Theatre LARPS: The Prime Directive        

I recently ran a playtest of my new game, ‘The Prime Directive’, with help from Mo Holkar. Having rashly promised in an earlier post to ‘let you know how it goes’, I feel duty bound to do so – and fortunately, it went quite well.

Aim of the Game

The game description is as follows:

“Your presence is required for the Starfleet Court Martial of a Starship crew. Together, the witnesses will use holodeck reconstructions to reconstruct the events that led them here.

What happened on the planet? Who violated the prime directive? Was there a mutiny? Where are the missing scientists? Or did something else happen entirely? 

This is an improvised game which uses collaborative storytelling techniques to tell a story of the conflicts experienced by a Star Trek crew on a mission. The tone is not intended to be too ‘dark’; think of a typical Star Trek episode. The theme is that of conflicting ideals and cultures, and the dilemmas that can arise from the clash of different yet valid points of view. “

That last paragraph is the crux of what I was aiming to do. I’ve seen Nordic style improvisation used with the aim of exploring certain themes or invoking a particular type of emotion. I wanted to see if I could use some of the same tools to do something else: construct a Star Trek episode. My intention was to write a game with a Nordic structure, but which ‘felt’ more like a traditional freeform.

 

Structure

The game starts with an introduction and safety briefing, and the players are divided up into Crew and Questioners. This is followed by a number of workshops. The first workshop is intended to get the Crew to elaborate on their character’s personality and motivations, while getting the players used to the format of the Questioners asking the Crew to elaborate on their answers.

For the second set of workshops, the players were split into two groups. The Crew spent their time developing the interrelationships between their characters, some of their history together, and how they saw each other. In the meantime, the Questioners would be developing the scenario that the Crew were going to deal with over the course of the holodeck flashbacks.

After the workshops came the game proper, in the form of Testimonies. This would use a court hearing as a framework, interspersed with scenes as the players acted out what had happened. I had roughly planned this to be a ‘prologue’ scene, introduced by the Questioners are presenting the basic scenario the Crew were faced with, followed by a number of ‘action’ scenes, led by the Crew as they decided what they were going to do; and finally a ‘consequences’ scene, when some or all of the Crew should be responsible for doing whatever they were being charged with.

Finally, the Crew could offer up a defence and a plea, and the Questioners decide on a verdict. The players would then go out of character and discuss the game and what might have happened next.

Workshops: Introduction & Motivations

The first problem I ran into was that I’m not very confident about leading game instructions. So many eyes on me, arrggh… anyway, I got through it, including an explanation of cut/brake and the lines/veils we were using, and then workshops began.

The Crew picked one character train from each of three lists (one positive, one negative, and one background), and then introduced their characters. Originally I had intended them to then choose their ‘job’, but to get the Questioners more involved we had them pick. The Crew were not entirely happy with the results; I think I should stick with the original design!   Then we had the Motivations session, where the Questioners used my pre-written list of questions to ask the Crew about their background. My pre-written suggested traits and questions seemed to be a helpful way to get the players started, and the Questioners made up a few new ones once the discussion got going.

This bit of the workshops seemed to go pretty well, and we soon had a good feel for our intrepid Crew of the USS Vigilance: an honour bound but young Captain with a long line of Starfleet captains breathing metaphorically down her neck; a stubborn religious Bajoran medic; a sociable and hot headed engineer; an ambitious yet anxious commander with a hobby in AI development; and finally a xenobiologist who seemed to be some sort of experimental AI recreation of the Commander’s great great uncle, a relationship of much embarrassment to them both.

Workshops: Relationships & Scene Discussion

This was where we split the party. The Crewmembers were encouraged to describe past experiences together, and then had to line up in order of: Seniority; How they perceive their own competence; How others view the strength of their ideals; and popularity. My co-GM ran this bit, so I wasn’t there myself, but I’m told this sparked a lot of discussion and back story, and led to the Crew suggesting their own line-ups, including Age, Guilt-riddenness, popularity with Starfleet, and combat experience.

Meanwhile, the Questioners job was to come up with the scenario for the Crew to follow. This took longer than anticipated, and in retrospect could do with more guidance around what a scenario should look like. I had made a list of scenario ‘types’ (e.g. “needs of the many”, “divided society”, “stagnant paradise”, etc.), and a list of NPC types; but I don’t think this was as helpful as I had hoped! I did step in when the discussion seemed to be getting too ‘scripted’, since I wanted players to be able to take the lead on their responses.

As well as deciding on what was basically going on down on the planet, the Questioners had to work out NPCs, what the first introduction scene would be, and finally, what the Crew were being accused of, which they would lead with when the Testimonies began. In addition I asked them to give out one Event card to each Crewmember; this was something that should happen to them at some point during the holodeck scenes. Again, I had made a suggested list, and the players wrote a few variations of their own. I think the Event cards worked out pretty well, and did lead to a couple of the Crew doing some things that pushed the plot forward; the Questioners twigged pretty quickly that this was a good way to tie the players into certain plot triggers in their scenario.

Main Game: Testimonies

Armed with characters and a plot, the players began the game proper! The prologue began a bit hesitant, as the Questioners introduced the charges and the first scene; I may need to provide a bit more guidance as to how the court martial should begin. Then the first holographic scene got started, and it began to roll along nicely.

The Questioners had decided to charge the Crew with starting a civil war on a pre-warp planet. They unveiled a mission of first contact with a post-warp civilisation, and the Crew beamed down onto a bustling market place. It didn’t take long for the Crew to conclude that despite their scans, these people knew nothing of space. Things really started to go wrong when an animal reacted badly to the hologram, and a number of priests began to gather around, asking the AI Crewmember if it was one of the Gods of the ‘Church of Dead Sentience’.

