Bringing Back the Sense of Consequence...

I've watched another Buffy episode today, also from the 3rd season. One concept slipped to my mind from it. It's nothing new, or surprising, but it's the single best way to stop our murder hobos from doing something that they're gonna regret about forever. The concept is consequences. If there will be consequences for what the PCs do, the PCs will stop with doing evil bad things for no apparent reason.
Anyway, here are 4 quick ways to bring back the sense of consequences to the game:

  1. The police and other law enforcement groups are the single most common way to deal with it. Sure, players will sometimes pooh-pooh the police, but the sheer numbers of the policemen should be enough for that. If a party member commits a huge crime, have a chaotic scene in which the police takes the characters to an investigation, and the rest will be history...
  2. Dreams. When that particular PC sleeps, dreams about the infamous action will come to the character's head. If the character has problems with sleeping, that little extra edge has been achieved. 
  3. Vengeance. No real need to expand it, I think...
  4. Alienation from the world. The stink of the evil doers has been glued to the character. People are whispering around him/her, every shadow is like a killing machine ready to destroy him/her...
And that's it for today. How about you? How do you bring this sense back?


Eleanor Sells Her Next Adventure

The first adventure went smoothly. Really smoothly, actually. Eleanor was about to start thinking about how she shall sell the next one. She went through her notes, going over the PCs' backgrounds, and created the next adventure. It was supposed to be an adventure based around a magic item that the group was supposed to reach before a creature. She thought about this magic item, about how it was created and about how the creature was unleashed from it.
She then thought about what she finds the coolest aspect of the game, about the aspect that makes this adventure her adventure. She understood that if she'll focus on this aspect, she'll sell it better. The enthusiasm started to fill her, and a smile went through her face.
The next part was easier. She went through the NPCs that she has defined, and picked the one that was the most appropriate. Lady Mellisa was picked for the task, as she was the group's patron.
She then went to decide about when she'll suggest it. She was torn between suggesting it mid-adventure and at the end of it. She picked the end, as Lady Mellisa was on a quest of her own, and she weren't supposed to return 'till the end of the PCs' adventure.
Then, after she had all of this, she thought about the little details: About the legend of Geldofious, the amazing wizard who locked this vile creature in his sword. She thought about how the creature ended in the other side of the world, when it went out. More importantly to her, she thought about how it was supposed to affect the inhabitants of the little village. "Starvation and suffering", she thought, "and little thin children, with big eyes and way too thin bodies like..." The thoughts rolled in her mind, and...

When the time came, she used this way to sell the adventure. The suggestion went perfectly great, and the group was on its way, ready to face the creature...

So, this is how both I and Eleanor sell our adventures. How about you? What ways do you use for it? How does it turn out?


The Player Is Responsible Also

Yeah, I took the other day off. But today we're back in business. Anyway, today I wanted to talk about something that bugs my mind. You probably read this also, these many posts that talk about the role of the GM as the lead entertainer, and I agree with them, but I don't think that it's an excuse for the player to only go for his (or her) fun.
You see, The GM is responsible for about 40-50% of the fun (and according to Robin Laws, the rule set for another 30%). It still leaves about 20-30% of the fun to the players. I personally believe that just as like the way the GM sacrifices from his/her fun in order to make everyone to enjoy the game, so it is the player's responsibility. The little player, not the group. 
I truly believe that fun is just like laughter, the only disease that you wanna get. It spreads like one, and some people fight it just like it is one. This means that if everyone at the table has fun, I'll have also. And it will be a much more rewarding fun than the type where only that certain player is enjoying it. 
What I'm trying to say is that a great player is responsible for more than just his/her enjoyment, but to the enjoyment of everyone. I might, in the future, make a more elaborate look at the differences between great player and a good player, as I see them, but 'till then...
How about you? Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to tell me what you think.


Finally, I'm Starting Campaigns Again...

I'm starting 2 new campaigns, possibly, next week. One is the anticipated Call of Cthulhu campaign, which will start surely next week. I hope that it will be a great campaign, and I'm giving everything that I've got to it. It's gonna be a purist campaign, and I'm starting to think about what I'm going to do with it.
The second campaign that I'm going to open is a PbP campaign, of investigative horror. I still don't know anything about it, but they were asking for one, and I posted a teaser already. It's a murder mystery, with elements of Film Noir, and a lot of dog's perfume.


My Whole Life Depends on a Barber's Whim

A quick thought for today: I was at the barber shop today. While he cut my hair off, I couldn't stop thinking about one thing: "My whole life depends right now on the barber's whim." As anyone of you who has watched Sweeney Todd (or read about him) knows, a barber can decide to finish the life of his customers without the customers' ability to stop him (or her). 
This led me think about roles in our RPG stories that are also like that, making the customer depend on their whim. What follows is a list of such roles, and an idea about how they can be used to encompass this idea. The why, you see, is pretty simple: a) Because we can do it, as GMs. b) It can be interesting and dramatic. c) It will make the PCs mortal, and as such will make the game richer and more challenging. So, anyway, on to the list:

  • Barber: Nothing much to say, except for, you know, going for a Todd's style.
  • Chef: Have you thought once about the possibility that when coming to a restaurant, they may be poisoning the food? It won't be hard to do it. The kitchen is normally far, most of the ingredients aren't recognisable anyway, and most of all, because the kitchen is open to see, no one will suspect what's happening there.
  • Potion seller/brewer: Nothing too fancy or surprising. Who wouldn't buy an anti-poison potion? Make this anti-poison a real potent poison and you've got a hit. After all, it only gives a bonus...
  • Judge: What if one of our beloved murder hobos is gonna be hanged?
  • Ship Captain: Remember the scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, where Jack almost throws Will to the water? How about the lone island scene?
So, how about you? Do you have something similar in your games?

5 Quick Tips for Roleplaying Nobles Better

Every now and then, we wanna introduce to the game a noble or 2. Maybe we want this noble to be the PCs' patron or maybe even their political or military or whatever nemesis. Then, as we start to think about it, we begin to understand that roleplaying a noble is not that easy. Especially since we're probably not nobles ourselves. So, instead of throwing this idea to the garbage truck, here are a few tips to roleplay those nobles better:

  1. Imagine to yourself how this noble looks and smell. If you can bring a description, a colourful one, of how the noble looks and dresses, you can bring the noble look. Smell is important too, as it enables you to convey richness through perfumes or simplicity through wilder smell. Think about a noble after a good hunting trip or another after 2 days at bed. The smell is an easy way to differentiate between them.
  2. Think about the noble's gender. There are some expectations, especially from nobles, about what each one's gender role is. A lady will have to behave differently from a baron. Crossing these restrictions can bring the picture of the rebellious noble with a lot of ease...
  3. Talk with your head barely moving. It's a powerful technique to raise the speaker's statues. Don't think about it, just do it and many other characteristics of high statues will come with it.
  4. Be polite. The politer you are, the better it will be (but try not to cross into the comical realm of politeness). It doesn't have to get to the highest ranks, but adding please and thanks and shaking hands in a certain way will take you far.
  5. Take comfort in silence. Nobles made, over the years, the act of conveying things through silence into an art. Take comfort in silences, speak shortly and a little bit slowly, and take your time before you answer...
So, these are my 5 tips for playing noble characters. How about you? How do you roleplay them?


Lessons from Buffy's Homecoming

I'm watching Buffy, again. I still find new things there, quite a lot, actually, which is kinda nice. Anyway, in season 3, there's an episode that just screams: "GMs, learn from me!" This episode is on the right with this scream. It's a golden episode for GMs.
So, without any far ado, let's get to the nitty business. What can we learn from this episode?

