Ways to Break a [Con] Game (link roundup – 1)

This is kind of a very quick, unscientific, and non-exhaustive link round-up to other resources I’ve been reading (some just since I started the series) on Convention GMing. Reading more on it underlines that my convention gaming has been very focused – I don’t do anything with the larger, broaded RPG conventions locally, and it is pretty oriented towards the convention style where you submit that you want to run and don’t have to submit the actual scenario, and all those other differences.

The next series on the blog is about five amazing games I’ve been fortunate enough to be a player in, and what I learned from them.

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Ways to Break a [Con] Game (part five)

Lesson Five: Sorry, Honey, I’m not in the mood.

I can use this excuse for a weeknight game. (You know, curled up under the covers, and we look at each other and one of us says, “Let’s grab the dice,” and the other says, “I’ve got the character sheets!” Yeah, um, don’t judge me.) I’m not likely to say – even if I have a headache, there’s very few things I like more than gaming. (Even when I know better and stay up way, way too late…)

You can’t use this at a Convention. If you’re obligated to run, you’re running. (With the exception of having to get your gall bladder out… or similar. 1) So how do you get into the mood in a hurry?

Well, if you’re following these rules, hopefully you’re a step ahead. You’re going to want to get into the immersion of the game like you’re peeling away its skin and diving into its pool of tortured metaphors.2 Really, the best way, maybe the only way, is collaboration.

To take the example of the undercover game,3 I know how to click into collaboration with the LintKing pretty darn quick. Which isn’t to say we’re never out of synchronization, but if you’re walking into a Convention game, you may not know, or heck, even like all the players. Getting that intimacy with someone you find slimy (mentally, physically, ethically) is trouble.

So make the players work for it.

Your job is to be flexible, to help out when aspects are confusing (a rephrase of Rule Three), and use the feedback you’re getting to help the PCs achieve their goals. You are not there to be the sole entertainment.

That’s kind of three other lessons at once, so with that, here are some tricks I use to get back into the mood:

  • I get into the head of an NPC.

    • I try to have at least two traits for an NPC – one “presentation” trait (a way of talking, or expressing themselves physically that will keep them straight for the players) and one “internal” trait (relating to their role in the story – are they sadistic? Are they immature?)

    • (I always think of Peter Jurasik as Londo saying, “Mr. Garibaldi!” right here.)

  • Take that “ugh” feeling and decide to really ramp it up.

    • “Okay, guys, I’m in a bad mood so I’m going to try to kill you all tonight. I know the game said this was light comedy with a striping of marzipan, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to paint the red stripes of my peppermint candy with blood.”

    • (Everything is better with hyperbole.)

  • Try to break the mood with laughter.

    • Encourage everyone at the table to start out the game by telling the most ridiculous jokes they’ve heard, especially if they know the one about the polar bear.

    • (Caution, you might want to put some limits on this…)

  • Change the scenery.

    • Get up and move around. I am better GMing when I can get up and walk (and think!) a little more than stuck behind a table.

    • (Change how people are arranged – sit on the table. Swing your chair around. When you have limited space/mobility be creative.)

  • Don’t forget your chemistry.

    • Some people like to keep a little piece of (dark) chocolate around for this very reason.

    • (I sometimes promise myself a nap later.)

Really, what you’re looking to do is to get your mind into a place more receptive to start the game. Sometimes all it needs is a little push.

1 Some of my best games have been run under the influence of tramadol. At least, I think so.

2 No, wait, that’s how I’m writing this particular post…

3 You’re all a bunch of perverts. I refuse to believe in ben-wa dice.

Ways to Break a [Con] Game (part four)

Lesson Four: Say, “Yes.”

This is a basic GMing rule anyway, but feel comfortable saying, “Yes,” to your players. If your scenario goals rely on your players NOT being able to do things, your scenario is probably broken.

Someday, I will learn this lesson. I had a pretty good scenario going with a game a couple years ago, and there I was… the player wanted to do something, and I said, “Um, you can’t.” Now, canonical game mythology and rules were with me… in fact, it was one of the base details of the game’s premise. There were several other methods she could have used to follow the NPC speeding away, but that wasn’t one of them.

