Linearity in Games: Railroad VS Off The Rails

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.

Personalities at the Table: Knowing Your Roles

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.

A Brief Introduction to RPG Tools

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.

Coordinating Online Games

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

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.

When’s Good For You? - The Art of Game Scheduling

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Accept Changes

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.

  • Aaron

GM's Corner: Sail an Iceberg to Sydney

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!

Gaming Outside Your Comfort Zone

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.

Going Out With a Bang

As we geared up to finish our most recent campaign, Road Trip Remix, I’ve been planning the finale. The act of planning an ending to a campaign is an important step since a final sour note can frustrate or even potentially ruin the experience. Planning out how you want or need your story to end, where your players want to leave their characters, and how to get there makes it much more likely you'll achieve an enjoyable ending.

The first thing to plan is the structure. Here, the campaign genre is an important factor to consider. For systems where fighting is an important theme or component, this should involve a final boss fight, preferably using a character you’ve had planned from the beginning, and a character that has been active in the story itself. The boss needs to be the toughest fight possible, but so overpowered as to be impossible. For Legal Tender, this meant Vectors with the DCA and highly trained enemies in the Governor’s forces. On the other hand, if you’re playing Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, meeting Cthulhu would be less an exercise in defeating the Great Old One and more an exercise in trying to make it out of the encounter alive. Thus, the ending needs to fit the system. If combat is possible, a fight makes sense, but an escape or an intense negotiation can also make for a lively ending.

Perhaps more important than what you do is how the ending goes down with the players. After inhabiting the campaign world and their characters for so many sessions, ending the campaign with an out-of-character moment can be a massive disappointment. Reflect on how the players have been using their characters, how they’ve grown over the campaign, and what story beats would be worth poking in the finale. For MonsterHearts, J.J., Catrin, and Neko all had moments to shine and moments that helped highlight their characters — J.J.’s and Catrin’s fight with the boss, and Catrin and Neko’s dialogue.

Lastly comes the ending itself. Weak or on an incomplete ending can also be a disappointment. If there is a finite ending, make it a firm ending. If the story calls for ambiguity, then include ambiguity but certainly point at the ending. If this is a campaign that everyone might want to come back to in the future, leave seeds for future stories in the ‘adventure continues sense, while resolving the campaign problem. Going back to MonsterHearts, our heroes were able to resolve the immediate threat , and Aaron left some seeds we can expand on in a future campaign.

With the ends of campaigns, planning is key. What is there for the players to solve, to defeat, to realize? What will satisfy everyone at the table? What do you need to do to create those conditions? If you can ask and answer all these questions, you should have a finale that will be beloved and memorable. Are there any lessons you’ve learned in ending a campaign? Any stories of ends that went right -- or wrong? Talk about it in the comments.

Player Interaction

When coming together to play RPGs, regardless of system, one of the key aspects is player interaction. Playing an RPG is a social game where talking and working with the other players and GM is the focus. Concentrating on how social interactions are supported by the system or expected to support the setting can help you improve your play and make the game more enjoyable for you and your fellow players.

The majority of games focus on player-on-player interactions with completely separate characters. Examples from games we've played on Technical Difficulties include MonsterHearts and Call of Cthulhu. In these games, the player only plays their Player Character and nothing else. Everyone else is one of the GM's NPCs. When players interact, it is a one-on-one conversation. In these games, the focus needs to be on who you are as a character and how that drives your interactions with others. For example, in The Wives of March, as Pepsi, I was interacting with NPCs, Laura's, and Rachel's characters. So how I formed Pepsi was entirely based on my mental image of him and I had complete freedom in how I interpreted my character. I wrote his backstory with his club before the game began from a prompt that he was a friend of Country Large, but as in the midst of play I formed how I was a friend of Country’s and the lengths I would go to help him. Pepsi’s decision to help him was made in part due to his friendship but also the personality trait of wanting to help people that had developed in the course of the game.

