All the Faces of the Moon

Just a quick note here. A friend of mine has set out on a crazy mad quest. Over the course of 29 nights, he is telling an epic tale of modern magic — each night a new monologue. Working from an outline he performs a mostly extemporaneous story, and is giving shape to a narrative that is very Unknown Armies in its feel.

If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or American Gods, or enjoy the work of Tim Powers or Chuck Wendig, this should be right up your alley. Each show has been recorded and posted as a podcast so you can follow the whole thing.

Here’s a link to the podcast on itunes.

Check it out.

Success and Failure (GenCon After Action Report — Part 3)

So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.

On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?

Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.

I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.

With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.

Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.

No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.

I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps – end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.

But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.

So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.

I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.

Quick news update!

We take a break from our current series to make an announcement. This actually happened at GenCon, but I could only talk about it now.

I have been offered, and I accepted, the Line Developer position for Earthdawn.

This means that I will be in charge of the direction and development of the game line, creative and otherwise. I will also be the public face of the Earthdawn game line on web fora and the like.

This is a big deal. I am excited, and a little nervous.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 2)

In my prior post I talked quite a bit about scenario and character design when it comes to convention games. This time around, I want to talk about time management. There are two aspects of time management. This first is pre-game preparation, the second is in-game pacing.

While I think the variety of the scenarios I came up with was a good idea for a couple of different reasons, it resulted in extra work to get ready for the con. I was smart enough to have two of the adventures use the same set of pre-generated characters, which saved some prep time, but three different four-hour scenarios is a lot of work.

I also outsourced some of the character creation. This didn’t save me as much time as I expected for a couple of reasons. First, I had to go over the characters and make sure they were all built the same way on the same number of points. Second, I had to take the Second Circle characters and boost them up to Fourth Circle.

All of that stuff falls under your standard time management umbrella, though, and not really the main thing I want to focus on. You obviously want to give yourself enough time to getting everything prepared in advance. I was making notes and finishing things up the Tuesday before we left for the convention. If I had to do it over again I would procrastinate less.

What I want to really talk about is pacing. At a convention game, you have a fixed amount of time (traditionally four hours) and unless you are intentionally running a multi-stage campaign you need to fit the entire scenario into that window while also allowing time for introductions, selecting or assigning characters, and any other special stuff you need to cover before the adventure proper gets under way. It’s also not a bad idea to shoot for an early wrap-up, giving players a bit of time to pick up their stuff, chat, or head on to their next scheduled event. Conventions can be very busy, and people often appreciate being given a little bit of breathing room.

This means you are better off shooting for a three (maybe three and a half) hour adventure with a clearly defined goal (or set of goals). The path to that goal may not itself be clear-cut, but the players should have a good idea of what they need to accomplish. When I was preparing my scenarios I came up with four scenes that defined the arc of the story, trying to go for a mix of combat, role-playing, and investigation/exploration.

I was… moderately successful when it came to pacing.  Two Houses, Alike in Dignity suffered the most when it came to pacing, because it was a very much a role-playing scenario, and for the most part I find it a bit harder to… play with time (for lack of a better term) in a role-playing scene. Let me give an example by way of contrast.

The opening scene to Two Houses is a straight-up fight, not connected to the main plot at all. It serves mainly as a way to bring the PCs to the attention of the NPC hiring them for the job, and a way to toss some combat into what is otherwise a pretty non-violent scenario. Some fool has brought a pregnant genhis into the marketplace, and the animal gives birth.

(For those who don’t know, the genhis is a placid herd animal in Earthdawn that gives birth to a brood of dozens of voracious little beasties that try to devour anything and everything nearby.)

Because of the number of potential enemies, and the location, I found it easy to pace the scene. If the fight is going easily, I can bring in more genhis. If it’s not going so well, I can have an NPC adept come in to help out, have the genhis turn against each other (vicious little things that they are), or have an injured one flee. In short, there are different variables that I can tweak in the moment to adjust the level of challenge and how long it is taking to resolve the scene. It’s also relatively easy to determine when the scene is done because the combat is over.

Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, tend to have fewer variables to play with. There are fewer things that can easily and seamlessly extend a scene that is resolving quickly, or resolve a scene that is not going well. This is where some of that pre-game preparation can really come into play. For any given scene (whether role-playing, combat, or exploration) you need to have a goal in mind, and you want to come up with multiple ways the scene could play out, including different ways you can resolve the scene. This should play in to the abilities your player characters have, so that there is a good chance of having multiple “outs” for any given scene in your scenario.

(See, it’s all fundamentally interrelated!)

