Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gripping Play: A Year with Gauntlet Hangouts

Last year, Rich Rogers and Jason Cordova convinced me to start running for The Gauntlet Hangouts. I did my first session on Sept. 1st, 2016—with a table of expert GMs. No pressure there. I began with Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. There’s a symmetry that next month I’m running sessions of Legacy 2e. From September 2016 through September 2017 I’ve played 92 sessions of 34 different Gauntlet games; 72 as a GM, and 20 as a player:

1% 2, 7th Sea 5, Atomic Robo 2, The Black Hack 2, Changeling the Lost PbtA 4, Chill 2, City of Mist 2, Coriolis 2, Cryptomancer 2, Dead Scare 2, Dresden Files Accelerated 3, Dungeon World 5, Fate Core 6, Feng Shui 2 2, Godbound 2, Grimm 2, Kingdom 2, Kuro 2, Legacy Life Among the Ruins 3, Masks: A New Generation 2, Monster Hearts 4, Mutant City Blues 2, Pigsmoke 2, Robert E. Howard’s Conan 2, Shadowrun Anarchy 2, Silent Legions 2, Spirit of 77 2, The Sprawl 2, Tales from the Loop 1, Time & Temp 2, Tweaks 2, The Veil 5, World Wide Wrestling 9, Worlds in Peril 2

I’ve learned from running for this online community. It helped me manage my anxiety for running f2f at conventions. It’s been a solid community with good players. If you’re interested, consider checking out GauntletCon, the massive online con we’re doing in October. Today I’ve pull together a few lessons I’ve learned or had reinforced over this year of gaming.

I entered 2016 jaded about cyberpunk. I’d run Neo Shinobi Vendetta as part of Ocean City Interface, but that focused on spectacle, ninjas, and anime tropes. Actual, real cyberpunk didn’t grab me. But I kept running up against it—Interface Zero in my KS feed, a copy of the Shadowrun Almanac that fell into my hands, a demo game of Headspace. But it would be The Sprawl and The Veil that would turn it around for me.

I’ve talked about both this year. The Sprawl offered me new tools for doing mission-based games. Once I would have dismissed those as limited and uninteresting. I like campaigns and games where players progress. But The Sprawl showed what could be done with a shorter, more lethal cyberpunk campaign. On the other hand, The Veil does something completely different. It provides dynamic tools for world building connected to characters. Every session of The Veil I’ve run has generated interesting questions about society, choice, and identity.

We plan Gauntlet Hangout sessions a couple of months out. This week, for example, I have pick what to run for December. That weirdly means I can challenge myself if I want to. Several times I’ve offered to run games I’ve only skimmed through at that point. Then two weeks out from the session I sit down and work through the game—building cheat and character sheets if necessary, printing out reference material, outlining the sample adventure if there is one. Because I constantly move through these games, I block out exactly two weeks to figure them out—no more. That deadline spurs me on.

In some cases, it isn’t just about reading the rules. For my Fate Month and GUMSHOE Express games, I promised something that didn’t exist at that point. I set myself that two-week window to develop the hack and come up with the mechanics. Some have been easier—it wasn’t too much work to figure out the changes necessary to do Hellboy with Atomic Robo. But rewriting Mutant City Blues and coming up with the Reign of Crows took many more hours. But I did it—and that’s been a satisfying way to fight off any impostor syndrome I have.

While I still haven’t figured out how to build Roll20 character sheets, I have gotten better with Google Sheets. The former requires CSS and higher level knowledge, the latter just means I have to work out the limitations of the formulas there. In particular I’ve paid attention to what people actually use from the character sheet—what elements they have to refer to, how they want their elements presented, what things don’t get filled in. I’ve tried to make these more user friendly.

I’ve also found some of the Google Sheets limitations. For example I’ve been using drop downs and VLOOKUP to give players access to their move selections. That works if I know the move selection pool. For example, I can make up a sheet for each playbook. But if the system has multiple playbooks—like Sprit of ’77 or Pigsmoke, I can’t make sheets for every combination and can’t automate that.

I’ve come to appreciate well-organized rpg books. That’s a slightly different thing than a well-written one, but often they’re linked together. When I’m playing f2f time spent flipping to find a rule or chart becomes an eternity. That’s magnified online. There’s an irony in that because I’m running online, it’s easier for me to flip through a physical book than an electronic one. I already have a bunch of tabs open; pulling up Acrobat Reader eats up desktop space. I almost always print out key sheets and reference materials to have at hand.