Similarly, with MonsterHearts J.J was fully developed as a character before we began. His relationships with Catrin and Neko served to illustrate some of his reserve, as well as aided character development by helping free him of some of his loneliness. He was influenced by his relationships with Catrin and Neko, but in the end he was my character. He grew to love his friends and their camaraderie made for an amazing campaign. Think about not only what they would say, but why they would say it. What kind of a person they are on the inside is just as important as their actions.

There are some games where there are two characters associated with one player, but another player pilots the second character. Two systems that tackle this are Better Angels (coming soon!) & Monsters and Other Childish Things . In MAOCT for example, the player creates both the monster and the child, but the player only controls the child for social scenes. While they control the monster in combat, in social sequences the monster is controlled by another player. This allows for an easier means of interactions, as the player isn’t controlling two characters at once. It also allows for more genuine interaction by giving the player a foil, but it also means entrusting that character to another person. The other player starts with a description of the character, but then makes them their own within these parameters. For example, Aaron started with Laura’s  description of Jak-Jak as a puppy, and then imbued him with curiosity and energy.

In our No Soul Left Behind campaign in the Better Angels system, however, the two characters (a supervillain and their attached demon) are created by two separate people. The demon is created completely divorced from their chosen player character and the controlling player has free reign to design them. This can be both a help and a hinderance. My character’s demon is being played by Adam — he’s doing an amazing job with pushing my character’s buttons and opening avenues to show his pettiness and ability to be evil in spite of himself. Meanwhile, I’m the demon for Laura’s character, and I’m having a lot harder time. I’m trying to push her character to do bad things and nothing has worked thus far. At first I went too hard, trying to convince her to steal laptops for a student’s help. Then I tried to go for something that felt more possible for her to do, set a fire as a distraction, but that didn’t work either. I think part of it might be her trying to show that her character is trying to resist the demon, but it’s frustrating from my perspective because it feels like I’m being ineffective while other players are having much more success. That’s not true, though; it’s how she’s portraying the character, and eventually when she’s desperate for dots in her sinful stats she’ll need to give in, which will make the earlier resistance all the more powerful. Don’t be discouraged by things that feel like failures, because they usually aren’t. Even if it is a failure, it’s a learning experience to be better for the future.

Another side of the ‘multiple characters for one player’ are games where the other player controls NPCs, such as in Red Markets and Delta Green. These NPCs are usually relegated to scenes of home life at the start of the session and may be referenced later. The vignette system in both games has another player control the PC’s friends and family. These are usually shorter scenes that serve as establishing who the PC is. Like with the monsters in MAOCT, these NPCs are designed by the player but fleshed out by the second player. Part of what made the Reformers such memorable characters is their NPCs; Pixie’s relationship with Sarge, Freebird’s relationship with his son, and Elder’s relationship with Jesse all showed sides of the PCs that aren’t shown in the battlefield. Delta Green uses these relationships as fuel for their survival, allowing the player to sacrifice the relationship to save themselves. If they survive, this affects later vignettes, and they’ll have to spend valuable time repairing relationships instead of bettering stats or restoring SAN. But without their dependents, they might not be able to survive that SAN damage in later games.

So the next time you’re at the table, think of what system you’re playing and what type of player interaction it uses. By being cognizant of this you can see how you play, you can see what’s successful, and what you can improve upon. And perhaps knowing how you interact with other players might help you interact with people in daily life.

New Year, New Characters

In addition to using the new year to reflect on the campaigns past, it's also an opportunity to think about the characters you had played and what types of characters you would want to make for the coming year. You don't necessarily have to plan out which systems and campaigns if you don't know what you're doing; rather, you can see what the characters you had played were and how you would play differently, or even if you want to.