  • Drama is prominent in the small details and not only in the big ones. Look at the conversation between Buffy and Angel at the beginning of the episode. You can feel the tension in the air. You can sense the drama that whispers in our ears when she tells him that she moved forward. It's a small scene, the only scene with Angel in this episode, and yet it's one of the most dramatic ones in the episode.
  • To create a sense of conspiracy, little hints are all you need. Look at the beginning of the episode, when Scott breaks with her. We suddenly move to a view from a camera. It's all we needed. There's a conspiracy there, and we know it. It was prominent earlier in the season, when Snyder talked about the mayor also. Little details and little hints, and suddenly the sense of conspiracy is there.
  • The protagonists have normal life also. Even slayers like Buffy have normal life, or at least the need for it. A contest for the Homecoming Queen, a basketball game, it doesn't really matter what it is exactly, but give a sense of normality. No one is a hero (or a heroine) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • When done good, party conflicts can bump the tension quite a lot. It can also give excuses for adventures. If there wasn't this conflict, it would have been Buffy and Faith, and as such much less interesting.
  • If the players come with a nonviolent way to solve a violent event, go for it. Cordelia lies to Lyle about being a slayer, and the better one, and it works. Being used after such a conflict between them, I wished to see the face of Buffy when she heard it...
  • Think about how you show your big bad of the campaign. The mayor is presented greatly, with a scene that both shows how he reacts with people, and both shows how evil he is. Having your villain focus on such things as how dirty one's hands are, we get an intriguing fella. Use it.
  • Using meanwhile scenes to present the dangers that are coming to the PCs can be a useful tool. It both shows the antagonists at their peaks, and also creates a sense of danger.
  • Contests are a sure way to get the engines rolling.
  • When organising a cool adventure, think about its name, and present it to the players (and to their characters) in an intriguing way. An exploding TV, a plane that falls on them, a dream sequence... If it will come in a cool way, it will be remembered better.
So, these are my 9 lessons from this episode. How about you? What lessons did you take from this episode?

I Got a Cannon Once...

A few years ago, I was a player in one of the strangest D&D games I've ever played with. You see, we were a party of 2, one was an angel, and I played a succubus. The game opened with a battle on the city we were resting in, and as good adventurers, we were called to the battle to fight for our city.
But because we were adventurers, and I as a succubus was a very good diplomat, I got an acid cannon. Yeah, an acid cannon in a D&D game. Not only that, though, it was a mobile cannon, that my medium succubus could carry with her to wherever she wanted to go with it.
Needless to say, we won the battle. Like every group of adventurers, we went to loot the bodies. Another cannon! This time a fire cannon. The angel got the fire one, I got the acid one, and as the team leader, he went after me. 
From there, the game went fast. My little succubus conquered almost the entire world in sheer months, using both her military powers (haven't I said I had a cannon?) and her "good-looks"... Place after place, city after city, empire after empire, they all fell for my little succubus.
One thing unexpected happened, though. You see, my little succubus got pregnant. It was the end of the march to conquer the world for me. I decided that when conquering the world is so easy, "my baby" deserves better, and I spent my time with her.
The campaign didn't continue much more than that... 
Now, why am I telling you this? It's not because I got a cannon (I think it was one of the coolest ideas ever), and certainly not because I was a succubus. It was due to one reason: The game stopped to be interesting, when my victory was sure, and there was drama no more. The game became a dull dice rolling thing, with a few witty remarks from me (at least I think they were witty...). So, next time you bring a cannon to your players, think about a dramatic use for it...

P.S, It doesn't have to be a cannon. It can also be a nuke or even the Death Ray of Kalikachuchu...


3 Techniques for NPC Names

A quick thought for today: Your players aren't gonna remember your NPCs' names. So, instead of trying to come up with clever names, try to find other names to make them remembered. Using names of famous people is one way. "Have you met my friend, Mozart?" Or maybe even "my other friend Buffy?" A famous name can be used to both create the picture, the voice and so on, and it will also be remembered better. "Remember that 2 years ago we met Mary Poppins?"
Another technique can be to call most of them with names like Jima, Jimb, Jimc... And then bring a name like Robert. It will make this name to stand up with ease. It will also help them to remember those not unique characters.
My last technique for today is by using descriptive names. "Do you remember Bluerobe?"
Although all of these techniques aren't natural, all of them have worked for me in the past. How about you? How do you make sure that your players remember the important names?

6 Reasons to Describe the Weather

"It's a sunny day, the clouds are rolling like babies in the sky, and the sun shines like a 24 Carat gold bar." Look at this little bit of weather description. What atmosphere does it create? Does it give hope for the day? Think now on an opposite weather description, of a lightning storm. Wouldn't an adventure seem desperate now?
Weather descriptions can give quite a lot to the game. Far more than I can write about in this post. Yet, it's one of the most overlooked bits of description. So, here are a few reasons for why you should use weather descriptions in your game:

  1. Weather descriptions can help to make the world more realistic. If the sun is always at the height of the sky, not moving, not changing, the world doesn't feel alive- it feels frozen in time.
  2. It can help to create and maintain the atmosphere of the game. A stormy day can detract hope from even the bravest hero, and if the storm will suddenly be broken, there will hope. Fog can bring paranoia, storms can bring horror...
  3. It can bring the people of the world something to talk about. There's a reason that conversations about weather are a kind of ice breakers...
  4. It can be used as a way to signal what you want from your players. If done lightly enough, weather can be one of the most cunning ways to say what you want from your players. "I will go and destroy the goblin village. -As you walk, the nearer you get to the village, the foggier the surrounding is..."
  5. It can add little bits of colour to the game.
  6. It can be a reason to important conversations. A woman runs during a rainy day to get cover, and a man suggests to her his umbrella. Suddenly, we have a meeting between the persons who can be the centre of the plot...
How about you? How do you use weather in your games?


They Called It D&D

They say that GM-less games are a special thing. They are, but not that much. Once, a long time ago, was a game that took the roles to an extreme. There was a person there who used to decide what every player will do. "So, Bob, you're going from left, Mellisa will go from the right". She was the only person to decide it. That person was able to ask for advice, but she was the sole decision maker.
Then, there was another one. She was there to recount everything that happened, and played the entire memory of the PCs. Whenever they had to be reminded of something, she was there, going through the memory lane, entering to house 241 and saying giving the name of the person, his occupation and why they should have remembered him.
Then was the calculator, she was there to go over the party's money, and was supposed to say what they can afford and what they can't. She was like the bank of the group, a money aspect in the story.
But it wasn't enough, as it seems. 2 people were there, who were supposed to go over the belongings of the party. One was there for the temporary things, and for those that dwindle, like food and water, just like a food spirit; the other was there for the magical and ordinary things that doesn't dwindle, that are there for good (or until they were replaced).
The last one was the health of the group. Whenever someone was hit, she was there to say if the hit character was still on her feet, or unconscious and dying. Sometimes, this health spirit was able to heal the dying ones. Other times, she couldn't.
They called this game a classic; they even said that this was the first game of its kind, the most popular one in the RPG market. They called it D&D...

5 Great Fears

Today I wanna talk a little bit about the things that we are afraid of. I talked a lot in the past weeks about information and expositions, about plots (twice) and about isolation. What I didn't talk about, though, was about what we're afraid of. I've touched it a little bit when I talked about how to create the monster in the story, but that's about it. So, without any more introductions thingy, let's get our hands dirty...
We can create about 5 groups of things that we're afraid of. Almost any horror story/ movie or the like falls at least in one of those groups. They are, of course, not frightening to the same degree, and a more frightening level is usually harder to truly achieve. Yet, it can be achieved, and it usually deserves this amount of energy. 

1) Evil Threatening Us
This is the least frightening level. In this level, the horror that we're dealing with, stalks us. The killer tries to kill us is the easiest example. Most of the Slasher Movies fall into this category. Look for example on Halloween. Michael stalks Laurie, trying to kill her. Even when he kills other persons, it's only after we grew a little bit of sympathy for them. He's not hurting anyone to make Laurie on her toes, but just to kill them. It can be seen in Psycho too, when Bates kills his victims only after we saw a little bit of them. We get to like Marion; we get to like the inspector...

2) Evil Threatening Others
A little bit more interesting level is the one where the horror stalks the one we're closed to, but we can't do anything to prevent it. Buffy's episode Passion is a great example of this: Angelus teases Buffy, but he kills Jenny in order to drive Giles mad, he kills Willow's fish to get her out of her comfort zone, he stalks Buffy's mother in order to drive Buffy out of her nerves, and all of this combination of things drives Buffy into making a few mistakes along the way (and almost costs with Giles life). 
It can be seen in The Exorcist too, where we see how our protagonists tries to save her daughter, calling for psychiatric help and later to the exorcists.

