Monday, September 28, 2009

My Biggest Game Master Mistake

It's kind of ironic, for me, that Johnn Four picked Game Master Mistakes as the topic of this month's RPG Blog Carnival. Roleplaying Tips and Campaign Mastery are both great resources, and his GMing advice is, in general, solid. But Roleplaying Tips was also a major part of my most important game mastering mistake.

See, I've got this perfectionist streak. It's under control now, but it used to be a pretty vicious one. There was a period in high school when I would fail entire classes from simply not doing the work, and while that can't all be laid on that tendency, a big part of it was just that my idea of what would be "good enough" was so overwhelming that I didn't want to start at all. Naturally, that was about the same time I started game mastering.

So I went through this stage where I was obsessed with game mastering advice. I pored over the 3e DMG, read the "running the game" section in every roleplaying book I could get my hands on, and combed the net for articles on technique and style. That's where Roleplaying Tips comes in: at the time, it was the major source of game mastering advice on the web, at least that I could find.

And despite all that, the games I ran were terrible. The advice had nothing to do with it; though the quality varied depending on the source, on the whole it was fairly good. But I put more effort into "doing it right" than into just running a fun game. It took me a long time to figure out that it didn't matter how nicely my notes were organized if there was nothing for the players to do.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Next Campaign Is A Long Way Off

I've been thinking a little more lately about running a game again. I don't have time right now (and that's not entirely bad, because the main reason I don't is the amount of gaming I'm already doing) but I've started thinking about it regularly again, sketching out ideas here and there, and figuring out when I might next have the opportunity. I'm determined to get back into it slowly: it'll be next semester at the earliest, and I very well might put it off until next summer or even later. But I'm considering it.

Part of the reason I'm taking it slow, beyond just the time constraints, is that I'm still not sure why the last few games I've run didn't work. I had fun, and the players had fun, but neither the Traveller game nor Is This Foul? ever clicked for me. They were both chores to prep for, and I didn't always look forward to game night. I'm starting to get a better idea about why that was, but I don't want to put the effort into running a regular game again until I've got, at the least, a new tack to take.

I'm also thinking I might actually prep for the game a bit before start up this time around. Normally, there's a pretty short time between idea and execution when it comes to my campaigns; it's normal for me to run a game within just a week or two of coming up with the concept. The trick there is that the two times that technique's been really successful, I was running a pre-existing world; in one case a published campaign setting (in this case, the Diamond Throne), in the other, the setting from a (terrible) novel I'd written several years prior. I'm thinking about giving that world-building thing a try again, so that suggests spending a bit more time on the game than usual.

I'm hesitant to make any dramatic statements about what exactly I'm going to run, because it's so far off that I'm almost guaranteed to change my mind twelve times before it hits the table. But at least for now, I'm thinking it's going to be a fantasy, location-based, sandbox-y thing, because I've been wanting to run something like that since I came to college and it keeps getting pushed back in favor of other ideas. That, in turn, means I want to use either Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord, with plenty of house rules and bits and pieces from other things.

I'd also like it to be a chat game. I've been having a lot of fun playing in the two Trollsmyth's got going right now, and I want to try my hand at setting one up myself. I also like the idea of pulling in players from my entire player base, which is currently pretty scattered geographically. It'd be fun to play some new combinations of people off each other, and starting with a larger pool gives me a better shot at getting a group all willing to put up with romantic shenanigans.

So that's where I'm at as far as running a continuing campaign goes. I might run some one-shots before I get that started (Vampire, Mage, and Promethean will probably get that treatment, since I can't see running a full campaign for any of them soon, but the reason I got them in the first place was to use them) but for now, it's going to be planning, and playing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dungeon Soap Operas are the Best Kind of Soap Operas

It's been three sessions since I rolled any dice in the solo game, and before that it'd been at least five or six sessions since they came up at all. (At least on my side of the screen.) It's not quite free form -- a few spells have been cast, and ability scores referenced -- but, as Trollsmyth mentioned about the time that the new style started, it's definitely shifted more towards relationships and social maneuvering, with the occasional desperate rescue attempt thrown in for good measure.

