Saturday, January 25, 2020

How to run an RPG IV: Railroads vs Sandboxes

So, we know that we need to run games, so we want to get to it.  We have a rough idea of what we want, and we have at least a foundation for putting together a group and getting them to show up.  You might even have a session scheduled already.  Okay.  So, where do we start?

Well, now we start diving into the deep wells of what people classically think of when running a game, and I wanted to start off by talking about the two most commons structures for a game. If you've moved around in RPG circles for awhile, you've doubtlessly heard of them and might even have opinions on which is better: "railroads" vs "sandboxes." I'm going to tell you what I think in brief, and then we'll dive into what I mean.

In short:

  • Sandboxes are better than rails
  • But it's not really a choice between one or the other; you'll really need to understand both and to realize that it's more of a sliding continuum.
  • As a beginner, you should focus on learning and mastering rails; sandboxes will begin to come naturally to you as you become more experienced.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Musings on Mooks and GURPS Combat Encounters

As I work my way through the session planning for Tall Tales of the Orochi Belt, I find myself pondering combat encounters, and how GURPS tends to handle them.  How exactly should I stat up my minions in GURPS? And how can I transmit that to you in a way that helps you put together interesting sessions?

I've been diving through a few books to see how best to handle encounters in GURPS, in particular the Campaign Framework books, which put the most effort to actually translating the GURPS rules into something you can use in a game, and thus actually have bad guys.  Of course, all four handle opponents in very different ways, but I also find all four surprisingly lacking.  If I could criticize GURPS for one thing, it would be its tendency to demand detail in areas that really don't matter, and to provide precious little detail in areas that do.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

How to Run a Game III: Organizing the Session

Now that you know you need to run a game to learn to run games, and that you have a vague idea of what to do, we need to organize the session. Now, you're doubtless thinking: "But Mailanka, I don't know what I'm actually going to run? All these other things talk about realistic NPCs depiction, or fair combat encounters, or character growth speeds, or fair rewards! Why aren't we talking about that?"  Well, first, I said this would be a long series.  But second, this is sort of like that meme where you've got students asking how to do their taxes or buy a home while teachers insist on reciting banal historical facts or mathematical equations: you need to understand the fundamentals of how to get your game running before you worry about what you're going to actually run.  If all you get from my series is how to put together an event and successfully do so, you're already leaps and bounds ahead of people who have mastered the monomyth, the three act structure and realistic dialogue but are unable to get people to show up to their house. It is better to be able to put together an event that brings people together to have a nice time chatting than it is to write the perfect story that nobody ever experiences.

I want you to mentally set aside RPGs for a moment, and focus on a tea party, not because I'm super into tea and crumpets, but because whatever works for organizing a tea party (or a dance or a night out bowling) will work for an RPG; the only real difference is the subject matter of the event, the reason for the event, but not all the organizing around it.  The reason I want you to think about this like a tea party is because I want you to be able to abstract any planning experience you have for other things and realize that it applies to planning an RPG as well.

Let's keep it simple and focus on the basics, like:

  • People
  • Space
  • Time
  • Mood
  • Your purpose


Saturday, January 11, 2020

How to Run Games II: Seek Inspiration

On the assumption that you guys liked last week's article, here's a continuation of the series.  We talked last week about seeking experience, about learning to run games by running them, but now we're stuck.  If the best way to learn games is to run them, then we have to run them. You've got the book in your hands and the group has agreed to your time slot. Now what? What do you even run?

I find that once you've realized that you have to run even a bad game and you've cleared the hurdle of your own fear of failure, the next problem is knowing what to actually do.  You might accept that your first game will suck, but it doesn't help you because you don't even know what to do for your first game.  So how do we get past that?

We need to cultivate inspiration.  People will tell you that inspiration strikes "like a bolt from the blue," that it just happens and there's nothing you can do to make it happen. That might be true, but there are things you can do to facilitate it happening, and to take greater advantage of it when it does happen.  There are also things you can do to force your gears to turn when inspiration won't strike.

Seeking Inspiration

The best way to find inspiration is to invite inspiration.  We tend to find inspiration in music, art and interesting stories, so the best thing you can do is cultivate those things and surround yourself with them.  

Art is a great source of inspiration.  I used to save lovely works from deviant art to my computer, but Pinterest is probably your best tool for this job.  I recommend creating a board with images that inspire you, especially for a specific setting or concept.  For example, I have a Psi-Wars board, sub-divided by aliens and robots and spaceships and planetscapes, etc. Not only does this give you one place you can go and look at when you need inspiration, but it's a great way to help you formalize your thoughts on a particular visual element, especially since pinterest has this handy way of suggesting more art for a particular topic, or linking to images other people who saved this particular image also tend to save.

