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Looking back on last year, if 2017 taught us anything, it’s that we really need to spend some time looking at how we view issues of gender, and how traditional views on the topic—unexamined—can allow a dangerous and damaging status quo to survive and thrive.
The Watch is a game that examines gender roles and the dangers of failing to challenge traditional ideas about gender relationships, and frames that examination in an epic military fantasy narrative. It is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was on Kickstarter last year, and entered full distribution at the end of 2017.
It has been a while since I put this disclaimer in place, but I feel like I should issue it here, once again—when I review a game, I’m looking at using the game at the table, and my ability to recommend it to a wide range of players for use. That is a separate measure than evaluating a game’s importance, or its value as art.Appearance and Structure
This review is based on the final PDF version of the RPG. The PDF is 175 pages—this includes a three-page index and a two-page index specifically referencing the moves in the game. The book is in black and white, except for the accent color on the cover, highlighting the title in red.
The interior art is all line art by Claudia Cangini, and it helps to reinforce a consistent look and feel for the game. The art is clean and presents a wide range of character types in combat and at camp, which mirrors the flow of the game, following characters on missions and between them.
Before the Shadow and Preface
The initial sections of the game detail what the setting looked like before the current crisis that the PCs will be playing through, and then explains the premise of the game, in broad strokes. It also discusses gender, in general, and how it relates to the theme of the game.
The setting was—before the shadow—a somewhat standard fantasy setting organized into various clans, some of which had their own rivalries and grudges. The Shadow arrived, and forces the clans to work together to confront some uncomfortable realities of their existence.
There is a very clear discussion on the theme of the game. Gender identity matters. The Shadow acts most strongly on those that identify as male, and this pull is based on identity, not genetics. This is very important to the theme of the game, because it is very clearly stated that The Shadow is a fictional representation of the negative effects of toxic masculinity on a society.
Women are not immune to the Shadow, but those that identify as male have a much harder time resisting, which has led to The Watch, the military of the consolidated clans, being formed from the women of the clans. Males from the clans are kept away from the front lines, as the males taken by the Shadow are twisted, over time, into dangerous creatures.
No one is immune, but males must sit on the sidelines. The important aspect of this situation isn’t that “men are bad,” but that the women fighting to protect their society can’t afford to assume that some of them are “the good ones” until the Shadow is confronted and defeated.The Basics
This section gives a broad overview of the concepts that are common to many Powered by the Apocalypse games, such as rolling when moves are triggered, what playbooks are, stats, and the terminology used. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, playbooks serve as character sheet/character class hybrids that players can choose for their characters.
The chapter refers players to the X-Card, created by John Stavropoulos, as an example of a safety measure for use in the game. The importance of safety tools, and respecting the boundaries of players, is also addressed. Given that the game touches on topics of gender, the problems that arise from toxic expressions of gender stereotypes, war, and loss, it’s a very important piece to keep in mind.
Moves are triggered by the fiction. Players discuss what their characters are doing, and if those actions align with the description of the moves defined in the game, a roll is made, and the MC that is facilitating the game helps the player adjudicate what happens according to the roll.
The Watch has a slightly different way to track advancement—in addition to the more standard experience track it also has a Jaded track.
- Characters get experience for completing missions, or by using highlighted moves from their playbooks—this experience can be used to buy various expanded moves native to the playbooks
- Characters can also mark Jaded on their sheets when the war against the Shadow hardens them—they can take Jaded moves as the track fills up, but too many Jaded moves, and the character leaves the fight against the Shadow, one way or the other
Characters also track multiple states in the game to model the effects on the ongoing war effort, and the connection the characters have to others fighting in that war.
- Characters track weariness when the rigors of war get to them—when the track is filled up, or when the MC is willing to let them remove all their weariness, they make a move representing the effects of weariness on them
- Characters also track camaraderie to show how close they have become to other characters in the war effort
- Weariness is often used as a consequence of various moves, such as turning down a request from another player
- Camaraderie is used instead of the “Help” move of some other Powered by the Apocalypse games, spent to boost the roll of another character when they attempt to do something
- If a character has Camaraderie with a character that dies, and a PC performs the Delivers a Eulogy move, Camaraderie with the fallen can be converted to Experience or Jaded, depending on how each character wants to view their state when the Eulogy was delivered
I really like the economy that is set up with Camaraderie, Jaded, and Weary. They play into the feeling of an ongoing battle against oppressive evil extremely well.
Using Camaraderie as a currency for helping is more exciting, to me, than just having a help move, and it reinforces the need to rebuild more of it between characters. Being able to cash it in for advancement currency, and the fact that it can be gained with NPCs, gives PCs a reason to get invested in characters outside of the immediate circle of the PCs and their commanders.
Jaded is a well-executed double-edged sword, allowing a character to learn from their experiences in a way that also shows that they are getting worn down by that knowledge.
The only aspect of the rules, to this point, that doesn’t excite me, is highlighting moves for XP. While slightly different than highlighting stats in other Powered by the Apocalypse games, it is similar enough that it makes me wonder the same thing that I do in games that use highlighting for XP—what does this say about the fiction? XP for failure, saying yes to questions about events that unfolded, and completing mission goals all speak to reinforcing a genre or the core concepts of the game, but I’m not as clear on what highlighting some specific stats or moves reinforces.Moves, Characters, and Playbooks
The next three sections of the book deal with explaining moves in more depth, explaining what characters in the setting look like, and give the specific details of the playbooks used in this game.
The section on moves will be familiar to someone that has played in a Powered by the Apocalypse game in the past, but it also summarizes the specific moves that are native to this game. The explanation of how moves work and how they are triggered is very clear. I’ve noticed, in the past, that some Powered by the Apocalypse games lean very heavily on using very similar terminology and expressions to the original Apocalypse World rules, and in some cases, that can lead to some confusion when a reader isn’t familiar with the original game.
In this case, while some of the terminology is used again later in the book, the introductory language is very clear, and the repeated phrases and terms end up being useful for consistency with other, similar games, but not too arcane for a new reader to pick up if this is the first exposure they have to a game using the same conceits.
Characters end up choosing from several clans, that may still be dealing with past rivalries, and can add complications to the effort to overturn the Shadow. They can also advance in rank, so that they can choose what order they approach missions in the overall campaign. Players are also presented with their own principles and agendas to keep in mind.
The game uses the following playbooks for the player character options:
- Bear—The fierce, protective, and maternal character
- Eagle—The glory seeking, high-ego character
- Fox—The mystical, spiritual character
- Lioness—The charismatic and inspiring character
- Owl—The sneaky troublemaker character
- Raven—The philosophical and potentially religious character
- Spider—The creepy, mysterious one that might poke around with dark powers
- Wolf—The aggressive, pack-oriented character
Some of the playbooks pick up some supernatural flavor, but powers tend to be more mystical and subtle, rather than overt and offensive. You can seek answers or travel through the spirit realm, but not throw fire and lightning around.
At the end of each playbook summary, there is an explanation of how to play the character, as well as some elaboration on how to use the moves specific to that playbook. I like the added context, but there are a few moves that feel like the actual move description could have been clearer, rather than being fleshed out in the explanation at the end of the playbook—mainly because it might not be obvious that there is more of an explanation of that move outside of the move itself.MC
The next section in the book, after the player facing information, is directed at the MC. This section details what the game is about broadly, then goes into the agenda and principles of the game.
While it is touched on earlier in the book, this section opens with a clear discussion that the game is about taking the standard fantasy trope of banding disparate people together to fight a great, powerful evil, and viewing that through the lens of the great and powerful evil being the patriarchy.
The MC agenda is spelled out, as well as the principles for running the game. For anyone unfamiliar with a Powered by the Apocalypse game, these are bullet pointed ideas to keep in mind to help reinforce the theme of the game and to keep it moving in the right direction. For each of the agendas and principles, there is a more detailed section explaining what those agendas and principles look like when put into action in a game.
Typical adversaries for the campaign are explained. This includes not just the being corrupted by the Shadow, but also traditionalists and ultra-radicals in the clans that might undermine victory against the Shadow. There is also a section where MCs will define the traits and specific goals of the Shadow, with the Shadow picking up more goals as the PCs get closer to defeating it. Those goals may make the Shadow more dangerous, but also more reckless, as it gets closer to losing its hold on the world.
The potential issues of running a game with the themes being employed is also addressed again in this section. It is stressed that the oppression being highlighted should not involve sexual assault—it’s about how aggression, systematic oppression, extreme competition, and status undermines society. There is also some recommended reading for better understanding and sensitivity about the issues touched on in the game.
The way the MC’s job is expressed in this section is clear, but there are some elements that I felt could have been streamlined. Instead of the traditional hard/soft move split (usually having something dramatic happen versus explaining to the players that something dramatic is about to happen, depending on the actions they take next), the text goes into separate explanations of moves split into the following categories:
I’m not sure splitting hairs and adding that level of granularity does much for running the game. In fact, a lot of new MCs in Powered by the Apocalypse games need to get used to the concept of making hard and soft moves, and the added layers that have fuzzy boundaries don’t seem to yield much additional value.
Principles, in many Powered by the Apocalypse games, are relatively few and concise. The Watch has 14 principles, some of which are fairly long. They aren’t easy to call to mind or quote from memory. Many of them feel as if they dovetail with one another, and some of them feel like general advice for running games, instead of things to keep top of mind for reinforcing the tone and pacing of The Watch, specifically.
If the MC is using the MC moves, as they are expressed, they will naturally do some of the things that are spelled out in the principles, which means some of those principles could be folded back into other principles. For example, “Keep Clan Politics an Ongoing Problem” is a principle, but one of the GM moves is “Bring Clan Politics into It,” so couldn’t we roll that principle into “Think About What’s Going on All Over the Nation?”Missions
This section of the rules spells out how a campaign will work. Campaigns are split into separate phases, and are designed to show how the world changes as the Shadow is challenged, and how the stakes are raised as time goes on.
Each phase of the war against the Shadow has several missions under it. There is one mission that “ends” that phase, which cannot be undertaken until most of the missions on the list for that phase have been completed. This allows the players and the MC to decide if they want to tackle all of the missions, or just a majority of them, before brining that phase to a close.
There are mission specific moves that are described by the player that is fulfilling a specific role, and they describe how that character will complete an aspect of the mission. Complications can arise from a 7-9 on mission rolls, such as having something following the players back to their home base after they have conducted a mission—this will require them to deal with the fallout of those complications.
In the final phase of the campaign, there are more dramatic complications that kick in, and in the middle and at the end of the campaign, there are “Changing the World” moves. These moves involve the players naming something they want to see change in the world, and how they are attempting to change that aspect of the world. Their rolls will show if that change is happening, if it is happening globally, or if change is limited to individual clans and regions.
I love this structure for this style of campaign. It would have been easy to set up the playbooks and the world and the advancements, and tracking everything that gets tracked, and then just leave it up to the MC to play as long as they want to resolve the story. In this case, however, there is a structured progression with built in rules to model the higher stakes as the player characters get closer to saving the world. Some games lay out a lot of tools to play an epic campaign, but if feels as if you are missing some of the steps to get from the beginning to the middle. Here the steps are laid out as well.
If there is one aspect of this campaign structure that I wish were handled differently, it is the broad wording of the Changing the World move. I wish it had a bit more guidance on the kinds of social issues that might still be present in the Clans, outside of the Shadow’s influence, so that it’s not quite so wide open for the MC and players to need to invent problems to solve. Keeping Clan politics in the forefront, and as a source of friction might help to generate the fiction needed to make this move work, but examples and guides are always nice.Final Thoughts, Appendix A, and Index The theme of this game is so important to modern society that it can’t be understated, but the way in which the theme is summarized for a fantasy setting makes it very approachable and understandable when mapped to standard fantasy tropes.
There is a nice rundown of how to cut down the initial character creation and setup to facilitate running The Watch as a one-shot game, explaining how to prioritize, cut out, and summarize the first session checklist provided earlier in the book.
