Saturday, December 31, 2011

500th Post: RPG Lessons from 2011 (and more...)

Today marks my 500th post, done over three solid years. Earlier this week I finally broke 100 people following, and my thanks to everyone who has read or commented on the blog. This has been a pretty dynamite year for gaming, and below I talk about some of the key things I learned (or relearned) this year about gaming. Microscope, Changeling the Lost and Cthulhu Invictus continue to be the big search hits that lead people to the blog. In mundane news, I had modest success in comics this year with the publication of a story in Rocketeer Adventures, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard won an Eisner (I had a story in issue #2), and I got to script and co-plot Flashpoint: Project Superman. I hope to get more pitches and ideas out there in 2012 and get more work. I had a couple of interviews for regular work this year, but the conventional employment situation in my area remains bad. Hopefully I can find more freelance and/or part-time work in this coming year. I finally had surgery on my right hand, which dramatically improved the quality of my life. I regained serious mobility with it and eliminated 90% of the pain. Most importantly, I managed a number of game reviews this year and remain in the running for the RPG Geek Iron Reviewer contest.

As a sidebar, I'll direct anyone interested to two lists I've put together:

List of Campaign Ideas The Next Worlds: Campaign Plans
Is the list of campaign ideas I've put together for 2012. This is a unified and easier to look at version of the earlier list I posted on the blog Any feedback, suggestions or advice on any of them would be appreciated (either on the list or here).

List of Review Ideas edige23's Iron Reviewer for 2012?
Is the list of things I'm thinking about reviewing in 2012. If anyone has preferences or requests, feel free to comment there or here. Thumb something is you want to see it reviewed.

I read more RPGs this year than I got to run or play in. Most games in 2011 were some flavor of our homebrew Action Cards system. We continue to tweak that. We've added in elements from FATE and the magic system in our latest campaign borrows heavily from that in Novarium. I keep fine tuning the system and I'm pretty pleased with it. I also played several sessions of Microscope, ran several sessions of Strands of Fate, ran our Storyteller-based wushu homebrew White Mountain, Black River, and did a one-shot using Dread. I wish I'd had a chance to play more games, but there's always next year...

Fallout RPG
Dave Enyeart ran his Fallout RPG campaign this year, using Action Cards as a basis, but heavily modified. That was pretty awesome. The only game I got to play in this year.

White Mountain, Black River

I ran a half-dozen sessions of this wuxia homebrew in 2011, but opted to put this on hiatus (in favor of The Fleet Departs campaign, below). We'd been playing it for over a year. I will come back to wrap up this story in the future. The campaign began as a vehicle to to try out some martial arts rules and give some out-of-town players a campaign they could drop into easily. Both of those goals had mixed success. Despite that, I love the tale we've been telling and the characters the players created. I want to give that some closure in 2012.

Continuing Campaigns
Libri Vidicos (Steampunk Fantasy Academy)
This February we'll hit the fifth year of playing this campaign. In that time we've gotten through three years of the PCs time at the school. This school year was more difficult for the characters, with greater pressures from on high. We also lost a player who'd been in the game since the start, taking us down to five plus me. But we managed some pretty amazing scenes and episodes: the great race, Valarain and the Elf Demon, the return to Codici Malefactus, the student exchange, the school invasion, and the travel to Sigil (from Planescape). The system's showing its age- it was the first real version of the homebrew we tried for extended play and we've made some advances since then. But it remains a game of solid and fun PCs.

Wayward (Changeling the Lost)
The nature of this campaign means that we move pretty slowly. Modern games can make it harder for a Gm to implement time lapse. That's especially true with so many issues on the table. We lost a player here as well, but I think that actually refocused the game. The group deepend and developed their connections in the freehold and found roles for themselves. They also uncovered some of the real sources of problems and fought successfully against the Winter Court several times. Probably the greatest shift came when they quested out and made contact with a supernatural aspect, the figure of Judgment. They returned from their quest with a blessing to establish a new Court and bring balance to the Freehold. That's changed the entire situation in the city, including a shift in game mechanics. Several times now the players have surprised me with their choices- and they've really taken control of the story in the campaign.

Pavis High Fantasy
This remains a solid high fantasy game, with the players battling the Clanking City, the Godchainers, allying with the Rider tribes, destroying the Pavic rebellion, encouraging sedition, and harvesting from the Giant Tree. The system works, despite having been planned for a much shorter game. I look forward to wrapping up some of the interesting story threads we have happening in Pavis, and seeing what the players want to do next.

The Fleet Departs
A new campaign for this year, my fantasy take on the premise of Battlestar Galactica. I've enjoyed every session of this immensely. I love the characters and the system has really begu8n to click for me. They went through a number of disasters and have finally made it to the "new world." Now they have to figure out the politics and peoples of this new place. There's a war going on between two empires here- both Elvish- and the players may have to choose sides. We're going into session ten, I believe, of what will be 26 sessions total.

Treasure Hunters
Another new campaign, where each player has an sentient magic item and have banded together to stop a spell burning the land. I'd initially planned this as just seven sessions, but we're going into session eight next time. I expect we'll have another four to five after that. The story's still coming along- and I hope to tie together more of the details I've been dropping. The campaign has a fairly linear course (they choose between two directions at each junction point) but I've left what they do in each location pretty open-ended. I've been using tags and aspects more seriously here and that's been fun. I really love the world the players created through the Microscope session at the beginning.

Atelier Auzumel
The alchemical campaign I'm running for just Sherri. We've done about four sessions of this, but haven't been able to get back to this for a while. She's begun to see elements of the larger arc of the story and some of the key NPCs have been introduced. I'm looking forward to seeing where we can take the story this year when we have time to play.

This year I learned a few lessons about rpgs- at least things that I hope will stick with me. Some of these are new, some rediscoveries, and some just simple reminders. But thinking back on this year in gaming, I want to point to these. I read many gaming blogs, and they're the source of many ideas I've brought to the table this year. I really want to thank Risus Monkey, who pointed me in the direction of many new concepts I might not have come into contact with. He told me about Microscope and I owe him a great deal for that. I also have to thank Dave Enyeart, who ran the Fallout campaign I played in this year. I only got to play in one campaign in 2011 and Dave raised the bar for me once again. Both he and Kenny have given me the opportunity to play in versions of the homebrew rpg rules I've been subjecting them to for years. That was illuminating, to say the least.


I keep coming back to it, but it bears repeating: Microscope's a cool game on its own, but it is also an amazing tool for structuring collaborative world building. It's shown me how important player buy-in to the setting can be, and how easily that can be managed. At the same time, it has made me even more willing to share power at the table: both in the creative and play management process. I can understand why some GMs might be uncomfortable with that, wanting to tell the stories they have in their head. That's a reasonable position. But I really believe that this collaborative approaches offers direct and tangible benefits to play at the table.

Scene Aspects
This is the first year I actually "got" how FATE works. I'd read a couple of versions of it before, but somehow it finally clicked for me. From those mechanics I've learned several lessons. Most important has been the concept of Scene Tags and Aspects. Just that little device- describing n place of conflict through those aspects has added enormously to our play. They make players conscious of the situation, they present a quick and tangible mechanical benefit, they make me as a GM slow down and think about the context of the fight, and they give players something interesting to hang their action descriptions on. When you state the chamber the party's about to battle in has the aspects Fog Laden, Damp, Flickering with Magical Light, Strange Brackish Pools, and Uncertain Footing, player immediately begin to think of how to use those things. It is a little device which obviously can be used across many games. FATE offers much more, but that technique I'll be using everywhere.

