Posts Tagged ‘gm advice’
Last week at MisCon, one of the panels I was on was titled “Guerilla Warfare in RPGs.”
How do you GM a resistance-based game where the PCs must fight a guerilla campaign against established, entrenched bad guys? Can they sleep safely in the woods at night, sustain themselves by hunting and gathering, and gain the assistance of local farm folk? How do they build the requisite rag tag army? What about retribution against the peasants suspected of harboring them? How do they eventually kill the evil emperor and lift the people from oppression?
It was a really good talk, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to record (as my device fell over and turned off partway through). Of particular note was conversation about the difference between conventional and irregular forces, how that dynamic plays out, and how typical fantasy gaming doesn’t fit that dynamic at all.
When we got to the “how do they build the requisite rag tag army?” bit, some of the people in the audience asked us how to get the players to understand that they should.
The answer started as “put the characters up against overwhelming odds,” and I watched the crowd not be satisfied with that. Some of them already tried that, to no avail. So I said something that seemed obvious to me, but never stated:
Tell the group that the option exists.
There are so many things going on with a game that the different options can get lost, especially when looking at a game’s given ruleset. Games where “anything is possible” but leave everything outside of combat up to nebulous rules can make it hard to narrow options — the book isn’t going to say “oh, right, there are people, we should totally turn them into an army.” And the sense of narrative might not be shared — you might be thinking “rally the people” and others might be thinking “protect the people from harm.” Finally, if you’re playing with people who had never been in situations where this subject came up, they might not think to deviate from what gaming habits they’ve learned.
So that means you should be explicit. “Hey, guys, that force is pretty overwhelming. You could train up the locals into a force for freedom, not just do it on your own. Just so you know, that’s an option in the game.”
Then, if you want to hammer it home, sure, make the opposition overwhelming. Maybe have the locals ask for help in learning how to defend themselves. But it all starts by pointing out what you think should be obvious, because it isn’t always obvious to others. That advice doesn’t just fit here (as I mentioned that in a couple later panels), so keep it in mind when you’re watching the table react to new situations. Don’t just rely on pressing in-character buttons to communicate what you see as obvious.
During the Moral Ambiguity in Gaming panel at NorWesCon, the charismatic Clinton J. Boomer — a fellow Unknown Armies fan — made a great point about creating characters of depth using some ideas from UA: specifically, the three passions. This came from a conversation about how everyone is the hero of their own internal story, and no one self-identifies as evil except for the mustache-twirling villains.
There are three Passions: the Fear Passion, the Rage Passion, and the Noble Passion. (They are also called Stimuli in the text.) Each is something that is a hot button for a character: what terrifies them, what enrages them, what causes them to raise above their id. The important thing is that every single character has all three. And that’s something that can be brought to a game to make every character something beyond a cardboard cutout of good or evil.
They are always form the imperfect perspective of the character, sometimes internal struggles and sometimes external issues. I’ll skirt the spirit of copyright by pasting the example passions below:
Fear Passion Examples
- Fire. Fire claimed your house, and with it your wardrobe, your record collection, not to mention all your photos and yearbooks. It’s bad stuff, not just dangerous and painful but unpredictable as well.
- Foreigners. When you were overseas, you always knew they were talking about you behind your back, jabbering away in that weird monkey language. Now they’re all around you, even in the streets of your home town.
- Temptation. You don’t drink anymore. When you get drunk you do terrible things, so you don’t drink. Much. No, not at all. In fact, you’re careful to stay away from bars, restaurants, and that liquor store on Third and Main.
- Possession. You don’t like to talk about the exorcism. You don’t like to say the creature’s name. You know it’s still out there and calling it could bring it right back.
- Dogs. You’ve got marks on you from the red jaws and white teeth. Even those barky little shit dogs make you nervous, and big beasts like a Doberman or Saint Bernard? Forget it.
- Victimization. You weren’t the one who got hurt, you were just the one they made talk. You tried to be tough, and that made it all your fault. Now you can’t stand to see people get hurt. To you, watching the victim is worse than being the victim.
Rage Passion Examples
- Backchat. Is it too much to ask that people be polite? You understand someone who throws a punch at you, but a sarcastic loudmouth really gets your goat.
- Enemy Drivers. You’re an excellent driver. You wish all the bad drivers around you would just realize it, hang up their cell phones, and get the hell out of your way.
- Laziness. When someone does a half-assed job, they’re not just disrespecting their duties or their boss. They’re flipping the bird to everyone who has to put up with their shoddy work. God help one of your employees if you catch her slacking.
- Sleaze. Booze. Pornography. Foul language. Toilet humor. The country is swimming in filth, and no one’s doing anything about it. It’s time someone took a stand. Someday a real rain is gonna fall.
