The Colors of Magic - Available Now

April 26, 2013

Initiative Tents

I've had some big scale, far reaching ideas on here lately.  Here's a practical tip:  An easy way to track initiative that justifies your use of a GM screen!

Give every player an index card or old business card.  Have them fold it into a tent and write their character name and initiative roll on one side, and their character name on the other. When they roll, record, and pass them up, you arrange them in order from first to last over the lip of your GM screen.  Then you make tents for your NPCs.  You can keep the NPCs out of the order until their turn comes up, preserving the chaos of the first round of battle.

The benefit of this system is that all the players can see the order, and they can see when they're "on deck" -- that is, when it's Bob's action, Chad knows he's coming next.  He can see it without craning over to look at a notepad or trying to read something written on the battle mat upside down.

In games with effects like 4e, you can use colored "sign here" tabs to indicate that certain characters have an effect with a duration on it.  That way you don't have to write down that "Ogre B is dazed"  -- ogre B has a sticky tab.  When Ogre B comes up, that tab reminds you he has an effect, and odds are you'll recall what it is (and if not, you can ask).

The players can re-use their cards.  They can even use the opportunity to draw their character, or a creative sigil that represents her.  At the very least, you're consistently using character names instead of player names!

You'll need one card for every "disposable" enemy your heroes fight.  My title changed at work, so I had a lot of leftover cards.  I bet you can find old business cards lying around, too, if you work in an office.  Or you can get index cards for cheap.

April 19, 2013

Modulating Interest

Sit down, roll initiative, kill monsters, go home.  Sometimes every GM will fall into that rut; especially if we have short game sessions.

Extra Credits once again gives us tabletop GM advice through the lens of video game design. In this episode, they describe modulating challenge in video games as "differences in scale vs. differences in kind."  You can keep a game interesting by ratcheting up the challenge, but it's better to keep changing the kinds of ativities the player is involved in instead of just throwing more and harder challenges at them.  Tabletop GMs take note!

Simply mopdulating what the PCs fight doesn't change what the players do.  Whether you're battling werewolves instead of Sabbat or dragons instead of goblins; the player activity is still the same:  Roll initiative, move to strategic positions, attack, use magic, and track wounds.  Instead, modulate what the players do.

There are four major kinds of scenes in tabletop RPGs:

  1. Combat
  2. Simulation
  3. Social
  4. Puzzle

Combat Scenes are where the PCs fight.  Players take turns in strict order.  In-game time passes very slowly.  Characters are restricted to a very limited pool of actions when their turn comes.  Movement is often limited.  The risk of injury or death is present.  Things change quickly, and there is a constant sense of struggle between risk and progress.  I've written twice now about how combat scenes should be designed with a variety of end-state conditions other than "kill or be killed," but even with that variety, combat scenes are very similar to one another, even across widely differing game systems.  Compare combat in FATE to combat in GURPS, and you will see players waiting their turn in initiative order, GMs drawing pictures of the battlefield, movement speed limitations, and rolls for every attack.  A player's skill in combat involves mastering the combat system and using it well.  In a combat scene, the system is a player's tool to employ in his attack and defense strategy.

Simulation (Sim) Scenes are where the PCs solve a non-combat problem with their stats.  I've written about these as well.  Sim scenes exist in a half-way land between the fully systematized, abstracted combat scene and wholly free-form, rules-less storytelling.  Time passes in fits and starts, without the use of rounds or turns.  The results of player character actions are interpreted through the system sometimes, but other times the GM makes a judgement call without using the system.  A player's skill in sim scenes involves creative problem solving more than mastering the system as a tool.  In a sim scene, the system is the GM's tool to use to add tension or reward creativity.

