Due to the timing of the holidays there is no blog post for this week. We hope you and yours have a very happy holiday season! Thanks to all our fans from all of us at Technical Difficulties!
While we’ve been having a lot of fun with No Soul Left Behind, we’ve also been having some problems. Namely, remembering what our characters can do in game. While this is an ORE game and we’ve played games in that system before, the unique aspects to Better Angels are tripping us up. Since there are moves related to being another player’s demon, there’s actions you can with them. But we never remember that we can do them. When we do remember, we want to use them, which crashes the game into chaos. With our PCs, it’s hard to remember our powers and aspects, as they are usually long sections with specific rules. In this case, and in other systems, a cheat sheet would help us to better remember what we can and cannot do.
When designing a cheat sheet, it might be helpful to first take stock of everything you need as a player. Most character sheets are designed well and have what you need. Yet, there might be rules that affect your character that are hard to remember. If you’re playing a wizard with a lot of spells, having the spell names written down might not be enough. Perhaps a one to two sentence description of what it can do would help you choose better spells.
Some games, like Better Angels, already have a cheat sheet. There's a two sided player aid that has a lot of the info you need to play. However, shifting between pages or PDFs make it harder to keep stock of what you need at a given time. This is part of what made it hard me to remember what I can do. For NSLB, I use a word doc as my character sheet, and have everything on one page. I also have another page with the descriptions of my demonic powers and aspects. I copied all the text for them, so it is hard to read and contains flavor text I don't need. I can’t waste time reading a six paragraph description on the ‘Soulless Materialism’ power. I've realized I need to shorten it to a few lines that I can read quickly and know what I need to do. I also highlighted the Tactics used to activate my powers, so I know what to roll. Finally, I updated it for what my demon, Mammon from Accounting, can do, and what buttons I can use to push Angelina.
Another example would be Eclipse Phase. EP has an intimidating amount of stats, skills, abilities, and gear. In spite of my love for the game, I shudder to think about the task of filling out a sheet by hand. For our games I’ve used a fan generated Excel spreadsheet for character generation. There’s also a character generator program we all used for Into the Black, Singularity. You enter the information for your character, and it creates a couple page character sheet with everything you need. In spite of this, there’s so much gear I tend to forget, in addition to my skills. A cheat sheet with my gear and a short descriptions has helped me remember what Templeton can use.
For tabletop RPGs, knowing how to organize your character sheet is vital to using you character to the best of your ability. A cheat sheet in conjunction with your character sheet can make the game much easier. You won’t have to fumble around with the book or a tablet, stumbling to find stats or gear. Instead you can focus on the adventure at hand. Do you use cheat sheets? Any tips you use to remember what your character can do? Mention it in the comments
It was Thanksgiving here in the USA last week, and we are very grateful for you, our patrons. We're also grateful for Red Markets. The book's editor, Laura, got her copies of the book recently. Adam and Laura filmed a short unboxing video to celebrate!
We hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!
Halloween has come and gone. Despite my love of games like Delta Green and Red Markets, horror has never really been something I enjoy. I’ve been through enough in life that I don’t see the value in scares. However, I do know that horror can bring out some of the best stories. Making fear a dominant force in a story gives something for the characters to overcome. Having been in enough games and listened to enough actual plays, I’ve come up with some tips for when I run horror.
The biggest piece of advice comes from my writing mantra. While watching 'The Incredibles' commentary I was struck by director Brad Bird's advice to merge ‘the mundane and the fantastic’. This means to find the normal moments within something fantastic. For horror, this means seeing what can be scary in something that is not scary. Without going into spoilers, RPPR’s recent episode ‘Somewhere Lane’ took its inspiration from a weird TV show. The real show is a normal TV travel show and is not horror. However, it’s writing and presentation are so weird that it freaked out the GM. He used the weirdness found a way to make it scary, then wrote out a scenario in Delta Green. This made for a terrifying listen.
For our own games, history has also been a great fuel for terror. One of the reasons Ethan’s many Civil War scenarios are so scary is that they are based on real events. This can make for a delicate situation, however. You do not want to belittle actual people and their actual suffering. Make the events into framing devices for the horror. You and the players know these events actually happened, and are often worse than the scares you came up with.
In Legal Tender, I wanted to find new and different places to stage fights with zombies. This made me think of places where it would be interesting to have a fight. It made me think of Discovery Zone, which led to one of the episodes that freaked out the players the most. It also led me to candy factories, which led to the creation of the ‘Candyman’ Aberrant that the players hated so much. Neither of those places are inherently scary; in fact they are nice to go to. But by thinking of them as places for the PCs to investigate led me to things that can be scary within them.
Now that you have the scenario, the final key is to make it scary. Make it tough for the PCs to win. Or even if they win, they lose something along the way (health, sanity, gear, etc). This doesn’t mean you take away the players’ agency or kill them in one shot. But you have to put pressure on them to perform. This is one of the areas I know I need the most growth. I’m always interested in the story and I want the players to succeed, so sometimes I go easy on them. But pushing them to their limits will add more tension. Tension, combined with the horrors you’ve thought up, will make for a very scary game.
We recently played another of Ethan’s Civil War scenarios. The adventure has us going through the Siege of Vicksburg. While the story gave us options of what we could do, there's an act structure where we go from place to place in a set order. After we talked about the game after recording, it got me thinking about freedom in RPGs. For this game we had to be ‘on the railroad’, but it helped us experience the story Ethan was telling.
When done right, sandbox games lets players be in control. The players can go where they want, and find their own solutions to problems. This lets the players feel like they have more agency over the game. Letting things go at their own pace also allows for more character interactions.
Such freedom has a price, though. The GM is going to need to do a lot more prep. Having ideas for scenes that could fit wherever the players go, and having NPCs ready to use. By setting up ‘generic’ scenarios and NPCs, this can be easier. Rather than planning for the specifics of the adventure, have a few ideas ready. When it comes time to use them, dress them up with where the players are or who they've met. The other major issue is the potential to derail games. A funny NPC or a unique location might unwittingly draw the players' attention.