There is also a separate moves index aside from the overall index, for quick reference.Leading the Charge
The theme of this game is so important to modern society that it can’t be understated, but the way in which the theme is summarized for a fantasy setting makes it very approachable and understandable when mapped to standard fantasy tropes. In addition to the execution of important themes, the structure of how to run a war against an evil overlord in an epic fantasy setting is something that will be worthwhile for a wide range of GMs to look at.The Fog of War
While the initial explanations are clear and on point, the specific MC advice gets a little muddy in the middle of the book, with some principles that don’t summarize as well as they could, and some expansion of what hard and soft moves are, without gaining much from that expansion.Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This game is worth checking out for a wide range of gamers. It addresses some very important topics utilizing tropes that are almost universally familiar. It uses Powered by the Apocalypse inspired rules in a manner that expresses the rigors of war, the progression of a campaign, and escalating stakes.
Let me know what you think of The Watch, epic fantasy warfare, and what you might want to see in upcoming reviews. I’ll look forward to your comments, and I hope to get the chance to discuss this and other reviews with you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how roleplaying campaigns work. The part that fascinates me is the genesis of a campaign; how does it begin, what surrounds it? I’ve written a couple of articles about campaign frames and the setup of different thematic elements to be sort of the pillars of what your campaign is about. More recently, on Twitter, I’ve been crowd-sourcing mini-settings, with adventure hooks and NPCs. Here’s the start of one of the settings.
Most recently, these explorations have turned into an ongoing project where I make Quick-Start settings designed to get a group hooked into a setting and story without heavy mechanics. I’ve even made a Patreon for it. This article is going to break down the whys and wherefores of doing these projects, and how you can take these principles and apply them to your own games.New Games, New People
One of the major things I wanted to address with these settings (and even with the campaign frame before them, to a degree) was getting new-to-RPGs players at tables. There are a lot of potential barriers to that: schedules, anxiety, learning a whole bunch of rules, etc. I talked to some folks on Twitter and one of the concerns I saw was the rules side of things. A lot of people who have been playing RPGs for years are people who, at one time or another, prioritized learning rules. I know that when I started back in the days of D&D 3rd Edition I learned the rules inside and out. That kind of knowledge can be intimidating to new players; a turn-off even.
This also goes for experienced players. Whether overt or not, the barrier of learning a new set of rules is a real one. For these ideas to work, I thought, this needed to be addressed.Keep It Simple
One of the linchpins of the Quick-Start settings is that I’m using a very bare-bones system for them. The same system I made when I wrote School Daze, in fact. One d6, 5 or higher succeeds, and a few modifiers to add to the rolls. Nothing overwhelming and very few procedural things to worry about. This is a step beyond the campaign frames because those are system-less, designed to give a framework to folks who are familiar with systems already.
This low barrier of entry should help both new players and experienced ones pick up a setting pretty quickly. It’ll give everyone a chance to stand on equal footing, and give you a chance to get a game going.You’ve Got One Shot
The idea behind these Quick-Starts is to get a single session done without putting a lot of pressure on either the players or the GM. These same principles can be applied to other games. If you’re an experienced GM and want to introduce new players, it’s often a good idea to tone down the rules you use at the start of the campaign, to simplify things. You can always add in additional rules later on once you see that the players are comfortable. This mirrors an educational principle called “scaffolding,” a way to build up the knowledge and skills of your students.
This “first contact” with games is crucial. If someone has a bad experience, it can turn them off from games. That’s not something anyone wants. Whether you’d use something like these Quick-Starts or just tone down the rules of another system, it’s an important thing to consider. Again, this also applies to experienced players learning new games; don’t overwhelm, and do your best to make sure that everyone is on the same page.The Hooks Will Bring You Back
Another feature of the Quick-Start settings is that they’re basic rules and setting information paired with story hooks designed to jump-start the first game session. The setting needs to be vibrant and compelling. The hooks involve asking the players questions, and giving them a stake in the details of the setting. Players need to be hooked in, need to have some reason to want to jump into the session. Players need to be asked how characters are linked to the setting and their answers need to be included in the overall vision for the setting. If players know that their actions have impact, they’ll be more likely to engage.
If you’re planning your own game, building your own campaign frame, or similar, keep this idea in mind. Some of the most successful game sessions I’ve ever been part of have been successful because of the collaboration between players and GM, rather than the game just coming from the GM on high.The End Result
If you put all of these ideas together, I think the potential for a great game session is high. Keep the rules simple, present a compelling setting, and let the players know their actions will have an impact on the setting and story. If you’re doing these things, there’s good potential for the one-shot to become a full campaign. For the Quick-Starts, I’m working on conversion guides to move from the basic system to more involved ones. This would let the first session serve as a bridge. I’ve done the same in the past with games like Dread. Use one system to intro the setting and characters, then transition those characters to the system we’ll use for the entire campaign. Exploring characters without being constrained by more involved rules can yield interesting results; you might get characters you’d not have otherwise had.The Overall Impact
My hope is that these Quick-Start settings and the ideas behind them will help new players get into the hobby of playing tabletop roleplaying games. As well, I hope they would be able to help experienced players get in short sessions and jump-start their imaginations. If you dig these ideas, I hope you give them a try. If you really like them, maybe check out the new Patreon. Either way, I hope you’re intrigued and let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to see an even more diverse group of new gamers join the hobby, and I hope these ideas can be a small part of that.
In writing, there is a dramatic principle referred to as Chekhov’s Gun. This states that every element in a story should be necessary and anything irrelevant to the story being told should be removed. Basically, if you set up a loaded rifle being put on the stage in the first act, that gun better go off sometime in the second act. Your setups need payoffs.
Keeping this principle in mind can help make a story tight and cohesive, keeping your audience focused on the themes and messages of the plot. While binging on video essays on YouTube, I recently came across Lindsay Ellis channel. One of her videos talks specifically about the way Mad Max: Fury Road deftly uses setups and payoffs throughout. As with most things in my life, I began thinking about how to apply these concepts to running RPGs.
Now, it’s important to state up front that writing a story is drastically different from running a roleplaying game. Even if some writing is done collaboratively, there is still room to edit and refine before the final product is presented to an audience. In RPGs, our collaborators ARE the audience and there is no way to go back and edit things we decide we’d rather not use. If you try and use unmodified writing techniques to run a roleplaying game, you’re going to end up frustrating yourself and your players, and most likely be accused of railroading.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t pick the techniques apart and find what works for use in RPGs. Chekhov’s Gun makes an important point about following through on the elements introduced in a story, and this can be just as valuable in an RPG as it is in solo writing. A good GM knows how to bring things full circle in a game, giving their players the satisfaction of a good game and story.Plant Seeds but Don’t Get Too Clever
When sitting down to plan a game, it is tempting to craft clever setups that will shock your players when they figure it all out in the end. Unfortunately, putting too many intricate and subtle details into prep usually leaves the GM disappointed as players remain oblivious and miss them. Even fantastic players miss subtle details through the course of a game, and that’s before the added complication of remembering details between game sessions. If you need to explain your cleverness to your players after the fact, that detail didn’t work. Keep your setups simple, something you can implement with broad strokes that can be echoed in later sessions.
One good example I’ve experienced, is a friend’s D&D 5E city based campaign. Much of his initial prep for the campaign made use of Pelgrane Press’ Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents. Even just a simple outline of the connected threats in the city has allowed him to plant seeds that have come full circle and succeeded in making us players feel accomplished at beating the bad guys and shocked at how deep the trouble goes throughout the city streets.Pay Attention to What Your Players Are Interested In
Keep an eye on what your players are focusing on. Plenty of GMs have lamented on how the players ignored their big plot hooks to spend time on things they considered inconsequential. In most cases, that should be telling you that your big hooks aren’t as compelling as you thought they were. Don’t just ham-fistedly push your players towards the main plot and ignore the supposedly inconsequential things they are actually excited about. Take the things they’re latching onto and run with them. When possible, just use those unexpected things they latch onto to tie back into the bigger plot you were trying to get them entangled with in the first place.
During the first campaign I ever ran, my players often pushed me into pure improvisation as they went way, way off the material I had prepped. During one session, while they were exploring the flying pirate ship they had unexpectedly stolen from a super villain, I made an offhand remark about a little black book among the belongings of the telepathic monkey first mate that had gotten away. It wasn’t meant to go anywhere or do anything, but the players loved the idea and decided to call some of the numbers in the book. From this was born the monkey’s girlfriend, Lisa Terrance, a high society debutante NPC that became one of their favorite sources of information.Keep Track of What You Set Up
This one may be more of a reminder for myself than advice for anyone else, but keeping good notes on what you’ve put into play and need to follow up on is a good practice to help keep a game’s story cohesive and helps reinforce a cinematic feel for your players. For me, these notes don’t need to be extensive. Usually just a bullet point or two is enough to help remind me which elements I need to follow up on. In addition, never hesitate to ask your players to recap the game. It can be enlightening to see the things they’re focused on compared to what’s in your notes.
During my Eberron campaign, after a short hiatus of a few weeks, I asked my players for a recap of what they remembered. They all brought up, in excited detail, a fight they’d had with some cultists that I had completely forgotten about. I had mostly used the cultists as throw away bad guys to fit in a combat encounter, but I realized their presence meant more to the players than it had to me, so I made a note to follow through on that plot element to make it even more satisfying and relevant for them.Even When Abandoning Something, Give it an Ending
When you inevitably come face to face with something that isn’t working, figure out how to end it with some sort of resolution as quickly as possible to get it out of the way. Not everything you bring to the table is going to go perfectly. Sometimes the players just aren’t interested and sometimes you’re just not feeling it as the GM. It can be tempting to just move on and pretend the struggling plot line never existed, but to maintain a cohesive world for your players, it’s better to do some editing on the fly and give that truncated element a clear resolution or ending. If you don’t, even if they didn’t like that story line much, it will feel like it’s just hanging out there, unsatisfyingly unfinished.
During my character’s introduction into a friend’s ongoing campaign, he had her have a run in with an NPC that was strongly hinted at being a serial killer stalking people similar to her and the other PCs. This was something both me and my PC thought was cool, so I tried following it up during several different sessions, but it quickly became apparent that the GM wasn’t interested in following up on that thread. I think he had simply intended the NPC to be a threat to my character that would drive her towards the other PCs. He obviously never expected me to care about that plot thread and was confused when I kept trying to investigate it. While I had fun with the rest of that campaign, I’m still a little disappointed that introductory element just fizzled and went nowhere.
Whether you’re running a heavily narrative-based indie game or a more traditional mechanics driven game, an understanding of how to set up and pay off different plot elements can help enhance a game. It may be impossible to pay off every set up we throw out there in an RPG, but follow up on the ones your players latch onto and you’ll give them a game they’ll remember.
I was talking to a fellow GM recently and they said (paraphrased): “You know what I like to do when I GM and you should write an article about: I like to sprinkle in random dressing and clues with no pre-planned purpose in my world and see what the players make of them and maybe retroactively make their theories correct.” I suggested that they write it and submit it as a guest article, but not everyone is as comfortable with their imposter syndrome as I am apparently.
So, on the one hand, I think this is an interesting technique and I can see a lot of value in it. It would certainly cut back on prep to just drop in a strangely worked sword, an odd mural, a mangled corpse, a whispered rumor and then only expand on it if the players show interest and use their speculation to guide how you do so. It also would make your players feel clever that they “figured it out” if you keep mum, or feel like they’re contributing and that they’ve had a good idea if you flat out tell them you like what they came up with and are using it.
On the other hand, my gut reaction is that this feels an awful lot like “cheating”. First, placing random stuff in your game with no clue as to what it is and where it came from seems like lazy GMing, but that might just be my nitpicky drive to over prep. Second, taking credit for your players’ speculation and playing it off like you had it planned all along seems like borderline asshattery, though I suspect there are both good and bad ways to do this.
