Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Run a Convention Game from Someone Who Sucks at Running Convention Games

The last bit of writing to squeeze out of the Eclipse Phase one shot. The title isn't an exaggeration, I suck at running convention games, I can never balance  the time slot requirements to the amount of stuff to do with the plot seeming not too unreasonable and not crazy.

The two key items I'd say for running a convention game are to: 1) Know the rules; 2) Know the module/adventure you are running - everything else can be generalized to running any game. Note by convention game I mean a one or two shot game run in a specific time slot (usually 4 hours) with a group of people who probably don't know each other.

Key Item #1: Know the Rules

Now if I'm the DM in a long running campaign, I don't neeeeeed to know the rules. I should know the rules; but given a general set of players, I may be able to outsource detailed rules knowledge to one or more of the players, and/or trust them to each handle their own character specific rules themselves. You may not be able to, stories abound of DMs who have players that can't be bothered to learn the rules, but even through osmosis you'll pick something up.

With a convention game, you can't guarantee everyone is going to know the rules, or even if they know the basics, whether they will know the exceptions to the rules. This means you must be on top of the rules, and if you are modifying them to be easier to run in the module, you need to announce that up front.

The Eclipse Phase GM failed to do that - he didn't know and didn't like the combat rules for an adventure that was advertised as combat heavy. These things do not work well together.

Key Item #2: Know the Module/Adventure

Know what you are running. This is probably one of those that could be more universalized to any game, but there's more slack in a campaign, a single bad session is unlikely to deep six the game assuming a good group of gamers. But yeah, I had a poor time of it at the game because the module was poorly designed (it was apparently an unadvertised beta test) and the guy running it hadn't gotten it with enough lead time to know it properly. Now you can, sometimes, get away with either knowing the module, or having a well written module but not both, but having neither dooms you to failure.

As a side note - if you are going to be using pre-generated characters make sure they fit the theme of the game, nothing is worse than being the team of bio-engineered sex slaves in the middle of the fifteenth fire fight of the night or the grumpy mercenary cabal forced to deal with subtle politicians. Well it can be fun, but it requires lots of thought and planning to integrate properly.

Bonus Item #3: Sell your Adventure Correctly

I wrote an entire post on the taxonomy of adventures previously, so I won't go too heavily into this; however, ultimately, labeling the game provides certain expectations of themes and tropes that are going to be used. Now you can either play to the themes, which is highly suggested, by me, for a short 4 hour game, or you can try to be cute and play against type. But once again, if you are going to do the latter in a 4 hour game, you need to be very, very sure of what you are doing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I [probably] won't be getting into SWTOR.

SWTOR = Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO put out by BioWare.

It looks cool. It looks like they've taken a lot of the stuff that frustrated me in World of Warcraft and adjusted it.

But the biggest problem? I'm effectively a morning person.

Let's ignore the fact that I'm going to hate higher level content - the number of times I can run the same dungeon is between 3-5; and the idea of doing it just for a random loot drop doesn't thrill me, the real reason is that I'm a morning person.

That means that there are only rare occasions that I'd be gaming with friends - cause frankly most of them like to start their groups/raids when I'm going to bed - on WoW I could go a week or two of logging in daily, but seeing only one or two other friends playing.

And really - that's what it is all about if I'm going to pay a monthly fee to play - another avenue to interact and play with friends. Alas, my friends are signing on as I'm going to bed.

Thus, why I [probably] won't be buying it. Though I do have my moments of weakness.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Types of Adventure!

Or my continuing series of learning more from poor examples of play than good examples, that is "Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So the game last Sunday was billed at a political intrigue/combat game. The other choices were investigative/combat, horror, and then a "whatever folks want" type game.

So lets talk about what various types of games mean? Or at least if I use the phrase "Political" game to describe what I'm looking for, what I mean. Now, I'm not discussing something in the style of Rob Donoghue's Adventure Triad - that's more how the play is styled, than what it is about, what tropes can be expected, or if the DM is feeling cruel, intentionally thwarted.

None of these are styles are in isolation to each other, in fact, my favorite style games combine investigation, political intrigue, and combat; puzzles and exploration are not games I particularly enjoy playing, so tend not to show up often in my games.

Combat. When I say this is going to be a "Combat heavy" style game, that means dice are going to hit the table frequently. Or perhaps not - this is going to be a game that rewards the character's combat abilities, and the player's tactical abilities. Ideally, there will be chances to ambush and be ambushed, as well as more set-piece combat; hopefully with interesting terrain that changes up the usual strategies and provides new ones. Some games (particularly D&D 4th edition) can be extremely oriented towards location tactical combat; whereas some (like Exalted 2nd Edition) are oriented not so much where you are spatially, but "when" you are - that when you choose to attack, and how you choose to attack, is as important as where you are attacking from.

The key to a combat game is making the combat interesting and challenging - whether intrinsically from the combat itself, or what the combat means.

Investigation. Investigation games center around finding things out and piecing them together. Depending on the game system, this can be as simple as rolling investigation when at a scene and getting information, or be far more detailed out (Gumshoe, apparently, though I've never played and it does not seem to be a system that I'd enjoy intrinsically for itself). However, the key to investigation is the need to get facts, and then piece them together. Sometimes the act of looking for facts brings to light the facts as the "bad guys" get nervous and try to take out the investigator - I call this "poking the bear". In narrative, this seems to be about every paranormal detective story written - bumble around, bumble around, get attacked, survive being attacked, use who attacked you as the clue to get you the way in and piece together the facts. Mage, in both the Awakening and Ascension makes it really hard to do a "hide the facts from the players" routine, so almost the entire focus needs to be on making it interesting to piece the facts together and figuring out what to do with those facts.

