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 06: Red Markets Episodes 9-12

News: The Red Markets Kickstarter is live! Help us reach the offset print run stretch goal, so we can get a full-color print run of the book.

Coming to tabletop role-playing through video gaming, one of the things that always strikes my fancy is the ‘boss fight’ concept; the player not just facing adversity through run-of-the-mill enemies, but fights or encounters that demand strategy and focus are what pull me in. When creating jobs for Red Markets I was drawn to the concept of Aberrants, though I wanted to be cautious in how I designed them. Without knowing the specific rules I did not want to go too far from the design that had been given, but I also wanted to include these bosses for the players to encounter.

My chief aspect of design in the Aberrants I made for the Legal Tender campaign revolved around the concept of the secondary Blight nervous system in a Casualty. The black strands are a very evocative element and were the central idea around the monsters I created. The Mole Variant from the Little Pittsburg job came about as a means of the strands hardening and covering body parts, thus providing natural weapons.

While trying to think of a new job, I was struggling to find a core concept. I needed more jobs that involved the main storyline, as I didn’t know how much longer the campaign would last and I needed ways to drop hints. I came up with using the plastic for the licenses as a draw for a job, but how to integrate it? Living near a candy factory I contemplated wrappers, thus a need for huge rolls of plastic. But what would be the challenge? Could I create an Aberrant? If so, what was unique about it? I pondered a means of creating an Aberrant with a ranged attack, but how so? I reflected on how Vectors are made, and ways to die in a candy factory. Somehow, my mind wandered to being boiled alive in molten candy, and thus the Candyman was born.

As a means of further evolving the monster, I gave him the cult; a group of Archivists who kept feeding sugar to the vats. Some were mad from seeing such a monster and became worshippers, others tended to their crazed friends and studied this monster that didn’t attack them. I made them all Latents for two reasons: first, as a possible reason why the Candyman wouldn’t attack them. Second, as a means to continuously perpetuate the Candyman once the Aberrant broke down from being constantly encased in napalm-like sugar. The key aspect I wanted to take in is that, horrifyingly, the process to becoming an Aberrant is repeatable if the circumstances are right.

Thinking back months later, I might not have fleshed out the creature and cult as much as I had wanted to. The motivations of the cult seem murky, and by not fighting the Candyman they didn’t see the projectiles or the carnage he could have caused. However, the fear instilled by seeing the crazy cultists and the threat of what was on the USB drive (CCTV footage of the original Candyman becoming Candyman, causing a massive self-control check), combined with the rising and eventual proven fear of the Candyman, elicited the reactions I wanted and left me satisfied with my work. And after hearing about the Ganglia in Episode 9 of the Brutalists, I had become more confident in the designs I had created for the campaign.

What was unsatisfactory was when I botched the score rules and let the players negotiate for the bottles from the brewery. They made so much Bounty they lept from the first Milestone to their last, and could’ve even left without completing a Mr. JOLS. I now had a story to finish and not much time to do it in. However, there are many ways to skin a cat, and the Mr. JOLS was the start of a grand conclusion...


GM's Corner 05: Red Markets Episodes 8-9

One of the chief tenants of writing for any media is to never throw away ideas. If something has potential, do not forget it or destroy it because it doesn’t work at the moment. There is always a new angle to make a concept work. Case in point was the Mega Playground scenario.

When I was first coming up with contracts for my players to obtain, I was trying to think of different adventures for them to come up with. The first that came to mind is one they never encountered, raiding a spice manufacturer and fighting with the people who took up residence. My second concept was to have the players emulate the game Five Nights at Freddy’s by having them invade a children’s restaurant and fighting with the Casualties wrapped up in animatronic nightmares. While I fell in love with this idea, as I further talked with my players they indicated they wanted a more serious campaign. It was instantly obvious that this Five Nights at Freddy’s concept was a bit too absurd, and I had to abandon it.

I was disappointed, because the chief image in my mind was the Takers going into a kids’ restaurant to fight zombies. It was a striking image that I wanted to recreate in game, but couldn’t find an angle. So I kept my notes, but continued to create new missions, like Anton’s mission and the LIttle Pittsburg Mine.