And it killed the scenario.

I mean, I had other players backing me up, but it was a sour note that poisoned the symphony. I didn’t quite yell, “Go into any other game on the floor and ask them if you can do this, and they’ll shout, `NO!'” but I was filled with the irrational impulse to do so, which somewhat killed my mood, and just re-iterated my feeling that since I had to say, “No,” I had failed the player, too.

There’s a rule in the Amber RPG1 that basically says, “The only reason a character fails is if there’s someone stopping them.” For a worldview where you can manipulate probabilty to ridiculous degrees2, there really does need to be a face behind the mask of the locked door. The universe rarely says, “No,” so if you get a, “No,” it needs to be personal.

That above situation? Amber game. And if the player got a, “No,” they should have been asking, “Who is this person who is fighting me on this?”

It should never be the GM. I’ve been lucky, but I know of many a game where the “game” is the confrontation between GameMaster and player wits.3 Don’t get me wrong, I love being right (especially about puzzles) but I don’t like the conflict and stress and, finally, utter uselessness of fighting a GM. The GM will always win. I want to be the GM who shares the excitement of the players’ “winning.”

The LintKing loves Earthdawn. Sure, I will run it, which isn’t the point of contention between us. The reason I’m not running it is that I say, “No,” to a couple of pieces of the game. One of which is a whole player race. (Windlings.) I think that I have a great reason, which is that I don’t really want to have to consider the z-axis. They can fly.4 In a game of traps and puzzles in dungeons, that’s a bit of a deal-breaker for me. Doesn’t matter that they can’t fly all that well – it still means I have to do extra work to find traps that simply having a gnat as a familiar won’t break. (OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but still…)

And that’s definitely the wrong attitude to have. Not that I’m expecting the LintKing to just whip out a windling nethermancer from the Blood Wood with a Horror familiar as a character5, but why am I worried that the puzzles will be too easy? Didn’t I learn Lesson #3? Because really, when you think they’re easy, the players generally step in their own way long enough to make it a reasonable challenge.6

Now, it doesn’t mean, “Allow your principles to be broken.” I have said, “Yes,” to character concepts and ideas that really have broken some of the ideas behind a game, and I regret it. A well spoken, “No,” is a powerful tool. A spoken “No,” in haste or in just, “I don’t want to have to deal with this now,” however, is (like the others in this series) a Con Game Breaker.

1 It’s diceless, not rule-less.

2 Moreso in the game than the books, so I try to strike a bit of a balance.

3 My dad got me a button saying that I, as GM, had more hit points than the players could imagine. Dad was old school, and I was raised old school, but I never wore it because I didn’t approve of the sentiment.

4 The fact that their base racial personality is that of many small opportunistic creatures doesn’t help their case.

5 Except he totally would. And the Horror would be in an obsidiman body.

6 We’ve had discussions about the characters of NCIS as a dungeon-crawling team, and I’ve explained the reason we don’t do things like that is because they simply demolish the dungeons. (What a smart group does in part, anyway.)

Ways to Break a [Con] Game (part three)

Lesson Three: Don’t make it too complex.

While every player I have spoken to has assured me that they love backstory… more than 75% of them have said they just didn’t have a chance to read it or get involved in it before the Convention.

Get your games in ASAP. That means your gamebook wrasslers can schedule people and you have time to set up those pre-game mailing lists and such.1 The longer you wait, the longer everyone waits.

And if you don’t think you have a solid game, at least send in the basic descriptions. You can develop more later, but at least you’ve blocked it out. You know you’re running something based on Tam Lin on Friday between 1pm and 5pm. Characters are all minstrels. Dueling lyres… sounds like a Munchausen game. Hmmm. [scribbles note]

Bullet points, diagram of relationships, and a lot of room to go the direction the players are taking it will serve you much better than obscure hints and subtlety. Really, there’s nothing better than a paper saying, “You hate [X] because of [Y].” The game can often write itself from there.2

I’m a concept girl. I insinuate. I evoke. You can use this method, too – let the players figure out what’s meant, as long as you push it hard at the end. And some people are clever – they’ll get it. (I handed [name redacted] an actual logic puzzle at one point to find out, from a maze of trading stamps, where the package of zombie virus came from in a game.) But basing the whole game on a line from an obscure folktale?