- Stuck-up Assholes. Just because you didn’t go to college and don’t drive a Lexus doesn’t mean those rich fucks get to look down at you. Goddamn snobs. Someone ought to take them down a notch.
- Those Fat Cats in Washington. Democrats and Republicans are just the competing teams in the “Screw the Taxpayer” Super Bowl, brought to you live by the Army, the Post Office, and your local Police Department.
Noble Passion Examples
- Entertainment. How much better would the world be if people devoted as much effort to making one another happy as they do to getting rich or becoming powerful? You believe laughter is the best medicine—so if you cheer someone up now, the future takes care of itself.
- Historical Preservation. If we can’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it, and all those who suffered did so in vain. Preserving our links to the past gives us a firm foundation to build a better future.
- Landmine Removal. Landmines are deadly, indiscriminate, and a bitch to remove. You’ve seen their carnage firsthand and you’re dedicated to removing them physically (by working as a minesweeper) and politically (through activism to get landmines banned).
- One for All. Most people are crap, but you’ve made a tight bond with your friends. They’re all right, and your loyalty to them is unshakeable.
- Pedagogy. Education is the key to it all. Knowledge rinses away prejudice, eases misery, and exalts all that is good about the human condition. Educating others is your mission in life.
- Protect the Elderly. Most old people have already had seven courses of misery and heartache in their lifetimes without an extra helping in the eleventh hour.
How to Use This Elsewhere
This should be straightforward: when you have a significant character, come up with their passions. It doesn’t matter if there’s a mechanical hook, though some games (like Fate) make that easy to do.
It’s easy to make a one-dimension good or bad person. It’s far more interesting if there’s more going on. Take one of the heavy NPCs in Unknown Armies, Eponymous. He’s a straight-up sociopath, and as described: “When Abel says jump, Eponymous throws you off a building.”
- Rage: Betrayal.
- Fear: Poison. Dying of a stab wound or gunshot doesn’t scare Eponymous nearly as much as the thought of dying from some slow, agonizing venom.
- Noble: Throughout it all, Eponymous has always wanted to do a good job
Now we have something more interesting that “powerful sociopath that will kill you as soon as look at you.” We now know what makes him mad — enough to motivate or enough to cause a mistake. We know what he’s deathly afraid of. We know what he believes in.
That’s a take on a villain. What about the other side, someone who is on the surface totally good?
Lili Morgan, agent of the House of Renunciation (which doesn’t need more explanation for this), who believes in helping people:
- Rage: People who are as selfish and uncaring as she used to be.
- Fear: Unpredictable ascensions scare Lili.
- Noble: The abstract, general welfare of humanity. She doesn’t care about individual people.
The noble one is obvious, much like Eponymous’ rage one. But seeing how this genuinely nice person would get angry & break her sense of peace gives us a bit more. And her fear stimulus is the sort of ones that creates a drive, something beyond “hey, everyone should be compassionate and caring.”
What About Your Game?
Do you have a villain in your game that just exists as a foil for the PCs? What’re his/her/its passions?
Do you have a benevolent character in your game that just exists to help the PCs? What about his/hers/its?
 The first time I remember seeing this in full effect was in playing Final Fantasy VIII, where Seifer, after capturing your party, exclaimed about how he was the hero and his day of bringing the villains — your character — to justice was at hand. Fuck yeah.
 There’s a mechanical incentive to make interesting ones, but that’s beyond the scope of this. Again, go buy it. :)
 Which UA has mechanics for. And they aren’t positive ones.
One of the interesting things about Don’t Rest Your Head is the GM dynamic. 90% of the GM’s decisions points & influence are narrative, as there’s only one mechanic to immediately press: how much Pain dice is rolled in a moment.
Normally, that’s determined by the sort of threat you have in play (or, if you’re like me, you decide how much you want to throw this beat, and adjust the moment accordingly by adding or attracting to the scene). But let’s talk modifiers!
Because DRYH is narrative in focus, and because mechanics make tactile elements of the world, you might want to show how other things are influencing the moment. When you do so, link the mechanical effect & narrative trigger together in your description.
I came up with this a few years back entirely on accident. When I first ran The Bad Man, one of the kids ran off and bumped into a Nightmare. I said, when the conflict went to dice, “So, that’s six Pain for this guy. Hey, you’re alone right? Awesome. It’s scary to be alone. That’s two more Pain.” The look of horror on the player’s face was pretty fucking sweet. So I kept this in my bag o’ GM tricks.
The trigger could be anything. “Wait, you guys are standing on cobblestones? Yeah, that’s a couple more Pain.” or “There’s a raven watching you from the rooftops. So this is three Pain less.” When you do this, you create two things: a sense that the world is bigger and stranger than the immediate conflict, and that there’s mystery all around. What’s up with the cobblestones? When do ravens make things easier? Can I trust that?
