Saturday, December 31, 2011

500th Post: RPG Lessons from 2011 (and more...)

Today marks my 500th post, done over three solid years. Earlier this week I finally broke 100 people following, and my thanks to everyone who has read or commented on the blog. This has been a pretty dynamite year for gaming, and below I talk about some of the key things I learned (or relearned) this year about gaming. Microscope, Changeling the Lost and Cthulhu Invictus continue to be the big search hits that lead people to the blog. In mundane news, I had modest success in comics this year with the publication of a story in Rocketeer Adventures, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard won an Eisner (I had a story in issue #2), and I got to script and co-plot Flashpoint: Project Superman. I hope to get more pitches and ideas out there in 2012 and get more work. I had a couple of interviews for regular work this year, but the conventional employment situation in my area remains bad. Hopefully I can find more freelance and/or part-time work in this coming year. I finally had surgery on my right hand, which dramatically improved the quality of my life. I regained serious mobility with it and eliminated 90% of the pain. Most importantly, I managed a number of game reviews this year and remain in the running for the RPG Geek Iron Reviewer contest.

As a sidebar, I'll direct anyone interested to two lists I've put together:

List of Campaign Ideas The Next Worlds: Campaign Plans
Is the list of campaign ideas I've put together for 2012. This is a unified and easier to look at version of the earlier list I posted on the blog Any feedback, suggestions or advice on any of them would be appreciated (either on the list or here).

List of Review Ideas edige23's Iron Reviewer for 2012?
Is the list of things I'm thinking about reviewing in 2012. If anyone has preferences or requests, feel free to comment there or here. Thumb something is you want to see it reviewed.

I read more RPGs this year than I got to run or play in. Most games in 2011 were some flavor of our homebrew Action Cards system. We continue to tweak that. We've added in elements from FATE and the magic system in our latest campaign borrows heavily from that in Novarium. I keep fine tuning the system and I'm pretty pleased with it. I also played several sessions of Microscope, ran several sessions of Strands of Fate, ran our Storyteller-based wushu homebrew White Mountain, Black River, and did a one-shot using Dread. I wish I'd had a chance to play more games, but there's always next year...

Fallout RPG
Dave Enyeart ran his Fallout RPG campaign this year, using Action Cards as a basis, but heavily modified. That was pretty awesome. The only game I got to play in this year.

White Mountain, Black River

I ran a half-dozen sessions of this wuxia homebrew in 2011, but opted to put this on hiatus (in favor of The Fleet Departs campaign, below). We'd been playing it for over a year. I will come back to wrap up this story in the future. The campaign began as a vehicle to to try out some martial arts rules and give some out-of-town players a campaign they could drop into easily. Both of those goals had mixed success. Despite that, I love the tale we've been telling and the characters the players created. I want to give that some closure in 2012.

Continuing Campaigns
Libri Vidicos (Steampunk Fantasy Academy)
This February we'll hit the fifth year of playing this campaign. In that time we've gotten through three years of the PCs time at the school. This school year was more difficult for the characters, with greater pressures from on high. We also lost a player who'd been in the game since the start, taking us down to five plus me. But we managed some pretty amazing scenes and episodes: the great race, Valarain and the Elf Demon, the return to Codici Malefactus, the student exchange, the school invasion, and the travel to Sigil (from Planescape). The system's showing its age- it was the first real version of the homebrew we tried for extended play and we've made some advances since then. But it remains a game of solid and fun PCs.

Wayward (Changeling the Lost)
The nature of this campaign means that we move pretty slowly. Modern games can make it harder for a Gm to implement time lapse. That's especially true with so many issues on the table. We lost a player here as well, but I think that actually refocused the game. The group deepend and developed their connections in the freehold and found roles for themselves. They also uncovered some of the real sources of problems and fought successfully against the Winter Court several times. Probably the greatest shift came when they quested out and made contact with a supernatural aspect, the figure of Judgment. They returned from their quest with a blessing to establish a new Court and bring balance to the Freehold. That's changed the entire situation in the city, including a shift in game mechanics. Several times now the players have surprised me with their choices- and they've really taken control of the story in the campaign.

Pavis High Fantasy
This remains a solid high fantasy game, with the players battling the Clanking City, the Godchainers, allying with the Rider tribes, destroying the Pavic rebellion, encouraging sedition, and harvesting from the Giant Tree. The system works, despite having been planned for a much shorter game. I look forward to wrapping up some of the interesting story threads we have happening in Pavis, and seeing what the players want to do next.