Some of my reaction is certainly due to a GM I played under a few times years ago. One of those who thought he was God’s gift to game mastery, he would often launch into self congratulatory musings over how he actually planned out very little and just listened to table talk and swiped player ideas, took credit for them and let everyone think he was the most creative GM ever. (Not that I suspect he actually got accused of that all that much.) His games weren’t BAD mind you, but he wouldn’t shut up about how great of a GM he was and that he had nothing to learn and that everyone always gave him praise and it was both hard for me to listen to and for him to live up to that sort of hype. Side story: when he started GMing for our group, he used to have us fill out a little post game quiz before he handed out xp bonuses for MVP etc. The last question on that quiz was “What could I have done better?” I always tried to put in some polite constructive criticism there. (Nothing too harsh. Like I said, his games weren’t BAD, but everyone has little areas they can work on.) About the third week, that question disappeared from the quiz because “No one was putting anything down for it.” So, asshole that I am, I wrote it in and kept providing constructive criticism. It was worth it for the looks he gave me every week.
I think the technique is self explanatory, so if you haven’t already, give some thought to if it would enhance your game. Ultimately, my misgivings only matter in my game.
So I put the question to you dear reader: Is this technique fair or foul? And if it’s on a scale, where is the fine line between the two? And if you like to use it, give us your best practices and a few table tales.
P.S. Also, if you want to tell me I’m a big jerk for giving that GM a hard time, feel free. Totally guilty.
Since 2007 I have been an organizer for the Denver RPG group, a Meetup.com group of over 2,200 role players across the Colorado Front Range. When each member joins, they are asked a seemingly simple question: Why do you want to join our group?It took me years to be able to articulate what I want from a game group. In the end it has very little to do with what game we play, and far more to do with how we approach role playing as a group.
The most frequent response to this question is some form of “I want to play D&D.” Over the last decade I’ve seen this response more than a thousand times. But I suspect the reason a person plays role playing games is about more than the rules framework or setting from one game. What is it that people really want from role playing games? Misunderstood desires or expectations can leave people dissatisfied , and can even result in people leaving the hobby because the first group or game system they happened upon did not give them the experience they wanted.
It took me years to be able to articulate what I wanted from a game group. In the end it has very little to do with what game we play, and far more to do with how we approach role playing as a group. Presented here are some tools that can help start the discussion about the group style or group culture that will help the participants to get the most out of their gaming experience.
The table below describes the combinations I see based on the intensity of the rules (relaxed or focused rules) and the story (light or deep story). I have purposefully not associated settings or systems because this is meant to speak to the style of the group. The majority of rules systems or settings can be adapted to create the experience the facilitator and players want. If a certain framework absolutely doesn’t fit, the group will be able to figure that out pretty quickly by assessing whether or not they are having fun.
These are not value judgments – one style is not “better” or “right” and the other is not “worse” or “wrong.” The goal is to help players find a game group that is the right fit, which will lead to more enjoyment and fulfillment for everyone. If everyone is enjoying their RPG experience, mission accomplished!
Group Style Relaxed Rules Rules Focused Light Story Casual Gaming Crunchy Combat Deep Story Intense and Immersive Campaign Stories*
*A potential evolution of one of the other group styles.Casual Gaming
Relaxed rules, light story: This game style provides a great reason to get together with your friends and enjoy each other’s company while slinging some dice. Expect combat regularly interspersed with role play and a fair amount of out-of-game conversation about life, work, and pop culture references, aka “table talk.” The GM is excited for players to try unexpected and over-the-top actions and probably uses the improvisational “yes, and” or “yes, but” tools. The core experience is getting to spend time with your friends. (This style of gaming is sometimes referred to as “Beer and Pretzels”, however literal beer and pretzels are not required.)Crunchy Combat
Rules focused, light story: Sometimes the fun in a game is from optimizing character stats to create a superhuman avatar or otherwise pushing the system to its limits (Peasant Railgun, I’m looking at you). Feeling effective in game is an integral part of the role playing experience. Feeling like you got the absolute maximum level of capability from your character can make the game especially fun. Dice rolling and combat are likely to be the core component of this group’s game style with the players following through on plot hooks with a combination of problem solving, destruction, and looting at the other end. The GM may take on a direct adversarial role to the players. Experience points, leveling up, and accumulating powerful gear will be important to participants in this game culture. The core experience is pushing the rules and your character to the breaking point and winning the day by defeating your opponents. The goal is to help players find a game group that is the right fit, which will lead to a higher degree of satisfaction for all of the participants. If everyone is enjoying their RPG experience, mission accomplished!Intense and Immersive
Relaxed rules, deep story: In this style of gaming group the story, tone, and emotions elicited are the fundamental experience. The rules system or setting provides a framework for the shared experience, but knowing the rules inside-out probably won’t enhance the participant’s enjoyment of the game session. This group style attracts players who trust their group and are interested in having a high degree of vulnerability at the table. The players may share the narrative authority, blurring the line between game master and player. In these games the drama of failure may serve the story better (and be more satisfying) than success. Role playing is the core experience with combat interspersed if desired, winning is telling a memorable story.Campaign Stories
Rules focused, deep story: This group culture takes time to build and likely evolves from a different style that the players used to initially get to know one another. It can work well with a dedicated group with a deep knowledge of the rules system. Game play vacillates between meaningful role play and intense combat. The stakes are high and threat of character death is real. Simulationist style mechanics are embraced as a way to immerse the players in a combat that feels as true to life as possible without leaving the gaming table. Extensive player and GM knowledge of rules means that the group isn’t bogged down by having to research how to do something in the heat of the moment. Getting the rules right is as important to the participants as keeping the tension high. The core experience is character and story development that take place at the game table over months or years.Conclusion
I have multiple role playing groups, each with a slightly different group style. Since I know what I want from each group my expectations of what constitutes a satisfying session shifts. For me, finding gamers that thrive together as a team by embracing the same game style is far more important than the system or setting we play in.
What style of play do you seek out most frequently? Has your style of play changed over time? What other group styles have you seen?
Sometimes skimming twitter the strangest things can start my gears turning. Several weeks ago, I scrolled past a completely non-gaming tweet that mentioned how people like to get reactions. Suddenly I realized, as I quickly tabulated many comments by folks at whose tables I have sat, that when I play, I am very reactive. This has been said to me in a variety of ways, from “having a lot of heart,” to “really moving with the story.” For all of the different ways people have expressed it to me, it comes down to being mainly reactive as a player. And having had that thought, I was fascinated—what does reactive mean, in gaming? What about proactive?I like to think of it like a dance — the proactive player or GM pushes the story, and the reactive player or GM follows the lead.
To start, let’s define how we’ll use “proactive” and “reactive” in a gaming sense. The dictionary defines proactive as “creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened” and reactive as “acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it.” For the purpose of gaming, the player’s intent or mindset may be involved in defining whether an action was proactive or reactive. I like to think of it like a dance — the proactive player or GM pushes the story, and the reactive player or GM follows the lead. In harmony, they create beauty in narrative just as the dancers in their movements. Too much reaction and no one knows where to go, and too much proactivity and there is a power struggle. So having laid that out, how can we define proactive and reactive game play?As A Player
“That’s it — we’re going in. Watch my back.” A proactive player makes decisions that may change the direction of the story. They are engaged but also constantly thinking of new directions to move in, or how they can take control of a scene (or help the PCs in general take control). Proactive players contribute a lot to your table, and really good ones are rainmakers for the GM, taking some of the weight off of them for keeping the story going. Proactive players introduce new elements and twists to the narrative, adding layers of depth and complication. They are also the players who may take things into their own hands if they feel that the rest of the group or the story itself is not moving fast enough for them (LEEEROOOOOY JENKINS). They’re a boon at the table but if they’re socially unaware of how to share table time, the GM may have to work to keep them from taking over.
“Ernesto! How could you! Think of your children! And me, your wife!” Reactive players do just that — they react to what’s happening in the story. The way to get their characters involved is to hit them right in the feels, and they’re happy to give themselves the feels to make this as easy as possible. These are the players who move through the story driven by their responses to the other characters, PCs or NPCs, or the situations in which you put them. Games that are purely hack and slash will be difficult for them, because they’re there to play off what you put in front of them, and there’s not much character building action in a dungeon. These are the players who really like having vulnerable characters, because that very vulnerability informs how they allow themselves to be buffeted by the winds of drama and chance to build a beautiful and emotionally logical narrative that unfolds through interaction.As a Game Master
When we think of GMs, our stereotype tends to be the proactive GM: they’ve prepped this session, they have a plan, and they know where this story is going. Proactive applies to all the planning outside the table. You’re creating the narrative itself before anyone else is there to be reactive with. It also applies in game when you pull a twist or make a move to make the characters take the bait, or make them react to pull them along your story line, or really any time you thicken the plot.
The reactive side of GMing is changing the world to reflect the actions your PCs have taken, or your NPCs changing their interactions based on how they’ve been treated before. Reactive GMing is also sourcing your table and then weaving those new story elements into your narrative. It’s in not planning endings and seeing where the story takes you, as a group, and it’s in making sure to bring back details players may throw in offhandedly, never expecting to see again. The more improvisational your GMing is, the more reactive it tends to be.But Narrative Control!
You could make the argument here that what I’m really talking about with proactive and reactive GMs and players is narrative control, and that’s fair. To be proactive, you have to have narrative control. The stereotype of the Dungeon Master single-handedly laying out a story that they’ve prepped behind closed doors while their players react is just that — in a standard traditional game, the GM has narrative control over everything that isn’t the characters themselves. Characters in these games can be proactive, but only insofar as it relates to their own actions as a character, because that’s where the boundary of the narrative control lies. To find a more even divide of proactivity vs. reactivity in both players and the GM, turn to games that share the narrative control more freely. Shared narrative control gives the GM the freedom to be more reactive with their story, while giving them the tools to do so (supporting improv GMing), and simultaneously gives players the power to be proactive in the world, and not just with their characters.We’re All On A Spectrum
No one is a fully proactive or reactive player, and certainly the circumstances, the game you’re playing at the time, and the other people at the table will influence where you fall on any given day. Of course we all blend elements of both reactive and proactive together, and the best GMs and players know instinctively which is the correct move to make at any given moment to drive the game forward, switching seamlessly between them.I primarily enjoy reacting to the story, no matter what role I’m taking in that particular game. As a player, it feels like a tango — the story guides me in a direction, and I follow and lean in to it, allowing it to guide me.
Personally, I see myself as further to the reactive side of the scale both as a player and as a GM. I primarily enjoy reacting to the story, no matter what role I’m taking in that particular game. As a player, it feels like a tango — the story guides me in a direction, and I follow and lean in to it, allowing it to guide me. As a GM, my prep is pretty much to get the characters moving in a direction that I can react to so that we can start bouncing off each other as we move forward, passing the reaction ball back and forth. When I hit the combo right and the right people are at the table, my experience as a player vs. as a GM doesn’t actually differ greatly — in either case, I am along for the ride as the story unfolds, and loving every second of it. I’m either reacting as a character, or I’m reacting as the world around the players. In fact, if I can be so bold, I’d say that I love playing to find out, which is, I know, why Powered by the Apocalypse games are really working for me at the moment. My improv GMing style is closely tied with preferring to be reactive, so I do know that when I need to make a hard move, for example, sometimes it takes me a minute to think through what the best story option is. Having said all of that, I also of course live for the twists, the drama, the big proactive reveal. But until the perfect moment arises, I’m happy to react, and let the story create itself.
Where do you fall on the proactive/reactive spectrum? Is it the same or does it change depending on if you are playing or GMing?
I’m sure we all have gaming related New Year’s Resolutions. Two years ago mine was to write a microgame every month (did it!). Last year it was to finish my two big projects (didn’t even come close!). This year has been a wild one, with lots of changes. Some of the biggest for me were getting project management training at my day job, learning all sorts of useful productivity tools, and finding a love for data. We’re all nerds here, data can be cool! Productivity is rad! Planning, awareness, and analysis only drives us to improve problem areas and capitalize on success. In 2018 my New Year’s gaming resolution will be to Be More Productive.
That’s hard to define, sure, and it lacks deliverable goals. So to help me firm up my resolution, maybe I should say that my resolution is to find productivity tools and use them for an entire year to help me prep games, write and produce content, and manage my gaming business. In this article, I’ll go through the tools I’ll be using, and how you can use them too, to increase your own productivity.The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique was developed as a time management tool in the 1980’s. In simple terms, it breaks up tasks into 25 minute segments, with 5 minute breaks in between. This segmentation of work allows the brain to focus on a task uninterrupted for 25 minutes, and rewards productivity with short breaks. Used best, these breaks should be spent doing something fundamentally different than the main task, to allow for a reset and to relax the focus.
