I’ve played a lot of different games in my time. Some of them were good. Some sucked. Some were unremarkable except for a single new mechanic. A few were awesome.Probably the best Superhero game system I’ve ever encountered has to be White Wolf’s Aberrant. It’s a great dice system and the powers are list driven (as opposed to free-form or lego styles). Those of you who are familiar with White Wolf should have some idea of what their dice systems are like. All rolls are non-percentage based d10 rolls. Skills, stats and powers are on a 1-5 scale and most rolls combine a stat and a skill (and sometimes a power) to make a pool of dice you roll against a given difficulty and then count up successes. Finally you have the White Wolf patented power stat (every game has one) that is rated 1-10 and which rates your power level in the grand scheme of things and which you will never really get higher than 4 in any given game (not sure why, but this is the way White Wolf makes their games). This system is at the same time simple and very flexible and once you understand the basics, you can crank out a character in 10-15 minutes. Two things the Aberrant setting has going for it are the realism factor and the lack of comic book representation. Running a game in the DC or Marvel worlds can be interesting because of the shared understanding and love of those worlds, but it is also problematic. People who obsess about those worlds tend to be the ones who want to play in them and because of their obsession, they are also the ones who can’t take it when you modify the world. That’s a flaw in any system set in those worlds because most problems can be solved by one NPC or another in those other worlds far better and than they can be solved by the PCs. As a GM you now need to come up with some reason why these other beings are indisposed without (god forbid) killing them off. Makes for a very lame experience all around. I say the Aberrant setting has a good realism factor and what I mean by that is it really represents how I think our society would change with the introduction of super heroes. Super charismatic rock stars, super strong sports players with enormous product endorsement deals, scientists cutting up super heroes to find out what makes them super, secret government super hero groups, the old X-men stand by of “live with the humans or dominate them”, etc. There is still the problem of the world containing NPCs who are far more powerful than the PCs and so would probably be the ones to deal with the really serious problems. However, most Players won’t get nearly as bent out of shape if you decided to kill off Divis Mal as if you killed off Magnito for the sake of reducing the power level of the world in general. The lists of powers are even pretty comprehensive. I can only really think of one style of comic book hero that is difficult to make in Aberrant: Spiderman. Walking on walls, super strength, the webbing, even the “spider sense” are all doable. The problem is in the fact that Spiderman survives most things by not getting hit rather than being tough. I don’t know what to tell you, all of the White Wolf systems universally have that problem. It is always easier to build the character who can’t miss than it is to build the character who can’t be hit. Just a quirk of how the rules come together.
When I was younger having a couple in the gaming group was rare and always caused huge amounts of drama as most things did when I was younger. However, it seems to have become more common as more and more of us pair up and start settling down. Lets face it, gamers either try to pair off with other gamers or they try to convince whomever they have decided to spend their life with that they should spend that life gaming. This can be difficult though because couple is a completely different entity than either of the individuals are on their own or even together (were they not in a relationship). Some people are less willing to indulge in some conversations and activities if their significant other is present. Some couples feel the need to confer on everything even if their Characters wouldn’t. How do you deal with this? Well, first you have to understand that this issue falls into three categories: Player/Player couples, GM/Player couples, Player/Observer couples.Player/Player couples are the easiest to deal with because as the GM you can enforce some policies that both of them have to adhere to. Most of this type of couple tend to have one member who is “more into it” than the other. What you need to watch out for is the “more into it” Player trying to play two characters for the price of one. Tackle this by starting your game with a C-gen session and requiring that significant others can’t make characters together. If the “more into it” Player doesn’t have a hand in the C-gen of the other’s character, they’re less likely to feel any kind of ownership of it. If the “less into it” person is inexperienced (and they usually are) assign someone other than their significant other to help them through C-gen or help them yourself (this latter being the better option). While the game is running, keep