Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What's YOUR Domain?

As I get older and write more, I notice that certain genres and sub-genres speak to me. I call this gravitational pull "my Domain." The further away a story/game takes me from my Domain, the harder a time I have telling stories/playing games there. The closer they are to my Domain, the more natural and comfortable I feel.

So here's my Domain:

  • Suspense/Psychological thrillers, with or without supernatural/paranormal horror
  • The 90's
  • Investigative scenarios, with infrequent combat
  • Non-hero protagonists (i.e. no super-powers, advanced technology, or special training)
  • Fictional settings (not using real-life cities/locations)

I don't believe my Domain necessarily has anything to do with my personal preferences. The majority of movies I watch these days are sci-fi/fantasy/superhero films, yet none of the elements of those genres are anywhere near my Domain.

I actually think my Domain has more to do with my personal growth. I was in my teens during the 90s. Like most people, I was probably at my most emotionally intense in my teens, and all the connections I made at that time have stuck more persistently than anything before or since. Psych-thrillers were big back in the 90s: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Single White Female. The Silence of the Lambs. I loved all of those films back then!

When I apply that preference to RPGs, I come up with the Palladium games (Rifts, Ninjas & Superspies), AD&D 2nd edition, the "Old" World of Darkness, and the 5th edition of Call of Cthulhu. I've been threatening to run a Palladium game for ages now, and the appeal is still there, despite how antiquated and down-right embarrassing that system is compared to the games of today!

I wonder if I'm alone here...not with my specific Domain, but with the very idea of Domains and their dominance over the storyteller. Stephen King is virtually inseparable from his Domain...supernatural horror, the 60s, coming of age tales, a little splash of survival stories...but what about other storytellers? Particularly GMs of role-playing games. Does every GM have a Domain they inevitably wander back to?

Or, perhaps more interestingly, has anyone successfully changed their Domain? I have tried repeatedly to integrate sci-fi and superheroes into my games, and the success has been minimal-to-non-existent. I'm finally just starting to accept that my Domain is my Domain. That doesn't mean I don't try and test myself every once and awhile, to try and push and challenge the borders of my Domain, but I haven't moved the needle much, as it were.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Nothin' To It But To Do It

One of the reasons I got tired of writing in this blog the first time around was that I got caught up in a very common problem, not just in RPGs but in all hobbies: I started talking more about and around games than actually playing them. This is an especially difficult problem in role-playing gaming because it's so easy to do...at least, in theory.

You can't play sports all the time, so you talk about it. But all you need for a role-playing game are people. Thanks to the magic of the internet, finding at least three people to play an RPG with you is relatively easy. Any game you want to play, any time you want to play it. Live in a big, nerdy city like me (Washington D.C.), and your options increase exponentially. I run a game every Sunday. I post the game on Meetup.com on Monday, and usually have at least three players on board by Wednesday.

I get the appeal in talking over playing, though. Because even though playing an RPG seems easy, it's actually quite difficult, when you dig a little deeper. Running a game is taxing work. Either you're like me, and you spend entire weeks writing and prepping an adventure; or you wing it, requiring vast amounts of mental energy to improv a whole session on the spot. Some people seem to think that's easier. For them, maybe it is; me, not so much. Improving, for me, is like kung fu: I only use it when absolutely necessary. I'm not bad at it...I'm told I'm pretty good at it...but if I am indeed any good at it, it's because I don't do it unless I have to. Ironically, I feel like improvisational play is a little like multi-tasking, in the sense that you stay good at it by not doing it, so that when you do end up doing it, you give it the same thought and attention you would if it were prepared, rather than forming bad habits focused on making improv easier, rather than making the game better.

And then there's the whole social aspect. It can be tough, sometimes, putting on that game face and interacting with (sometimes) total strangers. I haven't always liked every person who's sat at my table. More often than not, they're not inherently bad people; I just don't click with them, or I'm not into what they're into. That's a prickly situation, and sure enough, I've rescheduled or even cancelled games when the "wrong" people RSVP. I'm not proud of that. But, as my mantra goes, Story First, and if the player isn't a good fit for the story, then I gotta do what I gotta do.