My intention was that Questioners could ask the Crew to explain their thoughts during a scene, and that Crew could ‘pause’ a scene to step into the witness box to relate something from their past to provide context. Neither of these mechanics were really made use of, however I don’t think this is necessarily a problem; the scenes had a strong pace and the Crew were reluctant to interrupt, instead defending and explaining themselves in between the recreations.

The Crew investigated things further, since the Captain (prompted by her Event card) decided she was bound by Starfleet rules to offer aid to a civilisation that they believed was once warp capable. The point where things really started to go wrong was when the Engineer blithely fixed some pieces of tech brought to him by some local, a ‘trap’ that the Questioners had laid especially for him. This led to the freeing of the AI that had been imprisoned in the temple, and it promptly set about trying to take control of the planet. That was when the holographic doctor fell victim to a command sent by the AI, and the spaceship opened fire….

Needless to say, it all went horribly wrong, and the Crew were obliged to take action to fix the situation, blowing their cover and interfering most definitely with the civilisation on the planet. Encouragingly, I didn’t need to formally call for any of the ‘action’ or ‘consequences’ phases, as these arose naturally out of the way the game was going.

Verdict

Ultimately, the Captain was found guilty (largely as a scapegoat), the medic was found Not Guilty, and the rest of the Crew were found Jusitified (a very lenient Jury).

As to the game itself, I think much more guidance is needed for the scenario building, with more structure and possibly leading by the GM if the players get stuck. It was also suggested that the Questioners would benefit from having more coherent personalities; for example, while they are finishing them scenario construction, the Crew could assign them a few background hooks and biases that could work for or against certain Crewmembers. This might add an interesting slant to how they chose to programme the reconstructed testimonies!

I also need to make a few things clearer in the introduction; I think next time I’ll practice and note down a speech rather than panic and stumble through it. It wasn’t clear that the Crew could also speak or ask each other questions in the ‘court’ space while inside a scene. I should also include more explicitly that the Crew should be willing to ‘lose’ by aiming to work in the stupid thing they did that led to the accusation, and clarify about working towards fulfilling the Event cards (silly me, did I not even read my last post).

 

Overall

I seem to have created a game with two different experiences: one group of players feel like they’re writing and GMing a game, and the other group feels like they are playing a more standard LARP, where they develop their own characters and react to events. The Crew are probably more suitable for less experienced players. As it happened this group of players developed an episode that felt more like a light-hearted original ‘Trek story; however the framework and some of the tools they didn’t make much use of should also enable a more serious story if the players wanted to go that way.

Total playing time was 2 and a half hours, for nine players; it should run with 9 – 14 players. I’m planning on adding some more meat to the Questioners and Scenario guidance before running it at Consequences in November. I am also adapting it for Nine Worlds in August: the challenge of Nine Worlds is that I will only half one and a half hours, I can’t send out information beforehand, and the players may well be newcomers. For Nine Worlds I want to tighten up some of the workshops and allow the GMs to take the parts of the Defence / Prosecution to guide the Testimonies. I’m also planning on speeding things up considerably by presenting the Questioners with a list of pre-set scenarios, giving a quick explanation for: Set Up; Opening Scene; Notable NPCs; When To Use This Scenario…; Suggested Event Cards; and Possible Variations. The players can then choose one, and then modify it to suit the Crew.

Finally, most writers of any kind crave feedback. If anyone is curious and wold like to try out Prime Directive themselves, please drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy.

Rei

Xx

Theatre LARPs: Play Like A GM   

I was reading through some old Nightflyer posts, and came across an article entitled “Play Like A Protagonist”, by Alasdair Sinclair.

This got me thinking about some of the different expectations on a player between Tabletop games and Theatre LARP/freeform. In a freeform, most of the plot is driven entirely by how the players are interacting with each other, and that’s something the GM has little control over. Possibly the most disconcerting thing about GMing a freeform is that once a game starts, you have no idea what’s actually happening. Where are the magic items? Have the good friends betrayed each other yet? How close is the villain to achieving their dastardly plan? Someone knows the answer, but it’s not the GM.

Unwritten Rules of Play

This places an enormous amount of trust in the players. You need them to think a bit like mini GMs; to act in ways that help everyone’s game, and not act in ways that would screw things up.  There’s a whole host of things that players learn to do, and it’s not often explicitly mentioned to new players; you watch, copy others, until you just ‘know’ how to play the game.

Probably the number one thing to remember is: Information is there to be shared. If you know something, then let other people know. If you have a secret, expect it to come out – better yet, confide in someone you trust, just to make sure. The same is true of items: don’t hoard things, especially when you have no particular need for the item yourself.

The reason why this is less obvious than it should be is that character sheets often include goals like: “Keep your involvement in the death of your cousin a secret”, or comments like “you’ve brought your grandmother’s necklace”. Both of these examples fail to inform the player that the writer’s likely intention is that this secret will definitely not be kept, and that someone else may be holding your grandmother’s necklace by the end of the game; worse, they sound like they are encouraging the opposite.

It is also assumed that a player will endeavour to follow the brief given on their character sheet. If you read that you’re an orphan who cares about your friends, likes the circus, and is trying to track down your birth mother, and you decide to murder your friends and become a jam making expert, then there is a good chance you will screw up the game for whoever is playing your friends and your birth mother by removing a large chunk of plot.

