Monday, June 17, 2013

The Path to 750: Gamer Reflexivity

So this is my 750th post. Let’s hear it for arbitrary celebrational benchmarks.

I will be participating in a panel for ConTessa, the free online gaming convention by women for everyone. That runs this weekend, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, go and look here. The panel is called “Collaborative World-Building and Gaming.” Here’s the blurb:
Harness the power of the group to make better games. Collaborative gaming doesn’t necessarily mean a GM giving up power. Instead it can serve as a tool to draw players in, create novel settings, and provide engaging experiences. The panel will discuss ideas and practical applications. We’re excited to announced our scheduled participants: Meguey Baker (A Thousand and One Nights: A Game of Enticing Stories, Psi*Run), Brad Murray (Diaspora, Hollowpoint), and Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom).
I’m there purely as the voice of a GM who has moved to more of these shared-world technqiues over the last several years. The panel takes place this Saturday at 2PM. It will be recorded as a YouTube video, so you’ll have a chance to check it out after the fact.

This week’s an odd one for me. For my tabletop campaigns, I run on alternate weeks. For online, I run weekly. This normally would be my heavy week- running Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. But of the middle three, two have been bumped due to player schedule conflicts and the third is on break until mid-July. I’ll admit that I’m always a little thrown when the schedule opens up like that. If I’m smart I’ll have planned some things- like nights of painting minis or boardgaming. If not, I end up on the PS3 or with some Steam Game I bought on sale but still haven’t really played.

Late in the Fight: Pity the Dead

I GM a lot. I’m primarily a gamemaster- when I do play I try to only play in a single campaign at a time. Right now I’m in a fantasy game using Mongoose’s Legend system. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the mechanics of that. It has been years (GURPS 3e) since I played a game with a roll-under mechanic instead of one aiming at # of successes or beating target numbers. I was running six campaigns recently until I finally wrapped up my f2f Changeling the Lost campaign after a little over four years of play. The three of the five ongoing campaigns are tabletop: Libri Vidicos, a magic steampunk school game in a long running fantasy setting (begun Feb of ’07); Last Fleet, a fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica (started June of ’11); and New Dragons, an L5R family campaign with homebrew rules (begun last November). I have two online campaigns. Changeling Lost Vegas which uses straight G+ Hangouts (begun last Dec  and has a YouTube Playlist) and First Wave Series Two, the second arc of a Mutants & Masterminds 2e game using Roll20 & Skype (begun last June and has a wiki). I also have a wuxia campaign- White Mountain, Black River- which is on hiatus but we will eventually finish. Two of the f2f games- Libri Vidicos and Last Fleet will wrap this year- and First Wave will do one more series and then will finish.

Like many veteran gamemasters, I’ve run using many, many systems. Too many. For those who see GMing as a calling, there’s a weird push to get the perfect game- the game which does everything right. So we critique when we read new games, we run something and then discard it in favor of another game, we go back to old models, we tweak new ones. We hunt for the Holy Grail even when we’re running campaigns that keep humming along. Dissatisfaction rules. Or maybe that’s just me. So I’ve run V&V, D&D, M&M, Champions, DC Heroes, James Bond 007, Vampire the Masquerade, Mage the Ascension, Call of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, True20, Rolemaster Classic, Rolemaster Standard System, GURPS, BRP, FATE, Ars Magica, Hollowpoint, d20, Fading Suns, Dying Earth, AFMBE, Conspiracy X, Ghostbusters, Paranoia, Hero System, MERP, Storyteller, Scion, Exalted, World of Darkness, Savage Worlds, Armageddon, and blah, blah and more blah.

What I learned is that I prefer simple systems. At the same time I want some chrome and some choice. I want that to be mostly on the player side. I don’t mind complexity and variety in character creation, so long as that doesn’t bog down or slow things when we get to actual play. So the powers, abilities, feats, and everything like that should be easy for players to remember and use. We shouldn’t have to go back to be book too much during the session. I tend to strip off the rough corners and edges of the games I do play. If you watch any of the YouTube videos of my Changeling sessions you can see how I move through those things. I aim to reduce complexity- and funky edge case rules often get dropped. Some of that’s my desire for speed and efficiency- we only have two hour sessions for that. Some of that’s my system mastery- I’ve only been running nWoD since last November. I don’t think it makes for a bad game, but I imagine players who enjoy crunch and like digging into the depth of the mechanics might find my games less fun for them- I might not be able to offer them the game style they want. I’ll admit that keeps me from really wanting to run more online with new people. My group’s pretty settled and used to my style. They go with it. Some of them play Pathfinder which satisfies a different itch of rule-heavy material. But in the back of my mind I’m worried I’ll be pointed out as a fraud if I try to run something more complicated on G+.