Player-Facing Resolution
Earlier this year I read a description of combat in the Dragon Age rpg that ended up changing how I handle conflict resolution in our homebrew. In DA players roll their attack and then, depending on the margin of their success, can add bonuses and effects from their maneuvers. So instead of stating "I try to do X," and roll with an increased difficulty, the player gains the option to do X if they've done well enough. There's a little bit of retcon there. I like that- and I think that's especially useful for various kinds of heroic games (perhaps less so for horror and games which want players to have more uncertainty like The Esoterrorists). I realized I wanted a system that operated more like that. But to do that, I'd have to change around how actions got resolved.

Previously in Action Cards, players stated the action they wanted to attempt- including any elements, additional effects or spin they wanted to cause. They'd make their draw and tell me their result. I would then pull for the bad guy and tell them if they made it or not. At that point they could invoke skills or other mechanisms to get redraws or bumps. That meant an extra stage of resolution, and scrambling around after the fact for the players. If a player had done really well on an initial pull, a pull from me could negate that. So I switched the order around. Now, the player states basically what they want to do. If it is unopposed, I state a difficulty. If opposed, I pull for the opposition and tell them what they need. They can then draw and apply their various effects and options to their results- they only come back to me with what they manage, rather than trying a sequence of pulls.

The bottom line of this is that I've made the system player-facing. I tell them what they need, and they must figure out how to rise to that challenge. The steps go A-->B, rather than B-->A-->B and the player has more control over their final result. That's been successful, except that I'm still so used to the "OK, make a roll for me..." mode of play that I forget I need to set the difficulty or make the pull first. Just as important, if the players choose or realize they'll be failing, they have the choice to frame that failure themselves- creating their own explanations and descriptions.

Spam Details
I still haven't been able to settle down and read through Apocalypse World. I have the pdf but I really want to read it in hard-copy form. But the one idea I picked up from various gamer's discussion of it has been the idea of "spamming the setting." That is- when you're in a particular genre (Post-Apoc, High Fantasy, Modern Fantastic, Gritty Noir) make sure to throw details and elements of those tropes at the players. Make the fantastic sing, make the gritty feel grimy. Go over the top. That little piece of advice has been easier to remember and follow through with at the table than telling myself I need to add sensory details, drop names or the like. Instead I write "Spam XXX" at the top of each prep sheet and it sticks in my head.

Execute Plots

Earlier this year I was thinking about a couple of related topics- why some PCs had frustrated me and what I wanted to do about a particular plot thread that the players had latched on to much earlier than I'd expected. Then the connection hit me. The PCs in question had made themselves static. They had character problems and issues but they wouldn't move forward on them. They had excuses- not enough time had passed in game, they weren't ready to share them with the group, they didn't want to change who their character was, they liked having secrets, they didn't trust their fellow PCs, no one really understood them, etc. That's a kind of defensiveness. John Wick in Blood & Honor explicitly talks about this- about players who have all of this super-cool baggage and backstory in their heads and won't share it at the table. The reasons for that can be various (not wanting to commit, not wanting to shift from the perfection in their mind, etc). But the result is that the other players don't and can't understand that player. They set up a loop of frustration between themselves and the rest of the table- because the other players "just don't get it..." and the other players can only logically assume that the player's being a selfish prick.

And a GM who doesn't let loose what's in their head is committing the same kind of selfishness. You may have the coolest plot and idea in your head, but it doesn't mean anything unless the PCs are actually making contact with it. Your precious snowflake of an idea is going to get battered around by the party. It is never going to be perfect- so pull back the curtain even if the time doesn't feel quite right. There's nothing worse than trying to tell the players after the campaign's over about all of the cool stuff you had planned but they never saw. Pull the trigger on your plots. You'll make new ones, you'll raise the stakes, and you'll give the story momentum.

Show Victory
Be explicit about victories for the players. Sometimes players do things that had repercussions elsewhere- shifts in bad guys' plots, changes in NPC reactions, or a tangent in the direction of the campaign. That knowledge serves as an intangible reward for the players. Give that to them. Either through meta-commentary or through news in the grapevine, tell the players when they've had success on that level. That's especially true for darker games where the down beats can keep coming fast and furious.

I ordered a large number of 12"x10"x4" Literature Mailer boxes. I've been using those to sort and organize my old campaign information and other projects. They store nicely on shelves and I can label them clearly. They're large enough to story small binders, plus notebooks and folders. Because I have a number of simultaneous ongoing campaigns, I put all of the materials for each on in a separate box. Then when I go to work on or run a session, I just pull that box down. When I'm done, I pack up everything and put it back. That's worked really well and helped keep me on task.

I'm really happy to have made it to 500 posts. There are other better and more interesting gaming blogs out there, but they're not written by me. I'm always glad to have comments and feedback, and I hope some of what I've put out there over these past three years has been useful. Tomorrow I'm going to redesign the site slightly and then move forward with more posts. I do want to specifically thank Derek Stoelting, Steve Sigety, and especially Jim McClain who really gave me the confidence to actually do a blog.

Most importantly, thank you to my wife Sherri- who reads all of this stuff and then has to talk it over with me ad nauseum. I'd like to point out her guest post from earlier this week now ranks in the top five posts for sheer number of hits across the lifespan of this blog.

Anyway- have a great new year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Players

...And the Games Which Begat Us
Every once in a while, I'll post a piece and at the next game I'll hear, "Man, Lowell...someone pissed you off." I've usually taken on a particular player pet peeve, pointed at a bad behavior, or a addressed problems I've seen at the game table. They're often ones I (and other GMs) have wrestled with. Breaking down player types, trying to identify disruptions & riff on solutions, and figuring out "what went wrong" are easy fallback topics in many ways. They offer the illusion of being practical.

But here's the thing- I have really good players. More often than not, I'm not talking about the present games. Most of the problems I've talked about over the last couple of years, the biggest ones- well, they're in the past. I'll admit that it is easier to focus on the negative, to pick out what goes wrong in a group than to pick out what goes right. With that in mind, I want to analyze what my players do well.

Right now I have a solid core group of a dozen players spread across five campaigns. In the extended group beyond that, I know about another dozen who I've played with or met and would play with again. We've lost a few people from the group over the last few years, but generally that's been about incompatibility. And we'll leave that at that. I want to focus on the positive here.

I love having a diverse cast of background characters- and the players usually do as well. They're open to the extra detail of having lots of names, knowing that they get greater choice about interactions and relationships. The players generally treat NPCs realistically- not assuming them to be cardboard cutouts, tools for the GM or a means to screw them over. Attitudes may shift once they get to know the NPCs, but players understand that an NPC has his own agenda and desires, existing for themselves and not for the party. At the same time, the players assume that should the players wish to engage to conflict with an NPC, that will be handled realistically. The shopkeeper won't turn out to be 50th level, an urchin won't be an assassin, etc. The players don't read NPCs as Mary-Sue characters who can't be overcome or as tenpins to be knocked over.

The group's unselfish. That's a trait that really demonstrates mature play. If a player knows they're about to get a chance at a big scene, more often than not, they'll bring along another player to share in the action. If someone hasn't gotten as much table time, the players are just aware of that as I am and try to push that forward. If another player wants to interact with an NPC that a player has a standing relationship with, they encourage that. If someone's had the center-stage for a long time, they'll usually step back in the next scene. If other players need help or support, the players inevitably step up to the less glamorous task of backing someone up.