One day while driving, I was reflecting on the Five Nights at Freddy’s contract while racking my brain for a new idea for a contract as I was fresh out of ideas and needed more in case my players weren’t interested. I started to think, well, if a video game kids restaurant wouldn’t work, what would? I thought of Chuck E Cheese, but it’s more of an arcade than a playground, like Discovery Zone–

There was my answer, my angle. I laughed out loud in my car as the concept seemed so obvious in hindsight. Discovery Zones were an active restaurant, with a huge playground complete with climbing structures and a huge ball pit, as well as an arcade. A place where the players would have to fight through the playground and clear out the party rooms. A means of reflecting on how far things have fallen in the Loss and looking at the individual tragedies, like Charlotte sending her daughter to a birthday party and never seeing her again, somehow forever lost in the Crash.

Even if an idea has to be cast aside, do not throw it into the dustbin of history. You never know when a stray thought can unlock a scenario, chapters of text, or clarify an image or shot. That absurdity or odd piece might become the centerpiece of your creation. The Mega Playground was one of if not the personal highlight of my creations for The Reformers. I hope it’s also one of yours.


GM’s Corner 04: Red Markets Episodes 6-7

After our Technical Difficulties in the prior episodes, we opted to go for system difficulties in these two. A rule set within Red Markets allows for the players to make up their own mission, called a Score. They talked about what to do and came up with the concept of raiding a maker space, a place where people can work on projects, whether electronic, artistic, mechanical, etc. The challenge in this from my end was to give them enough incentive to complete the mission while making it difficult.

Wracking my mind to come up with a solution, I actually asked Caleb for further elaboration about one of the cults made for the game, the Archivists. With religious conviction, the Archivists are assuring themselves that the zombie apocalypse will eventually completely destroy humanity. Thus, it’s their job to preserve as much of human knowledge as possible for whatever come next. As a concept for either an NPC or player character, it means playing them as fatalists with a purpose; they aren’t concerned with human life because it’s all going to end soon one way or another, but they have a mission that at least can give them a reason to keep living just a little bit longer.

With this in mind, I made up ‘antagonists’ for the Reformers to run into. The two heavily armed Archivists aren’t evil, just defending their base. They didn’t even care so much for the non-media contents, just that they were being invaded. After allowing the players to navigate the building undisturbed, I initiated the sequence where they came back. I was fully expecting a fire fight. What I wasn’t expecting was them to try to talk it out with the Archivists.

In retrospect, it’s one thing I should have. We are all fans of Role Playing Public Radio, and one of their hallmarks is trying to negotiate with and / or befriend antagonists who aren’t necessarily out to kill them. The rules don’t really have a means of talking things out with people on the field. What they did have, however, were rules for negotiation for jobs. On the fly, I thought to use the negotiation mechanics in this setting, and we engaged in what we had nicknamed ‘Combat Negotiation’.

If they players dip too far into the bad end of the negotiation table once the rounds are over, the opponents will not be pacified and will initiate combat. The low end of the positive side and they’ll want you to do something for them, the high end they’ll acquiesce. Our heroes succeeded, but I didn’t feel enough to just let them take what they wanted after entering the maker space uninvited, so I made up a mission on the fly for them to help raid a library for the Archivists.

The lessons I learned at the beginning of the campaign were showing their usefulness. Without my experience with Anton, a session where I had to blend player expectations with the job they made and the necessary changes to make a challenging scenario could have caused me to freeze up. Instead, as the heroes stood in a Mexican Standoff, I was able to do backseat game design and allow us to have an exciting game session.



GM’s Corner 02: Red Markets Episodes 3-5

If the first set of episodes (Big Trouble in Little Pittsburg)  was a good test of improvisation and role play, the second set (Crying Over Spilled Ink) was a good showing of pushing through failures.

This has nothing to do with the system, the players, or the mission concept and story. I totally messed up the role of the GM in Red Markets, which is mostly as a storyteller and rule keeper, by actively rolling for the Vectors in Episode 4. Caleb joked in an episode of his podcast that there were times that he nearly drove off the highway to take down notes on things that players got wrong in the playtest, and I have no doubt this episode nearly killed the man who created our game. If I had played correctly, Ethan’s character would have almost certainly died and the campaign would’ve turned out very differently.

To say nothing of Episode 5 and the repeated technical difficulties that inspired me to suggest that as a possible name for our podcast. Microphones wouldn’t work, Google Hangouts would drop, the internet would slow down so badly I couldn’t hear my players, etc. The night was pretty much a disaster that could have easily turned us off of playing and derailed the campaign.