an eye out for the “more into it” Player suggesting courses of action to or performing the math/rolling dice for or even speaking for their SO’s character. Politely but firmly discount what the “more into it” Player has said (I’ve used the phrase “Hay! Who’s talking to you, chuckles?” and it worked well for me), make eye contact with the “less into it” Player, and ask them directly what they’re doing, what their roll was, or what their character said/did. Make it clear that they have to be involved. Also, taking them aside and running them through encounters without their SO being present will help a lot. In other words, cut the “more into it” Player out of the loop. A little time and attention can do wonders for meek Players and that’s really what this comes down to. Give them your time, but remember not to focus all of your time on this one Player or your game will suffer. Player/Observer couples, in my opinion, are just a Player/Player couple taken to the extreme. One person wants to come to game, but insists that they don’t want to play. How do I handle this? I refuse. No observers at my games. No exceptions. I mention that I don’t like observers in advance, but otherwise say nothing till the first session and then I insist that they make a character. In this way I turn the Player/Observer couple into a Player/Player couple and deal with it like that (see above). This may sound unreasonable to some of you, but I’ve never done this and not had the former Observer ending up becoming a Player for life and thanking me in the end for forcing the issue. 100% success rate. Hard to argue with, huh? GM/Player couples. That one’s a doozy. I’ve seen whole gaming groups crumble because of this and it’s hard to deal with because as the GM you’re part of the problem. I was once in a game where we were all supposed to make pirates. We all did, except the SO’s girlfriend who made a horse-archer. It was amazing how many boats we encountered that were built perfectly to house horses. All of the bad guys conveniently got close enough for the horse to jump onto the opposing ship. Every pirate’s treasure was hidden somewhere easily accessible by horse. A pirate captain even challenged our “leader” to a duel… that duel to consist of a joust followed by an archery contest. So lame… I was also told of a game where the SO alone was allowed to take a set of abilities which were (with some effort) able to double for any other abilities in the game and (because of a quirk concerning the way their SO’s character was built) those abilities would cost them half price in terms of xp. By the end of the game that Player had to imagine reasons for why their character would let the other Players participate in things rather than just saving the world on their own. Seriously, it was as if they had gotten twice as much advancement fuel as the rest of the team. I’m told the story was very imaginative and the game well run, but in spite of that the end game sounds more than a little lackluster to me because of the incredible power gap. Ouch. Here’s the best advice I have. Do your best not to steer the game completely in your SO’s direction. Include lots of face time with the other Players. Make a point of alternating which Player each session focuses most on. Oh, and for the love of god don’t let your SO become noticeably more powerful than the other players. If another Player becomes a little more powerful, no one will care. If your SO becomes more powerful than the others, it will be instantly noticed and the reason for it assumed (probably accurately). Finally, talk to your SO about it. The person with the GM’s ear for the largest amount of time outside of game tends to have some advantage in the amount of GM thought that has gone into seeing things from their character’s point of view. That’s just to be expected. However, if you acknowledge the possible issues and explain to your SO that for the purpose of game they’re just another player and that you may not want to discuss game with them at times they should understand. A good SO will anyway. If they don’t. I pitty you, and not just for your gaming career.
Well, I’m glad to see that you all didn’t fly away aboard the good ship Rapture with “Macho Man” Randy Savage over this weekend. If you had, who would read my blog? Oooh Yeah!Anyhow on to today’s topic. First, find a group. If this is your first game, any group will do, just get started asap. As with any endeavor there is always a reason to put it off till later and the longer you wait, the less likely you will start at all. Next, you probably shouldn’t be the GM, but if your whole group is comprised of first time gamers, someone needs to start the GM rotation and it might as well be you. If you’re going to GM, don’t do it reluctantly; jump on that shit. Get jazzed about it. The GM more than any other group member has to be into it and own it. Remember, it’s your job as the GM to keep your players interested and the story moving along. If you don’t really want to be there, it will show in your game. Pick a setting. I would recommend Pathfinder (or D&D 3.5) to start with. Avoid anything modern day or