Just as the GM strives to say Yes or Yes, But... instead of No, my players do the same thing with each other and with plot, subplots and details that I throw at them. They don't negate things but take those elements and run with them. They're excellent improvisers and quick on their feet.

When presented with a challenge, my players rise to it. I'm not talking about the easy stuff like combat. Combat's a fallback- a place where people have solid ground underneath them, and mechanics to back them up. No, what I mean is that when my players face real questions: moral dilemmas, character development questions, social challenges, problems requiring sacrifice- they don't shut down. They might grind their teeth, they might wrestle with the problem, they might get upset (in character) about the costs involved- but they rise to deal with it. They don't pout, they don't get angry, they don't go passive-aggressive at the table. They use those challenges as a chance for drama, a chance to show who they are, and a chance to move the story in the direction they want.

Good Losers
They don't like to lose, but when they do- they run with it. They deal with setbacks and use them as a motivation to push themselves forward. They expect me to be fair with that, and give them serious obstacles but not GM fiat losses. They also know that I'm careful with some of the player hot-button issues (like hostages, surrender and being captured) and pull those out rarely.

I have a group of players who approach problems in very different ways. Some tend to direct, some to sneaky, some to negotiation, and some to crazy. Combine that with differences in what the players value in terms of solutions- compromise, victory, a heap of bloody corpses and you end up with some radically different takes on the game. But the players work through those differences. They balance those contradictory impulses. They talk to one another. Everyone gets a voice.

I had a player several years ago get really angry at the table because the other players were discussing an approach to invading a bad guys stronghold. He hated the need for discussing at all at the table- everything had to be get 'em. He doesn't play with us anymore. Planning is a part of play for most of the group- a chance to discuss options, figure out player strengths and call on resources. Players who step up to the leadership role are usually pretty good about involving everyone in that discussion. Everyone participates in that process.

On the flip side, my players don't overplan. They talk about what they can do, they assess possible obstacles, and consider solutions- but they don't dwell on every conceivable obstacle. They know that sometimes they have to just jump. We've also worked out some openness with that- if the players have taken at least some time to talk about their approach, they gain some room to "retcon" preparations. They have the tools they need, they can spend resources like drama points to set things up, etc. They also know that challenges and surprise are part of the game. Sometimes things go like clockwork and sometimes a monkey-wrench comes flying their direction. But they trust the table enough to be willing to go forward.

I've been playing with some of this group for many, many years. We've played through many of the classic genres and tropes (fantasy, horror, supers) but my players still manage to throw me for a loop. I tend to set up open-ended situations, without defining solutions or exits. I count on them to be able to figure something out- I trust in their abilities. But from time to time, they absolutely blow my mind with the connections they make, the ideas they pull out and the approaches they take. They've completely turned the direction of campaigns around more times than I care to count. Years ago, that might have been grounds for me to retool the plot to make it more challenging, but now I try to reward inspirational success like that.

At the same time, I can pull out surprises for my players- and they're generous enough to admit shock. I'd say I manage to pull out fewer of those twists on them than they do on me, but they're pretty smart as a collective group and as individuals.


I try not to run when I'm sick, tired or off my game. But it happens. Just as players have sessions that don't click for them, I do too. They're willing to take a skip week if necessary. When I quit smoking a couple of years ago, just as I was coming off three weeks of bronchitis, all combined with my birthday ending up crummy, most of the players were incredibly gracious and generous towards me. They're good people.

No Lawyers
Rules rarely come up in the group. If I'm wrong about a rule, the players know enough to mention it after a game or scene is done (unless it will dramatically impact the moment). They're tactful and good with their criticism, never coming at me antagonistically. Rarely, if ever, do we end up going to the books to look things up and bringing the game to a halt.

New Things
I'd say only a few people in the group seriously follow what's happening in rpg gaming. You end up with a couple of folks who keep an eye on that, myself included. I read a lot of gaming blogs and try to see what's going on with new games. And every once in a while I bring some of those things to the table: new techniques for character examination, new approaches to resolution, new mechanics for handling sub-systems like chases. Most of these are experiments and some of them work better than others. The groups are really good about willing to try those out. That's how we've ended up with an evolving homebrew that's picked up a lot of elements of FATE in the last year. Its how we used a modified version of Night's Black Agents chases for a fantasy session last Friday, and its how we decided to use Microscope as a tool for play.

But at the same time, the group's willing to speak up and advocate for what they do or don't like. They like some systems and games and speak up for them. That keeps the worst of my toolboxing tendencies in line. They seriously consider what they like about Game X vs. Game Y and will talk about that. I'm never worried that they aren't giving me their straight opinion on something.


They make me like their characters. That's not to say they always have likable characters- but when they have more prickly characters they balance that with vulnerabilities. They openly show their weakness and secrets, because playing those out at the table is more fun than being angsty and brooding. Ward's hard-bitten commander in HALO seemed like a gritty *sshole...until we ran into an alien race that terrified him with flashbacks from a mission gone wrong. Sherri's Wizened Changeling Sarah No-Tears is prickly and angry, but she explicitly addresses that in her play. It undercuts her in some situations and she lets the other players use it to wind her up. Chas; crazed fire warlock loves her pet dog magic item. Even when their characters are solidly good guys, they have flaws that make them sympathetic. Sergei's a handsome and noble hero, but he worries about the responsibility that brings. He has the pressure of expectations hanging over him- not all the time, but enough that his character feels solid and human.

My players like growing their characters. Beyond the concrete markers of spending points or adding levels, they like to evolve and change their characters. They learn from their mistakes and make new ones. If they have a tragic past, they might work to overcome that, fall back, and then struggle forward some more. They like playing limitations and flaws and enjoying figuring out opportunities to advance and move beyond those. They also know that secrets, flaws, plots and backstories don't mean anything unless they actually get played out at the table. That makes them much more open about dealing with and addressing those issues.

I really trust my players. And I think that they've got a degree of trust in me. I trust that they will rise to the occasion, and that's why I throw heavy stuff at them sometimes. I trust that they will talk to me if they're not enjoying something in the game. I trust that they'll mention and point to plots and stories that they really want to see played out. Trust doesn't come easily- it is a currency built up over time. I'm lucky enough to have a dynamite group, and I keep working to make sure I earn and repay their trust.

I have to thank a great group of players for an excellent year of gaming. I got the chance to participate in some campaigns that were an absolute blast to run. I also had the chance to play in a superb Fallout campaign run by Dave Enyeart, who sets the bar pretty high for me with his preparation, story and attention to detail.

My thanks to this year's group Sherri, Steve, Scott, Kenny, Dave, Sharon, Ward, Jacque, Chas, Jeanne, Alan, Chris, Rob, Gene, and Kali.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Guest Post: The Best Thing to Happen to RPGs

A couple of friends in my gaming circle generously offered guest posts for this month, to help me round out the year with some different voices and ideas. Today's post comes from Sherri Stewart, my wife and fellow gamer. She brings a different set of tools to thinking about games- as a woman and as a DBA. In discussions about rpgs she inevitably manages to clarify my thoughts about rpgs or turn me towards something I hadn't considered before.