So for all these reasons, I get why so many RPG players like to just get on their chosen social media outlet and talk all this talk about games they want to run, or ideas they'd like to write up.

Unfortunately for us all, there is only one way to play a role-playing game, and that's to play a role-playing game. So whenever I find myself wanting to rant on someone's G+ post or write a new blog about some great idea I just had, I try and refocus that energy on working on adventures and getting groups together. Role-playing games as a hobby aren't just about pretending to be magical elves or exploring worlds that only exist in our minds. They're also about doing the work. Meeting the people. Putting it all together. That's the hobby.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Liquid Metal

Here's how I run a role-playing game: I have a defined, set story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The players are the protagonists. I start telling the story. The players don't do anything I expect them to do. I throw out the story and wing it the rest of the session.

That, more or less, is how I do it, every single time. No complaints yet. Everyone's happy. This is how I've done it for the past 20 years.

If you don't do it that way, that's fine. You do whatever works for you and your players. This is what works for me. The reason it works for me is, mainly, because it plays to my strengths. I am a storyteller, so I'm at my best when I'm, you know, telling stories. That doesn't mean "railroading." At least, not the way I do it. Railroading is when you invalidate the players' actions in order to tell your defined, set story. I don't do that. I meld the players' actions into the story, when possible. When not, I follow the players' lead, see where it takes them, and look for opportunities to meld their actions into the story. This isn't really the popular way of doing things these days. But it works for me, and it works for my players.

Of course, when I'm at my very best, my story isn't completely defined. It's got points A, B, and C, but I let the players draw the lines connecting them. One of my favorite adventures, one that I've run multiple times over the years, is a scenario I call "One Night in Innsmouth." In this adventure (I've run it on three different RPGs), the players choose one of four different reasons why they're going to Innsmouth. Then, after a few scenes of poking around, the sun goes down, the town starts crawling with Deep Ones, and the players are fighting for their lives to escape the town or make it to sunrise before they all go away. (I frame this adventure as an "unofficial sequel" to Lovecraft's classic story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.") Those four different reasons, they each have their own particular details, but really the most important part of the process is this: which reason they chose determines where in Innsmouth they are when the Deep Ones come. That's it. The story is really just whatever happens while the players are trying not to get sacrificed to Cthulhu. So the story has a definite beginning (players arrive at Innsmouth for a reason), middle (sun goes down, Deep Ones everywhere, players trying to survive), and end (the players escape...or all die). But what happens exactly within the beginning, middle, and end of "One Night in Innsmouth" is all on the players.

Here's another one. I did an adventure for the Firefly RPG once that started, in TV show fashion, at the end. Each player's character was in a loaded, action-packed situation and they didn't know why: one character was dangling out of their ship while it flew through a canyon; another was in a crate full of peaches; another was holding the ship's pilot at gunpoint and forcing him to fly. I then played the Firefly TV show's theme, and after the theme, the adventure began with "earlier that day..." The rest of the adventure was just setting up events for the climax I "cold opened" with. Again: structured story, built around the players' actions. 

I call this approach to adventure design "liquid metal." Sturdy and tough, yet flexible and fluid. Like the T-1000 in Terminator 2. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Darmok and Jalad at Tonagra

When I was a little kid, one of my earliest memories was of my brother telling me stories as I went to bed. My older brother is a sick bastard, and would tell me stories about his two favorite things at the time: demonic possessions and Vietnam. But I didn't mind. I liked hearing the stories.

Even before role-playing games, I did quite a bit of oral storytelling as a kid. I remember my friend's brother (also named Ed), he wasn't allowed to watch the Friday the 13th movies. So I'd recite them to him, telling each one of them as if I were one of the survivors from the film. When I was around 10 years old, I created my own spin on the Smurfs...called the Busy Bodies...and came up with several episodes' worth of stories to tell my sister. And throughout middle school, a favorite at sleep overs was "The Girl Game," where my friend would tell me who they had a crush on, and I'd run a little impromptu RPG-ish adventure about that friend overcoming various obstacles to eventually be able to date that girl.

