Saturday, December 17, 2016

Tom Clancy's The Division - can I stomach this game?

Note: this isn't really a "review" in the traditional sense; more of a deconstruction of content and themes. I don't know what it says that of the dozen or so half-started posts since my hiatus, that this is the one that came together, but here it is.


So, The Division.

Here is a game that I really wanted to like. Before its release, I watched cool live-action parkour videos, promising a gritty-but-human action romp in a mid-apocalyptic New York. Upon release, however, the game showed itself to be rife with issues; and I don't mean the gameplay (though I understand that it was spotty at launch).

No, I mean the ethically troubling picture of lethally ensuring an authoritarian agenda, primarily by means of killing black dudes in hoodies.

What I wanted was a third-person shooter, focused on sweet spec ops homies sticking up for the common folk in a zombie-free apocalypse. And true or not, what seemed to be delivered was a weirdly totalitarian romp, where murdering large quantities of brown-skinned young men - often for doing the exact same things you would then go on to do - was the basic structure, message, and point of the game. Whether that was the developers' intent or not doesn't really matter, if that's the end result.

Maybe it's me. But I don't think it's just me.

I could be described as a bleeding-heart liberal, and I wouldn't exactly take offense to that. So when a friend of mine (who happens to be a literally card-carrying1 NRA member) tells me to stay away from a game due to its horrifically tone-deaf handling of gun violence, I pay attention. As a result, The Division hasn't gotten the time of day from me, let alone any of my money.

Time passed. A Steam Free Weekend rolled around. And I found myself wondering: is it actually that bad? I know there have been many patches, response to a lot of feedback. Have these issues been addressed? Were they as strong as they first appeared, or was that a knee-jerk reaction? Ultimately, How would I feel, playing this game?

I could find out for myself. So I dove in.

Right of the bat, I wondered if a different point-of-view character would alter the problematic tone of the content? I set my language to French (with English subtitles, I don't speak the language), and venture forth as a ruggedly handsome dark-skinned dude, having been suitably impressed with the character creation result, despite limited options. This man is here from Actual France to help American civilians in their time of need, and he's gonna look sweet AF while doing so.

Deal With It.
J'Killstring is unimpressed with your corporate inspiration poster
So I head out! I meet up with my fellow Domestic Sleeper Agents2, and get briefed on what's going down. Some minor tutorial stuff later, and I'm off to locate some nasty profiteers who've commandeered some canned food.

Yes, canned food.

I actually rather like this. War profiteers are nasty, and subverting humanitarian relief for personal profit is a legit concern in warzones. I like that we're talking about this, seeing it in the US, and I really like that I get to do something about it. All told, I should be able to take out some profiteers without triggering a crisis of conscience.

So I roll up on a scene, where someone is shaking down their fellow man. I use these terms because they're both indistinctly bundled-up folks in hoodies, hats, and bandannas - I couldn't tell you their ethnicity, gender, or even basic facial features. What I could tell, however, was that one was threatening the other, talking about his nice watch, etc., while the other sobbed and begged not to die.

I can parse the morality of this, I thought.

I pop out of cover, and blast the bandit away. My character barely reacts to this at all, but as a Domestic Sleeper Agent, I suppose he's a little bit dead inside. Still, the almost-victim is not a scary Black Ops Ninja, so they run screaming from the scary dude with the gun.

Makes sense to me!

I follow up on some clues (looted from the body, I guess?) to find this ne'er-do-well's compatriots. I get a cover tutorial, and see some fellows in hoodies, marked in my HUD. Ok, I'm not going to just gun them down, right? Can I talk to them? Nope, no dialog options. Nor is there an option to holster my weapon. So ok, I walk out, trying to see what they're up to.
In the not-zombie apocalypse, I'm makin' sure you get your veggies!

They open fire, and I am very dead.

Still, it's a video game! I respawn not far from here (my brain filling in the narrative gap with an elaborate fiction about Le Division being AIs, or uploaded human consciousnesses, with spare host bodies all over the city), and briskly avenge my prior, ultimately meaningless death. I guess these guys are the culprits I was told about? I step into a nearby warehouse, hoping to find the food shipments.

And I do! Hooray - green beans for everyone. I am a nutritional hero.

I make my way out, and locals are looting the bodies of the fellows I gunned down earlier. I like that desperate, human touch, honestly - these folks want to survive - and some of them are spooked at my passing, but others pay me little mind. I hear a voice calling out from a window, encouraging me, telling me that I'm "doing great work," and they appreciate it. On one hand, I just gunned down three human beings. I notice that they are all young black men, and feel a certain way about that. On the other hand, they were war profiteers, oppressing the local populace, and generally being dicks.

Ultimately, I am reminded that this game is a shooter. I can really only interact with the world via my guns. With that said, the civilians around seem to think I'm doing good for them, which is about all I can ask from the game, given what it is. I pass a woman consoling her friend - he's distraught, and has despaired of life, mourning the death of what I presume is his significant other. She tries to encourage him, asking "what do you think he would want for you?" and so forth.

I know it's a little throwaway scene, meant to establish the setting. But I find myself genuinely touched by these two, their friendship, and the difficulty of going on without beloved husband/boyfriend/it's not actually my business. I want to comfort them too. Give them some supplies, or at least some encouragement.

But all I have is a gun. The only way I can interact with this world is destructive in nature.

I move on.

Having established J'Killstring's inherent French-ness, I switch the audio to English - there's just too much chatter that's not showing up on the subtitles - and am pleasantly surprised to hear that Garrus - or at least his voice actor - is one of my mission commander/talking head/radio support folk. I instantly feel better about the decisions being made; here's a guy who's weighed the brutal calculus of war, somebody I trust.

It's a silly sort of peripheral cue, but it adds to my enjoyment of the game, so I don't mind.

I bring up a menu to determine my next course of action; it seems that there's a hostage situation at the bank - once again, I'm pretty sure I can parse the morality of this, though it's potentially open to interpretation. I'll check it out! I crawl through a sewer tunnel to make it to the bank, cementing my firm belief that sewer access is essential for any good action protagonist, and make my way to the bank.


"Being an action hero does not smell the way I hoped it would."

And it's here that I run into my first real bit of trouble.

I am told that "hostiles are detected," and when I get close, I see three dark-skinned dudes, rifling through the pockets of a prone figure, mumbling about "slim pickings." They are highlighted in red. I'm supposed to shoot them.

Okay, but fuck that maybe? I literally just walked past dozens of people picking over corpses that I myself made. How is this bad behavior? How am I supposed to tell if they're different from the unarmed civilians I passed, doing the same exact thing? I walk out of cover, and am told it's "every man for himself," as they open fire. I guess my HUD-supplying, radio-broadcasting overlords know what's up, as these cats aren't happy to see me. Gameplay-wise, I have a better grip of things, and dispatch these fellas with relative ease.