I personally find a lot of inspiration in music, and I imagine you do too.  Try to construct playlists of particular works that inspire you when thinking of a particular setting or campaign.  I tend to favor more ambient, low-key music, so it doesn't distract me as I work, but it allows me to immerse myself in the "auditory world" of a particular setting, which often brings my thoughts back to the work I seek inspiration on.  I also find film or video game soundtracks work great.  They tend to be especially cinematic and engrossing, but aren't meant to dominate your attention the way more lyrical music is meant to.

Finally, you will output what you consume.  If you want to get ideas on a particular topic, go consume media associated with that. Do you want to design a Star Wars campaign? Go play some Star Wars video games, or go watch Star Wars, or read some Star Wars comics or read some Star Wars books.  Branch out into space-opera-like books and video games and TV shows. Watch something completely unrelated but that's good and speaks to you.

If you surround yourself with neat things that make you think, it becomes much easier for something to leap out at you and suggest itself for your campaign or your NPC or whatever.

Catching Inspiration

Inspiration might strike at any moment, but if you're unprepared to "catch" that inspiration, it might flit away.  A lot of people recommend "Dream journals," but let me recommend "journals" in general.  Consider carrying around a notebook with you. Perhaps you'll see a pretty girl or a nice sunset, or a haunting bit of urban decay, or someone will mention something that fires your imagination: whip out your notebook and write it down.  Alternatively, if you have a smart phone, take a photo of it, or make a quick, auditory note.  You'll often see writers doing this, and that's why.

Consider also cultivating some friends that don't mind when you jabber on about something. If you've seen a good movie or read a good book or seen something interesting that's fired you up, talk about it.  Our minds strongly relate verbalizing with thinking, and so when we talk about something, we tend to subconsciously analyze it.  If you ask someone what they thought, say, of a movie, the first response I often get is that they're not sure, they have to stop and think about it, and after they've thought about it, they can articulate it, and once they start to articulate it, then they start to get very fired up about it.  Some people do all of this automatically and come out of a film pissed off or deliriously happy, but often, it's only after people stop and think about a film that they really reach these heady heights, and talking about that facilitates it.  Thinking about something is a good way of writing it down into your memory.

Forcing Inspiration

So, deadline time, you've done all of that, it's helped, but now you need to have something now, and your campaign isn't materializing out of the void, fully formed.  What do you do?

Use Creativity Tools

You're not the first person to have this problem, not by a longshot, so people have been compiling things to help you for literally ages.  RPGs come with pre-written adventures and loads of explicit story hooks.  Websites like Behind the Name will help you come up with names for your characters, as will Random Name Generators. Story cards (like those from Once Upon a Time, but there are loads of others), collections of "archetypal plots" or "archetypal characters" and sites like TV Tropes can all serve in providing ideas and connections that you can use to lay down the basic foundations for what you're trying to do.

Brainstorm

I've heard this called various things, like "mind mapping" or "rubber ducking" etc, but the idea is always the same: just start writing ideas down. Nothing is too stupid or too wrong to write.  The point is to trigger that verbalizing part of your brain and to initiate a conversation with yourself so you start to articulate what you already know.  Your mind is like a network, and you just need to illuminate the connections that you already know are there. Just write the obvious thing and then the next obvious thing and so on, until you've got everything churning and you have a much better idea of what to do.  You'll usually get to a point where small little phrases aren't enough and you start writing an outline or start trying to explain your thoughts more fully, and this point you know your creativity is fully charged and you can get to work.

You can do this with people too.  Other people often have different ideas, different perspectives and different things that are obvious to them.  If you do this as an exchange, it can often get very heated, because both sides get very inspired. If you're working as a team, you'll need to bring the two visions together, but if not, you're under no obligation to take on the ideas your sparring partner has.  His purpose, for you, is to help fire you up, so if you realize you want to run A and he likes B better, that's fine, he can run B, but you're running A.  This, by the way, is one reason that if you're going to spar with someone like this, you shouldn't do it with one of your players; they may well be left thinking "Yeah, but B would have been better."  You want to introduce A to them whole-cloth.

Steal like an Artist

You'll often see me reference this, but it's true.  Most people don't conjure a song wholecloth, or have a novel spring fully formed from their brow.  They borrow from existing works, and start tweaking it, or use it as a basic framework for their broader idea.  

