Monday, December 7, 2009

A good session: Behind the scenes

I ran a session on the 5th of December. I think it went very well. The mission the players spent time on was to attack a small tower defended by warforged, without letting any final messengers (from the Eberron campaign book) escape. When I first planned the mission, I thought that two of the defenders would have final messengers. As the players began talking about the mission and began examining the difficulty I decided to only have one defender with a final messanger. As they spent more and more hours on planning and came up with a plan that would likely eliminate a chance of failure (multiple redundant contingencies) I considered putting the second final messenger back in. I decided not to do this to allow the players to succeed well given their deep planning (which they don't often do). Once they scouted the tower (with the rouge under the effects of Fly, Gaseous Form, and Invisibility) they confirmed that there was only one final messenger. Once they began the assault, one of the player's used a magic item that granted a once per day use of True Strike (+20 to attack) and they destroyed the Final Messenger in the first round, on the first shot. I hadn't know about that item so in the end, the mission was too easy. But, it didn't really matter.

In the future, I might hold a tighter reign on magic items. I already have a process that reduces where they can purchase from without consulting me but it seems that even if the item is approved, they will have better experiences if I know about the item. I might require a review of all items before the player can confirm a purchase from now on.

Rules-wise, I did make detailed notes about the creatures and NPCs that I was running, continued to go more slowly when multiple modifiers are affecting a roll, reviewed briefly and carefully each ability before an encounter, and then briefly again before each first use of a power. This reduced the obvious and painful rules errors on my part to zero for the session.

However, if I was to pinpoint the process that contributed the most to the sharp uptick in the satisfaction at the table, I would definitely cite the players accomplishing their secret player missions. Each player received a secret mission to accomplish during the session. If the player accomplished a mission, they received an extra action point usable this session only. Here are the mission with explanation in case anyone is interested:

Player #1 [Wizard, Veteran Player]: In the 2-3 hours of strategy discussions last session the other players overlooked one simple potential obstacle. Your secret mission is to not allow the tower assault to be ruined because you and the players didn’t think about a basic (a level one party could do it) precaution against this assault. Do it nicely and in character. [They hadn't thought of Alarm and it took several hours of review by this player to figure it out. At first, he was certain they would have thought of it. I added the part about doing it nicely because he can be kind of snarky. We appreciate him for that snark but I didn't want to trigger snarky condescension through a mission.]

Player #2 [Rogue, New to P&P, Girlfriend of Player #3]: Go to the PHB, page 160. Read the section on “Readied Actions”. Your secret mission in today’s session is to suggest a readied action or to use one yourself. The readied action doesn’t have to go off it just needs to be readied to accomplish this mission. [Since giving her rule oriented missions like this she has become a much more active and valued member in strategy discussions.]

Player #3 [Warforged Fighter, Veteran]: Two Secret Missions Today (and the potential for 2-action points):

First Secret Mission: Continue to roleplay the discomfort you are having about killing/attacking warforged. In the strategy discussions, consider ways that more warforged can be captured instead of killed once the main objective of eliminating the Final Messenger is covered. Once you’ve got some disabled and or captured, roleplay an appropriate set of actions after the combat as well.

Second Secret Mission: Do 3 things (hold up a single finger to me when you’ve done one and wait for me to nod to acknowledge it) in character or out, to enhance and improve the enjoyment other people have of today’s gaming experience. Examples:

(A) Suggest a way someone might use their character’s skill(s) to maximum effect.
(B) Encourage someone to stay positive/optimistic about the coming missions
(C) Encourage an optimistic interpretation of the past (like the Ziggurat mission).
(D) If [Player 1 or 5, who had been absent to last session] ask about the last two sessions, offer an account of the in game events without emphasizing your frustration with those sessions (because it can taint their perspective of the present and bring the group down)
(E) Express in character appreciation for another character’s skill/service
(F) Suggest an end to pointless argument/debate about the past by keeping the focus on the present and future planning

[This was the player that had been frustrated and angry several times in the previous sessions. In my opinion, these positive action oriented missions really helped refocus the energy and reset a positive tone at the table. They also allowed me reward him for it.]