Narrative Structure

A typical plot structure for a lot of stories goes something like this: Setup; Conflict; Resolution. Something similar happens in a theatre LARP, often seemingly by magic. The game begins, and the players spend a while wandering around the room, introducing themselves, talking about their most important goals, and generally establishing who everyone is, what they want, and how this might fit with what you want. After a while, the pace begins to ramp up. People start to do things. Information and items change hands. The villains achieve things, while the heroes suffer some setbacks. Their clashes build.

Finally, in the last ten minutes of the game, everything comes to a head! The villains’ hour of triumph is at hand. They get a moment to do something cool. Then the enormous band of heroes appear to oppose them in a dramatic final showdown. People die dramatically. Suddenly everyone wants to get married. Things end in a satisfying denouement.

This is not an accident. This is the players, acting as mini GMs to ensure the game works out in a satisfying way. Sure, the writers will (usually) have this sort of structure in mind when they wrote their plots; and sure, the GMs will have been rushing around, trying to speed things up or slow them down as needed. But as mentioned above, once your freeform kicks off, what happens is mostly in the hands of the players. Players who do what they can to go along with the structure, who will themselves push things or start new things or delay things, are adored treasures.

I think the group with the hardest role to play here are the villains. Oxford players are often familiar with the idea of playing to lose; this is a vital skill for a good villain. A villain player needs to build their rise and fall in a directly opposite pattern to the hero. They need to know how far to go: far enough to provide a credible threat, and far enough that they have a good game themselves –  but not so far that their victory is overwhelmingly inevitable, and not so far that they cause distress to the other players.

Player Goals

It’s usual in theatre LARPs to have explicit character goals; very rarely do I see player goals. I have however played in games with goals like “go down in a blaze of glory”; “have fun”; or “Find a way to save your finance [GM Note: this is your character’s goal, and pursuing it should help your plot; but you should expect to fail and have a nice angsty scene].” Thinking about and describing player goals in this way can be useful, and a nicely direct way of getting players to think like GMs.

A particularly good example of a rule designed to address player goals is the Paperclip Rule. This is a fantastic and very simple idea. It goes like this: if you find yourself at a bit of a lose end, unsure of what to do, then put a paperclip on your name badge. If you see another player wearing a paperclip on their name badge, then you should go out of your way to involve them in some of your plot.

I have been considering whether this rule could be extended, to further co-opt players into fulfilling player goals. Perhaps some marker meaning “Please foil my dastardly plans”? Or “Please cause me terrible angst”? What about “Kidnap fodder”?

Improvisation

Like Indie games in tabletops, there is a rise in theatre LARPs making use of improvised storytelling techniques. In such games, the ‘GM’ is usually there to mediate and provide a framework; the events and characters are developed directly by the players, with pre-game workshops are often used to create the initial background and set-up.

Allowing the players responsibility for the game like this can be a great thing. There are more ideas to throw into the mix. The players can be more invested in the development of a story they had a hand in creating. You end up with characters that are a better match for what the player wanted to try out. On the other hand, not only does the GM not know what’s happening, they now don’t even know what might be happening. This can lead to its own problems; for example, you can’t give out trigger warnings for a game if you’ve got no idea what might come up. I have also found that plots tend to be less intricate, since other players need to be able to know about and remember things. So far I have not seen an improvised game where a player has misused the trust in them to mess up the game for other players, but this is a risk – though whether this is more or less than in more ‘traditional’ freeforms I don’t know.

A simple technique for player improvisation is “Yes, And…”. Any statement given by a player should be followed by agreeing and furthering the idea, usually by beginning a follow up statement with the words “Yes, and”.  The key concept is not to deny what other people have made up, but to build on their ideas.

3rd Party GMing

Some games take a much more direct approach, and just ask the players outright to be GMs. The third party GM approach is this: if two or more players want a GM ruling on a conflict, they should consult a neutral third player. Simple, but frees up the GMs from making a lot of judgement calls when they need to be doing other things.

A variation on this is to have pre-written mini adventures, and ask players who go n expeditions to find a willing player to run it for them. Slightly more subtly, I’ve also seen some players being given the ability to assign some sort of award to other players for doing something; for example, I ran a game set in Never Never Land where some players could give out Adventure points for good storytelling.

Finally….

Because the GMs are not managing the game closely like in a tabletop game, the players of a theatre LARP become a much more valuable game resource (particularly since I feel the GMs are also an often underutilised resource, but that’s a ramble for later). Playing with half an eye on creating a fun and dramatic game will enhance the game, not only for the other players, but also for you as they bounce off and react to you. So: try playing like a GM – because this is your game.

Rei

xx

Theatre LARPS: Life After Oxford

It’s been almost a decade since I graduated and left Oxford to seek my fortune. I often get wistfully nostalgic about my time there, and especially my involvement with OURPGSoc. After all this time, Oxford still owns my heart.

Working and having to RP as an adult1 can be difficult. Thankfully, all is not lost on the gaming front. Although the exact nature of our beloved Society Game remains, as far as I can tell, unique, there are traditions out there with definite similarities. Games with a live action component, but focussed on IC interaction rather than combat. I thought I’d introduce you to the ones I’ve become most familiar with.

UK Freeforms

This is the group I first fell into, and it’s a good one, with an active mailing list and facebook group. I’m also far from the only secret OURPGer involved here! I would heartily recommend the annual convention, Consequences:

http://www.ishtari.co.uk/consequences/

It’s full of good games2, very well organised, with pre-signups designed so that everyone should get at least two of their top 3 choice of games. It’s also VERY CHEAP, which is important when you’ve just left uni and don’t have much to spare! Cost is around: £35 + £100 for a twin or double room for all 4 nights, with discounts available for GMs.