science fiction (and D&D 4th Ed which is a bored game not an RPG). We all have some kind of experience with the Fantasy setting even if it is just in the form of fairy tales so it is easy to latch on to. Also, with Fantasy your options are fairly limited at every stage of the game. This is a good thing to start with and I’d even recommend a further limiting by restricting your alignments to any Lawful and any Good. Evil is best left for later games and you’re not nearly as likely to offend any of your new players and drive them away so early in the journey. Now make a character while your players are making theirs and then throw yours away. You just want to know what they went through in this section, not to take on two roles in the group. Why no modern day games? Because we all know too much about modern day. If you run in a fantasy setting you can simply declare whether or not the king is evil or which countries are backward without the need to justify your declarations politically or rationally or historically. Also, if you’re running your game for a group of geeks, some of them will be more informed on some subjects than you are. Having your computer enthusiast friend play a hacker in your game and dictate to you what they can and can’t accomplish in your world is pretty lame especially for your first or even just an early GMing experience. Go with an entirely fictional world where science takes a back seat for your first trip out. You’ll thank me later. Don’t let the Players play themselves. For some reason (and I was as guilty of this as anyone) it is attractive to new gamers to try and imagine what their personal stats (the player’s stats) would be and then to make a PC that is them in paper’n’dice form and play that. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Think about it, if one of your friends playing themselves betrays you playing yourself. What does that say about your friendship? Besides, they get to be themselves everyday. This is role-playing. Bite the bullet and be someone else for a while. When you get right down to it, that’s kind of the point of this escapist past time. Use a table and keep the game regular. I recommend reading my earlier GM Tools post on Tables. Put simply, a table keeps people focused on what is being done at that table. This is good for new gamers. Keeping the game regular (on a certain night of the week, every week, with as few exceptions as possible) does what a table does with space except a schedule does it with time. With these two things in place you have a an easy path of focus for your group to adhere and most people take the easy path when given a choice. Trust me. It will help keep your group going. Start with a mod. A mod is a game story (with encounters, NPCs, maps, dialogue, and advice) that has been pre-written for you. They sell them where ever gaming books are sold so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding one. Or check the internet. I’m sure there are free mods available somewhere. I don’t use mods anymore, but I used to and when I did, they were a great help for a n00b GM. At the time I had no idea how to put together a story. With a mod it’s all right there for you. Use enough of them, and you should get the hang of what sort of developments need to happen at which points in a game. Once you have that down, you can take the mod training-wheels off your game and ride like a big boy. Till then, use them. That’s what they’re there for. Don’t fret if the PCs stray from the line-course of your mod. Actually, I’d say you should encourage this. As I mentioned earlier, I used to use mods and to my knowledge absolutely none of them ever turned out the way the writers said they ought to have. The mod is just a framework. It should only spark the creative juices. You and the players should supply the constant flow of it. If your players wander off to a section that has been left undefined by the mod’s author, make something up. It might be the wrong thing and it might not turn out well, but these are the risks GMs must take. Wing it often enough though and you’ll eventually learn to use those wings pretty well. Finally, don’t be too stingy with the xp and the gold (the advancement in other words) and keep the game moving along. An extremely easy combat during the first session is a good idea for any game regardless of the experience levels of the people involved and I’d say no more than one combat per session. If you’re finding that combat is taking up all of your game time, cut some of it out. I’ve seen 5 hours of gaming cover 5 rounds of combat (that’s 30 seconds of in game time) and that’s lame. All of the story development happens outside of combat so if you’re having too much combat, your story is going nowhere. Try and let your PCs level fairly often (once every couple of weeks) so they get an idea of how characters progress and so you can justify ending the game after 6 months to a year. You don’t want it going on longer than that. Why? So you can quickly move on to your next game and apply what you learned in your first game. If you never move on, you never get to apply what you’ve learned.
