October 28, 2013

Two Steps

Today I'm making up for being late with the post last week with a bonus post.  I'm going to describe how I determine how much to prep.  I prep a lot for my games.  That's just my style, but I think it's important to do at least a bit; as others have written, your prep should be efficient.  It's all about the most bang for your buck, so to speak.

I write two steps ahead of my players.  Being two steps ahead of the players is very important.  Two steps exactly.  Here’s why…
While you’re planning, the PCs are currently in transition.  They have finished something (last encounter; last session; last adventure) and are about to start something else (next encounter; next session; next adventure).  After the next thing is where you get two steps ahead. 

Your next step needs to be informed by where you are, and where you want to go (two steps ahead).  To build the hooks into the next step that lead to the step after, you need to fully think through two steps ahead to generate them. You're on A.  You're planning B.  You need to know quite a lot about C before you can plan the parts of B that lead to C.  You're close enough to C to start committing to certain things, and not so far that you really risk wasting that effort if the PCs go a different way.

Planning further than two steps can be harmful.  When you set things in stone, you’re loathe to change them; and even if you maintain your flexibility, it can be a waste of time as you’re constantly rewriting.  You might have the time for that, but I don’t.

What about outlining the campaign?
There are two kinds of campaign prep I do:  Scene Daydreaming and Adversary Planning.  Scene Daydreaming is when I come up with a really cool scene I want to see happen.  I don’t actually write a set of rails to get the PCs there; instead I look for opportunities to use that scene whenever I start adventure and session planning.  Adversary Planning is where I come up with cool bad guys and what they want and are trying to do.  I don’t build rails around this either.  Usually I don’t care if it ever comes to light – it just helps me design my two steps.

Isn’t the next adventure more than two steps ahead, in terms of scenes?
You might notice that I’m staying two steps ahead on multiple levels:  Two scenes ahead, two sessions ahead, and two adventures ahead. 

My scenes have three stages of writing: Outline level, stats level, and story level.  At the outline level, I have a few sentences about the scene, what it could be used for, alternatives to it, and how it connects to the plots in the game.  At the stats level, I have provided stuff like maps, handouts, skill check target numbers or modifiers, and NPC stats (as needed), and I may have written some “box text” or bullet point notes.  That scene is still not set in stone!  I change my scenes on the fly as they approach, based on the characters’ actions.  At the story level, I determine the reason why the scene is happening, and what ripples it will cause.  That sets the scene’s contribution to the story that’s unfolding.

What about modules?
I actually run a lot of modules these days.  I add a lot of detail to the modules, including new encounters and weaving in character plots and hooks.  Even a heavily designed module encounter is  only "stats level" design - I still have to tailor it to the player characters' decisions and recent actions.  Have they summarily executed all the other goblins?  Well then this next room's goblins will express disgust at the PCs' murderous slaughter, yet also be afraid for their lives; and they might try to flee but they will be unwilling to surrender under any circumstances.  Without responding to player actions like this every now and then (you don't have to do it for every encounter), the module comes across as canned (which it is, but you don't want it to feel that way).

What modules give me is a lot of "stats level" work, some of which I have to reject, rewrite, or add to.  I find that I prep almost as much for modules as for home-brewed adventures.  But I get more "bang for my buck" because most of my outline and stats level prep is done for me -- assuming the module is any good.

You know I love examples!
Here's my example.  The PCs will be investigating a shadowy temple that they discovered last session.

Outline:  Written as part of adventure planning.

Shadowy temple, PCs might investigate – may be spied on by cultists who have abandoned the site since it was discovered, may discover specific things have been moved out (so that they can search for them later).

If I did some Scene Daydreaming and had a cool idea about chasing down a spy who made the PCs in a crumbling district full of slums and old ruins, then this is where I deposit that scene.  If I did some Adversary Planning about a cultist spy who murders witnesses and shadows the PCs, keeping tabs on their moves, this is where I insert that guy.

Stats: Written as part of session planning.

At this point, I will draw a map of the temple, find the stats (and name and description) of a spy and set the roll required for the PCs to notice him; determine what the spy knows and what system I will use if they try to extract that information; google pictures of things that work for the missing items that they may look for elsewhere as clues; and so forth.  