UK Freeforms also organises ‘Peaky’, which is an annual freeforms writing weekend, and new writers are encouraged to go along and give it a go. You form small writing teams, generally with a mix of writing experience, have most of the weekend to discuss and write, culminating in everyone playtesting each other’s’ games.

There’s also an annual 3 day long freeform game. This is brilliant fun and intensive, with around 70 people playing; but more expensive than the others. Recent games have included ‘Café Casablanca’, ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ (which included lots of singing), and ‘Sharpe and Sensibility’.

Comparison

The UK Freeform tradition is for games that are one-offs, with characters pre-written by the GMs, and cast prior to the game. Most of the information, items, or abilities your character is seeking to achieve their goals will be inside someone else’s character sheet. Most of the conflict is also PvP rather than an exploration of the environment. From my perspective, I found the pre-written nature to be interesting because it immediately gave me an intricate and intimate connection to the gameworld and to other characters, much more so than the Society Game ‘splats’. On the other hand, I also found it sometimes limiting; I couldn’t decide that I felt like, for example, building a Steampunk Skynet unless it’s already written into the game3.

Other Freeform Influenced Cons

Continuum began life as a Glorantha con, but has since branched out, and now includes a number of LARP/Freeforms.

Similarly, Conception3 is primarily a tabletop convention, but also includes LARPs/Freeforms.

Nine Worlds is an up-and-coming general geeky con, with Theatre LARP4 as one of the ‘tracks’ on offer. It’s an expensive con, and games are hampered by the short slot times, lack of pre-casting, and the need for players to assimilate any game information on the day in a few minutes. On the other hand, the reason for this is that it’s a large con with tracks open to just about anyone who feels like trying it out, so it’s a great place to meet new people and dip into all the geeky corners you’ve ever wondered about. I’d generally recommend Nine Worlds as a fantastic con experience. I’d also consider it my con favourite in terms of diversity and inclusion aspects; the main organisers are primarily from an LGBT event background, and the whole con has been designed with this in mind.

https://nineworlds.co.uk/

LARPs

Other examples of games outside the orbit of the Freeforms people have approached their games from a different direction, often beginning with more combat focussed LARPs or with a theatrical background and shifting focus. This tends to result in games with a different tradition and focus, but still recognisably similar.

A Foot On the Stairs was a recent game, sort of based on Downton Abbey. Participants created their own characters – either above or below stairs – to fit the setting, and most of the plot stemmed from their interactions. My impression is that the game was much lighter on plot than I’m used to; however most players said that this was a major part of the charm. They got to spend time just experiencing life ‘being’ someone in 1920s. Rules were a very light touch and largely invisible to accommodate the high immersion; the organisers put a lot of thought into rules for handling IC prejudice.

http://www.afootonthestairs.co.uk/about.html

Firecat Masquerade, who are also involved with Theatre LARPs at NineWorlds, are the group behind Tales out of Anchor. This is yet another example of a route into LARP; the group members I’ve encountered are from a largely theatre and entertainment background, who wanted to make their productions more participatory. I played in their Amnesia short game at Nine Worlds last year, and found their attention to detail superb, resulting in an atmospheric, character light theatre LARP5.

http://firecat-masquerade.com/

There are of course the ubiquitous World of Darkness games. Despite their popularity I never really got into them. I decided that while they are fun if you’re involved from the start or already have a group to play with, as an isolated newbie, I’m not involved in the plots, and nobody wants me to be because I am forced to start as a level one character and play in a game alongside other characters who are massively better at everything, including the things I’m supposedly specialised in.

There is the SCA and other re-enactment groups. Corporate team exercises. All manner of other things, things that don’t necessarily use familiar terms like ‘LARPs’ or even ‘Roleplaying’ at all. Laser Tag has spawned LARPs: Firefight organises a Firefly based game that a freeformer friend of mine particularly enjoyed6 and found to include more plot and character moments that they had expected.

http://www.firefight.org.uk/

Changing Influences

As the groups mingle, mutant hybrids are spawned. Techniques are integrated, new games with shifting focus and style. I have seen an increase in this in recent years, and the new life and growth has been good for immersive theatre/LARP/freforming/whatevers.

From the ex-Oxford side, I see attempts to introduce the idea of GMs as a resource, a setting that bites back, and a willingness to engage in insane plans8 and shoot yourself in the foot. Most of my own games have been attempts to find a freeform/Oxford balance. From this I have learned that if you’re going to allow players to essentially submit turnsheets in real time, you’ve really got to have a good GMing queue and information flow system.

The new and growing influence on the scene is Nordic style games, and its offshoots, including Jeepform and American Freeform. This style of game tends to be more about immersion, emotional engagement, improvisation, and shared artistic vision. For a better introduction from a UK Freeformer, see this document, entitled “Nordic LARPs are Toss”.

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnx0b255bWl0dG9uYWdhaW58Z3g6MzUzMDQ0NTFiNmE1MzlhZQ

From my point of view, I’ve seen a lot of games that seem to have been designed around having a really horrible experience. While there must be something in them that appeals to many players I know, I personally have no desire to emotionally engage with the hopeless feeling of knowing you’re all about to die one by one, or that survival is only possible by agreeing to enslave yourself, or what it’s like to be the plaything of a callous powerful person. This has put me off a lot of the earlier examples I saw and made me cautious about giving it a go.

However, the games on offer seem to have widened in scope. I played in my first such game last year; “None But The Brave”, run by the excellent Mo Holker7 and Traci Whitehead. We played firefighters, and the game was about exploring various types of bravery. Characters were developed in workshops, and much of our interactions in the game itself was improvised around the results. There wasn’t much of what I would call plot; but I felt like it was a richer character experience. I chose to plan a trans man struggling with an enforced idea of masculinity and heroism, which I thought worked well within the game concept.