If you don’t want a sandbox scenario, the other option is to make it a railroad. Railroad scenarios have only one obvious solution to the PCs’ problems, or is the only option available. Doing this allows the GM to define the experience for the players. It can help make horror scenarios feel scarier, as it restricts what the PCs can do. Also, new players can get a better feel for a game if there’s only one way to get to the ending. And there are ways to make the PCs feel like they have control or options even when they don’t. Giving them a choice to make, such as “you have to escape, which way do you run?” or “what do you use to attack the monster” gives the players the illusion of choice. It doesn’t matter that, for these examples, the players will face the same obstacle regardless of which option they take.
In the game Ethan ran for us, we were able to choose our actions and how we reacted to things. It didn’t matter, though, as the scene would change around us and we'd be dropped into new sieges. This was ideal for what Ethan wanted to do, but if we might have felt like our choices didn’t matter if Ethan wasn't careful. That can be the problem with railroad scenarios. A too obvious or too restrictive railroad might distract the players or make them not want to play.
Prewritten scenarios tend to be railroads, and this can mean the game can seem inflexible. For several of prewritten games I’ve ran, like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Leverage, I always feel like I have to put my own spin on the scenario. There were parts in each game where players were expected to do something. More often than not, the players will do anything BUT what they are expected. For example, I had to rip out chunks of Leverage since the players thought of creative, better ways to deal with problems.
As is always the case for issues in playing RPGs, the key is being open with the people at the table. By asking what the players are looking for when they play, the GM will know how to run things. Having an idea of the scenario allows the players to know how to play and how to let their PCs act. Both sandboxes and railroads have a place at the table. It’s all a matter of knowing when to use them.
Of all the games we've been preparing to run, there's one I've been itching to GM — Paul Matijevic’sBreakfast Cult. I’ve been playing it in a home game of it for over half a year. I can safely say it’s been the most fun I’ve had in tabletop RPGs.
Breakfast Cult is a Fate Accelerated hack that was Kickstarted. I had never heard of the system until one of the guys I game with asked if we wanted to play a campaign of it. The rest of the group seemed eager to play, so I was willing to give it a chance. I’d also never played a game in a Fate system, so I wanted to see how the mechanics worked. After having played in over a dozen games and enjoyed them greatly, I purchased my own physical copy.
The game is a mash up of anime high school comedy, mysteries, and Cthulhu Mythos style horror. It takes place at a school for the gifted in a world where magic is known. The player characters are trying to make it through their days in tact. Whether it’s cults, aliens, or truth or dare, the teens have many problems to overcome.
The game uses Fate Accelerated, which has players only use the same Approaches. The five Aspects are framed around their school lives. The Stunts usually revolve around the types of magic the player character uses. Breakfast Cult's signature are its Agenda Aspects. These are secret aspects only the GM knows that drive a player’s motivations.
Where Breakfast Cult shines is its setting. Matijevic spends most of the book creating a rich world, describing the world, magic, and the school. Fate system games run the risk of being too vast and too loose with rules. Breakfast Cult avoids this by showing how magic works and how different characters use it. This grounds the game and lets the players work to not make overpowered jokes.
Each character has multiple premade agendas that explain their motivations. There’s plenty of options for characters too: the core book comes with 20 pregenerated characters. The players may end up not using them. In some ways that’s better, as that’s a big group of characters ready to be used into your game. The game is also very inclusive, with many races, genders, nationalities, and ability represented.
Having played and run the game, I am very grateful my friend suggested it. With such a rich setting, the game is full of life before you start. Making characters is easy, and when the group leans into the anime ridiculousness, it can create some unique characters. Using the pregenerated character is still fun as you can put your own spin on them. The starter scenario (in the book for free this time) does a good job of showing the GM and players how the game is played. And with two books, the third coming out soon, and more on the way, Matijevic is committed to building out the product line. I’ve liked many of the games we’ve played on Tech Diff, but Breakfast Cult is one of the few I can say that I love.
One of the best aspects of modern tabletop RPGs is the wealth of games to play. It’s also a challenge, because it’s easy to buy a bunch of games and never play them. To help cut into the surplus, we’ve been playing some of the games we’ve purchased over the years. I’ve started things off by playing one of the games I’ve been most eager to try: Leverage by Margaret Weis Productions.
Leverage is an RPG based off of the show of the same name that ran on the American TV Network TNT. The elevator pitch would be ‘a weekly show of Ocean’s 11.' It stars a group of semi-reformed criminals who are recruited by people who have been wronged by the powerful and greedy. They use their skills to take down these evil people and right wrongs… and make some money off it too.
The RPG intrigued me ever since I heard it played on the Drunk and Ugly, who did a four session mini campaign. As system devoted to heist movies and shows, it’s radically different from other systems I’d played or heard before. I was eager to try and purchased a pdf off of DriveThru RPG, which also sells physical versions of the book. There’s also a group of splat books that have been combined into a couple of physical releases.
The book is divided in three. The first section explains how the players create PCs, the second if for GM on how to run a game. The third section shows how the screenwriters of the show created the first two seasons. The book is a clean and easy read, with plenty of art. The art is screencaps of the TV show, but this means the book has art almost every 1-2 pages versus the typical 4-6. The fonts are not simple and laid out well.
The game uses the Cortex System. It uses all dice except d20s, and has you roll a skill plus a job type (e.g., Willpower + Mastermind) to beat a target number rolled by the GM. It has a Moxie-like system with ‘Plot Points’ which you get for rolling 1s. In exchange for making complications for your character, these plot points let you add dice to later rolls or create items to use.
The book, for all that it does have, does not have a premade scenario. There is one available, called “The Quickstart Job”, which I was able to grab for $1.99 on DriveThru. The Quickstart Job teaches you and the players every aspect of the game. Almost too well. Most premade scenarios that are introductions to the game are very railroady. The Quickstart Job is a bullet train, with very little leeway and a likely run time of 1.5-2.5 hours. Even mixing it up for the podcast, we still managed 2.5 hours. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad scenario, it did help us get a grasp of how the system works. It’s just too linear, especially for experienced players.
For having only read the book and run one session, I am glad I picked up Leverage. The system is simple to run, and with proper planning and allowances for improvisation can make great games. In doing something no other game was focusing on, Margaret Weis Productions put out a great game. I’m hoping to have us run a campaign someday, or at least more scenarios. Preferably something without a railroad.