Even if I do a lot of Adversary Planning, I don't actually stat out my adversaries until I'm a few sessions from using them.  The reason is that I need a good idea of what the PCs' current skill levels are and what the circumstances they meet the adversary are.  These change!  In this case, the PCs will meet a potential adversary while he is alone, but the PCs are also unprepared and on the adversary's turf.  But it could very well have been a scene where the PCs were prepared; or had allies; or where the adversary had allies; or dozens of XP or a few levels earlier or later depending on the game system...

Story:  Customized by the GM two scenes ahead of time.


The PCs have decided to go to their contact, who tells them that he’s heard of some activity over at the old temple site.  But next they have to make their appointment with the Duke’s seneschal, so some time will pass.  I'll make sure to describe the area around the temple, on the hopes that I can set up a frenzied foot chase through the area and my players will remember the terrain and use it in their action descriptions.  Near the old cult temple, there should also be an NPC resident who witnessed people leaving the temple just before dawn – maybe the NPC is someone who just moved into the area and doesn’t know enough to be scared.  The resident can describe the objects they took, and give a description of one of them (the spy who stayed behind to see who showed up).  This resident will get killed later for informing if the PCs don’t notice the spy. If they do notice the spy, attacking the spy and killing him will have other consequences.  Capturing and imprisoning the cult spy will lead to a jail cell murder of the spy and more clues, or perhaps I can make the spy an important cultist who engineers a jailbreak from the inside.

Notice how much more detail gets added as the scene gets closer.  How I describe the scene's setting is determined by a combination of prior long-term planning and the player characters' actions just a few scenes ahead of time.  The hooks into and from previous scenes are inserted; timelines are solidified; and other incidental NPCs get inserted based on player decisions only a few scenes ahead.  My Scene Daydream had a slum, ruins, and a high stakes foot chase; so naturally my final scene plan is focused on making my daydream a reality -- but it's still not set in stone.  The PCs might not notice the spy or might decide it's a trap and let him go; or even capture him before he flees.

October 27, 2013

Social Arsonists

I learned 50% of my tabletop GM skills from LARP.  I learned half of those just playing LARP, and the other half from GMing LARPs.  (No, I'm not making you a pie chart.)

LARP is a crucible of GM skills.  Any half-decent tabletop GM can run a successful LARP for 10 players by simply doing what he does at the tabletop for twice as many players.  You may have been to a LARP (perhaps a networked LARP) where the GM basically ran a series of tabletop scenes interspersed with playing NPCs and answering player questions.  This is just tabletop GMing, with more players.  When the player count hits 15 or 20, the GM starts leaving half the players behind to get bored while he takes the other half of the players off on a tabletop scene.  Most of the LARP GMing I did was spent doing this, I'm not proud to admit.  I only started to pick up real LARP GMing skills by attending different games outside my sphere of influence.

I learned that LARP is different from tabletop because the GM needs to be able to get players interacting and reacting, but not with him.  And while interaction is preferable to reaction, a good LARP GM knows that if you can goad a player enough to react rashly, it will lead to a lot of interaction.

A good LARP GM knows that his players should rate the moments spent where the GM is talking as the most boring parts of the LARP.  A good LARP GM knows how to get players to interact and react with as few words as possible, and then to move on.  A good LARP GM flits about the game-space like a toxic gossip at a party, lighting little fires and walking away.  A good LARP GM is a social arsonist.

Another term for this is agent provocateur.  An agent provocateur is an infiltrator who pretends to be an ally and pushes people in the organization to take risks and commit crimes.  A LARP GM is like an agent provocateur, urging players into taking extreme and drastic action to cause others to react.  Good LARP GMs are double traitors, often setting up false flag operations or urging players to set up false flag operations against their enemies implicating a third party.  Having assassins attack your player characters is amateur.  Shake them to their core by killing off one of their enemies "off camera" instead.  You can do this with a note on a 3x5 card while you're off with other players subtly implicating a third group in the murder with a half sentence of whispered innuendo.