3) Creating Evil Ourselves
Now we're starting to get our hands really dirty. The horror doesn't come from the outside world, but out of our creations. Look at Frankenstein, for example, where we can see the Frank's creation is the one that destroys his life, or at Rosemary's baby, where Rosemary's afraid of the possibility that the child that she's carrying is a monster. 
One of the reasons that this is the level where we get really dirty is that in this level, the horror isn't only from the other side, from the outside world, but it also comes from within, "it was my creation that did this..."

4) Being Evil Ourselves
Advancement in the curve, the horror is really us. We are the evil thing; we are the monster that everyone is afraid of... Vamp stories are the clearest example of this: "I get to live forever, but at what price?" Werewolf stories address this level also, as we lose control of ourselves and become the monsters. We see the horror as it happens, remembering every little bit of it, but without the ability to do something. 
It can also be seen in such stories as The black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, in which our protagonists is going mad and kills his beloved cat, resulting in a series of crimes to prevent the discovery of this thing. It ends really badly for out protagonist.

5) Living in an Evil World
This is the highest level of horror. Lovecraft used this level a lot in his cosmic horror stories, as this is where they come from. Most of the stories and films that happen in a dream world drive their power from this fear, as does some that are not horror (The Matrix is a great example of this). Living in an Evil World can also mean living in world with no good within it, or discovering that everything we thought we knew about this world is wrong.

And that's it for today. How do you use these fears in your games? To what levels do you strive when GMing horror?


Using Villain Songs to Flesh Out Villains

A little thought for today: When designing the villain for the game, find a villain song for it. Villain song is a great way to express the villain, and to get the hang of him/her. Think about the Dentist Song from Little Shop of Horrors, for example, and see how we get the essence of our main villain in a nutshell, in a moment.
It doesn't have to be a real villain song, though. Imagine a villain that is defined by a song about how the ragged people need help, or about a villain song like Annabel Lee.
A song lie this can bring us the background of the villain, his/her motivations and goals, and even the enemies. We can also get the personality of the villain. A villain inspired by Annabel Lee will be immature and insecure, while a villain inspired by the Dentist Song will be a sadistic person. A good villain song can also give us the way of action most favoured by the villain (like being a dentist in ordered to get paid for causing pain to others), although it's not a must have (as can be seen in villain songs like Pretty Women).
How about you? Do you use songs to create your villains? If so, how?

Different Kinds of Campaigns

There are many types of campaigns. Some are big, some are small, some are episodic and some are one long story that stretches for years with no breaks out of it. There are those dungeons who take the characters from level 1 to 15 and then a little more and those campaigns who take the characters from level 1 to 5 with 2 little adventures within it to call it a campaign. 
There are those campaigns in which each session is a complete adventure, with different enemies and goals. "Today, you have to collect the sheets of Amon-Ra", Yesterday they had to kill Shamalanious. The only connection between the adventures in this campaign is the main cast of protagonists. It's the same Spoke and the same Luke and the same Castle. If there's character advancement, it's small and not that grandiose. There are no weddings or childbirths, no funerals of the characters' parents, and the characters need years to advance emotionally.
There are also those campaigns in which each session is a complete adventure, except for a few 2-times to advance the plot even further. There's a clear big bad in the end, but there are breaks from him (or her) every few session to bring anticipation for the comeback of the big bad. The characters advance a lot, getting friends and losing them, getting closer to some ones and losing them and so on. The main cast of Buffy and Angel and many more is suddenly getting the help of Angel who turned into Angelus, they have suddenly the need to confront the big bad Geppetto and so on. Still a main cast, but there's also the main villain.
There are also the campaign that stretches for years, without clear ending, that just grow bigger and bigger in years, with the same big bad in the end, even after so many years, and no breaks to clear the mind have been seen since the campaign started. Neo still has to fight Agent Smith, even after so many years, and since the second age they are still trying to defeat Sauron. One day it may end, but 'till then there's no other choice but to keep getting closer to this end point.
And there are of course many campaigns that fall between the lines, between the walls of imaginary "no-trespassing", maybe parodying or maybe trying to advance those walls to save the games from becoming all too similar patterns. Campaigns in which each act is in a different style, campaigns in which every act has a different director or GM and so on...
How about your campaigns? To where do they fall? Do they have a category of their own?


5 Ways to Use the PCs' Families in the Game, and then 2 more...

You can use the characters' family, you know. Family is a wonderful thing for stories, as it can bring reasons to go adventuring, allies, villains, unique situations and scenes, and moments such as "I'm you father!" So, why don't we use it more in our games? I don't know, actually, but it's a thing that must be changed. Family means bonds and connections to the world, and as such should be created and encouraged. 
The best way to encourage this, at least to my belief, is by using these bonds in the game to advance the plot and to create drama... Anyway, here are 5 ways to use the PCs' families in the game:
  1. A family member has been kidnapped. The most dreaded and cliche way to use it, but it's still a useful way to get the PCs on the adventure, once in a while. The characters have to rescue the fighter's brother from the dragon cave is a sure way to get the PCs on their way.
  2. A family member has useful information. Maybe the mother of one of the characters is the most famous researcher of ancient dark medicine? Maybe the wizard's brother is a commando fighter? Maybe the cousin of the general is the prime minister of Great Britain?
  3. An important family event. The sister is getting married, the cousin is celebrating his first child's birth, the uncle is receiving a grand prize, or even the mother is getting a nobility title... A scene like that can be the basis for an entire session or even as the starting point for a murder mystery (the groom was murdered a few minutes ago, for example).
  4. A family member is the villain. Robert is the vampire lord, Mellisa is the head of an organised crime family, Cousin Mordechay is the genius who created the grand Vaporizer and Sister Beatrix is the new Darth Vader. A family member that is the main villain can bring both a dramatic peak to the game and a huge conflict. It also enables you to bring the infamous line "[insert name of a character here], I'm your father..."
  5. A mentor for the character. A family member who is also a mentor for the characters can make things even closer and more emotional. A 2 for one deal...
And what do we do if the family members are all dead? 2 ways to deal with it:
  • The body of one of the family members is being controlled by the villain and it draws chaos and havoc in the city...
  • Let the character deal with the loss.
Either way, huge amounts of drama can be created by this.
How about you? How do you use the PCs' families in the games?

Rounding Characters

You're not perfect, you know. Not even one of us was born complete, with nothing to learn or change, without any kind of a flaw. Not even one of us leaves without something that makes him/her mad. We're imperfect human beings, and it makes us better persons, much more like able. A famous writer once said: "All perfect families are similar, all flawed families are flawed each family in its own unique way..." We all want to create like able characters, characters that are both easy to play and deep. The easiest way to do this is by giving the characters flaws and internal conflicts.
A flawed character is much more alive than a perfect one. When a character has to deal with a situation that confronts her flaws, she gets empathy from us. More than that, she is immediately reminds us of living people who had to confront with the same things. A character that has colour blindness gets our empathy when she attacks the wrong side, in the middle of a battle, because of colour confusion. A character that is afraid of dark places will remind us of Uncle Albert who used to scream for help whenever there was an electricity failure.
But flaws are only one of the ways. A much more interesting and deep way to make deeper rounder characters is by inserting internal conflicts into them. The judge who is haunted by his memories of sending an innocent man into his death, the pacifist who has to fight for her country to prevent her kids death, the champion who came to an age when the army doesn't need her anymore but who doesn't know how to do anything else... Suddenly, it's a richer character. We get a personality, a snippet of a life story, and a conflict that can help the character seems unique every time.
How about you? How do you make your characters richer?


Death Is Not the End

Let's go for an experiment, won't we? Find a partner and play "Word at a Time". I'll give you a proto story: "You go to the dark mountain cliffs and meet a monster. Something happens between you and them. Go!" I can wait, try it, it's also fun and rewarding to tell a story like that. 
Anyway, whether you tried it or wanted to read to where I'm going, what I wanted to prove was that almost none of you would have killed the monster, not to mention being killed by it. The confrontation with the monster might have gone like a meeting and then running away, with you drinking tea (or coffee) together, with a short fight that ended with a few scratches...
A scene that ends with a dying character, whether it's you or the monster, not under your watch... The reason for all of this turning and turning around, is that death is not the end of the story. A story can be kept going after the characters die, after the monster dies... 
A dead character can become a ghost that follows the characters, helping from afar. A player that his character died can play a different character. A dead monster's revenge can be taken by another monster. There are no limits to this thing; a dead character is not the end of the story, but a door or a veil to the next stage of the story.
I'm not trying to tell "kill all characters", but to tell that you should not think about a dead character as an end point to the game. Death is a great dramatic term, and if there's always the possibility of death, every decision will be so much more...
What about you? Do you use death in your games? If so, how?