I’ve already been using the Pomodoro Technique when working on gaming related stuff. I use this site to track my timers. That site not only has a built in 25/5 timer, but it allows you to log what items you completed during working stages. This is a great motivational tool as it lets me see the progress that I’m making on all of my projects. I like to maximize my time by spending the 5 minute break periods getting up and doing house chores while listening to podcasts. This gets me up & moving so I’m not just sitting down for hours, and it helps me catch up on my queue!The Game Log
This tool comes from James Malloy, of the Stop, Hack, & Roll podcast. He’s assembled a tool to track your game history and identify trends. I’ve used this log in the past and it’s provided some great insight into my gaming habits. The tracker contains some pretty spiffy drop down menus to let you sort your progress by month, game, genre, players, and any tags that you might want to use. The additional sheets allow you to populate a list of games and assign them their core systems or genres, so when you choose “Masks” from the first drop down, it will automatically populate with “PbtA” as the system, etc.
If I see that a genre comes up often, I can play towards that as an area that I know I’ll enjoy when looking at other games. Counter to that, if I notice something shows up only once or twice, I might be more willing to seek that out to improve my skills in that area. My desire in 2018 is to log every RPG that I play or run in this log and produce some analysis either monthly, or as a year as a whole.
People often tell me that they’re surprised by how much I get done between managing my website, writing games, and making podcasts. It doesn’t feel like I really do a lot, honestly, but I need to get better at recognizing how many plates I balance in managing Riverhouse Games. One struggle I’ve found is that I have a load of things on my To-Do list, and often get overloaded trying to figure out which one I should work on at any given moment. Do I edit this Game Closet, do I draft up this idea that’s been sitting in my head for a month, how do I balance working on my website and pet projects with making things that I can sell?
Recently I sat down and wrote down every little thing that I wanted to do. Then, I assigned ratings to each item base on things that were important to me. These were things like:
- How easy is the Thing to do?
- How urgent is it that I get this done?
- How much do I, personally, want to do this?
- And, finally, because I want to get to the point where I can stop worrying about groceries and start worrying about conventions, how profitable is this Thing?
To each of these items I assigned a scale where 1 means the Thing is incredibly difficult, not urgent at all, a necessary evil that I will loathe doing, or completely unprofitable. Weighting each scale came next where personal desire and ease of completion influence my decisions more than urgency or profitability, so Ease and Desire can range from 1-5, profitability can range from 1-3, and Urgency is a 1-2 scale. Multiplying each Action Item’s values gives me an overall Priority rating, which I can sort the entire list by.
This may sound like overkill, but knowing which items need doing the most helps to manage the various projects I add to my list. This strategy also, by design, shows me the items that are prioritized to my values, so it will usually show me the things I want to do the most, the things that are the easiest, most likely to put a few dollars in my pocket, or the most urgent. I’ve been using it for a month now and it’s already worked wonders. Please feel free to use it for your own projects, simply make a copy and save it to your own Drive, or download it as an Excel file to use offline. Feel free to also fiddle with the ranking items, maybe you’re not worried about profitability, but you balance a few campaigns and want to make sure you’re keeping up with the ones that require more prep. The trick now is to keep it up in conjunction with the other two items in this article!
What kind of productivity tools do you use for your games? What Gaming Resolutions do you have planned for 2018?
Welcome to the Gnomecast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good. This episode we have John, Ang, and Jared talking about Gizmo’s in games.
Today’s guest post is by Tomcollectice, and talks about how game crafting doesn’t have to be phenomenal artistry to be effective at the table. – Steady Hands John
Every Sunday before I game I find myself loading my car with this:
- And a backpack full of books and notes and stuff.
- Plus any food or snacks I feel like bringing.
Every week I arrive to my friendly gaggle of murder hobos loaded down like a hobo myself. I suppose its only fitting. This probably sounds like a pain, but I just haven’t figured out a better way to transport 80-ish modular dungeon tiles, 6 hill pieces, about a dozen cave pieces, various scatter pieces, stalagmite (stalactite? I always forget which is which), and the myriad stairs, tables, chairs (yes, chairs, in scale), beds, tents, doors, treasure chests, spell templates, one teeny tiny camp fire, and an actual bag of rocks.
This should come as good news to anyone who’s labeled themselves “non-artistic”. Seriously, I can barely handle stick figures. Or straight lines. Or even measurements. And somehow I’m carting around Murder Hobo Magic Fun Time Land every Sunday. If my crusty punk ass can do this, trust me, you can too. And that’s because of the other good news: if you think you’re bad at art stuff, you are probably wrong.
I’m the first person to point and laugh at my theater degree, but something my artsy fartsy education instilled in me was an evangelical faith that everyone has a bit of art in them. Crafting is probably the best proof I have of this fact. And as obnoxious as I find it when my brethren wax philosophical about art like it were The Force, it is here where I start to see their point. Five years after my first effort turning frozen pizza packaging into a wizard’s tower, this little hobby within a hobby is impacting my life in unexpectedly large ways.
One of my favorite things about tabletop gaming is its ability to bring people together. It’s always brought to mind images of telling stories around a fire. Crafting only compounds this feeling. And quite frankly, this happens even if you feel like you’ve made total crap. This even happens when you try to make total crap! Calling upon all the best talent available to any toddler of moderately average intelligence, I once farted out something vaguely giant-like because I found myself needing an impromptu giant mini. And by mini, I mean “sharpie scribble sized to scale”. I might be biased. But something about it makes me smile. It made my players smile, too, which is all that matters. It made the game more fun.
That fun is why you find yourself cutting organic egg cartons into endless rock-like shapes, or scoping out dollar general cardboard dumpsters like you’re prospecting, or making a point of ordering hot wings with your pizza because you need the foam clam shell to make rows of bricks. And something happens along the way: you get halfway decent. I don’t know when it happened, but my projects went from “good job, Timmy”, to “I guess those things could look like that”, to “holy crap, that looks like it’s on purpose”! And somehow, without noticing, I had become the patron saint of murder hobos, forming the world they murdered in from the giant plastic cases hauled across the various planes.
Let me tell you what I told myself getting into this: little art leads to big art. And with that, something very important happened: I gave myself permission to suck. And now that I had so much stuff, that stuff turned into the thing that caught people’s eye and brought them into the hobby. Bringing in new players is always a good thing, but this also includes people like my niece and nephew, and my stepson. My nephew received his players handbook, monster manual, and dungeon master’s guide with a polite, bewildered “thank you” when he opened them as gifts. After seeing the game played with tiles and crafts, he “gets it”, he’s totally into it, and he’s bringing friends over when we play. My stepson, this strange little human I find myself trying to raise without the over protective neurosis I apply to my cats, has grown a bit obsessed. He gives me teen angst and attitude if we can’t play. Which means I have a teenager that I am simultaneously responsible for and not related to wanting to spend time with me . . . for hours. He even asked me to show him how to make stuff. How does that even happen??
Let me tell you what I told myself getting into this: little art leads to big art. And with that, something very important happened: I gave myself permission to suck. And I could not have chosen a better community in which to suck. I barely dip my toe in the online crafting universe, and I can already tell you it is one of the most friendly and supportive places on earth. Imagine a place where the internet actually lives up to its potential to be more than just a haven for stupid angry political rants and stupid angry ranting porn. Tabletop crafting online is that impossibly good and ideal place. It actually exists, and it is a land of glue guns, cardboard, and 50 cent Walmart paint.
So if any of you are watching crafting channels, or looking at my craptastic pictures, and wondering if this is something you can or should do, let me answer that for you now: yes and yes. I can’t promise any nerdy Hallmark moments, but I can tell you, emphatically, this is a rabbit hole you will enjoy falling into. I don’t presume to be an example to anyone, but in this case, I encourage any and all to be like me: suck. Suck hard. Suck a lot. Suck spectacularly.
Happy gaming. I should probably write the article Gnome Stew actually asked for now. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts below.
Often we think of playtesting for rooting out bad rules—things that are broken, don’t work, or are not clear. But sometimes in playtesting we find a perfectly good rule that by itself is excellent, but in the greater whole of the game does not work. Recently I found such a rule. One that I liked so much that its removal came with great hesitation. But sometimes a good rule has to be excised for the greater good of the game. Or, to put it as Spock said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”Sweat For Effect
Last year, at Dreamation I ran a playtest of Hydro Hacker Operatives, and game designer Jason Pitre (@genesisoflegend) played in the game.
A bit of context—In H2O there is a mechanic for sweating. During some moves, you sweat, and in doing so you consume an internal resource of water, which in turn forces you to drink more water. As an aside, Drink Water is a move in the game that has some consequences because you have a bad reaction to any water you drink.
Jason suggested that there should be a way for a character to sweat to gain a +1 to their roll. In effect an internal Help mechanic that was keyed off of your hydration (that internal resource). I liked the idea instantly, and created:
Sweating It Out
When you push yourself harder to try to do better, Sweat (in addition to any Sweat the move required). You gain a +1 to your current roll. People can see you sweat. This can only be done once per roll.
In addition, the game already had a Help move, where your friends can provide assistance, which was based on your relationships with other characters. That move also granted a +1.Observation
In general, when I run a game, I am a pretty easy GM, as in I don’t crush players when I play. If you are playing a one-shot run by me, it’s going to be challenging, but you are going to have a great time triumphing over me. One of the things I love about PbtA games, is that the players roll all the dice and the GM only acts when the dice direct, which is when the total result is six or less (we will get to that below), known as the GM Moves (also known as Hard and Soft moves).
Over a number of playtests, I noticed that I was not making a lot of moves during the game and that players were succeeding most of the time. At first, I chalked that up to my style, but then I remembered that the dice drive my moves, and I was making less GM moves in the game. Also, the game was supposed to have a gritty tone, and it felt that the tone was a bit off, with players succeeding so often.
The other thing I noticed is that the game is highly collaborative. Players are working together against an oppressive regime, so they often work together or in small groups. This means that they often make moves with their strong stats and not their weaker ones.
I needed to dig in and see what was going on.The Problem
For those that are not familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, here is a crash course. The crux of the mechanics are in a form of what is called a move, and a move has a basic structure like this:
When you want to do stuff, Roll + STAT.
On a 10+ you get what you want, and some more.
On a 7-9 you get what you want, but at a cost.
On a 6- the GM will decide what you get.
Now stats range from -1 to +2, and the dice you roll are 2d6. We said before that Help or Sweating It Out both can add +1, and together would add a +2. So with all this knowledge you can go to Anydice.com and figure out the distributions of the three different types of rolls: the 6-, 7-9, and the 10+. What we get is the following:
So we can see a few things. When we look at rolling with no help (the first table) that the GM can make a move between 17% to 58% of the time. That range drops to 8% to 42% of the time when you add in one form of assistance (second table), and then drops again to 3% and 28% when you add in two forms of assistance (third table).
But in H2O it’s actually worse than that. Remember that players are working together, so they tend to make rolls that favor their strong stats (+1 and +2). So if we look at those distributions then without assistance they are getting a 6- between 17% and 28% of the time, with one form of assistance that goes to between 8% and 17%, and with both forms of assistance, it goes to between 3% and 8% of rolls. So the observation is right . . . players are failing a lot less, and GM’s get fewer moves.A Hard Look
So what was clear to me was that having two forms of assistance was problematic. In fact, as far as I know, no other PbtA game has two. Many have one form granting a +1. So H2O was going to need just one. The decision was which one would have to go.
Keeping Sweating It Out would tie strongly to the idea of sweating in the game, and it pushes the hydration resource and economy. Keeping Help sticks with what is normally done in PbtA games, but it also reinforces the idea of working together.
One of the design goals of the game was to foster collaboration. Working as a team is important for the game. One of the design goals of the game was to foster collaboration. Working as a team is important for the game. So if we drop Help, then there is little mechanical incentive to work together, but if we drop Sweating It Out then in order to get assistance you have to work together.