After that, fine tuning the level of tension among five players when you have their full attention around your kitchen table will seem like a cinch.

October 18, 2013

Toymakers and Storytellers pt 2

I posted about Storytellers and Toymakers a while back with a tongue in cheek cosmo-style quiz.  I should talk about Storytellers and Toymakers a little more.  The fundamental difference I envision is that both create hooks and stories and dramatic arcs and NPCs and challenges and so forth.  But they start in different places and stress different elements.

The Toymaker GM creates potential challenges, resources, events, and NPCs (toys) and organizes them so that when the players interact with them in character, they will be likely to have a dramatic story.  This doesn't mean a Toymaker is essentially a sandbox GM.  The organization and nature of the "toys" can lead players into clusters of challenges, resources, events and NPCs with strong hooks.  A bad "railroading" Toymaker will put all the toys in a straight line, with a barren desert all around.

The Storyteller GM creates a story, then uses challenges, resources, events, and characters (props) to tell it.  This doesn't mean that the Storyteller is a railroading GM any more than the Toymaker. Good Storytellers use the narrow-wide-narrow model of GMing -- start with a strong hook that can lead to several different possible paths that all converge on the resolution of the dramatic question posed by the hook.  Bad Storytellers "railroad" the players down a narrow path.

The Storyteller's props are there to push the story forward.  The Toymaker's story is the structure that organizes her toys.

The two approaches are fundamentally different.  In practice, they can create different experiences for players.

Toys and Props

Because of the Toymaker's stress on toys, each element in her games is likely to be an interesting puzzle or a fun setting element for the players to include in their stories.  But that also means many toys the Toymaker crafts will never be explored fully.  The storyteller's props are often like movie sets -- there's not much to them beyond what you can see.  Only props that are designed to be deeply involved in the story (or which later become integral) get a lot of detail.  This means that the Storyteller tends to improvise a lot.

Because the Storyteller's focus is on the story, a good Storyteller will have tight arcs, good pacing, and a well timed climax.

  • The story will have a high degree of verisimilitude because the Storyteller sees it holistically, and Simulationist players may enjoy that part of it.
  • Narrativist players will enjoy a Storyteller GM only if that GM allows them a good deal of input in the story.
  • Gamist players will enjoy a Storyteller GM if the GM's narrow-broad-narrow model includes real risk (making consequential decisions with incomplete information) and strategy (some options are better than others).

Because the Toymaker's focus is on the individual scene, character, event, etc., a good Toymaker will have deep characters, dynamic settings, and game-elements mixed in at every level.

  • A Simulationist player will enjoy the depth created by the GM's focus on creating toys, as long as the GM designs for what the player is interested in simulating.
  • A good Toymaker GM will please Narrativist players with her habit of placing story elements in front of them and then letting the players take over the story from there.
  • Gamist players will enjoy that everything a Toymaker creates is designed to be played with -- e.g. involved in challenges, strategic decisions, or resource management.
I think every GM should learn about to the strengths of both kinds of gamerunning.

October 11, 2013

Dealing with Absent Players

Every GM has to deal with absent players. What do you do with their character?  How many absent players is too many?  The answers to these questions are found in your group's social contract.  This is the expectation everyone brings to the table about... in this case... coming to the table!

Personally, I play and run in two different formats.  I game in short, weekly, weekday evening games on Tuesday and Wednesday.  These games are 3 hours long, and it can take several sessions to get through a story.  We alternate games, too, so every other Tuesday is one game, and the other weeks are another game.  I also run long 12-hour sessions for two different groups about 5 times a year each, on Saturdays.  It's much easier to handle a missing player for a 12-hour session than for a 3-hour session (he's been captured, or is off on another quest); yet I've only ever had one single player miss a Saturday all-day session.

Addressing a missing player in an evening work-night session is hard because of the options...


