Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blood and Sand

So today I wanted to write about an exciting new GMing technique I tried out at the retreat. Mike created this technique for his Amber group down at Georgia Tech. I think he might've gotten the idea from my series of Devil games that I've run with the experienced Amber crew up here, where hard choices made by the characters shape the world around them. Unlike my decisions, which for the most part took place outside of combat, Mike places these decisions entirely inside combat (well, I should say that I assume he has hard large-scale choices outside of combat too, but that he also brings them inside combat as well). What results is something very interesting: roleplaying doesn't stop when the swords come out.

At least if you're me, every time your character resorts to violence you feel a twinge of regret that you aren't talking in character some more (I'm not saying this ever stops me, as people who play with me will attest). Additionally, if you're me, you probably wish that you had more character-based decisions to make in combat. In the current phase of my roleplaying career I look at combat as a place to make the action cool, not as a place to do interesting character decisions or create interesting changes in my characters. But by forcing hard decisions on the players in a combat, I think it is possible to put the characterization back in the game, even after the thugs start their work.

Basically how it works is this: say I've got a character who is just a normal, everyday fighter. For some reason they have gotten into a shouting match with the local village tough, and a fight has broken out. A standard intro could be something like: "He pulls out his sword, threatening you." or even, with more stunting, something like "His metal-laced scars glinting in the twilight, he begins a chant that draws forth a magical blade from his heart, blackened by his own evil. He begs you to lay your life down on his blade". Both of those are fine, if all you want is a fight. But what could be more interesting? Perhaps something like, "Without a second's thought he lunges for a watching lady, his fingers dig into her arm drawing blood. You see an opening, but the woman will probably be hurt by him as you thrust home, what are you doing?" Or perhaps he has captured something of value to the players and they must risk breaking it. Either way, the purpose is clear: by making a choice you reveal something about your character. Does she care only for justice, thrusting her sword deep into the ruffian's belly? Does she try to bargain for the woman's life? Does she purposefully run the woman through in order to complete her mission? I believe these are much more interesting questions to answer than just how you attack the bad guy, no matter how great a stunt you can make.

In the game I wrote about yesterday, "Both Alike in Dignity" the second half of the adventure consists of a couple of combats, with a couple of moments of rest to allow the players to do something I didn't think of. In the most recent iteration of the game, I used this style of combat quite a bit. Now in my particular setup I didn't have to work to hard to make the players make choices, since their "one true love" was right there with them. Do you gain an advantage over Benedict or protect your lover? Do you save the king of Amber or prevent a single scratch from befalling your companion's body. The best choice I thought up all night was "do you risk your unborn child or allow your lover to be stabbed". But even when the choice was easy to make, I felt it allowed the characterization to continue to flow. I really felt like we discovered stuff about the players during the second half that we hadn't in the first, even though the first was pretty much geared solely towards characterization, and discovery.

I was super pleased with how well this worked and the engagement I think I saw in the players, and I know that the next campaign or adventure I run I will be trying this technique again (perhaps my players will jump in on the comments and tell us otherwise, but I felt it worked well).

Tomorrow some thoughts on stunting and characterization or perhaps comments on player-assisted engagement!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fiascos, Fights, and Ill-advised sex: Player Scene Generation as Player Buy-in

A couple of years ago on the drive back from the incomparable Ambercon NW, Mike and I had a discussion about a game I could possibly run the next year. That game was based on a previous game by mike and focused around the creation of true meaningful relationships created by the players. The idea way that to start off the game we would have the players break off into explicit couples and come up with scenes they wanted to play through between each other. These scenes had prompts. For the ACNW game they were: 1. A scene where you fight each other and it comes to blows, 2. A scene where you defend the other to a family member, and 3. a scene that results in ill-advised sex.

I ended up running this game both for a Sunday session last summer and for ACNW. Both of these games went very well, but I never got to the final part of the adventure. After the scenes were played out, the couples were supposed to face a great challenge, and hopefully overcome it as a couple. In both previous runs, I was unable to get the players to the conclusion in time. (In the sunday session we didn't have enough time to explain Amber to a new player and also get through everything, in the ACNW game, my players didn't seem interested in that part of the adventure, so I abandoned it). So, for the retreat I decided to run "Both Alike in Dignity" once again.

For the retreat version of this game I changed the scenes (since one person had already played with these scenes), and Keith and I were able to come up with: 1. A scene where you convince the other to love you despite their hatred, 2. A scene where someone dies, 3. A scene that results in ill-advised sex. We kept ill-advised sex because the relationship doesn't feel solid until you have it, in my opinion. These scenes worked great and the two couples (Mike and Evelyn, Jesse and Carl) I think got some really excellent roleplaying done in their scenes. Best of all this time I was able to get everyone to the conclusion!

This game has worked really well everytime I've run it. It was certainly the best GM'ing I did at the retreat last week, and it was the best Ambercon game I've run as well. In thinking about this I figure that one of the big reasons for this is that I'm asking for direct player involvement from moment one in creating these relationships. I think of how many times I have tried to get a love interest going in a game (normally with an NPC), and it normally takes one of two forms: 1. the player ignores my hints, and nothing happens 2. the player desperately latches on to the hints, and it feels awkward and unfinished. Maybe all of that is me, but I think the reason these relationships work is that the players are responsible for making it happen.