One thing I've noticed is my tend towards non-human characters. In MonsterHearts, while J.J. is human, he is a demigod and has his Minotaur form. In games off mic, I've played multiple draconics (in a pair of 5th Ed. DND campaigns), a cat person (in the ADND game that's been ongoing since I started the hobby a few years back), and a Rodain (in Star Wars Edge of the Empire). Even into the future, the character I've got stated out for Eclipse Phase is a Pig Uplift. In most of the one-shots I have been in COC or Delta Green, as well as the upcoming Better Angels: No Soul Left Behind campaign, I've been forced to play as humans. There's no issue with playing non-human characters, but I might try to play more explicitly human characters in upcoming games.

Also with those characters are their personalities. This might come as a shock for people who have heard me play and GM, but I tend towards Lawful or Neutral Good characters who are usually moral and try to be good people. The hardest I've pushed is with J.J., and even then he mellowed out as the campaign progressed. While the physical character can be easier to shift around and change, changing the personality I play with will be harder. I don't want to go full scumbag, but in future character designs I should try to go for harder / colder people in addition to the nicer guys and gals.

These aren't necessities, mind you. It is good to grow as a role player, but there's two standards that you should always uphold: it should be A) a character you want to play and B) a character that will help the party. We play these games to have fun, so what is the point of playing a grim dark jerk when that's only going to make you miserable? If you feel like you are forcing yourself to play a paladin, or Sith, or werewolf, or what have you, is it worth it? And while it might be good to be a divisive character, if it breaks up the party in character it runs the risk of breaking relationships out of character.

Do you have any ideas for new characters you want to run? Anything that helped you get over the hump of making a new character? Tell us in the comments!

New Year, New Campaigns

Hope everyone has had a Happy New Year! As we turn the calendar to 2017, it's time to reflect on what we hope to accomplish in the new year. As RPG players, that can include what games to play this year. Being in the GM seat, that means what campaigns or one shots to play, and what systems to use.

If you're planning for campaign play, there's a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost is what you and the players want to be doing. It's good to try new systems, so you can see new mechanics and concepts and expand yourselves as gamers, but if no one wants to play the game, there's no point. It needs  to be a group consensus, as a lack of agreement can kill the campaign before it starts. What interests you as a GM? Is there a story concept that you've latched onto that can spill into a multi-session campaign, or a published campaign that everyone is interested in? For Road Trip, I had wanted to try the system, and had ideas for new legs and a new meta plot. After the rest of the cast agreed, I refined the legs and meta plot into written out notes so I was ready to play. Thus far, it's been a lot of fun and a huge success for us in the cast, and we hope you've been enjoying as well.

Part of that enjoyment has been learning a new system. I had never played a One Roll Engine system game before, much less run a campaign. While playing in familiar systems is not a problem, by playing in ORE I've learned more about stating enemies and planning. With Red Markets, the threats of the Casualties and the lethality of combat meant I focused more on planning the contracts. In Road Trip, I've been having to focus more on the characters I've created, both in terms of their personalities and their actual stat blocks, whereas in Red Markets most of the 'stats' were rolling for casualty hoards and the occasional NPC.

That planning is the final step in preparing for new campaigns. Some people are able to come up with stuff on the fly, while other GMs need more structure. I've heard of one person running a episodic campaign completely improvised with nothing but a map of the world he had created on the table. If you can improv like that, by all means, if the players are having fun. For myself, having even a couple paragraphs and the stat blocks ready gives me what I need to get the game sessions in motion. I still leave room for improv, letting the players interact and seeing their play informs my decisions to come up with stuff on the fly.

For me in the new year, I'm not planning stuff for the immediate future. Once we finish Road Trip we're planning to do an Eclipse Phase campaign run by Adam, and we're doing some cross overs with our friends at the Role Playing Exchange in Better Angel's campaign of No Soul Left Behind. As for me, after having run two big campaigns last year, I'm taking a little time off, but I've got some ideas. I have a seed for a Delta Green campaign (but do I have the viciousness to run it? We'll see...), and after hearing our friends at the Drunk and Ugly run Leverage I'd love to run that some day. But as for now, I'll be finishing Road Trip, then stepping back to let others shine with some new, wonderful campaigns.