Say you've done the above, and you've been struck by this image of urban decay, and you have this jazz soundtrack and you have this neat idea for an urban fantasy wainscott idea about jazz and monsters; you can even see what one of the major characters looks like.  Okay, now what? Is there a story fairly close to your idea? Like the Get Down or Stranger Things or, heck, Supernatural or Constantine or the works of Tim Powers? Borrow one of those and use it as your template.  Where you don't know a detail, fill it in with a detail from one of those works.

The point here isn't necessarily to completely imitate a story, though that's fine if it's the best you can come up with; that's at least a starting point. If you can, see if you can borrow and blend from multiple sources to create something that feels wholly original with you.  Or, see if you can build everything on your own, but what you can't do, fall back on your borrowed inspiration to fill in the gaps.

"Stealing like an artist" is also a reason to cultivate a broad library of resources. If you've watched a lot of movies, played a lot of games, read a lot of books, and gone through a lot of adventures, and you can remember them, then you have an entire library of material from which to casually steal from.  This goes back to the experience post, and my suggestion of "read more stuff."

A Worked Psi-Wars Example

Back in last week's post, I relayed a story about how I was able to conjure up a story in 15 minutes for a girl who couldn't think of a story at all. I chalked it up to experience, but this is a more concrete example of how I'm able to come up with inspiration so quickly: I've learned to cultivate inspiration, and steal from existing ideas when I've run out of ideas.

So, let's say I need a campaign idea for Psi-wars toot sweet. What can I do?  Well, I can look at the setting itself, and I can look at things I've seen recently that I like.  One thing I just finished watching was Netflix's Witcher

Psi-Wars isn't fantasy, but... it's space opera, so I could borrow these ideas.  We could have some sort of "Bounty Hunter" that hunts "monsters."  That would fit in Psi-Wars pretty nicely.  If we want it to have a nice fantasy feel, we could set it in the Umbral Rim. It tends to have mixture of fantasy-esque civilization, the strange races and a reasonable excuse for space monsters: remnants of the biological warmachines from the Monolith War.  Most of those would probably be in the Shroud, especially on worlds like Moros, which is filled with sick people, a cult of Sin Eaters, and ruled by House Adivasta.  We could say there was some sort of group of genetically engineered monster hunters (the secret of their genetic engineering is, of course, unique to them, and they're dying).  They'd probably be a group of Ranathim "Bounty Hunters;" as for a name, I could steal "witcher," but that would sound something like "Chiva" which is too close to "Priest" in how I've used it, so how about literally monster hunter with the Sariel Matra. Not too bad. Not quite as catchy, but it will work.

(Other ideas could work here too. The Arkhaian Spiral has Eldothic monstrosities in it, remnants of the Scourge and, of course, the Cybernetic Union, all of which could require specialists to hunt down, and these specialists might use unique "Wyrmwerks" technology.  Most of these threats arose relatively recently, though, so they wouldn't have the same "ancient" feel.  The Sylvan Spiral is also famous for its space monsters and genetic engineering, both of which fit the idea of a Witcher well.  It tends to be more sparsely settled, though, and people tend to be more interested in visiting it than staying, so such characters might be more like guides than monster hunters, but if they were a native tradition by a group of aliens that lived in the Morass, they might act more like classic Witchers.  Finally, the you might have Imperial monster hunters, some sort of corps dedicated to fighting the strange monstrosities that crop up throughout space. The Imperial Knights already verge on this.  Such a unit would feel more like Black Ops than the Witcher, but that doesn't mean that Psi-Wars Black Ops is a bad campaign idea).

Okay, so we've got this group of Ranathim monster hunters who tend to modify themselves, probably using secrets similar to the monstrous lost arts that created the very monsters they hunt.  As a center of power on their dying world, their nobility probably doesn't like them, and perhaps the Ranathim Death Cult, who tends to oppose all things created by those forbidden arts, tend to take a dim view on them as well, so the rest of the people in the Umbral Rim aren't super into them either.  

Alright, that's neat, but the purpose of this was an adventure? Well, we can borrow from the Witcher itself, but there are other sources of inspiration.  What about the Mandalorian? 


Giving these guys unique armor might be really cool; I already had ideas for a sort of bio-mecha armor, they might wear that stuff.  Make them very imposing and impressive.  Come to think of it, there's a lot of similarities between the Mandalorians ("This is the way") and the Witchers as organizations: on the edges of the world, badass, doing what needs to be done for money, keeping secrets that make them badass.  We could treat the Sariel Matra as sort of bio-tech, necromantic mandalorians.