  1. Hand wave it.  The character isn't exactly missing.  He's just never on screen.  In a fight, he's just not represented on the board.  In conversation, he just doesn't talk.
  2. Have another player control his character.  This is helpful for keeping combat challenge levels balanced in some games.  Otherwise, it's a bit of a burden.
  3. Create a story excuse.  The character is captured or has other tasks to attend to.  This doesn't work in an isolated dungeon, or just before going off to save the world.
  4. Postpone or cancel the game.  Nobody likes this option, but if it's a climactic moment, you might need to.  Generally, my groups have a quorum rule:  With 3 players, we run.  With less, we cancel.  But for important sessions, we'd rather postpone if one player is going to be absent.


If you want something easy to put before your players, here's the rules.  I made one set for weeknight games and one set for weekend long format games.  What happens to the absent player's character really depends on how long they're going to be absent for.

Gamerunner's Weeknight Attendance Rules

  • Commit to a Regular Schedule:  In general, players will commit to coming to the game over other leisure or social commitments; but they may occasionally excuse themselves with 2 days notice (e.g to go see a movie, have date night with the spouse, caulk the bathtub, etc.).  
  • Emergencies are Excused: Obviously, no prior notice is required for absences for acute health problems (especially contagious illnesses), major unexpected family responsibilities, and unavoidable work requirements.  
  • Two Hours or Nothing:  A player should attend at least two hours of every game session, or not at all.  It is not acceptable to arrive only for the last hour or leave after the first because it can disrupt the game.
  • Absent Players' Characters Fade Out: If you are absent from the game, your character will fade into the background.  If you have any unique abilities, the GM will alter the game to ensure that they're not needed (substituting other players' characters' abilities).  If there is any information your character would know that becomes important, the other players are allowed to know it as well, ("Well ___ once told me...").  Anything that happens to the entire party happens to the absent player's character (if they all get cursed, or all take 20 damage, etc.).
  • Be Honest About Long Term Absences:  If you intend to miss more than 1 game session, tell the GM.  The GM will write your character out of the story temporarily with a plot event -- sentenced to prison, captured by powerful and mysterious foes, killed (in many games this is temporary), questions her commitment, called away to greater responsibilities, trapped in a space-time rift, cursed to eternal slumber, etc.  The GM will write a plot event around this.  Another player may or may not need to play your character for this initial scene, so keep your character stats and notes available to the GM.
  • Quorum is 50% of Regular Players:  If fewer than 50% of the regular players are able to make the game, regardless of the GM's plans, the game is cancelled.  If 50% of the players are present, the GM has "quorum" and should run the game (unless, as above, a player whose character was necessary for the scenario had an emergency and cancelled with less than 48 hours notice).
  • The GM Must Run for Who is Coming:  It is the GM's responsibility to run the game for all the players who have not cancelled with 48 hours notice.  If the GM intends to present a scenario that requires a certain player (or all players), the GM will ensure that all of the players will be present for that scenario: The GM will find out who will be present ahead of the game day.  If the required player(s) are unavailable, the GM will plan a different scenario (filler encounters, a side plot, an unexpected complication, etc.) instead of cancelling the game.  And the GM will not let the players know it's filler -- it should be as well-designed as the regular scenario if possible.
  • Remote Players Abide by Table Customs:  If you play remotely (via Skype, Hangout, etc.), you must remain on camera as much as a "live" player is expected remain at the table, have functional equipment, handle your own tech support, and close all programs and browser windows on your computer other than the teleconferencing window and anything else needed specifically for the game at hand (character sheet, game wiki, etc.).  
  • Frequently Absent Players are Guest Stars:  If a player misses game sessions frequently, the GM may consider them a "guest star."  The GM should not plan for scenarios that require the guest star to attend.  If the GM allows a guest star, he should prepare games such that the guest star's character is taken into account.  Guest stars are not counted against quorum.  (e.g., if there are 4 players and 1 guest star, 2 players still counts as quorum.)  What counts as frequent absence is between the GM and the absent player, and they should come to an agreement about the player's status between games.
  • OPTIONAL:  Good Samaritan Reward:  A player who writes a session summary for the group gets a reward.  The group has to cover his week to buy pizza.  Or... He finds the lowest level magic item off his wish list.  Or... He gets a full Refresh of his Willpower, or one of his Abilities, etc.  Or... Some other perk, determined by group consensus.
  • OPTIONAL:  Absence Penalty:  If you miss a session, you are required to bring chips/beer/soda/etc. to the next session.  If you are a remote player and miss a session, obviously this is impractical.  I guess you get a pass.  It sucks having to play remote, anyway.