Mo is one of those rare creatures who write freeforms for a living. He also keeps a blog on his gaming experiences, and there’s quite a lot on there detailing his exploration of Nordic style games:

http://blog.ukg.co.uk/author/mo/

Since playing ‘None But The Brave, I’ve been more willing to dip my toe in, and have even written my own game! I decided to make use of some of the new techniques – including improvisation and pre-game workshops – to write a small game with the aim of encouraging players to come up with a Star Trek episode. It’s called ‘The Prime Directive, and is told with flashback scenes reconstructed with the holodeck. We’re playtesting it next week; I’ll let you know how it goes8.

Lost Colony

I have in fact found it surprisingly easy to find other Oxforders. Friends of friends. People who pursued live games after leaving university. We spread out like tendrils of a vast cthuloid entity, insane Oxford cultists RPers, infecting other traditions with our enthusiasm and mad creativity.

It’s been almost too easy to play host to a number of events, start a few more, and deliberately cross the streams. Muahaha.

I never really left; instead I am a carrier. And I have discovered many siblings and cousins, to assimilate into the collective. You don’t need to lose anything. We’re here.

We’re always here.

Rei

xx

  1. I am 4 ft 10 and play on the swings in my lunch break. Luckily people seem willing to suspend disbelief if you help them along by wearing an appropriate costume.
  2. Including mine.
  3. Conception takes place 9 months prior to Consequences. Accommodation goes within seconds of opening, too, so if you want to go then keep an eye on the date.
  4. Curently run by me, so obviously awesome.
  5. I don’t really have anything to add, it just seemed like I’d not made a footnote in a while.
  6. This friend has repeatedly sworn never to get involved in muddy outdoor games, so it must have been good.
  7. Mo is also an ex-OURPGSocer. Mo was on the team for the very fondly remembered Society Game, ‘Inferno’.
  8. Unless it all goes horribly wrong, in which case I’ll go quiet and hope nobody asks.

Ask the Archive: Starting Points

While Ellie W is taking over as society archivist and librarian, the Nightflyer still remains a place to talk about the items in the archive and what you could do with them. If people are interested, I can turn this into a regular column providing advice on which games in the archive would suit a particular GM or player’s needs. First up: what games are a good place to start for first-time GMs?

I figure that as far as supporting a GM goes, a game has three pillars to cover:

Setting

A game that presents a strong setting or game tone can be a huge boon to GMs – it makes it easy to get players on the same page as you as far as character concepts, appropriate actions and story expectations go. A game gets bonus points for putting out a setting with enough high-level details and broad strokes to get a clear idea of how its societies function, but avoiding getting bogged down in details – this minimises the obligation on you and your players to read umpteen pages of setting minutia before getting stuck in.

Rules

Most systems occupy a point somewhere between no-rules freeform

and exhaustively-detailed crunch. I’d say both are unhelpful to starting GMs – the first puts all the weight on the GM to adjudicate the effectiveness of PCs and justify challenges, while the second can be a huge headache to remember and adjudicate or to stat up effective opposition in.

GM techniques

Some games are better than others at teaching GMs how to run them. There’s a bunch of different skills a GM has to employ over the course of a game – plotting out interesting scenarios, building antagonists and encounters, managing pacing and distributing the game’s focus between characters, and so on – and while they take a while to learn games can help you get started with them.

With that in mind, I’m going to go through some of the games in the archive and say why I feel they’re good for new GMs.

Traditional Fantasy

Swords and bows, elves and dwarves – everything an adventurer could want.

Dungeons and Dragons

The behemoth that created and in many ways defines the hobby, D&D has likely been the starting point for more GMs than any other game. While other games may provide a simpler, more freeform, or less combat-focused experience, you can count on D&D to provide lots of character options, a mechanics-dense system for crunch-oriented players to get their teeth into, and robust GM advice. I’d particularly recommend 4th edition, as it has clear and cleanly presented rules, fun things for every player to do, and incredibly comprehensive and well-written advice for GMs on statting and running encounters, plotting an adventure, and providing cool monsters for you to use.

In the Archive, the Rules Compendium gives you the basic system, the Monster Vault gives dozens of creatures to use complete with tokens and battlemaps, the various Player Handbooks give character options, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives you advice on running the game and creating adventures.

13th Age

If you’re in the mood for fantasy adventure but want something with a stronger setting, more room for player creativity, and less fiddly rules, 13th Age may be what you’re looking for. I’ve already gone over it a bit here, but 13th Age has a few advantages over standard D&D: First, the setting has plenty of strong flavour, but is primarily defined by the opposing machinations of 13 Icons. These figures – some good and some evil, some supporting the status quo and some undermining it – allow local plots to be easily tied into global plotlines, and the Relationships characters have to these Icons give them a hook into the bigger picture.

Second, each player defines One Unique Thing about their character that makes them special. This can be mundane (you have an incredible alcohol tolerance), supernatural (you were born with wings), political (you’re the first elf to be born in five centuries), or something else, but they immediately provide a cool fact about your character and something to hang future plots off.

Finally, its combat is dynamic and tactical without being too complex – while it can use miniatures it doesn’t tether them to a grid, and character and monster abilities are written to be dramatic and powerful without needing bookkeeping.