Player #4 [Ranger, veteran player, also GMs]: The last two sessions have been kind of tense, dissatisfaction has been running pretty high. As someone who hasn’t been here you bring the gift of not being caught in that negativity. Your secret mission is to do some things that might lighten the mood and to try to help the group keep a positive-optimistic take on the upcoming missions. The attempt is enough to succeed in the secret mission. I’m not holding you accountable for changing other people. [This person is the default leader of the players. He communicates clearly and because of his experience as a GM can sometimes help players consider that there are things on the other side of the GM screen to make sense of what is happening. He might have even done this without this mission but I wanted to help focus some intention around to make sure of it. It was then also a bonus to reward him for it.]

Player #5 [Cleric, Veteran player, second session with this group]: Your secret mission today is to add [your character's] religious considerations to the planning. This is more likely to come into play during the second mission but if you can include it before that, I’ll count it. [This is more or less just an encouragement to try to lift the bar for roleplaying at the table and introduce him to expectations when I'm GMing. It rewards him for learning the table culture.]

As Obama would say, "Now let me be clear," it wasn't the fact that I gave them the missions, but the fact that the players accepted them and accomplished them that I think led to the increase in satisfaction. From that perspective, I really have to attribute the success to the player's willing acceptance of this mechanism. This might not work for every group. However, I love it. I've used this strategy successfully with two groups now and it gives me a small degree of conscious influence on player group cohesion, cumulative rule knowledge, depth of roleplaying, and mission success. I think it helps that I use reward only, no punishment, to gain that influence.

Despite the satisfaction in the session, few things were accomplished (the mission mentioned above and one random encounter with 4 Vaath from the Book of Vile Darkness). It looks like at least 3 more sessions before this campaign is over. The Psi-marine campaign is delayed yet again.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Irony: Improved mechanics. . .decreased satisfaction

So in the last session, I really did accept my limitations and used 3 strategies to make up for my weaknesses.

First, I relied more on the player's familiarity with the rules to help me runs things correctly. Here is an example. I had three rangers tracking the party (the party knew about this) and came up with a track DC that seemed too low so I asked the players to look at the rules and tell me what DC they would assign to tracking them. This openness to hearing from them seemed to work very well. It allowed players to correct my mistakes without generating a me v. them tone at the table.

Second, I copied a d20srd monster entry into my e-notes, file, I also copied the description of the type, special abilities, etc. It made for a longer entry but I didn't miss as many things as I ran the monsters.

Third, I went more slowly. Instead of really pushing to make the combat faster, I waited, considered, and looked things up more often.

The irony is that as successful as these strategies were in reducing my rules mistakes, one of my players was much less satisfied about the session though not for this reason.

He was frustrated because I had the PCs were brought to meet a general under armed guard (loss of control and heavy handed direction of his character frustrates him to high heaven). I did this because I asked what was most likely given that the PCs approached at night, fully armed, in the middle of a war zone, and the military was fighting small guerrilla groups of 4-5. *sigh* so much for my most frequent GM algorithm, "What makes sense here?" It got to the point where he accused me of railroading the party and we had to pause the play for about an hour while I tried to figure out which parts of the GM curtain I could pull back without revealing too much.

The accusation of railroading was particularly hard for me because I agreed to run this campaign on modules up to level 6 when the group didn't have a GM. I said explicitly that the campaign would be on the rails because I didn't have time to plan more than that. Once the player's reached level 6 I said I have a little more time so I stopped running the game on a strictly linear path but that I am also trying to bring the story to a close so I sent out a long email about how the game would be run on converging plot lines and that they could decide which set of rails they'd like to get on to take them to the finish line. So, in light of my multiple attempts to set up the expectation of some railroading (and asking for patience for it) and granting freedom when I could grant more freedom ("which set of rails would you like to be on to the conclusion of the campaign?") it was a hard accusation to take.