So the decision was clear, I needed to drop Sweating It Out from the Basic Moves (the moves that are accessible to all players).Mostly Gone
I still like the Sweating It Out mechanic, and I could not totally let it go. So while it has been removed from the Basic Moves from the game I wanted to keep it somewhere, and that place is the Hacker. The Hacker was designed to be a bit of a loner. They have more difficult relationship mechanics, and due to the nature of how they work, they can be left alone in a cyber cafe working while the team is out in the field.
So the Hacker is going to get the move Sweating It Out as a playbook move, that they can unlock with an advancement.Wrapping It Up
We have talked before about killing our darlings, and this was definitely the case. Sometimes a good rule still can break things in the overall game. I also learned that it’s important to trust your instincts and then dig into the numeric mechanics when something goes wrong. Finally, a discarded rule does not mean that it is gone forever. Many times a rule can be found a new home, elsewhere in the game or even in another game. So now it’s time to update the Basic Moves and make some adjustments to the Hacker playbook. Until next time.Special Thanks
Special thanks to fellow Gnome, Matt Neagly, our resident Statistician who was kind enough to check my math, and provide me a few suggestions as I was putting this together. Thanks Matt.
I’m a big fan of dice especially unusual dice, so back when it was open I backed PolyHero’s wizard dice kickstarter (Thanks Patreon supporters!). If you’d like to grab your own set, they’re available for purchase at PolyHero’s web site. These are amazing looking dice, and I can see them being a lot of fun to toss around while playing a wizard. I can especially see it being a blast throwing out a handful of the d6 fireball shaped dice to determine your spell damage! I got the Heartwood and Moonsilver set pictured above, but they come in a variety of other colors. As a kickstarter backer, I also got two d2 spellbook dice as stretch goals, one in Heartwood and one in electrum. It doesn’t look like these are available for sale at this time, which is a shame because they easily have the most detailed sculpt of the set. From a kickstarter standpoint, everything was fulfilled quickly and painlessly. I would back the next PolyHero dice kickstarter.
I only have two very small complaints about these dice. First, they are large and most are long and thin. This makes getting them rolling in your hand difficult (and I have pretty big hands). You may have to shake them with an open hand or two-handed to get a good “shake feel” out of them, or toss them where they can get a good roll going. Second, the stylized font used on the dice can make them a little harder to read than other dice (6s and 9s are very similar and only the 6s are underlined, fives two and threes all look pretty similar), and the steep angle of the d10 potion bottles can make them hard to read if they land angled away from you. These are very minor issues though and at most are an argument for ample space to roll and good lighting in your game space and careful reading until you’re familiar with the font.
As I often do with oddly shaped dice, I ran a set of chi-square goodness of fit tests to see if their shape impacted the distribution of their results at all. For each I used either the minimum rolls required for the chi-square test, or 50 rolls, whichever was larger. As usual, we’re not testing these dice to see if they actually match an ideal uniform distribution (no dice, not even precision milled casino dice do), but rather if they appear to get reasonably close to that distribution within a number of rolls you might expect to see within a session.
The results of the chi-squares were mixed. Most of the dice look good, but my d12 had spectacularly poor results (p-value of .005) and a second test gave better, but not great results. This could have just been two bad tests in a row (it happens) or it could just be my die. (we expect dice within a manufacturing batch to have some variance and my d12 seems to have a slight curve to it that could easily explain the poor results) So, I contacted PolyHero and explained my problem. They got back to me within a day and offered to replace my die, but more importantly, grabbed a dozen of their dice of various colors and rolled them each 10 times for me to give me a data set from a larger sample of dice that could give a more typical result across most dice instead of from a single die. Of course 12 dice rolled 10 times each isn’t exactly comprehensive, but it’s a lot better than a sample from just one. This sample turned out much better, so I see no reason to believe there’s any systematic issue with the dice, and as a bonus I also have solid evidence that PolyHero’s staff are quick to respond when someone has an issue with their product.
Update: head gnome John Arcadian also backed this kickstarter for two sets of dice (the black and the green) and got his dice just before this article went live and rolled me 60 results from each. One of them passed with better results than any of my previous tests (.957), the other passed, but not by much(.058). I’m willing to call this one “tentatively fine, further study needed” so if anyone out there wants to run a test on their PolyHero Wizard dice, let us know the results!
English summary result: The results looked very good. Most of the dice easily passed a goodness of fit test at any reasonable criteria. While the initial d12 results weren’t promising, the larger sample from the manufacturer was much better.
Stat summary result: p-values for H0: results are from an appropriate uniform distribution vs a .05 critical value ranged from .29 to .83. Only the initial d12 test rejected H0 with a p-value of .005.
Long form results:
- df – degrees of freedom, which particular chi square curve we’re comparing against. Depends on the number of sides the die has.
- Chi .05 crit val – the value, for the particular chi square curve we’re looking at, that separates the rarest 5% of groups of rolls from the rest. If the Chi Test Stat exceeds this value, we say the die is not fair. There are other critical values for other tolerances.
- Chi Test Stat – the value we calculated from our rolls. Compared to the critical value.
- p-val – how common the results we observed were. p-values fall between 1 and 0. Closer to 1 is better. Lower than .1, .05, or .01 are usual ground for declaring a deviation from the ideal standard.
Last year, when I backed the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter, I was intrigued by the idea of the Cypher System as a stand-alone system that could be used for multiple genres. All I really picked up on from Unmasked was that it was going to be a superhero themed setting that also delved into some psychology about how a person’s powers would manifest.
As it turns out, Unmasked is only “sort of” a superhero setting. Its set in the 80s, and revolves around teenagers that gain the ability to take on a mask form that has superpowers. Unlike a game like Masks, the crux of the story isn’t about being superheroes, as much as it is exploring what it would be like to give teenagers superhero like powers, and if they use their powers for the greater good, or just to indulge in some power fantasies. It also features some government conspiracy elements and weirdness that might seem to dovetail a bit with the “kids on bikes” genre, except that the game explicitly is geared towards teenagers, not just young kids in general. The tagline is “Superpowers and Horror in a Dark Eighties.”Alternate Form
Unmasked is a 192-page supplement filled with full-color artwork. My review had the benefit of being informed by both the PDF of the product and the physical product. The book is solid and well made, with the same construction as the rest of the books in the Cypher System line.
The art is formatted and designed to use colors and forms that call back to the 1980s. That means lots of pink, green, and orange triangles. While the setting touches on a lot of supers elements, the mask forms depicted are often very over the top and wild compared to more standard superhero fare. A few pieces are repeated in multiple places in the book, although the repeated sections generally make sense, such as one of the pieces of art for the chapter detailing schools in the 80s being used in the sample adventure later on.
One other note—there are a few recycled pieces of art from the supers section of the Cypher System rulebook, and they actually don’t align as well with the tone of the book, since they often show very noticeable battles in the middle of cities.
The book has all the normal sidebar page references and quick stat notations of other Cypher System books. It has a page of Kickstarter contributors and playtesters, a two-page sample character sheet, and a one-page index.Part 1: Origins
The first part of the book is comprised of two chapters, The World of Unmasked and Unmasked Overview. This section of the book explains the media that informs the book, the high-level pitch for the setting, and what the game concepts in the Cypher System look like in this specific setting.
There is a sidebar about adapting the setting to other eras, with the most important note being that the setting will have a harder time working in eras where telecommunication is more ubiquitous. The arc of the story is that mask forms go largely unnoticed by the larger world, which becomes more difficult the closer the story gets to the modern day.
One part of this section that I wanted to draw special attention to is that not only does it give suggestions for inspirational viewing (as many settings do), but it also gives you a list of inspirational listening, to get in the right musical mindset for the setting.Part 2: Prodigies
Prodigies are the term used for individuals that have been granted superpowers in the setting. This section is composed of the chapters Creating a Character in Unmasked, GMing Prodigies, Creating the Teen—Teen Descriptor, Creating the Mask—Mask -Form Descriptor and Type, Creating the Mask—Mask-Form Focus, and Creating the Mask—Mask-Form Power Shifts.
Prodigies can see the hidden power in items and in other people that have the potential to become prodigies. They can use mementos (the settings version of cyphers), and they can gather items to create a mask, which allows them to create a mask form, which is the teen’s super-powered alter-ego.
Mask-forms don’t usually think that they are the teen that they are bound to, and regardless of the secrets of the setting, they may believe they have an origin that they do not actually possess (for example, a mask-form may think they are an alien being bonded to their teen, even if aliens have nothing to do with the origin of where superpowers come from, and aren’t established to exist in the setting).
The personality traits of the mask form often reveal something about the personality of the teen. A teen that has very low self-esteem may have a mask form that either tries to bolster their self-worth, or that actively disdains the teen from which they spring. A shy teen may have a mask form good at stealth and going unnoticed, or they may have an outgoing and boisterous mask form.
Mechanically, the teen form and the mask form track their damage separately, and if a mask form is moved down the damage track, it will appear with that amount of damage if not given time to rebuild its reserve energies.
Teens have their own ability pools, separate from the mask form, and they only have a descriptor. Mask forms have the full bells and whistles of a Cypher System character, and in addition, they get power shifts, and alternate rule from the Cypher System rulebook that is also used in the Gods of the Fall setting. This means certain tasks are much easier for mask forms, and may automatically succeed, where such tasks would be nearly impossible for a normal human.
The standard character types from the Cypher System Rulebook are represented here by Smashers, Thinkers, Movers, and Changers. As with the other Worlds of the Cypher System setting books, you will need to flip back and forth from this book and the main book to see how the modified version of the character types is changed from the core rules’ assumptions.
There are some great hooks for roleplaying when it comes to exactly how different types must activate their powers. For example, before a Smasher uses one of their abilities from their type, they must somehow announce that they are about to use the ability out loud. These hooks immediately play to some tropes, and give the game some personality, but they may wear thin in a longer campaign or with repeated play.
As with just about every other Cypher System book, the setting includes some new foci that can be used for the setting, but might be useful in other Cypher System games. Flies by Night, Lives on the Dark Side, Travels Back from the Future, and Wants to Be Adored all have elements that would be useful in other settings, and given that the mask form can have all kinds of nonsensical ideas about their own origins, a wide range of foci from other settings can be justified.
The three pages of explanation for power shifts feel more informative than the treatment the alternate rule received in the core Cypher System book or in Gods of the Fall, where the topic only warranted a page and a half or a page. The rule itself is simple, but the guidance on how to conceive of the narrative boundaries of what that power shift can do in this book is greatly appreciated.Part 3: Welcome to 1986
This section of the book is broken into chapters on The Eighties, The Town, The School, The Threat, and The Big Picture. It is essentially a sourcebook for running campaigns in the United States in the 1980s, with a lot of time put into explaining how towns were commonly organized, how schools usually worked, etc.
As someone that lived through this time, none of this was revelatory, but at the same time, it did a really good job of summarizing some daily elements of 80s life that my modern self had forgotten. The material focuses heavily on “less than a big city” settings, in part because that means that the mask forms are less likely to be discovered, and because it is better for strange, out of the way plot creepiness to happen.
This section contains alternate ideas for where exactly superpowers come from, and what the weird thing stalking the super-powered individuals might be. There are notes on the subtle differences between a campaign where powers come from genetics, psychic phenomenon, or supernatural sources.
For each of the origins, there is the outline of a sample campaign laid out, showing what kinds of things might happen at the beginning, middle, and end of a school year in an ongoing plot, and what kinds of threats might face characters at the different character tiers.
I like this presentation for sample campaigns quite a bit. Not only does it illustrate what the designers were thinking when they came up with the setting, but it gives you a template to follow, or a baseline to deviate from, without leaving you wondering how to use all the tools presented.Part 4: Welcome to Boundary Bay, New York
In addition to the broad 1986 primer in the last section, and the general power origins and suggested campaign arcs, the next part of the book introduces a more directly fleshed out setting for the game. Boundary Bay is given specific businesses, NPCs, a specific origin for the PCs powers, a new government agency, and a specific supernatural boogeyman that might be hunting them.
After touching on many NPCs in the town, there is another section of cool kids and outcasts, with various story hooks related to that NPC presented. There are also some existing mask forms that have been haunting the town that is detailed in this section. My personal favorite is Captain Meat, a mask form that appears to be a powerfully built human being with no skin.
