shock greets the accidental revelation that he understands the humans' speech. While some look on Kinder with wonder, others fear his difference. In the days to follow he begins to understand that even here he remains an outsider. But news of Leather's impending destruction shocks him out of his self-pity and into action.

Desperate to save the first animal who aided him, Kinder begs the other animals for aid. After much argument the elders deny his petition, to the satisfaction of Rekhavyk who has come to begrudge the squirrel's quick knowledge and adventuresome spirit. Leather would be too difficult to spirit away and his size would make him nearly impossible to conceal. Despite the prohibition, Kinder decides to strike forward anyway. He closely observes the dynamics of the masters and students-- aided and hindered by the conflicting voices in his head. Slowly a plan forms, one lying outside the scope of what the other animals can muster.

Now Kinder must execute his operation alone. Can he free Leather without revealing the animals? Can he find refuge for his friend? Will Nevral turn out to be an ally or enemy in his quest? Kinder must put his own safety and that of his new home at risk to act on loyalty and friendship. This rebellious first step may lead him against all of the powers of destruction the mages have unwittingly tapped.

Setting and Background
The Codici itself takes up only a small portion of a grand palace that has fallen into ruins. There's a strong visual parallel between the scrabbled-together nests and warrens of the animals and the shabby disrepair the mages live in. The humans cram themselves into a fraction of the available space. Around them lie the scattered detritus of failed magics and broken projects. There's a generally renaissance atmosphere, but one that blends with classic magical elements and Clockpunk-style devices and machines. The palace's size means coming across art, decorations and designs from history and the world.

In the far background, outside the walls of the Codici, hangs the conflict just past-- a battle between practitioners of this new summoning magic and the old ways. On one side stood a magic capable of permanence requiring study, cost and intense labor; on the other stood the new magic quickly learned, free to use but remaining temporary.

The victory of the new magic destroyed most of those who knew the old ways. Codici Malefactus serves as one of the few places where that knowledge least partially. The Overlord who swept the land with the new magic keeps this place to repair the remaining old devices and useful engines. The staff survive at his behest. While they would rather be pursuing more fully their own experiments with the new ways, they must work with what little they can glean to keep things running. If they fail, they know the Overlord will have little pity for them.

The setting presents opportunities for a host of rich characters. The other transformed animals run the gamut of birds, beasts and even insects. They must each deal with their new intelligence and personality as well as their Pokemon-like physical changes and existence. Kinder will meet many struggling with this and the urges of their natural instincts. Some, like Rekhayvk, create new roles and identities for themselves. But the hero-cat holds a difficult position; she must rescue lab animals but also choose who will be worthy of rescue. These clashing personalities create internal battles over how best to survive. Kinder can see how much the animal society echoes the humans they fear.

The humans of the Codici Malefactus present another rich set of characters, as potential allies, adversaries and background color. The “Students” serve more as servants and apprentices, forced to learn bits and pieces of what they consider a failed art. They seethe with resentment and youthful power politics. They know they have a gift for magic, but find themselves stymied in their quest for greater power. Most dance between undercutting their masters and trying to curry favor. The master resent their place here-- dealing with unruly apprentices and eking out time for their own pursuit of power. Only the mysterious guild mistress, Sulhara, holds them in line. Even she serves still another master, the Overlord, who far away carries out his own plans to bring all of the world under his thumb.

Perhaps the most ambiguous human character will be the boy who aids Kinder in the beginning, Nevral. He possesses less of the magical gift than the other apprentices present. This makes him a ready scapegoat. His concealed strength lies in his ability to focus and to study. Where others glide through on sheer native talent, he works for his victories. As a result, he may understand more fully the very magic the others wield so easily. The developing relationship between Nevral and Kinder will be an important one to the course of the story.

Short-term Stories: Kinder joins the Civilization's fight for survival, but soon learns how precarious their way of life is. Constantly hunted as vermin, the animals scavenge homes, food and new escapees. They must pick their battles carefully. Upsetting the mages' plans could bring discovery. At the same time Kinder must learn about his fellow animals. To fit in he must understand their stories and quirks.
Medium-term Stories: Kinder learns more about the infernal nature of the summoned spirits, the history of the last Mages' War, and his own unique enchantment. Kinder rebels against the cautious animal Elders and risks an alliance with Nerval. It is a friendship that will spark a new war, but might save the world.
Long-term Story: Kinder must uncover a way to stop to the spirits' plan for the destruction of everything.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Slow Posting Week or I Was Out of Stress Boxes So I Took a Consequence

So I had several things in the pipeline for this week: the next History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs list, an update on samurai games I'd missed, and some discussion of how I've been using the Icons in our 13th Age game. Then I hit an icy patch on Friday and went down hard on the sidewalk. Had to bump the whole weekend's worth of games. Today's the first day I've been able to work at the computer for any significant time without effing agony in my left arm. I'm hoping to rope a guest post, but otherwise expect it to be light. Not that anyone checks these things, but posts like these are good for my ego. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

GM Campaign Prep Survey

I've put together an online survey examining how much time gamemasters spend getting ready for a campaign.