That will do it for now. I think my next post on this topic will address the role of success and failure in a convention game, both on a scene and scenario level.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 1)

This is going to be a multi-part post. At GenCon 2013, I ran three different games two times each. It was my first time running games at a con that I wrote myself, and only the second time I had run games at a con. I ran three sessions of Journey to Lang at Origins in 2005, which was a pre-made demo adventure from around the time of the original FASA release of Earthdawn.

In general, the games went well. They were all sold out, but I had several no-shows so I didn’t actually have full tables the whole weekend. Despite this, I had positive feedback and I learned quite a bit about designing and running effective con games. One of the more surprising lessons resulted from the stylistic spread of the games that I ran. I had an introductory scenario (Pilgrimage), a more traditional kaer dive (Into the Deeps) and a role-play heavy, more light hearted romp (Two Houses, Alike in Dignity).

There are a lot of pieces that go into setting the framework for a good con game, especially one where you are going to be providing pre-generated characters. You want to make sure you have a variety of character types to choose from, and more choices is better than fewer. You don’t want to have too many choices, though, because then you can run into choice paralysis when it comes time for the players to choose what role they will play in the story. I think a good number is half again as many character choices as slots you intend to have available (for example, 9 choices for a 6-player game).

Before you make your pre-generated characters, you should have a good idea of what your adventure is going to be about, and what kind of challenges the characters are going to face. Each character should have something that can contribute to the progress of the story in one manner or another. Each encounter should potentially have more than one path to resolution, and the possible resolutions should be spread across your characters (preferably with some overlap). This isn’t as critical with straight-up combat encounters, because most traditional RPGs (Earthdawn included) have a pretty strong emphasis on combat mechanics, and almost all characters have a way to contribute to combat.

Puzzle and role-playing encounters, on the other hand, require a bit more flexibility when it comes to adventure design. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can’t guarantee that a specific skill or ability will be available to the player character group. Second, you can’t guarantee that the players will take a specific action or direction to solve the problem. Thus, you should have in mind two or three different possible solutions to a puzzle, and have helpful skills available to multiple characters. This makes it more likely that the group will be able to find some way to progress without getting roadblocked.

That will just about do it for now. I’ll provide some more specific examples later on, when I break down the individual scenarios. Next up, though, a few words on time management. Stay tuned!

Gencon 2013 — Day 1

I am sitting back at the house, relaxing after the first day of Gencon. I started by getting up at the crack of dawn so that I could get my stuff together and get over to the ICC for the early admission. Since I’m officially working the con under an exhibitor’s badge, this gave me a chance to do a quick visit to a couple of the booths before I had to head over to run my games for the day.

I scored the one thing I wanted to grab at the convention — a copy of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. I did not drop the extra cash to get the special ($100) or deluxe ($200) editions. I’m a fan of the game, but can’t justify spending that kind of money on a game that isn’t going to do more than sit on my shelf.

Then it was over to the RPG room in the ICC where I had two sessions to run. First up was Into the Deeps, where I had 5 players, a couple of which had never played Earthdawn before. I think it was a successful session, though I think it is a little exposition heavy at one point. If I had done a bit more prep, I would probably look at having handouts or something a bit more tangible.

The other session was Two Houses, Alike  In Dignity. Only two registered players showed up (despite the game being sold out). My wife happened to stop by very early on, and sat in to provide a third. I think the game was successful, though it ran short (it was scheduled until 6, and we wrapped up around 4).

I think I will do a bit more in-depth after-action report of the different scenarios after the con is over. This will give me a chance to see if tweaks I make for the second time I run the game makes a difference, and give a little bit of analysis on what makes a good con game (at least from my point of view and experience).

Gencon 2013 — Day 0

Not a whole lot to say about our arrival in Indianapolis and the prep for GenCon.

We got into town a little before 1 PM and settled into our accommodations (we rented a house about a mile from the convention center). We then headed over to the ICC (Indiana Convention Center) to set up the FASA Games booth. This only took an hour or so — we don’t have a lot of space.

The hall is HUGE. And when it is being set up it can be kind of hard to navigate.

We grabbed a late lunch, headed back to the house to relax for a little bit, and then went out to the Diana Jones Award. This is an industry recognition award to honor excellence and contribution to gaming. This year’s winner was the web series Tabletop, created (and hosted) by Wil Wheaton. He was there, and thrilled. I (very briefly) got a chance to meet him during the event, and he was very down to earth and gracious.

One quick note, pictures will have to wait for another time. It is not uncommon to forget something in the midst of packing, and we didn’t bring the cable that connects our digital camera to the computer. While we will likely be taking a lot of pictures, there isn’t any easy way for me to get them uploaded here. I may occasionally take pictures with my phone an upload them, but the bulk of the pictures will probably have to wait until next week when we are back in Maine.