The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Tabletop RPGs


What was not to like? Online RPGs had it all:
*...continuous incremental reinforcement and accrual
*...instant calculation of complicated “simulation” formulas
*...loot and quests and and tons of content—always something new and always something for any mood—player's choice
*...constant reassessment of class balance and additional skill improvements. No one strives harder for “fair” than the MMORPG designers
*...whatever versions of “social” worked for each player—be it guild leadership/politics, anonymous assholery & griefing or just chatting with acquaintances on a friends list
*...visual reinforcement of player achievements
*...strategic planning with others for epic battles—cooperative play that required strict roles and orderly implementation of a plan

Everquest took the first toll at our table—and World of Warcraft stole away a lot of the fence-sitters. Once the dust cleared after all the desertions, things looked different. And with every passing day, they look better.

We seem to have permanently lost a few players—most were problematic--needy for the constant continuous reinforcement or to have the content revolve around their whims. MMORPGS really were a better fit for them than tabletop.

A few players who left later returned. Some people, even among the tabletop stalwarts, still play MMORPGs. There's plenty to like there. But when they sit down now, they know better why they are there. Appreciation for the games is at an all-time high.

And we've gotten some new players—wives & sisters & friends of friends who would never have considered sitting down at table if they hadn't gotten sucked into the MMORPGs; these 'novices' come to the table with a vocabulary of strategic cooperative battle and the desire for something ...more.

These things are merely anecdotal evidence. Still, when I look around the table and I see how much things have changed, I'm amazed. There is more to it than just the passing years. I imagine these phenomena have occurred elsewhere. Certainly, the RPG industry seems to have changed. To my eyes, RPG designers began thinking harder about why people were at the table—or maybe just the RPG communities did- paying increased attention to products that delivered that 'something more' and thinking hard about what did make the hobby fun.

I haven't seen a lot of discussion of the MMORPGs in the RPG community– what I have stumbled across treats MMORPG players as an entirely separate customer base or hobby community. But they're not. MMORPG players are RPG players—past, present and future.

What the industry response has been, whether a direct response to MMORPGs or not, is a boatload of really amazing and satisfying RPG material and some interesting back and forth about what RPGs really are.

In the last few years, we've seen some the corporate RPG houses take a distinctly business-like tact. The Old School community, on the other hand, is keeping their chin up and throwing some punches (and a lot of insults). Indie gaming has deployed their agents to every lecture hall, three-ring circus and performance art venue in the industrialized world. Different responses, each of them—but ones that each distill a distinct set of essences from the RPG paradigm and proffer it as the 'more' that fills the MMORPG voids.

It's The Real Thing
Some MMORPG players came out of those games expecting 'fair and balanced' systems of some complexity, lots of skill options, strong roles with important duties assigned to each role, and constant updates. If they came back to RPGs, they came back because they wanted more of the same at a slower pace and in a less-populated (and possibly as less-competitive) setting. Corporate RPGs sensibly filled that need. It was an established (and large) consumer base—why ignore it?

THE Corporate RPG, D&D 4e, opted for video-game simulation. Weird, huh? It's popular with the kids after all. And they're right. A great deal of what drew tabletop players to MMORPGs is in 4e. What's the difference? It's much slower. It's not 24/7. Players get all the crunch, but don't need the reflexes or the attention span or the patience for organizing a guild raid. And no one can get ahead by playing more hours. The balance, the strict roles and the constant changes/improvements...nerfs? each class—as well as a ton of mechanics to allow players to leverage their every experience point—still gleam with promise. But the pace is so much nicer. And 4e has all the usual tabletop charm—socializing, a little story, a character to call your own. Like all the best-known brands, it's got a comfortable universality too—lots of other people are playing it.

Now I'm also going to categorize Paizo's Pathfinder as corporate. Don't hate me. I know they're not WOTC. But they took the old corporate package, cleaned it up, tied a bow on it and taught the RPG community all over again about what's important to have from a corporate RPG system: good packaging, familiar system, large user base, steady stream of new product including new options & modules, and the ability to maintain a semblance of concern for customer feedback. They share the same feature list as 4e for post-MMORPG appeal. Just by virtue of not being entirely new (because we all know it's 3.5 in a better tailored suit), they've acquired a thin coat of attractive sepia-toned nostalgic lacquer that the the Old School revolution claims as their own.

Of course, not all corporate RPG designers joined the revolution. GURPS, for example, is still the same old attempt at a blow-by-blow simulation of everything under the sun. It has it's niche and it's loyal players and those don't seem to be going away—but GURPS hasn't changed nor has it's community. White Wolf blew it's setting up and rebooted with more mechanics on top of their old system—and while a few of the new lines were strong, they lost a lot of their loyal fans by changing their heavy hitters. They seem to be responding more to changes in the publishing industry than to changes in the RPG community. Plenty of other true-to their-tradition RPGs are still out there treading water.

And while neither exactly traditional or corporate, D20 did manage to become the Linux of the RPG world; it inspired a bunch of DIYers by giving them an open-source version of a less-than-cutting-edge system. It's had it's heyday—but the overwhelming number of mediocre products undermined it's credibility. If it tapped into anything that resonated with the post-MMORPG crowd, it was the joy of creating—but this was at the level of the publication and not a process that occurred at the table. Some interesting content was created—and some of the best thinkers about that system (or minor variations thereof) put together very good materials. Mutants and Masterminds remains the greatest standout for me—one of the best superhero systems yet made. But I don't see it or any of the other d20 products/offshoots as being a response to MMORPGs. It was more a reaction to the idea of open-source than to MMORPGs.

Nostalgia Makes Everything Prettier
The Old School community responded to MMORPGs by digging their heels in. They knew what was good—and if you couldn't see the charm of the Old School RPG, you weren't right in the head or one of the club or something. And they were correct enough. No MMORPG offers the experience of the Old School canon (or their new stuff). And curiosity has a purpose.

The Old School movement maintains that the charm of RPGs lies in the very quirkiness of the old mechanics and settings and the shared experience of playing those modules. Balance be damned. This is about gaming history and the fun of mining a pre-designed setting and doing it by the book. These are the champions of the funhouse dungeons and the Runes of Death. And, frankly, it's the province of something that MMORPGs are definitely not—this is where heroes, loners and munchkins all bow to the inscrutable failure. Old School knows the dice will kill you—and if they don't, a single bad choice can. Did you look in the chest? You die! Or are possessed! Or find the key that you absolutely need to leave the dungeon! And there were no hints! Okay—maybe it's not all like that. But it's there. Sometimes it's about 'rolling a character'-- where there are clearly better and worse options—and you are stuck with what you roll. The sickly, ugly, unskilled beggar and the handsome, well-trained noble start out in the same group—and, yes, the beggar is truly a wretch in all ways—no hidden talents or secret organizations...

And the fun of it is that every group who plays the module or the setting has to survive the same hazards. Failure is okay. It doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't get you kicked out of the guild. After each untimely death, you just roll up a new character and get back in there. Who knows, maybe this time you'll be to be a pit fighter or a circus acrobat. And hopefully you laugh a lot and rejoice in your hard-won triumphs. That idea is pretty gorgeous.

It also stinks of old-timey fun that isn't always all that fun. Like a croquet game in whites on a too-hot summer day, the stories afterward may sound intriguing and a little romantic. But if you are truthful, the pleasure of the game was 9/10s the company you were in and only 1/10 the game and the costumes and the setting. Still, there's value in re-visiting the old stuff—there were snatches of brilliance. And the ability to laugh off a horrendous outcome for a fictional character that you enjoyed playing is invaluable to enjoying all the rest of your RPG years. So if I'm not convinced that nostalgia is actually the response to MMORPGs that fills any need except for the wish to draw a line in the sand and establish us/them on experiential grounds and bragging rights, well, that's probably because I don't have a great many fond Old School memories. Maybe I didn't play the right Old School game.

There! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ...
An Indie game? Hoo boy. Here's where the theorists are at work. It's a feast, if you're in to that sort of thing..and by that sort of thing, I mean any sort of thing. There's an Indie game that's just as in to that sort of thing as you are. The ones that seem to me to have gained currency due to the MMORPGs involve a few core concepts: 'the RP stands for roleplay', genre simulation, shared creation and increased player control. There's too many to even get close to listing all the note-worthies—so I'm going to point to a few examples.

I tie these to MMORPGs because they are exactly what no MMORPG can give anyone in satisfying measure. A MMORPG player is an insect in swarm—a well-served insect, but still, a mere insect. Sometimes the MMORPGs come up with some system to respond to the behavior of the swarm in a permanent and world-changing way—but a single gnat never makes a difference. And there is no roleplay—you can blather all day in your character's 'voice' but you can't really do anything outside fighting/crafting/questing/sightseeing the same things everyone else can and does fight/craft/quest/sightsee.. And no amount of creativity will allow you to turn WoW into a shared spy caper. You can't trump the random-number generator of the MMORPG engine no matter how important the situation is to you. You can't make up your own city and have any meaningful content there.

And here's the thing. RPGs are a form of creative play. There's the creation and acting out of a character. There's a story that is being told—but who's telling it and how that's arbitrated decides what's getting told and how. There's a setting and a reason the group is in the same place—maybe that's decided by genre, maybe by the GM or maybe by the players. MMORPG players have got their constant continuous reinforcement—but that doesn't mean they have found satisfaction. They come away from the swarm wanting experiences that are unique, stories that they can get involved in right away, characters free to do what makes sense...and they want to have some control when the random number generator betrays them. After years of grinding their characters up to max level, they've been rewarded with ...the opportunity for more grinding? No—there must be somewhere their devotion pays off.

This is not to say that corporate RPGs or Old School RPGs don't have anything for some of these issues—but the majority of those systems consist primarily of extensive mechanics for skirmish. The roots of war-gaming is apparent. And so, if the antidote for a malaise borne of hacking your way through a dungeon online is to hack your way through some other whatsit at the table at a slower pace and with fewer people, then you're definitely okay with one of the above. But it might be time for something a little different.

What about horror? Don't Rest Your Head
What about hard-boiled action? Hollowpoint
What about dark comedy? Fiasco
What about drama? Dogs In The Vineyard

What's interesting is that these are NOT just setting books plunked on top of a system...these are games that build the genre conventions into the mechanics. The games are engineered to deliver the mounting suspense and the inevitable (and often tragic) endings of their genre—and to do it fairly, logically, evenhandedly and ruthlessly. These are genre simulations. First time players are going to come out of these games amazed at what has just happened that they willingly helped happen.

It doesn't take a degree in Drama Engineering to make an RPG that can simulate a genre. The time-honored method of using a good rules engine and altering it to fit a genre lives on. The trick is to choose a rules engine that features some of the desired qualities. FATE gives the player quick access to an interesting playable character and control when the dice play hard-ball—and the system has been beautifully adapted to a range of genres. For instance, Diaspora, a FATE adaptation for sci-fi gaming features player-created clusters that serve as the home base for the players, mini-games for different conflict types and an array of interesting ways to use the simple FATE mechanics to drive dramatic scenes—ways available to both GM and players. A FATE adaptation of Kerberos Club actually delivers a surprising amount of the Steampunk you may have been wishing for and never finding elsewhere. GUMSHOE was built for investigative games and has been adapted to multiple genres--and it has able handlers in Robin Laws and Ken Hite. Burning Wheel has a couple variations—including it's own strange fantasy setting and Mouse Guard (which is one gorgeous RPG book)--and it has a unique method of sharing control between GM and player that may be exceedingly palatable to players coming from the absolute GM-control world—Burning Wheel is not at all loosey-goosey.

There is no game that more clearly reveals the honest pleasure of shared creation than Microscope. Further validation of the players' efforts by incorporating the results in a standard RPG campaign just keeps the good feelings rolling. The game itself is simple enough that people want to argue that it's hardly revolutionary—but they are crazy-wrong. Try it. Play it with people you've known for years—especially ones you think you know backwards and forwards. Play it with mere acquaintances. You will come out of the experience with a completely new appreciation of your gaming circle. They're brilliant people, it turns out. At least, I hope for you it turns out that way.

And then there are the Indie games that put the roleplay back into RPG. I do think these are the ones the haters are most afraid of. Kagematsu is certainly a fearsome beast—and Love in the Time of Seid is not for the faint of heart. But dang, even if I never get to play these games, I need to be thinking about these types of games and surrounding myself with people who would play these games so that I can remember that roleplay is more than funny voices and awkward explanations when you choose to do something suboptimal. Because if I want to be heroic, I've got to learn to risk being foolish or tragically wrong...

So I wrote this.

Next year: more games, more risks.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Campaign Frames 2012: Finishing the List

So last time, I presented the first few campaign proposals I'm putting on the table for 2012. At least these are the ideas I have in my head right now. Here's the rest of the ideas #7-23.

7. Last Call
System: Homebrew based on Scion.

I ran Scion a couple of years ago and like the concept, but the system got in the way of the game by the end of it. It was pretty clear that a few more step ups in power and the combats would becoming really difficult to manage. Certain aspects and choice can make a devastating combination at the Demi-God level or above. But I like the idea and I want to run it again, with a different system.

Last time I ran a game set in Las Vegas that borrowed more than a little from Tim Powers' novel Last Call. I have a group of new players, none of whom played in that. It might be fun to rework and rerun that general campaign from them. I'd made some tweaks, strip out some of the unnecessary elements and let them go to town with the fun of playing children of the gods. Another option would be to run a continuation of the previous Scion campaign with the group that played in the first part. I'd shift things to a different city- making each campaign block about exploring that place's history and ethos (Detroit? Atlanta? Boston?). I'm a little hesitant to do that, however, because it would require either running in the original Scion system to doing some serious retooling and conversion of characters.

8. The Stars like Ash...
System: Modified Ashen Stars

I like some of the core concepts of Ashen Stars, and I think a kind of freewheeling campaign in that setting would work. I'd want to establish "Planet Noir" or "Station Gotham" asa location the players could come back to between their adventures- some kind of key industrial, trade or administrative world that they could also have adventures on from time to time. That would give me the chance to build up a stable of interesting NPCs. I think I'd probably make some of the more radical races (like the one with psionics) NPC-only and limit the craziness of the crew. I'm not sure I'd want to do an extended campaign like that, but a number of sessions could be really fun.

9. The Armitage Files
System: Straight or slightly hacked Trail of Cthulhu

The Armitage Files is a dynamite campaign sourcebook and I really want to run it. The trick will be to find the right group for it. Some players enjoy horror and Lovecraft more than others. I'd also want players who relish an investigation type game. Finally, I'd need to have a table of 4-5 to do this right- I think fewer would be too tight and more would feel crowded.