For anyone familiar with other Cypher System books, the traditional NPC/threat write up format is only used for the main villain of this campaign, Prester John, a character that borrows from a few 80s era horror tropes from sources like A Nightmare on Elm Street or perhaps a bit from IT.
I was a little surprised that not only did we get three sample origins for powers, and three sample campaigns, but then we also get a more fleshed out campaign setting with its own hooks in addition to what appeared in the previous chapter. I also like that the military organization, The Circus (with a great origin for that name), is portrayed as dangerous, but not overtly evil or sinister. They are in over their head, and may make some bad decisions about suppressing a threat, but they avoid full villain status.
The NPC students are repeated in the section on classmates, and given explicit hooks, and while I appreciate that, I wish there was a matrix showing the prodigies in the school and what their mask forms are, so that it might be easier to decide on introducing the classmate first or the mask form. While it works, it’s an ongoing thing in Cypher System books that translating player facing abilities, like power shifts, to NPCs, who use different rules to express them, feels a little awkward.Part 5: GM’s Toolbox
This section is comprised of the chapters Running Unmasked, Rule Options, Origins, and Big Secrets, Mementos, Masks, Quick Adventure Generator, and Mister Monster. Much of this section presents ways to dial rules up or down to enforce a certain tone, and ready-made hooks to insert into a game, as well as a sample adventure that utilizes the Boundary Bay setting presented in the last section.
There are some solid suggestions on what a typical game session should look like, as well as the kind of 80s teen problems you should insert into a game. There are some rules suggestions on adding in more power shifts to dial up the superhero side of things, and on how to make “normals” more fragile if you want the game to have a grittier feel and higher stakes regarding bystanders.
All the Cypher System games have their own explanation for what cyphers are, and ways to enforce the limit on the number of cyphers a character can carry. In Unmasked, mementos hold reserves of whatever power allowed the prodigies to gain their powers, and if too many of them gather in one place, they start to cause bad luck, reflected in the person carrying them increasing the difficulty of tasks they are attempting.
There are some great 80s-themed mementos, including fruit rollups, guitar picks, and old 8-track tapes. I especially love the “we’re not calling it a He-Man action figure” memento whose power is triggered when you pop off one of its arms. Mementos give a vague feeling that calls back to a very teen-centric memory when they are handled, such as giving the holder the feeling of sneaking out of the house after curfew or the feeling of getting a driver’s license.
There is a section of sample masks and mask forms that can be dropped into a game, and assigned to existing NPCs in the setting, but none of the sample mask forms are assigned any teen form in this section. The sample adventure generator has tables for determining Who, What, Why, and Special, which might result in an adventure outline such as “authority figure discovers drugs (special: corruption),” which you could then interpret how you wish.
The sample adventure is structured so that events will happen progressively, and if the worst possible outcome isn’t subverted earlier, it will end with one prodigy being driven to unleash their mask form in public, with the PCs, hopefully, helping to stop the rampage. Events are broken down by what happens on what day, and what complications might happen, but while there are suggestions on how those events might get more complicated, there isn’t as much discussion on defusing the situation early, just keeping it from escalating even further.
There are a lot of tools for reinforcing a teen drama theme, and for dialing the tone of a campaign from a more “grounded” feel to a more superheroic theme, but I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more in the toolbox section on facilitating the horror aspect of the setting.Part 6: Back Matter The era material is helpful, the sample campaigns are great, and there are a ton of hooks and examples to draw from.
This section contains the Kickstarter contributors and playtesters, a character sheet, and an index. Of note is that the character sheet is formatted so that it’s obvious where the teen information goes as opposed to the mask form information, and it appears to be well suited toward making it easy to see what you should use for each form.Totally Awesome
I really like the number of tools this book provides you for running a game based on super-powered weirdness in the 80s. The era material is helpful, the sample campaigns are great, and there are a ton of hooks and examples to draw from. The book also does a good job of using some of the modified rules touched upon in other Cypher System products and making them work for this concept. I don’t know if this was the case, but the setting feels like it was developed first, and then the rules were addressed to reinforce the setting, rather than starting from a base of saying “can we get Cypher to do superheroes” and working backward from that concept.Mildly Bogus
While there are horror elements in the settings, I feel as if the horror aspect of the setting is a bit underserved by the tools presented. It may be a little nit-picky, but I would have liked another summary of where NPCs are located and if they have a mask form or are one of the faceless summarized in the setting material.Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Unmasked surprised me. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, but it does an exceptional job of expressing just what kind of niche it wants to carve out. It’s a recommended purchase for Cypher System gamers, not just because of the setting, but because it is a good example of how to utilize some of the optional rules that dovetail with other settings. Even beyond Cypher System gamers, there is some solid advice on running 80s games, especially those centered around creepy conspiracies and high schools. It manages to live in a similar space as games like Tales from the Loop, but also touches on territory covered by games like Masks. While being adjacent to both of those games, it still manages to have its own personality and quirks that make it unique.
What do you think of Unmasked? Gaming in an 80s setting? Have any thoughts about the review, the setting, or what you would like to see me cover? Please let me know—I’m looking forward to it!
I just finished reading “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World” by Adrienne Mayor.
If you have any inclination toward including encounters with historical Amazons in your game — either as player characters or nonplayer characters — this work can serve as a go-to resource.
This book from 2014 does a masterful job of drawing together the various threads of folklore, myth, the perceptions and misperceptions of neighboring Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese, and actual archeology to reinforce a view that has gotten greater acceptance over the years — that the Amazons were likely an integral part of the warrior caste of the Scythian people, a horse-culture that ranged the whole of the Eurasian steppes, including the regions east of and including the Black Sea.
To give your players a rough sense of what the Scythian Amazons were like, put out their minds most pop culture references they are probably familiar with. These aren’t the Hellenized Amazons of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island nor the scantily clad beauties so often depicted in fantasy gaming.
They were heavily tattooed tribal warriors, horse riders and archers, who wore trousers and rode side-by-side with their male counterparts into battle.
While it is a gross simplification of their culture, as a point of reference, the Scythians have more similarities with other horse peoples who ranged across the sea of grass in later eras, such as the Huns and Mongols. Comparisons with the plains Indians of North America in the proliferation of a nomadic horse culture among them can also be valid.
The far-ranging Scythians — a fluid amalgamation of tribes both large and small — proved unconquerable to both the Greek city-states, and later, even to Alexander the Great.
Among Scythian innovations:
- Domestication of the horse and integration of it in their culture; horses provided food, milk, clothing, transportation, and ultimately, mobility on a battlefield in an era when most troops were infantry.
- Trousers. Essential to riding horses into battle effectively.
- Perfected the recurved Scythian bow, which could be fired from hoseback in battle, including the exceptionally difficult backward angled Parthian shot, as well as the practice of The arrows were biological weapons; tips were dipped in toxins.
- In this environment, women could achieve status as warriors, achieve positions of leadership, and formed bands — sometimes all women, sometimes mixed gender — for adventuring, hunting and as battle units.
- Tattooing was a central element of the Scythian culture and Mayor cites sources that show Amazon women with intricate and detailed body art.
The other great resource the book offers is five-page appendix filled with the personal names of Amazons and other warrior women drawn from ancient literature and art, from the Mediterranean to China. (And like a good baby names book, each entry includes the literal translation of the name, and its source.) For example: Ainippe: “Swift or Praiseworthy Horse” (vase). What DM isn’t going to mine a list of names — especially female names from antiquity — for their game?
So whether your adventures take place in historical times or against a fantasy landscape, DMs can reliably use this depiction of horseback-riding arrow-firing female warriors in their game. How do you use historical references in your game? How close do you keep to the known history?
Note: A similar work is due out in February: “Searching for the Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World” by John Man.
If You’re Not Familiar…
My schedule lately has been… less than stable, so my gaming has been coming in small chunks. I’ve got games I play in and run that go off once a month or once every two months, I’ve got one-shots that occur on sporadic weekends, and when I feel the need to get some time as a player and just jump into a game, I find a local adventurers league game and throw something together to play.
If you’re not familiar with Adventurer’s league games, D&D’s current organized play model, they are fairly formulaic, super light on story, and focus more on combat options. They are great fun for jumping in without prep, buying into the railroad, and getting some play in. In adventurer’s league games, everything is logged and there are strict rules to how your characters level. I’ve worked on products for adventurer’s leauge games and I’ve played in more than a few. While they are sometimes light on deep story, focusing more on the play aspects of the game, they distill D&D down to its core game and…They Are Really Effective At Doing Combats, Especially First Level Combats
Playing characters in AL games mean there is a lot of playing through level one adventures, and combats made specifically to be the first combat your low level character ever sees. One thing I learned from playing in the various games offered around Columbus (there are many) is that there is an IDEAL style of combat for low level characters, especially if it is the first combat.
If the first combat doesn’t fit into the ideal, things can go very wrong for the game down the line. Even if a formulaic game, like some AL games can be, the first combat is an essential part of the plot, story, and action. It has certain purposes it needs to fulfill. This holds true for games that are not D&D, but really for any game that has combat as a general them. Combat is always a challenge, something for the players to overcome, using their characters abilities. If it is too hard, it stalls the action or kills morale up front. If it is too easy, it sets a tone for how the rest of the challenge of the adventure will be. If it feels like it has no connection to the overarching plot, it just feels like a time filler. So, what do I see as the ideal first level combat?A Formula For The Ideal First Level Combat For Any Game
Elements of this will change based on the game you are playing and the goal you are trying to achieve with the first combat, but here are my guidelines for an ideal first level combat.
- The enemies should be somewhat squishy – The players want to feel that their combat abilities matter, so the enemies used in the first combat shouldn’t be tanks or impossible to hit for their level. The enemies don’t need to all be one-shot kills, but the players should be able to get in a good blow and take out at least one enemy with ease. It could be a group of small squishy enemies and one or two harder to take down enemies, but the first combat shoudl validate characters ability to affect the world.
- The enemies damage should be a threat, cumulatively – You want the damage of an enemy to feel threatening, but not one shot most of the party. Taking the squishy enemy example from above, each time one of your enemies makes a hit on a character, it should be a small amount. Not enough to kill them at once, but enough that 3 or 4 hits takes a person down. If you are using one or two more threatening enemies alongside your squishy enemies, then their damage levels can be much more threatening, marking them as the true danger in the combat.
- The Right Number of Enemies – So far, in our example, we’ve got squishy enemies with minimal damage, and one or two more threatening enemies with more impressive damage, but how many of them? That will depend on the number of player combatants (PCs and NPCs on the players side). You’ll want enough squishy enemies that each player can take out one or two on their own, or if they have an area of effect ability, or clever use of terrain or scenery, they can take out multiple. The many squishy enemies are a threat in numbers, meant to distract and harass so that they characters can’t focus on the bigger threats. A fairly standard option would be 2 per PC that is very combat oriented, or 3 per PC if there are some good area attack options.
- The Big Enemies – The smaller squishy enemies are primarily there to give the players something to push through to get to the real challenge, which is the big enemies who are harder to take down and who do a bit more damage. Because there are less of them, perhaps one or two per combat, they can provide a large threat, but not a constant threat in the way the many squishy enemies do. One shot from these enemies will put a character close to dead, but that means they shouldn’t get too many attacks like that, perhaps that these bigger attacks don’t happen until the 3rd of 4th round once the smaller squishy enemies are already engaged.
- The Rewards Should Be Commensurate With The Threat – As far as the threat goes, a combat like this should feel fairly threatening, and the rewards should match up for the level of threat. Included in the rewards should be something to restore any fallen characters to full health, or near full health, and something that provides a small boost in wealth, if that is the vibe of the game. A bigger reward should also be in something that progresses the plot forward, something that helps validate the combat that just occurred. If you are using a game system where leveling up occurs based on what you have defeated, there should be a small boost to the next level based on this combat. It’s not necessarily enough to level the characters up, but for the players to get a taste for the next level and feel the reward as a tangible thing.