That's the key word, though: "shifted." The game started out solidly D&D. Lots of mucking about in dungeons, figuring out traps, and getting chased around by spiders. A lot of times my character ended up talking to the various dungeon residents rather than fighting them, and there was a brief detour to the plane of Fairey, but it was still mostly a game about treasure, the nasty things between me and the treasure, and the odd world-threatening artifact. A good game, but nothing too unusual.

Now, yes, it's very different. It's mostly talking, often about other people, and reacting to all the weird social situations my character's gotten herself into. Treasure's no longer an issue, and even saving the world has receded in importance. Now, I spend more time thinking about relationships, between my character and various NPCs, and between those NPCs themselves. An unusual amount of time, for me; while friendship, romance, loyalty, enmity, and other such bonds have always played a part in my games, we've been spending much more time than I'm used to dealing with them, sometimes to the point of simply playing them out. While I liked the game before, I'm greatly enjoying the change.

But it all grew out of that dungeoneering. Mucking about in dungeons gave my character something to do that didn't require complex relationships with several NPCs, or fifty e-mail's worth of setting knowledge. It was fun to do on it's own (particularly the kind of dungeons Trollsmyth runs, where you learn all kinds of things about elven history when you're not busy running for your life), but it also lent itself to developing the kinds of relationships that now support the game. The dungeon, after all, is how my character met those people in the first place, and the danger was part of why she started to care so much. It provided a backdrop, and a backbone, for the development of the friendships we're now exploring.

To take the most obvious example: The big turning point in the campaign, the moment when it became clear even to me that something different was going on, was when my character and one of the clerics she'd hired back at the beginning of the game got themselves involved in an awkward budding romance, and we spent most of several sessions just playing it out. But things had been developing in that direction for a while, all in the context of their adventures. He delayed an expedition half a day looking for her when she disappeared into Fairey; she opened the potentially deadly door into the Tower of the Stars partly so he wouldn't. When they finally acknowledged, and acted on, those feelings, it was with that history. Dungeoneering created situations where those moments could happen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Magic Item: Wayedge

Taichara and Trollsmyth have both posted versions of a magic item called "Wayedge." I don't think I've ever posted a magic item to this blog, but I thought now would be a good time to start. (Dave, at the Tower of the Archmage, was similarly inspired.) Without further introduction:

This slightly curved, elegant steel blade is called Wayedge. Its grip is a striking black, and feels almost like wet, polished stone to the touch. Those who have heard of it claim that it is never found, only won: though the details of the stories vary from teller to teller, and none seem to agree on just who the past weilders of the blade have been, all who speak of Wayedge claim that it always comes as a reward for a test of wisdom. Sometimes, this is an obvious thing—perhaps unravelling a puzzle presented by the sword's current possessor. (In the stories, those who own the blade are often curiously ready to give it away, despite its reputation as an object that makes all tasks easier and all places closer.) Other times, the test is more subtle—it might simply be that the blade is secreted in a place quite difficult to reach, and thus requies some cleverness to gain.

Wayedge is a sword +1 that grants it's weilder a +1 bonus to all saves, and can undo any knot without harming the rope or fiber that forms it. The blade also eases any journey its possessor undertakes in a number of mundane ways: weather turns fairer, most met on the road are friendlier, and often the weilder picks up an uncanny knack for shortcuts. However, whether because of the history of the blade, or on account of some peculiar power, at some point on most longer journeys (and many shorter ones), its weilder will be greeted by someone who seems to recognize the blade but offers only mysterious riddles for conversation. Sometimes this is simply a fellow traveller, who may perhaps offer advice or warning once his riddles have been answered, but more often than most who possess the blade would like these riddles are posed by someone who could present a significant obstacle to the journey.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters

Robertson Games recently posted an interesting contribution to the on-going discussion of how to define "old school," Differences & Directions in Dungeons & Dragons, which lists a bunch of differences he sees between Basic D&D and the latest edition. It hits most of the major features that I think of as differentiating the styles behind the two games, and both makes it clear that neither style is inherently superior to the other and demonstrates why different people might naturally prefer one style to the other.

