Tag Archives: game mastering

State of The System and Ropecon mini-games

So, where is New Horizons? It’s been some 7 months of silence from my part (mostly because of a death in the family that derailed things), so I’ll try to get back on the track with short tidbits now and then maybe continue writing actual long posts further down the road.

Tokens I'm using now.

Quick update on the campaigns first: I’ve been running continuous games for Alpha and Bravo teams, ~15 sessions for Alpha, ~20 for Bravo. Bravo is just moving into Season 2 of the campaign with a big showdown in the last session we had and with Alpha we had a first team split to explore the characters in a more contained setting.

The feedback I’m getting from the players in invaluable (helps to have 7 people in the groups whose field of work is in gaming), which means that the system is updated often and keeps going through iterations quite fast. Officially we’re playing using the 2.3 version now, and I can’t count how many iterations the 1.x versions went through, but “countless” comes quite close.

The 1.0 rules were a shot in the dark. Anything that could even remotely fit a Corporate Scifi Horror campaign was incorporated. Way more mechanics than one could ever need, but that was sort of good. It’s easier for me to cut down mechanics than add new ones, it would seem. 1.x has had Death Moves (from Star Wars World), two interwoven stats (one set for approaches to situations, the other for professional expertise. They were just confusing), sanity-esque corruption-like mechanic and even a core Move (“You did … what?!”, which is basically “Are you crazy?!” from The Regiment 1.0) that was completely out of the style of the games that I was running. It had everything and the kitchen sink. Playtesting with the main groups showed me what got actually used and what had problems, and slowly but surely I honed the smaller details (like what stat to use where, or the wording of some Move) and kept in mind the big things I wanted to change.

Then came 2.0, which was basically the first big revamp. Reduced the system to 5 base stats (change of the stat “move” to “push”, ditch the role stats), one core Move for each stat, put more mechanical consistence on the way Moves work (for example, all role Moves that ask questions give an advantage (+1 forward) to a relevant follow-up Move), temporarily ditch the sanity mechanics so they don’t distract from the game, make the system actually geared towards teamwork, formalize the way threats and gear work.. and most importantly start building a vocabulary for Powered by Apocalypse games that works more naturally in Finnish. If all games are essentially conversations that are moderated by rules, the rules need to speak the same language as the conversation for things to flow perfectly. While the 2.x rules give the campaign some structure, but most importantly, they are geared towards one-shots, like convention games. If 1.x was a general shot in the dark, 2.x took weird stabbing motions towards a campaign play structure and the character advancement there had everything imaginable in it.

And as of last week, I’m now working on the 3.0 version. It will not hit the campaigns in a long while as I realized that there are huge changes that I need to do to the very core of the system. The character roles (playbooks) have always felt schizophrenic and overlapping, and after making pregenerated characters for a couple of con games, combined with feedback on the sanity system from Alpha team, I figured out I may have to take a dual-playbook approach to the game after all. Role book and Depth book (name pending), where the later is the character’s approach when things get shadow biosphere-y and the first one deals with the mundane. Moves will go through a language and functionality check so that using a Move becomes natural in the conversation of the game (so most adjective+noun combos like “calculating bastard” turn into something more action-y like “accept the cost”) and the effects reaffirm the corporate scifi horror theme. There is a huge need to revamp the roles as well. Empath, Seer and Voice roles will be rewritten to more mundane counterparts, while the shadow biosphere stuff moves to new parallel playbooks. Stats will move around for all the roles but the Leader, and this will again have an effect on the moves. And other things. All in all, my mind is primed with ideas.

Full set of character cards for one character. Moves, tokens, the work.

The other thing I wanted to mention was the Ropecon games and what I learned from those.

First thing I learned is that New Horizons is meant to be played around a proper table. It’s a funny by-product of the card system, but to function “as intended”, the game needs structured seating where everyone sees each other and have their cards in front of them. I am not sure what to do with this information in regards to the actual campaigns I’m running (where the game situations are … relaxed), but it might be so that I move the games to the kitchen from now on. There is some relevance in having the Leader at the end of the table, facing the GM as equal (this was impossible actually at Ropecon because of the noise) and everyone around the table seeing the cards and the tokens.