Oh, but weren't we looking for a story?  Well, both the Witcher and the Mandalorian turn on a theme of the responsibilities of fatherhood.  So we could do some thing with kids.  The Witcher's stories follow a sort of formula, one we find in GURPS Monster Hunters: first, something bad happens.  Then, the hero gets involved.  Then the hero needs to solve the mystery of what the monster actually is.  Then the hero needs to resolve the monster, often by killing it, but not necessarily.  There may well be violence the whole way through.  But the "twist" in the Mandalorian is that the target is a child.  The Witcher also has a similar twist in its third episode.

We could do something similar.  We need some sort of monster, some grave peril and threat.  Perhaps  we have, I dunno, a cult on this planet that allies itself with some dark God of Death. They're terrorizing the world, and something of theirs has gotten out and is harming children.  We might draw on some of the imagery of Stranger Things or IT, this cult and the monsters tend to focus on children, there's something of a bedtime story quality to it.  Someone hires the Sariel Matra to rescue a child and bring it to them.  The child is held deep in this complex.  On the way, they find themselves fighting other scum and bounty hunters to be the first to get to the child, who turns out to be Keleni and being fiercely protected by the last remnants of their clan.  The child's last protector is gasping their last breath when the main characters get there, and they beg the PCs to rescue their child.  The heroes then learn that the people who hired them in the first place is, of course, the cult itself, and the child is meant to be a vessel for their dark god or whatever, so the players can turn the child over and enable the possession, or they can take on the whole cult.

This story has some problems. The Witcher and the Mandalorian work with a single character, while we're looking a group of players.  The Witcher and the Mandalorian are TV shows, so the writer can force the protagonist to make the most interesting decision, while a GM doesn't have that luxury.  What interesting choices could the GM lay before the players, and how can the GM prevent his players from derailing the plot? There's also more details to work out, like what do Sauriel Matra genetic engineering and armor look like? Who's the dark god of the cult? That's not really the point of this post: the point is to have an idea.  You could run the above for a group and it would work, more or less, you'd have to fill in some gaps, name some characters, stat some enemies, the point is to get an idea, to get a starting point, where we're filling in blanks rather than trying to figure out what to run in the first place.  Hopefully, this showed you what such a process might look like.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Cross-Post: The Reaver's Hand as Power-Ups

I've been a backer for Christoper Rice's (of Ravens and Pennies fame) patreon for quite awhile, at varying degrees of commitment, for a long time.  A lot of Rice's material has made it into Psi-Wars, from Keleni Stickfighting (Ishen Denshin, from his pyramid article, Mind and Body) and the Dead Art (Thanatokinesis, from his article, Necro-Psi) as well as likely others that don't spring immediately to mind.  He's not an explicit collaborator, but I borrow so much of his stuff that I sometimes think of him as one.

At some point, he saw fit to show me a preview of what became his Mind and Body martial art follow-ups, to give feedback.  This was quite some time ago, so I went hunting for my notes on it, but could not find them.  Nonetheless, I remember I was busy so I only really had time to discuss one, which was the Reaver's Hand, and I discussed it because I found it so profoundly engrossing and inspiring.  It was, and remains, a martial art that I could see integrated into Psi-Wars (though I'm never sure how to integrate his patreon material into my game, as I don't want to reprint it, but I can't very well point to a pyramid article somewhere either), especially as an assassination technique for the Ranathim death cult.

To honor its release, I've written a version of the Reaver's Hand as an upgrade set (with Chris's permission).  Now, as with all upgrade sets, I've taken some poetic license with it; in particular, I've focused on Steal Life as the primary psychic ability of the style, with Detect Life and the Reaver's Hand relegated to exercise and super-cool secret, respectively. I'm not covering the full scope of the style, and while you will doubtless get a sense of what the style is like, if you truly want to understand it (I will reprint no rules), you'll need to go get the original article itself, which you can do right now by becoming a backer.  It will cost you $2 (two dollars!) to gain access to, so if this interests you,  you'll have to make the sacrifice of an overpriced latte this month, but I think its worth it and, who knows, maybe you'll stick around and read more of his stuff.  Poke around and see if you like what he has.


Thursday, January 9, 2020

Wiki Showcase: the Asrathi

Psi-Wars has always been an "Aliens Everywhere" setting, and one of the things I did to show this was grabbing random templates from any book (in this case, the felinoid template from GURPS basic) and slotting it into the game (as the racial template for Kendra Corleoni).  When it came time to discuss how to design aliens, I naturally returned to the felinoids again for a quick expansion, to show how particular approaches to alien racial design might work in Psi-Wars. In short, I created them as a worked example of what you, dear reader, could do when importing a race into the game.

And that was that.