The key to an investigation game is the idea of finding out facts and piecing them together. (Note: This is about as close as I get to a puzzle in my games.)

Political Intrigue. Political intrigue is about people who want something, and are prevented from doing so through overwhelming force (otherwise the superior organization would just kill those that stood in its way). It requires at least two factions, with the players forming a third faction. My preference, solidified after long discussions with someone I consider a master LARP writer, is to have at least three factions, maybe more. The shorter you want the game to go, the fewer factions you should have -- so in your standard Con game? Two factions. Long running LARP that you want to last a while, at least three, preferably five or six, with natural allies and enemies within each. That way there are numerous people to play off each other and band together. If there are only two, then as soon as one has enough force to just kill off the other side, they will do so.

And that's the key to a political intrigue game, binding various groups together in a common goal, and thwarting others who are doing the same.

Exploration/Environment. Exploration games are interesting in that they are really hard to do well in an open environment in a table top game. Why? Because most of exploration in popular media comes from the visual aspects, or covered with a montage and the challenges are the interesting part for the viewers. So Exploration may be deemed more about conflicts with the environment, from food and shelter to "how are we going to get across this chasm."

Puzzles. Puzzle games involve a lot of "engaging the player, not the character" type games. Translation/code breaking, piece together these items in the right order, that sort of thing. You can see a lot of these in video games with the visual elements engaged. As a rule, I hate them. I get bored with them. I'm going to end talking about them now. (No, this doesn't have ANYTHING to do with the fact that I'm horrible at them. No not at all. /sarcasm)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Eclipse Phase: A Short Review

I was asked to compose my thought regarding Eclipse Phase, and as I take requests. Let me do so, without much wait.

Note that my thoughts are based on reading the book a few times, and a half-assed one shot run by a GM who meant well, but didn't know the system.

And Eclipse Phase is not a system that is kind to people who don't know the game. Key items: It is percentile based, your characters are built off 1000 points, and you have nearly endless variety in the bodies you can sleeve your mind into. In case that seems like a totally alien and weird concept, I suggest the wikipedia article about it.

There is no way to model that sort of wide flexibility with actual mechanical differentiation without an overly complex system. The question is, of course, where does the complexity come in? It appears the complexity comes in when you create your character and change bodies. Otherwise the system is fairly easy - blackjack d100 (i.e., roll as close as you can to your adjusted skill without going over, doubles (00, 11, 22, 33...) are critical, beating an opposed roll by 30+ points is an exception success). That's basically it, there's remembering what your equipment does, but that can be easily cheat sheet away.

Except combat. Combat is crunchy as all hell, and what's worse, is the damage system is non-intuitive. You have Durability which is your total hit points, but your Wound Threshold is when you take penalties. As numbers on a sheet this is incredibly annoying, and would have been better served with boxes, ala White Wolf. How does it work?

One character has Durability 40, Wound Threshold 10; another has Durability 40; Wound Threshold 8. If they both take 8 points of damage, the second character is at a -10 to all actions, the first character is fine; if they both take 20 points of damage, both characters are at -20 (10/20; 8/16); and at 40 both are down and out. The problem with graphically representing this is that the first character will need 4 lines (No penalty/-10/-20/-30); while the second character would need five lines for the additional -40 penalty. If I was playing I'd just make a damage tracking side sheet.

But that just adds to the complexity.

Does Eclipse Phase do what it intends to do? Yes. It provides the verisimilitude of what I'd consider a Transhuman Horror universe to look like. Unfortunately, there's no clean smooth way to do this except by using a lot of numbers, and a lot of crunching. That means that for many of the people I game with, despite the numbers being primarily frontloaded, it is still going to be an uphill battle.

But do I want to play or run a game? Yes, to the first, and probably to the second. The latter will just require finding players who found older editions of Shadowrun not that crunchy.

Good: Flexibility, Theme, Mechanics
Bad: Non-intuitive calculations in combat.
Recommendation: Assuming a group that is okay with the buy-in to character creation and the math of combat, yes. As the system is available for free on PDF under the CCL, there's no reason to at least read it over. I did and bought the hard cover because of it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gaming Again.

So this blog went into hibernation, mostly because I stopped gaming.

My Changeling game wrapped up in March, and while it ended fairly well (in the way of a satisfying ending), I didn't really have much to say about it.

My daughter was born in April. Exciting and very distracting.

About June/July I started getting itchy again. To the point where I was really tempted to run a game again, despite me feeling burnt out on running games, just to do it.

Luckily, I managed to badger one of my friends to run a game. After a few badly timed attempts, we have a Deadlands game off the ground, aptly described by one of my fellow players as "A fallen Southern belle, a journalist, a mysterious drifter, a priest." Which seems so very stereotypical and almost Whedon-esque. I'm playing the drifter in that little future fiasco.

Similarly, some networking I did earlier in the year is paying off, and I may get into a Dresden Files game. I'm excited by that because, on paper, Fate should be what I'm looking for in a system - joint world and integrated character creation; exception based rules system that minimizing player overhead, and a conflict resolution system that works for many different styles recently.

Finally, I did a one shot of Eclipse Phase at Labyrinth Games and Puzzles this past Sunday. I have enough material for a couple other posts - either later today or later this week, but I wanted to take a moment to state that the store is pretty awesome - not tailored to me, but that'll probably be its saving grace, my interests are too narrow/too specialized to be common enough to support a business model.

So I'm gaming again. Probably the past four months is the longest I've gone without gaming since I started gaming 16 years ago; and I missed it once I recovered from sleep deprivation.