The big point here that I’d like you to walk away with is this: don’t be afraid to make it big. How many books have you enjoyed where nothing but trivialities happened in them? If you’re like me the answer is “none.” Every game doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around the end of the world, but it should revolve around something equally as important from the PCs’ points of view. That is to say, if it doesn’t focus on the world ending, then it should focus on the world ending for the PCs. Death, enslavement, the destruction of those things/people they hold dear, etc.No one wants to read a book about someone planning a birthday party unless we’re talking about one hell of a birthday party, at least from the protagonist’s point of view. Upon the success of this party hinges our hero’s ability to win/wed the person they love? Maybe the party is a culmination of this person’s image of self-worth? Regardless of how you come to it, if your story points are not vital and the costs to achieve them dire as well as the costs should they fail, then your game won’t be interesting. If you’re thinking about introducing something that the PCs could ignore with no ill, relatively immediate (this session or next), side-effects, don’t bother. Not worth anyone’s time. A good thing to keep in mind when trying to do this is to listen to your PCs (that’s a phrase you’re going to hear a lot in my blog) for what they want out of life. Failing that, go ahead and ask your Players for this information point blank. If you decide to resort to this (I often do) be sure that the conversation happens away from the ears of the other Players. Developing a PC’s interest into a quest is much easier when the decision is a selfish one, ie not involving the opinions of the other Players. And for god’s sake remember to take notes and use them. There’s no point in asking these questions if you’re just going to forget the answers in the week between sessions or ignore the quest you’ve worked to help create. Every session should see some kind of development for every PC. No one gets skipped even just one time. Not ever. Now here’s a tricky task. See if you can accomplish it. Once you have some over all goals (and more than one from each PC is preferable) try to weave a two or three of them into a common direction and the rest into another direction, but set up both hurdles to require the whole group’s involvement. See what this creates? You have two directions that the group wants to go in first without the option of separating down the line of preference. Now they will have to converse and negotiate the help of their fellow PCs to get what they want or they’ll have to deal with NPCs (who should be untrustworthy in most games to force PC unity). It’s a way of keeping the group group oriented with out forcing them in one direction by GM fiat. They will negotiate/convince/cajole each other into one direction or the other and any animosity one Player may feel for being forced away from their PC’s goal will be directed in-character toward another PC/game device instead of out-of-character toward you for being a heavy handed/unfair GM and that’s just role-playing; its what you’re all here for. Just beware of loud players who refuse budge. One player shouldn’t always get their way at the expense of the others. Another good idea to keep in mind is that it’s okay to let the PCs win, but always make gain cost something. I’m not talking about XP either. We’re talking purely about story here. You can get that appointment to whatever position your PC wants, but you’ll have to burn a contact to get it. Your army marching on city X is walking into a trap to the west, but an assassin is stalking your brother to the east. You can avert either event, but only one of them. Now lots of GMs make use of this, but what the successful ones do that the unsuccessful ones do not is make the cost evident at the outset. If the cost comes as a surprise later on, the Player will feel cheated by the GM. If the cost is shown up front and the Player makes the decision of their own free will, then the PC (not the Player) will feel cheated by life. The difference is that your friend and fellow gamer will not be thinking of you as an unfair or cruel GM. They knew the cost walking in even if their PC might not have. It hurts nothing about the game to share this kind of info with the Players. You are, after all, on their side, not on the side of the game. The game doesn’t care about fairness or winning. Neither do NPCs. Neither of them will cry one single tear if you short change them in favor of giving one of the PCs a bit of glory or giving the Player a little piece of mind. The game isn’t about fairness. It’s about everyone having fun and only you and your Players are capable of having fun. Keep that in mind. If your fun, though, must come at the expense of your Players’ fun/success or through competition with your players, I don’t really know what to tell you. You’re a bad GM and probably should give the reigns to someone else before you kill your group. The last bit I’m going to squeeze into this post is on changing your mind. Many times I have presented my players with a scenario for which I see a single solution. The army to the west and assassin to the east was an example of this. Now just because I could only think of one solution does not mean that there only exists a single solution. That much is easy to understand, you say, and you are correct. The hard part is understainding that just because I could only think of this one scenario, doesn’t mean I’ve thought of the best scenario. In the above example the player took the information I’d given them and thought of a completely different and far more creative way of interpreting that information than what I’d come up with. So I junked my idea on the spot, declared (in my own mind) the Player’s scenario to be better than mine, and made that one reality instead. I do this all the time when listening to my players discuss what might be going on. Why shouldn’t I when the four or so most creative people I know are sitting in the room with me offering up their thoughts on my game free of charge? For those of you who are curious, in my mind the assassin and the trap for the army were the end results of two different events. My player, however, conceived of how they could be connected; a trap not just for the army, but for him as well, laid by a single brilliant enemy. Then through this identification of the guilty party, he was able to think of a way to strike at a third location (to the north) and defeat both the trap to the west and the assassin to the east in one go. It was awesome and, if you’re reading this (you know who you are), thanks muchly 😉 And you thought I was so brilliant….