This conflict has placed me back in the question that I've asked several times recently, "Where is the line between loyalty to my friends and trying a different gaming group to try to increase my enjoyment of the little free time I have?" Anyway, long story short, I got him to calm down and give me a little break and everything went better after that.

Now I've got my group planning an assault on a guard tower that they have the layout for. The session slowed to a halt as they entered a more Shadowrun style of planning, reading their abilities, coming up with contingencies, and so forth.

I've made it clear that I'm not sure that I'm ready to run my Psi-Marine campaign with this group. I think my GMing style and the group's needs may not match enough to maximize enjoyment for all involved. I'll keep considering these things as we get closer to the end of this campaign.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Not my most...

...stellar performance as GM.

The most scathing criticism game from the noob-iest player in the group, "The monsters tonight have been kind of anticlimactic." Source: Me running the vampire's regeneration wrong. I forgot to have the vampire continue to regenerate after being reduce to zero hitpoints. The players ended up running away from the scene of the combat after dropping the vampire and I should have had vamp-bbeg get up and come at them again after a few rounds. *Sigh* I'm working on it, I thought that if I had the SRD, the MM, and the module open to vampire powers that I might for once run a monster correctly. There are some GM crutches that I can use that I have resisted on the principle that, "I'm not that bad at running mechanics." I'm past that now and am willing to admit that I am powerless to solve this problem and need help from a higher power (3x5 note cards for every important monster's powers).

Then I ran a tendriculos wrong later. Allowing not only a sleep effect but also a coup de grace against it. [sighs, hangs head, and shakes head]

I have never professed to be a crunch monkey. I'm not bad at the occasional min-maxing (not that I make a habit of it) but remembering all the the things a monster can and can't do and what can and can't effect it based on the type or its qualities is something that seems to get past me on a consistent basis. I'd consider hanging up my D&D-GM-screen if it wasn't for the fact that my group isn't exactly running over with volunteer GMs.

Anyway, I guess I'm not the first GM to have this problem.

I'm hoping that the way I construct this next game takes care of some of these problems.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ending a Campaign

A post in three parts:

Okay. NOW, I'm ready to begin the campaign. Sort of.

The other GM in my group has been running his campaign for a few sessions and I haven't pressed to have the wheel again. Now, he has asked for break so I'm up. However, first I have to finish my Eberron campaign. I started running this campaign when we were in a pinch, no GM, an upcoming gaming day and no one to step in. I had GMed before but not for my regular group and not D&D. So I ran the beginning adventure out of the back of the Eberron campaign guide. The characters are now fifth level and have nearly completed the "Whispers of the Vampire's Blade" adventure. I have been running all of the adventure modules as is with one exception. That exception is that all of the adventures have had to do with the PCs trying to get a schema including this one. Now they're going to get this schema in the next session (on the 24th of Oct.) and defeat Lucan the Vampire. That's when they learn that what the schema are and why every one on the continent is after them. I expect it will take at least 3 sessions to finish the Eberron campaign.

In the meantime, I've been looking over everything for my Fudge campaign. I think it is really ready. I recently picked up the information outline for the different planetary alliances and began filling out the ones for the Merchant League, Religious Separatists, Free Colonies, and Pirate Coalition. That time away from the campaign creation process really helped to let me come back to the campaign and rule documents with fresh eyes. For one thing it only took me an hour to type up two of those information documents. The other reason that the time away from active creation helped is that I saw that the to-do list made several months ago are much more work than necessary. So, now I'm going to run a short one shot to play test the mechanics, then we'll have a rules learning initial adventure with no mortality possibilities. From there I've got several plots threads to weave depending on the player's interests.