If you want to learn a system, write up a cheat sheet for it. That forces you to find the essential resolution systems of the game. In a badly written game you quickly discover how scattershot the explanations are. You’ll have to follow those threads. More importantly you’ll then need to figure out how to express those concepts tightly. You’ll assess what elements will hit the table the most. A couple of times I’ve hit games I thought would be simple, only to discover numerous exceptions, sub-systems, and linked rules. On the reverse, I’ve also hit games I assumed would be difficult to summarize which had a simple system buried under the chrome.

I have to be reminded of this from time to time. If you’re running online, call out players by name—PC or personal. Asking a general question to the group, like “So what are you planning on doing?” or “What does the table have to say about this?” generates dead air. People will hesitate and wait for one another, followed by stepping on each others’ verbal toes.

To ask a general question immediately focus on someone to answer. Like “So what are you planning on doing? Paul, let’s start with you.” It’s a technique I need to internalize. I’ve gotten better about it, but then an awkward silence tells me I’ve just dropped a vague question.

Die rolling can slow things down. It’s the moment of uncertainty where the players’ declarations come into question. Some systems resolve this easily—you know the chance of success. But others have multiple steps. PbtA looks simple but you have two issues. The first is the mechanical side. Usually you have to stop to work through the move rolled. If the move has choices for the player, they have to pick and then show how that works in the fiction. Second, PbtA generally has fewer rolls with more weight each. It can feel weird to have an interesting conversation, but then switch gears to rules text.

I try, if I can, to streamline the number of die rolls. I’m more liberal with my interpretation of what does and doesn’t need to be rolled. If a character has bought a proficiency with something, they can do it. But you shouldn’t gloss over that moment, “OK you don’t need to roll.” Instead make that awesome—it’s a place to show a character’s competency and command over something.

Play is important. Play is vital. If you really want to see how a game operates, you have to play. In this last year I’ve had games that read well hit speed bumps in play. I’d hit stuff that seemed cool but when we got to the table they just got in the way. I’ve worked through adventures that make no sense on the ground. On the other side, I’ve played games I thought would be wonky and had them sing.

A side-effect of that has been to make me impatient with designers and pontificators who critique and comment, but don’t actually play (except maybe at conventions). Maybe impatient isn’t the right word, but more to make me roll my eyes when they insert themselves into conversations to naysay or be negative. The Gauntlet community’s been strong enough I can easily ignore those voices. I just have to remind myself to do so.

I love character and world building. I take copious notes during this section and work hard to reincorporate them. Players invariably come up with cool stuff. It’s part of what I love about PbtA and Fate games—that’s baked into the process. But sometimes you just need to get playing. I’ve hesitated about this because I didn’t want to box players in. Sometimes you just need to get playing. I’ve run several games with pre-gens this year and I’ve been happy with them. The trick: reduce choices (I like six), leave room for the players to tweak, and generally build a character you’d want to run.

1) If you’re running an online two shot, you’re effectively running a four hour convention game with an insanely long break. Be prepared to lose time and direction at the start of session two. 2) You’ll never have the full attention of your players. Everything in their personal environment will be pulling at them. Be comfortable with repeating. 3) Technical issues and schedule conflicts will happen- frequently. Be patient. 4) Sometimes players will do shit that you won’t understand at all. Stop and have them clarify intent. Sometimes they haven’t understood their position. Sometimes they’re just gonzo. 5) Establish how information passes in the group. I make it clear that any info gathered by one group’s available to the others, unless they specific or edit. 6) Model your play structure right at the beginning. 7) Don’t skip tone discussions.

I used to consider myself a responsive GM. I knew I listened to the group and had my finger on the pulse of the game. I could read the table and didn’t need formal feedback. That confidence gave me an even higher level of GM arrogance than I have today. Then I watched Rich do Roses & Thorns. He took feedback at the end of every session. Everyone had to say a thing they didn’t like and then one they liked about the session: the system, the play, the GMing, other players’ behavior, the environment, their own play. My stomach flipped the first time I saw it. I dismissed it as touchy feely. But then I realized two things. First, Rich got solid feedback and actionable points for improvement. Second, my dismissal was actually fear of being wrong. I had to get past that.

So I do Roses & Thorns now. Not every session like some others, but at least every other session. Through it I discover what’s working and not working. Not every exchange offers a revelation, but enough to make it worthwhile. It has a secondary effect, one that echoes my primary reason for using the X-Card. It tells the players I’m going to listen to them. It gives them a better sense of the GM player relationship I picture at the table.

Get into games with other GMs. Have them get into your games. That’s been huge. Every session playing with Rich, Jason, David, Dylan, Christo, or any of dozens of others has shown me something new. 

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