I look over the bodies. It's a pile of young, black men, gunned down in NYC. A young, black man, with a smoking military rifle stands over them, a grim look of determination on his face.

I do not feel like a hero.

I make my way inside, where the hostages are. It's two dudes locked in a comfortable-looking office, not in any immediate danger. Either way, they're safe now, and I'm off to recover some stolen morphine. Medical supplies, right. Okay. This is probably okay.

SPOILER ALERT: It's not particularly okay.

I make it there, and my magic heads-up-display informs me who is bad - but these guys seem to be a fairly mixed bag. One of them is looking for an antivirus, which seems to be an incredibly reasonable response to their situation, given the horrible death plague, and the complete failure of legitimate channels to help the population and whatnot. They're surprised to find the Morphine I'm here for, and while one of them (acutely) notes that they could die at any moment, and suggests they do so high, the other is just trying to get some damn medicine. I know it won't work, but I pop out, hoping for a dialog box.

Nope! Just bullets.

I die. A lot. My backup arrives, shouting out that we have to take out "these scavengers." I feel like crap - we're all scavengers here, right? It's a zombie-free apocalypse. I fire, and fire, and eventually triumph, but I'm having a hard time feeling triumphant. In the distance, I hear barking dogs, and gunfire. I look over the pile of bodies. They are, to a soul, young, black men in hoodies and bandannas. They seem to have sad, perplexed looks on their faces, an eternally twisted death grimace that seems to ask "why?"

And I don't have a good answer at the ready.

I don't feel like a hero.

His eyes have questions.


I don't have answers.

I am told that HQ is "grateful for all the lives (I've) saved," which feels massively incongruous, considering the pile of bodies I'm currently surveying. But hey. Medical supplies. I head back to HQ, where I am given a pep talk by my commander - a Brooklyn native, it seems - who tells me how much my actions mean to them. I am repeatedly told about all the good that my actions are doing, that I'm saving lives and making a difference. That I am a good person, doing important things.

I have killed at least a dozen people - all young, black men - in the past 45 minutes or so, and it was not exactly black-and-white. There is something bristlingly tone-deaf about my superior officer - a mild-voiced white man - telling me about all the good that I've done here, having killed so many brown-skinned dudes in New York, and how this makes him feel better.

Stand firm in the confidence that your actions are just. You are saving lives, doing good. You are a hero. And if that feels dissonant with your actions, just remember that we are the good guys, they are the bad guys, and that is what matters.

My experience is oddly similar to playing Spec Ops: The Line. My stomach turns a little.

I have another mission, to help a police station that is under attack. Every enemy is another young black man. My allies tend to be middle-aged white men, though I admittedly don't get a good look at them. I am given encouragement, told that my enemies have "no strategy," and it's starting to feel more than a little hollow, considering how badly they're beating the cops before (and admittedly, after) I show up. They are called "cowards," as they charge with baseball bats at people packing military hardware. I find it difficult not to attach the weight of prejudice to my comrade's words. I find it significantly more difficult to believe that all these young black dudes are attacking the NYPD without sufficient cause. It's the NYPD, it's not like there's no history there.

I idly wonder if I can align with the rioters.

***

I walk away from the computer, do something else for a while, and reflect upon my experience.

The gameplay was good - quite good, actually. There's a particular sort of third-person shooter itch that is really getting scratched by the smooth cover system, and importance of tactical positioning in these firefights. There is promise here - my character has an appearance slot for scarves. For scarves! I'm something of an aficionado - scarves, wraps, kerchiefs, bandannas - so this by itself should be enough for a Game of the Year nod from me.

And yet.

I find myself more troubled by my actions in the game as time passes. I wonder if that will pass with experience, if I'll stop noticing. I wonder if I'll feel better if that happens, or worse. I seriously debate whether or not I want to fire the game back up, and see if it gets any better.

But ultimately, I want to do something that's fun. And despite the enticing gameplay3, that really doesn't describe my experience with The Division in my first hour or so. Yet I feel compelled to give it one more chance, if for no other reason than to see if there are enemies that aren't young black men in hoodies.

Make of that what you will.

~Killstring

* * *

1 - It's not a metaphor - they have actual cards! Despite having a well-developed - and I should think not unreasonable - fear of firearms in general, and a massive distaste for the NRA as an organization, I found the card to be a classy touch.

2 - Seriously, is no one else creeped out by this? Straight outta Cold War Fiction, The Division is made up of Hardcore Spec Ops Death Machines, embedded in various places around major cities? Sleeper agents, ready to go to town on the population at the blinking of a (really cool) watch? 

Am I alone in finding this odd? 

3 - Which I understand is a relatively new development! But it's worth mentioning - the game feels really pleasant to control, the city is lovingly rendered, and interacting with the environment is delightful. The shooting is ok, but that's actually less important to me in my third-person shooters, if that makes sense? 

It's all about navigating the environment for me. The gunplay is what gives my cover meaning.


...

This might be strange. I accept that.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Whew...

Hi everybody.

It's been a time, here in the U.S. A tumultuous month featuring no shortage of personal stuff, an emotionally taxing election season, culminating in a disheartening referendum on the beliefs actually held by my fellow citizens, as well as the time of year when my (numerous, but contained) mental health issues elect to make their presence known.

Don't worry about me - this is nothing new. I grappled with this kind of thing all through my undergraduate and graduate degrees -- to say nothing of the rest of my life -- and I've always pulled through just fine. I might be an emotional wreck from time to time, but that doesn't mean I miss deadlines.

Optional and free-time projects, however...those tend to stop like it's Hammer Time. Which is to say, a brief pause, followed by nonsensical dancing in fabulously oversized pants.

Can't stop, won't stop. Never learned how to stop. Send help.
Anyway, just wanted to drop an update. I'm probably not going to continue the Player's Guide series at this time. It felt a little flat to me; I think if I'm going to write advice for new players, I need to spend more time talking to new players at cons and such.

You know, research. It's allegedly my thing.

Regardless, some scheduling normalcy should be the standard for the foreseeable future. I'm planning on doing a couple "utility reviews" - looking at games that I'm currently doing something with, and providing a review of the text in that context - so look for the first of those in a couple days.

As always, if there's anything you'd like to see covered, feel free to hit me up in the comments!

Cheers!

~Killstring


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Player's Guide: how to win at RPGS!

If that's not the clickbait-iest title I've ever thrown out, I'm not sure what is.

But with all the GM-facing advice that exists, I feel there's plenty of room for more player-focused content in the RPG blogosphere. Having said that, I'm going to break the biggest rule of clickbaiting, and answer the question right off the bat. As a player, how do you win at RPGs? By participating in, and contributing to, an enjoyable experience.

Thanks for coming!