I got some feedback on my earlier (and still ongoing) GM Session Prep Survey. Many respondents talked about having done much more with campaign prep. It allowed them to support the level of work they did for sessions. That pushed me to put together this second survey. It’s also inspired by this month's RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Leicester's Ramble, "How and Where I Write and/or Game Prep."

This survey will be active through Feb. 25th or so. Please feel free to post and reshare this in any gaming circles. Like the previous one, this survey is much more narrative and descriptive. The limitations of the format and selection pool mean that we’re getting is more food for thought than anything else. I’ll make all the data available at the end of the month.

So you can check it out before you go over to Survey Monkey, here’s the text of the questions I used. Thanks to everyone who gave be feedback on putting this together. Some of the answers are multiple choice drop-downs while others are text/number fill. If you want to answer these, head over the the link at the top.

After I put together my GM Session Prep Survey, I got some solid feedback. In particular several GMs commented on the vast difference between their prep before the campaign vs. between sessions. Just looking at session prep didn't take into account that earlier work. I had enough responses to the earlier survey that I had to drop some money on Survey Monkey to have access to all that data. Since I've already paid for the month, I thought I should go ahead and do a complementary assessment.

For this survey, we're going to look at the two most recent campaigns you've run. I'll ask the same set of questions about each, on two blocks one after the other. If you've only run one campaign or only want to discuss one campaign, Page Seven has instructions on how to enter that.

This Survey will be active through February 25th. 

A couple of definitions:
  • Please examine your two most recently run campaigns, including any campaigns which might still be in progress.
  • For the purposes of this survey I'm defining a campaign as a linked set of at least four sessions. If that seems too small, feel free to raise that bar for yourself.
  • For campaign prep, consider all the work you did on the campaign before the first session. Some GMs do a character creation session and some don't. If you did a CC session, decide whether you think that's when the campaign started or if it began with the first play session.
  • If you're running in campaign in a homebrew world you've run in before, just focus on the prep for this particular campaign.
  • This is all rough, rough, rough, and arbitrary. I understand that everything presented here will be an estimation. We're just looking for ballpark guesses.

1. What system did you use for the campaign?
2. Had you run this system before?
3. What kind of setting did you use?
4. Had you run this setting before?
5. Where did you run?
6. How often did your group meet?
7. How long was your average session?
8. How many players did you have on average?
9. About how many sessions did you run for? (Say "ongoing" for present campaigns)
10. Did you have an expectation about how long the campaign would last when you planned it?
11. If yes to Question 10, about how long did you expect the campaign to last? Was that more or less than it did run?
12. Did you have what you'd consider a "finale"?
13. What caused the campaign to end?
14. How did you think about the ending of the campaign?

This next part focuses on the actual time you spent prepping for the game. This is all estimates and self-assessment. I'm going to ask you to come up with some rough percentages in categories. But how you define prep is up to you. If you think early brainstorming, watching genre-movies, or musing on things while riding the train counts as your prep, then count it.

This is pretty blurry, so just go with your gut on these answers.

15. Roughly how many hours did you spend preparing for this campaign? (Please answer in numerals: 2, 6, 18...)
16. Give a rough percentage of time you spent on each of these activities in preparing for this campaign. Though I've set this to add up to 100, I understand there will some blurry lines.
  • Learning or Relearning Rules    
  • Developing or Homebrewing Mechanics              
  • Drawing Maps, Sketching Illustrations, or Crafting Props               
  • Coming Up with NPCs   
  • Plotting Incidents, Arcs, or Stories           
  • Writing Up World/Setting Backstory       
  • General Research           
  • Player Character Work  
  • Other

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

GUMSHOE GM Jam: Play on Target Special Ep #6

This week the Play on Target podcast looks at the GUMSHOE system from Pelgrane Press. As I mention in the episode we opted to do the broader GUMSHOE system first. We want to showcase what it does and debunk some myths about it. In the future we may put together GM Jams about particular iterations of the system. For this episode we gathered together four amazing GMs to talk about their experiences. They discuss what the system is, how they’ve used it at the table, and what they’ve gotten from it.

If you’re enjoying these GM Jams (or not), give us a heads up. If you have suggestions for specific games or settings we should cover, tell us in the comments. Our aim with these is to help new gamers decide if these are for them and give GMing advice to those already running the system.

We mention this towards the end of the episode, but it’s worth stressing. GUMSHOE games aren’t necessarily about solving a mystery with a capital “M.” They’re about gathering information for a purpose. In that way they’re like most games. Players usually work towards figuring things out- about other people, about the broader situation, about a dungeon they’re going into. I suspect that happens in most games, with some stressing it more than others. GUMSHOE pulls that out and makes it a focal sub-system. As Steve mentions, it offers an interesting way to handle the flow of information and give players a connection to it.