In fact, it creates a pretty thorough checklist of things that I think are awesome in the Labyrinth Lord game. But not a completely thorough one, and that's another advantage of the list. It presents old school as a handful of features that, while they work well together, can also be taken and considered individually or in groups.

In my case, besides some quibbles about the power level part of the list (I love having just one spell slot to wrangle at first level, but I can't legitimately describe a game where a gang of 1st and 2nd level characters end up on the plane of Fire, however badly they do there, as "low power.") the main area where I don't clearly lean towards the Basic side is in the "Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters" category. I really can't be -- I'm having too much fun playing a nixie, which isn't as far out there as you can be in terms of monsters with weird powers, but it's still a lot more exotic than the standard options.

But I'm not completely in the 4e camp, either. The character who's now a nixie started out as a dwarf, and a fairly non-descript one at that. No unusual powers, fairly standard backstory. Likewise, I tried to make my cleric a reasonably typical human with a reasonably typical backstory. I've been having all kinds of fun with her, because "reasonably typical" means she's actually fairly odd in some respects, by my standards -- she's argued with the party half-ogre in favor of slavery, and her religious ideas are, obviously, pretty far out from my own.

For the most part, I like making characters who are fairly normal, particularly when the setting itself is interesting. It's easier to explore a distinct milieu when my character's not an odd-ball herself. But I don't mind at all when a character doesn't stay normal. I'm much happier with my dwarf-turned-nixie than I would have been if she'd stayed a dwarf; though then again, that's partly because of all the interesting social issues it brings up for her and the rest of the group. And those wouldn't have been as interesting if I hadn't already been playing a relatively normal dwarf to begin with.

(Not entirely normal, mind. One of the things that made her being a nixie interesting to begin with was that there were a number of features of dwarven society that she really wasn't too thrilled with, but I didn't make her knowing that, and she only really found that out herself after hanging out with humans for a while.)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Writing as a Player

So. Posting. It's been light lately. Trollsmyth's already covered a big part of why pretty well, pointing out that the solo game we're doing has recently veered into social, setting-heavy territory that makes it even more difficult to discuss intelligently than most campaigns. I've also just moved back to college, and I'm still adjusting to the changes in my schedule and social life associated with that. But I'm also still figuring out how to write about being a player, and how to think about it in a way that I can write about.

It's pretty easy for me to write about DMing, because when I DM, I'm thinking a lot about what I'm doing and the technique I'm using and so on. I'm naturally in an analytical mode, because I want to improve what I'm doing. As a player, I'm mostly thinking about what my character's doing and how she's going to react. It's much less about technique and much more about the game itself, which runs me right into the problem that Trollsmyth discussed.

When I do think about technique during a game that I'm playing in, it's usually in reference to something that the DM seems to be doing. Lately, for instance, I've been thinking a lot about player failure, since my character in the solo game has been doing a lot of pretty serious failing, and I've been having all kinds of fun doing it. Part of the reason for that is that even when things go spectacularly wrong in the game, they often end up working out in her favor in some way. Things don't always work out exactly well, and there's usually some fairly significant fallout along the way, but she's also gotten a number of rewards -- and a few allies -- by taking advantage of the consequences of failed die rolls.

The trouble with writing about that from a technique standpoint is that I don't really know what the DM is doing, since I'm not the one doing it. It's even possible that this pattern I've noticed is completely unintentional. I've gotten some ideas from it for how I'm going to run things in the future, but that doesn't help much because to focus strictly on what I "would" do makes the discussion a little too hypothetical to be of much interest to me.

On the other hand, I've gotten some interesting ideas out of looking at my reaction as a player to various DMing techniques, so despite the problems with that format it can be worthwhile. But I haven't been playing exclusively all that long, so I'm still figuring it out.