But over the last few  years, someone would drop me a message about a Psi-Wars game they were running, and a common comment was that someone was playing as a felinoid, especially a "witch cat," the subrace prone to probability manipulation proved quite a popular addition.  I felt a touch guilty that they remained this half baked "I worked on it for a day" set of racial templates without even a proper name, so I slapped the name "Asrathi" (a portmanteau of "Aslan" and "Kilrathi") cryptically on my wiki and hoped people would figure it out.  That was until I announced Tall Tales of the Orochi Belt and someone commented that they'd like to play as, you guessed it, an Asrathi Witch Cat.  So, I ran a poll: how "canon" did they want the Asrathi race? Were they fine with them as some race mentioned on my blog?  Did they want to see the blog details ported to the wiki? Did they want to give them a place on the setting on par with the Ranathim, Keleni or Eldoth?  The answer came back a pretty firm "We definitely want them to get the full treatment on the wiki, but they don't need to be as setting-important as the main three races"

So, I present the Asrathi as a full, "canon" race.  I still see them as fairly minor in the major scheme of things.  They're not the elves or dwarves of the setting, but when you walk into a cantina in a backwater system, in addition to the weird, overly slender bug-girl, and the hulking lizard-guy, and the horny, red-skinned elf-thing, there's a cat person.  This is their story.

I've naturally made a few changes.  A non-exhaustive list includes:

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review: Power-Ups 9: Attributes

Recently SJGames released GURPS Power-Ups 9: Attributes and my Patrons asked me to review it, so here's my review: Never have I seen a bigger mea culpa from a company, except perhaps White Wolf republishing their old versions of the World of Darkness.  But this should not be a mark of shame on SJGames; instead, the fact that this book exists should make you proud of SJGames. They have heard your endless complaining about attributes, listened, and offered up an entire smorgasbord of options you can use to fix them.

That might seem like an odd review, but upon reading it, that was the unshakeable feeling I had.  It felt like reading someone's commentary on a collection of threads about the problems with attributes.  "IQ is underpriced once you buy back Per and Will," "Nobody would ever buy a 15 point talent when an attribute is so much better," "There are too many skills!" "It doesn't even make sense that Basic Speed would be attached to HT!" "I liked how HP was handled back in 3e better" and so on.  In the past these sorts of things would have been addressed, typically by GURPS fans, as "Well, it makes sense because X" or "You're not allowed to buy that back because there's a hard disad limit" and other such defenses.  This offers no such defenses, though it does sometimes offer the context as to why a decision was made.  Instead, if anyone ever even thought of an objection to an attribute, this book attempts to address it, and other issues beside.  It rips open the entire foundation beneath attributes and exposes them, sometimes more than I would have ever thought necessary.

This gave me mixed feelings about the book.  On the one hand, kudos to Sean Punch. Seriously.  In my experience, the RPG world is full of egotistical authors that bristle at anyone questioning their genius, while Punch says "Oh, YOU DON'T LIKE HOW WE HANDLED ATTRIBUTES? That's cool, here's why we did it, and here's 50 ideas about how you could do it differently, and some tips on how to integrate those changes into the rest of the system." Amazing.  On the other hand, this claws at the thin tissue of lies that suggests GURPS is a "universal" system. If I start making changes this substantial to my game, is it GURPS anymore? Can you pick up your character from your GURPS game and come play in mine? On the other hand, could you ever?  I know some people tried that, with mixed results, with D&D games, but I don't think GURPS every really pretended to be universal in the sense of total compatibility between games, just total support for all genres.  In that sense, this makes it a great supplement.

I will say that unlike the other Power-Up books, this isn't something you'll reference. It reads more like a discussion, like an extended forum thread or a pyramid article, a guide on how to hack your GURPS game.  Once you've gone through it, you should have a pretty good idea of what it's about, and if you're putting together a new campaign, you might revisit it once and see if it has any ideas on how to handle an attribute in your game or if you find you've run into a trait problem.

I immediately began using it in the context of Psi-Wars, and it removed the last mental block I had to lowering the cost to ST.  It also generated quite some discussion as to whether we should change IQ and DX too, and this sort of underlines one of my core complaints about this book, though it's not the book's fault: a lot of what it suggests are so sweeping that if you implement them, you'll have to throw everything you've built so far out the window and start from scratch; worse, the book is persuasive, which left me feeling like I was running a sub-optimal game for running GURPS-as-written, which is probably the biggest... what's a word for an advantage that's also a disadvantage? In any case, by unflinchingly ripping open the guts to GURPS, it reveals a lot of problems you probably hadn't considered, and once it's been seen, it can't be unseen.  You'll be a lot more aware of the warts of GURPS after this book.  It's a book for the brave and for the game designer, not for the guy who just wants to run some campaign and doesn't care how good the rules are and he quite likes GURPS.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...