Kick the Realism Out of the Door...

We all like to build worlds for our games. It's fun, it's rewarding, it gives a great feeling when finishing it... But there's a thing that always crops to my mind when I read other people's worlds. The heavy place that realism takes in the games and it can go quite extreme sometimes. 
"If the sun doesn't move and lights a certain country all the time, what's the temperature there?"
This, at least to my eyes, is wrong question. Why? Because it doesn't help to make the game or the story better, and because it talks about the last question that should be asked about a world that the GM is building: "How this X is real?" Realism should be the last thing to think about. After the world is complete and the sun shines there, then it's time to think about realism. 'Till then, it's an easy way to both distract the writer from the world building job, and also to destroy the initiative of build such a world.
So please, whenever you come to someone who builds a world and asks for remarks on it, leave the realism for the end. It's not that important...


14 First Time GMing Tips

Yesterday I was asked about what tips do I have for a first time D&D GM. I thought about it a lot, and ended with 14 little tips and thoughts about what should be done and what shouldn't be done. A quick examination of them shoes that I talked less about fights and battles, and quite a lot about the entertainment values of the game. Anyway, without much of exposition, let's delve into the little tips.

  1. Show enthusiasm. If the players will see that you're enthusiastic about the game, the enthusiasm will get to them also.
  2. Start with a cool event. It doesn't matter what it is, a battle, a ceremony, a burial; it must be a cool thing. If you start with a cool enough event, the players' attention will get to the game, and they will be enthusiastic through the entire game.
  3. Give your best for the game. If you come to the game like it's nothing, the players will think also that it's nothing. If you don't put your best to the game, your players (and you also) shouldn't play it, you can use the time better.
  4. Be ready for the unexpected. No adventure survives first contact with the players. Don't let it upset you; understand instead that from this comes all the fun.
  5. If they went out of what you planned, find a way to creatively use what you planned in the game. If you planned a cool fight with the orcs from the forest, the fact that they went to the cliffs shouldn't stop you from using it.
  6. Don't railroad them, though. You should bring those elements into the game if they fit the circumstances, and if it's cool, not just because they were prepared from beforehand. More than that don't stop your players from doing a cool thing. 
  7. Don't go for fights only. Fights can, like every other element in the game, become tedious. Don't go for fights only and the game will remain fresh and entertaining.
  8. Bring many one-scene NPCs to enhance the atmosphere. They can be the town's fool, the great cleric, the queen regent or the perfect soldier. It doesn't matter as long as they enhance the atmosphere of the game.
  9. Don't let them to steal the limelight, though. Always remember that the PCs are the protagonists of the story, and as such they are the ones who should confront the adversary and prevent the apocalypse.
  10. Learn what kind of movies and books your players like, and make your games according to that.
  11. Finish with a BANG.
  12. Ask for feedback. This will give you the information you need in order to know what you're good at and what you should improve.
  13. Remember that it's only a game. What happens in the game should be kept in the game, and what happens in the real world should remain in the real world.
  14. If the players suggest a cool thing, say yes and add a little something of your own. It will make the game better and far richer.
So, these are my 14 tips for a first time D&D GM. What about you? What tips would you give this GM?

Is the GM there to Lose?

Yesterday, over at "Troll in the Corner" they posted about the GM's role. This made me think about it. We talk a lot about how to be a better GM, how to roleplay the NPCs better, how to improvise... But we never ask the most important question about the GM: What is the GM's role?
For me, the role is quite simple: To entertain everyone at the table. The GM isn't there to lose or to win, to look totally badass or to look like a wimp, to tell a great story or a lousy story. The GM is there to be the leading entertainer of the group. The GM has tools in order to fulfil this purpose, but the tools are not the GM's goal. It means that the GM doesn't have to tell a great story, but it can surely help the GM in his/her role. It means that the GM doesn't have to be a great actor, but portraying the NPCs can help to enrich the game. 
It also means that the GM is not there in order to win or to lose. There's no connection between the GM's role and the win/lose ratio. The GM isn't losing there, and the players aren't winning there. The characters sometimes win and sometimes lose, and the NPCs and monsters sometimes win and sometimes lose. But there's a clear distinction between the GM and the characters s/he plays and between the players and the characters that they play.
In a future post I'll probably delve into the little details of this distinction, but it's enough for now to say that there's a distinction between these things and that these things should be looked as separate things that are part of a whole and not as the same thing.
How about you? What do you think the GM's role is?


They Should Win Sometimes...

Sometimes, you have to let them win. They can't lose all the time, can't run away all the time, they sometimes have to win, to feel that they are advancing, and that they are getting better. Even in horror games, where the premise states quite boldly that they're gonna lose most of the time, and maybe even to lose in the end, little victories should be achieved (albeit sparingly) in the story.
There are 2 reasons for that. The first is story wise: It's far more powerful to strike the characters down from a mountain than from a hill, and especially from a short roof. If you bring a character to a higher point, the fall will be more powerful, more harming, more dangerous, and more dramatic. There's a reason that usually, in tragedies, we have high-standing persons- the fall is more powerful, the contrast between the start and finish points is far greater. Giving the characters a victory here, another one there, serves this purpose.
But there's an even more important reason: If they won't win once in a while, it will be a game of frustration, and no one wants to play a frustrating game. They want to sometime feel frustration, but for short intervals only. Giving the little wins, the little successes will give them a reason to go on ("hey, we do win sometimes...").
It also gives hope, a lot of hope, if sometimes the villain loses. Think about it: If the villain wasn't defeated ever before, there's no real powerful hope in the situation. Sure, if done sparingly it empowers the victory, but if done all the time, it will bring the opposite of hope; it will downgrade it, resulting in a death spiral.
One thing to remember, though, is that the victory shouldn't feel given. We're a little bit cheating here, even big time sometimes, we can't let it be understood by the players or we'll get the other side of the spectrum. 
In conclusion, the PCs should, at least sometimes, be victorious in order to bring hope to the players' hearts, but it should look like it was justifiably won and not because we gave the victory to the players.
What about you? Do you sometimes give your players victories? How did it go?

An Even More Personal Layer

The victory should come with a price. The more important the victory, the bigger the price should be. I've watched yesterday, again, the season 2 final and it just shows it as clear as crystal light. Victory should come with a price. Not a procedural price but a dramatic one: The character has to sacrifice her life, the heroine has to be shunned by society, or even the character has to lose a loved one.
Buffy took it to the extreme. Buffy was way too close to killing Angelus and to close the gate with his blood. Willow, in the meantime, was casting the spell that will restore his soul. A moment before she killed him, his soul came back. Buffy, who throughout the season had to fight her inner demons, knowing that he won't come back to be Angel, who learnt that she has no other choice but to kill him, received the thing she wished for: She got Angel back. On the other hand, she knew that she has to kill him in order to save the world. Buffy had to sacrifice the thing that she wanted the most, in the moment that she got it, in order to save the world.
I think that all of us who watched this episode know what I'm talking about when I say that it's an example, a great example, for drama at its best. This end is both memorable and tragic, and it raises the finale a few places.
We can see it in other series finales, and in movies. In the end of Casablanca, for example, no one got what s/he wanted. Rick wanted Ilsa, Ilsa wanted Rick, and Victor wanted to be with a woman that loves him. In order to save Victor, Rick sent Ilsa with him, lying that she wanted to be with him. Rick knew that without Victor, the war is gonna be much harder. Everyone's happiness was sacrificed for the greater good.
In the end of American Beauty, on the other hand, Lester has to die in order to truly understand how beautiful the world is. In the end of Sunset Blvd, the screenwriter dies in order to get his pool, and Norma kills in order to get her close-up.
What I'm trying to show here, is that finales have to come with great costs, especially victories. The higher the importance of the victory and the more personal the cost is, the greater the drama. Dramatic endings are remembered for a long long time.
In games, it's not that hard to achieve. Going for things like the previous examples is one thing, and an easy one (relatively, of course), but RPGs is the only medium where the audience is also the creators, the storytellers. This enables the GM to come with a different kind of price. From confronting the PCs with their characters to even nastier ones that words can't tell. You've got another layer, far more personal than any TV or movie will be ever able to get, use it. 