(I've been told my blog uses cutting edge graphics... for 1998.)


If you want an alternative for infrequent, long-format games, here's a ready-to-use rule you can use for your troupe, the...

Gamerunner's Long-Format Attendance Rules

  • Consensus Scheduling:  The game will be scheduled using a survey so that everyone is available for every session.  The game will be scheduled at least two weeks ahead of the date of game.  The players all have input into the date choices and time choices this way.  The date and time of game will be determined to be the date and time that every player is available to commit.  Players will be responsible adults and seek childcare, spousal permission, or time off from work at least two weeks before game.
  • No Cancellations Except Emergencies:  Once committed, players will prioritize the game over other leisure or social functions.  Allowances will be made for acute health problems (especially contagious illnesses), major unexpected family responsibilities, and unavoidable work requirements.  A player who can't make the entire session due to an emergency must either attend at least 4 hours of the game session or none of it (it's too disruptive otherwise).
  • Four Hours or Nothing:  If a player can't come to game for at least 4 hours, the player should not come to game.  The player should consider this during scheduling and when deciding if he needs to make an emergency cancellation.
  • Absent Players' Characters are Written Out:  If a player is absent from the game for more than 4 hours, his character will be written out of the story -- sentenced to prison, captured by powerful and mysterious foes, killed (in many games this is temporary), questions his commitment, called away to greater responsibilities, trapped in a space-time rift, cursed to eternal slumber, etc.  The GM will write a plot event around this.  Another player may or may not need to play the absent player's character for this scene, so keep your character stats and notes available to the GM.
  • Quorum is 50% of Regular Players:  If fewer than 50% of the regular players are able to make the game, regardless of the GM's plans, the game is cancelled.  If 50% of the players are present, the GM has "quorum" and should run the game.
  • The GM Must Run for Who is Coming:  It is the GM's responsibility to run the game for all the players.  If the GM intends to present a scenario that requires a certain player (or all players), the GM will have to change her plans on the fly.  The players will be understanding about this.
  • Remote Players Abide by Table Customs:  If you play remotely (via Skype, Hangout, etc.), you must remain on camera as much as a "live" player is expected remain at the table, have functional equipment, handle your own tech support, and close all programs and browser windows on your computer other than the teleconferencing window and anything else needed specifically for the game at hand (character sheet, game wiki, etc.).  
  • The GM Keeps the Sheets:  Given the infrequency of game sessions, players should take notes.  Players will then leave character sheets, notes, and player handouts with the GM in the Party Folder between games.  They may make copies of anything they need, or ask the GM to scan/fax/etc. stuff for their reference between games (or just visit the GM to look at it) if they really want.  
  • Break Policy:  It's a long game, so players are not expected to ignore email, SMS, and phone calls all day.  Smokers aren't required to go cold turkey.  Etc.  Bathroom breaks and stepping away from the table to make a quick call are fine.  Any break that will last more than 5 minutes, however, will stop the whole game.  Any player may call for a 10- or 15-minute break at any time, as often as needed, with no explanation.  The troupe trusts that this won't be abused, and that if a player needs very frequent breaks because of an emergency at home, work, or with his health, he will leave the game for it.  Further, the GM will call for official breaks every few hours regardless of the players' needs, because people need breaks, and the GM is best suited to predict the best time for a break, based on the NPCs' actions and scenario.  Try to schedule breaks at a natural break in the tension.
  • OPTIONAL:  Read the Session Summaries:  The GM will write session summaries, describing the events of the previous session.  These take a lot of work, and all players are expected to read them before each game session.  
  • OPTIONAL:  Meal Breaks:  Meals during game will take place at a break time set by the GM with player input.  The GM do her best to start and finish eating first (if there's any question), because she needs to start preparing to resume the game before the players do. If the players leave the location for meals, the GM will set a time, and everyone will be back at the table before that time.