Are there any campaigns you're planning for the new year? Is there anything that has helped you prepare

Player Attendance

When planning for campaigns for Technical Difficulties, one of the last things on our minds is how often we'd be able to attend. Mostly because we've established a night and time to play and we've been pretty fortunate. But we're also adults with lives, and things happen. With me alone, we've had to cancel a night due to my car breaking down back in The Reformer's campaign, and we almost had to cancel a night when my internet connection didn't want to play ball. The players also have family obligations, work schedules, and more that can interfere with play. No one is upset or angry, as this is a reality of being an adult, and family and work take priority from game night. But also preparing for that eventuality is helpful when planning.

For both player and GM, flexibility is key. You might have been itching to play your favorite character or eager to execute your scenario, but things always can come up. Having the maturity to let it slide and doing something else is very important. As the GM, planning for this means if we want the campaign to continue, having outs for characters. For Road Trip, this means figuring out how to let the PCs skip a session and making it believable. Especially for us, since  we usually play in two to two and a half hour chunks, meaning individual scenarios in the campaign take two to three sessions. Luckily, for this campaign I've got an in universe explanation, and for now the players will have to be content knowing that the kids keep getting stomach bugs and waking up in their adventures when the time arises.

Sometimes, no amount of explanation can work. Maybe too many people are unable to attend, including the GM, or a rough week by all means no one is in the mood to continue the campaign. Having one shots in the can or systems that are one shot only is a huge blessing. Ethan's Civil War scenarios have meant that on nights we couldn't all attend or nights where the campaign stalled, we had something to do. Even if you don't have a scenario designed, many systems have premade scenarios that can be purchased, or free or fan made scenarios that you can pick up and play. Similarly, systems like Fiasco meant that there is always a game where the only preparation is having play sets on hand. No one has to prepare or have something designed, it's always ready and willing to be picked up and played.

With campaign play, attendance is important, but you can't always have a 100% attendance rating. Planning for that eventuality and having alternate plans in the can are key to always ensuring your game night will be able to work regardless of plans, or those plans can work if you can't make it. And if no one can make it, there's always places to ask around for a pick up game. We came together because I asked around on the RPPR forums. That's a place to start, but there are plenty of other places, in both meat-space and cyberspace, where people are itching to play. Planning to have fun sounds like an oxymoron, but it doesn't have to be one

Being a GM vs. a Player

Both sides of the gaming table are equally important in having fun in role playing games. With a weak GM, the game does not run smoothly and devolves into the players doing whatever they want, at best. With weak players, the GM is running a game for everything from wild and crazy kids to rules lawyers who micromanage the game for everyone else. Knowing how to play and how to run games makes it easier for both sides to play a well run game and have fun.

The first lesson I had to learn was to be open to letting the whole of the table design the story, which helps both as GM and player. As a writer, I frequently have ideas of how I want to run things or how I want the story to end. However, while RPGs are a game (it’s in the acronym, after all), they are also at heart collaborative storytelling. While it’s important to have your ideas and to tell the story you want to tell, there’s other people at the table adding to the story and to the world. It’s important to let them tell the story too and to not hog the spotlight. In my first D&D games there were times I was nearly running over the GM with how I wanted role playing scenes to go. He never had issues with that because most of the people he has played with focused more on combat than role playing, so I presented a new challenge. The more we played and the more I heard APs online, though, the more I realized it needed to be a more level playing field. When he was moving the story in different directions than I wanted, I needed the willingness to trust in the GM that these stories will work out. I gave him that trust, and he has rewarded me with a lot of fun at the table.