As I write this, it is the early morning hours of Day 1, and in a little bit we will be loading up and heading over to the ICC for Day One. I’m looking forward to it.

GenCon Bound!

Hello again dice chuckers! I do not update this blog very frequently, but you may be seeing quite a bit more activity over the course of the next several days. (I say may because despite all my intentions to try and update this more frequently… well, you know.)

My wife and I are currently staying with a friend in Nashua, NH and in a few hours we will be boarding a plane for Columbus, OH where we will spend some time with another friend before we all drive to Indianapolis, IN for the RPG Mecca that is GenCon 2013.

So, much as I did back in 2005 for my trip to the Origins game fair, I am going to try and document the experience. Expect lots of photos. I’m also hoping to throw in some thoughts about getting ready for a con, and how preparing for one-shot con games (or demos) is different than the typical game group adventure prep.

If anybody reading this is at (or will be at) GenCon, feel free to say hello. During the day when I am not running games, I will most likely be at the FASA Games booth.

For now, I’m going to sign off and do a little bit more game prep. The first lesson of convention adventure prep is don’t bite off more than you can chew. I will explain that later. For now… game on!

What I’m Reading: Shambling Guide and Blue Blazes

This past week was a two-fer of urban fantasy. Two great books that couldn’t be more different. I’m going to talk about both of them.

shamblingUp first was the debut novel from Mur Lafferty, The Shambling Guide to New York City. This novel is urban fantasy with a dash of chick-lit.  It is a breezy, funny tale with a great lead character, wonderful supporting cast, and cracking plot. It plays into many of the cliches of the urban fantasy genre, but has a few notable twists that set the story apart.

The story focuses on Zoe, a travel-guide editor who has fled to New York to escape a messy personal situation from her prior job. Her savings are running out, and there are few prospects on the horizon when she comes across an ad for a position with a new publishing company. Despite being told multiple times that she won’t fit in, she fights for the job and gets it. Soon after getting the job, she finds that she is the sole human, hired to edit a travel guide for monsters — or as they prefer to be called, “coterie”.

It is a “hidden world” setting. The vampires, zombies, fey, and more live alongside humanity but are publicly unknown. In one of the more interesting twists in the story, the city’s Public Works department acts as a kind of police force, protecting humanity from the darker coterie entities out there, and helping to maintain the secret of their existence.

Another interesting approach is the character of Zoe herself. She really is just a writer, looking to do her job and put together a good travel guide. She isn’t the born badass that identifies many of the protagonists in the genre. The dangers of dealing with coterie do require her to step up her game though, and as the story progresses she demonstrates a strong will and determination that carry her through despite the lack of ‘chosen one’ status.

On the other hand, Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes is an urban fantasy crossed with gritty crime novel. It is a dark, brutal tale of organized crime and brings a new meaning to the term “criminal underworld”. The fantasy element here is lot more Lovecraftian, with forgotten gods, cults of bestial humanoids, forbidden magic, madness, and death.

blazesOur main character is Mookie Pearl, a brick house of a man who works for “The Organization”, a mafia-style crime ring in New York City. Mookie is an enforcer, and manages the harvesting of Cerulean, a drug that allows its users to see the truth of the supernatural world and also boost strength and stamina.

Mookie’s life is turned upside down when the Boss — the head of the Organization — announces he has terminal cancer, and his estranged daughter comes back into his life. This sparks a chain of events that leads to the discovery of a conspiracy that could change the face of New York — and likely the rest of the world.

Blue Blazes is brutal and violent. The cast is blue-collar, doing their best to get by in a difficult world. Choices are made, and prices are paid.

While in some respects they are very different, both books feature strong, well developed characters. Both books have excellent world-building and are well-paced. I strongly recommend both of them.

Rise! Rise from the grave!

It has been just over a year since I have posted anything.

Yikes.

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve been turning over in my mind lately, trying to come up with a way to get some forward momentum going. So today will be (relatively) short and sweet.

I recently watched the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones.bagofbones

It wasn’t very good.

Bag of Bones is probably my favorite Stephen King novel, and maybe one of my all-time favorite novels. I actually read this novel to my wife when we were first together. The book is a beautiful, haunting love story that I would probably recommend as a good introduction to King’s work.

The TV movie is poorly paced, and loses a big chunk of a key part of the book — the relationship that develops between Mike Noonan, Mattie Devore, and her daughter Kyra. It just isn’t in the film. We have a couple of key plot points, but the story spends a lot of time focused on the mystery of Dark Score Lake and what happened to Sara Tidwell back in 1939.

Not recommended.