Monday, May 23, 2016

The Mystery Map

Since the inception of the hobby, the dungeon has been roughly the closest thing any GM's ever had to a "script." The GM has this map, the GM knows where the party is on this map, the GM tells the party where they can go from the room they're in, the party chooses a direction, the GM checks the notes for the map to see what's waiting for them in the room they moved into, and so on. It's very straight-forward and intuitive. I daresay it's where a lot of the so-called "OSR movement" gets their strength; the dungeon is a time-honored, effective tradition for adventure creation.

That's all well and good for a hack-and-slash dungeon adventure, but what about a murder mystery? How can a GM prepare that?

Simple: make a dungeon. Or, as I call them, a mystery map. 

A Mystery Map is the exact same thing as a dungeon, except instead of being rooms, monsters, and treasure, it's scenes, witnesses, and clues. I'm not the first person to come up with this, but here's my interpretation of it. Here's one I did up real quick to use as an example:

In this sample adventure, the PCs are looking into someone...we'll call him Mr. Victim...who's been mauled to death by a pack of wolves in rural Michigan. This seems highly unusual; not completely bizarre, as there's a death or two every season, but this particular mauling was along a relatively well-used hiking trail and it's very unusual to have an entire pack of wolves maul someone that close to civilization. Furthermore, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have tagged hundreds of wolves in the area and are usually very good at keeping the population to a manageable level.

The map starts at the bottom. That "S" in the box stands for "Start," as in, the first scene of the mystery. What exactly that is would be customized for the PC group; if they're cops, maybe they're in a briefing room; if they're private detectives, maybe a member of the victim's family goes to their office to hire them, etc. In the start "room," the PCs learn the nature of the mystery: in this case, they learn some dude got mauled by a pack of wolves in the woods.

The lines connecting to other boxes are leads, or clues, if you will. Here, I have three lines connecting to three other boxes. The line to the left leads to a scene involving the DNR, if the PCs decide to check with them about the unusual wolf activity. You see no other lines connect to that box; this means this "room" is a dead-end. The players may get some nice supplementary info, or maybe a chance to do some role-playing, but they'll find nothing directly at the DNR scene that will move the plot forward. The line to the right is a lead the PCs follow if they decide to do some digging on the victim himself. The line in the middle (which I forgot to write any notes on!) is if the players decide to directly visit the crime scene, which according to TV is the place that most detectives start their investigations. (on a revision, I may even consider starting the adventure at the crime scene, Law & Order style, since it's such an obvious move).

From that "room" on the bottom right, the players will, among other things, discover an important clue that moves the mystery forward: Mr. Victim is a convicted drug dealer. This will pique the PC's curiosity and have them thinking that perhaps Mr. Victim is not a victim of circumstance, but possibly to a drug deal gone bad? So perhaps searching his home will yield some more clues.

Notice that, unlike a literal dungeon, the players don't of course have to backtrack through the Mystery Map to get somewhere else. After discovering the clue about Mr. Victim's past, they don't have to go back to the first scene of the adventure before they can move forward. However, this can give a GM an idea on pacing and time. If the players have to "backtrack" through several previous scenes, then perhaps several hours or even days pass before the players can get to where they're headed. This can be a logistical issue (perhaps Mr. Victim lives hundreds of miles away?) or just a queue for the GM to throw out some random encounters (a sideplot, some complication of a PCs past crops up, etc.). A GM doesn't have to, of course; that's just an option, a way to "read the script," if you will.

Also notice that the crime scene has only one lead, directly to Mr. Victim's house. Off the top of my head, that means that the PCs will find some evidence the police did not...some meth hidden in a tree stump, perhaps. This sends the PCs to the same scene, but it now introduced a scene in between.