4 Scenes Are Going to be Remembered

The players are gonna remember about 4 scenes from your game. 4 scenes, no more and no less if you're lucky. You want a proof of course, and I'm gonna give you. Think about a movie that you really liked. Let's say "The Dark Night". What do you remember from it? You probably remember the opening scene, with the bank robbery where they kill each other when each one finishes his role. You probably remember the end scene, when Batman saves the day and then is hunted by the cops and dogs. You probably remember also one or 2 scenes from the middle, like the death of Rachel, or maybe it is the scene when the ships are supposed to blow each other?
It's also right in your game. The players are gonna remember about 4 scenes from the game, and they are gonna be probably the 2 most emotional scenes in addition to the opening and closing scenes. This means 2 things:

  1. We have far less work than we intended or thought that we'll have.
  2. We want to choose which 2 middle scenes will be remembered.
The first thing is quite straightforward. We have far less work, and we don't need to try to make every scene spectacular and unique. These are the scenes that their whole purpose is to both create and maintain the atmosphere and to create the pattern.
The second thing is quite more interesting. First of all, it talks at only 2 scenes that we have control about, not the whole 4. Secondly, it doesn't state how we can make them remembered. The first and last scenes are gonna be remembered no matter what. Not only that, though, but they are the most important scenes in the game. The agent closes on Trinity; Jack escapes from the guards saying that this is the day that he almost got captured; Vito says that he can't even call him his godfather... And so it is with the end, as another part falls from the spaceship in Firefly at the end of the episode, showing that everything is back to normal; Neo stops the bullet and makes Agent Smith explode... These are the 2 most important scenes in the game.
For the other 2, we can decide. The most remembered scenes follow one of 2 principles: They are very dramatic and emotional (Hamlet gives his famous monologue) or very spectacular (Neo saves Trinity from the falling helicopter). The scenes that are gonna be remembered are probably going to follow a few things:
  • They are going to break the pattern. Pattern is created to be broken. Breaking it makes a contrast that makes the breaking scene more powerful and remembered.
  • The drama in the scene is going to be high. Even if this is not the most dramatic scene in the story, it's gonna be dramatic.
  • It's gonna be a spectacular scene. Same as above, there is going to be a special thing or even in the scene.
  • They are gonna include a lot of build up to the scene. Having a perfect scene is not the only thing; you have to build to it. 
  • They have to fulfil a promise. It doesn't matter what the promise is, whether it's the promise for a fight against the arch villain or a promise for a war council against the neighbour country. There should be a promise, and it should be fulfilled in this scene.
Let's look for example at the battle between Romeo and Tybalt and see how each of these things are fulfilled:
  • A pattern is broken: Romeo, who was out of the fights and battles between the 2 families, suddenly enters the conflict with a purpose to kill.
  • The drama is high: Romeo comes after his best friend has died by the sword of Tybalt. He is in a conflict also, because Tybalt is now his kinsman. Having a responsibility for his friend death also adds to the drama of his decision to confront Tybalt. But killing Tybalt is not enough. There are witnesses to the event, and the prince is now looking for him. Romeo suddenly loses all of his statues and has to run for his life.
  • The scene itself is spectacular. The dialogue is short and powerful, each word is important. The body and soul of Mercutio is still there. 
  • There's a build up for this scene: Romeo is responsible for Mercutio's death, Tybalt is a short tempered person, he was in the first fight of the play, and he is the one who discovered that Romeo was in the ball... Romeo on the other hand is a peaceful person, and a kinsman to a person from the opposite family.
  • The scene fulfils a promise: In the beginning of the play, in the prologue, we already know that it's gonna be tragic. There is no happy ending for anything while our protagonists are still alive. The conflict between the 2 families is all too familiar, and if the protagonists are getting married, the conflict should return to destroy everything. This promise is fulfilled when Romeo kills Tybalt, thus killing the cousin of Juliet (his love) and flaming anew the conflict, on the same time he is sentenced to be exiled. The promise is (almost) fully fulfilled.
And that's it for today. How about you? Do you agree, disagree, something else? How do you create the middle story-peak scenes?

The Group Goes Adventuring

"If you'll complete this mission for me, I will reward you, with many a gold piece. Your reward will be great, 2500 gp for each..." Beatrix remembered it far too well when they were on their way, even better when they started to fight their way to the centre of the dungeon where the "Sword of Elerondium" lies for centuries. She remembered it even better when they got close to it. She felt they were close. 
When the dragon emerged in front of her, she knew what the baron said by heart. When the dragon emerged, ready to burn their asses, she knew that she has to run. The entire group knew that it doesn't worth it. 2500 gp for each doesn't worth one of them. They've got far enough money to train themselves better (and to advance a level, Eleanor would think to herself after the session), and the dragon is far too powerful...

Eleanor decided that it won't happen in her game. She remembered far too well the number of times that this shadow of the past came to haunt her, manifesting each time differently, in another group and in another mission. She decided that in her game, the reason for the mission will be personal.
She knew another thing. She knew that if it will be a cliche, it may destroy everything. The last quest bestowed by the mentor is not the way to do it. So it is to rescue the daughter of the king. But to rescue their parents? Their friends? That's a different thing. Or maybe she can go for their goals and ideals? There is sure a thing there that she can dig for...

The group were on their way, ready to face what it will take them to complete their quest, ready to fight for what is worth fighting and to save who is worth saving. Eleanor was happy, the group didn't know what meant her smile and started to panic a little bit...

A few points that were raised in Eleanor's GMing, and/or in her GM's GMing

  • Reasons to go for adventuring should be personal.
  • If they are not personal, be ready for the players to decide that their characters are leaving when they'll think it doesn't worth it.
  • Players understand differently smiles of the GM, and it can be used.
  • The background of the PCs is a goldmine for reasons to go adventuring, and also for the adventures themselves.


Faustian Deals

"I can give you power, a lot of power, but every wish, every gift, comes with a price..."
Today I want to talk about one of the most useful tools in the horror GM's arsenal: The Faustian Deal. Faustian deal, named after Faust who made a deal with the devil, is a deal that gives the person a great amount of power, usually with a just as high (or even higher) price. The most common ones are usually power for the soul in the afterlife. In horror gaming, this kind of deals can be prove useful to stress the point that power carries a cost with it, and the cost is usually high. 
So, how can we use it? Especially since we don't play the afterlife of the characters?
There are a few ways to use it. The first is the one that is used in Call of Cthulhu, the one of mechanical cost. Using magic, alien technology or learning about the mythos costs you SAN. It's an easy way to show the cost, as it starts a death spiral that closes on the character. It's used also in V:tR, where power cots Vitae and without Vitae the vamp starts to go frenzy. It's also not that cheap to raise it back, as it carries dangers and sometimes even humanity roles.
Another way to use it is through descriptions. You don't have to go all gross out (actually, it's better not to) but hinting at the cost, enough to excite the players' minds and you've got something. A machine that will solve the global starving problem but with the cost of a few children every day being sacrificed; A magic spell that can call the power of Cthulhu into oneself in the cost of becoming Cthulhu (after enough uses, or immediately); A gadget that can restore peace to the world (like the one used in Watchmen) with the cost of destroying a city and killing half of its population...
Another way to do it is that things don't always work as planned. I think that a perfect example for this (although a childish one) can be seen in SpongeBob, when Mr. Crab asks to speak with money and as a response has came mad. It can be seen in Buffy also, in the great episode The Wish, when with the wish of Cordelia, the consequences of Buffy not coming to town were that The Master controlled Sunnydale and the Scoobies became vamps...
How about you? How do you use Faustian Deals within the game?

Eleanor Opens a New Campaign...

Eleanor continued to look in her memories, searching for another tricks, for another ways that her old GM used to open campaigns with. She looked at the players, a little bit nervous, a little bit sad, but it soon changed. She decided to continue no matter what.
She was sitting there, her GM starts the adventure, and the picture emerged back. Her old GM knew when to read from the papers and when to improvise scenery. What was so wonderful, was that she did both of this things overly dramatic, and it was way too hard to discern when she did which.
The session started, her old GM stops before an important message, before terrifying scenery, before...
Eleanor always felt that she sees the world, but more than that, she smelled the world, she touched it, she heard it, she tasted it, the world was around her and within her and... Beatrix smelled the roses in the fields. She went to the bar, leading her group. Although she knew what was there, although she was in the bar a moment before she was in the roses garden, she didn't feel cheated. She felt it was justified. It was a flashback, this scene, and she led the group to where they begun...