I ran two atypical scenarios at Ropecon, and playtested both before the con. The fact they were something else, allow me to look back and say things like “well yes, if this had been a normal +H game, there should have been some sort of an intel-gathering phase there at the beginning.” Which leads to me thinking that there needs to be a mission setup Move. 10+, you know two facts about the mission choose both (insert list). 7-9, as 10+, but you choose one, GM chooses one. 6-, as 7-9, but GM gets an extra Move for a Threat. Or something like that. In one, I used the gear system to the maximum potential, in the other, the Threats (I’ll have to talk about those in full detail later. They’re pretty much like Tremulus’ GM hold, but more nuanced).

It’s nice to see where the game is going and even if the players weren’t there to provide feedback for my game design, but to enjoy a game, it was interesting to see how they interacted with the system.

I will run the scenarios I did for Ropecon probably once more so I won’t put the details here to spoil potential players.

How to Get Out of a Game? “Exit Strategies”

This is a topic that came up on the Facebook wall of a friend that fits the general style of these Monday morning posts. What to do when a campaign you’ve signed up for just doesn’t “do it” to you? How to get out of a game that you don’t want to play in anymore?

I am one of those people who always aims to please and never wants to be a bother to anyone. This means that I am exactly the type of player who finds the idea of leaving a game harrowing. And I had to quit a game I was playing in. This was about half a year ago.

Can you just walk out? How to get out of a game?

The campaign concept was brilliant, the GM is one of the most innovative bastards (that’s a good thing) I know, and the co-players were excellent. But sadly, the game would have required way more commitment than I could ever reasonably give it. While in my youth I could reasonably memorize the philosophies of three different fictional religious orders to get into the mindset of my character, doing something on that scale for every game session was too much for me (or at least that what it felt like, to the stressed-out me).

We had been playing for a good while before that realization hit me. It took me three more sessions before I managed to actually say something, and even that was because a non-gamer friend pointed out that I was supposed to be gaming for fun and if I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I wanted, I should stop.

First I considered calling. But I knew I could be easily convinced that I was wrong, so I decided on a written message instead. I did my best to write it out as clear as possible that I had to quit, and that it wasn’t anything personal (since it wasn’t), that the game just wasn’t for me. And all that poetry. Still, took the better part of the evening to get the simple message written. It was horrible to do. And then I sent it. And it was over. All I could do is wait.

I got a very kind and understanding reply back from the GM, and the world didn’t end. We’re still as good friends as we were before the “break-up” and as far as I know, the campaign still continues to this day (can’t be sure, since one of the things about the campaign was that we don’t talk about the campaign to people outside the campaign). It really was as simple as saying “I can’t play in this game anymore,” but believing that was pretty much impossible.

From the other side of the GM screen, it seems more complicated than it is as well. The thing that has killed more games I’ve run than any other is “scheduling issues”. And everyone who runs games knows that it is a code word for a) actual scheduling issues or b) dwindling interest in the game. You are never really sure. Players do not tell me if they want out, so they just make the arranging of a game date impossible. Which just doesn’t kill the game for the player but the whole group. It is a terrible way for a game to go.

While I haven’t spoken with the players about exit strategies in New Horizons, it’s next on my list of things to do. My plan is to tell them as clear as I can that I don’t mind people quitting. It’s not a bad thing to take a couple of months of break from the game. It doesn’t hurt me if people have to cancel the last minute. The only thing I ask is that the players are open about what’s going on and won’t just disappear. The game is designed to handle things like that, but only if I know about them.

This is a thing that has happened with me growing older. I value my time. I value my friends’ time. I would never want them to be suffering in a game I ran if it was inconvenient for them. I know that life happens. People have to move to strange countries because of their work. They get babies. They find other time-consuming hobbies. They die. Or they get tired because it’s cold outside. And we have to be willing to accept that.

The bottom line is that it is just a game. We play it for our entertainment. If it costs us more than we get from it, we shouldn’t do it. As players we should feel free to say this to our GMs. As GMs we should be prepared for it and accept it if it happens. There is nothing personal about it. That’s the part that’s hardest to keep in mind.

