Friday, February 27, 2009

The Problems I Noticed Are Surely Outnumbered By Those I Didn't

Game night tonight, but I thought I'd squeeze in a little blog time in just the same, since I don't want to break the short little streak I've built up. I've been trying very hard to avoid the mistakes I made in my last long-running campaign (at least, the ones I noticed). This isn't a long list, but they were major enough to bug me.

First, the map and the history were both kind of incoherent. If I ever get around to running that sequel that some of the players keep bugging me about (which I am considering) I'm going to have to go back, redraw the maps, and rewrite the history, so it all conforms to my specifications. This is mostly a peeve; the players never noticed, so I'm not too worried about it if it happens again. I'm mostly dealing with it by avoiding detailed references to ancient history, which isn't too tough in a space game where the secret backstory mostly amounts to "some bad stuff happened, and then there was an empire." And Traveller has built in controls on maps. (The ones that matter, anyway. My planetary maps are still a mess.)

Second, and a much larger problem in theory but again, in execution, something that bothered me much more than the players, my last campaign fell prey to a bit of the ol' GMPC. I had one character who I put more thought into than strictly necessary, and had this whole "lost heir of an ancient empire" plot attached to him. In that specific case, it worked out okay because he spent most of his time getting kidnapped and rescued, one of the other (female) players really liked him, and tagging that plot to an NPC let me avoid playing favorites amongst the PCs. But still -- I'm avoiding world-saving plots in general this time around, just to bypass that whole issue.

Lastly, the largest actual problem with the previous game was that almost all of the plot revolved around two characters. The two active characters, with the most complete and hook-filled backstories, and the ones who really went around doing things, but still. I could have put more attention on the quieter characters, even if it would have been more work. Which is exactly what I'm doing this time around. Mongoose Traveller helps some; the two quietest characters both have hook-laden NPC relationships from character creation. (One of them is of the "secret mission" type, which honestly bugs the heck out of me but which I'll leave off complaining about for another day; it's something I can work with.)

The only problem with the way I've been handling things so far is that I've been leaving my two most active characters sub-plot and personal-villain-less, even though they do have those things in their backstories, because my attention has been on the quieter people. Which is okay, since they give themselves things to do on their own, but I'm still working on the details of the balance.

Anyhow. Should be a fun session tonight; I've done something mildly ridiculous with one of the planets they'll be hopping off to, so if they figure that out (and don't strangle me for it) I'll definitely have to post about it here. And I still don't think I've done justice to Trollsmyth's game, yet. But these are matters for another post. It's Friday! Go game!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ten Monsters of a Dubious Fascination

Jumping on the monster band wagon here; I'm probably missing a few, since I don't actually have my Monster Manuals around to flip through.

1. Yak Folk. Shapes-shifting sorcerers who can summon genies and like to capture slaves? Sign me up. Motive, modus operandi, and a sense of style. Pity I never got to actually use one in a game -- I had plans, but the campaign ended.

2. Yuan-ti. Used them once, in the same campaign that was going to host Yak Folk. I'd dropped hints that there was this psionic Yuan-ti empire off in the distance, scheming schemes and causing trouble, but then the campaign ended, as previously mentioned. At any rate, I've got this thing for the darkest reaches of the jungle, and ancient temples built by degenerate civilizations, and Yuan-ti fit that bill nicely.

3. Ochre Jelly. I almost used these, once, in the session that became Gnome Town. That was originally going to be sort of a horror scenario, and I thought it'd be great if they started dropping from the ceiling and dissolving people. Someday.

4. Gelatinous Cube. Never used this one in a game, either. Noticing a pattern, yet? My D&D games in high school were never long on monsters, I guess. But gelatinous cubes are just cool. I don't know how you can't like a gelatinous cube. If I ever run 3rd edition again, I'm going to be sorely tempted to engage in some template foolishness -- you can give one an Int score high enough to take a class with the Fiendish Creature template, and then you're only a few levels of Monk away from a cube with a speed of +35 ft. and the ability to deflect arrows.

5. Naga. Mostly because of Nagathas, from the Monster Manual IV -- humanoids that spirit nagas have kidnapped, to twist into dark servants. (I always thought it'd be neat for that to happen to some NPCs the party knew.) But the whole guardians-of-ancient-magic thing rocks pretty hard, just on its own.