Eleanor came back to the present, her group looking at her, waiting to see and to hear what she's gonna do. Less than a minute has passed, and she knew right away what to do. She described the surroundings, the world, the where and what and when of the game. She continued to a little bit of the whom of the story, those that were at the bar anyway, and she laid the ground to the PCs. 

The PCs were there, her changing voice, volume and tone, drew them near, drew them in, her descriptions created the living picture that she tried to create...

The group sat in the bar, looking at the commoners and at the few nobles who were there. They suddenly were asked about their history by the barman, who looked interested to hear how they have met, and what have they done in the past few months, and if they are adventurers. 

The group started to describe, telling about coincidental meetings and about first-look loves and about family-bonds and about event-bonds. The barman listened quietly, asking one question there, another one then, suggesting ideas when they were stuck.
It wasn't a clean way, she knew, but it was useful, and it was in character. "Get this thing in the beginning and it will continue 'till the end", her old GM used to say, and she was right, of course... Before she knew it, she had a group with history, with a background and a few deeds, and with a goal. She was happy with what she had. It was a great beginning...

And so, Eleanor continued with her GMing. A few things that were pointed here:

  • Descriptions: All five senses.
  • Voice: Changing all the time. Not monotonous or anything, but a changing vibrant voice in both volume and tone.
  • If there's a contradiction to a thing that was said, it's better to give a quick convincing explanation. Flashback was great in this example- it used the contradiction to explain how they arrived at the bar, but it can also be solved in another ways (dreams are a favourite of many...).
  • It's best to ask the group how they met. Not how their characters met, but how they as the characters met ("Beatrix, how did you and Robert met?" As opposed to "Eleanor, how did you and Bobby met?").
  • If the group is stuck, suggest ways to continue. It doesn't have to be crystal clear, as with the example of the barman, but a little leading question there, another small one a short time afterwards and you've got something...


The Story of Eleanor

This moment comes, when you open a new game, with new characters and all, and you all sit across the round table and wait for the ordinary world to disappear and for the imaginary world to fill the space. You, like every person wants to get into the mind of your character, you want to be him/her and not yourself anymore, at least for a few hours.
The GM starts to speak. She describes the setting, going over all the details of the bar that you're within, of the tired barkeeper and of the stinking man with the purple roses who's supposed to be some kind of a magician. Then he asks you: "What are you playing?"
And in a moment, everything that she built is lost. In a moment, you're not Beatrix anymore but only play her. The shift is too quick, too strange, too out of its place. You look at your wonderful GM with your eyes and she suddenly understands what mistake she made. She quickly corrects herself: "Can you please describe yourself?" And the change is far too great. Suddenly, you're not Eleanor anymore, but Beatrix. 
She then continues to one of her old tricks, and she asks you (just like she asks everyone else) a question about Beatrix. Not a familiar question, but a strange one. "What does Beatrix do every Sunday morning?" Last story opener she asked you about Lisa's marriage life, and she asked Bob's character about what he liked best in his wife. She didn't ask Bob, as she didn't ask you, she asked the characters. Suddenly, you were in the characters' minds, thinking like them. The shift was well familiar, and it felt great.

Today, it's the time to start a new session, and you begin in the same way your old GM opened the game. The players respond well, and you can see that they begin to be their characters, to come into their skin, to sit into their brains, just like the way it happened to you.

I don't know if I succeeded with what I tried to pass here. I hope I did. It's not magic, and Eleanor didn't lose touch with reality (although she wasn't real in the first place...). It just helped this Eleanor to be her character for a few hours, and to leave the troubles behind when she met her friends...

How about you? How do you help the players to be their characters?

3 Ways to Make One-Scene Characters Unique

When we think about some occupations, we immediately get an image: The uncompromising cop, the fainting lady... These stereotypes can be used to a great extent to create a sense of deepness, of a hidden layer, even in NPCs that the characters meet for a scene.
Let's look at this example scene and see how stereotypes can be used in different ways to enhance it.
The scene is quite simple: The characters arrive to the great market, and a preacher gives a speech about the power of belief, and about how to save one's soul:
And then, the lion will utter its name, and reveal its true nature, and the king and queen will have no choice but to surrender to the great true king, the creator of our land. And then! Then will the sheer power of our lion's very existence unravel all of the criminals and all of the murderers and all of the bad people, and the good and pure will prosper in the earth..."
'Till here, it's a normal speech. The preacher warns the commoners from bad things, and suggests that if they will do badly, he lion will reveal their true nature. The preacher here is probably a great person, very charismatic and stands probably above and beyond to the commoners' reach.
Let's think about something else: Let's give the preacher a trait that is against what we would accept from him: Our preacher is alcoholic. BAM! Immediately we've got a different picture, there's something stinky in this preacher, is not this good, he works against the people he's "trying" to save... It's still almost the same preacher, but now there's something deeper within him, something that makes him both more real and more humane. At the same time, this preacher just screams to be questioned by the PCs to get a greater understanding of him.
Let's think of another thing: We'll take one of the preacher's traits from the original stereotype, and we'll take it to the extreme. Our preacher is not only very charismatic and beyond the commoners' reach, but the commoners look at him like he's some kind of a holy person, a once in a lifetime person, one that... Maybe we'll change another thing: This preacher screams of daemonic powers. BAM! We've just got another preacher. The commoners don't listen to him because he's right, but because he's controlling them. It's like Sauron in the land of the Numenors.
The last way for today is by adding a random affection for something. Our preacher is obsessed with something, like flowers. He gives his speech, and he takes a break whenever a bucket or a basket with flowers moves in front of his eyes. Again, we're getting a different preach, one that has weaknesses, and that can be distracted by ordinary things and maybe even stumble in his words because of that.
What I was trying to show here, was that in all of the preachers we've begun with the stereotype and stayed quite close to it. It's still, after all, in a nutshell the same old preacher. But it's also a different one. The preacher became a different person when we changed a different thing in the stereotype. That's the whole truth. Changing a little thing in the stereotype can invoke magic in the way the character is being viewed.
And, that's it for today. How about you? How do you use stereotypes in your games?


When I Look Back at My First 100...

At the first day of April, I opened The Bleeding Scroll. It was yet another attempt to open a blog of my own. It was supposed to replace my Facebook as a public diary, and to a certain degree, it did. I almost completely stopped using it (a blessed change...), but almost nothing from the original idea survived when I look on this blog, today. 
It became, quite early to say the least, a blog about RPGs. Sure, it had (and still has) its heavy dose of movies, but it became more of a place to post about lessons from them than as a place to talk about them. I touched music only once, and my thoughts disappeared from the blog quite quickly also. It's still a collection of thoughts, but not of the type that I intended for. 
My posting frequency rose up, the focus on RPGs rose also, and before I knew it, it was an RPG blog. I tried to make it different, bringing in a focus on horror, waving in a focus on lessons from movies and from improvisation, but it was still an RPG theory blog first, and only then the rest.
I don't think it's a bad thing, actually. It's an organic transition, and as such it's a good one. It's a way to stay tuned on RPGs even when I'm not GMing at the moment, even when I'm taking a short break. The blog started to take a bigger place in my time, using a bigger share of my energy, and I think that it deserves it. From a leading writer for a big Israeli site, I came to be the writer of a nice little blog. There's a lot of freedom that comes with this transition.
Today, with this post, The Bleeding Scroll reaches a landmark: 100 posts. It took me a far shorter amount of time than I expected, in 88 days actually, but I think that overall, almost all of the posts are there for a reason. Sure, my first ones weren't that great, and I went through a lot of crap, but I improved overall, and I think that it shows.
So, in order to conclude this first part, first act of my blogging story, here is the roundup of my favourite posts, accompanied by a few statistics:

  1. My first favourite is from April's bog carnival. I joined in late, but it was part of it. It's more of a personal achievement than a perfect post (although I believe that it's a great post). It was, after all, my first post after joining the RPG Blog Alliance, and was my most popular post for a long time.
  2. Another one is my second Fiasco session recap uploaded. It was a great session to play within, and I think that it was the first time that I could really say: Wow! I've just played Fiasco and used it to the peak of my abilities." I think that it shows.
  3. The post about game history is another favourite. When I look at this post, I can't stop thinking that this is the point where I really understood what freedom I have here. Until then, I was quite conventional, but from this point, I started to explore the possibilities of blogging. 
  4. The post about how to open a game is another one. I think that it's one of the best examples for what I strived for when I said lessons from movies. It's a discussion about how the movie Frankenstein is opened, what does it achieve with this way of opening, and how can we use it in a game. 
My favourite of all time is of course the post about how the soundtrack affected my GMing. It's a personal post, and I think that it's one of the easiest ways to know what my GMing style is, and to where I'm striving with it.