Another lesson is in reading people at the table. Because you’re in a setting where you’re playing with people for hours at a time, you need to get to know who you play with and get a sense of who they are. In one game I’ve been worrying that I’m not engaging a player as much because he doesn’t speak as much or act as much as the other players. However, after playing the campaign for awhile, I realized that the mood was more related to how he was role playing the character at the table, and that he has been enjoying the game and having fun. Being able to tell when to push people and when to lay off is helpful; similarly, knowing when you’re focusing too much on one person is also important. Sometimes there are things only one character can do and you have to do one on one for a bit, but keeping the whole of the table engaged, both as a GM and interacting with other players, is key to the whole group having fun.

Knowing who you are as a player and a GM is helpful in what games to play and run. While I’m great at crafting stories and player engagement, I lack a lot of the ruthlessness and willingness to cause harm to player characters that is necessary for some games. Road Trip and MAOCT is a place where I don’t have to think about killing character or being too dark, whereas Delta Green you need a very bleak and nigh-on nihilistic view point to really get the setting right; something that I don’t necessarily have in me. That doesn’t mean I can’t play or run Delta Green, it means that I need to work on finding ways I can get into the mind set as a GM that would allow me to run the game as it needs to. If / when I run Delta Green, I would definitely start with pre-written scenarios so I can directly see what it looks like and how it runs at the table.

These lessons were good things to show me that role playing games are a communal experience. As with everything else about being an adult, you really need to be in touch with yourself and know who you are and what you want to do. For everyone to have fun, you need to be communicative; tell people what you do and do not want to do, yet be open to new experiences and what other people bring to the table. When all sides of the table come together, a fun night will be the only outcome.

Road Trip Remix -1: The Chicken Dance

While I already wanted to run Road Trip, I had never run anything in the One Roll Engine before. I'd listened to APs of Monsters and Other Childish Things games, so I wasn't completely in the dark, but I knew that if I was running a campaign I'd need to at least run one game of MAOCT. There's actually very few published MAOCT one shots, and none of them struck my fancy as something to run. Deciding to dive in whole hog, I committed to designing a scenario.

Knowing I would do the same for the brand new legs of Road Trip, I felt that I should use facets of my childhood to design the scenario. With how MAOCT uses the relationships between children and monsters (or weird kids and their normal peers), the system urges reflection in play by the relationship system. By betting on your relationships, it helps you get in the mindset of why these relationships help you in your present situation.

I had already dove into the well of my childhood in Red Markets for the Mega Playground / Discovery Zone job, so it felt easy to dive right in again. I knew this scenario needed to be self contained, but could connect with Road Trip. A birthday party felt natural for a one shot. Looking back, I remembered parties at the local roller rink. Admittedly, my memories of that focused more on playing arcade games and awkwardly flailing on the rink, but those were usable.

Another thing I never was able to complete on the skates was the Chicken Dance skate. That memory gave me the idea for the All Chicken as a boss, the dance as a method to summon it. I now had everything I needed to run the scenario! I was excited for our game night.

Then... we played. I still felt weird running it, and I know I got stuff wrong while playing. Getting initiative right felt hard, and I know I built the enemy monsters too weak for the adventure. Also, the different attributes for attacks flew right over my head. However, the important aspects of the playthrough were successful. The players had fun, and we all learned how to play MAOCT and One Roll Engine games. With that experience in hand, we were able to play Road Trip, and thus far it has been successful. We'll see how things proceed as we get ever closer to the end...

Road Trip Remix: Two at a Time

For the moment we are shifting to two blog posts a month to be able to better provide timely posts.

While doing my preparations for the next campaign for Technical Difficulties, I searched for advice on how to run games of Monsters and Other Childish Things. Although I have listened to this and many other games in the One Roll Engine family being played, I had never played in or run a game with it. Luckily, the cast of The Drunk and The Ugly are some of the most experienced with this game, so I asked questions on how to run the game and on running Road Trip using their forums.

As we talked, a few present and former members of their cast expressed interest in playing in it. Although this would increase my workload, I thought it would be an interesting prospect. While campaigns are designed to be run multiple times, I have never heard of someone running the same campaign for two groups at the same time. It would be interesting to see how the groups reacted to the same stimuli in real time and how that might affect my running of the campaigns.