I think you get the idea, so I'll just gloss over the rest of the map; from Mr. Victim's house, we find two more leads; the name of one of his customers (we'll call her Ms. Wolf), and the name of his supplier (we'll call him Mr. Herring). Following Mr. Herring brings you to a scene at the casino where he works; there, the PCs discover the location of Mr. Herring's lab where his meth is produced. Going there reveals that the lab has burned down, written off as a meth explosion by the police, who still haven't figured out the connection between Mr. Victim and this lab. The PCs, with their clues, are able to put together (either from investigating the lab itself, or by pursuing Ms. Wolf) that Ms. Wolf was in fact the reason behind the explosion. Pursuing her (literally, perhaps, with a chase scene) brings us to "F", the Final scene: Ms. Wolf is a werewolf, and she and her pack are waging a vigilante war against the drug trade in the region. The adventure ends with a cliffhanger decision: now that the PCs know a pack of werewolves are fighting drug dealers in the region, what are they going to do about it? I'd listen to the discussion and prepare the next Mystery Map off of what I think they will do next.

So there you have it. As you can see, I pulled a lot of this right out of my ass as I was writing this post. Having the structure of the Mystery Map allows me to do this. I can see the key scenes of the adventure, see where I need to place those core clues to get the group from scene A to scene B, and I can also see places where I can stick in secondary/bonus scenes that enrich, endanger, or perplex the group.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Feelz

This isn't about what you think it's going to be about. This blog entry ain't about "feelings." It's about when a thing feels right. It's about following your gut to where it really wants to go.

I am scheduling a game of Cyberpunk for next Sunday. Cyberpunk came out in 1990. There is a third edition, released in 2005, but it looks like booty so I'm going back to the second edition.

The question that comes up is, why play a 20+ year old cyberpunk game? Why not play Tech Noir, or Shadowrun? The answer is simple: Cyberpunk feels right.

One of the hardest things about GMing is learning when to trust your gut. In nearly 30 years of playing RPGs I still struggle with it. Those fucking Shoulds enter my head. You should play a game more relevant. You should play something more people recognize and can get behind.

But you know what else I should do? I should play whatever the fuck I want. I should play to my passion. Passion's contagious, as we all know. If I have a fire for Cyberpunk, someone's gonna wanna see where it goes. And my gut tells me it's going to go to a cool fuckin' place.

So how am I going to deal with the obsolete elements of Cyberpunk? A future without wifi? A future without Facebook? That's simple: I'm not. I'm not aiming for contemporary realism in this game. I'm aiming for the future of the 90s, not the future of the 20-teens. If you want to see how my Cyberpunk game is going to look, go watch Robocop (preferably the original, but the remake is not too far off the mark, either). Go watch Total Recall. Go watch Blade Runner. These are the stories I'm basing this game's future on. This is a long, waggly middle-finger to transhumanism and the "realistic" future that has nearly killed this genre with its lofty idealism and hard-to-understand technologies.

Now don't get me wrong: I love transhuman shit, and I've written at length about how cool I think Eclipse Phase is. But what feels right to me is cyberpunk. So that's what I'm shooting for. And I think it's going to be awesome.

Friday, March 11, 2016

How to Control Pace.

You like that period I threw up there? I'm gonna say about 7 out of 10 of you read that title differently because of the period at the end. Knowing how to change someone's thought process, even for a fraction of a second, is pace control. And that is a VERY valuable skill to have in the bold and dynamic world of tabletop gaming. Whether you're playing Dungeons & Dragons or Pokemon, knowing how quickly or slowly things move relative to each other...and knowing how to adjust that an essential skill for tabletop gamers to have.

Unfortunately, pacing is such a bold and dynamic variable that it is very, very hard to teach. At least, from my experience. I'm going to write about two little tricks I do. These things may or may not work for you. "Your mileage may vary," as they say.

The first thing I do is take a ten minute break every sixty minutes of play. During that break, I take a little walk, I think about what's happened, and I think about what I want to do next. Guided by my agenda, I typically come up with a solid enough foundation to build the next sixty minutes of play on.

The second thing I do is intentionally take as long as possible to do something. Not everything, of course. Just whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed or that the game is running away from me. I don't normally look up rules in the middle of play, for example. But if I feel like the pace is going faster than I'd like, suddenly I give a damn about rules and start looking them up, mid-game. This is a tricky little trick because many people are going to read this and think I'm saying do fucking EVERYTHING as slowly as possible, and of course I don't mean that. I mean, a tool I have at my disposal for controlling the pace of play is to intentionally make an effort to think a thing through, rather than throwing out the first thing I can think of. A lot of you probably do this instinctively. That's an awesome gift to have, gov, and I'm jealous if you do! I don't think I have it since I have to think about it a lot to get there. 30 years, in fact.