A few statistics to close this off:
Number of Posts 100
Number of comments: 8+8 responses from me
Number of visitors: 3023
Google Page Rank: 2

So, what are your thoughts about the first 100 posts? What posts did you like? What you didn't? Is there anything that you want improved? 

A Letter for My Players

Dear players,
I'm writing for you this letter in response for the last one you've sent me. You said that you want to feel like heroes and heroines, that you want to feel more than just the anticipation for another victory, that you want the game to feel far more epic and interesting and... 
I want to deliver for you just that. You're my players, and I want to give you the best. But I want something from you too, in order to achieve that: I want you to stop being afraid of failures. Failure is not a dirty word, and failing sometimes doesn't make you a group of failures. 
I want you to stop being afraid from that, but more than that, I want you to let yourself fail. Drama is not about succeeding, it's about overcoming obstacles. If you're gonna win no matter what, there's no drama, and none of us will really enjoy the game. 
I promise you, I'll do whatever I can to raise the drama in order to make the story better. All I ask from you is to do your part too; to improve as much as I improve; to strive for drama as much as I strive for it (and I know that you do, just please bring it into the surface); To accept failure as much as I accept it and to let yourselves fail as much as I let myself fail.
After all, failing doesn't make you failures, fearing from it makes you less of the winner type. 
Your humble GM

5 Thoughts on Mystery Planning

In one of the bigger RPG forums in Israel, there's a discussion about investigative games: Possible, or not? And if possible, how can it be achieved? As a person who GMs quite a lot of investigative games, I started to think about how one should plan a game like that and how it should be GMed. My thoughts about the subject follow:

  1. The most important thing to consider is what place clues should take in your mystery. In some investigative books, the investigators like Sherlock or Poirot, finding the clues is not the challenge, and both Sherlock and Poirot find them quite easily. In other stories, we can go for quite a lot of time before a single clue is found. For me, I think that the real challenge shouldn't be to find the clues, but to use them together to find the real criminal.
  2. Red herrings. This is another important thing to consider, as this concept is used in almost the entire investigative canon of books. For me, I always thought that red herrings are one of the more unique qualities of the genre, and one of the hardest to pass to RPGs. While in other mediums, you can decide when the investigator will throw the red herring, in RPGs you cannot. If I want to use it (and boy, I sure want), I tend to use it as a comeback in a later investigation, or more likely as a small level. You solved the mystery, but there's still a hidden layer that you might need to find, someone who activated the criminal that you caught.
  3. Types of crimes. We have to face it, solving mysteries can become as tedious as dungeon crawling (and far more frustrating, of course). Because of that, we have to rewind the mysteries. One crime will be a murder mystery; another will be a kidnapping mystery... But we can go to even farer places: One mystery will contain a moral dilemma; another will confront one of the characters with his/her deepest fears...
  4. Complexity levels. I've written about it once, but it worth repeating: Not all mysteries were born the same, some are harder than the others, some are more complex than the others, and some have a bigger scope than the others.
  5. Team work. In the canon, the investigator never was alone. Sure, s/he did almost all of the work, but there was another one. In RPGs, we can't have one player who will be the mastermind and the others to be the sidekicks. One way to solve it is with having one person to play the computer genius of the group, another to play the interrogator of the group and so on... A little better approach (to my belief) is to have this allocation of experts, but to have skills that are known to more than one expert. The computer expert might be better at using the Internet, but she will also be good with sneaking past cops. The sneaky might be better at sneaking past cops, but he'll also be good with using the computer. This way, there's a greater feeling of teamwork, as the characters can help each other...
So, these are my thoughts on the subject. How about you? How do you plan/GM investigative games?


"My Character Wouldn't Do That!"

Yesterday, inspiration struck me. I was reading a post over at Stargazer's and I understood right away that he's right. Sure, I had a few posts that were directed to my players (or to other GM's readers...), but it can't hurt to have another tips' post directed to them, can it?
Anyway, I wanted to talk about something that I've heard a lot, from myself and from many others: "My character wouldn't do something like that!" This dreadful answer is something that we hear or make in order to save ourselves from doing something that we don't like. "The mayor wants you to leave those cops alone. -My character hates cops, Holilo Lombrete won't do a thing like that!" 

Before we go for what I want to say today, I want first to examine why it's so problematic. There are many reasons and many problems that a statement like that carries with it. The first that I want to discuss is that a statement like that means that the player doesn't trust the GM. In other words, we have here a trust issue. If the player says something like that, he's like saying "I know what you want me to do, but I don't like this idea, so fuck off!" This is a sure way to make the next idea by the GM even worse or late or even make the GM have trust issues with himself/herself and no new and/or interesting ideas will come. Sure, I'm a little bit going for an over the top thing, but this is the way to get there (well, one of the ways...).
Secondly, it prevents the player(s) from getting to new and interesting places. Genesis had a song called "I know what I like (and I like what I know)", and this is the point of the song: I know what I like and don't like, and I like what I know, resulting in an anti to try new things.
Thirdly, it makes the characters stereotypes. I'm sure that almost any person that we'll see, even if s/he will say "I won't do that", if they'll have no other choice, they'll do that. More than that, even in less dreadful situations, people do things that they don't want to do.

So, what did I want to say after all of this long long exposition? That any character can do any action that she wants or doesn't want to do. That's the whole point, that's what I wanted to say, and that's probably one of the most shocking (at least to myself) revelations I've reached for this year.
Think about it for a moment. I can justify according to my background almost everything that I can do. I can justify a helping and caring hand, and I can justify in the same way the opposite of it. A pacifist might justify carrying a sword in order to intimidate as a way to prevent wars, and a womaniser might stop chasing a woman by saying that she probably has a good reason for not wanting him (Skins, anyone?). Justification is not that hard to achieve, and if it's not strong enough, a few "yes, and"s and the problem is solved.
One more thing to consider is that this choice, whether to chase the goal while doing something that is against all of the character's morals or to leave the goal, is the highest point of drama. The sudden understanding that my morals stand in the way of my goal, or vice verse, is the whole point of drama. After all, if there's no real conflict there, there's no real interest...

So, this concludes this post. What do you think? Do you also agree that everything can be justified according to the character's background? Why, or why not?

5 Quick Tips for Your Descriptions

"You see in front of you the entire city, trees full of green leaves watch the city. Many people go from place to place, making the city seem full of life and unresting. Large red areas fill the remains of the surroundings, as the enemy siege towers grow bigger and bigger as they come closer to the city..."
So, today I wanted to talk about a thing that was overlooked by me for many a years, and I'm still seeing it in many GMs' description: Exciting all the senses. Every literary character, and PCs are included there, has 6 senses: Sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste and the sixth one. A mistake that is commonly used is to forget about the last four, and to go almost solely for sight with a little help from the hearing sense. The description from above is an extreme example of this: Only sight.
Tip 1: In every description, excite at least 2 different senses.
Tip 2: Don't go for the same 2 senses every time, make as much movement in the 2 you go for as you can.
The sixth sense, which deserves a paragraph of its own, is the feeling sense: "A dreadful feeling fills you..." This kind of things. It's a sense that should be used, but it needs a special consideration. It's always better to say that this place makes you want to puke than terrifies you. It's even better to say that "it seems too easy", or "too silent", etc... Go for the sense, but don't state for the players how their characters really fill, make the players do this "dirty job".

Another thing, that is often overlooked, is the description of how someone speaks: "She speaks with anger as she says this", or describing an atmosphere of tension. It's far better to give it through the voice. Talk angrily for the first example, or squeak for the second, and the tone and atmosphere will reach the character quicker and far more powerful.
Tip 3: You can use your voice to convey anything that you want it to convey, including contradictions to what you say, use it.