Best Post Ever!
Still here? Dang, guess I better elaborate then.

Some Elaboration

As I talked about back here, one of the distinctive ways that RPGs differ from their peers (to name a few; performing arts, entertainment media, and video games) is that the performer and the audience are the same person. This has a lot of effects, and it forms the cornerstone of the hobby. It provides an experience unlike any other, but it also presents fairly unique challenges for all involved.

So let's talk about that some more.

Ok, so I'm some kind of performer. What do I perform?

Actors get scripts. Improv is its own, incredibly difficult, beast. It's also a lot of fun, especially when it's going well. Ever read a novel to lose yourself in a character? Well, here's an opportunity to really get that experience. 

Now for the downside. You're performing without a net -- if something falls flat, it falls flat, and everyone will know it -- and the temptation to be funny, clever, memorable or dramatic can be overwhelming. Likewise, it's easy to get into a feedback loop of "my character would/would not do x," that begs the question why said character is a part of this story in the first place1.

But regardless of your preferred play style, there's two main components that go into being a player; and that's Enjoying Yourself, and Helping Others to Enjoy Themselves. Simple, right? If only. There's a lot that goes into both of those, but ultimately this forms the foundation of what we're doing in the hobby. I mean, if it's not fun, why are we doing it?

Now, that doesn't mean that everything has to be super-happy all the time; Game of Thrones would not necessarily be improved by Monte Python jokes. Having said that, if that's what everybody wants, then do that, that's fine. What might be disruptive in one game can be a major asset in another. But to do that, you first have to know what kind of game you're in.

How do we do that, you ask?

Mindfulness

Pretty sure talking about mindfulness requires HD photos
Or maybe this is just a kickass RPG location! Either way, we're good.
Now, I'm not trying to go all corporate-meditation-buzzword on you here, but check it out. A lot of ink -- digital and otherwise -- has been spilled about mindfulness, and a lot of it is worth checking out. Still, that's what google is for. For our purposes, when I'm talking about mindfulness, I mean the act of seeing things as they are, not as we want them to be, as well as acknowledging things outside ourselves as being real, and worthy of consideration

Basically, don't kid yourself, and remember that your friends matter too. 

Simple enough, though that doesn't make it easy to do. Still, if our goals are for everybody to have fun, it's not just about ourselves; we've got to take everybody on the ride with us. And whether it's the hilariously unexpected crackpot scheme, the incredibly unlikely combat encounter, or the deep, cutting, and memorable dramatic scene, that's how we get to those awesome, memorable experiences that get re-told for years to come. 

We get there together2. RPGs are a team sport, and even if characters and environment are antagonistic, it's all in service of those two goals. Which means that you can't get there without your fellow gamers.

You can't do it yourself.

The GM can't do it for you.

But guess what; if everybody's on the same page, then it doesn't matter if you're not the most entertaining, knowledgeable, experienced gamer in the world; all you have to do is contribute to team success.

#SQUADGOALS

So, what does everybody want to do? To figure that out, we've got to talk about it. There are some great tools for this -- Christopher Chinn's Same Page Tool is arguably the most popular, and for good reason -- but what's important is that we talk about the kind of game we want to have. 

As a brief aside: if this seems elementary; it's really not. There are a lot of subcultures in gaming, and one player's idea of what a game is/should be can be radically different than another's. Sometimes this can even lead to incompatibilities, where two folks just don't gel in a gaming sense, but in most cases, there's some middle ground to find. 

Think about it like starting a band, let's say a rock band. Ok, what's a rock band? If the drummer's thinking Rush, one guitarist is thinking Rage Against the Machine, while the other is thinking Goo Goo Dolls, the bassist thinks Metallica, and the singer's going for Bon Iver -- well, it's not to say it can't work out3, but it's going to take an awful lot of effort to get everybody on the same page. Even though they're all here to play rock music.

Same thing with RPGs. 

So with that in mind, even if you've decided on genre and game system, some conversations can go a long way. This is probably best done before the game starts, but it can certainly prove useful to in-progress games as well. 

Anyway, some things to talk about:
  • What kinds of scenes do people enjoy? This can include, but isn't limited to:
    • Combat
    • Planning
    • Unstructured roleplaying 
    • Structured roleplaying
    • Investigation
    • etc.
  • What tone(s) do people want to see in the game? You can have more than one!
    • Dramatic
    • Grounded
    • Whimsical
    • Comedic
    • Tragic
    • Horrifying
  • What role should mechanics play in the game?
  • How do we feel about character death, player absences, loot, etc.
And especially important once a game is underway:
  • What's working? What isn't? Do we have any idea why?
The point of this is not the questions, nor is it the answers. The most important aspect of this is, in my opinion, the introduction of ideas. There's some communication theory4 behind this, but the basic idea is that by talking about different ways to engage gaming, we introduce that concept, and get ourselves thinking about it.

This can be hard. Human beings tend to view their own experiences as absolute. There's nothing wrong with the instinct, but it's incomplete. I love snacking on jalapeno peppers -- to me, they're not that spicy -- and I flat-out can't do olives or goat cheese. But man, I'll forget that when recommending restaurants. 

Same thing with gaming preferences. We don't to question why we like something; most folks break it down into Fun v. Not Fun. Talking about it gets us to stretch our legs a little. So even if folks aren't the most forthcoming with feedback, that's fine; they should still be more likely to consider the context of other players than if we'd never had the discussion.

In Conclusion

There's a lot to unpack here -- there's at least a Part II, and if folks like these, plenty more -- but the big takeaway is pretty simple. 

RPGs are a team sport. By being mindful of our teammates, we'll have a much better chance of winning; that is to say, having a damn good time. 

You know. Winning.

All of you.

See you soon for Pt. II, where I'll ramble incoherently about making a character.

Much love,
~Killstring

* * *

1 - To be clear, I'm not attempting to disparage any particular playstyle here. For example, I have a more theatrical, narrative style - I can trend towards trying too hard - whereas my S/O has a very simulationist, single-point immersion-based style, and tends toward the latter problem.

Different styles bring different challenges, as well as different strengths. 

2 - Yeah, so maybe that's cheesy. still true. 

3 - If this band existed, I would almost certainly love them to death. I guess Dream Theatre gets kinda close sometimes?

4 - Short version; Priming and Agenda Setting go into how we interact with stuff that's been previously introduced (as opposed to new information,) and how the mass media isn't very good at telling us what to think, but is super good at telling us what to think about. For our purposes here, we want players and GMs thinking about not just what they like, but what the other folks in the group like. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Unorthodox Inspiration: The Undisputed Halflingweight Champion

(Based off of a conversation in the pro wrestling subreddit. Props to the r/squaredcircle community for a cool idea prompt.)

Hello! It's been a while since my last blog entry - as it turns out, writing for games takes up a bit of my daily allotted brainspace for writing about games - but let's enjoy our time together while I've got a break in assignments, yes?