Life's Agenda

One of the coolest things that has come from the "Powered by the Apocalypse" revolution is the idea of the GM keeping an agenda. The agenda is, essentially, a set of not mechanical rules but a set of theoretical moves. Everything you say and do at the table (and away from the table, too) exists to accomplish your agenda. Things that aren’t on this list aren’t your goals.

GMs, do this for EVERY FUCKING RPG YOU RUN. Here's my agenda when running Shadowrun:

1. Represent the street.
2. EVERYTHING is corporate.
3. There are haves, and there are have-nots.

See what I did there? I took the agenda one step further and injected some good ol' fashioned literary theme in there. 

I have an agenda for every game I run. Here's one for Edge of the Empire:

1. The Galactic Civil War is an opportunity. 
2. EVERYTHING is Light and Dark...but everything can change sides.
3. Everybody's got a boss.

I'm not going to share any more because I don't want my players to discover the agenda for their games. Afterall, another one of the coolest ideas Apocalypse World and its brethren have taught us is "never speak the name of your move." Or, in this case, agenda.


This Sunday, I'm starting True North, a campaign for Chronicles of Darkness. The six-episode campaign takes place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a place very special to my heart. I grew up there.

To me, the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) is a lonely place. The largest city, Marquette, has a population of about 20,000. The rest of the U.P.'s population of 311,000 people is spread across over 16,000 square miles of forest. To put it in perspective, the U.P. is about 30% of Michigan, but contains only 3% of its population.

You feel that, growing up. You definitely see it when you enter the military and see how vast the rest of the fucking world is compared to where you grew up. It changes your perspective.

But I'm human, and they say the most traumatic thing every human being goes through is childhood, so there's that. I still carry with me the trauma of growing up in that lonely, open forest. And now, I've found a way to exercise that trauma: in a campaign for a horror role-playing game. How fucking therapeutic does that sound?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Our Exciting World

When I was younger, I hated the real world. I resented it, thought of it as bland and boring. How could any real-life location match the sand dunes of Tatooine? How could any of our petty conflicts match the War of the Ring? I was young and I was naive.

Now I'm older, and amazingly I'm starting to go in the opposite direction. I'm currently reading Horror on the Orient Express, a massive campaign for Call of Cthulhu. It takes place in 1923, and has the players solving a mystery throughout Europe, starting in London and ending in Constantinople. Young Ed would have immediately written this whole adventure off as a snooze fest. But present-day Ed is enjoying the hell out of it. There is so much flavor, so much history, so much setting in this campaign! 

And then I think about the rest of the world. I think about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Wild West. I think of the Great Depression and feudal Japan. The history of the world is ripe for adventure. Now, I wonder why so much time and energy is spent on fantasy when real history has so much to offer!

When I think of resistance to playing a game set in history, my first thought is about historical accuracy. It's easy to make up a fancy little history for a bunch of pointy-eared elves that never actually existed, but it's harder to, say, get the details right on 1920's era French socialists. My plan for this whenever I get a historical game to the table is the same as for any fantasy setting; I'll do some research, give it my best shot, and bullshit my way through the stuff I don't know. When it comes to RPGs, it's the adventure that's the thing, not historical accuracy. As long as I keep the story moving and the dice rolling, I doubt anyone's going to care much if I properly pronounced some French landmark (and if they do, I probably don't want them at my table, anyway).

Branching off that point about historical accuracy, I think a lot of GMs may have this perception of a lack of freedom in designing an adventure in a historical time period. But to that I say the same thing I said at the end of the last paragraph: keep the story moving, keep the game flowing, and no one should care all that much. It's the same with movies, right? 