In the last post I spoke mostly about what not to do and that can be helpful, but not nearly as helpful as positive advice can be. If someone who normally plans out every little detail of their games decided to follow yesterday’s instructions, they’d be left with very little to go on and no experience with this method to draw from. I thought about that and decided what I was asking wasn’t very fair. So today I’m going to go over the generic steps I take when starting a game up through the first session. This will be a little long, but worth it (I hope).The first step is, I feel, going to prove to be the most difficult, but I covered a great deal of it already yesterday. Basically, when you know a game is in-coming and that you’re going to be GMing, decide upon a setting so your Players can start thinking about PCs and plan nothing else. The longer the period between when you decide to run a game and when it begins the more difficult this will be and so I’m going to repeat my instruction. Decide upon a setting so your Players can start thinking about PCs and plan nothing else. Nothing. Not even the opening scene. Nothing at all. Read the rules, look through the prepackaged scenarios and stats, it can even be helpful to make a PC yourself as long as you make peace with the idea that it will never get played. Plan nothing for the game though. Did I mention that? Nada. I know this may feel under-prepared for many of you, but it is something you’ll get used to. As a Player, I really can’t tell you the joy it gives me when I hear a GM apologize at the beginning of a game because they have nothing planned. Those are always the best games! No one but the PCs (not the Players) have come to the table with an agenda; all possibilities are open. The world, or at least the game, is your oyster. Learn to trust your PCs and love that feeling! Character generation (C-gen) should probably use as close to the baseline rules of whatever game you’re using as possible till you get used to thinking on the fly. However, I’m of the opinion that PC’s should be better, smarter, faster than the average bear and so I usually give a little boost of building points/stat points/whatever. Not much, but a bit. Also asking your PCs to come up with detailed backgrounds is a good idea and most games have useful questions for this process listed in the C-gen section. Having this from everyone will make your job as GM far easier. Restricting C-gen is something you should do with a goal in mind. For example, restricting alignments in D&D to any good and or any lawful usually makes GMing much easier. The likelihood of having PCs start out at each other’s throats is less likely. Another good thing to note is the ‘hater-changes’ rule. If one person makes an elf and another person makes a character who hates elves, the hater changes. It isn’t fair for the Players to start dictating what other Players can and can not make. That, my fellow GMs, is your job. Pulling a class because it has a mechanic you don’t want to deal with is also okay. We’ve made it to the first session and we’ve planned nothing at all for it! Right? Right. Now you’ll be tempted to simply let the PCs start out knowing each other. This is both lazy and boring. A better option is to take each Player aside and have them describe their character’s past and present to you. Take notes and contribute to the tale whenever something comes to mind. At this point most Players don’t have everything fleshed out anyway. They’ll probably appreciate you taking a personal interest in their specific PC. As you take notes, you should be able to start seeing little ways each PC could conceivably cross paths. Underline these things and keep them in mind. Remember that the scenario doesn’t need to be particularly believable or involved (the Players will be giving you the benefit of the doubt on the first session, they always do) but it does need to come from the PCs backgrounds and you’ll need to work a fight into it. I don’t care what kind of game you’re running. The first session should have a fight and I don’t mean just any fight. I’m talking about a group of adventurers/pirates/mercenaries/whatevers vs the evil kindergartners. There should be no moral ambiguity at all in the fight and no way in hell that the PCs will lose (a ‘feel-good-stomping’ if you will) while at the same time allowing every member of the party to participate. These are brand new PCs!!! They all have shiny new powers that your Players are just itching to tear the shrink wrap off! Let them. It’s okay. The PCs are the heroes of this story. Let them establish dominance on page 1. There is a caveat though. This fight should open some kind of can of worms for the PCs to deal with during the second session. They’ve kicked the crap out of a bunch of kobolds, but one got away and is telling ‘the boss’ who might have a hostage or two. Something. Again, try to pull as much from the PCs backgrounds as possible or from anything that has been mentioned which seemed to spark their interest as a group. (For this you’ll have to listen because more likely than not, the PCs rather than you will be the ones doing the mentioning) Now they’ll need to close the can of worms as a group. How do you keep them all working on it together? Easy. If you pulled enough from their backgrounds in forming the first encounter, they’ll all be invested in seeing it through. There. First session over. From here on out there are only five things you need to remember:
1) Listen to the Players.