When playing RPGs, it's important to know the people you are playing with, who they are as people. By recognizing their play styles, you can cater your play to their strengths. It doesn't matter if you're the GM or another player. In doing this everyone can have a better experience at the table.
The most obvious aspect is how they treat others. In other venues, like work, meals, or hanging out, they may act one way. Once people get in game they may act differently. Are they working together with each other to play, or are some people trying to talk over others? When decisions have to be made, do they work on a solution, take control, or abdicate? Are there people who are quiet and not active in the game? Is the GM working with the players to succeed or are they a killer GM?
This leads to how people are acting in game. Are people getting deep in character, or playing with next to no role play? Are there specific parts of the game that are engaging people? Note how everyone is acting in combat or in investigative or dramatic scenes. Do the players and GM tend to focus on one aspect? Are people acting in ways that are inappropriate?
With this knowledge, reflect on what you've seen. If there is a part of the game the group enjoys more, try to find games that focus on that aspect. If combat is what players crave, try to find systems that focus it, like Eclipse Phase or Dungeons & Dragons. If people are more into investigation, try systems like Delta Green or Gumshoe. If interaction is what gets people excited, try systems like Fiasco or MonsterHearts.
As to the players themselves, how they play can help you play better with them. If players tend to work together and corroborate, you've got a great group. If they talk over others and try to be the center of attention, find ways so they feel part of the game but not hogging the spotlight. Spotlight other players so everyone gets a time to shine. If the GM is making things too hard, try to work with them to make the game something everyone can enjoy.
If there are issues where people are acting inappropriately, try talking to them in private or with another person. If it is something that can be corrected chances are they will be willing to work with you. If they don't, then maybe they aren't a good fit for the table. The throughline in all of this is communication. Talking with your fellow players before and after play can help you see what you all like and dislike and can improve your play.
Now that we're back from GenCon, we thought it would make sense to look back at our previous blog. See how we followed our own advice and how we strayed.
Taking care of yourself was the biggest advice, and advice that I clung to. I had numerous instances where I had to march from one end of the con to the other. At least once a day I ended up back in my room during the day. I used this time to grab an extra shower and just lay down and relax for twenty minutes. It meant time away from the con and my friends, but likely helped my mood and health.
Eating turned out to not be as big of a problem. I had snacks, but only had to rely on them once. More often than not I was with family or friends who wanted supper and we organized meal times away from the convention. Planning together meant we never went hungry. With this, I was able to follow 3-2-1 rule easily. It ended up being more like the 5/6-3-2 rule.
Even though this was the biggest GenCon ever, I never had any issues with the size of crowds. Lines seemed to move fast and I was never overwhelmed by the size of the crowds. And with other issues, everyone was really eager to help. Friends and family obviously, but even some strangers helped with bags or asked if you were OK. That doesn't mean everyone there is like that, but GenCon goers have generally been for me a positive, helpful group.
1. It is possible to GM a game from 8pm to Midnight and then start another at 8am the next day.
You just won't like it. And may feel dead for the rest of day two.
2. Don't bring any perishable food.
Even if you get lucky enough to have a hotel within two blocks of the convention. GenCon is part of Midwestern fandom (and a trade show). There is no consuite like in Southern fandom. In addition, GenCon is in a purpose-built convention center — this means the infrastructure to support going out to eat at the convention is robust. Which means the food is actually pretty tasty. So the social expectations, at least among the RPPR fan crowd, is that folks go out to lunch or dinner together.
So all that perishable fruit Adam, Rachel, and I brought to snack on didn't get eaten and went bad. Bleh, food waste.
3. Pantry items, like granola bars, do work well.
Granola bars, string cheese, apples, and water bottles were worth carrying. Especially the water bottle. Even given how heavy full water bottle are. Don't worry, as you drink the water you'll be replacing the weight with loot/swag.
4. GenCon is not a costuming convention.
That's not to say that no one is in costume, but the vast majority are not. Keep in mind that my baseline of what a ‘costuming convention’ looks like it's Dragon*Con, where you see a multitude of costumes walking the hallways anywhere and plan how to move through crowds based on costumes you need to duck around. So, for me, GenCon is not a convention it's worth bringing my costume for, not when I rather do other things than go back to my hotel room and change out of a costume.
Which is a bit of a shame since it's a lot easier to throw the costume in the car for the drive to GenCon than check a bag for the plane ride to Dragon*Con.
5. Expectation drop as a GM — try to avoid it.
First, to define my terms. Expectation drop is that sinking feeling you get when you were excited to do a thing because you expected it to be X, but instead it's Y.
If at all possible, I recommend avoiding this at conventions, as a GM or a player. You'll (most likely) be playing with folks you don't know, and so won't be able to anticipate their play style. Without knowing their play style, that gritty, dark investigation you signed up for could easily be a screwball comedy. Without knowing the players’ levels of genre awareness, that tense horror game can easily become a SWAT team monster hunt. I'm not saying you should ignore game descriptions — absolutely go for games that sound interesting — just don't expect any particular tone or style. I find when all I expect is to experience a system and I'll get what I get from the players, I have a better time.
It does help being the GM and getting to at least try to set the tone.
It is mere days away from GenCon, and some of us from Technical Difficulties will be attending. This'll be my third convention, second time at GenCon. It's helpful before attending a convention or any sort of event with this many people to go in with a plan. By giving thought to what you do, it'll help you and everyone else at the con have a good and safe time.
The most important thing to remember at a con is that you need to take care of yourself. This might seem like a no brainer, but it's when you're in the heat of the moment it might be hard to realize what you need. It's easy to spend time with your friends and then suddenly it's nine hours later and you haven't eaten. Making sure you take time out to eat and drinking plenty of water are vital to a good experience. At Origins there weren't many food options I could find. I had brought a water bottle and packed some granola bars, so that had helped me get through the day.
There are other aspects of self care to take into consideration. Making sure you have good hygiene and clean clothes seems obvious. That is, until you have to run through all your clothing because it rained or was very hot. Taking extra clothing and ensuring time to bathe and relax at the beginning and end of the day can keep you going.