I'm not tired! Just look at all of these words!

Spoiler Alert: this isn't gonna be the most serious post

While chatting with some fine folks on Reddit, the idea of incorporating some storylines from professional wrestling into a fantasy RPG came up. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you're probably aware of my deep and abiding love for borrowing inspiration from other media, as well as my unrelenting fascination with what Pro Grapplers can teach us about RPGs, so I was on-board from the start.

While discussing this, an idea popped into my mind: in a fantasy game with magic items, you could tell an awful lot of stories about different competitors vying to acquire belts, could you not? As it turns out, we weren't the first to have this idea, but the opportunities for long-term storytelling were interesting to me, so I ran with it.

Let's run a little more.

Belts of +4 Awesomeness

A particular class of semi-intelligent magic item has been making an increasingly large impact in adventuring culture. Competition over these potent - but finite - artifacts has seen a robust subculture spring up around the pursuit of, and competition for, these particular treasures.

These titled belts - created when a particularly competitive spirit is willingly bound to the item - grant enormous advantages to their wielders, but there's a caveat to each: for the items to function, a specific suite of circumstances must be met; otherwise, they're just awkward jewelry1. Each spirit has its own requirements - some will only function for women, whereas the Halflingweight Championship only functions for small creatures, others still only work when paired up with their twin - the requirements are as varied, as they are precise. Whether because of malice or benevolence, these spirits want to see competition for their gifts.

But acquiring a belt is only the beginning.
Technically, you could try and hold multiple belts at once;
even Dragons have a hard time pulling this off.

Possession of a belt grants enormous powers - usually a standard deviation higher than comparable magic items in the setting2 - but it also comes with a geas: if challenged to a duel for possession of the belt, the owner is compelled to accept. Many champions use every trick, excuse or loophole available to dodge challengers, but in the end, the geas always wins. Interestingly enough, a geas duel is under its own enchantments; competitors cannot die in the course of the conflict, and if the agreed-upon terms are violated, the enchantment won't transfer to the rule-breaker, even if they're victorious.

Live, on pay-per-view!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spirits who consent to these agreements have a desire to interact with the larger world. As such, it didn't take long for mages to figure out how to attune a scrying pool to their essence: after all, the spirits want increased competition. They want to be seen. Thus has remote viewing become an increasingly popular hobby amongst alchemists, wizards, and any tavern that can afford their services. Holding a title - or even having a competitive or entertaining duel - can lead to unexpected advantages due to the competitor's fame.

Of course, infamy works much the same way.

If you want some... then come get some.

So! These belts exist; and everybody wants them. More interestingly - to me anyway - a belt challenge isn't the end. Long-term rivalries, tenuous alliances; storylines involving recurring antagonists are bloody murder to pull off in fantasy games. Usually because they end in bloody murder at first contact. But with these belts, you can have an entire subplot of adventurers vying for these prizes, and even if your PCs stay out of the title picture, it's a part of the setting that can keep its inertia even without player involvement, and a way to believably power up (or down) enemies or allies at a moment's notice.

Also, if this idea is appealing in the slightest, there's a glorious opportunity to incorporate characters and plotlines from one medium to another. As always, when blatantly stealing borrowing ideas from other mediums, you want the serial numbers very thoroughly filed off - any references should be subtle nods, easter eggs, if you will - the point is not to seem clever, or make a joke, but to enhance the experience for everyone. Even in a comedic game, "lol it's the Undertaker" isn't going to get you as much mileage as the legend of the Dead Man, Markus Calloway.

I know! Subtlety and wrestling in the same sentence. I believe in you, though.

Contenders

Just for kicks, here's a couple translated storylines and characters.

MIGUEL MITZANIN
Human Bard/Rogue
A storied performer - at least in his own mind - Miguel came by the Wayfarer's title through dubious means, and defends it as little as possible. Considered a coward by many - notably, several former champions - he'll do everything in his power to skirt challenges, and plays extremely dirty when he can't, but don't be fooled; he's deceptively fierce when cornered.


REMAN
Werewolf Barbarian
The self-proclaimed "Big Dog" rose to prominence alongside Jonathan Moxey and Set Black in the adventuring company, Aegis. Reman fancies himself a champion of the people - never mind that said people are often unnerved by the idea - but every time he's gotten his hands on a belt, authorities of the Hunter's Guild have found a way to screw him out of it right quick.

RUBY KNUCKLES
Human Alchemist/Fighter
"Plucky Knucks" gained fame as one of the legendary Four Horsewomen - adventurers who toppled the reign of the Devas - though she's struggled to find her own way since then, only recently claiming her first belt.

Far too trusting for her own good, the number of times she's been (literally) stabbed in the back by her companions has become something of a running joke: no word as to whether or not she's in on it.


SACRED MASK
Halfling Monk
Nestled in the southern mountains lies a secluded monastery, home to an order of Halfling warrior-monks with a curious tradition: that one of their order forgoes their name to take on the mantle of the Sacred Mask. Leaving behind any remnants of their old life, these masked warriors wander the land, doing what good they can. Don't let their diminutive size fool you - whether by virtue of their training, or some power inherent in the mask itself, these diminutive dynamos strike like a thunderstorm.

THE DEAD MAN, MARKUS CALLOWAY
Human Lich Antipaladin/Blackguard
A former undertaker, Calloway is a peculiar phenomenon; by all accounts a lich, yet possessing very little - if any - magic of his own. Some say he was simply too mean to stay dead, while others attribute his condition to a higher - or lower - power. Others whisper of Moody William, a decrepit necromancer who once accompanied the Dead Man, and the urn that he carried. Rumored to be Calloway's phylactery, the urn certainly held some kind of power over him.

However, no one's seen William or the urn for quite some time.
BRICK
A Brick (Earth Elemental, if you must know)
Brick was put on this planet for one reason, and one reason only: to hurt people. He held a belt for a while, but frankly got bored with it - the enhancements made his fights too easy, robbing him of his one joy in life - so he's ignored competitions for some time.

Gods have mercy on everyone if he meets an adversary that genuinely gives him trouble, and he needs the belt again.

That's all the time we have, folks!

Anyway, that's my silly idea. Hopefully, if you haven't found anything useful for your own games, you at least got a chuckle out of it. Thanks, as always, for reading!

~Killstring

***
1 - Seriously! They're not even that great as actual belts; it's not like they keep your pants up. *shakes head*

2 - D&D tends to like increments of 2, so go with that. If Belts of Giant's Strength give +2, +4 and +6 bonuses, than the Heavyweight Belt should give out +8. If you want to introduce them earlier, then just have them scale with characters as they level, but they should always be the best available. Otherwise, why compete for them?

Friday, August 5, 2016

RPG TIME!