So, as a player tell the GM if you want out and you will probably not ruin the game for anyone. And as a GM explain beforehand how to get out of a game and you might save your campaign. Simple as that.

8 Seduction Tips for the Game Master

If you look at popular magazines aimed at men and women, you find a lot of articles about seduction. Lots and lots of things in these articles are really basic human interaction put to words, but there are some hints of wisdom here and there in those seduction tips that can be used to improve the way you run RPGs. This is a rewriting of an old article of mine from an old blog of mine.

Seduction Tips. Go outside. Play.

8 – Be the Alpha

“In social animals, the alpha  is the individual in the community with the highest rank.”

That’s a Wikipedia definition of an alpha. At the table, this is your position as the Game Master. It doesn’t mean you need to dry hump lower-ranking members of the group back into submission if they get out of line, but you are expected to take charge of the situation and provide rulings and guidance. While games these days focus on shared ideas and executions, as the GM, you are still the one organizing the event and everyone there subconsciously holds you responsible when it comes to keeping things rolling.

The GM role is an authority role, and you should embrace it as such. The others are expecting you to be a good, reliable leader. Remember that actions speak louder than words do. So stand behind what you say, and deal with situations fairly.

7 – Stay Fit, Have a Life

Having an active social life and staying in good health is super-important. If you’re energetic and happy when running a game, this bleeds to the other players as well. Having social circles outside your gaming buddies mean that you’ll spend less time obsessing over game details and that you’re putting yourself out there. Meeting new people and getting experiences, stuff that give you tons of inspiration for your games. Maybe the new girl in the coffee shop is the basis for your next big NPC. Or she could be the love of your life. You never know until you get off your ass and actually go do something.

6 – You Can’t Seduce Someone Who Don’t Want To Be Seduced

Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Not all people want what you’re offering. Maybe the way you two think about RPGs clashes or could be that they just think you’re a brute for your lack of interest in 12th century swimwear. It is all very natural, and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. If you get indicators that they’re steering away from your game by constantly canceling and being absent, you should offer them an actual chance to step down. A reluctant player in the game is worse to the game than one not being there.

5 – Use Stories To Sell You(r NPCs)

This one is a tip about selling your NPCs than selling yourself. You can make any NPC more memorable by introducing them with a story rather than just a description. The new recruit who comes late and explains how she almost got into a fight with an old lady over the last pair of the pink gloves she wanted is infinitely more interesting than a new recruit with pink gloves. Keep a couple of stories for each major NPC and use them to re-introduce the character to the players.

4 – Be Interested In What She Has To Say

Really pay attention to your players. What are things that keep coming up? What do they react best to in your behavior? When do they go non-responsive? You need to figure out what your players want. Sometimes you can ask them directly, but more often than not this will make them to tell you what they think you want to hear. Observe their actions, and keep eye contact with them to show them that you’re observing. If you are slumped into your rule books when they’re making valid points, you give a discouraging signal. A good GM is one that cares about what’s going on and shows it.

3 – Learn From Each Encounter

Players are notoriously bad at giving negative feedback. Listen to what they say, and listen to what they don’t say. Fill the holes and figure out what didn’t go well. And once you figure out that, try and improve. Don’t aim to get everything perfect at once. A goal of improving one thing per game session is already an impressive one. Even if you don’t manage to make things better with the first try, it’s a huge step every time you try.

2 – Know your shit

A good player can spot bullshit a mile away, so you better know your shit. If you keep pulling rules and ideas out of your ass, your authority ends up under inspection pretty fast. If you’re trying a new system, be willing to do the effort and learn how it works. Better than your players. The OSR has it right with their “don’t make rules, make rulings” policy. If you can’t remember how a rule really works in the books, make a ruling how it goes in your game. And then stand by that ruling from that point on.

1 – The Best Way To Get Over a Bad Lay Is To Have Ten Great Ones

And then all goes to hell. Half of the players don’t want to talk to you anymore because of your Norwegian artsy indie scenario that experimented with whale blabber as a randomization mechanic. It’s time to take a deep breath and get back on the horse. Pick up a Pathfinder adventure, make characters, kill goblins with people. Don’t let failure bog you down. Keep rolling them dice.