If you do that, they will tell you where they want the game to go.
2) Keep it simple but not too simple.
Don’t throw option after option after option at them and don’t give them a single golden path to walk down. Two or three options is usually enough at any one time because they’ll make up new ones for you.
3) It’s okay for the PCs to win, but be sure that everything has consequences.
Usually, chasing after consequences is what makes up the focus for the best games.
4) Keep the game moving.
If the PCs get confused or stumped, it is 100% within your job description to give them a hint. Check their sheets, look for a background or a skill or whatever that looks like a good vector for the hint and then give it (no roll necessary because you want them to have it) to that player to do with what they choose.
5) Listen to the Players. If you do that, they will tell you where they want the game to go.
This is for those of you who find yourself reading my blog without any idea what ‘gaming’ (as I’ve previously limited the term) means.We’re talking about the adult version of ‘let’s pretend’. Not ‘adult’ as in an ‘R-rating’ (although that does happen) but ‘adult’ as in the people playing go to work and pay taxes or at least are old enough that they should be doing those things. Here’s how it works. You have one GM (Gamemaster) and several Players and as a group they collectively tell a story for their own amusement. The Players describe the thoughts (sometimes), actions, and dialogue of a single central character in the story (a Player Character or PC) they build and are responsible for and the GM describes the world those PCs are in and the thoughts (again, sometimes), actions and dialog of the other peripheral characters (Non-Player Characters or NPCs) they interact with. There are usually a bunch of rules that dictate what the Players can and can’t have their PC do. This is so that you don’t run into the problems that kids with their less adult versions of pretend run into. ie one kid pointing their finger at another one, shouting ‘bang’ and the other kid not falling down because they disagree with the first kid’s assertion that they are now dead. In the adult version each kid (using the previous analogy) would have a sheet of stats (a character sheet) describing their character’s capabilities which would help us compare how accurate the first kid’s PC’s shots are with how good the second kid’s PC is at getting out of the way of those shots. That’s pretty simplistic though. In reality many games have whole lists of gun models, armor types, skills, natural advantages, health measurements, situational bonuses and penalties (fog vs a clear day, etc) for these situations. I’m not going to go into any detail on those lists at this point because of the sheer volume of games out there. Hundreds and hundreds of them and each of them have a different network of rules they use. I think you get the idea though. Keep in mind that the above, rather limited, example deals only with combat. What about when a PC wants to sneak around somewhere they’re not supposed to be? Or needs to haggle over something in the market place? Or fix a broken piece of machinery? Think of anything you’ve read about someone doing in a book or seen someone do in real life or on television or in a movie. All of those options are (or at least should be) available to the PCs within reason. By ‘within reason’ I mean that what they are allowed to do should fit into the guidlines of the world or setting the story takes place in. If we’re using a medieval setting calling someone on the phone wouldn’t be allowed, but in a modern setting it would be. That kind of adherence to a setting is policed by the GM. Most games come packaged with a setting (D&D typically operates in a medieval fantasy setting) so when the group chooses a game they are usually getting most of a setting along with it and so have a basic framework for their group story to start from. Now suppose you’re playing in a modern setting and the GM tells you that your character’s brother has been kidnapped. Are you going to call the police or go vigilante on the kidnapper? Or do you think the information is a trick designed to lure you into making the wrong decision? The player decides what their character would think and do given the info provided by the GM, the stats on the character sheet and the player’s own vision of their character’s personality. A wimpy intellectual may be less inclined to go vigilante than would a brawny gang-banger, but that might not be the case depending on how the intellectual feels about their brother. The reason people play RPGs is because of that level of complexity. Those are the basics anyway. A lot of what I tend to rant about relates to what I believe makes for better games from both the GM and Player perspective. As you can see there are a lot of options with this past time so there are a lot of nuances to how and why things are decided. If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask them. From here on out it’s going to be something of an aimless ramble/rant (depending on my mood)…