When I look back, I realize now that oral storytelling has since become one of the longest-running activities of my life. It hasn't been until recently that I've taken ownership over it. All my life, I've been trying to parlay my passion for oral storytelling into writing, to varying levels of success. But the truth is, I like oral storytelling more than any other form of storytelling. Mainly, because it's interactive. Even if you're not playing a role-playing game, reciting a story in person, directly to another person or group of people, is an intimate activity. It connects you to the listener. It allows you to infuse a story with your own personality. The emotional payoff, to me, is more valuable than any amount of acclaim or compensation, monetary or otherwise. Indeed, I'd even say storytelling is my main form of communication with my fellow human beings. I'm like one of those aliens in that episode of Star Trek (that's where the title of this entry is from).

So looked at in this light, I think it's obvious what my draw to role-playing games is. It's just unfortunate that more people don't do it. But then again, you do it everyday, right? You talk to someone, you tell them a story about your day, the person listening says "here's what I would have done...." That is a role-playing game. You likely do it every single day of your life. So the next time I announce a public meetup for a role-playing game, sign up!

Monday, September 12, 2016

My Thing with Mysteries

In the role-playing/story gaming hobby, the predominant genre is fantasy. This is mainly because of Dungeons & Dragons' influence, but the fantasy genre also has a number of characteristics desirable for role-playing: being able to hand-wave anything you don't understand as "magic", for example, or the genre's long distance from reality, which carries a lot of appeal to the escapist.

I, however, more often than not lean towards contemporary mystery/horror with my games. Why is that? There are a number of reasons:

1. Mysteries cater more to my playstyle. My games are very narrative-driven, based heavily on the ongoing back-and-forth between myself and my players. This can be a little difficult with more action-oriented genres. There's only so many ways you can say "I attack the orc with my axe."

2. Using a contemporary genre saves time for me to focus on the story. I don't need to go into detail on what a castle or abandoned tower or something looks like. If I say "you're in an abandoned building," every player at the table can conceive of their own abandoned building, and chances are it'll fit the ongoing narrative just fine. In a more action-oriented genre, the particulars become important because (presumably) there'll be some fighting going on, and the layout of the terrain can become a tactical consideration.

3. Mysteries and horror, more often than not, are stories of survival, which are very easy to "gamify." In the fantasy genre (again, mostly because of D&D), the players' characters are heroes, with expectations of becoming more hero-like, more powerful, and more prosperous as time goes on. Contrast to an ongoing Call of Cthulhu game, where the players are just happy to be alive after so many sessions. There are indeed fantasy games with a shift towards survival; however, the classic idea of the fantasy genre still tends to be about gaining power rather than merely staying alive. This may make for fun games, but from my experience it can make fairly boring stories.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Different: A Storygame of Alien Horror

I mentioned before that if I can't find a game that can help me tell the story I want to tell, then I'll make my own. Different is the latest example of that.

The story of Different is this: you are a high school student, and you're noticing someone acting a little, well, different. From this setup, you find yourself hip-deep in an alien abduction conspiracy. The particular details of Different change with each telling. Last session, the game took place in the 80's; next session will be in the 90's. In the previous session, the aliens were survivors of a crash landing and were looking to manipulate humans to help them repair their ship. That...won't be the case this time.

One thing I struggled with in making this game was in how "high schooley" I wanted it to be. Everyone is familiar with the tropes and stereotypes of a high school story, and I didn't know how much of that I wanted in this story. The answer I came to: not that much. The story is not so much about being a high school student, as it is about being a powerless person in the face of an unknown terror. This is a horror story, not a coming of age tale or a romantic comedy. So while the rules of my game were designed from the ground up for players to play as high school students, the whole high school bit is fairly transparent. On the upside, this makes the system a little easier to adapt for any future stories I want to tell...