Another apprehension some may have is not knowing what a certain historical period looked or felt like. It's easy to look at some pictures of dwarves and castles and just have an idea of what life must be like in that particular fantasy world, but what was London in 1923 like? What does a street corner look like in Constantinople? To that, I offer the pragmatic answer: it looks just like it looks now. That's all. Unless you have evidence to support otherwise, just visualize the world you know, or at the very least, the world you conceive of. If I say your party is in a market in downtown Constantinople, just picture a market. It doesn't have to look or feel any different than any other place. It probably does, of course, but if you don't know and I don't know, then who cares? The point is, I don't think we should let our ignorance of a sense of place prevent us from exploring that place in our minds. 

And, in the rare instance when you have someone at the table who's been to Constantinople  (now known as Istanbul)? Use that person's knowledge! Put them on the spot, tell them to describe to the table what a market looks like. If they don't know, then you're no worse off.

Using history in today's games is especially fun now thanks to the Internet. As I read Horror on the Orient Express, I'm constantly Googling references made to all kinds of historical stuff. In game, if the players end up jumping off the page and exploring some part of Europe or Asia or whatever that you're not prepared for, call a quick ten minute break and whip out your smartphone. Jot down some notes, and keep going!

The last point I'll bring up is, to me, the hardest: cultural sensitivity. World history has not been kind to many an ethnicity. There are several options for dealing with this, but I think the important thing is to communicate very clearly with any players who may be affected by this and work together on what you're going to do. In my Cthulhu games, I've been lucky enough to have several female gamers. Rather than deal with the sexism that was inherent to the 20's, I tend to conveniently just ignore it. This doesn't really seem to affect anything, in game. In fact, the only time I've ever brought race into a game is when a player was being coerced by a cultist to kidnap people for a human sacrifice: the cultist suggested gathering black people, since they wouldn't be noticed as much if they went missing. I did this on purpose to tip the player off that who he was dealing with was a bad person, since he didn't seem to be getting it from some of the other clues I dropped earlier in the adventure. Nothing says "clearly evil" like a racist NPC!

Anyways, I'm not saying I've become a history buff now or anything. I'm just saying that I'm giving world history a chance, and I'm finding it rather interesting. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Going to War on Going to War

"War. War never changes." 

So goes the famous line from Fallout. It's probably one of the most paradoxical lines I can think of. On the one hand, yes, war never does change. People die. Homes burn. Refugees flee for safer ground. Economies plunge as governments support the war effort. Weapons manufacturers, mercenaries, and smugglers make fortunes.

But, on the other side, war has changed. Three centuries ago, soldiers stood in formations across a field from each other and methodically fired muskets until one side broke ranks. Then, in World War II, we had paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines, snipers killing from hundreds and hundreds of yards away, and land mines that could kill people just for stepping in the wrong place. Then, in Vietnam, we had planes and helicopters dropping liquid fire on acres of jungle, sometimes without a clear idea of where the enemy was. Today, we have drones...unmanned aircraft...dropping bombs on targets thousands of miles away from anything even remotely resembling a "front line." People are still dying. Homes are still burning. That hasn't changed. It's just gotten easier.

War has gotten so easy to wage in our modern day that we don't even bother declaring it on people anymore. Got a drug problem? Declare a war on it! Got a terror problem? Declare a war on it! Upset that a Christmas tree isn't being planted in the town square? A war is being waged! Women not getting paid equally? They are at war!

I'm sick and tired of guns because they make war easy. I'm also sick and tired of war because it makes conflict easy. In hundreds of years, diplomacy is still hard as hell. Peace is still hard as hell. Maybe if all that hard work and innovation went into peace instead of war, there'd be less war. Some say it's human nature to destroy ourselves (specifically, Arnold said it in Terminator 2). Maybe we should show true dominance, true control over our fates, by ascending our destructive natures and working on peace instead of war.

I'm against guns and I'm against war, but notice I'm not against violence. I like boxing. I like MMA. I like professional wrestling. I played Witcher III last night and cut up some drowners with my enchanted silver sword. Violence is a painful part of life, but it is, indeed, a part of life. But violence isn't war. That's the difference. Violence can hurt someone, but it doesn't necessary kill anyone. Violence can shatter a home, but it doesn't burn it down. Violence is personal. Violence is intimate.