Player Scenes as a method of generating buy-in for adventure ideas I think might be really cool. I have another idea for generating intense relationships in a family that I think might be very cool, and that I want to try at some point. I also think this shares a lot with the "stunt your failure" concept that Nikita introduced to our stunting group. Basically Nikita was the first GM to say "this is too hard, you cannot succeed, please stunt your failure to kill the dragon". While a little wierd the first time (since people are used to just succeeding all the time in persona), it has really grown on us all. It is a great GM tool (to be used sparingly, of course), but it really gets the players' buy-in and lets them feel cool while still failing (and lets them fail on their own terms). In much the same way, I feel that these relationship building scenes generate player buy-in and involvement, and are definitely a valuable tool I am adding to my GM toolbox.

Tomorrow I'm going to try to write about the cool new GM fighting technique I tried out at the retreat that Mike came up with for his Georgia Amber crew.

Monday, March 29, 2010


In case you missed it, I'm on twitter now, and I've been using it for a while (couple of months). I think its pretty cool! Check me out!

Roleplaying Retreat II: The Re-retreatening

So I just got back from the second roleplaying retreat, and I have to say I think it was a success! I really enjoyed playing with a bunch of my friends, and making a few new ones to boot! Everyone was a very skilled roleplayer with a lot to bring to both the gaming table and the discussions, and basically: a smashing success. In an effort to organize and record my thoughts, I'm hoping to do a couple of blog posts on some of the things we discussed, some of the problems we found, and some of the games we played. So, hopefully (assuming I'm not a total blog writing loser like normal) this will be the first of 2 or 3 posts.

One of the most interesting things we did was a session on improv exercises. Impro for Storytellers is, in my opinion, a great resource for anyone looking to work on characterization and plot techniques in a roleplaying game. It is my belief that almost all of the stuff that goes into making a great improv session can be applied to roleplaying sessions. I know that since my introduction to this book I have come a long way in terms of blocking, tilts, and predicting the desires of players through their actions.

For the retreat we first tried to do a couple of the blocking exercises. For instance, we played the game where you only stayed in until you blocked something. No one stayed in very long (though we did eventually get into the swing of things). Another exercise we tried was the butler, where you only block (one person suggests things to do and you have to agree with them incharacter but block them, like "Yes, going outside would be great, but I'm afraid its raining sir). I thought these went pretty well, though since I had forgotten the book we couldn't do a lot of exercises, only the ones that Mike and I remembered. But that gave us time to come up with roleplaying exercises!

Ever since Mike found the improv book above and thought it could apply to roleplaying he and I have been tossing around ideas for small exercises, like the ones suggested in the book. In general they are short and sharp, meaning they don't take long to do and they focus very tightly on a specific skill. We finally got to try one that we made up on the spot after we ran out of "normal" improv exercises. I'll call this exercise "GM Plot Workshop".

So we had 5 people working on this exercise (Mike, Carl, Evelyn, Brittany, and myself). One person would be the player, and one the GM. The other three would each think of one of Setting, Character, Story Goal (in that order). Then, the player would in a very out of character way, say what the player's plan for achieving or approaching the story goal was. The GM would then say what they would do. One example was with me as the GM, and Mike as the player. Setting: Post-apocolyptic world where humans were forced underground to a Zion-like city. Character: a young scientist. Story Goal: Make the surface safe for humans. Mike said something like "I lead an expedition to the serface to figure out why we can't live up there anymore". I responded with "After arriving on the surface your scientist team finds that there are microbes in every plant and animal that take over their minds, and that these are fatal to humans". After doing this, we would then have commentary from everyone. For instance, in our example one piece of feedback was that the character should have discovered the microbes not just the team he is a part of. Also alternate plot suggestions like "Wouldn't it be cool if they had to fight to the surface or the microbes were caused by his great-grandfather". The plan and response would take 2-4 mins, and the discussion anywhere from 5-10mins. Then repeat. We did 3 of these per GM/player pair. This was really great in helping people see problems with their plots "You're right it would be cooler if there was a rival band they had to challenge to a rock-off" to player anticipation: "Oh, I see that I guided the player down a path they weren't excited about, which was indicated by this action". Plus, for the more experienced GMs it was easy to add in difficulty-increasing elements like "I'm a new player and I don't know how to communicate my story goals other than through character actions, and I get frustrated easily" (which is what mike played for me). Everyone agreed it was very useful and awesome to be able to do basically entire sessions in about 10 mins and get immediate feedback with different ideas and suggestions.

In this vein I have thought of a few more exercises that would be cool to try some time:

  • GM player prediction - same setup as above, but have the GM try to guess the hidden story goal only through in character interactions through NPCs
  • Player assisted engagement - This time there are 3 players, and 2 of them have to work in character to engage the 3rd one, who is disengaged and not having fun
  • Hooking players - each person thinks of a character and setting, GM suggests plot hooks for each.

In all of these cases you would engage in a round of discussion after each round of play. This is the most important part as figuring out what should've or could've happened differently or better is many times something only other people can see (We did the discussion for every game we played at the retreat, not just the exercises, which really brought a new level of awesomeness).

Let me know if you try out any of these ideas. I think I will if I ever find some people willing enough again! I'll try to get another post on the retreat out sometime this week.