The Fleet Departs
A new campaign for this year, my fantasy take on the premise of Battlestar Galactica. I've enjoyed every session of this immensely. I love the characters and the system has really begu8n to click for me. They went through a number of disasters and have finally made it to the "new world." Now they have to figure out the politics and peoples of this new place. There's a war going on between two empires here- both Elvish- and the players may have to choose sides. We're going into session ten, I believe, of what will be 26 sessions total.

Treasure Hunters
Another new campaign, where each player has an sentient magic item and have banded together to stop a spell burning the land. I'd initially planned this as just seven sessions, but we're going into session eight next time. I expect we'll have another four to five after that. The story's still coming along- and I hope to tie together more of the details I've been dropping. The campaign has a fairly linear course (they choose between two directions at each junction point) but I've left what they do in each location pretty open-ended. I've been using tags and aspects more seriously here and that's been fun. I really love the world the players created through the Microscope session at the beginning.

Atelier Auzumel
The alchemical campaign I'm running for just Sherri. We've done about four sessions of this, but haven't been able to get back to this for a while. She's begun to see elements of the larger arc of the story and some of the key NPCs have been introduced. I'm looking forward to seeing where we can take the story this year when we have time to play.

This year I learned a few lessons about rpgs- at least things that I hope will stick with me. Some of these are new, some rediscoveries, and some just simple reminders. But thinking back on this year in gaming, I want to point to these. I read many gaming blogs, and they're the source of many ideas I've brought to the table this year. I really want to thank Risus Monkey, who pointed me in the direction of many new concepts I might not have come into contact with. He told me about Microscope and I owe him a great deal for that. I also have to thank Dave Enyeart, who ran the Fallout campaign I played in this year. I only got to play in one campaign in 2011 and Dave raised the bar for me once again. Both he and Kenny have given me the opportunity to play in versions of the homebrew rpg rules I've been subjecting them to for years. That was illuminating, to say the least.


I keep coming back to it, but it bears repeating: Microscope's a cool game on its own, but it is also an amazing tool for structuring collaborative world building. It's shown me how important player buy-in to the setting can be, and how easily that can be managed. At the same time, it has made me even more willing to share power at the table: both in the creative and play management process. I can understand why some GMs might be uncomfortable with that, wanting to tell the stories they have in their head. That's a reasonable position. But I really believe that this collaborative approaches offers direct and tangible benefits to play at the table.

Scene Aspects
This is the first year I actually "got" how FATE works. I'd read a couple of versions of it before, but somehow it finally clicked for me. From those mechanics I've learned several lessons. Most important has been the concept of Scene Tags and Aspects. Just that little device- describing n place of conflict through those aspects has added enormously to our play. They make players conscious of the situation, they present a quick and tangible mechanical benefit, they make me as a GM slow down and think about the context of the fight, and they give players something interesting to hang their action descriptions on. When you state the chamber the party's about to battle in has the aspects Fog Laden, Damp, Flickering with Magical Light, Strange Brackish Pools, and Uncertain Footing, player immediately begin to think of how to use those things. It is a little device which obviously can be used across many games. FATE offers much more, but that technique I'll be using everywhere.

Player-Facing Resolution
Earlier this year I read a description of combat in the Dragon Age rpg that ended up changing how I handle conflict resolution in our homebrew. In DA players roll their attack and then, depending on the margin of their success, can add bonuses and effects from their maneuvers. So instead of stating "I try to do X," and roll with an increased difficulty, the player gains the option to do X if they've done well enough. There's a little bit of retcon there. I like that- and I think that's especially useful for various kinds of heroic games (perhaps less so for horror and games which want players to have more uncertainty like The Esoterrorists). I realized I wanted a system that operated more like that. But to do that, I'd have to change around how actions got resolved.

Previously in Action Cards, players stated the action they wanted to attempt- including any elements, additional effects or spin they wanted to cause. They'd make their draw and tell me their result. I would then pull for the bad guy and tell them if they made it or not. At that point they could invoke skills or other mechanisms to get redraws or bumps. That meant an extra stage of resolution, and scrambling around after the fact for the players. If a player had done really well on an initial pull, a pull from me could negate that. So I switched the order around. Now, the player states basically what they want to do. If it is unopposed, I state a difficulty. If opposed, I pull for the opposition and tell them what they need. They can then draw and apply their various effects and options to their results- they only come back to me with what they manage, rather than trying a sequence of pulls.