The game I've developed to tell this story is very basic. As I mentioned in my entry yesterday, the sole purpose of rules in any game I run is to help shape the story in unpredictable ways.I'm not looking to simulate reality; I'm not even looking to simulate storytelling. I'm looking to actually tell a story, with the players' participation. The rules are there to keep us both on our toes, creatively. If you want to see what I came up with, the link to the 4-page game I wrote is right here.

That line about "simulating storytelling" is a subtle, love/hate jab at most of the storytelling games that are out today. In looking for games to write this story, I took long, hard looks at the hottest storygames out right now: Apocalypse Engine, Gumshoe, Fate Core. Those are all great games, but even those rules-light, narrative driven games can trip on themselves a bit. Determining what is or isn't an aspect, tasking players with co-running the narrative, figuring out what moves each player is doing or not doing....I've struggled with all of that, on occasion, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. I wanted a game that was light and breezy, but that still more or less followed the age-old traditional method of role-playing games: you are your character. I am everything else. I have a story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end, and your character is the protagonist of that story. Your actions and your decisions will shape that story, and ultimately, the conclusion of it.

If you have any questions or comments about Different, please share below!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Moving/Judgement Day

Some time back, a friend of mine told me a story about her disastrous encounter with a moving company. I was SO mad for her! Is there ANYTHING worse on God's green earth than moving? It's hell, pure and simple, regardless of where you're going, why you're going there, or how much help you have. And so anything that makes it more aggravating or stressful is just salt in the wound. And this friend of mine, she got a whole load of salt from this moving company.

I channeled that frustration into a Shadowrun adventure. The client, Mr. Johnson, just recently moved from Seattle to Hong Kong for a new job with his megacorp. The moving company, a Triad front, had recklessly damaged and stolen several things from Mr. Johnson when they transported his stuff. Mr. Johnson had money and could easily replace most of those things, but he was so angry at the moving company for their incompetence and the blase manner in which they regarded him, he hires the shadowrunners for revenge. Their mission: raise hell at the moving company's office, any which way they could. Bonus if they could get any of the client's missing stuff back.

As I sat down to play this adventure, once the concept was made clear, my friend, who is...ahem...really into Shadowrun....he immediately points out all the problems with this setup. Something about how the megacorps should have oversaw the whole move or something. At first I was frustrated with him....you know, suspension of disbelief, all that shit....but then I realized he wasn't the problem. I was. In my zealousness to tell this story, I ignored all the story bits that Shadowrun provides for you. It is the intent of the game to use all that stuff. Sure, you can ignore it, but why are you playing Shadowrun, then? I wasn't really interested in telling a Shadowrun story. I was interested in telling a story about a corrupt moving company getting its comeuppance. I can tell that story with Shadowrun, but if I do, then I am obligated to use Shadowrun's stuff for it. And that's perfectly fine...there's some great stuff in Shadowrun...but I don't want to read a role-playing game. I want to play one. 

If I were to try and play that mission again, I'd change it so the corp in question is small (not a megacorp) and thus the Johnson had to fend for himself for the relocation. Then I'd make the moving company have some Triad ties to that very not-mega corp, to establish why such a shitty moving company was even contacted in the first place. The moving company and the corp alike would be counting on Mr. Johnson being more worried about the new job in a new city to worry that his shit got busted going across the Pacific Ocean, and that he was getting paid enough to start anew. What they weren't counting on was Mr. Johnson being so attached to that shit that he'd hire shadowrunners to extract a little payback...and, in the process, they would (presumably) discover the link between them, and the ensuing scandal would actually destroy both the moving company and the corp. Mr. Johnson would be ruining his own future by not being able to let go of what would've been, in the grand scheme of things, a minor setback.