Social Scenes are scenes where the PCs overcome a challenge using a mix of stats and player savvy.  However, the range of stats and player capabilities is narrowed.  The skills a player can employ are reduced to social skill, acting skill, quick-thinking, and a penchant for politics.  The valuable character abilities are reduced to stats related to social (and sometimes "knowledge") skills.  However, sometimes a combat character has an easier time in certain social scenes because he knows he can push harder and survive it if his interlocutor attacks him for his impertinence.  Large spans of time go past without players rolling dice, and often some characters' stats aren't used at all the entire time, though they may participate.  Often the GM "does voices" and the players move from around a table to standing or sitting in another room or even outdoors to increase the scene's verisimilitude.  In some ways social scenes are like sim scenes -- player ingenuity and character skill combine; smart strategy and creative thinking are important; the system is a tool for the GM, more than the players; and the players are doing problem solving.  In many ways, it's different, though.  For one, a good deal of the action is not simulated.  In a sim scene, if your character picks a lock, you don't have to actually pick a lock.  But in a social scene, if your character gives a rousing oration, you are usually expected to give a speech.  It's understood that your character, a grand master orator, does a better job than you (depending on die rolls); but you still have to talk!

Puzzles are scenes where the players have to solve a problem without their characters' stats. There is almost no place for character stats in a puzzle scene, though they are often mixed with sim scenes (a riddle as part of a trap, for instance).  The distinctive characteristic of a puzzle scene is that the players' minds are tested.  Commonly, GMs allow players to use system currency (Willpower points, FATE points) to get hints or reduce the consequences for failing or taking too long at the puzzle; but actually solving the puzzle is ultimately the players' responsibility, irrelevant of their characters' stats.  This scene is similar to a social or sim scene in that player creativity and quick thinking is important; but different in that player brainpower is all-important, and a player cannot fall back on his character's skills.

What a player does in each kind of scene is different, which is valuable to a GM modulating player interest through the course of a game session or adventure track.

Any particular RPG will have a different mix of these depending on the story or moment in the story. E.g.

D&D Dungeon Crawl
60% Combat
20% Sim Scenes
10% Puzzles
10% Social

Call of Cthulhu Horror Game
40% Sim Scenes
30% Social Scenes
20% Puzzles
10% Combat

The lesson Extra Credits wants to teach us is two-fold:

1) Modulate player activities.  Change what the player is actually doing from scene to scene.  In a tabletop RPG, don't just run fight after fight -- insert other kinds of scenes with different player activities.  These keep things feeling fresh, and each scene is a new kind of challenge, letting the players shift mental gears.

2) Keep some focus.  Give players a chance to get into each scene before switching.  And don't switch to a totally new scene every time:  Come back to the same styles over and over, with breaks in between, so players can get better at them.  In an RPG, this helps players define their characters in different kinds of scenes.

April 10, 2013


How to run a horror campaign

Horror RPGs are like Tyrion Lannister, who I believe Hobbes described as "nasty, brutish and short."  They're nasty because they have systems that are clearly designed to screw over the PCs.  They're brutish because the PCs die, get horribly injured, or go insane.  They're short because the PCs die, get horribly injured, or go insane.  They don't make for good campaigns.  But I've got a method that I want to try out, and I think it preserves the history and pragmatic aspects of horror gaming while adding enough to extend a horror game into a campaign.

Why are RPGs designed for horror like this?  Well there are two major reasons, that I can see:  History and Practicality.

First, the first major horror RPG was the Call of Cthulhu RPG, published by Chaosium in the early days of roleplaying in 1981.  There were many RPGs coming out at the time, but they all looked a lot like D&D.  This game had stats like D&D, and also percentage skills and a Sanity score that was a percentile that kept going down, and which you rolled to see if you lost sanity -- creating an accelerating downward spiral of madness.  Characters could use weapons and spells, and often encountered Lovecraft mythos monsters.  The system was designed to tell a good tragic pulp horror story, like the examples in my sidebar.  Most of the protagonists would die or go insane by the end of a typical story.  The game did this by making monsters deadly and PC skills very likely to fail.  This forced players to choose expedient, but cowardly strategies like burning down a house with their friend inside because a mind-controlling lizard-man was in there (this happened, I did it).  Call of Cthulhu also made typical D&D stuff like monsters and spells cost you Sanity.  An innovative (for the time) system caused you to behave irrationally if you lost too much Sanity at once.  This game was so different from the other games around and turned so many tabletop gaming assumptions on their head that it stuck in gamer culture.  Thus a standard for horror RPGs was established:

1.  A classless, skill-based system
2.  Sanity or some similar system to represent a character's traumatic stress.
3.  A system where PCs had poor chance to succeed at things, forcing them to be cowardly.
4.  A game where a majority of the PCs would be killed or driven mad within about 6-10 encounters with the unnatural (spells, sorcerers, cult rituals, other dimensions, aliens, mythos monsters, etc.).