Dungeon World

If you want to run a game of fantasy adventure but don’t want to learn a bunch of mechanics, or want to put more emphasis on creativity and improvisation, Dungeon World could be the game for you. Built on the incredibly flexible and flavourful Apocalypse Engine, Dungeon World puts all the mechanics you need on a couple of sheets of paper and lets you get straight into roleplaying. Dungeon World can be a bit more challenging for new GMs – the flexible combat means there’s no initiative order to take care of balancing PC screen time for you, and you need to be able to think on your feet and adjust the scenario according to player input – but it makes up for this by creating great stories without needing mechanical competency from the GM.

Horror

The things that lurk in dark alleys, scuttle and scrape in shadows, and threaten to overturn your perceptions of reality…

Vampire: the Requiem (2nd edition)

Previously reviewed here under its old name, Vampire is a game about the secret society of bloodsuckers that hide in the shadows of the modern world. The new edition comes with lots of advantages:

  • The different vampire clans have a range of terrifying and amazing powers to choose from, giving characters interesting things to do from the start.
  • Rejiggered systems that cut straight to the drama – everything from XP to status effects are presented in a simple, easily-understandable manner and push the drama along.
  • A range of detailed cities to set your game in, and a ‘default’ campaign in the form of the Strix – owl-demons made of shadow and flame that bear a strange malice towards vampires.

The core New World of Darkness system is also great for playing more traditional horror stories, where everyday people must investigate and fight for their lives against monsters, spirits and depraved maniacs.

Monsters and Other Childish Things

Ever had an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What if they weren’t so imaginary? What if they had strange hungers, plentiful tentacles, and caused as much well-meaning chaos as a poorly-housebroken puppy?

Monsters and Other Childish Things (reviewed here) is a simple, punchy game about childhood, imagination and responsibility. Monster creation is incredibly fun – basically drawing a picture of your monster, and assigning points to its various cool features – and the system is easy to get a handle on while still providing possibilities for drama. Finally, the book comes with dozens of different antagonists, and a starter adventure to get your game up and running.

Generic Systems

If you already have a setting you want to play in, or want to build one up with your players, a generic system might be a good choice for you.

The archive has two good fits for this: Fate Accelerated and Savage Worlds. Which one you should go for depends on your preferences: if you want a crunchy, tactical game go for Savage Worlds, while if you want a narrative-heavy game where characters are defined by their philosophy or history more than their strength or dexterity go for Fate Accelerated. Both games are very short books, have a system that’s easy to get to grips with, and have more supplements you can bring in if you want systems for specific things like magic or cybernetics, or settings to run your games in.

Done!

So there we go! To request a book from the archive, use the contact form on the right.

For the next column, I need your help: if you have a game idea and want to know how the archive can help, let me know!

New in the Archive: Bumper Bonus Round

Thanks to the recent generosity of a number of individuals the archive has grown considerably. I thought I’d use a single post to let everybody know the choicest books, as well as the complete list of books.

13th Age and 13 True Ways

Created by the lead designers of 3rd and 4th edition D&D, this game (and its expansion) aims to fuse the best bits of both – the tactics and mechanical rigor of 4th edition and the more freeform roleplaying focus of 3rd. The included setting is pretty standard fantasy, although it makes it gameable in a way few other settings do by defining a list of 13 ‘Icons’ that between them represent the various forces acting on the Dragon Empire. Whether they’re the order and civilization-loving Dragon Emperor, the cunning and icy Lich King, or the Crusader pushing back the forces of hell so his dark gods can devour the world instead, each has interesting quirks you can mine for plot seeds. Your character starts with relationships to this icons right off the bat that you can use to get aid from their organisation (if friendly) or enemies (if hostile), and the GM is encourages to use these rolls to work out what factions are involved in the plot of the week rather than deciding beforehand.

Character creation is reasonably simple; you pick a class (one of 15 from the simple Barbarian or Sorceror to the complex Wizard or Battle Captain), choose a race (the game comes with the fantasy staples, as well as simple rules to build your own), pick a few talents from the class to customise your particular character, and pick backgrounds (like skills but more flexible – instead of getting +3 herbalism and +2 healing you can instead put down ‘student of elven healers +3’ and use that for everything it’s appropriate for). The final step is to decide on your character’s One Unique Thing – something about them that no-one else in the world has, and that marks them out as someone worth paying attention to. This can be as simple and mundane as being the only elf in the world with human ears, or as weird as being a paladin so holy you came back from the dead as a skeleton. Either way they help the GM frame their campaign, and give you interesting things to do.

On the other side of the GM screen, the game comes with a bevy of different monsters to use, all with nasty tricks you can give them if you want to make encounters a little tougher. Monsters are a lot simpler than PCs to run, and have their average roll result listed for most actions so that the GM doesn’t need to bother rolling themselves.

13th Age is a lot of fun, and for me resolved many of the issues I had with recent D&D editions. If it sounds good, take a look!

Cthulhu, Cthulhu, Cthulhu

As is appropriate for an old library full of strange tomes, we’ve gathered quite a few books that focus on that most abhorrent and tentacled of entities. Of particular interest were three books: The Laundry FilesDelta Green, and Dreamhounds of Paris.