Now that is a story. But notice how there's nothing Shadowrun-ey about it. I could add some Shadowrun elements...maybe the corp's business is in selling magic reagents, or maybe the Mr. Johnson is an ork and part of the reason he took the job was to evade the meta-racial tension in Seattle...but the story! The story is about a man who extracts revenge on a moving company. All of that shit is not about that story. So I could add it, but in reality it would take away from, not add to, the story.



Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Money Ruins Everything

Every idea you see in this blog, Dear Reader, is yours to do with as you please. I am not interested in royalties, attribution, or publishing deals. Steal every single word from this blog and use it as your own. I do not care. I'd appreciate a little hat-tip, but it is not at all necessary.

I'm not interested in profiting off of role-playing games because I love them too much. I want to continue to love them. And if money starts getting placed on the table, I will stop loving them.

I must stress, because it's the Internet, that what I'm saying here might not be what you're feeling. And that's fine. But here's what I'm saying: Money Ruins Everything. I don't tell stories for money. I don't play RPGs for money. I do it because, well, that's just what I do. If I start getting paid for it, then I'm no longer doing it for that reason. I'm doing it to get paid. And if I'm not doing it solely because I want to, then the story suffers. And the story always comes first. I didn't used to feel this way. But I'm older and wiser now.

Can I have it both ways? In theory, yes. In practice, no, because if I'm getting paid, I can't quit. If a story isn't panning out how I'd like it to, or I want to do something else, "what about the money?" becomes a question that needs to be answered. And, unfortunately, "fuck the money" is not always a viable answer.

I've discovered something very important about myself: I hate working. Not the normal "is it Friday yet?" contempt for work, but an actual, legitimately-hostile disposition towards the doing of things motivated not by my own desires. If I'm doing a Thing for any reason other than "because I want to," then I automatically hate that Thing. I am neither proud nor ashamed of this. It's just who I am. I could be a professional blowjob tester, and I promise you, around day 90 or so, I'd be like "Mannnnnn...LOOK at all these goddamn blowjobs I have to receive! Is it Friday yet?"

Going back to RPGs, this is why I've never been able to fully commit to most campaigns. Because at some point, the ongoing campaign stops being something I want to do and starts being something I and my players committed to doing. At that point, the hate sets in. And I don't hate RPGs; I love them. So anything that makes me hate something I love is not worth doing. That's why I don't plan on running any long-term campaigns anymore, and that's why I'll never accept a dime for anything RPG-related I do.





Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Story First

I stopped playing RPGs for a few months. I got burned-out. But now, I'm back.

This happens from time to time. I know I'm not the only one. Eventually, you get tired of a Thing, so you step away from the Thing to get some perspective. Then, you either come back, or you don't. If you don't, it's because you're no longer into the Thing. If you do come back, it's because you love that Thing and you're ready to make it work again. That is me.

Here's the perspective I have gained from this self-imposed exodus: Story First. Not the rules. Not the game. Hell; not even myself or the players. When I am running a game, the number one priority is to tell a good story. That's all. If I want to tell a good story and I can't find a system that will do it, then I make up my own.

Of course, this is the internet, and I am writing with at least a hypothetical audience in mind, so I need to clarify. First of all, "Story First" is my motto, but it's not necessarily yours. Why Story First matters to me is because storytelling is what I do. I've played role-playing games for over 20 years now. I have two degrees in creative writing, fiction and non-fiction. So I have the talent, the education, the experience, and most importantly, a passion for storytelling. I may or may not be the best storyteller around, but I do know this: I am better at storytelling than anything else I do. So it makes sense for me to put an RPG into the perspective of telling a story. An interactive, orally-recited story, with rules that introduce swerves to the story, but a story, nevertheless. That may not be where you're coming from. That's fine.

To me, everything else is a distraction from putting the Story First, so this time around, I am going to keep that in mind. You're not going to see anymore blog entries about rules discussions, or what's the best game for this or that. I just don't care about that shit anymore. Whatever you see in this blog from here on out will be about one thing only: telling good stories, typically within a role-playing game. But a lot of the stuff I say here will probably apply to any storytelling medium. Stay tuned.


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.