Don’t do it.3

This goes back to the “listen to your players” rules. Your plot is disposable. As players, we are going to look at the bones, hit them once with a stick, then ride off. Nevermind what crazy stuff you had planned. (You know, to this day, I have no idea what the GM wanted to have happen at That Place, With The Bones, only that we disappointed him.) While I’m the kind of GM who used to practically write a module for each adventure, I’ve finally realized that I don’t need quite that much preparation. If they talk to Z, they can find out what W is doing. W can also inform them, especially if they go north instead of east and catch W in the act. I planted the gun in the scene so they could find it, but if they don’t, it can still go off… if I need a gun anymore.

But it’s thirty minutes until end of game, and I need to be wrapping things up to have the big confrontation… no time to introduce the cognac golem4. I’ll save that for another game sometime.

1 Yes, we’re happy to host temporary {pre-con} mailing lists off of SSS.N or other domains if you ask. If you need more permanent hosting, talk to us, too!

2 Just be sure to let X know that they did Y. Otherwise, you are at risk for fail.

3 I speak from experience.

4 I don’t even know what one of those would be.

Ways to Break a [Con] Game (part two)

I learned a bad habit at ACNWs past, which was, “Writing notes takes too long.” Yes, they do. Absolutely, they do.

Lesson Two: Don’t step outside.

This is something I picked up at ACNW. I am a huge note-writing GM, and the first time I was taken outside the game to have a talk, I thought how convenient this was instead of my having a whole ‘nother game in handwritten text.

I have been in a lot of games where it just has seemed more convenient to tell the player something (even in character creation) in an aside away from the other players. As technology gets more convenient with gaming, I expect this will become less of a problem, ’cause I’ll be able to e-mail/text the person next to me and BCC: the person with the invisible guardian who is listening in… but right now, one of the ways to break a convention game is for the GM to step outside.

If you’re taking a player outside to give them some secret information, unless you’ve called a short break time, that’s time your other players aren’t playing. They’re still involved in the game, and are instead of going into some kind of stasis, they’re collaborating on how to break your plot.

Really, that’s what they do. That is time for them to collaborate on all the secrets you’ve revealed. Which is great, if you can take that opportunity to listen and anticipate as to where you want to delight and frustrate them, but not so much if you’ve got either a more antagonistic game or one hinging on them remaining a little less apt.1

I have found that if I have strange oracles, or planned “dream sequences,” I should write ’em out beforehand. (And many of my players have had some interesting (often rhyming) prose given to them in longhand that I should have had done in advance. My handwriting is fairly legible, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.)

There’s an important corollary to this, and it’s about secrets.

The LintKing and I used to joke that in an Amber game, you’d have kept a secret for 200 years, and all of a sudden, at THIS banquet, you’d let it out like keeping it in was going to make your internal organs burst.2

The funny part of that is that it took me so long to realize that that was exactly the point.3

Get your character prep done as far in advance as you can. While you get some one-on-one time with the player, you’re breaking the implied gestalt and knocking things off balance… and just because I thought it hilarious catching the player who went poking around my notes doesn’t mean you will find it so. There’s a lot to say about the adage that rolling your dice in front of the players only gets them more involved. How much of GMing is in the trust proposition, anyway?

1 This, of course, begs the question, but I recently ran a beginner’s Throne War, and while I used the conversation I overheard from the kitchen as an opportunity to make sure we weren’t wasting time on my ideas and instead using the ones they came up with, if I’d actually been “outside” we could have spent 3 more hours on red herrings. I don’t do red herring games anymore. (I like sandbox games – conventions are generally not the place for that.).

2 Why, yes, I have been reading Courtney Crumrin to the kids.

3 The LintKing did mention that sometimes secrets are built into backstory in order to give the GM good places to plant his or her hooks. I refute that with a, “Characters already look like beef cut diagrams4 to GMs, anyway.”

4 Thanks to D. Knippling for finding the term. That’s apparently that poster you see at the butcher’s with the little “cut here” notations and the labels for the portion’s name.