The Laundry Files is an adaptation of Charles Stross’ Lovecraftian spy thrillers, in which magic is nothing more than a complex series of equations that melt your brain if you try to perform them mentally and that reach out into the dark space between dimensions to summon power. It follows that after the invention of the computer, magic got a lot easier and the various cults that worship the outer entities got a lot more troubling. Our only defense against these threats is the poorly-funded, barely-remembered, so-classified-it-doesn’t-have-a-name security department that lives above Capital Laundry Services in London. Armed with a little knowledge, a few occult cantrips, smartphones loaded with reality-twisting apps and the occasional firearm, it’s your job to slow the world’s descent into madness a few more days. Just try not to die – the paperwork for converting you into a residual human resource is hell…

Taking the idea of security forces against Cthulhu across the pond, Delta Green is a game of government conspiracy and dark horror. You play members of the eponymous paramilitary organisation, born in the aftermath of the U.S. government’s 1928 raid on the coastal town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. For four decades Delta Green investigated and fought back the various horrors of the mythos – deep ones, cultists, things which lurk in angles – until a botched operation in Cambodia lead the government to close them down. Although stripped of official sanction, the remaining members swore an oath to continue fighting even as they started new careers as scientists, spies and security guards. Now the organisation communicates through dead drops and secure servers, using the federal bureaucracy to fight against the dark forces that have infiltrated every branch of society – from UFO hunters stumbling upon something they cannot understand to the secretive dark conspiracy of Majestic-12. Delta Green has a lot more of a government conspiracy vibe to it – think the X-Files, or Fringe – deception is a right, truth is a privilege, innocence is a luxury. The book comes with adaptations to the Call of Cthulhu system, background details on every US government agency as inspiration for character’s day jobs, enemy organisations like a criminal syndicate of occultists, immortal nazis serving a risen Hitler, and the extraterrestrial Mi-Go, and two scenarios and a short campaign to run players through.

Finally, Dreamhounds of Paris returns to the classic Cthulhu time period of the 20s and 30s. Written for the investigation-focused Trail of Cthulhu, Dreamhounds charts the rise and fall of the surrealist movement and extrapolates their real-life fervour to create a global psychic revolution into a war of conquest waged across the landscape of mankind’s dreams. Play as two-fisted filmmaker Luis Bunuel, American expat photographer Man Ray, or impish young painter Salvador Dali in a intricately-detailed Paris taking you from the 1920s to the occupation, and from the mundane world to the nightmare-stalked, cat-filled landscapes of distant Ulthar. This book includes a timeline of the real-life surrealist movement, descriptions and discussions of their art and what they were hoping to achieve with it, 19 different pregenerated characters to play as, and a guide to the surreal landscape of the dreamlands and its strange inhabitants.

I’m not planning on standing again as archivist after this term, but while I still have the books let me know if you want to give any of them a look!

Here’s a full list of the new additions:

Vampire: the Requiem (1e): core book, The Invictus, Ordo Dracula, Lancea Sanctum, VII, Bloodlines: The Hidden.
Vampire: The Masquerade (Revised)
Vampire: The Masquerade (2e)
Wraith: The Oblivion (Revised)
Mage: The Ascension (Revised)
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (Revised)
Exalted (1e): Core Book, The Dragon-Blooded, The Lunars, The Abyssals, plus a lot more supplements.
Burning Wheel and Character Burner (2E)
Gary Gygax’s Necropolis
Midnight: Fury of Shadow
Spycraft (2e)

From the Vaults: Oxford in the Larger World of Roleplaying

628x471As the Archivist, I have a box full of old editions of the Nightflyer back when it was a print magazine. While I was organising and clearing out excess copies, I started reading them and found some very interesting articles. As I thought the society might appreciate seeing what people thought was interesting and important in past years, I’m going to be posting some of these ancient articles over the next few weeks. First up: a depiction of OURPGSoc’s characteristic roleplaying style from 10 years ago.

By Hanbury Hampden-Turner, Michaelmas 2004.

One thing that several visitors to Oxford have mentioned is that they do (or do not) appreciate the ‘Oxford style’ of roleplaying. It should first be pointed out what an achievement it is to get such a distinctive group of people together that such a description is possible. Many clubs and groups don’t seem to have much in common with each other, and it’s common to get a society without any common identity at all. At least part of this must be down to the Oxford society game, an institution that, whatever its faults, means that large numbers of members role-play with each other in the same game every year. That’s not common in the wider world, and leads to a far greater cohesiveness than we would otherwise have.

But it has other effects as well. One of the most popular comments, for good or ill, is that Oxford people are loud! The set up of the society game means that influence is roughly equivalent to how many people listen to you, and being confident and boisterous is far more common that it might be in a tabletop. In one of the Oxford-Cambridge joint games the players were city leaders discussing the defence of the city against a threatening horde. One of the Oxford players asked if he could make a speech, and his Cambridge referee agreed. His comments as to what dice he might roll were made to an empty chair as the player climbed up onto the meeting table, sword drawn, and started to roar about pride, guts and glory.

All of which made him a target. Out Cambridge colleagues were carefully and methodically working behind the scenes, trying to intrigue, support and counterplot, and setting yourself up as a n obviously influential figure was to their minds a recipe for disaster. Most of the memorable performances that day were from Oxford, but the careful behind the scenes plotting was dominated by Cambridge. In the end their characters probably achieved more, and our characters were more distinctive personalities. Our Cambridge hosts, much to our surprise, declared the former to be a more important measure of skill at the game.

A judgement I suspect most of us would disagree with. But it must be admitted that Oxford players make notoriously bad co-conspirators. Keeping one eye on a good story, and one eye on a good portrayal of an often badly flawed character, an Oxford player often ends up with characters that effectively self-destruct. In the Thieves’ Guild society game, a secret PC conspiracy called the Chimera came to light when one of the members made a full public confession and then committed suicide during a meeting. Suddenly the hunt for the rest of the members of the conspiracy was on. As one player said to me, “yes it’s very dramatic, but you can see why my character didn’t join them, now can’t you?” I would suggest that there’s no point having secrets unless they come out, and no point having a conspiracy unless it is uncovered, but others might argue that there is no point having a plan at all unless, at least on some level, you want it to actually succeed. Is it better role-playing to contrive to fail? As one player of a detective memorably said: “I don’t really investigate anything, I just lead the police around until we find out whose turn it is to confess this week.”