I've been looking on and other gamer ad services looking for other more narrative gamers. It feels a little bit like surfing personals ads though in a committed relationship. I feel torn right now between loyalty to my friends with whom I've been gaming for 7 years and the possibility of gaming in a style I'd enjoy more. I don't really have time to just add a new group on the side so it feels like a dilemma. In reality, there's no way I'm walking away from my friends and the game with them. So, most likely I'll just keep going the way I am for another decade or so when my schedule is a little more relaxed and self directed.

Okay, I think that's all the gaming marbles rolling around in my head.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Gravid with Campaign

Okay, I think the character sheet is now set. As an example of the campaign creation tasks that I do just because I enjoy them, consider my excel spreadsheets. For my FUDGE campaign the attack roll is determined by the weapon, the skill with the weapon, and the type of ammo. I use nested if-then functions coupled with vlookup functions in excel and drop down menus to create a spreadsheet to automatically calculate everything. This is all probably terribly inefficient because it could probably be done better in Visual Basic but I'm not a programmer and haven't bothered to learn visual basic. I just do it because it is fun for me. My players make fun of me for it even as they use the spreadsheets so it all works out in the end. I've seen a lot of articles on the web about how to pare down the campaign creation process to make in easier for the GM. I think that is all very important, but at the same time, I think it is important for the GM to make sure that the part of the creation process that s/he enjoys remains.

So, here is where things stand. I'm pretty sure that the character creation process draft is complete. I want to send it to one of my crunch monkey friends to invite him to "break" the system but showing me the ways someone might exploit it. I won't necessarily make changes after that but I might know where my GM veto line is if a player builds a PC to take advantage of the gaps. I have a play-test scenario in mind and am likely to cobble together players from both my groups for a one shot for that purpose.

My plot threads are now taut and harmonized with one another. In other words, my nine pages of mission ideas seem like enough to improvise from and I know the arc that I want the elements to follow.

I feel very close to running the campaign and will probably talk with the other GM in my group about either splitting our sessions between campaigns or alternating every other session.

I have done a few other things to prepare that I haven't mentioned. First, I bought some space oriented micromachines to use as ship markers on a battle mat. Though I'm still trying to figure out how to fully represent and run 3D space on a battlemat. I'll probably reread that section of my FUDGE book soon to refresh my memory. It seemed pretty easy when I read it before.

Second, I downloaded Starship Tiles I from Fat Dragon Games off I highly recommended these for ease of construction and flavor builders. I'll share how they hold up in game once I have a chance to use them. I also downloaded some other free .pdf card modeling documents from RPGnow. These are helping to fill some of the sci-fi gaps in my mini collection and are much much faster to create.

Third, I found some old Spelljammer ship layouts on the web and have bookmarked them for future reference. If I need a ship layout in a pinch, I'll find some wacky design Spelljammer design and put it on a mat. I thought I'd never use anything from Spelljammer. I'm usually a purist, and that setting is just too wacky. But in this case I feel like it serves my purpose.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Taking a step back brings new insights

I've taken a bit of a break from the campaign development process and only recently come back to it. The other GM in my group seems content to let his campaign take primary position so that is fine with me since I've been so busy working and teaching.

This week, I had a few minutes to breathe and opened my documents again including some of the feedback that I received from a former GM. Interestingly a few new insights came to me right away.

-The former GM recommended the addition of a body oriented psionic class which I think has really rounded out the classes of psionic activity.
-The former GM recommended reducing the number of skills significantly. I checked out several different sci-fi RPG skills lists and eventually modeled my new list most closely after the one for Star Trek. I went from 85 skills to 31! A definite improvement and much closer to both the spirit of FUDGE and to my reasons for selecting it in the first place.
-I'm seriously toying with the idea of eliminating the skill rating system that I stole from GURPS (easy, average, hard). I like the verisimilitude it provides but dislike the added complication and would like to streamline things a little more.
-I also opened the mission ideas document that I created awhile back. The last time I wrote in it I felt like I had squeezed every idea that I could from my brain. Now, with some time away from it, I not only had more ideas, I was also able better thread my ideas into several continuous story lines. Meaning I have several ways of arranging the same basic mission ideas into different story arcs depending on what interests my players.