Veteran con goers (and newer folks with expert friends) are probably aware of the 3-2-1 rule, which are a decent set of minimums to adhere to at a convention. 3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, 1 bath or shower per day minimum. The 3 hours rule works better at 3-day conventions, compared to GenCon’s 5-day marathon, so we recommend 5 or 6 hours of sleep minimum. Trust us, that interesting thing at 3am on day one is not worth being too tired to enjoy those three interesting things on day four.
Your health is also of the utmost importance. You're going to be walking a lot and in potentially very hot weather. Even if you're sitting outside, the summer heat can catch up real quick and give sun burns or heat stroke. Being cognizant of your surroundings and taking breaks will keep your energy up.
There's also a psychological side. If you're not used to being around a lot of people, being surrounded by thousands of people can be overwhelming. Taking time to go to a quiet place or back to the hotel may be needed. And remember that you can always say no. It may be as innocuous as saying no to one more game, or something more serious, but you can always tell someone no. Conventions are about having fun, and no one should impede on your well being.
Connected to this, with huge crowds there are going to be bad people. If it's feasible, avoid them. If you have to interact, keep it brief and walk away. If they cross a line, walk away or deflect. If they break con rules or threaten your personal safety, get away and let con staff or security know. You are not responsible for making a scene: they have already done so by engaging in bad behavior.
In the midst of the moment it's easy to forget things, or to be uncomfortable and not want to rock the boat. But your health and wellbeing are of the utmost importance. I've learned a lot of these lessons outside of gaming, in cons or at sporting events. I've had to find rest walking over a mile to get to FedEx Field in Maryland because of bad infrastructure. I've had to worry about if I had to get a family member to the hospital because of sunstroke at a really hot OSU game. I've skipped meals while waiting to get into games and gone hungry because of overpriced food. Learning lessons from these experiences helped make my GenCon trip last year a lot easier. Keep them in mind, have fun, and be safe.
Hopefully we'll get to meet at GenCon if you're there!
First Things First
Templeton sank into the chair, holding his head between his hands. The neo-pig had removed the jacket to his security uniform, leaving slate gray pants, combat boots, and a white sleeveless undershirt to contrast with his pink flesh and black tattoos. The tall man continued to type at the terminal in the stark white room filled with lab equipment and server racks. The man brushed aside his black hair and turned around to face the Neo-pig.
“Yeah… That was hard.” Templeton tossed the VR specs onto the floor. “‘Enhanced’ interrogation my ass. I’m not the best with AGIs, and it was… angry.”
“Well, it understood we were going to delete it. But we had to know.”
Templeton stared at Conrad as he removed the server blade and began methodically taking it apart. He was still in his black vacsuit, the seams still visible as the self-healing material continued to reform, as his hands swiftly worked the screwdriver to disassemble the blade as quickly and methodically as always.
“... does it get easier?”
Conrad walked over and put his hand on Templeton’s shoulder, touching the bare skin of his wide back. His fingers started to trace Templeton’s tattoos, tribal style concentric circles, stylized as spiderwebs.
“It never does. But you know what helps with the pressure?”
Conrad bent down and grabbed Templeton’s plasma rifle from where it rested on the floor. He lifted the massive rifle and set it as gently as he could in Templeton’s hands.
Conrad patted Templeton’s shoulder one last time and exited the lab. Templeton stared at the rifle. He then stood up, walked over to the workstation, and aimed.
Last Things Last
Four years earlier…
Templeton exited the showers into the locker room. Finished drying himself as best he could, he balled up the towel and threw it into the hamper. He turned towards his locker and found Doctor Marita Valencia waiting for him, smiling. Dr. Valencia was dressed in her white and red Argonaut jumpsuit and covered in her white lab coat; her brown curls tied into a ponytail. Templeton recoiled and started to dart his hands down towards his crotch to cover himself. He then paused, looked at his hands, and took a seat at the bench across from Dr. Valencia.
“What was that?” Dr. Valencia said, tilting her head and adjusting her augmented reality specs.
“I felt shame briefly. I went to cover myself, then thought more about why I felt shame. Before… before I was uplifted there was no shame.” Templeton looked at his hands, then looked at Dr. Valencia. “The thought was… so alien.”
“True. Shame is human concept. It’s been imprinted on you through our interactions.”
“Yeah. Clothing’s nice though. Speaking of which…”
“How’d the experiment go?”
Templeton shrugged. “‘Experiment.’ I wallowed in the spa’s mud bath for 20 minutes.”
Templeton rubbed his thigh. Lifting his hand showed that it was now a dull brown. “Still haven’t got all this damn mud off. I showered for 20 minutes.”
“But how did you feel?”
“I saw it’s value. I felt much cooler as soon as I dove in. Since I don’t really sweat, it made me feel much cooler. As a social construct, though… Maybe it’s because I was alone? I didn’t really feel anything. It was just an act.”
“Well, experiment. It wasn’t done to socialize, or to become one with nature, or because I wanted to. We did this to see if I could find any connection with my former life. I don’t have to wallow in mud anymore. I use jumpsuits that help me respire.” Templeton leaned back and started chuckling. “I also don’t have to be cleaning mud off my ass for the next three days.”
Dr. Valencia rose and smiled. “That is a benefit. Well, it was worth it to see if you felt anything. I appreciate your effort, Templeton.”
Templeton smiled. “So… can I get dressed? I’m not well read on the hab’s indecent exposure punishments.”
Dr. Valencia chuckled. “Of course. Just please get me the report by the end of the day?”
“Thank you, Templeton. I’ll see you in the cafeteria! I hear they have organic green tea the techs got off some Triad traders.” Dr. Valencia left the locker room.
Templeton smiled and started to get dressed. He hoped that this adventure would help map pig uplift thought. He was so lost in thought he didn’t immediately notice the alarm going off in the hallway. Or the screams.
For the past several months ourselves, The Roleplaying Exchange podcast and other members of the Red Markets community have been creating and playing in a living campaign setting for Red Markets, entitled 10,000 Lakes. We, of course, recorded these sessions and will soon be releasing them for your enjoyment.
A living campaign is one shared by multiple gaming groups, and the actions of one group can affect the game of the other. Red Markets’ episodic structure makes it an ideal candidate for a drop-in, drop-out style campaign.