10. The First Casualty
System: Night's Black Agents, with some hacks

I really like spy and espionage games, but it has been years since I've run one. NBA offers a toolkit of cool for doing such games. I like the introduction of a supernatural threat into the mix. I'm not sure I would want to run a straight spy game in a modern setting- unless I built a more crazy mad organization substructure (like the Shadowforce Archer set up). Alternately, I could run something set in the 1960's or so and use James Bond 007.

But if I wanted to do something contemporary, combining paranoia and a clear bad guy, I would use NBA. But I might also push it forward a little bit- into the near future to add some more tech and sci-fi elements to the mix. I'd want a solid mix of action and procedural, with perhaps some cyberpunk thrown in.

Alternately, I haven't actually done a Victorian-era game, though I've run some steampunk stuff. It might be fun to do a kind of Sherlock Holmes, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Rippers mash up with the characters on the run from a dark conspiracy.

There's also the idea of trying to do a version of Assassin's Creed II with this (maybe a mash up with Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade?)

11. The Forgotten City
System: Unsure. This might be the place to try out Pathfinder.

After a prologue, the PC group find themselves at the entrance to a city. It appears abandoned, and something seems to have kept others away. The city appears intact, but many other parts of it appear locked off. There are vaults, locked doors and whole other quarters are closed. The players can set up shop there. Eventually the players will realize that in order to bring the city to life, they need to bring people here to settle: craftspersons, farmers, scholars, etc. If they can create a working community, then more parts, more places, more resources will unlock. Eventually another quarter will open, and along with it, another city gate. Except this gate exits out into another part of the world. Eventually the players will realize that the city once served as a magical trade crossroads for the continent, before some event in the distant past. The campaign would be a combination of city-building and standard campaign finding and fighting ancient evils.

12. The Night Watch
System: Homebrew, with elements of GUMSHOE.

Essentially this would be a fantasy campaign, with the players taking on the role of city guards. The twist would be that the group would collaboratively build the city at the start of the campaign. You can see a full write up of those ideas in this post.

I really like this one. Definitely in my top five of these.

13. HCI: Darkening Lights
System: Homebrew

I've run a version of this previously, you can see discussion of that here. Essentially this is a cross-genre campaign, built around a framing device. In the past this has been based around a VR turned reality breach concept. I have a couple of other frames which twist those concepts. I learned some lessons from that previous campaign- notably to establish a small pool of key frames, rather than an open-ended approach. I've also been thinking about how to maintain the stakes across the settings and to reduce the need for different system mechanics. I don't necessarily want to use a generic system, but rather an engine that can be tuned. This kind of campaign does require more sessions to play out well- and a commitment on the part of the players, so I have to think about this further.

14. Episode VIII
System: Homebrew

Last year I ran a short seven session Star Wars campaign, essentially the first film in a trilogy taking place after the end of Return of the Jedi. I'd like to do the second part of that, another six or so sessions. The only problem is that a couple of the players now have scheduling conflicts. The other four shouldn't be a problem. So I can wait for those conflicts to wrap up; kill off those characters in the opening sequence; or have someone else run them. The later might be the best idea- but that would be tough in the case of the character who has served as the Jedi mentor to another one of the PCs. I'll have to figure out about that at some point in the future. If I can't get it done in 2012, I doubt we'll be able to do it.

15. The Emperor in Yellow
System: ???

I'd really like to do a Rome or at least a Roman-analogue game. I don't think a straight procedural (I love me some Didius Falco) would necessarily work. I think the transition to that period would make the whole mystery solving think more difficult- or that might be my over-thinking it. History games aren't as interesting to people, so I would have to sex it up more than a little. I like the idea of a team of special agents of the Emperor, each with special powers, traveling across the land and taking care of evil cult and dangerous mythics and supernaturals. Perhaps putting down rival stories that outshine the Empire. Killing little gods in the name of greater deification of the Emperor. I imagine that as either a LXG or Hellboy flavored game.

On the other hand, if I really wanted to spend the time on it I could run a Lunar Empire campaign in my hack of Glorantha. The players could be members of a noble house vying for power, influence and authority. There'd be more than a little touch of Houses of the Blooded to it. I'd stress the Lunar Empire as very Roman and have a slightly deranged version of my history game.

16. Crux Redux
System: Exalted (1st Edition) or homebrew version of that

I ran a Dragon-Blooded campaign a few years ago that I really enjoyed. They remain my favorite Exalts in the setting; I don't like the Solars and loathe the Abyssals and Infernals. The idea that these exalts are more powerful than normal people, but still need to work in a team to achieve really great things appeals to me. The campaign I ran had the players all coming from one DB house- young, they ended up sent into exile together in order to make a name for themselves. They were sent to the city of Crux, where the fortunes of their family had fallen.

It was a building game, with a fairly evocative setting and the tension of these high and mighty characters have to figure out a means to restore their place, while at the same time living day to day. Unfortunately we lost one of the lynchpin players from the campaign. The group agreed to wait to play again until she could return, but that window of opportunity passed.

But I worked really hard on the setting and set up and I don't want to waste that work, so I'd like to do a reboot- starting over from scratch, with returning players being allowed to use their same character concepts. I'd have to spin the dials on the plots and the alignments of various NPCs, but it might work.

17. Touring Middle Earth
System: Uncertain, possibly The One Ring, possibly homebrew

I've had an idea for a couple of years that I'd like to do a short campaign which would be a journey across most of Middle Earth, to give the players a taste of different locations and peoples. I'd probably use the MERP campaign frame, set well before the events of Lord of the Rings. The Rangers of the North still stand, defending their lands. I would have players come from there and have to travel all the way to the far south to either deliver, find or destroy something.

This might be a chance to try out one of those OSR systems- finding one that would simulate the setting best.

18. Challengers of the Unknown
System: ???

I did a whole post on disasters and apocalypses, but I realized afterwards that I haven't really done a post-Apocalypse campaign. I mentioned a fantasy approach to that earlier- but here I'm thinking something less high fantasy, but more modern or sci-fi. I don't necessarily want to do straight post-Apoc with either of the "go to" approaches. On the one hand I like to save zombies for one-shots and horror effects. On the other hand, my friend Dave's Fallout-based campaign pretty much set the bar for that kind of thing. So how to handle this? I have a couple of ideas.

One of them includes a Summerland-like approach, where the world has been overtaken by a strange or fantastical event. I like modern fantasy and I think you could do a great campaign with one of two approaches. First, trying to figure out the world in the immediate aftermath of the event. Uncovering the new rules and logic of the setting could be great fun- mystery and survival. Second, a surviving group perhaps a year after the event decides to send people out in an attempt to discover what has happened elsewhere. I know Pelgrane has a post-apocalypse procedural in the works- I really want to see what kinds of new tools and ideas that offers. I hadn't put together the link between mysteries and this genre until I started to think about the framework.

I also really like Greg Christopher's framework in Cascade Failure. I could do something like that. Or perhaps a slight variation on that. The players planet/settlement suffers an event and the stellar background shows that some time, years, have passed in an instant. Now they have to leave to figure out why they've lost contact with the rest of the Empire. Ashen Stars has some ideas that might work with something like that. I've also been thinking about the various galaxy-spanning/destroying stuff in videogames like Mass Effect and HALO. Could I play with those concepts for a post-apocalypse game?