My current task is to come up with a short test run adventure and to finalize the character sheet. I'll also generate several PCs and try to break the system as much as possible.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Adventure Percolator

My adaptation of the Fudge rules are currently being reviewed by my players. So far I'm counting one very good sign. Each of the three players who have looked at the rules very closely have started telling me about the character they would like to create with the system. I take this as a good sign because it means that they aren't finding rules they hate or mechanics they can't stand. It also means they are getting even more invested in the campaign.

That gives me a lull in the world building and rules creation. So, I've been paying attention to adventures. Planning to improvise.

In my GURPS campaign I started the campaign with 1 person totally new to PnP RPGs and another who hadn't played in nearly a decade. To introduce roleplaying, I spent the first 2 sessions in an introductory adventure designed to teach the rules. In this campaign I don't think I need to spend that long introducing the rules because I have mostly veteran players. I'm planning one session for rules exploration. In this case, the rule teaching session will be a "friendly" competition to test the PC psi-marine squad against an existing mundane marine squad. The competition will take place aboard ship. The competition will include 3 contests to explore the 4 main rule sets; short range, single pilot, ship-to-ship combat; hand-to-hand combat; and a laser tag game that takes place on a deck of their home ship to simulate small arms combat. There will of course be some roleplaying opportunities during the competition and I've designed each test to allow for some psionic action so they can test their psionic skills during the competitions.

So where do I take the players after that? In my GURPS campaign, I tried leaving the world totally open. "Here's my world, pick a direction" I told my players. I think I was a little naive. It was my first time GMing. They followed a plot line, then when it got tough, they dropped it like a stone, went off on another direction, and by that time I decided to put them on a set of rails for a little while. I'm not looking to repeat my mistakes.

This time I've got my different factions and I'm looking to allow a little exploration of each faction but I've also got an overarching plot in mind to bring the players to explore the themes of the campaign: Loyalty, sacrifice, and the nature of a psionic identity.

The instructional competition mission mentioned above will include mid-level roleplaying but little fear of death. So, after that mission, I'm sending the PCs on a high adrenaline hostage recovery mission. I'm not always going to alternate like this back and forth between roleplaying and shoot-'em-up, but I want to show all the players early that there's something in the campaign for them. From there I'm going have a few missions that expose the players to some of the different factions in the galaxy. The majority of those missions have at least a small hint to a larger campaign arc (including those themes mentioned before).

What I'm doing is touring the campaign world (using the in game lever of military obedience to require the players to follow along). I'm also trawling the players for their interests. I know vaguely what the 3 major chapters of the campaign arc are but they can each be played out anywhere. I'll be waiting for the players to tell me where they want to play that arc out. Once they give me that sense, I bring them on the rails to the location they are interested in and set them free to play out their characters within the arc. That's the plan anyway.

So, how do I organize all this? I use the outline format in Word. Each roman numeral is an adventure. Some of the sub-sections are fleshed out, others less so. After each mission I look at the existing mission seeds and choose one mission to use two sessions ahead. After fleshing that session out I go back and look at the next session and see if I need to add any foreshadowing to that session. Here's another way of seeing this just in case this paragraph is confusing.

1. End one mission.
2. The next session is already planned and foreshadowed.
3. Choose a mission seed to expand and use two sessions ahead.
4. Review the preplanned session in #2 above and add foreshadowing for #3.

It creates a fairly seamless flow for a story arc and lets me improvise things within a session without being concerned that I'm messing things up down the road because I haven't built the road yet. And it doesn't leave everything totally open because I have these mission seeds percolating. When the players take a left turn I didn't plan, I can shove one of these percolating missions in their way with a few minor tweaks either to buy time to adapt or (if I think fast enough) I can adapt it to suit their purposes on the fly.