- And It Leads To… – Maybe this first combat is just the introduction, a way to shake out the bugs on the characters and provide a small bonus (in wealth and xp) in exchange for a moderate threat that they can mostly recover from. It validates their choices to buy healing potions or bring a cleric with them or upgrade their armor. Once they are done with this one and slightly recovered, the next threat might be right around the corner. The next combat can be whatever is needed, but it is now in line with the first combat and follows through with the challenges set up by the first one.
Unsurprisingly, it has more to do with the story and the experience than it does with the actual combat. Every part of the formula: 2SLDper+2BT+CR+PP (2 Squishy Low Damage per PC + 2 Bigger Threats + Commensurate Rewards + Plot Progression) is meant to provide a valid threat with a valid reward that gives the characters a bit of a workout while progressing the story. The end goal is how it feels to the players at the end. It feels like the squishy enemies were a threat because there were many of them, it feels like they got some early wins by easily taking out many of the squishy enemies, it feels like a bigger threat because the bigger enemies really hurt them with just one hit, it feels like the fight was worth the rewards in loot, and it feels like the combat mattered because they got to push forward with the story.
Unsurprisingly, it has more to do with the story and the experience than it does with the actual combat. It all comes down to how the players feel at the end of the combat. They feel validated, threatened, shaken out, recovered, a little proud, and like they matter to the story. While the 2SLDper+2BT+CR+PP formula is pretty D&D specific, it holds for other sorts of games that have similar combat scenarios. Even in very narrative games, where combats are handled with less mechanical rules, the formula still holds, in theory. It may not be 2 squishy enemies per PC, but one because Squishy enemies are not as much of a concept in deeply narrative games and mechanical combats tend to be less of what drives the game along. In these cases, you still want enemies that are easier to defeat, an enemy or two that are bigger threats, rewards that feel commensurate to the challenge, and progression of the plot.Your Take
This is all based off of games I’ve run and played and thinking about what the first combat means to the player perspective, but what is your take from your experiences? What was the best first combat scenario you ever played or ran, why was it good, and does it fit the idea behidn this formula? What would you change about the formula to make it fit the vibe of your games better?
I’ve been working in computer security, in some fashion, since the early 1990s. One of the key concepts in this field is to separate processes on computing systems, so they can’t talk to each other or read/write data between each other . . . unless done so in an explicit manner. This can be done via one of three methods: physical, temporal, or virtual. I won’t delve deep into these approaches of computer security because that’s not the point of this site. We’re here to talk about gaming advice, after all.
Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s get to the gaming advice. These three approaches of separating processes and data can be used when changing GMs within the same campaign. It’s difficult to create a smooth flow between a GM change, even when planned, so hopefully what I have to say here can help keep the waters calm and the players engaged.Physical
In the gaming world, each GM should “claim” a particular section of the world. In the computing world, this would mean Client A is on computer A, and Client B is on computer B. Likewise, you should run your web server on one server and your email server on a different one. This is an over simplification, but it sets the stage.
In the gaming world, each GM should “claim” a particular section of the world (or continent or city or planes or whatever) and keep their gaming sessions isolated to the part that they’ve laid claim to. The trick here lies in getting the PCs from one part of the world to the next when a different GM jumps behind the screen. This can be done with interludes (Savage Worlds anyone?) or a brief transitional story told by the GM to set up why and how the PCs have traveled to a different part of the world.
The more closely tied the sections of the world are in physical and story space, the easier it is to make this transition. Try to keep the adventures swapping between regions of a single nation or neighboring nations. Even using two different cities that are relatively close to on another is an option.
By allowing each GM to have their own part of the world, this allows each GM to bring their own flavor and style to the game, which is one of the reasons to change up GMs. The trick is to make sure the various GMs work with one another to maintain a continuity in the world.Temporal
When swapping GMs, a time gap can occur. In the computing world, there used to be a concept called “time sharing” back when there were a few mainframes in the world. Basically, Client A would “rent time” on a mainframe for a few weeks and then their data would be archived and purged from the mainframe before Client B took over the mainframe. With the ubiquity of cloud computer and “always on” services, this has fallen out of favor.
However, these same concepts can be applied to a game. When swapping GMs, a time gap can occur. Again, the incoming GM can give a brief tale about what happened over the past 2-3 months to set up what the next adventure will be about. Instead of moving the PCs across space, the GMs will work together to shift them forward in time. Of course, the world will change around them, and this can allow each GM to bring in their own story ideas and flavors.
An alternate to having the GM dictate what happens during the “downtime” is to seed the PCs with a few events that are happening, and then ask them what they are doing with this time of non-adventure. This allows for spell research, magic item creation, training, building a stronghold, growing their congregation, and other activities that adventurers (especially the higher level ones) never seem to have time to accomplish.Virtual
These two characters under a single player should be related somehow via backstory. With computers, you can easily run web, email, DNS, FTP, shell servers, databases, and other services on a single computer. You can also easily run both Client A and Client B services on a single computer by using virtual segregation to ensure A never touches B’s data and vice versa.
To apply these concepts of virtual segregation in games, I would approach this by having each player control a character for each GM, but only one character at a time. There could be a higher level character and a lower level character in each player’s portfolio. These two characters under a single player should be related somehow via backstory. The easy option that I’ve seen used is to have all of the characters, regardless of which GM is in charge, be part of a single organization. This allows for the story to center around the organization.
By virtually separating the characters between GMs, this allows for the GM that is now a non-player to not have a character for that group. This resolves issues along the lines of, “But what is Gorgash doing while the rest of the party is out adventuring?” Of course, Gorgash would be the current GM’s character in this question. The GM simply doesn’t have a character in the group when she is running the game.Combining Approaches
As some astute readers have probably realized by now, it would be very easy to shift things physically and temporally in one fell swoop. This is perfectly valid. Feel free to mix and match the various segregation tools at hand to find what works best with your group.Conclusion
I’ve seen all of these approaches used to good effect when changing GMs. I’ve also seen them when the GM needs to or wants to provide a different flavor to the game. I’ve also seen temporal shifts happen when the entire group consisted of elves, and the PCs universally decided to hang out for a decade or two and then jump back into the fray.
One thing to keep in mind is that the world is a living, breathing character as well. Anytime you shift the PCs around, the world is going to shift around them. This doesn’t mean world-shattering changes happen each time, but there will be shifts and subtle changes going on around the group as they move about.
Has anyone out there tried one of these three approaches? How about combining them? I’d love to hear your stories and further advice in this area.
Welcome to the Gnomecast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good. This episode we have John, Senda, and JT talking about Holiday Games.
“I don’t really feel comfortable a lot of the time in LARPs,” a friend confessed after playing my run of The Inheritance, a viking family drama LARP by Luke Crane. “I dunno it’s just like, extra nerdy? Nerdier than tabletop? And there’s costuming? It’s like, harder for me to separate the game from what I’m doing I guess? I don’t know what it is it just feels weirder somehow. I was nervous before I played!”
I nodded along, listening. I’ve actually heard a similar story from lots of people about LARP. Some people are more nervous about “parlor larps” or “emo larps,” games that have emotions, romance, or touching. Some people are nervous about wearing costumes. Others just aren’t really sure what to do when walking around instead of sitting. LARPing has a completely different set of social cues and rules that maybe they’re just not used to.
All of this is completely perplexing to me, since a lot of my entry into gaming was through vampire larps and goth clubs, both places where moving around and costuming ridiculously were a huge part of the fun. I’m also very comfortable at house parties! So when my friends tell me this stuff, my ears perk up with curiosity and I try to learn what makes them so darn nervous about larping. Here are some of the things I’ve found.The Body Problem
Embodiment is something I pay close attention to. I think that being genderqueer, a studier of human behavior, and having an obsession with body modification gives me a bit of an edge sometimes. I like to examine how people embody themselves, how they hold themselves, how they perform gender in their body movements, how they lounge. Embodiment is a huge part of LARPing. The joke is that LARPing is just gaming standing up. That’s true, but some of us are more comfortable in our bodies than others. With a recent diagnosis of fibromyalgia, it’s actually harder for me to sit for many hours than stand and move around in a LARP, so I can empathize.
There’s also the fact that moving your body around brings your mind closer to your character in many ways and that tabletop is more of an abstraction. Do you want to talk to someone? Move over and stand next to them. This simple action can actually cause a brain to believe the fantasy a little more. I’m reminded of the third hand illusion, where a fake hand is put in front of you while your real hand is hidden. After some sensory stimulation, your brain begins to believe the fake hand that you see is so real that you flinch when it’s stabbed. Our body movement is very closely related to our reactions to things, and a LARP can intensify that, even if there’s no simulated sword fights and you’re just moving around a room.Feeeeeelings
I’ve heard that some people have amplified feelings when they’re embodying characters in a LARP. There’s been some discussion about this before from Lizzie Stark and other prominent LARP writers, but a lot of it has to do with Alibi. Alibi is basically the mask that you wear that is your character. You put it on, your character takes actions that are not entirely you, but definitely driven by you. When you’re roleplaying at a table, there’s more abstraction between you and your characters actions. A player might describe these actions, or even just roll for them. In a Larp there is gesturing, dancing, sitting, standing, falling down, etc. So the distance between the player and the character can shrink, therefore leaving less alibi in its place. With less alibi, a player can feel closer to their character.
That closeness can lead to bleed, where a player feels what their character feels. This type of crossover can be as simple as “my character is an outsider, and I feel that way sometimes too and understand it” or as complex as “I just broke up with my boyfriend and so did my character and now I feel extra sad”. This type of bleed can happen in any game, really, but in a Larp where the alibi is much smaller and all the embodiment makes it feel more real this can hit close to home.
Sometimes this is really fun! Other times it can feel super intimidating. It really depends on the people involved and what their preferences are. I love feelings and often play close to home as a kind of experiment with my own feelings about issues in my life. But that’s me. There’s also Larps that play heavier on emotions than others. I’d put Inheritance as a dramatic Larp, but not a feelings-heavy Larp that’s meant to pull on your emotions. So in my experience running this for friends, it helped them get more into a Larp type environment with low emotional bleed risk.Lady Vikings
A neat thing happened in this run of the game was that most of the players were ladies, while the gender of characters were split pretty evenly. This is where many gestures, postures, and gendered movements become highlighted! In Inheritance the gender of the characters needs to stay as it is written because of gender roles in Viking culture and their relevance in the setting of the game (a long house, where women have a lot of social sway). I loved seeing a house full of mostly lady vikings shouting and toasting to Odin, it was a delightful scene I wish could exist in all of our games and viking media.
I love seeing what happens when people embody a different gender, or people who aren’t cis men get to be in leadership roles within the game. It subverts a general dynamic of spaces where cis men typically are in leadership roles, and the space becomes more welcoming for other genders. I definitely recommend doing this in LARPs if at all possible. The space surprisingly transforms from one of unsure nerdery to one of liberating roleplaying.
Overall I think this approach to introducing people to LARPing has been successful! Taking a less emotional game, with clear boundaries, in an all gender welcoming space really helps people experimenting with embodiment within LARPs. Transitioning from ttrpgs to standing up and roleplaying might be weird and new for some people, but I hope to share with more of my friends how much I love it, and how cool it can be to embody a character a little bit more.
What LARPs have you played recently and loved?
Today’s guest article is by Chris Baker, who talks about the role of dreams in gaming. – Never quite awake John
Most of us experience dreams as we sleep, but do your player characters have dreams? A dream can be a pleasant reminder of times past, a previously unexpressed desire or, possibly, an omen or a deeper, more troubling experience. Dreams are an opportunity for a GM to further character development in a “low risk” environment. A dream can be used to give the flavour of an impending encounter – especially if that encounter is one where the party is unprepared or has underestimated the hazard of the situation. A dream can also help a character examine their past or relive an important experience.
They can also be used to foreshadow an impending plot development or, if beneficial, help the players circle back on an item or event that has gone overlooked. The dream does not need to fit the current plot or situation. It could inform that situation, of course, or prepare a player or party for a sense of deja vu. A dream could comfort the afflicted as much as it can afflict the comfortable. A dream can be an encounter or an event (or both).What is a dream?
As dreamers know, there are few rules when it comes to dreams. They need not follow logic or the classical unities of time, space and character. In fact, most dreams have a tinge of the unreal while being very immediate and compelling.