19. The Agency
System: Homebrew, perhaps The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game

I really like modern fantasy, and I've enjoyed running it in our Changeling the Lost campaign. But I'd also like to do a more noir take on this- perhaps with some light horror elements. I like the idea of the players being low-level mages- either in a world where magic's open or else where it lies behind a curtain. There's a lot of material out there for this, including some of the great stuff from Mage: The Ascension. There's also the strange noir set up of Edge of Midnight, although in that cases I'd want to change up the magic which seems more psychic than occult. But most importantly, I'd want the players to have a business, an agency, perhaps not even a detective one, but one that puts them in the path of high strangeness. I'd borrow some concepts from Bookhounds of London to work out the details.

20. The Open Chantry
System: ???

In reading through Novarium recently, it occurred to me that Greg Christopher had really hit on some of the elements of the setting that I enjoy: multiple characters, a building game, seasonal growth, interesting non-adventure activities, and flexible magic. I think it would be interesting to do a campaign, historical or otherwise, where the magical covenants and chantries exist out in the open. The group could take up control of a new chantry- figuring out how to deal with the location and their neighbors. There might be some resentment or prejudice, but they wouldn't have to hide themselves. Then you could have the group more active locally, deal with power struggles, and include a more dynamic organization of the orders a s a whole. The Mages would exist as a strong and independent power group, paralleling the nobility and the church(es). If you went straight historical, you could have a lot of interesting alt history material. On the other hand, if you went full fantasy, then you could do some collaborative world-building to set things up.

21. On the Expansion of Horizons
System: Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd Edition) or one of the new OSR systems with support.

I write all my adventures and sessions, rarely do I use published adventures or modules. On the other hand, I do borrow mercilessly from other source material for elements. I've also not tried some of the new, more mechanics oriented systems. Given that I always want to hone my skills and try something new, I might break both those habits in one stroke.

I could pick one of these systems and select an adventure path. I know most of them have a series or linked set of adventures. I'd try to run these by the book- sticking to the core rules, rather than buying anything extra. I might even try one of those fancy beginner boxes. If I decided to go Pathfinder, I'd go to this excellent resource: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: System Guide for New Players.

22. Players' Choice

So I have a number of ideas on the list, but I also have to talk to the group and see if there's anything out there that some players really want to play. Perhaps someone saw Deadlands and always wanted to game in that system. I don't picture anyone in the group having a penchant for the Wild West, but who knows? I don't have anything swashbuckling or pirates on my list, but maybe there's a strong desire for that? Or mecha?

One thing I do want to try to get off the ground this year is a "Run Club," where we get together perhaps once a month to try out one-shots of various odd-ball games like Fiasco, Time & Temp and Dragon Age.

23. Auzumel's Choice

I'd also like to get my wife's input on what she really wants to play. Generally she's good about liking whatever comes to the table- though she has some things she isn't as interested in playing. I'd like to find some things that hook her. She's mentioned a game based on relationship ties- as a secondary feature, not the foreground. But the PCs would all be recovering from personal tragedies, like betrayal or lost loves. It would be romantic in the sense of being humanist. On the other hand, she's also expressed an interest in a more classic police procedural if that could be done well. So I have to see if she has some strong ideas I haven't listed here.

For the first part of this list, see here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Campaigns: Endings & Beginnings

A campaign's only as good as its last session.

I really believe that- at least as the campaign stands in memory. There are some exceptions- campaigns which peter out or crash & burn will likely stand on a singular good session or memory of what led to the game's collapse. But if you wrap your campaign up, if you have an ending- it had better be a damn good one.

No pressure.

As a GM you're desperately trying to serves different masters. On the one hand, you want that session to stand on its own. It should have a rising arc, a climax and then some form of denouement or resolution. You have to lead into your swing- and a rookie mistake is to have a session setting up the big fight and then handling the fight on the next session. You need some build up, a chance to build anticipation for that session itself. Rolling for initiative isn't that- and it focuses on the tactical aspect over the narrative. That last session has to be a complete story, setting the stakes, providing the conflict.

On the other hand, that last session has to support the weight of all the sessions which came before it. It has to live up to the challenges which came before it. It has to resolve some, if not all of the dangling plot threads. At the very least it has to tug on them before moving on. Depending on the kind of story you're telling and how long the game's been going on- that can be a hell of a lot of threads. And that doesn't even take into consideration that what a GM sees as a thread to be resolved may be very different from what the player sees.

Another difficulty lies in the path of a train. If you're a GM who prides themselves on openess and improvisation, how do you "plan" for an ending. The concept seems a little contradictory. On the other hand, if you have written your ending- planned it out. How do you handle it when the players jump the rails? For other sessions you'd have more games to put the fixes in, so it wouldn't be a problem. And smacking players back onto the path is a sure way to make them feel powerless in the place where you want them to feel most powerful, or at least in control.

I'm a loose game planner. Depending on where the plot is, I usually try to focus on brainstorming details and ideas, think about which NPCs might interesting to encounter, figure out something for each player, and come up generally with plots that are open or need to arrive. I set up situations, but I don't usually think about solutions- I leave that in the players' hands. I might have a couple of ideas, but generally a table of smart people chewing on the problem will come up with a better approach than I can off the cuff. As a GM I'm usually thinking about a different level than the players and that can give them an edge.

So for an ending, I'm usually thinking about these things:
*getting them to the conflict
*how do I set the stakes
*what's the potential environment like
*who the opposition is
*what cool things can the opposition do

But, of course, I try not to marry myself to those sketches; the players may pull something out that makes all of that invalid. So I try to focus on those last two things, plus these two key elements:
*One or two moments for each player
*The twist

For the first, this may be a chance to show off their particular skills, the appearance of a hated rival, the presence of a beloved NPC, or the revelation of something regarding their character. For the second, something the players weren't expecting has to happen during the conflict. It can be bizarre or tangential- but something has to happen that runs counter to their expectations. Avoid things that undercut the players cool (like the appearance of an NPC or group to save the day) and know that it doesn't have to be adversarial- it can just be strange. The twist should make the players uncertain about the way that they'd pictured things rolling out. They may have a sense of the inevitability of their win (and it may be inevitable) but this introduces a moment of doubt.

Kill one, all but one, or none. Now if you're playing a tactical RPG with no room for error or modification of results, then ignore what I have to say- in fact, probably most of what I'm saying here won't apply to you. It may get a bad rap, but the "Man behind the Curtain" GM approach really helps in the final session. If you're going to seriously go for the death of a death in the final session, assuming you haven't been killing them all along, then just kill or martyr one character. By martyr, I mean, allow them to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If you kill more than one, then you split the power of that dramatic scene in half. If you're going to kill more than one, then gack everyone except for a last man standing to tell the tale. Anything in between dilutes the moment.

Late in the key conflict- chase, fight, debate, caper- be on the lookout for significant moments. Play those up and give them emphasis- slow down and use them as an excuse for a turning point or to wrap things up. And a good turning point is a quick false or real victory, with a resulting sudden rise of the stakes and continuation of the conflict. For example, a player stabs the demon possessed emperor who has been behind things, killing the villains- but it turns out there's an infernal portal which still needs to be closed or the world will be destroyed. Or the characters blow up and escape from the bad guys wasteland fortress- only to discover an army of crazed biker minions still pursuing them.

Both true stories.

Or at least they happened in a game.

Finally, remember that for the final conflict you don't have a budget. Spam the fantastical or whatever elements dominate the genre you're running.

Once the conflict's over- don't be afraid to move to some narrative moments. Keep an eye out- the player who managed to get the least cool in the conflict should get the most immediate scene or thread resolution. I mentioned before the GM fear that they won't wrap up every plot thread. The truth is: you won't. But if you wrap up at least one major or significant thread per player, they will forgive you. They'll focus on that. Get to those quickly. If elements of those threads are present at the scene of that conflict, then do those immediately. You may be exhausted, but press through.