The setting of 10,000 Lakes takes place in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan; the areas surrounding Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The settlements and enclaves here are small, sparse, nothing large enough to support the cost and notoriety that a full Taker crew brings.
All the Takers in the game belong to Freelance, a crew consisting of around twenty members spread out across the Loss. Because the area they cover is so large, location and availability determine who goes out on what job. Not everyone gets to work.
This fiction allows for our unique campaign structure: Each episode will consist of a different GM along with a rotating cast of players, with jobs created by everyone participating in the campaign. No two sessions will be alike, but each one will have an effect on the world of 10,000 Lakes.
Actual Play episodes will be distributed between the two podcasts, and the easiest way to listen is by subscribing to both The Roleplaying Exchange and Technical Difficulties. Up-to-date episode lists will also be found on each podcasts’ website.
Red Markets is the game that brought us all together, not only as a podcast, but as friends. We’re so happy that we can return to this world, now joined by a wonderful and ever expanding community. Everyone involved has put a tremendous amount of effort into planning, writing, playing, and creating this campaign, and we hope that you’ll join us in our little experiment.
Greg here! Being an Ohioan, I live close enough to drive down to Columbus for the afternoon. Last week I took advantage to visit Origins Game Fair for the weekend. Origins is a board gaming convention like Gencon. Although one day was not enough time to take in all of the con, I wanted to talk about the experience. Hopefully this gives a glimpse into Origins and how it compares with Gencon.
Origins takes place in the Greater Columbus Convention Center, on the northside of Columbus. Like the Indianapolis Convention Center this has skywalks connecting to several nearby hotels. These turned out to be invaluable, as the Saturday of Origins turned out to be Columbus’ Pride parade. A gigantic parade was going… right in front of the convention center. Luckily, Columbus has many parking garages. I was lucky enough to get a parking garage next to the convention center and near a hotel with a skywalk.
I preregistered and picked up my badge at the con. The lines were fast and I was in and out in five minutes. If I had registered at the con it would’ve been longer, but only about 20 or so minutes. The staff throughout the day were friendly and helpful. And the con goers were also very nice. It may have been the circumstances of the day, but there weren’t as many cosplayers at the convention while I was there.
As for the con itself, it was somewhat different from Gencon. Gencon is about board and card games and tabletop RPGs, but has a lot more general nerdy things. Origins focuses a lot more on board and card games. For an example, at Gencon there were a lot of geek t-shirt companies, game and book resellers, and toy sellers. At Origins, I only saw one t-shirt company, one tiny comic shop, and that was it. The vast majority of the booths were for board and card games. There were a few cosplay companies, and a surprisingly small amount of RPG pubilshers.
Origins is split in two through the big convention center. Half of the center is the sellers, and the other half has a huge space filled with tables for games. Both preregistered events to learn games and board and card game tournaments. This space was a lifesaver for taking a break and grabbing a bite to eat. At Gencon it seemed like almost every table was full and every spot was taken. At Origins while there were a lot of people there was also more space to breath and relax. I never felt like I was in a sea of people, unlike Gencon.
I did get a ton of loot and demoed several games. I stopped by Brotherwise Games and picked up the latest Boss Monster expansion Implements of Destruction and the Carrying case, along with an Origins promo. I also saw a demo of their upcoming game Unearth. I stopped by the booth of an Ohioan company, Easy Roller Dice Company. I ended up grabbing a dice cup, some Purple Dawn Polyhedral Dice, and a Gunmetal with Orange numbering set. They were running a special where you could roll 2d20 and get a discount for whatever you rolled; I ended up with a 14% discount!
While wandering the hall I saw a booth for a game I had seen on Kickstarter, Pinball Showdown from Shoot Again Games. I love pinball, but was hesitant about the game. After seeing a demo of the game, I found that I liked it more and ended up grabbing a copy, which came with several promos. On my way to the other side of the hall I stopped by Indie Press Revolution. I grabbed a physical copies of World Wide Wrestling and it’s sourcebook International Incident, which came with free PDFs. I also played a round of Shiba Inu House, from Renegade Game Studios. A simple more family oriented game, but fun.
Part of the reason I came down to the con was to see my brother and his company, North Star Games. I ended up helping run a demo for some curious congoers. I ended up grabbing a playmat for their game Evolution: Climate. Next to them was Pelgrane Press, where I added to my Trail of Cthulhu collection by picking up Mythos Expeditions, which also came with a PDF. Near North Star’s booth was the company Bezier Games. I saw a flag for their game New York Slice, and played a demo of it. It was so much fun I bought it immediately, which came with a free promo card. At the end of the day, I swung by the Origins booth to cash in the generics I bought. I then used it to buy a maze pen and a metal d6 with the Origins mascot as the 6.
I had fun at both conventions. Gencon seems more built for a wider spectrum of geek, and as such has a lot more people. Origins is somewhat smaller and caters more towards boardgames. Origins is also cheaper, although my cost was somewhat alleviated by taking a day trip. Both conventions are worth attending, and worth your money.
The RPG industry is, by necessity, built on books. Back in the 70s, the only real way to spread the rulebooks was via physical copies. Now, digital files are a viable and great way to share a game with friends. Finding which format works best for you can help you find what's best for your budget and play style.
Physical books are still available for sale. There are many avenues for buying books, whether online or physical stores. For older, out of print games used book stores or eBay are also means of purchasing. Both new and out of print games may also be available direct from the publisher. These out of print games may not have digital versions, legal or otherwise. For those games the only means of play may be a physical copy.
Online stores usually also sell PDFs, and may also bundle them with the physical books. With the ubiquity of phones, tablets, and computers, the only limit is your budget. Because the documents are digital, the files are also able to be sized for the screen you are reading them on. This lets you to zoom in and read text easier.
For both physical and digital, being able to share the books is easy. For physical copies, it’s as easy as handing the book across the table or lending it to your friends. However, it’s only as many books as are purchased by the players. For digital copies, it is easier to share them in digital drives like Dropbox and Google Drive or over email.
Whatever method works best for you, the ethical choice is to make a purchase. As with anything it is easy to find illegal copies online. However, with a more niche industry like tabletop RPGs publishers rely on sales. Some publishers may have even released the rules for free, whether quickstart rules or a full text through Creative Commons. However you obtain the books, use the method that works for you.