The bottom line of this is that I've made the system player-facing. I tell them what they need, and they must figure out how to rise to that challenge. The steps go A-->B, rather than B-->A-->B and the player has more control over their final result. That's been successful, except that I'm still so used to the "OK, make a roll for me..." mode of play that I forget I need to set the difficulty or make the pull first. Just as important, if the players choose or realize they'll be failing, they have the choice to frame that failure themselves- creating their own explanations and descriptions.

Spam Details
I still haven't been able to settle down and read through Apocalypse World. I have the pdf but I really want to read it in hard-copy form. But the one idea I picked up from various gamer's discussion of it has been the idea of "spamming the setting." That is- when you're in a particular genre (Post-Apoc, High Fantasy, Modern Fantastic, Gritty Noir) make sure to throw details and elements of those tropes at the players. Make the fantastic sing, make the gritty feel grimy. Go over the top. That little piece of advice has been easier to remember and follow through with at the table than telling myself I need to add sensory details, drop names or the like. Instead I write "Spam XXX" at the top of each prep sheet and it sticks in my head.

Execute Plots

Earlier this year I was thinking about a couple of related topics- why some PCs had frustrated me and what I wanted to do about a particular plot thread that the players had latched on to much earlier than I'd expected. Then the connection hit me. The PCs in question had made themselves static. They had character problems and issues but they wouldn't move forward on them. They had excuses- not enough time had passed in game, they weren't ready to share them with the group, they didn't want to change who their character was, they liked having secrets, they didn't trust their fellow PCs, no one really understood them, etc. That's a kind of defensiveness. John Wick in Blood & Honor explicitly talks about this- about players who have all of this super-cool baggage and backstory in their heads and won't share it at the table. The reasons for that can be various (not wanting to commit, not wanting to shift from the perfection in their mind, etc). But the result is that the other players don't and can't understand that player. They set up a loop of frustration between themselves and the rest of the table- because the other players "just don't get it..." and the other players can only logically assume that the player's being a selfish prick.

And a GM who doesn't let loose what's in their head is committing the same kind of selfishness. You may have the coolest plot and idea in your head, but it doesn't mean anything unless the PCs are actually making contact with it. Your precious snowflake of an idea is going to get battered around by the party. It is never going to be perfect- so pull back the curtain even if the time doesn't feel quite right. There's nothing worse than trying to tell the players after the campaign's over about all of the cool stuff you had planned but they never saw. Pull the trigger on your plots. You'll make new ones, you'll raise the stakes, and you'll give the story momentum.

Show Victory
Be explicit about victories for the players. Sometimes players do things that had repercussions elsewhere- shifts in bad guys' plots, changes in NPC reactions, or a tangent in the direction of the campaign. That knowledge serves as an intangible reward for the players. Give that to them. Either through meta-commentary or through news in the grapevine, tell the players when they've had success on that level. That's especially true for darker games where the down beats can keep coming fast and furious.

I ordered a large number of 12"x10"x4" Literature Mailer boxes. I've been using those to sort and organize my old campaign information and other projects. They store nicely on shelves and I can label them clearly. They're large enough to story small binders, plus notebooks and folders. Because I have a number of simultaneous ongoing campaigns, I put all of the materials for each on in a separate box. Then when I go to work on or run a session, I just pull that box down. When I'm done, I pack up everything and put it back. That's worked really well and helped keep me on task.

I'm really happy to have made it to 500 posts. There are other better and more interesting gaming blogs out there, but they're not written by me. I'm always glad to have comments and feedback, and I hope some of what I've put out there over these past three years has been useful. Tomorrow I'm going to redesign the site slightly and then move forward with more posts. I do want to specifically thank Derek Stoelting, Steve Sigety, and especially Jim McClain who really gave me the confidence to actually do a blog.

Most importantly, thank you to my wife Sherri- who reads all of this stuff and then has to talk it over with me ad nauseum. I'd like to point out her guest post from earlier this week now ranks in the top five posts for sheer number of hits across the lifespan of this blog.

Anyway- have a great new year!


  1. Keep up the great work and I like the new look.

  2. Age of Ravens is a joy read, one my "desert island blogs" up there with "From The Sorcerer's Skull". But I do have one question... when will we see more details on Action Cards? You've dropped bit and pieces over the years but I'd love to see a worked system. :)

  3. Yes, writing up AC in a usable form is on my list for this year. We've had a couple of people besides myself run it and they seemed to enjoy the experience. Part of my fear was that as a system, it only worked for the way I ran things.

    I enjoy reading RM as well!

  4. Great news! I look forward to seeing it.