Ways to Break a [Con] Game (part one)

Lesson One: Don’t take on more players than you can handle.

I had an update to my “What I’ve Learned from GMing at ACNW” as I was going to revisit it 4 and a half years later, but then I thought, “Hey, it’s time to get some new content moving,” as there’s more to life than writing Portal Doctor and English Composition, right?

Lesson One: Don’t take on more players than you can handle.

Even if you break it down evenly as a matter of time, four hours (a usual con slot) (240 minutes) and six players (divide by) is only 40 minutes a player on average. That’s a heck of a lot of time in gaming “headspace,” but that’s also three hours and twenty minutes of reduced attention. If you’re looking at four players, that gets up to sixty minutes, but you’re not going to be giving everyone even attention.

Too many players in a con game means the ones that shout the loudest (or act most intensely) get the attention. The squeaky wheel gets greased. In a longer term campaign you can usually count this as problem behaviour and attend to it appropriately, but the first axis of “too many players” simply amounts to players not having enough to do while you’re working with someone else.1

I wouldn’t beat yourself up about this, but it’s important to make sure everyone’s active at some level. While I know you don’t always want them to go off and have scenes with each other that may get ahead of your timing and outside the scope of normal events (up to the point they’re making blueberry battle scones and planning on wearing old bathrobes to the fields of war) there are a lot of techniques you can use to keep them focused that don’t require you having to keep throwing puzzles at them to solve. Give them NPC roles.2 Find plausible ways to get their characters back into the room. Allow them to pull an InSpectres-style “confessional” to change things up. There are a lot of good options, depending on your game.3

And in a con game, not every player is going to be “in-game” at the same level. It’s late at night, or early in the morning, some people have decided to observe no matter what opportunities you’ve given them to be involved… there’s a lot of things that aren’t under your control.

There’s a note that too few characters can be a problem. I tried to run through a game with two players that needed four, and I very much was wrong to do so. [I should have immediately said, “Let’s find out if you can join another game.”] You can craft a game to an intimate audience, sure, but it needs to be designed that way, and it needs the full buy-in of the players as well as the system. I can imagine doing that kind of game on the schedule (besides the games run after-hours in my hotel room) but some ideas don’t scale down well enough. For example, my LARPs usually require about 13-14 people minimum to get the right combination of conflicts happening. (I plan LARPs on a large scale.)

This doesn’t include NPCs. (That rule of thumb might just be to get rid of them – you don’t need ’em. The game’s about the PCs, right?) They only need to be in the scene if they’re moving the game forward. How do they do that? You should know the three main things: their motivation, their information, and their connection to the PCs. Everything else is bonus that may or may not get used.

1 See part two, “Leaving the room.”

2 Locally, I learned a heck of a lot from watching Tim White handle this in a couple of games we were in together. It taught me a lot of techniques I wouldn’t spring on another GM, but I’d absolutely ask players to do for me.

3 There are lots of articles written on this – I’m not going to be able to cover them all.

The Goldilocks Zone

At what point does it become railroading?

[I think I’ll call my next kids fairytale campaign that…]

I need rules. I’m terrible that way. Here I am, playing in the Diceless games and knowing, deep in my heart, that I’m a wargamer. It’s one of those situations where I have to go into a meta-level for strategy and even then, story has the power to trump it.

(“No, really, this would totally break their morale.”

“Mm-hmm. How many weasels do you think you can gather in an hour, anyway?”)

I’ve had my rants about players bringing their buy-in to the table. (I think that’s a very mixed metaphor, but I bet you know what I mean.) I am not asking them to meet me half-way. I’m not even asking them to take more than a step in my general direction…

…but maybe I should. A game I ran this last weekend could have been a very serious game that was boistered by the sillies, but the difference between “boistered” and “marred” was the buy-in of another player who maybe shouldn’t have had to make the choice.

I want to know the exact coordinates of the Goldilocks Zone.

  • At what point, what phrase, what statement does it become railroading and not just moving the plot along?

  • How much can you say, “No,” and make it still entertaining and appropriate for your players?

  • When do you set boundaries and where?

I’ve created a new Category for such meanderings.