It's time.

It's been a quiet month on the blogfront. Coming off a string of deadlines and conventions, I've been thinking a great deal about time. 

Specifically, how there never seems to be enough of it.

Time is Relative

This guy knew what was up.
But really, that depends on what you're doing, doesn't it? I might not have enough time to vacuum the apartment, or finish reading Dan Abnett's Ravenor trilogy1,, but I seem to keep finding ways I always have time to meet a deadline2.

Its not that there isn't enough time - there very clearly is - it's that there isn't enough time to get to everything I'd like to. Like everyone else, I have to prioritize if I want to get anything done.

Now, this isn't going to be a post on time management strategies - goodness knows that a quick Google search will provide more than you'll ever need on that front - but rather, I wanted to talk a little bit about pacing and duration in fiction, but specifically how those elements come into play in RPGs.

Runtime


Not all mediums are created equal. A novel has more room for slow burn storytelling than an ongoing longform television series does, which in turn has a greater capacity than a film, which still trumps network TV. Now, that's not to say that more is always better - plenty of films have died an unpleasant death by trying to stretch a good thirty-minute story into a two-hour epic - but different types of stories benefit from being handled differently. 

It's not something we usually talk about in RPGs. 

In fairness, timeslot isn't always something we can control. You might have a killer group of dynamic, nuanced characters, a compelling and epic narrative, and truly deep strategic challenges all going for you, but if your gaming group meets for three hours on alternating Wednesday nights, that can be tough to pull off. Equally tricky is the superb "Popcorn GM3" who has a tight, action-packed romp all ready to go, and is now trying to fit that into an eight-hour long weekend game session.

Gameplay is also going to be affected by this. I love 2D fighting games - Street Fighter II Turbo remains my all-time jam - but matches are short for a reason. I wouldn't want to play a half-hour round of Street Fighter any more than I'd want to keep my chess matches to three minutes or less; and not just because in both cases, I'd be losing in embarrassing fashion.

I mean, that too

The practical elements of RPG mechanics can be deeply affected by time constraints. Games like Savage Worlds and Spirit of the Century (and later, Fate Core) have carved out impressive niches for themselves by mechanically supporting shorter sessions from the ground up. Easy to pick up, fast and elegant resolution, and character creation doesn't take long at all. If you've got a weeknight game with limited time, and an inconsistent cast - like the games' creators had when they were first making their rulesets - then you've got a toolset tailored to your needs. And if not, you might like those games anyway - they've certainly been used in long-running, long-term games over the years with great success - but then again, you might want something with a bit more detail, if you've got the time to make use of it.

Point being, there are a lot of practical things that your timeslot is going to affect, and it's worth keeping that in mind.


Duration


Let's say you've just read a good novel. Hooray! But now you're thinking: would it be even better as a trilogy? How about a seven-part series? Maybe an ongoing serial - like in mainstream comics or television - that just keeps going until interest wanes, or the writers go insane?

Or maybe, just maybe, it would have been best served as a short story?

On one hand, professionally produced entertainment has its own unique pressures - there's no producer breathing down the GM's neck, trying to wring a trilogy out of a completed storyline - so this should be easier to approach objectively. On the other hand, between creative fatigue, falling in love with a particular element, or audience demand, RPGs also grapple with the issue of how long a given story should run for. In some ways, it can be worse.

But not every type of story can hold up over long periods of time, or in short ones for that matter. Blitzing through the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a 90 minute film would have been an unmitigated disaster, yes - but so would dragging Casablanca through three films at 11+ hours, with a prequel trilogy in the works.


"Hurry up and do it, Rick, before we get Casablanca: The Musical on Ice. Just, just let it end already."
Basically, you want to make sure you're giving your game the right amount of time for the story you're trying to create. Early D&D had a very strong serial episodic theme baked in - again, the game had a lot of qualities that we'd associate with "Roguelikes" today - and so most games were assumed to follow that model. Like comic books, or The Simpsons4, it was assumed that your game was a series of loosely-connected episodes featuring the same characters in the same world, and that you'd drive that car until it ran out of gas.

It's a good model! It's just not the only one.

If you're telling the kind of story that lends itself to that format - say, plucky teen investigators solve supernatural mysteries, and fight a different monster every week - then yeah, maybe ride that train all night.

Conversely, if you're trying to tell the story of how plucky teen investigators gradually discover the alien horror of their small town, in increasingly Lovecraftian fashion? Well, that story has a beginning, middle, and definitely an end. Too many games rob themselves of satisfying conclusions out of a (totally understandable) desire to keep a good thing going.

Sometimes, things come to an end, and that's ok.

Bottom line, the duration of your game has a sizable impact on the type of game you run, and vice versa. Getting those into alignment can go a long way towards a more satisfying experience from top to bottom.

Pace


In Hamlet's Hit Points - which is absolutely worth checking out - Robin Laws talks about the beats of a story; moments that lead the audience toward either hope or fear, taking them on an emotional roller coaster before the tale's through. And while this is entirely delightful on its own, it also serves to highlight another aspect of gaming that doesn't get talked about a lot: pacing.

Putting thought into the pace of your gaming sessions can work wonders. Not just from an emotional standpoint: while that's (really) important, there's also a variety of practical concerns to manage. In any given game, the PCs might be:
  • Questioning witnesses
  • Engaging in combat
  • Getting to know other characters
  • Searching a room for clues
...and so on. And while those are different scenes from an emotional standpoint - as audience and characters - they're also different from a practical standpoint as players. Simply put, we do a lot of different stuff in RPGs, and mixing types can be useful. Looking at our examples above, the players are doing different things, right? 
  • Questioning witnesses - players are talking, possibly checking notes, maybe the occasional roll
  • Engaging in combat - players are rolling dice, interacting with their character sheets, and possibly other peripherals like maps and miniatures, while also describing action
  • Getting to know other characters - players are primarily talking
  • Searching a room for clues - players are briefly describing action, listening to narration, and rolling dice
So that sequence alternates between roleplay-focused dramatic scenes and mechanics-focused procedural scenes. That's one way to do it, but certainly not the only way; just keep an eye on the flow of your sessions. If something's starting to feel a little stale, you might do well to shift to a different kind of scene, not just in terms of content, but in what the players are doing. A combat followed by a chase, followed by a combat can be exactly what you want - or it can be a bit too much of the same thing - but it pays to know which.

Like always, a dash of mindfulness regarding your group will go a long way.

Our Time is at an End


RPGs can be a time-consuming hobby, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Like anything else, we have to prioritize. And by keeping tabs on the runtime, duration, and pace of our sessions, we can master this terrible force, and put it to work for us, like ladies and lords... of time. I guess? If only there were a conveniently geeky pop-culture reference to make here.