Second, those standards are actually very practical.  The system for Call of Cthulhu is pretty terrible, but there are two practical aspects of the system that really work for the horror genre -- #3 and 4 from my list above.

A system that makes it hard for players to rely on their characters takes away their bravery.  They can't boldly attempt heroic actions and expect to succeed.  Chaosium's percentile die system made it perfectly transparent to players that they sucked.

You watch a bunch of cultists doing a ritual in a barn, opening a gate to commune with the madness of Azathoth directly (and lost Sanity points).  Now they're about to come out, and the sun is rising.  You look at your character sheet and it says...
  • Dodge 42%
  • Guns 55% (note that your revolver only has six bullets, and you want to save the last one for yourself...)
  • Hide 50%
This makes you feel helpless, which is the core of the horror experience.  The traditional RPG tactic is to hide or fight.  The only option here, it seems, is to bar the barn door and set it on fire.  The system has forced you, in your feelings of fear and helplessness, to take a despicable, cowardly action.  A very typical Lovecraft story outcome!

A system that is tuned to destroy most of the PCs within one adventure is perfect for horror as well.  6-10 encounters with the unnatural fits into an adventure with about 12-20 total encounters.  That's a whole Saturday of gaming (maybe two), or three to six weeks of weeknight sessions.  If you play six weeknight sessions, resolve a story where the protagonists overcome a cult of Azathoth, and two or three "good guy" characters (PCs) don't get killed or driven mad in the process, it's not a fair approximation of a Lovecraft tale.

So how do you run a campaign of that?

The Problem of Campaigns

A horror RPG story usually ends in the death or ruin of a significant number of the characters.  Let's say the rate of character ruination is 1 character lost per 6 total encounters.

A horror RPG campaign is several horror RPG stories.  Let's say the campaign has 5 stories, with 18 encounters per story on average, including the subplots and between-adventure stuff.  That's 90 encounters.  Over that campaign, 90/6=15 PCs will be ruined.  That's three per player, on average, if there are 5 players.  That's a lot of turn-over.

Character turn-over erases the connections the player has for his character.  The party starts to lose cohesion.  It feels like a revolving door "we lost the photographer to the sorcerer; but now we have this ex-con.  Oh, the ex-con went insane.  Now we have this mountain climber."  Characters seem to replenish from an infinite pool, but nobody knew them until they popped in and started adventuring with the protagonists.  It's a mess.

The revolving door also screws with hooks:  When all of the original party who were hooked into the plot to start with are dead, why are these newcomers still risking their minds, bodies and souls?

Mathematically speaking a horror RPG campaign needs to have:
- A lower character turnover rate; or
- More characters

A lower character turnover rate means the GM either has to slow down the action (less frequent scenes with horror elements) which is unacceptable, or the GM has to make the game more pulpy (give the PCs the ability to kick monster ass), which dilutes the feeling of helplessness that causes players to feel real fear.

So as the title of my method indicates, I advocate an ensemble method.  Instead of generating new characters every time a PC dies, you generate a stable of characters at the start of the campaign.  You don't need to estimate how many characters you will need, because you can replace the ensemble characters if needed easier than you can replace PCs without an ensemble cast.


Here's how Mediaprophet's Ensemble Method (MEM) works!  It uses a literary technique called polyphony.  I prefer ensemble because it refers to the characters as well as the technique, and it's used in television serial drama, which is fairly similar to how I advocate using it an RPG campaign.

A. Make a cast of 2-3 characters per player at the start of the game.  These characters should all be associated with one another somehow -- a London royal society chapter, university anthropology department, local police department, army unit, tabloid newspaper staff, heirs of a mysterious legacy, etc.