The important lesson I learned those two nights is perseverance. It’s part of my nature to feel guilty for failing, and the guilt of ruining Caleb’s system and the internet causing problems was palpable. But ultimately, those failures did not affect our fun or our ability to play. Mistakes will happen while learning a new system. When we are forced to play using technology, we are allowing failure points into the system that can break down our ability to play. What matters is pushing forward and continuing to play. None of my players were upset that we kept having problems, and I realized that the failure to keep the rules straight is, in its own way, helpful to the game designer in showing what is confusing about the system. In the end, even the failures have their own way of helping.

Ultimately, we did have a good time. It was a lot of expressive fun to design the warehouse, in that I made a shipping manifest of different goods for the players to find. The backstory given to Anton was a good arc that fleshed out his character and made him real to the players. Laura made her own score by raiding a Planned Parenthood location which challenged me to think of what to find on the fly. There were multiple thrilling close calls where the zombies could have easily overtaken our heroes. This adventure in stealing ink for printers was the important first step in the overarching plot of my campaign.

When things don’t go right, keep pushing forward. These issues will hopefully be speed bumps in the overall fun of a game session or campaign.


GM’s Corner 01: Red Markets Episodes 1-3

Our first campaign was done as a beta playtest for Hebanon Games’ upcoming RPG Red Markets ( None of us had an established gaming group that wanted to play Red Markets but we all wanted to take part in the closed beta. Our team first met on the Role Playing Public Radio forums, after I posted to the forum a suggestion that people should band together and play the game online.I was lucky to have Aaron, Ethan, and Laura respond, and the rest is history.

Now with our group set, our discussion fell to creating the world of our campaign. Red Markets’ system allows the players and GM to collaborate on their base of operations. As Ethan is on the side of the country that serves as the playable area in Red Markets, his home state of Missouri seemed like a good place to base our Enclave out of. We took to Google Earth, and they agreed that a place along a river or lake would work well. They settled on the serpentine Lake of the Ozarks. While checking it, we spotted the small Village of Four Seasons. Struck by the absurdity of naming a post apocalyptic city after a fancy hotel, our Enclave’s name and location were decided upon.

With our characters and Enclave out of the way, it fell to me as GM to create the scenarios for them to play in. Red Markets provides a random roll table to set up scenarios, so it seemed prudent to test these rules. My rolls gave me a job for energy goods. Not knowing what would make sense for the middle of Missouri, I searched Google and found a website for the Missouri Department of Energy, which said that coal is a major part of Missouri’s energy needs. Modifying my search to ‘Coal Production in Missouri,’ I found a page from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The Department asked people to provide old maps for abandoned underground coal mines, showing a map of the Little Pittsburg Coal Mine of Lingo, Missouri, originally surveyed in 1890 as a sample. ( Such a striking and clear concept gave me all I needed to make a job for our heroes to partake in.

Their job in hand, I now had to provide a twist (as is also mandated in the rules.) My first thought was to trigger a mine collapse, but that seemed too deus ex machina and had the potential to kill my players with one set of bad rolls. My background is not in tabletop RPGs. I’ve only been playing games in these systems for the past four years. My background is mostly in video games, where one of the biggest tropes is boss fights. One of the creatures in Red Markets that had not (as of the beta) been fleshed out were ‘Aberrants,’ highly mutated zombies that could function as bosses. Taking a risk and some artistic license, I made an Aberrant for them to fight.

Perhaps my biggest lesson from this session is the importance of improvisation. Another facet of the Red Markets experience is the random Leg table. The GM places the jobsite for a session an arbitrary distance away using Legs: small vignettes or encounters along the way. I set out to make my own table for the purposes of our campaign, and had to think of 20 encounters. I was struck by the ability to use dogs as a companion in the game, so I created an encounter where the players meet a dog and have the choice to give it food to take back to its master. It was even written such that they did not have to meet the owner, but they followed the dog back. I had written no dialog or personality to this dog and its owner.

The only things I had written were that the owner, Anton, was the lone survivor of a group that failed their mission, whereupon he became a Latent, infected with the zombie virus but still human. So, naturally, they met the owner and had a tense encounter with him as they found he was infected and befriended him as he came to the realization that he was infected.

This one paragraph throw away NPC turned out to be the most important NPC in the game.

The thing I love the most about RPGs is the collaborative process. It should never be the GM forcing a story upon their players; it’s the GM and players working together to tell an amazing story. We hope you enjoy this session and the many more to come from Technical Difficulties.