It was my hope that this joke would be bigger on the inside.
Regardless, that's all the time we have. On a related note, if people would like to see a checklist for pace (as I've sometimes used myself,) let me know, and I'll whip one up.

Until next.... man, I can't do it. Until next installment.

Cheers!
~Killstring

***

1 - Which is a crying shame. Dan Abnett's a hell of an author, and after reading his excellent Eisenhorn trilogy, I finally understood why people like Warhammer 40K! Highly recommended.

2 - I've said it before, and I'll likely do so in the future - just being the person who reliably shows up to work is a marketable and important skill. Hone your craft, chase excellence, but for the love of all that is good, make your deadlines.

3 - Sometimes referred to as a "Beer & Pretzels GM," but I don't drink beer, nor am I super fond of pretzels. Trivia! Anyway, it's used to describe a more casual style, like a summer action flick - fun, usually violent, and don't think too hard about the plot as that's not really the point.

4 - Sometimes I think that The Simpsons will outlive not only its creators, but every human being who was alive at the time of its creation. In the post-apocalyptic hellscape of humanity's distant future, it'll be mutant cockroaches eating Twinkies and watching The Simpsons. 

In other news, life after the apocalypse sounds distressingly similar to my teenage years.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Creating a soundtrack for your RPG

Music is powerful. 

It's been a part of my life in many ways since I was young. I spent the better part of six years performing it, promoting it, eating1, breathing and sleeping it. During my first go-round in college - before taking those aforementioned six years - I was a theatre student, focused on sound design. I studied the impact that music can have on a dramatic scene, the way it could elevate a mood, increase tension, or accentuate tone. Especially in "black box" theatre, an awful lot is left up to the audience's imagination, and music is a great way to excite and enhance that.

I don't know if I was ever good as a sound designer. There was a lot of praise, and I worked on some award-nominated stuff, but it's not like I set the world on fire as a college student.

But!

I definitely tried to learn as much as I could. Live sound, studying pro audio at the Recording Workshop, and dozens of little projects here and there. I'd like to think that I picked some things up along the way.

Is it any wonder that as I became more and more involved with RPGs, that I'd try to apply what I'd learned?

Lovely album all the way 'round, and full of great "intro themes."

So, what are we doing here?

Soundtracking your RPG sessions can be a great way to enhance the experience for everyone. Not unlike live theatre or written fiction, there's a lot that your imagination needs to fill in to complete the scene. Visuals, emotions, physical posture - so much of what's going on in a scene can be intuited through a soundtrack.

It can also be a great big distraction if handled indelicately.

We're not going to delve too deeply into communication theory2, but there's some basic concepts that are important:

The Tone, or how the mood of music will inform the mood of the scene
The Association of a particular sound cue with some story element
The Practical Realities of adding additional sounds to a sound-based medium

These aren't scientific terms, just some things we should keep in mind.

Tone

This is what most people think of when we talk about soundtracks - the excellent use of musical score in Game of Thrones, or the Mass Effect games is a great example of this - emotional content underscored by appropriate music. Sad scenes can be punctuated by appropriately melancholic or sorrowful melodies, and a pulse-pounding action scene certainly benefits from a complimentary score.

Association

This requires some forethought, but linked elements can provide consistency. Instruments, composers, and specific songs can all form associations that you can use later. If a certain song plays when an antagonist is introduced, it can not only highlight elements of their character you want to emphasize, but can help accentuate those traits in later scenes.

Needless to say, you'll want to avoid anything that your table already has a strong association with. If everybody's played Mass Effect, don't use its most memorable songs in your soundtrack; that'll conjure up memories of the other property3 distracting from your game.

I tend to emphasize associations for situations rather than characters, as too much micro-managing while GMing leads to a disjointed experience. Speaking of!

Practical Realities

RPGs are a primarily auditory medium - information is conferred via the spoken word more than anything else. Music can be a powerful tool to fill in conceptual gaps, but it's also more noise; you want it to enhance your game, not distract your table. Some things to keep in mind:

First, volume levels. Ever step into a bar, and you can't hear your friends over the chatter and music? That's partially due to what we call a Sound Floor - basically, the ambient noise level you have to talk over in order to be heard. Your music should be loud enough to be audible, and to provide enjoyment in its own right, but not so loud that you need to talk over it. It's not a bad guideline to set it to a level that feels about right, then walk it back a little. You can always turn it up later.

Secondly, frequency. Not as in how often something happens, but rather the frequency it vibrates at. Human speech tends to hang out in the 150hz-500hz range, so you'll want to cut that by a couple decibels for gaming purposes. The idea is to carve out some sonic real estate for people's voices, give them room so they're not fighting with the score.

In other words, don't EQ your soundtrack to sound great by itself; it's a supporting actor, there to make the stars look good.
More like HANDSOME Zimmer, amirite?
(Please don't get a restraining order, I just like your work.)

Thirdly, you don't want anything that's too busy. Epic Trailer Music like Audiomachine or Two Steps From Hell can be lovely, but there's usually so much going on that it can get distracting, and detract from the game. Likewise - and I know this might sound strange and heretical - but that film soundtrack you love so much, the one that would be perfect for your RPG?

Don't use it. Ever.

Look, I love Hans Zimmer as much as the next guy, possibly even more. But his music is designed for films, which are timed down to the frame. Long quiet stretches are interspersed with sudden, dramatic crescendos. In the film, they tie in perfectly to the action. 

In an RPG, they come out of nowhere - they draw attention away from the story, and put it on the weirdly sudden burst of French horns and violas. Don't do it.

Finally, you want to avoid anything with lyrics in a language anyone speaks, and probably altogether (remember that bit about making space for the human voice? Competing human voices don't help.) It can work great in film, anime, even some video games - but ours is an auditory medium, and it's just too much information in the same channel.

Where do I get it from?


It bears repeating: not all music is going to work for these purposes. In fact, music that you like - because it's interesting - may not work so well. Because it's interesting

Stay away from anything designed for a symphonic orchestra - while this is some of the most beautiful music imaginable, it runs directly counter to our purposes. And while film scores tend to be pretty bad, video game soundtracks can be downright amazing for our purposes. They're designed to be more dynamic. Events don't happen at a set pace in games; your score needs to support myriad options in order to be successful. This, by the way, is exactly what we want. Beyond that, the New Age genre has some delightful contributions, as do many electronic "chillout" artists. 
Recommendations could - and soon will! - take up an entire post by themselves. But the key to remember is that you want something that's less dynamic than most music. Is there something you like, but find boring? Now's the time to bust it out.

Putting it All Together


So now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about actually putting together a soundtrack for your game. What follows is how I do it - it's not the One True Way, but it is A Way I Guess, which capitalises just as nicely.

