Wednesday, October 23, 2013

12 Weekend RPG Lessons

This weekend I ran two sessions for Virtuacon- Microscope at 10PM Friday and Fate Accelerated at 9AM Sunday. The first session created the world for the second. I had two players from the first return for the second. Unfortunately I had two last-minute drop outs from the Sunday game (work event and family illness) which cut us down to three players. I still enjoyed it. I also ran a pretty satisfying f2f Legend of the Five Rings session Sunday evening. Saturday I moderated the three rpg panels I posted about yesterday.

In any case, here are twelve things I learned or noticed this weekend.

1. Have your water ready. And have a lozenge or something like that at hand. Online games can be intense; I don’t like taking too many breaks in them. Personally I have to get better at pacing and balancing online. Since I can’t pick up cues as easily as f2f, I get more tense. That’s especially true with one-shots. With extended online campaigns I eventually relax and I figure the players out. I can’t do that in a one-shot so my tendency is to keep moving, keep the pace up, and not stop.

2. A piece of advice that came out in the Better Player panel: if you want to be better, become its biggest fan. Make the game into your obsessive fandom. Love it like you love Firefly or Dr. Who or whatever your Geek-cult is. During the panel I nodded, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Being a better player’s in good part a question of mindset. Psych yourself up and put yourself in a good place and you’ll enjoy it more. Embrace the game and see what joy you can find in that. There's a kind of weird gaming Pascal's Wager going on there. 

3. I’ve now taught Microscope a couple of ways. Participating while teaching yields stronger results than simply overseeing. For the Virtuacon game I once again opted to act as moderator only, except to answer a few questions. I thought that would help the players feel like I wasn’t in the way of things. But it didn’t provide good benchmarks or help them warm up.

Events remain the hardest elementt. I still have a tendency to fall back to generalities over specifics. For example dropping in “The War Between the Reks and Droogs Begins.” That event has some detail but isn’t evocative- and more importantly, it isn’t a specific narrow slice of time. It needs something like “Busker Huth ignites the war between the Reks and Droogs by shooting his rival Dugger Droog.” Now we have named characters and a history of previous tensions. Players can run with those more fully elsewhere in the timeline. Another bad habit I have is suggesting a period in my event: “Out of Control Storms Sweep Across the Islands.” That implies a wider range of time. Instead I need to offer something like “The first of a series of Class Five Hurricane destroys the island of Thrombone and its capital.”

So next time I do this I need to participate- and probably kick off the first round just to make it easier. And I need to make sure I do my events right. I might make a couple of other changes. First, I restricted who could answer questions (my replacement for scenes). That’s an unnecessary complication. Second, I need to make clear that the history they’re building will be the lead up to any scenario- rather than groups playing within that timeline. Third, I have to use something, anything, else besides Google Docs to handle this. G+ Hangouts and Docs don’t work together well with multiple editors. I thought it might be a function of the program nesting, but one player had the same problems using it outside. It also loses the visual appeal of the cards. Several programs create pseudo-post its  and I need to use one of those.

4. Having seen my office from two different angles in video backgrounds, I spent yesterday straightening up.

5. I was initially skeptical about the way Virtuacon opted to handle the panels: coming up with topics and then gathering participants  I’m used to people assembling panels and submitting them as events. I wasn’t sure how it would work and I expressed my worries a couple of times. I can say that I was completely wrong. The line-up of panels and talent ended up amazing- and that’s looking outside the three panels I managed. Virtuacon had fifteen total panels running across the three days. Impressive, wide-ranging, and well done.

6. I really like Fate Accelerated. I need to practice and get better with it. I like the combination of transparency of mechanics with rich possibilities. When I run online, I don’t want too many tools or details (like map measurements or whatever) in the way. Fate allows for that. But I really need to get good with the system. I’m still quite bad at forcing compels and bringing that idea into play. I have to overcome my hesitation and really see how that works as a part of the game's engine.

7. I’ve been reasonably lucky in my time on the Interwebz. I’ve only dealt with a little bit of trolling- usually people with strong opinions about gaming stuff who take exception to some minor point. But that’s been relatively rare. I’ve got white male privilege on my side and I tend to avoid political statements and confrontation. So the public Q&A feed during my final RPG panel threw me off a little. Not just for the nastiness, but for the sheer stupidity of it. It seems like such a low-stakes arena to waste your time coming up with douchery. Weird.

8. I realized what I love even more than the play process of Microscope is the GM post-processing. Obviously that only really applies if you’re using a session to build a world for play. But I love going back and tightening connections between ideas and figuring out the bigger picture implied by the history. I have as much fun trying to suss out what elements can be used for play- finding great story hooks- as I do creating it at the table. That’s probably a selfish thing- I get to have my collaboration and then my personal control. Still, it works for me.

9. I really want and need to run and play more online.

10. All three panels I ran had great ideas. One piece of advice really hit me between the eyes. Over the years we’ve had many people leave our gaming groups- some from conflicts. That’s never easy. I opened the Handling Difficult Players panel with the idea that we wanted to play with the difficult players. We'd assume "Just don’t play with them" wasn’t viable for any number of reasons (friends, connections, etc). At the end though Filamena put a twist on that concept. She suggested that if you do have to ask someone to leave- in the end its about you not being able to provide the experience they want at the table. They need something else from the game- a different play style, a chance to argue, validation through dominance- that you as a GM can’t provide. Given that, they need to be playing with another group, one which can meet those needs. It might seem obvious to some, but it hadn’t clicked for me before.

11. I loved what the players came up with in the Fate Accelerated session. They spent some time building up resources, they established new stunts and aspects in play, and they pulled some things out of their asses. I’d plotted a bunch of different possible hooks and threads for the scenario and I wasn’t sure where they’d go. They went with the Burning Zeppelin Crash. Other scenario paths they didn’t follow: Threat of the Word Demon; Exploring the Dig Site; Secrets of the Holographic Library; and Corrupted Word Smiths.

12. I’ve been to a bunch of conventions: GenCon, Origins, MichiCon, and many others. A ta guess, I’d say four dozen. Of those, I organized or helped with the management of a half dozen. I’ve also participated in a couple of online events.

Virtuacon was the most satisfying and fun convention I’ve attended. I enjoyed running my games here more than I have at f2f cons. I loved the lead up to the convention. I dug being able to run my panels. I appreciated the international flavor- with gamers from across Europe and North America. The UTC timing thing looked overly complicated to me, but the set-up encouraged players and GMs to run at odd times and get new people in.

The existence of a continuous online G+ Hangouts tavern gave a spine to the experience. I never went there, but I checked in and watched the discussion bounce around. I think that’s an amazing innovation and one other online cons should do if they can get a mass of participants. That combined with the diversity of voices appearing in the Virtuacon G+ community and on RPG Geek made the experience feel open, fun, and inclusive. 


  1. I only ran one game but it was a hell of a positive experience for me as well. Everyone that I talked to seem to have a great time. I also agree with 12. Of all the cons I have attended virtually or in real life, this one was the best.

  2. #10 is actually a tool I used as a manager. If I had people who would not perform, I would point blank ask them what their deal was: why aren't you doing this, what is wrong with this, where do you think the target should be? It helped me get inside their head. I could then help them better understand how they intersected with the task and why it was important to have it completed as desired. It also provided me with feedback to channel up the system. It also led to several, "You obviously are not happy here, what can you and I do to get you into a role within the company, or without, where you will be happy?"

    You can absolutely do the same with gaming. It will feel weird at first, but I think it goes a long way to gain buy in that the GM is not a douche and really just wants everyone to have a good time. The catch is not coming off as a "boss/manager."