6. Werewolf. Mostly for the classic monster mojo; who doesn't like to play "guess the werewolf?" as peasants get slaughtered? I've also had some fun with them in campaigns past, using tribes of them as the "semi-hostile humanoids living uncomfortably close to town." They're a good mix of civilized and crazy monster, which makes them very versatile.

7. Golems. I've always loved robots and created beings in general, and I like the particular aesthetics that golems have. Unfortunately, I've never had a group get high enough level to really deal with a golem -- but next time I run D&D, I'm not going to let that stop me.

8. Blue Dragon. Why I didn't use these in the desert game I ran (the one that was going to have Yuan-ti and Yak Folk) I'll never know. Never got around to it, I guess. These are my dragon of choice, because I like the idea of dragons who think of themselves as lords of their domain, but are still more interested in dragon-y things -- eating sheep, collecting treasure -- than actual politics.

9. Storm Giant. Giants in general are a big list of creatures I never used because I never ran a high enough level game. At some point, I'm going to run a very giant-centered game, where most of the known world is ruled by different clans of giants. The players would be the members of the oppressed tiny folk small enough to fit into those weird catacombs that the giants don't know about.

10. Constrictor Snake, Giant. Um. Yes. Every campaign I've run for the past, oh, five years, all except the first two, have featured, at some point, a giant snake that tried to crush and eat the party. I don't quite know why, except that it's fun. Who doesn't like it when a giant snake tries to crush and eat the party?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Post-Apocalyptic Settlement Generation

Crazy idea I had the other day in class: hack the Traveller world development system for settlements in a post-apocalyptic game. (This isn't entirely an original idea; there was an idea going around a while back for Wanderer, a fantasy version of Traveller.) It doesn't track exactly, but with a couple of adjustments I think it'd work pretty well.

The categories include:
Environment -- How livable the wasteland is around the settlement
Mutation -- How amusingly messed up the flora, fauna, and residents are
Population -- How many people live here
Territory -- How large a territory outside the settlement they patrol and control
Government -- The kind of government they have
Law -- How likely they are to shoot you on sight for various offenses
Tech Level -- How cool their toys are
Fuel Station -- How good their local gas station and repair shop is

They'd affect each other in much the same way Traveller world stats do. Currently I'd think Mutation is worse the less livable the Environment is, Population is higher in better Environments, Territory and Government both key off of population, Law is based on Government, and Tech Level is affected by a bunch of different factors. I'm also considering a "Religion" stat, because of the importance of bizarre degenerate belief systems in post-apocalyptic stories, but it would also damage the six numbers plus TL and Fuel code Traveller resemblance.

Friday, February 20, 2009

It Took Me Eight Years To Figure This Out!

Last night's game (Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord chat game) triggered a minor epiphany for me. Nothing earth-shatteringly major, but it was a bit of a "where have you been all my life!" kind of moment.

Most of the session involved exploring a crumbling elven villa, the sort of standard ruined structure dungeoncrawl that forms a large part of the basic D&D experience. Which I had never, ever done before, to my great sadness. Those closest I've ever come was playing some of those early 3rd edition adventures -- the Sunless Citadel, something about an evil coin, and a few of those free adventures they used to have on the wizards website -- or rather, attempting to play them, since we very rarely ever got to the dungeon itself, and always abandoned the ones we did get to after the first few rooms. And those weren't even really dungeons; I don't know that the word quite applies to small, linear complexes designed specifically to support a single story.

At any rate, we quickly got it into our heads that "dungeon" meant "hack 'n slash," a static complex full of monsters, treasures, and traps, that didn't move around, didn't interact with each other, and didn't suggest any interesting decisions. Monsters were there to be fought, and traps meant rolling dice to see if you'd taken damage. So I spent my first couple years of gaming without any dungeons. Without a whole lot of D&D, even -- we were just as likely to play d20 Modern, or d20 Star Wars -- but when we did play D&D, we were messing around with Drow politics and getting sucked into inexplicable planes of ultimate evil intended as some kind of commentary on typical fantasy tropes. I finally ran a dungeon of my own, but it was just as uninspiring as my early concept would suggest. Fun, sure, since it was a light popcorn game, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Cue the Old School Renaissance. Suddenly, you've got a bunch of people writing about dungeons, not as story-filled lairs (how a lot of the online GMing advice I obsessively read in my early years treated such underground complexes) but as strange places full of mystery, ready to be explored. The idea of a dungeon as fundamentally weird place, that expected the players to explore, move around areas that were too dangerous for them, and solve problems using their own resources rather than in-game ones, was absolutely electrifying. I haven't, despite several bursts of enthusiasm and a few scattered attempts, run something like this of my own, and that's largely because the idea was so completely, deliciously alien to anything I'd gamed before that it's taken me two years to completely understand it.