I developed these two policies based on my ideas of what's worked for me as a policy for absent players for the last 20 years or so.  If you're just starting as a GM, feel free to copy these word for word for your game, with or without attribution, yada yada.  Use them or change them as you see fit.  Definitely feel free to edit these policies as you implement them.

Having a written (or emailed or wiki-posted) policy for your group may not be necessary if you've played with them for a long time.  It might help established groups to write up their customs for new players.  It might help new groups, organized play GMs, or new GMs to write their policy, even if they're experienced roleplayers.

October 4, 2013

GM Tips from GUMSHOE

I’ve recently read Night's Black Agents (thanks to the Bundle of Holding and my pal Dave).  There are two great innovations in its system, GUMSHOE, that I wanted to share.  These two innovations may be adaptable as GM techniques in any system. 

Investigation is about Deduction not Perception

The innovation:  When following a plot, players never fail to find a core clue.  In character creation, the GM ensures that the players, between them, have taken every important investigative skill needed for his campaign.  Typically, that just means making sure the players take at least one point in every investigative skill.  Core clues are the clue that leads to the next scene – the clue that’s important for the plot to progress.  Whichever PC has that skill (or the most points in it) is the one who finds the core clue in each scene.  They find it simply by asking a question even vaguely related to it.  There’s no roll or expenditure required.

Why it’s great:  Mystery solving is supposed to be about figuring out what the clues mean, not simulating the process of searching for the clues.  Worse, if the PCs don’t find a core clue, what are you going to do?  End the adventure?

Adaptation:  Ensure that all of the skills available in the game are spread among your players’ characters.  Rating is irrelevant.  When a core clue comes up, the PC with the most in that skill automatically finds it simply by looking for it.

Skills are Spotlight Sharing

The innovation: In GUMSHOE, all die rolls are 1d6 vs. a target number.  Characters with 1 in the skill roll the same die against the same number as characters with 10 in the skill.  The skill rating defines a temporary pool that can be spent on a one time basis to add to any given die roll.  So you could spend 3 Shooting to roll 1d6+3 instead of 1d6 on an attack roll, for instance.  Investigative skills have no die roll – you just make a spend of 1-3 points to automatically gain information that gives your character an advantage (either information beyond the core clue that could help you, or an advantage with your general skills).  The effect of the spends rule is that players have to share the spotlight.  If they go on an “Infiltration” skill heavy mission, the character with the best Infiltration is going to get the most spotlight time, but he will eventually run out, and the other characters with Infiltration will get a chance to shine as well.  In most games, there’s one character with Stealth, and that character does all the scouting.  In GUMSHOE, that character eventually runs out of points and others have to take over.

Why it’s great:  Normally your PCs will focus on different tasks, so that spotlight is shared by sharing who is good at what task.  But then only the stealthy character ever uses stealth, and only the good driver ever drives, etc.  The other characters – and other players – never get to enjoy doing other tasks.  Characters become focused tools that only get used to do a few things, rather than generally competent heroes, like they’re supposed to be.  GUMSHOE fixed that.


Adaptation:  You can’t copy the full glory of the GUMSHOE spotlight sharing mechanic without house rules, but you can use mechanics that exist in every game to encourage rather than discourage spotlight sharing.  In a lot of games, skills like Driving and Stealth are better if one character does the task and the others wait.  The reason being that if one character fails, there is catastrophic consequence, so it’s better to trust the character with the highest rating to handle the task alone.  Most RPGs have a “working together” mechanic, though.  It may initially strike you as unrealistic/counter-intuitive, but consider using PC cooperation as a bonus in these sorts of situations rather than a penalty.  If five characters go scouting together, let the one with the highest skill make the roll “that counts” and let the others make rolls to give him bonuses or do other tasks.  It actually makes sense:  A scout works better with a lookout and someone making a diversion.  A car chase works better with other cars to serve as decoys or to cut the fugitive off and channel him into a dead end.  A sniper works better with a spotter and ground support.  A hacker needs help with social engineering, research, and data analysis.  (Etc.)

Try these adapted innovations and come back and tell me how it works.  As for me, I'm going to try running Night's Black Agents.