Be as consistent as makes sense, and keep in mind that cause & effect aren’t always direct or constant. After all, this is the Mad City…
 A future post
As the last post on Horror Week, let’s get into some GM talk. It’s all good and well to design a horror game — really, it’s fun! — but the heart of the horror game is the same as in any game: the performance. The playing. The GMing. And my Cardinal Rule of Horror: Cheat.
Horror, more than other games, is about the emotional beats impressed on you by others. In a traditionally structured RPG, that’s the GM impressing the beats of anxiety, dread, fear, hope, etc. on the players. Since that’s job #1, you need to use any means necessary to pull that off, even if it’s something that has nothing to do with the game. Here’s a goodie bag of tricks. (Like any goodie bag on Halloween, some of these will be sweet and some will be sour, so handle with care.)
Atmosphere tricks like mood lighting & music are often cited, and they’re total cheats. Awesome cheats, since they aren’t about the game providing mood, but the surrounding environment.
The mechanics of the game can also be a cheat if they’re tied to the more primitive part of the brain. Dread’s use of Jenga causes anxiety because of Jenga, which is a total cheat. But it’s a great cheat! That’s why people love Dread. Similarly, making resources tangible goes a long way toward provoking anxiety when they’re taken away, more so than abstract numbers reducing. When I ran D&D, everyone had their hit points out as poker chips, and I would reach across when they were hit as the Hand of Death. It was great. (And for my NPCs, all numbers on paper they couldn’t see, so they couldn’t do it back.)
Hidden information in games that don’t call for it is a great cheat. Hide hit points & sanity.
Make hidden rolls for things like perception checks, or when dealing with what foes do to the characters. Roll at times when it’s not needed. Roll more dice that you need to, just for that disturbing clatter of dice. Hell, you can even get really trippy, and have the facial reaction you’re projecting also random with the rest of the roll. Chessex makes facial expression dice that are great for this. (Yes, I am in fact telling you to lie with your facial expressions.)
Shorten the roll boxes to keep the emotional beats of discordant mechanics from taking hold of the game. One of the reasons that sanity in Call of Cthulhu works despite it construction is that it’s a really short roll beat with no fiddle, so you can push in hard with whatever other emotions are there and take the reigns riding out of that. Hell, handwave rules when you need to.
Be discordant. Create expectations and then violate them. The world in a horror story cheats from the perspective of the real world (though the good ones keep to their own internal, unknown consistency. Or intentionally done, a la Lovecraft).
Get physical. Scare the player by suddenly shaking the game, and use that beat to weave the fictional fear.
Whatever it takes to create and sustain the right emotional beats for the moment is fair game. You might not view some of these as cheats, of course, but depending on the game, these are. Depending on your gaming group or the folks at your con game table, these are. And just like in any performance, audience matters. More than in other genres, you step into the role of the magician, and the audience is looking forward to you manipulating and misdirecting them for their amusement.
Happy Halloween, friends!
 Later I get to talk about why this is a horrible idea most of the time. :) But it’s a horrible idea I employ often in horror.
 Just happens that this audience also are your co-creators. I’m sure I have some people wincing at my use of this word, but it feels apt in a GMed horror game.
 Remember: not all emotional manipulation is negative. We consume stories & get romantically involved for that ride.
Last week, ENnie-nominated Dave the Game interviewed ENnie-nominated Brennan Taylor and ENnie-nominated me about one of my most very favorite probably-ENnie-nominated topics ever, convention GMing. It’s on the ENnie-nominated Dungeon Master Guys podcast, episode 11.
In This Episode:
- Special guest Sarah Darkmagic assists in hosting duties
- Dave talks to Brennan Taylor and Ryan Macklin about running convention games
- NewbieDM talks to Daniel Perez about running online games
- And we answer reader questions, including how to break the stigma of D&D to potential players, eating healthy at the game table, how to appeal to a mixed party of roleplayers and minmaxers in 4e, a time when a game really clicked, and money in game.
The episode is 65 minutes long (63M). Brennan & I talked for around 10-12 minutes, much like you’d expect if you listened to ENnie-Nominated The Voice of the Revolution. I mentioned that I should write up my convention questions as a blog post, so it’s now on my giant list of Things I May One Day Write About.
Oh, and remember, vote for the ENnies. If you don’t, They win. Who are They? You don’t want to find out, do you? So vote.
 Who should perhaps be known as Dave the Fame. Right, ladies? Hello? Is this thing on?
 Technically, it’s ENnie-award-winning, but that breaks the pattern.