Through all this, I never gave much thought to playing through a dungeon myself. Most of the other GMs I know aren't interested in them, and at any rate, I don't play much. (I have this weird idea that I don't like it, at least when compared to how much I enjoy DMing. More on that soon.) When the opportunity came up in Trollsmyth's game, I was certainly intrigued, but mostly thought of it as a way to get a better feel for dungeon design -- to see the beast in actual play, as it were.

Which I did. I've now got a much better sense for exactly why certain dungeon features ought to be arranged in the ways they usually are -- the values of interconnectivity, for instance -- and a much better idea of what a typical bought of dungeon exploration is supposed to look like. But all that, while important, is also missing the point a bit.

Dungeons are fun. Exploring dungeons is fun. I've tended to fixate on the gonzo/weird/inexplicable aspect of a traditional megadungeon, but they're fun for reasons even more basic than that. Mapping out a place, learning about it and how it was built, finding neat things in it, figuring out where the danger points are and trying to deal with them -- fun.

And I've been missing it, my entire gaming life.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lost Temple of the Laser Snakes

This whole dungeon kick I've been on lately culminated on Friday when I got my gang of Traveller characters to steal "the Jeweled Bird of Zi Amon" from a temple full of snake people. Good times.

I got to test out a bit of dungeon running in a situation where the entire campaign didn't hinge on it being interesting, and I thought it went rather well. Not something I'm going to make the focus of the campaign, but at least one player seemed to like it a lot, so I'll probably throw in similar activities from time to time. Perhaps not as straight up dungeon as this one, since he seemed more keen on the pulpy wackiness of it all, but definitely more artifact snatch 'n grab, as an occasional alternative to their political shenanigans.

It's strengthened my interest in running a dungeon as a full campaign, because I'm beginning to be more confidant that I can pull it off. I've had bad experiences running dungeoncrawls in the past, but I think I've gotten past the "a dungeon is a room full of things to fight" idea that caused most of my problems. With interesting rooms, and interesting reasons to head into the dungeon, it could work.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Much to Tell?

Sometimes I wonder just how much I should let the players in on my process. I tend to make up a lot of stuff on the spot. I've run whole session's pretty much off the top of my head -- both one shots and sessions in a continuing campaign. And I have a habit of just throwing things out into the ether, without a whole lot of explanation, and defining them only when they need an explanation or if the player's come up with something interesting.

And it works. I've run some good games this way. But I've gone back and forth on whether it's a good thing for my player's to know exactly how much I'm making stuff up on the spot. On the one hand, I want them to know that they can pretty much do whatever they want. I might need a minute to think, but I can handle a new direction, if it sparks their fancy.

But then I feel like talking about "oh, yeah, that was totally on the spot" undermines the sense that the world is real, and exists regardless of their actions. That's a sense that's largely created by making it true -- for instance, if and when they get back to Zalcrat and discover that a bunch of things have gone wrong since their last visit -- but there's a certain amount of sleight of hand involved, too.

Mostly I just never feel mysterious enough, as a GM. I was into the "evil secret plans! evil laugh!" thing for a while, and while these days I'm much happier responding to (and complicating) the weird hijinks my players get up to rather than thinking up ways to screw them over, I do kind of miss the mystique of it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Ideal Player Mix

Over the last couple of campaigns I've run, I've started putting together a theory about player types, and the mix of them that works for me. It's inspired by the Robin Laws theory, which I snagged a bunch of names from, but I've focused in on the specific types that interest me, and tweaked a couple of the definitions.

First, there's instigators. I need at least one in a four or five person group, and if they're capable of working together it's okay to have two. These are the schemers, people who stir things up because they're going after their own fun. They crash weddings, assassinate NPCs, and generally keep the game going and energy high. They don't have to be off-the-wall wacky; the Duke Marlow Burrin in my current Traveller game is one, and he's a fairly low key personality, who just happens to keep himself busy directing the team and finding new jobs for them to do.