The South Wall of the Game Room

For tabletop gaming, I run a homebrew system we’ve been playing for about 13 years. It has gone through several iterations and multiple campaigns (ten I think). I’ve written about that homebrew, Action Cards, before. It began as an idea for card-based resolution with each player having a unique deck. I wanted a game with more room for narrative and easier core mechanics. Over the years I’ve stripped out complexities from the mechanics (point spend actions and initiative, overly elaborate magic systems), changed out various basic concepts, and borrowed ideas from games I’ve enjoyed- trying to tweak the game to make it work with the campaigns we’ve played and make the play feel more involved and interesting. I’ve borrowed some ideas from FATE and ended up putting dice back in the game purely for damage- because people like rolling damage. But at heart Action Cards offers simple resolution, with players able to narrate moments if they can get the right cards and effects.

I don’t know exactly why it works but it does- and for a group that’s played across a lot of systems, with including players who would probably go with Pathfinder or Champions as a second choice. It is a group which as a rule loathes FATE for one primary reason: they hate the dice. They hate, hate, hate them. I’ve tried to run FATE straight with the dice and the players have enjoyed the ideas and concepts and hated the play for the dice. Despite that, my f2f group (ten distinct players across three games), likes Action Cards. The primary benefit AC offers is a sense of ownership- with unique decks and cards players can mark up and modify. Imagine being able to mark and modify a unique set of dice for your character. 

We play narrative-focused games, with stories but hugely freedom of choice. I try to provide incidents and have the players choose which way they want to head. But I also try to come up with interesting incidents and scenes- and often these will be turning points (like the current coronation the players are at where a forest has begun to swallow the world and the church is surrounded by a legion of vampires). We often have whole sessions of “once-arounds” where individual players follow up on their own stories and interact with NPCs. These push the character’s own stories forward and I often lay the groundwork for other interesting events in these. We have combats on average once every three sessions. That can accelerate when the hit the third act of a campaign. Often we use miniatures and maps but I abstract distances and have now moved to having zones rather than squares. I still use terrain and scenic because many of the group really enjoy that tactical feel and don’t like just having aspects defining things. So I have to mix that up. My sessions run three+ hours, longer if we have something important happening. My players are more apt to spend resources on planning, status, and social interactions rather than in combat. They trust that investments in those areas will pay off in the long term. As a GM I try to track and remember those actions and reward players for that kind of creative thinking and preparation. NPCs they were good to return to help them, reputations gain them advantages, financial investments come back to them, the house they built offers them a sanctuary, etc. I try to balance a focus on rules, environment, and character story- but I’ll admit that my attentions often more on the last two than the first.

Train Fight with Cake and Detached Car

I’m a freelancer still hunting for short-term and part-time work in writing and editing. The environment’s tough and that’s something I usually avoid talking about too much. If you’re looking for someone consider this blog; my DramaSystem piece for Pelgrane Press “A War on Christmas”; or my entry for the 24-Hour RPG Contest, Arclight Revelation Tianmar as examples. I’m comics you can see stories I did in Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Volume 1 or Rocketeer Adventures Volume 1. I also scripted and co-plotted Flashpoint: Project Superman for DC. 

Currently I have a board game design, Right of Succession, that I’ve been shopping around and will be sending out for some more testing. I have a couple of other BGs that I’m sketching once I get that to a finished place. Art Lyon and I have been working on some independent comics pitches, a couple of which are in final stages and we’re beginning to hunt for artists. Eventually I plan to put Action Cards together as a product and at risk of being a cliché, I will likely Kickstart that. I’ve been thinking of how to expand and develop the “History of X RPGs” project into a larger volume- perhaps with interviews and some more value-added details. I’ve also been using Scrivener to put together a concrete version of the most interesting stuff from this blog. In doing so I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of useful pieces out of the 750 posts, but there’s also some serious dross to trim.

I plan to be at GenCon for a couple of days this year, so I hope to run into some of the really creative gamers I’ve followed online.

So thanks to anyone who reads this blog- I hope I provide some interesting insights. This is one of those self-indulgent posts, the kind I often skim through on other people’s sites. I’ve you read to down here, then a double thanks for your attention.

I always welcome requests, comments, questions, suggestions, review copies, and criticisms. I get decent hits and I hope people find the time to check things out. The variety of sites and choices available means every comment's a rare and precious thing. I need to be better at that myself. Anyway- I hope whatever kinds of games you run or play in, that you have awesome fun, always.  

750 posts. That probably means I can time it to get to 1000 at the end of 2014. 


  1. Congratulations on 750 posts!

    We hunt for the Holy Grail even when we’re running campaigns that keep humming along.

    That's true, and it's quite funny isn't it? Perhaps the perfect game is the one you're playing right now, although I wouldn't want to tell that to the eighteen year old version of myself struggling through a game of Mutant Chronicles!

  2. You're like the mirror universe version of me in GM terms. So many games...

    Keep it up! I found myself constantly coming back to this blog when searching for certain things (Mystara Gazateers, Gumshoe) and just ended up following. So many good things here.

  3. It's nice to know that the GM quest for the perfect game is broader experience than my own. I've played a good many games, and the list of those that I keep around "just in case" is always growing. Ironic that the same search is leading us both in different directions, though, with my quest for the game that somehow manages to combine a minimum of fuss in play with a minimum of abstraction - truly the Holy Grail!