Various GUMSHOE versions aim at different kinds of info. When I look at Ashen Stars, I see a game where the players examine problems and figure out fixes. They’re not coming to an ending accusation scene in the drawing room. Instead they have to learn about various possible solutions and figure out which works best (or causes them the least blowback). So while they might be moving towards a conflict, they’d better have found enough info to deal with that at the end. Sherri, on the other hand, believes that Mutant City Blues shows how you can investigate in an irrational world. It offers a structure to “play fair” in a setting of bizarre powers. The Quade Diagram presents an interactive tool for that. Trail of Cthulhu asks you to learn about the Mythos and the nature of the creatures you might face, The Gaean Reach slowly reveals the path to the villain, and Night’s Black Agents is about figuring out who and what your enemies actually are.

What other kinds of information could be structured this way? Imagine a Ninja or Assassin’s Creed style game where the players have to gather intelligence in order to strike at a target (a riff I’ve done with Neo Shinobi Vendetta at cons). Or a diplomatic/trader style game, where characters have to learn about local cultures or power networks? Or a version of White Wolf’s Hunter the Reckoning, with the characters uncovering the World of Darkness?

In our Apocalypse World GM Jam, the participants described the toolbox nature of that game. Apocalypse World includes many features, systems, and modules. It provides an array of mechanics. But GMs of AW don’t necessarily use everything there. And games built on it don’t either. These can focus on different elements: so some powered by AW games include Fronts, some include heavy conflict resolution, some include social moves. In the same way we can look at the various pieces of GUMSHOE. They’re rich and elaborated, but we can pull out elements to fit our game’s theme.

I’d say the two big modules are Investigative Abilities and Resource-Driven Abilities. The former, in the form of choice of abilities and application, shapes the flow of information. The latter can ratchet tension through scarcity, add dynamic bonuses (cherries, MoS), and show competency. Beyond that we have a host of other interesting sub-systems to tweak (how to structure investigations, handling unusual powers, contest-based ship fighting, corruption/ insanity). Each version of GUMSHOE reconfigures some mechanics to fit the theme (like grenades, abilities functions). They also bring new elements to the table. I think gamers and designers ought to be looking at GUMSHOE as a set of tools which they can make use of in other ways.

In the podcast we don’t mention the existence of Open GUMSHOE. Pelgrane released both a CC and OGL version of that. We’ve seen at least one product come out under that license (Against the Unknown). As well at others are on the horizon, like Ken Hite’s Bubblegumshoe (Teen Sleuths & Drama) and Cam Banks’ “Magic Shoe” (mixing Ars Magica and GUMSHOE). I’m hoping we see more designers playing with these tools and elements. For example, mixing GUMSHOE with particular historical periods feels obvious (Tokugawa Japan, Ancient Rome, Medieval England) given the abundance of detective fiction aimed at that. Alternately something which echoes the replicant hunting of Blade Runner or the deep paranoia of 1984 could be great. I’ve talked about this last one before, mixing evidence gathering with political reputation and scapegoating.

On a slightly related note, Play on Target has been nominated for the Golden Geeks for Best Podcast. I’m under no illusions about winning, given the excellence of the competition (K&RTAS!). But if you have a BGG/RPGGeek/VideoGame Geek account, consider going over there and voting. It would be great to get more voices and perspectives for the various RPG Items like Game of the Year and Best Supplement. There are some great choices there (and oddly some not yet released Kickstarters). Anyway take a look!

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Monday, February 9, 2015

Campaign Prep Survey Help

I’m crowd-sourcing for advice and suggestions. I'd tossed together a GM Prep Survey focusing on session prep. That got enough responses I had to drop some cash on SurveyMonkey to get at all the data. Since that sub lasts a month (28 days in this case), I figured I should get at least one more use out of it. Several people pointed out gaps in the Session Prep Survey (i.e. what specific game they were running). Some mentioned how they frontloaded prep for campaigns. So I thought I should do a parallel one and get feedback on questions before posting them.

This is aimed to be rough and illustrative. I’m not doing controls. Instead it's more about curiosity and thick description. 

I’m thinking I’ll ask the same set of questions about two or three campaigns the GM has run. I’m considering campaign prep as everything done before the first session of play (be that a cc session or AP).They should pick the most recent, most important, or most long-lasting. Or should I stick to most recent. With campaign defined as 4+ sessions?

Here’s what I thought I’d ask about each campaign:
What system did you use?
Did you use a published setting, a homebrew setting, or some mix of the two?
Did you run online or f2f?
How often did your group meet?
How long was the average session?
How many players did you have on average?
About how many sessions did you run for?
Was that more or less than you expected when you prepared the campaign?
Did you have what you’d call a “finale”?
Roughly how many hours would you say you spent on campaign preparation?
Give a rough percentage of your time spent on the following activities:
  • Learning or relearning rules
  • Developing or homebrewing mechanics
  • Drawing maps or other illustrations
  • Developing NPCs
  • Plotting Incidents, Arcs, or Stories
  • Writing Up World/Setting Backstory
  • General Research
  • Player Character Work
  • Other
I think given the number of questions, I’ll probably just ask for the last two campaigns. What do you think? What else should I ask?