So I'm pro-violence but anti-war. I'm pro beating someone with fists but anti shooting someone with a gun. I'm pro lightsaber but anti-Star Wars. Yes, I know this is confusing. I barely understand it myself.

Monday, January 11, 2016


I turned 37 on Saturday. I'm definitely not a child anymore, but I'm still considered quite young, for adult standards. It doesn't hurt that I'm currently separated and childless, either. And I rent in apartment in Alexandria. So I'm single, childless, and I don't own a home. I also don't own a car. Or a pet.

I know, from a certain point of view it can look cold and lonely. But I'm actually really, really excited. Because this remarkable lack of responsibility I have in my life means I am able to do one thing really easily, and really well: travel.

I've never considered myself the traveling type. I'm a sedentary dude. You know, gaming and shit. I don't need to go anywhere to play Xbox, you know? But here's the thing I've discovered upon turning 37: the more shit you can tie together, the better EVERYTHING is. You can play, say, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, and have a great time with it...but imagine how that game must feel after spending a few weeks in London! I wouldn't know, as I haven't been..yet. But I imagine it's pretty bad-ass.

On the roleplaying side is where it really pays off. I just picked up Horror on the Orient Express, the sprawling, epic adventure for Call of Cthulhu (which, btw, won the Ennie this year for best adventure). As I was reading the intro, I thought "damn, this would be cool to actually just DO." And then I did a little Google, and guess what? The Orient Express STILL exists. I'm just a passport and and about a week of leave away from doing it damn near ANY time I want. And not only could I have the experience of a lifetime...I could get some awesome research in for running that adventure, too.

How 'bout Tokaido? Haven't played it yet, hear it's a great board game....and I also hear the 300-mile journey in Japan for which the game is inspired from is pretty epic, too. Then there's Fury of Dracula, Letters from Whitechapel...plenty of places on this planet to explore to get the most out of some of my favorite gaming experiences. How awesome is that?

But for now, I've gotta start small. I live in the capitol city of the United States, and I've seen barely a tenth of the stuff travelers pay thousands to see every year. So I'm going to hit up some landmarks here in D.C. Then, I'm going to take my first train ride...the AMTRAK from Union Station in New York City. At some point, I'll hit Boston and Philadelphia, too. Those are all inexpensive destinations for me that don't even require a passport. Then, by the end of this year, I've got a passport, I've got my debt paid down, and I've got some leave at work accrued. THAT's when the real travels begin...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Thing with the Apocalypse

Zombies or no, I loves me a good post apocalypse story. Why? Let me count the ways:

1. Post apocalypse stories are often about second chances. I think the ultimate prize for any human being, the real Holy Grail, is a second chance at life. A lot of post apocalypse stories, whether intentional or not, are about just that. What would YOU do if you woke up tomorrow and everything you knew was gone, your life was a total tabula rasa, and you were constrained only by your imagination and what you are physically capable of doing? You ask me that question ten times, and I'd probably give you ten different answers. That's the power of a post-apoc story. They explore those different answers.

2. Post apoc stories are, by their very nature, politically correct. Blacks, Latinos, women, Asians, gays...they all have certain periods of time that aren't so hot for them, historically. But the apocalypse isn't the past; it's the future. A dire, bleak future where survival is the most anyone can hope for. And when the main goal is survival, who the FUCK cares what color your skin is? Yes, of course, there are still issues like that in post-apoc stories. But those issues are more clear-cut because of the whole "survival is what matters" thing. This is, really, a trait of all science fiction stories, but the apocalypse just makes it darker...and thus, in some ways, clearer.

3. There's a blend of the weird and the normal. Real wonder...the stuff that really captures hearts and minds...masterfully blends the normal with the not-normal. This is why Harry Potter is huge. This is why urban fantasy is huge. This is why superheroes are huge. Star Wars, as it often is, is the exception that proves the rule. But the apocalypse, however, is no exception, and thus apocalypses that blend what we know with what we don't know tend to be easier to digest, and thus easier to enjoy as a story. Look at the love Fallout 4's been getting. And how huge Mad Max: Fury Road was last year. The apocalypse is a harder sell because it's dirtier, darker, nastier...but that's kinda why I like it. Because life, for many, is dirty, dark, and nasty. And a story that parallels life has a higher chance of connecting with its audience.