Despite the unlimited possibilities, a GM should be mindful that dreams are often fast paced and brief, even if they contain many scenes. There is no need for a supporting logic – you can skip from the youthful sunny day in the backyard to confronting a nameless terror as an older version of the character.
Personally, I would avoid the “you die in your sleep, you die in real life” conundrum. Your players may have that belief, which may heighten the stakes for them, but I would not recommend that you actually follow that rule. Likewise, damage taken in a dream state should not be imposed on the character. There are exceptions, such as the dream being a malicious manifestation of an enemy, but dreams should likely be a safe space for everyone, including the GM.The Dream Itself
As GM, you control all the variables within the dream. The character (or characters) can be fully-equipped, partially-equipped or not equipped at all. They can be dressed for a social situation or clinging to a blanket (or shrubbery) for modesty’s sake. Their favoured weapon may be stuck in a scabbard or completely discharged. They may even be attending their own funeral.
As a GM, you should consider the use of the dream as part of the individual or group story arc. This may help you to reinforce a plot point or foreshadow a new arrival. There is no reason why a party cannot share a dream – especially if that dream is a “sending” by another creature, a patron or other “interested observer.”
Dreams can also be interrupted. For example, Samuel Coleridge was dreaming his great poem Xanadu when he was interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Imagine a situation where a character (or characters) are about to learn a key piece of information when they are woken by the housekeeping staff bringing fresh towels.“We are the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Dreams can be a powerful tool for a GM. They can help course-correct a party in a more gentle fashion than the old railroad. They can offer insight into a character or situation. Dreams are also mysterious and can fit into almost any RPG scenario.
One final caution. The television series Dallas wrote off two seasons of their show as “a dream” by one of the principle characters. While this might be an inventive way to reboot a stale campaign – taking the characters back to an earlier “fork in the road” – it did not save the show.
Have you used dreams in your games? How did you handle dream logic vs game rules? What did doing dream sequences add to the game?
We all develop outlooks and philosophies that guide us through life, explaining how the world is supposed to work. This can feed into how we interact with a game world in an RPG, even when we’re playing characters vastly different from ourselves. So what happens when we run into a scenario where the GM and the player are on completely different pages about how the world works?
Especially when those opposing world views create a disconnect in what the player is trying to achieve and what the GM thinks should happen.I imagine you’re looking at me with a quizzical look thinking, “Well, the GM is defining the world, so suck it up, Ang.” It’s not always that easy, though. Especially when those opposing world views create a disconnect in what the player is trying to achieve and what the GM thinks should happen.
To clarify a little further, let me give you this example. A friend recently ran a one shot that was essentially Survivor in Hell. The premise of the game was that Satan plucked the PCs from Purgatory to offer them a chance to win their soul back. It was a fun game and concept, but I had to keep taking a step back from my personal outlook and beliefs on the nature of heaven and hell. Otherwise, I would have ended up spending the entire game arguing against the very precepts the game was built on.
Of the twelve PCs available to be played, pretty much all of them had been tricked into selling their souls: a phone number and name exchanged on a cocktail napkin, an NDA for an experimental medical procedure, a receipt for a case of beer, a EULA for a dating website, etc. On top of that, most of the PCs didn’t actually get to experience the benefit of the sale of their soul either. There was some other Devilish trickery throughout the contest, but I wno’t go into that because it’s a game that might get run again and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
Either way, my personal beliefs pretty much reject the concept of Heaven and Hell. I’m not particularly religious, but the idea of absolutes like that always rubbed me the wrong way. That’s not how the world works, so why would the ‘end’ be so cut and dry? If I had designed the scenario, there probably would have been a little more give in the absolute nature of Satan’s deal with each contestant. I wasn’t running the game, though, so I had to work within the constraints the GM put forth, even if it went against how I think the world should work.
Not every disconnect between a GM and player worldview is going to be quite so religiously philosophical. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the player thinking, “This should totally work and solve the problem.” and the GM deciding that it doesn’t stand a chance of working.
Recently, I had the chance to try my hand at running a Tales for the Loop one-shot. For those who haven’t seen it, Tales is a game of playing kids in the ‘80’s that never were’. The game aims for a very specific feel, so they provide a very clear set of principles for running and playing the game. I made sure to clearly state these for my players at the beginning of the game:
Your home town is full of strange and fantastic things.
- Everyday life is dull and unforgiving.
- Adults are out of reach and out of touch.
- The land of the Loop is dangerous but Kids will not die.
- The game is played scene by scene.
- The world is described collaboratively.
Take special note of number three. One of the players either forgot this or didn’t take it to heart. As the kids discovered who was behind the bad things that were happening, his solution to make the problem go away was to call his mom, a scientist at the Loop, and have her tell security. This player happened to be a fairly dominant player, so his declaration that this would solve the problem made the other players back down on doing anything else.
Knowing this wasn’t how the game worked, I mentioned the principles again to remind them of how the game world is supposed to work. Using real-world logic instead of game logic, he continued to argue that his solution would work regardless of what I was saying. Eventually this devolved into a minor argument where I finally had to bluntly state, “Your solution will not work because of the nature of the game and if you kids do not act further on this information, <NPCs in the game> will end up dead.”
Now, many GMs would have probably just gone ahead with the player’s plan and let them discover the error of their ways the hard way, letting the NPCs die from the players’ inaction. Part of me wonders if I should have done that, but one of the other players was already emotionally invested in one of those NPCs and other aspects of the game, so the death of those characters could have crossed an emotional line she wasn’t prepared for. While it was in keeping with what the dominant player was demanding, I wasn’t willing to potentially hurt another player simply to teach him a lesson in the way the game’s world is supposed to work.
So, what do you do when there’s a disconnect between what the player and GM think should happen?
For the player, remember that the GM is the final arbiter of what happens in the game. It can be really frustrating when what you’re expecting to happen is veering off in a direction you don’t think is reasonable, but the GM is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this game. You can definitely try and explain what you were expecting to happen, but don’t let it devolve into an argument that’s going to derail the game. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a deep breath and take a step back from your own point of view. Relax and try and enjoy the rest of the game. Ultimately, if the disconnect is too great, find a different GM to game with. Or, take a turn running a game yourself so you can see how it works from their perspective.
For the GM, having a player on a completely different page from you can be really frustrating, but that is part of the job of being a GM. When you come face to face with one of these disconnects and a player is obviously expecting something different to happen that what you’re narrating, take a moment and try and figure out what the player expected or what they intended with their action. Some players will take elaborate effort to describe an action and be confused when the result is obviously not what they wanted. Taking the time to parse what they intend can help bridge this gap.
These type of little disconnects happen all the time in tiny ways, but we gamers navigate through them easily. When they’re big, though, it can take a little bit of communication and compromise to keep the game moving forward.
Have you ever run into a clash of world views in one of your games? I’d be interested to hear how it worked out.
Several years ago while I was working on my fundamentals before I started my stat degree, I took a creative writing class as an elective*. For one of the assignments, the professor had a local poet visit and speak to us about his craft. I remember his readings being very interesting despite the fact that I’m not really a poetry guy, so I wish I also remembered his name so I could link him here. However, one of the things he said during his question/answer session came back to me recently and it struck me how important it is to my own, and I suspect many people’s, creative process. Asked to comment about his choice to use various structures of poetry, he said something akin to (and this is me paraphrasing from memory, not an exact quote):
“I know a lot of people like writing in free verse because it’s easier than having to deal with all the rules of for example, iambic pentameter, but to me the reverse is true. I like choosing a structure and a subject and then knowing exactly how I have to write my poem to fit the structure. It allows me to focus on less things. I actually find writing in free verse harder because there are so many more things to consider.”
It’s pretty obvious that what he was talking about is the concept of option paralysis: having so many options that you find yourself unable to make a choice. The other night when I remembered this, I suddenly realized that this is the fundamental conflict I’ve been trying to deal with for years. I’ve written articles about templates, articles about how-to guides, articles about random generation tables, articles about limiting your prep, all in service of making creativity easier by adding constraints. Heck, it even helps explain the article I wrote a few years back about how I love minecraft but hate drawing maps. In construction games your crafting list sits right there on screen like a checklist. Have you made a library? You can build bookshelves and an enchanting table, so you probably need one. Have you made a bathroom? Well, you can’t construct a toilet and you don’t poop, so you probably don’t need one.** In addition, the limited blockset and game physics are both constraints that make construction choices, if not simple, at least limited.
This also explains some of the complaints I have about certain, to be unnamed, RPGs that have endless book after book of race options and endless books of class options. Ironically, several pages of point buy system provides more options than 10 books of races and classes, but causes less option paralysis because everything you can choose is in one central location and follows a simple formula. (It also doesn’t sell dozens of system bloating, unnecessary, expensive books though, so I know why publishers might choose the books over the purchase point system.)
It also explains, for those of us who are old enough to remember 1e and Basic, why the time it takes to do anything with RPGs has ballooned. Not only have the options for each component in your system increased but so have the types of challenges, the play styles, the genres, etc . . .
If you’re unsure that addition of constraints makes creativity easier: Make an adventure using the following constraints – Use one of the 9 forms of the 5 room dungeon. Your rooms are only allowed to be 20’x30′ rectangles or 30′ diameter circles. Your enemies are 3 types of orcs or orc allies and you get one trap. It does damage and adds a status effect. Go. Takes like, 5 minutes, at most, right? Of course everyone who participated has results that look similar, but each is going to be different. There are still nominally 288 dungeon layouts before you flavor it up, you still have dozens of types of orcs and orc allies (warriors, archers, scrubs, shamans, goblins, worgs, bugbears, ogres etc . . .), and dozens of types of traps (darts with slow poison, falling rocks that create difficult terrain, barbed nets, etc . . .) that meet the criteria. In addition, this is just a factor of the chosen constraints. If I had said: Make a village of 5 small buildings populated by were-cats and their animal spies with one hidden dark shrine, it would take the same 5 minutes but be completely different.
So what’s the takeaway? How does this help us? Simple: If you’re staring down a blank sheet of paper at a loss***, start writing constraints on it until you have something manageable enough that allows your creativity to just flow out of your pen (or screen and keyboard – whatever, you get it.) Remember that while it may seem limiting to add constraints, all you’re doing is pre-selecting large swaths of choices to NOT use, and you can constrain differently next time. Here are some easy constraints to add:
- Large scale
- Books: For the love of god, constrain books. Don’t go digging through 50 books to find your monster of the week. Don’t hit the internet and dig through a million character builds for your NPCs. Just pick a few books (I’m a fan of just using the core necessary ones) and use only what’s in there.
- Genre: This is often implied by system, but especially if it isn’t, pick a genre. Even if it is specified by system, you can usually narrow it down a bit. This often greatly constrains your options.
- Gygaxian Unnaturalism: Pick a reason for Gygaxian Unnaturalism and run with it. Say goodbye to worrying about what monsters eat, why they poop and if they can be reformed (they can’t).
- Books again: Lots of systems have monster book after monster book. They’re quick cash-ins. But you don’t need more than the base one. When was the last time you used most of the monsters in the core monster book anyway?
- Choose a handful: Back in 2009, Martin wrote an article about the Decamer (roughly: ten turds) Campaign. In this concept, your campaign contains only ten monsters total. You don’t have to pick ten awful ones, but constraining yourself in this way makes picking monsters pretty easy.
- Generators: Pick a random generator for NPC name, race, class, personality etc. Stick with it.
- Templates: Alternately, pick a template you like and stick with that instead.
- Monsters: Need an NPC in combat, reskin a similar monster from the one monster book you allowed yourself. Done.
- Generators: Find an online map generator. Run it and run with it.
- 5 Rooms: As linked earlier, there are only 9 (or 3 depending on how you count) forms of the 5 room dungeon. Grab and go.
- Geomorphs: Plenty of geomorph sets are available. Pick one and use it exclusively.
- Symbol sets: Pick a symbol set and only use it. For dungeon maps, you may want to also restrict yourself to a handful of room sizes/types.
* Only sorta, but the full story isn’t relevant here.
*** In a recent blog article on scope and scale, The Angry GM called facing a blank piece of paper “the most powerful, most insurmountable obstacle in the entirety of GM-ing-dom”