Already this has borne fruit. I ran the first session for the other group before Technical Difficulties first session due to scheduling conflicts. By playing the other game first, I learned some of the weaknesses in how I had presented it.  One of the players brought up that when I described the monster the kids fought I only used the bare minimum of descriptive language to describe them. My intent was take make it more horrifying by leaving it up to the imagination, but since it is the theater of the mind, using more imagery gives it a unified image that makes the game more real.

While it wasn’t a complaint of theirs, they also flew through combat without a scratch. I feel that was more system mastery than the monsters, as they said that they felt right for a first session enemy. With their advice, I got a better feel of how the first session needed to go. While combat got a lot more crunchy with four PCs and six enemies, the Technical Difficulties crew has fun and had a challenging fight, as they took damage while fighting the creatures.

A new group was helpful to seeing these blind spots in my GM style. Laura had mentioned descriptiveness in the short story I had written, but once is an anomaly while twice is a pattern. I need to do better with description. It’s weird because the image is clear in my head and I can describe it well; perhaps I’m unnecessarily worried about dragging on in play, especially with Technical Difficulties’ scheduling. I just need to take the time to describe. And I know viciousness is not my strong suit, but in an RPG I need to know when to lay back and when to throw the hammer.

No matter what, all of the players across the sessions enjoyed the opening act. These are means of growth, not game breaking errors. Focus on fun at the table and be open to suggestion, and anyone can be a great GM.

GM's Corner 11: The Nethescurial Fragment

I hope you enjoy this Call of Cthulhu one-shot! It seems like this is our go-to format when one of us can't make a session. CoC is a nice flexible system that works for very few players, and doesn't usually require a ton of prep.

Of course, I say that, but I've technically been prepping this scenario for about 8 years now...

Read More

GM's Corner 10: The End of the Reformers

After 18 sessions, our Red Markets beta campaign reached its end. With a good recon and planning session, our heroes and their unexpected DHQS allies tried to stealth their way into the Truman Building to destroy the printing machines, only to end in a hail of gunfire. Through strategy and a little luck, they completed their mission and fled to the sounds of Governor Carnavan’s men brutally murdering him for putting the whole nation at risk. Their task completed, they were flown to the Recession and succeeded in playing the Red Markets.

When I first planned for my Red Markets campaign, I knew I wanted to structure the campaign with an overarching plot. Ethan had written up Jeff’s City as a potential Enclave, and mentioned the possibility of Carnavan making fake driver's licenses. With the economic theme of Red Markets I knew I wanted that to be my plot. While making fake ID is normally a dangerous idea, in an economy where the IDs are the primary form of currency it can also act to destabilize the economy.

My plan was to introduce this slowly in the campaign. I laid hints in multiple missions, like the dead Taker diary in the mine, the DHQS presence at the warehouse, some of the DCA encounters, etc. However, after the Reformers’ mass influx of bounty I felt I had laid enough ground work to not finish the story. I should have let them and take the consequences, but it’s in my nature to want to see the best possible ending. Plus, the raid on the Truman Building turned out to be an amazing end to a wonderful campaign.

As a first time GM, I was satisfied with how I ran things. I know I made mistakes with pacing and rules mastery. However, the players had a good time, it was helpful to Caleb, and we’ve been happy to see the fan response. This likely won’t be the last time we slip into the Loss, but we’ll probably wait until we have our Red Markets books in hand before the next campaign.

- Gre

GM's Corner 09: Road Trip Remix

As you may know, we are closing in on the final episodes of our Red Markets Beta campaign. I hope you’ve been enjoying The Reformers’ adventures and are tuning in for their final battle.

With one campaign drawing to a close, it comes time to plan for the next one. The next games you will be hearing will be a couple of one-shots, followed by our MonsterHearts campaign, a Powered by the Apocalypse setting. The campaign was run by Aaron, and I can’t wait for you to hear them.