4. The apocalypse makes normal life more interesting. This is the other side of the coin to point number three, and it's also where zombie apocalypses really intersect with me. A supermarket in Fallout 4 feels like a dungeon in D&D. Both are mazes full of treasure and danger. A baseball bat can be a weapon of justice, just as assuredly as a sword in a fantasy setting or a ray gun in a pulp sci-fi setting. A can of beans can be just as life-giving as a healing potion or a nano-bot loaded medkit. I don't need to describe what some fancy sci-fi flying car looks an apocalypse, the vehicles are the same vehicles you can see out the window. Just in worse shape.

5. The apocalypse teaches us compassion and humanity. Typically one of the first themes to emerge out of any apocalyptic/survival scenario is "live together, or die alone." No one human being is an island. Everyone knows this, but some (such as myself) take it for granted. And a story about survival in an apocalypse helps reinforce this vital lesson about being human. For all of my sound and fury, I fundamentally care about people and I try to harvest as much compassion for my fellow human being as I can. Sometimes, to appreciate the light, you gotta go real dark.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I'm Back, Apparently

I think, after this long hiatus, I'm finally ready to resume the frequent navel-gazing that is this blog.

Several months ago, I wrote about my (then) new prescription for adderall. It was supposed to refine my ability to focus and somehow transform me from a game whore, fluttering about from game to game, to a highly-specialized, campaign driven, long-game playing gamer.

That did not happen. At least, not in the way I thought it would. I did end up running my D&D campaign longer than my Firefly one, but I let it fizzle, like all the rest. I'm not saying it's over, mind you, but the ideal I held before of weekly games with recurring characters and solid groups has fallen by the wayside. The adderall does most certainly help, but it hasn't changed who I am, fundamentally.

So now I've come to realize that it is not the drugs or the brain chemicals or the whatever that I want to change, but rather, my own attitude. I no longer think of my game-fluttering as a weakness. Rather; I think of it as a strength I don't fully yet understand.

And that brings me to this week. This Saturday, I have a few friends coming over for some gaming. I've already changed the planned game once (from D&D to board games) but now I'm thinking about going back to an RPG. Truth be told, I want to run an RPG, but I don't know what, and with every hour I procrastinate, the options narrow. The only thing I know for sure about any RPG I run is that I want it to STRICTLY be a one-shot, with a beginning, middle, and end that ties up that Saturday afternoon. No follow-up sessions, no cliffhangers, no stretching it into two-or-three and DONE. To that end, the game shall inevitably need either swift character generation or a wide variety of pre-gens to choose from.

I also know I want off the whole "fiction simulator" bandwagon. I cringe now whenever I open an RPG and its big hook is "your characters are heroes in an amazing story that you all tell around the fucking table!" (I added the F-bomb, it felt right). I'm not looking for a hardcore simulation of reality, but I want a game that recognizes and accepts the idea that it's a GAME, and not just grown-up make believe. Yes, almost all RPGs have a story in their center, and yes, that story is almost entirely-driven by the characters, but I guess I'm old school because I look at the story as a byproduct of a good game, and not necessarily the whole reason for the season. We did some pretty epic storytelling in both my previous campaigns, but neither game was about the story; story is just what happened while the players were rolling dice and trying to solve problems.

Anyways, I've rifled through about a dozen games so far (including a few I just bought this morning, taking advantage of DriveThru's "New Year, New RPG" sale), and I've found some very interesting candidates, but nothing that's really gotten me excited, yet.

Still, though, I've got a few other avenues to explore, and if all else fails, I do have some kick-ass board games so I wouldn't consider the day a loss, in any event. We'll just see where the dice fall...

Of all the games I've rifled through so far, I'm most excited about this one. But am I excited enough???