B. Decide if players "own" characters.  Are all the characters "owned"?  In that case, if your current character dies, you can play another character you own.  Do the players only "own" one character at a time?  In that case, if your current character dies, you can select any other enesmble character to play next.  Do players own no characters except the one they're currently portraying?  In that case, they can trade characters freely, swapping characters out any time they are in down time.

C. When you introduce the hook for a story, the entire ensemble is hooked in, but only a sub-group of them acts on it.  So the whole anthropology department is excited about the discovery of a mysterious pyramid on an island in the Bermuda Triangle, but only five of them get on a boat and sail out there to investigate it.

D.  When a character is lost, replace the character out of the ensemble.  Let the players have a little down time as soon as practically possible to accomplish this.  After all, you just had a scary horror scene, and you have to let off tension to build it back up later.  Say they get a telegram that the graduate student on the pyramid expedition was killed by a sea monster.  Now perhaps the department head sends the big game hunter who he corresponds with about African tribes down there to see if he can take care of their sea monster problem.  Compared with creating a character out of the blue, this approach has several advantages:  First, the character is already created, so the player of the lost character doesn't have to wait long to get back into the game.  Second, the character is already established, and his relationship with the other protagonists is already clear.  Third, the group still feels a sense of loss:  Even though the ensemble is a dozen or more characters, it's one character smaller now.  Fourth, the new character knew the lost character and grieves the loss, just like the player probably does.  This leads to a stronger hook for the new character, as opposed to a weak "fill-in" feeling.

E.  Roleplay the ensemble members whenever possible, or encourage the players to do so.  If the players "own" the ensemble, encourage them to dictate correspondence from their absent ensemble characters.  If not, use down time as an opportunity for them to try out different characters even if they don't plan to take them on the next adventure.  This "establishes" the ensemble characters and gives them life so that when they take on larger roles later, they come in with some history and color.  It also connects the players to them, so they don't feel disconnected when one ensemble character comes in to replace his lost friend.

F.  Between stories, when the hook for the next story is introduced, allow the players to swap out characters.  Encourage it!  In games with a Sanity stat, this allows one character to "get therapy" in a mental institution while a fresh character goes on adventures, prolonging the life of ensemble members and adding some variety to the game.  The player won't be playing a brand new character either -- though the character is new as an active PC, he's been around for the whole campaign.

G.  Instead of replacing ensemble characters to keep the numbers up, let the cast shrink.  It adds a sense of foreboding to the game.  If the ensemble starts to run out, though, and you want to keep playing, you need to add a new "cohort" of characters.  This will only happen in a very long campaign.  Many TV shows with ensemble casts do this after a while -- actors leave the show, characters are killed or retire, etc. and all of a sudden there are three new characters at the start of the next season.  Because it's a new cohort, they can come in with pre-existing ties.  Say the anthropology department has been decimated by "accident and mental strain" -- so the dean hires three new assistant professors, competing for tenure.  Below is a chart of the ensemble characters of CSI - Crime Scene Investigation from Season 1 through Season 13.  See how they keep switching in and out, and how new characters are added.  If you broke it down by individual scenes and episodes, you could see how characters switch out pretty frequently.

H. Experience points are tricky for horror games in general, and more so for horror campaigns.  They're a way players can decrease their feelings of helplessness, which runs counter to the purpose of horror games.  d20 Call of Cthulhu is dangerous because levels drastically improve characters.  A game like the World of Darkness or FATE has a much slower character improvement curve.  Don't use XP unless you feel you need to; and even then be very stingy with it.  The next question is:  Should only active characters get XP, or should the whole ensemble get XP?  The answer is motivated by pragmatism:  Only active characters (if any), otherwise there's too much bookkeeping and homework.

April 8, 2013

Directly Applicable

What common GM skills are directly useful in other settings?

Common GM skills:  Skills most tabletop GMs need.  Naturally there are no universals (some GMs only run published modules; some GMs only run Puppetland...).

Directly useful:  Skills that can be applied without significant modification.

Other settings:  At work, family life, romance, other arts and crafts, etc.