The team had discussed what system to play next. I had always wanted to try out Monsters and Other Childish Things, a system where players play as a child and their monster friend. Having never played a game in the system, I suggested that I could run a pre-made campaign. Continuing with the theme of RPPR, one of the campaigns was written by the host himself, Ross Payton. Road Trip, a six adventure campaign, is available as a PDF and print product on DriveThruRPG.

Having read the campaign, I like Ross’ design of a set of places where the kids and creatures can have adventures throughout the country. However, his design is for a modular campaign where the kids can reach any of the destinations in any order outside of the ‘final boss’. This can work well for letting the GM design how they want to run the campaign.

The inspirations for Road Trip come from a variety of sources, both childish and adult. For example, the most famous leg, Sucrose Park, takes place in a Las Vegas theme park where the heroes fight a creature that kidnaps kids and replaces them with robots. The cited sources include Saturday Morning Cartoons, Theme Parks, and Stephen King’s Misery, though after reading I also see parts of Invasions of the Body Snatchers and a critique of consumerism, to say nothing of neglectful parenting.

As a child, I was taken on many road trips. Some of my happiest memories are of going places with my family to see the sights. As an adult, the road trips I’ve taken have still been fun but have also been marred with worries about my safety, how much money I can spend, and where I’ll stay and what I’ll do. I wanted to take inspiration from these memories, and from my own childhood fascinations and adult readings and anxieties. My plan is to move Road Trip from a choose your own adventure to a linear path, mixed in with custom legs of my own. To that end I’ve been reviewing some of my own childhood favorites, including superhero comics and cartoons, Nickelodeon classics, and interactions with family and friends. In keeping with Ross’ design, I want to use my own past to more fully evoke the sense of an actual road trip.

Road Trip Remix will take our kids and monsters on a wide spanning journey from California to Florida with a grandparent as they’ve been chosen to appear on their favorite kids game show, live at the studio in sunny Florida! However, as they see the sights on their way to fame and fortune they keep coming across situations where kids, monsters, or kids and monsters are being manipulated against one another and with plots against the greater world at large. Are these plans connected? Will they make it to Florida in one piece? And is TV glory the only thing waiting for them on set? Stay tuned. In a few months, Road Trip Remix will be your ticket to find out.


GM's Corner 08 - Red Markets Episodes 13-15

Now that the Takers had their massive amount of Bounty, they had to design their Mr. JOLS – their Score that would render all of them independently wealthy in the Recession. The Mr. JOLS process, like the process for designing Scores, works really well as a collaborative tool to make an adventure. The players are making a mission they want to do, while the GM manipulates things behind the scenes to make their hard final mission even harder.

The players’ idea of raiding a vertical farming startup seemed like fun, but I needed a challenge worthy of the series finale. After starting the Delta County Avengers storyline in earlier sessions they seemed to be a perfect fit for a cinematic fight near the end of the campaign. I had intended on them being a minor nuisance throughout the campaign, but with how thoroughly demoralized they had become at the hands of The Reformers, their rage became an excellent weapon.

All throughout the campaign I had wanted to better test the combat rules against human opponents, but the players had either used charisma skills to talk opponents down or crippled their enemies so fast a protracted fight wasn’t happening. The closest was the fight against the DCA in the beer plant, but even then the players had ruined DCA limbs and left them to be devoured by zombies. Not that this was a major concern; as a play test this was a unique set of circumstances that were hopefully helpful for Caleb as he prepared the next version of the rules, but coming from my background in RPGs I had been hoping for more combat.