When I'm getting ready to start a new campaign, I put together a couple playlists. I use Google Play, but anything that lets you assemble playlists is fine. I generally want a couple playlists ready to go:

  • A "Chill" playlist. This is my default, it sets the tone, but mostly provides ambiance
  • An "Action" playlist. Fight scenes, parkour chases, starship battles. Something more uptempo that delineates these scenes from normal play
  • A "Suspense" or "Investigation" playlist. Nothing too intense, but more downtempo, minor key stuff. 
  • An "Emotional" playlist, that's appropriate for sad, tragic, melancholic scenes.
And those are my big four. I'll usually have more - often lots more - but that should get me through most games I run. If you're less intent on dancing on your players' heartstringsthen you could probably get away without the last one. Typically, I'll want the "Chill" playlist to be pretty long - something that covers the length of the game session, if I can help it. That way, if I want to just set it and forget it, I can do so without worrying that it'll cut out at an inopportune moment.

I personally like to stream music from a tablet to a bluetooth receiver - this way I've got my finger on the volume if I need it, and I can switch playlists with ease. When it comes time to switch, I'll often cue up the playlist I want to play next, so there's no jarring transitions.

Of course, sometimes I want jarring transitions. "Boss Fight Music" is a time-honored tradition, and one that I make extensive use of.

I also tend to make "pre-show" playlists. These are an artifact from my theatre days, where you want some music to play while people are making their way in. I've found that this is a good place for more involved compositions that I really like, but are probably too busy or dynamic to use during play.

I tend to think of this as "opening credits" music; it sets the tone while people are making their way in, getting snacks, catching up. I also like to open each game with the same piece of music, as I've found that to be wonderful for setting the tone of the game, as well as transitioning out of "social time" into "game time."

In Conclusion

Music is awesome. It's added so, so, so much to my games. I sincerely hope this can help you gain some of the same benefits that I have.

Rock on! Just, y'know, quietly and in the background :P

~Killstring


* * *

1 - Good thing too, as it didn't pay me enough to eat much else ;)

2 - Though if you are interested, this plays off concept like the Elaboration Likelihood Model's concept of Peripheral Routes, Framing Theory, Priming Theory, and every advertising technique in history. If you're interested in the topic, Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition (affiliate link) is a super accessible resource. 

If I ever teach university again, I want to do a persuasion class called "Defense Against the Dark Arts." Influence will be required reading.

3 - When do you break this rule? When that's what you want! I ran a Mass Effect game to great success - my players hadn't played the series, but I had. It made a difference for me, and that influenced my descriptions. 

Incedentally, they're playing the video games now, and getting associations from our tabletop! 

4 - Hi players! How are your hopes and dreams this fine day? :D

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Table For One, Party of Twelve: Large, Small, and Single-Player RPGs

When we think about tabletop roleplaying games, we often conjure up images of a group of friends sitting around a table. Or kicking it on couches, if you're like me.

I have not gamed on Air Force One, with the President GMing. Otherwise, my games often look like this.
Either way, RPGs are an inherently social activity. So much of the discussion surrounding them touches on group communication dynamics, social contracts, and spotlight management1,which is as it should be; if your group dynamics are out of whack, your game will follow. But differently-sized groups will have different dynamics, and that topic is a little underexplored. If they talk about it at all, most RPGs tend to assume 3-4 players and one GM, defined as the "sweet spot," and leave it at that.

In reality, things can work out differently. Maybe you've got a friend who wants to play, is there room in the game? Maybe you have a lot of friends who want to play - is that still going to be ok?  What if you only have a couple folks who can make it. What if you've only got one? Is that ok? What's that going to do to the RPG dynamic?

Lots of unanswered questions.

The way I see it2, groups make games. Change the group, change the game. That's not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing, but it is a real thing and it can have a real effect. Some game concepts are less suited to one group size, and some play styles are advantaged differently. So let's take a look!

The Aforementioned "Sweet Spot"

So let's start out talking about the standard assumption. The roots of our hobby go back to the Roguelike Dungeon Crawls of early D&D3, and a lot of the baseline starts there. And in this case, we can see a pretty clear link: a "standard" D&D party consists of a Fighter, a Rogue, a Wizard and a Cleric. If you don't have one of those roles covered (beefcake, traps, arcane and divine magic, respectively,) you're going to have a rough time in that kind of game. 

And here we have the default assumption of four players with a GM. It can go up or down a little, but this is our baseline, a group of 4-6 people. Most RPGs are built with this in mind, and for good reason; there's a lot to advantage a group this size. 

Pros:

  • Manageable group size - people are unlikely to get lost, or feel overwhelmed
  • Enough people to foster inter-party discussion
  • Spotlight rotation only needs to balance between 3-5 players; there's more pie to go around

Cons:

  • Not quite enough people for real-time side conversations to break out
  • Sometimes you bring in people that are a poor fit to hit this threshold
  • Sometimes you exclude people who are a good fit to hit this threshold
In general, this is our baseline, the standard everything else gets compared to. It's used a lot, and despite its origins, it's quite versatile. 

Large Games

But what if you've got friends who want to game with you? What if you also want to game with them? Many games find themselves in this category quite by accident - my inaugural game for my university's RPG group wound up with a hefty ten players4 - because, you know, we get excited. That can be a good thing!

But I cannot recommend GMing for that many players unless you've got a specific game plan.

It can be a bit daunting.

For these purposes, I'm considering a "Large Game" to be anything with six or more players, as by that point, the mid-group dynamics just aren't there anymore.

Pros:

  • Inclusivity - you don't have to tell your homies there's no room at the tavern
  • Characters can probably cover just about any circumstance thrown at them
  • Enough players to run breakout scenes when the spotlight's elsewhere

Cons:

  • Spotlight management becomes increasingly difficult, players can feel marginalized
  • Telling a story with too many protagonists is a daunting task; can feel disjointed
  • Boredom and distraction is a constant risk.
If you find yourself with ten players, I heartily recommend looking into splitting into two smaller games. Having said that, large games can absolutely work - and they can even be stronger for their size - but there are some changes you'll want to look at.

Firstly is time. If you have three players, and you are perfect at mathematical spotlight balancing, then each of them gets 33% of the spotlight. Cool. Six players gets you 17%, seven means 14% and so on. And this can be ok if your group is good at interacting with scenes as a group, and keeping everybody involved - but it's work for everybody to do so. The players have a lot of responsibility to make that work.

Combat, or other structured activities, can become a real drag. Let's say that in the system you're using, combat turns take about three minutes. With a seven-person party, this can mean it take 20 minutes or more before your turn comes back around, and that's not accounting for anything the GM's doing. My personal guideline is that I want a lighter weight of system when running a larger game.

Interest just cannot survive that much down time. And in my experience, someone else's turn in a higher weight system usually feels like down time to players.