When playing role playing games, players and GMs have a wealth of resources to aid both preparation and active play. Character creation can be easier with digital character sheets. A wealth of information to make characters and design scenarios is easy to find. Play can be streamlined with dice rollers or virtual tabletops. Using these tools can make playing and running games much easier.
For players, creating characters is much easier than back in the 70's. Most game companies have released pdfs of their character sheets. Some have programs for character generation, like Eclipse Phase’s Singularity. Visit the company’s website and see if these aids are available. If there are no official means, check communities for the game for fan made sheets.
For both player and GM, there are many avenues of research to be used. For making characters, there are resources to name them. We use the website Behind the Name to help create character names. You can search for individual names or use random generators to choose names. To flesh out the characters, or for scenario design, there are many places to find information. Expanding your searches, such as using quotation marks or synonyms, will get you a greater variety of links. The more places you look, the more facts or info you can find to flesh things out.
Once the game has started, there are programs to help make the games easier to play. There are dice rolling apps so that people don’t need physical dice. Some of these apps can be shared so everyone can see the rolls people make. There are also visualization apps, whether it’s 2D maps or full 3D spaces like Tabletop Simulator. There’s also apps to communicate, like Discord and Skype.
These tools make gaming a lot easier than it was even 10 years ago. With these tools it’s easier to make characters, make scenarios, and play the games. It’s also easier to play with people, anywhere in the world. Utilizing them in your games can help improve everyone’s experiences.
The only reason Technical Difficulties exists is because of the internet. Being online enables folks spread out across two time zones to play RPGs with one another. Luckily, this is very easy to replicate with your own gaming group by keeping a few things in mind.
An agreed upon time may be more important than the game itself. By setting a time everyone will know when to be ready; spontaneous games are very rare. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve also become more cognizant of time zones then I had ever been in my life. Using a group calendar in Google Calendar, or web apps like WhenIsGood can help your group agree on a time.
After having an agreed time, the next step comes with having an agreed means of communication. There are many apps that are available for use. While Skype is the gold standard for most online voice chat, it is far from the only option. We use Google Hangouts because of the option to record our games to the linked YouTube account of the person who started the call. Right now can you can only use Hangouts in Chrome.
Though we haven’t used it much for gaming, Discord has been an excellent app for voice communication. You can make a main server and then create side rooms. This way there can be a main lobby for everyone to meet in and then break into private rooms to play. You can even use games from Steam, like Tabletop Simulator, to play RPGs. Hell, you could even use Steam Voice Chat if other apps aren’t working for you. Your group should talk about what you need in an app and play around with the available options.
Once the game has finally started, there are still other considerations to be had. Of utmost importance is honesty at the table. Unless everyone is using web cams you'll have to be honest with your rolls. Lying about your rolls defeats the purpose of the game and can make for a bad night for all involved. If everyone would rather see the rolls there are apps available, including random.org.
Another issue is that if there are no cameras, people cannot see each other. This makes it harder for players play off of each other because since body language isn’t visible. If being able to see one another is important for your game web cams may be necessary.
In 2017 it is easier than ever to play games with friends anywhere in the world. Both on mic and off I’ve played with people from the East Coast to the West Coast of the US, to people in Europe and Australia. With the boon this brings it also brings responsibilities as well. Coordination is key to having a good experience for everyone.
In general, I’ll first come up with the personality or find a character from other media that I want to emulate. Then I’ll go make the mechanics fit the character. I don’t think I have a play style, and I rarely stick to a character type. I’ll usually pick the class or utility that’s needed for proper party composition.
For Red Markets and Elder, I knew I wanted to play a Mormon missionary from a different country stuck in the Loss and explore the stranger in a strange land aspect. The original concept was to be the face of the group, but that already taken, so he became the driver instead.
For Road Trip Remix and Dwayne I just thought it’d be fun to ape Zeke from Bob’s Burgers. I knew a lot of other characters were going to go heavy in mental traits, so I steered more towards physical abilities.
I'm constantly delighted on how a character will develop during play. I'm currently in a 5th Edition D&D campaign you’ll never hear where I just wanted to play a goblin. Initially I played him generically; be evil, fight, etc. But after a few sessions he turned into a Rocket Raccoon-type. Tenacious, greedy, chip on his shoulder, but deep down he’s loyal to his friends with a soft spot for other outcasts.
I’ve come at characters from both directions — starting from mechanics I want to play/explore and from a personality I want to play. Unlike Aaron, I do have a character type (tanks. smart, snarky tanks who just want to get the job done), even if I’ve consciously started trying to break away from it, beginning with my first Tech Diff character. Yeah, I'd never played a social/face character before Pixie. I think she worked out well. Had fun playing her at least.
While I feel I've been reasonably successful at diversifying the class of characters I play, I've been less successful at roleplaying different personalities. Characters have, over time (if they don't start there), tended to converge on my general personality. Which has led to more than a few characters simply focused on getting the job done (more so in one-shots), keeping the party organized/moving forward, and generally exasperated at the insanity of circumstances. Partially this is because I don't plan characters before sessions, playing with more of an improv style. I'm a reactive player, rather than a proactive player. But if I want to role-play different personalities (and I do), I'm going to have to do my homework before sessions, come into games with a plan of where I want them to go this session, and keep character traits closer to mind while playing. It should be fun.
I usually begin by thinking about the party role or mechanical build that I want to play, and develop a personality based on that. I’ve discovered that I usually fall into one of two character types. I’ve got the gruff self-confident highly-masculine combat guy, or the shifty selfish rogue. Usually when I try to “play against type,” I accidentally just end up over in whichever one I wasn’t thinking about. In Red Markets Freebird was the combat guy, and Attendant was the rogue. The next Red Markets character that I’m planning will be a combination of both, I think. I’m gonna lean into it and see what happens!
In Road Trip Remix, Carter was more based on my real personality when I was a kid, mixed with other boys I remember from Boy Scouts and school. I feel like I actually did manage to play against my usual types for a change, though a little of that combat-man stuff still managed to sneak in there.