Then there's character actors. I like to have one or two of them in a game; they're not as vital as an instigator, but they also don't have quite the same destructive potentional. Not nearly as highly charged as instigators, they won't just run off and do things because they seem interesting; they need to have a reason to do things. Luckily, they tend to be pretty good at supplying those reasons, and give me a lot of material to throw interesting events at them. They also tend to provide a lot of fuel for instigators, providing events and ideas for instigators to plan around and interfere with. Sigrid Halstead was the main character actor in Is This Fair; she wasn't always coming up with crazy schemes, like Blank, but she acted as a foil for his antics, and her own dependable motivations drove the heart of the game.

Another important type are lurkers. These might have a touch of the character actor in them, and often give me long backstories, and come up with strange goals for their characters to work towards. But at the table, they're not nearly as active as the first two types -- they tend to go along with whatever the instigators or character actors have planned. If they do have their own goals, they tend to let the instigators in the party come up with avenues to attack them. This makes them vital as a glue for a party, and my best games have all had at least one.

Then, finally, there's power gamers. They're in it for the numbers. Easy to motivate, easy to please, and as long as they don't badger me about how they "should" be allowed to use this or that power combination, easy to manage. I don't consider them vital to a game, but I don't mind having a couple along for the ride; they often use the game system to come up with creative strategies, and if they get along with the instigators can provide valuable "jam partners."

The important thing about my ideal player mix is that it is a mix. I've had trouble with games that were all instigators; they tend to get into fights over who's mad scheme gets enacted first. A too-lurker heavy game would have obvious difficulties; too many character actors, and there's just too much material for me to completely incorporate into the game, if it doesn't turn into one big talk-fest where no one ever does anything. A power gamer heavy game could work, but I don't think it'd be all that interesting; that type is best in a support role.

But an instigator, a couple of character actors, a lurker, and a power gamer make for a great game. Just the right mix of random chaos, story-building motivation, and "there for the ride" resources. I don't know just how universal this combination is, but it's worked for me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just throwing another idea out here --

I've only got one concrete room idea for this megadungeon I keep writing about. I came up with it about a year ago, when I was working on my that first strange hex map, and decided to stick a dungeon in that a couple of cultists were looting. If I'd ever actually run that thing, I think the dungeon in question would have become a sort of megadungeon -- I had the idea that it would turn out to be a much larger complex than the single level I had detailed at first.

The room in question was the reason I suspected it would be a much larger complex; it was intended as a room that the PCs could not beat at the early levels, and would have to come back to much later if they wanted to find out what was going on with it. Similarly, it was my explanation for why the cultists had camped out in the hex; they were trying to figure out a way past the room, because they wanted something that was in the deeper part of the complex.

I assumed the PCs wouldn't get past the room because it was inhabited by an iron golem -- CR 13 in an area otherwise populated by first and second level threats. It was inside a circle drawn on the floor, and would not move unless someone, or something, entered that circle, at which point it would attack until they left the circle again. I calculated the size of the circle precisely to allow the PCs to spend a round in it before the golem reached them, so they had a decent chance to figure out what was going on before they got killed.

In the center of the circle, where the golem stood unless disturbed, was a trap door, which they would notice upon investigation or if they provoked the golem into stepping onto it. The idea being that they would enter this room, discover the trap door, realize that there was no way they could get past the golem at their current level, and wonder about it for another ten levels, or until they acquired some other bit of equipment or knowledge that would let them get past it.

Obviously, in a true megadungeon, conceived from the start for that purpose, the golem wouldn't be sitting on top of the only entrance to the next level. Most likely, it guard an entrance to a strange sub-level, or a shortcut to a much deeper level. And I'd stay open to the idea that the players would find some tricky way around the guardian -- I'd draw up at least the basics of whatever was behind the door, just in case. But I like the idea of areas that the players just can't get to at the current moment, that they can come back to much later, if they remember. And I also just like the idea aesthetically, the lone statue guarding some dark secret.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Running A Few Short Campaigns

So here's the plan. Over the next to years, I'm going to run between four and six campaigns. One per semester (not counting the one I'm running now) and maybe one this summer and one the next, depending on whether the other GMs in my home group decide to run anything, and whether I need a break at that point. If one of the semester campaigns really takes off, and most of the group involved will still be at school the following semester, I'll consider extending it for another half a year or so. But barring that, I'm going to indulge my "gamer ADD" a little, since it's fairly convenient to do it this way right now.