Additionally, if your gaming space can provide enough physical room for separate conversations to occur, this can turn a weakness into a strength. My favorite trick is to give information - usually in handouts, or at character creation - to different players, giving their characters different pieces of a puzzle they all want to see. They break off, put their pieces together, and often come up with theories about what it all means, where things are going, etc.

As a GM, I pay close attention to this stuff. That can be solid gold content.

Now, if you're thinking this sounds awfully close to a LARP, you'd be entirely correct. There simply isn't enough GM to go around with larger groups, and without the players' assistance, interest has a tendency to wane.

"One Car Games"

Named by one of my favorite GMs, who defines this as the entire game being able to fit in a car to go pick up dinner. Given that she drove a small 2-door at the time, this is a hard cap. Two or three players, one GM, and a tight focus. 

Pros:

  • A tight, concise experience. There's plenty of spotlight to go around
  • An unfolding narrative that can focus on a few leads without stretching too thing
  • Much easier to maintain focus

Cons:

  • Exclusivity - you may find yourself turning people away
  • Increasingly vulnerable to absentee players
  • Shy players might feel like they're not holding up their end of the bargain
Especially for groups that like a more intense storytelling experience, this can be even sweeter than the so-called sweet spot. If exploring crunchier rules is desired, the reduced time between turns can make that much more feasible. There's more time for in-depth character exploration, without the nagging sensation that you're hogging the spotlight too much, and being unfair to your fellow players.

It's got a lot to recommend it!

It also means that you might have to make some tough choices, and hurt feelings can absolutely be a casualty of this process. In games like D&D or Shadowrun, you might not have enough players to cover all your bases - this can lead to prominent NPCs coming along for the ride, which is frankly not every GM's strength. 

The reduced number of players has many effects - not the least of which being an increased workload for the GM - but it becomes even more pronounced in our next category.

Single-Player Games

So, I've probably logged more hours GMing this type of game than any other; not a small number over the years. They can be incredibly rewarding, highly demanding, and allow for massive amounts of detail, exactly where the player wants it.
You post-apocalyptic snowflake, you.

Pros:

  • No spotlight to split
  • You can tailor system, plot, genre, etc. uncompromisingly
  • Facilitates in-depth exploration

Cons:

  • Exhausting to run - the GM rarely gets to catch their breath
  • Highly exclusive
  • Limits available perspective
This allows a method actor to really, really dig into their character. A tactically-focused player might want to control several characters in combat, alleviating many of the issues of large battles and complicated rules. Someone who's really into political intrigue can just buckle down and chase it, without worrying that they're ruining the game for anyone else.

And of course, you get to be the hero. There's a reason why so much fiction has a sole protagonist; it's much easier to tell a story through one character's eyes.

Single player games have produced some of the most intense. memorable experiences in my gaming career. They also once stressed me out to the point where I was having serious anxiety issues. Like I said above, they can be intellectually and emotionally draining to prepare and run.

They're clearly not for everyone. But they can be incredibly vivid experiences.

In Conclusion: Talk About It

Group size has some noticeable effects on roleplaying games. The strengths and weaknesses above are by no means rules - you can have amazing games of all types throughout the spectrum; I certainly have - but it's worth thinking about the impact this'll have on your game. 

Talk about it as a group, and figure out what you're going to prioritize. If you want everybody to be able to play, go with something that plays to the strengths of a big group. If you've got a specific thing you want to do, maybe consider doing a smaller game with a subset of the group; especially if some folks are excited, and other's aren't.  And if you've got the time and opportunity, a single-player game offers a unique and distinct perspective that's worth experiencing.

Communication about what you want to do - before you get started - can go a long way towards a happy, healthy gaming environment. 

Which, you know, that's something I want at least. 

Cheers!
~Killstring

***

1 - For those unfamiliar, Spotlight is a term often used to describe where the focus is in an RPG. Think of it like the spotlight on a stage, or the camera's focus on screen - it's a way to talk about where the focus of the story is, and where it's been. Spotlight Management refers to the juggling act that is making sure that gets spread around all the players, so nobody's left out. 

It's hard! But it's a big part of the job (for both players and GMs.)

2 - There's a lot of great scholarly work done on group communication dynamics; most of it looks at business applications, but a lot of the observations are applicable any time you have a group of people coming together for a structured activity - like RPGs.  

If you're interested, there's some great work that's been done on the topic, though it can be a bit of a dry read. But if you're up for it, check out Symbolic Convergence Theory (its focus on "Shared Fantasy" is pretty applicable to gaming groups) and Structuration Theory if you want to think about how structure determines group behavior.

I love Structuration Theory. And I had a hell of a time wrapping my head around it in graduate school, so no worries if you want to pass.

3 - To be certain, this isn't the only thing that people have done with D&D, even back then. But it was what the early game was designed to do - later editions have done their own thing in different ways, and that's cool. But the roots are what we'd call a roguelike today, and that shows in many ways. :)

4 - And it worked out ok! I wouldn't recommend it, but we had a lot of shy first-timers, and everybody was supportive of the group dynamic. It eventually whittled itself down to a much more sane 6-player party. Still large! But much more manageable.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Killstring's Fight Scene Checklist!


This is a continuation of an idea first put forth here. For access to a printable version of the checklist in Google Docs, go Here. To see a completed version, based on an actual game, go here!

Killstring's Fight Scene Checklist

Hi everybody! I'd planned on writing a post to day about life as a freelancer, and how to be successful in this field. One of the major themes is keeping your promises, and delivering by deadlines. 

As it turns out, I promised to hit a couple quick deadlines yesterday, so today's post should be pretty brief. Ah, stop cheering, I can hear you y'know1.

Anyway, here's the worksheet to go with the last post. This can be incredibly useful if you have an idea in your head, and not much time to prep. Additionally, if you're using a more narative game, many of your answers can be come game mechanics without much work.

Heck, if you're playing Fate, you can treat every answer you jot down as an aspect! Otherwise, brisk notes will do - if it seems like there's not a lot of room to scribble, that's by design - keep it nice and concise.

Anyway, I hope this proves useful - it sure has for me.


From AMC's excellent Into The Badlands. Fight!

A Checklist for you!


High Concept

What is this scene’s Elevator Pitch?


What is this fight about?


Environment

Where is the fight taking place?


How can the players interact with the environment? The antagonists?


Participants

Who’s participating in this fight?


Is there anyone who isn’t, but happens to be there anyway?


Goals

What are the players trying to accomplish?


What are the antagonists trying to accomplish?


Stakes

What do the players stand to lose?


What do the antagonists stand to lose?


Challenge

How difficult is this fight supposed to be?


What’s going to make it that way?


Feel

What emotion(s) should the fight elicit?


What kind of pace should it have?


Style

What are some key sensory elements?


What tone should it have?






And that's it!

May all your action scenes be delightful
~Killstring

* * *
1 - This moment brought to you by the NSA.