I’ve also had the challenge of creating whole groups of pregens for my Civil War scenarios. I try to cover all the mechanical roles in a party while also developing distinctive realistic personalities for each character. But I also have to keep those personalities a little vague, to give players the room to develop them for themselves. That’s been a great learning experience.
Usually my starting point is to see what character classes are available and decide from there what I’d like to play. Then, I see what everyone else has chosen. If the party is lacking a particular role, I’m happy to play that. But I will try to manipulate the concept I started with when first looking at the available classes into the class I end up playing. After coming up with the class, I use it as inspiration for the type of character I want to play. I know I have some precilications in my characters: male, non-human, jack of all trades classes. I’ve tried to be better about mixing things up when I can, but, being new to the hobby, I haven’t had as much experience as some players, so playing what I’m comfortable with helps me get into the character more easily.
For MonsterHearts, I was able to stick with my first choice: with Apocalypse World hacks, there isn’t as much of a need for balance since all the moves work in their own right. Looking over the available classes, I initially narrowed it down to the Minotaur and the Gargoyle, and decided that, for the setting we were playing in, the Minotaur would fit in better. I built the character out by chosing my starting powers, then fleshing out the character. With AW systems, they have character building aids, like what their eyes look like and what body type they are, to build up the physical description. Then, after thinking about his backstory and personality, J.J. was fully formed and ready to rock.
In Better Angels, since we do group character creation, I had to come up with my character beforehand and let the powers and skills arise in play. I thought about who I wanted to be: a brass tacks, average super hero/villain origin story mashed with keeping it real by being honest about living as a family that has lost a parent.
Whereas our upcoming Eclipse Phase campaign, I started with my predilection for non-human characters. I was interested in an uplift, and since I’ve never heard of a player choosing a neo-pig before, I decided to go with that. My plan was to be a psychologist/morph designer, but when we started making characters, I quickly realized that we didn’t have any combat characters. I therefore offered to switch and make a combat character. I kept his psychology skills, but added more combat skills and weapon proficiencies. In making this action psychologist, that helped flesh out his backstory and I started to ponder why a psychologist would have an affinity for plasma weapons. Through this my character become more realized, and he became ready to go. He’s been a blast to play, and I can’t wait for everyone to meet him and the rest of our cast.
Every game takes some degree of organization to play with friends, ranging from picking a time and place to play a board game to making sure everyone’s online for multiplayer. If someone’s late or isn’t able to attend, it usually isn’t an issue. Disappointing, sure, but the game and the fun can still continue. Roleplaying games, however, have the unique challenge of needing consistent participants who are prepared and committed to come together and tell a story week after week. Trying to coordinate schedules between more than two people brings the phrase "herding cats" to mind.
And yet we were recently complimented on our organizational skills at Tech Diff (i.e. Laura’s organizational skills). In the hope that what works for us might help you and yours have more game nights, here are some of our best practices.
Pick a Time and Date and Stick With It
This is the best thing you can do to make your gaming life easier. Having a consistent game night (or day) will turn it into a habit, something that you can easily plan your life around. You’ll have less instances of players forgetting or accidentally over-booking.
Make your gaming a priority. Not above your family or school or work (it’s still a hobby), but realize that there are other people involved in the game who have also set aside time to play. Others value their time just as much as you value yours, and keeping your commitments, whether gaming or otherwise, shows respect and courtesy to others.
Emails and Texts Get Lost
Did you get that email? Did you see my text? What date did we decide on? It’s ridiculously easy for plans to get lost in email and text threads.
There are a few things we do here that help us keep everything straight.
Someone needs to be the organizational boss. Standard protocol usually pushes the GM towards scheduling everything, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’re management minded, don’t be afraid to step into that role. Again, the biggest thanks to Laura for being our Producer in that regard.
We have a Google calendar that lists not just what and when we’re playing, but also when episodes go up, blog posts, and any meetings we have planned. Everyone has access to it and can change any event. This might not be necessary for some groups, but it’s something I can check whenever I’m making plans and has kept me from double-booking on more than one occasion.
We use When Is Good to schedule any stray game times and coordinate with The Roleplaying Exchange or anyone else that’s not in the core group. It keeps information from being lost and prevents those annoying text threads that just bounce back and forth between “how about this date” and “that doesn’t work for me”. Spare yourself the trouble and use When Is Good.
We typically re-confirm everything the morning of a game session. It's a quick way to reaffirm commitment, provide a gentle reminder in case anyone forgot, provides an opening to communicate if plans have changed, and usually gets folks talking about the game and their characters.
Know Your Limits
The sad truth of being an adult and also a human being is that you can’t play every game every time.
Unfortunately, I won’t be participating in our upcoming Eclipse Phase campaign. As planned, it’s going to take a year or longer to complete. And because of my erratic work schedule I don’t feel comfortable committing to a campaign for that long. It sucks. I want to play in it, but I also don’t want to hold things up or be unable to attend key sessions.
Roleplaying is a group activity, and if you can’t make the commitment, don’t.
*clouds part, sun rises*
Having said that, we’re also very fortunate to have a large enough group where one-shots and smaller campaigns are plentiful, and I’m able to jump in whenever my schedule allows.
If you have a smaller group that’s not as flexible, be sure to confirm that everyone can commit to your multi-year campaign before working on it proper (as Adam did). If one or two players can’t join in but you still want to run that epicness, consider alternating between game sessions, allowing those with limited free time to get some non-campaign gaming in.
Life is going to happen and plans are going to change, but there are steps you can take to mitigate these instances and continue the fun.
If you can’t make it to game night, let the rest of the group know as soon as possible. That way other plans can be arranged in a timely manner.
Having a one-shot or two prepared will allow gaming to continue, even if the campaign needs to be put on ice for a session. It also allows for those that aren’t normally available for campaign play to join in for a session.
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with everyone taking a night off to spend time with family, catch up on work, or just relax by yourself.
And that’s how we (again, i.e. Laura) schedule. It works for us, and we hope that it can work for you too. Remember that every group is different, and every situation is unique. The tools that work for one group may crash and burn for another. However you organize, whether simple or complex, the point is to find what facilitates communication and commitment for your group.
We hope this advice helps you to have a more consistent and stress-free gaming experience, and ultimately, more fun.