The fight outside the startup was the fight I had been wanting. By adding combat NPCs to the party, the players were more effective against the DCA and we were able to get a lengthy fight, with players, NPCs, human enemies, Vectors, and Casualties all in play. In the end the fight was thrilling and would have been an excellent end to the campaign…

If I hadn’t had them wrap up my meta plot. In all honesty, it might have been a better move to leave things there, but as I had accidentally given them so much Bounty and had started to establish the end game, I felt I had to finish it. So I shoehorned in roughly four sessions worth of exposition into 20 minutes of post fight chat. They had also managed to avoid directly fighting the Aberrant I had created, so the end of Session 15 was a little lackluster. I should have had the courage to let go and either let them live with the consequences or thrown the Aberrant at them anyway, but that was Monday morning GMing that I’ll be mindful of in future campaigns.

Regardless, as a new GM, I’m thankful that these issues did not derail or ruin the game. My players still had fun, this chunk of the campaign was still good, and the conclusion of The Reformers was about to begin.

GM's Corner 07: Writing Historical Roleplaying Scenarios (Ethan)

I've been dedicating a lot of my recent RPG creativity to writing historical gaming scenarios. I've written three Lovecraftian horror scenarios set during the American Civil War (with a fourth in progress), as well as another couple of scenarios set during the standard Call of Cthulhu period of the 1920's that include strong real-world historical elements. I've also been researching the Black Death in 1340's Europe, ideally for a future Red Markets-related project. If you want to listen to some of my scenarios, I'm running them here on Technical Difficulties (check out He Calls Me by the Thunder, part 1 and part 2), as well as for Role Playing Public Radio.

I also really love reading and playing historically-focused RPG scenarios, like Caleb Stokes's No Security scenarios set during the Great Depression, and the Trail of Cthulhu World War I collection Dulce et Decorum Est from Pelgrane Press.

I figured I'd share a few of my thoughts and tips about designing historical scenarios, since I've been thinking about it so much recently.

1. For me, the most fun thing about historical scenarios is getting to explore a new time and place, to imagine how people living in that place would deal with strange and dangerous situations differently than someone living in our modern world. I always play up the unique historical conditions of a scenario, even as I'm mixing in fantastical or supernatural elements. How might a Lovecraftian monstrosity affect an Antebellum slave plantation? How would a 1920's radical socialist newspaper deal with a malevolent sorcerer?

2. I recommend writing pre-generated characters for most historical scenarios. I don't want to force my players to do a bunch of their own historical research just to make up appropriate PCs. So I'll write characters that fit an appropriate archetype: the wounded artillery officer, the corrupt militia trooper, the crusading field nurse. But I also make sure to leave the pregens vague enough that each player can invest their own details into their character's personality, to make it their own.

3. When I'm researching for a game, I start broadly and then get more specific. A prominent historical event can be the seed of a scenario plot, like the Gettysburg Address or the Missouri Mormon Wars. I'll cruise Wikipedia or read a general history to get broad ideas. Then to develop the scenario, I'll dive into the detailed facts of the event and let that shape my plot, like how the black workmen on the Gettysburg National Cemetery project were surprisingly well-paid, and how Lincoln was getting sick while he was giving his speech. Having loads of details adds a lot to the players' sense of immersion.

4. That said, I have to resist the urge to cram every single tidbit in. Remember, we're writing games, not lectures. The main focus needs to remain on the characters' choices and actions, not just on the set dressing. Make sure that the details you do emphasize are ones that the PCs can use to inform their actions, so that they feel more like they're embodying real people from the era. The design of the Gettysburg courthouse probably doesn't matter, but the person playing the war widow might like to know a lot about the traditions of mourning dress.

5. Make sure that you let the actual play at the table be as free and open as you would in any game. Don't pull a "Stop having fun, guys!" on your players, just because they're doing something that doesn't quite make historical sense. Maybe gently remind them of how a particular historical fact might guide their behavior, but don't be a stickler about it. Remember, nobody's getting graded at the end of this.

Those are just a few tips. I might revisit this subject again in the future, to talk more theoretically about how to use historical games to explore big themes, or how to take ideas from historical research and use them in other genres like fantasy and science fiction. Let us know if you you find this sort of thing interesting! I hope I'm not the only one. :)