While the commitment to the plan might be in doubt however, the plan itself is another matter. Oxford plans are marvelous creations, intricate, detailed, and above all unusual. Above all, that is, including such minor details as practicality, realism, and downright good sense. One vampire game I played in had a character arrange for a hoax fight in an alleyway, to draw in a passer-by, to mug him, to get his driver’s license, to visit the police yard, to claim a clamped van, so he could drive it around. This plan was explained to me while the player was sitting in the minivan we’d hired that evening for less than thirty pounds. In all the society games I’ve seen, more characters have died from exploding food than in combat. Again I think this makes for far more interesting games, but it can be a problem. Some genres rely on a clean, simple and fast flowing style. Gangsters probably shouldn’t be getting into the rival gang’s nightclub posing as health and safety inspectors, and elder vampires should be fearing bands of desperate or vengeful kindred, not vanfuls of thirsty transgenic mutant fanged ghoul ostriches.

New in the Archive: Unframed – the Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Improvisation is a crucial skill for a GM: whether you prefer to preplan you sessions in exhaustive detail, or to make it up as you go along, you’ll need to know how to take in the player’s input, keep the game moving, and react to the unexpected curveballs your players throw at you. Unframed is a book designed to teach you those skills, bringing together essays from GM and game designer legends to give readers tips on story planning, NPC roleplaying, and how to adapt to player’s preferences. It’s an entertaining and interesting read, with something interesting for novices and experienced GMs alike. I’m going to be posting more articles on GMing soon, but for now here’s a free excerpt:

Improvising Dialogue Sequences by Robin D. Laws

Robin D. Laws’ newest roleplaying game is Hillfolk, in which you weave an epic of dramatic interaction in an age of hungry empires. Previous RPG designs include The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Feng Shui, and HeroQuest. His fiction projects include eight novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. He comprises one-half of the Golden Geek Award winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at robindlaws.com

As a GM your most extended exercises in off-the-cuff invention occur during dialogue sequences. Internalizing the simple structure behind character interaction in fiction, scripted and improvised, allows you to sharpen these scenes, making them fun, memorable, and rich in story opportunity.
Petitioner and Granter: Understanding the Scene
A simple structure powers scenes of any character interaction in drama, fiction, cinema, or TV. One character wants something from another character.

  • Wash wants Zoë to show that she cares more about him than she does about Mal.
  • Cersei wants to reestablish her position of superiority over Tyrion.
  • Loki wants Thor to let him out of his cell.

The first character makes a petition of the second character, hoping to get that thing. That makes the first character the petitioner. The character hearing the petitioner has the power to grant this request. That makes the character the granter—although granters refuse requests as often as they grant them. In the above examples, Wash, Cersei, and Loki take the roles of petitioner, while Zoë, Tyrion, and Thor are the granters.

(If this all sounds familiar to you, you perhaps recognize it as the heart of my game Hillfolkand its DramaSystem rules engine. The terms petitioner and granter come from The Conversations, a book-length interview of the legendary film editor Walter Murch by novelist Michael Ondaatje.)

Roleplaying dialogue scenes work the same way. The only difference is standard to RPGs, in that they frequently feature an ensemble of protagonists. Often they’ll make joint petitions of a single character, speaking en masse. Slightly more rarely, they’ll be petitioned as a group, acting as a granter together. Often, you as GM will make a petition in a two-hander scene (one featuring two characters), your NPC and one PC. The PC may then take the petition back to the rest of the group and they’ll debate what to do about it.

The first step, then, in sharpening your improvised dialogue scenes is to identify the petitioner and granter. Thankfully this is a simple call—if an NPC proposes something to the PCs, the NPC is the petitioner and one or more PCs acts as the granter.

  • The March Warden (an NPC) asks the PCs to clear the great swamp of encroaching orcs.
  • Euston Chau (an NPC) asks Dominic (a PC and his wannabe son-in-law) to have Mr. Bright (another PC) committed to a mental institution.
  • The Mugwump (an NPC supervillain) tells Redblade (a PC vigilante) to lay off, or he’ll reveal Redblade’s secret identity.

Petitioning is active; it seeks to overcome the granter’s resistance to put a new story point in motion. Assuming you’re letting the PCs drive the story, they’ll be making more petitions of your NPCs than vice versa.

  • The PCs ask the old hermit they encounter out in the great swamp if he’s seen any orc activity.
  • Dominic asks Euston’s chief security officer why he cares so much about Mr. Bright being sent to an institution.
  • Redblade pressures the gatekeeper of a criminal dark data network for access to the Mugwump’s file cache.

Identifying the petitioner helps by requiring you to pin down what the scene is about. When you’re playing the petitioner, you usually know that from the outset. (Sometimes you’ll shift your NPC’s goal in response to what the player says, which is good. But you still know in the first place what the character seeks, and you still know even if that changes in mid-scene.)
When you’re playing the granter, you find out what the scene is about partway through, when the players make clear their requests. You know your NPC is being petitioned, and immediately or gradually come to understand what the petition is about. When you figure it out partway through, it’s often because the players are also trying to work out what they want from the character. Expect this to happen when you introduce a new NPC without establishing right away what her role in the storyline might be.
When a roleplaying scene seems shapeless, it’s usually because neither you nor the players know what its purpose is, and are muddling around trying to find it. With the petitioner’s goal identified, you see how it can proceed to a resolution.