Sail an Iceberg to Sydney is the first complete scenario I’ve written in a long time that isn’t part of my Civil War Cthulhu series. Like several of my other scenarios, it was inspired by a mythos story outside the usual Lovecraft circle: “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips, which I read in the collection Lovecraft Unbound (and is also available in Ms. Phillips’s collection At the Edge of Waking).
I read the story a long time ago, but it made an unusually persistent impression. The intense isolation of a small group alone on the alien landscape of a drifting iceberg was a perfect foundation for cosmic horror. More recently, I saw an article about historical schemes to tow icebergs to warm climates, while also reading my brand new Delta Green Agent’s Handbook. Something clicked.
I had a sketchy idea of modern adventurers on an iceberg, and Delta Green Agents dispatched to keep them from bringing a frozen horror too close to civilization. But I needed some type of motivation for the folks on the ice, both to be there and to try to move the thing back to the inhabited world. I got thinking about the billionaire eco-adventurer angle – basically, the Richard Branson / Steve Fossett gig – and the idea of Mike Rydger’s Project Anthropocene started developing. So a charismatic leader has cooked up a plan to bring an iceberg to Sydney harbor, to make some sort of point about global warming while also proving the value of wind power and satisfying his enormous ego. He’s roped a variety of people into the scheme as his support crew. I got a little science-fictiony to figure out what a technical team might look like (Meta-material sails! Social media memetic engineering! Dynamic iceberg stabilization!). Then I thought about the personalities of the sorts of people might sign up for those jobs in such a grueling and perilous venture. Finally I cooked up a few interpersonal conflicts among them, a couple of soap opera elements that the PCs might crash into depending how they chose to approach their investigation. Now I had a little community of sorts there on the iceberg, with their own goals and storylines, and a nice hook for the Agents to exploit for a cover story.
As I wrote more, I started to consider the thematic aspects of the scenario. The central element is that the whole situation is caused by human action. This is a bit different from a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, which often emphasizes human helplessness in response to forces beyond our control. But in this case, from start to finish, it’s people who cause everything. Anthropogenic global warming has exposed glacial ice that’s been locked in the Antarctic shelves for millions of years. Mike Rydger’s project to “raise awareness” of the situation takes the form of an even more extreme commitment to human technological manipulation. And in the end, it’s Delta Green’s orders and the Agents’ own actions that precipitate the ultimate disaster for the iceberg crew. If they had simply done nothing, maybe nothing bad would have happened at all.
If the scenario seems a little rushed and abbreviated, that was intentional. I was trying to keep it simple enough so that the players could easily complete it in one of our short 2-hour sessions. And I was also interested in the narrative effect of having the players’ actions cause an unexpectedly abrupt climax. It was an interesting test, but the next time I run it I’ll want to give more time for the Agents to get to know the people on the project, and maybe add a few more plot wrinkles to make the Agents’ choices more tense.
The brevity of this version of the scenario had one big perk: it helped me write it up as a submission for the annual Shotgun Scenario Competition run by the Delta Green Mailing List. I got it whittled down under the 1500-word limit, and I’m happy with the result (even if it only got one vote in the contest). You can read the full text of it there, under the final title Project Anthropocene.
If you’d be interested to having me run it for your gaming group, hit me up! I’d like to keep playtesting and improving it. Thanks for listening!
Now that Road Trip Remix has wrapped up, we’ve recently started planning some new campaigns which got us talking about what we wanted to play and what kind of story we want out of campaigns.This got me thinking about the types of games we had already run, characters I have played, and about how best to play outside my comfort zone. While it is perfectly fine to stick with the systems, characters, and themes you like to play with, it can be helpful to think of ways you can expand your horizons and consider changing things up.
The biggest change you can make is to what you are playing. If your group is playing the same system, session after session , a way to step outside your comfort zone is to flat out play something different. For fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, perhaps a more investigative game like Call of Cthluhu or Delta Green. If you’re doing investigative games, something that focuses more on character interaction, like Fiasco or a Powered by the Apocalypse game (such as MonsterHearts or Dungeon World.) One shots can be very helpful for easing your group into a new system, to get folks used to both new rules and different themes. For instance, to warm up for a Better Angels campaign, which uses the Gumshoe system, we played a mini-campagin in A Dirty World, which also works off the Gumshoe system. While playing with different themes and stories (cartoon supervillainy vs. noir-mystery respectively), both systems use the same core mechanics which allowed the players to focus on their characters in Better Angels faster. Before we played Road Trip, I ran a one shot in Monsters and Other Childish Things to get a feel for the One Roll Engine.
Now that you have the system, the group needs to decide what campaign to play, which includes what the theme of the campaign will be. Thus, not just what story you want to do, but what themes to cover. When I pitched running Road Trip, I mentioned that it was going to be a dark Saturday morning cartoon, so while it wasn’t pitch black sad or dark comedy, it wasn’t G-Rated fluff. Especially towards the end of the campaign we went into some more emotionally deeper places. If your group constantly runs games that are darker and tackle more mature themes, something a bit lighter can switch things up. If your group wants to go into more mature themes, talk at length about what you’re comfortable tackling, without being forceful. You likely don’t know everything about the people you’re playing with, even if they’re close friends. Covering topics like sex or emotional abuse might strike too close to home, so be open to the rest of your group’s comfort level, and never go over the line.
Finally, it’s time for character generation. It’s incredibly common to fall into the same old habits when making characters, so sometimes pushing your boundaries is just playing something different. If you choose the same classes, try another class. If you stick with human characters, try a non-human. If your characters are always stone cold serious, try being more light hearted. Try to consciously choose character traits you typically avoid. For example, we’re currently running an Eclipse Phase campaign, and I’m playing a Neo-Pig weapon specialist. Normally I try to play jack of all trades characters, but for this character I focused on weapons proficiencies and his chosen professions (psychology and philosophy) and didn’t put as many (if any) points in other skills. Because I’m so specialized, I’m going to have to trust my fellow players more in other situations, like investigation and stealth. This should help me role-play better, which is the whole point of the character.
And with the plans in place, it’ll be time to play. Hopefully by thinking on these topics you can stretch your boundaries, be a better player, and have more fun at the table. Are there ways you’ve played outside your comfort zone and succeeded — or failed? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.