I've got a lot of different games to run. I'm running Traveller now, so that's off the list, but sometime in the next two years I'd like to run (or play) Vampire or Mage, futz around with Encounter Critical, start up a OD&D/S&W megadungeon, and maybe even give 4e D&D another try. A couple of my players have been bugging me about running a sequel to my Arcana Evolved game, so that might get dropped into the lineup, and part of me wants to see what I can do with GURPS, now that I'm a little older and a little wiser. And that's just games I've already got -- nevermind the countless new obsessions I'll likely accumulate over the next two years.

I've spent a lot of time grousing about how I'd like to run long, epic campaigns, but really, I've had a lot of success with short, focused games. The players like the sense of accomplishment, and I like being able to move on to the next project. And right now is a pretty convenient time to be running a lot of short campaigns -- the semester structure encourages it, lots of turnover in the player base, fairly easy to find new possible players. So for now, that's what I plan to do.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More Thoughts on a Megadungeon

Another idea that I've been toying with, for megadungeon purposes, is making something that connects to a lot of different places. Maybe even a lot of different times. Either there are portals within it, or there are alternate stairs up that lead to different places than the one you went down, but the basic idea is, you can go into the megadungeon, come out in a different place, and have some wilderness/city adventure wherever it is you've come up.

Like my sewer/city ideas, I'm wary about creating way too much work for myself. If I'm running a megadungeon, why should I be spending my prep time working up a bunch of different wilderness areas? I'd risk creating a game that mostly takes place above ground, with the megadungeon itself used for travel or side tracks.

But then I start thinking about the possibilities. What if, either by design or natural occurrence, the large, well-appointed tombs of powerful people physical connect to the Netherworld? What if the megadungeon is the structure of the world, and connects to the normal world at key anchor points? What if those anchor points are a set of artifacts, which the players can remove for their own use, at the risk of seriously futzing with the structure of the universe?

Ultimately, the idea is just an attempt to avoid "limiting" myself. Which is ridiculous, but it's an urge I get some time. "I can't decide which setting to use, so I'll just use all of them!" Bad idea, but I keep having it.

I'll probably just keep the idea up my sleeve for when I need an interesting sublevel or something. Make the secondary entrance a source of weirdness entering the dungeon, rather than primarily a location in itself.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Players Love to Fail

The Traveller game I ran Friday was a smashing success. Lots of mad hijinks, and everyone's jazzed to play next time. They even managed to pay off the costs of their first jump, and are well on their way to making their monthly mortgage payment. (I mentioned that the game really ought to be called "Space Accountant," because we've never had so much fun keeping track of money.) The interested will find detailed descriptions of the game at the campaign website.

The game reminded me of one of the first things I learned about game mastering; one of the "secrets to my success," if you will. Players love to fail. Not consistently, not exclusively, and not crushingly, but the most memorable sessions I've run were when the villain got away. (Closely followed by sessions where they finally got the villain that kept getting away, but the point still stands.)

The key is making failure interesting. Having the villain escape is a pretty interesting outcome for a combat, since it gives the players a fun, straightforward goal -- get the villain! (Barring bullshit GM shenanigans, but most decent GMs know not to set up invincible super-villains. That's not cool.) Generally, players will accept any failure that opens up an obvious avenue for adventure, or that makes their situation dramatically and entertainingly worse.

Mine weren't, for example, super pleased when Nina botched her Medic rolls and let an at the time nameless NPC die, but later they found out that the NPC had been the daughter of the Warden of the planet, prompting a small "oh, nice," moment. Later, when Alice Dice failed her streetwise roll to find out where some escaped prisoners were hiding out, she was told that, "Arr, there are some prisoners hanging out in the woods! They'll probably be eaten by dragons!" instead of a simple declaration of failure.

And there are the usual reasons why failure is a good addition to a campaign. Failure gives PCs a sense of consequence to their actions. Their successes are meaningful because they work for them, not because the GM hands them out. But players also like failing; it's not just that their successes are sweeter once they finally do achieve them. (Assuming they have some hope of success -- there's no faster way to destroy a players interest in the game than to convince them that the GM is arbitrarily out to get them.)

Sure, they'll groan and throw their hands up when the villain gets away, or one of their best NPC buddies dies, or their character gets eaten by a dragon -- but those are moments when they're involved in the game, and those are the sessions that they leave ready for the next one.