Lastly for today, is "how many details should I include in a description". Truth is, there's no definite answer. It's usually better, though, to make descriptions short and to the point. Don't be afraid to give just the surface and to expand the description according to the players' questions: "A smell of blood fills the room. -From where is it? -You go after the smell and you find, behind the table, the body of Sir Lancelot!"
Tip 4: Make descriptions short and to the point. 3 things in 20 seconds should be enough.
Tip 5: Don't be afraid to expand and/or to wing things on the fly according to the players' questions. It seems much less of an overdose...


My First 15

Over at Roleplaying Tips, John posted a tip and a tip request by a fellow reader. The question that has been asked there is an important one: "How do I excite my players in the first minutes of the game?" There are actually 2 questions there:
  1. How much time means the phrase: "First minutes of the game"?
  2. How do I excite the players?
For the first question, the asker gives an answer: 15 minutes. It's logical, and watching movies can prove this point: You need 15 minutes to stress the point and the mood of the movie. Truth is, though, that it's much more dependent on the length of the session being run than on a definite number. A session that runs for 3 hours will need much more minutes of creating excitement than a session of 1 hour. There are 2 reasons for that:
  • In the longer session there is more time for the energy and excitement to dwindle down, and because of that we need more energy in the first place so we won't end breathless and zombie-like.
  • 3 hours is a far longer time period, which means that far more activities can be done in this amount of time. We need to stress from the very beginning that this 3 hours are gonna be far better than 3 hours of watching TV and playing video games, for that matter...
So, what is the definite time that we need to allocate to exciting our players? I don't know for sure, but about 20 minutes for every 2 hours of gaming sounds good to me (and yeah, I include breaks in the 2 hours). That means that a 4 hours session will need about 40 minutes of exciting the players, or in other words: An act of its own.

Now, for the second question things get far trickier. In the original post, they gave 4 ways to do that. The first that was suggested was with an action scene. I'm not sure that I like this way, as it carries a few problems with it. First of all, this battle, this fight, won't be important to the story, and as such it will be a waste of time. We don't get to the table to kill monsters; we go there to tell a story. It can be a story about killing monsters, but even then, there's no place for a monster that has no relation to the goal of the boss monster. True, at first it might be cool to kill a few monsters every time we start a session, but it will become tedious.
The second tip is to reward great roleplaying during the start of the session. I suppose, as is normally the case, that they mean experience reward, and I've written about it already. But apart from the common problems of using experience points to bribe players to roleplay more, it's a really good idea. Rewarding the players for starting the session with a little bit of roleplaying is a sure way to get them to roleplay more during the session.
Then we get to the second tip by John, which is to finish the last session with a cliffhanger and then continue the next session right from there. This is a classic tip, and probably one of the best there are, but finishing every session with a cliffhanger (or even most of them) will drain from the players the feel of completion. If we'll look at our beloved TV series, it's less than 50% of the episodes that end with a cliffhanger. So, as though it can take us pretty far, something else must be used also. There's also one more problem with cliffhangers that at least from my experience I tend to overlook (and I'm sure that I'm not the only one out there who overlooks this): "Sometimes, the continuation doesn't stand to the promise of the cliffhanger. Then, instead of the benefits of using cliffhangers, we get the drawbacks.
The last tip from John is with the recap. I've wrote already about how to use this recap to get ideas for what to do in the session, but using it to excite the players is something that I haven't thought about well enough. Sure, I've let my recaps excite my players but it was more because it was another moment to shine (and to show what I want to get from my players) than because of the need to excite them.

What about my tip, though? I've written already about building platforms, and about the first act, but 2 other things:
  • Start big. It's far better (at least to my belief) to start with a big and grandiose event than with an action scene. I opened a V:tR session once with the haven of the PCs being discovered during a school trip. I've opened another with the assassination of the prince (I don't think that I ever had a prince who didn't die at some stage in the game), another with a history book from the future written by one of the PCs and dedicated to another. It's far more useful, to my belief, than an action scene.
  • Throw the PCs (and the players who play them) into the mood of the game. If I GM a horror game, I'm gonna start with a scene that showcases the mood of macabre in the story, and the players will fall into it. The excitement soon will follow, rising up to where it should be...
So, how about you? How do you excite the players in first minutes of the game? 

4 Minutes of Suspense

12 minutes of suspense are far better than 12 seconds of surprise. It's really cool to surprise the players and all, but surprise is less useful and much weaker (story wise of course) than suspense). Hitchcock gave an example once which went something like that:
2 people are speaking over a dinner table in a restaurant when suddenly a bomb that lied underneath it blew up and the characters have been hit. We've got here 4, maybe 5 seconds of surprise. Now, imagine that the camera showed the ticking bomb from beforehand. Now, every line in the dialogue, every beat of action, is full of suspense. When the bomb finally blows up, there's no surprise, but we've got 4 or 5 minutes of suspense.
That's the whole thing. If you want to surprise the characters, think about the way you want to do this. If you can find a way to make the same thing, but with replacing the surprise with suspense, it's far better. Think about this situation: The characters arrive back from their mission and are on their way to the mayor's house to get their reward. When they arrive there, they find his body. We strived here for surprise and we got it.
On the other hand, wouldn't it be better if we would have plant clues in the scenery that something bad is gonna happen? The sun is bloody and red, the town is silent, and people go from place to place wearing black... Now, the players start to feel this tension, this suspense that something bad has happened. Suddenly, we get far more powerful time with this mayor's death.


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When You Come to the Session Without Even the Slightest of Ideas...

Coming with an idea for today's post was hard; I actually needed a second cup of tea just to find it. Then, it finally struck me, an idea that just waited there to be explored: What do you do when you come to the session without even the slightest idea about what to do?

1) Ask the players to tell what happened the last session
Sometimes we just don't remember what happened, but usually we do, so why to ask for this rewind? Because the players see a picture of their own, that is quite close and similar to yours but not completely. I care more for certain points, they forget others and they'll tell you these things if you'll just listen.
Asking for this rewind gives them the stage and the limelight they need to tell you just that. They'll tell you what they like and what you didn't, if you know how to read between the lines, they'll tell what they want to see more and what not... All of these things will give you heavy doses of inspiration for the session.

2) Let the players run it without knowing it
Using "yes, and" responses, let your players build the "platform" for you. This will give you both a place and a few NPCs and also a routine that you can break. "When we last left you, you were in a bar. What do you do? -Is there a barmaid there? -Yes, and he's showing you his hand waiting for the money for your drinks. -Are there other people who sit in the bar? -Yes, and they have empty glasses and torn clothes..."
From here, it's easy to get a conflict inserted: "The barmaid refuses to get your money, but receives those poor people's money with a cynical smile"; "The poor people draw their swords and they look at you with anger, 'you should have invited us for beer when you had the chance'", and so on...

3) Bring 2 cultists with a gun
You didn't expect me to leave it behind, did you? It doesn't have to be cultists, or a gun (it can be 2, for example, one each...), etc. It can, and should be, a little bit more interesting: "Your sister enters with a gun pointed at you", "Your husband enters with a gun pointed at you" and so on...

4) Someone has been murdered
Another classic. Murdered people are always a way to bump up the excitement and it gives the players something to chew while you think of something cleverer. It can also be used to dramatic effect: The NPC the players wanted to meet was murdered 3 days before they've arrived to her castle; the villain the characters wanted to bring to justice committed a suicide moments before the characters got him...

5) Take inspiration from the last show that you've seen on TV
TV series is just like a campaign in so many ways, that taking a plot from a TV series is a sure way to get something that is appropriate to a campaign (well, almost a sure way...). Because it's the last thing that you've watched, it's the easiest one to apply to the game- it's fresh and new, after all...
If you've watched an episode of Buffy with Adam there, you've got a monster to unleash at the party. If you've watched an episode of Seinfeld, you've got a situation you can apply, and a few NPCs (you can get some NPCs from Buffy also, but they are usually already there, disguised as PCs...).
You can get this inspiration from a movie also, but it will be less appropriate usually to a campaign (and it is also quite longer than a single TV episode...).

And that's it. How about you? What do you when you come to a session without any idea?