Here's where it gets tricky. You've got a couple of approaches here, two big choices. You can either walk off into the sunset or go for an epilogue.

Walk off into the sunset really works for shorter campaigns- but sometimes they just pop up out of the blue- a visual moment that seems to sum things up. I had that in a fantasy campaign where the players did some HeroQuesting, fought the big bad, and then popped out in a field, now turning verdant green outside their adopted city. They looked at each other, dusted themselves off and walked on home as the camera panned away. It was the right ending for that game, even though it left many personal sub-plots unresolved, if encapsulated the practical theme of the campaign.

If you decide to go for the epilogue- get in, get out, get done. Take control of the narrative and run it- you can let players react and perhaps interact with a couple of people, but don't stretch it out too long. Don't be afraid to do some scripting ahead of time. If it fits you can use it, if if doesn't then drop it. Again, try to focus on one or two details for each player- threads that need to be resolved. Taking a strong narrator approach to wrapping things up here can work- "the camera pans over the ruined city..." or " see the doors open and the heroes come down to receive medals...". If players have stated ambitions- then you can have those fulfilled. Otherwise be careful about making decisions for them- have them offered a job or a position, rather than taking in (think of the ending of Sanjuro for an example). Tell the story quickly and with some closure. You can make it work, but...

Don't drag it out. Quickly told- in and out- wrap it up. Then the players can talk about what happened and decompress.

Whatever you do: don't over explain stuff. Leave questions unanswered. If there were things happening that you thought were particularly clever as a GM, but was either stuff that the players missed or couldn't have known- SHUT UP. If the players want to know about that, they can ask later. Focus on their story, rather than yours.

In 2012 I plan to wrap up five of the six on-going campaigns. The odd man out is something I run as pick up and so it doesn't count. But I'm hope to finish up these five with a solid and comprehensive endings. One of the campaigns will hit five years of play in February, and two others around three years each. The last two were built for shorter runs (26 and 8 sessions respectively). So this will be a year of massive endings for the groups.

But I'm not going to stop running games- in fact I hope to hit the ground running and have new campaigns thought about and selected by the various groups. It might be a chance to add new members or bring back old players. It will also be an opportunity to talk to some players about what they want from the games- and to perhaps add more buy in to some campaigns. In many cases, I hope to use some collaborative pre-game world building as drawn from Microscope, Blood & Honor and Diaspora.

And, of course, I have more ideas for campaigns than I could ever possibly run. So for reference, here are the twenty-three I've got in my head that I'd like to run someday, maybe this year...who knows? I will probably pare the list down and perhaps do a survey by group to see what they'd be interested in, as I did here Choosing the Next Campaign Survey and the results.

So below you'll find the first six, I'll post the rest on Friday.

1. Superhero: Year One
System: Mutants & Masterminds 2e

I have a couple of different superhero campaigns I've been talking about with my players. I've mentioned a couple of them before. This one would require a group with at least a passing familiarity with comics books, especially characters from the big two. To start the campaign, players would each choose an existing superhero from any universe (Marvel, DC, or whatever). Based on those choices, we'd set some of the cosmology of the world (i.e. more realistic or more fantastic, more sci-fi or more mystical). We'd obviously have to play around with the setting and details.

But players would make up a fairly low-powered version of that hero. In some cases, that might mean dialing back what they can do. I'm imagining something like PL6-8 in M&M. The game would begin with the idea that these heroes are just starting out. We might use Microscope to craft a history of superheroes prior to the characters or we might simply assume that the characters are among the first heroes. Either way, it would give the players a chance to play someone they like and perhaps put a new spin on them: different race, gender, origin, etc. Think of it as a big reboot campaign.

2. Bloodlines: Armor Wars
System: Mutants & Masterminds 2e

Some time back, ugh, almost six years ago, I ran a short supers campaign in which powers had a genetic basis, one rooted in different family lines. You can see some of the material and posts about that campaign here. I'd like to revisit that setting, but with a slight twist. Some of this comes out of how much I enjoyed the first Iron Man movie, and some of it out of a desire to consider some areas of the Bloodlines setting that I didn't get a chance to before.

Essentially, the players would play supers- but not ones who had genetic powers (with some exception). Instead their powers would come from devices, equipment, armor and experiments (some created by super-powered geniuses). They would exist as a attempt to balance the power of superbeings- demonstrating that normal humans could also deal with the threats posed by powered criminals. Some players could take low-level powers, perhaps combined with expert skills or enhancing equipment. The players would be put fighting against meta-villains, those who follow a magneto-like vision of genetic superiority, and those who want to use them as a weapon against all of superkind.

3. Truce of Consequences
System: Homebrew based on Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade

I'm pretty sure this is a campaign which will never see the light of day- I've been thinking about it for eight years, and have a fairly strong idea for the set up and twist. The problem is the historical nature of the setting. I don't really have anyone in any of the groups interested in the period or history games in general.

I'd like to build a campaign that creates some bridges from an Ars Magica set up to the battle between the Council of Traditions and Order of Reason. M: SC posits the rise and growing influence of the Order of Reason, with the Council hindered by paradox and magical backlash. I imagine a game taking place in a kind of stalemate between the two sides: with both "new science" and "magic" causing disruptions and problems. I've got more built of that, but given that I probably won't run this one unless something changes, I don't want to invest in too much more planning.

4. Legend of the Fading Suns
System: Homebrew, with elements from Ashen Stars.

This is a campaign concept I talked about in a couple of blog posts here and here. I like some of the core concepts from Fading Suns, and I haven't really done a solid science-fiction campaign, though some might argue this would be more science-fantasy.

The key, for me, would be first to loosely rework the concepts of the Houses to make them more playable from my perspective. Next, to get the players to collaboratively decide on a new family to add to one of those houses. I might even combine that with a Microscope session to have them build recent events and fit themselves into the timeline. Bottom line- what I really want are some of the best structural elements from Legend of the Five Rings (the interplay of houses, strong and interesting social codes) with the star spanning travel and exploration of Fading Suns.

5. The Great Rokugan Campaign
System: Likely homebrew, possibly FATE, possibly HeroQuest, elements of Blood & Honor- will need some crunch to it.

I've been reading The Cardiff Boys session reports with a mixture of glee and jealousy. An that got me to read more about The Great Pendragon Campaign, a monumental framework for the history of that period. I love seasonal approach, the multi-generational characters, and the idea of playing against the backdrop of those stories. That got me to thinking about one of the few game histories I actually care about, that of Rokugan and Legend of the Five Rings. I bought into L5R when it first came out as a CCG. When the rpg came out, I ran two different campaigns (using different systems). I've stuck to the period of the first edition, ignoring the evolving history after that because there's just so much gaming room in those early days.

And those early days encompass so much, so why not run a year-by-year campaign covering that time. Begin perhaps in 1103, with the ascension of the new Emperor, Hantei XXXVIII. Continue on through the next years with the rise of the Bloodspeakers. Then the Scorpion Clan Coup in 1123. Then the Clan War and through to the Second Day of Thunder. More events could follow, depending on the outcome of that. The timeline could change at that point or the GM could press on further. Sourcebooks Time of the Void, The Hidden Emperor and The Four Winds offer rich details of these periods.

And the course of history could be changed by the players- perhaps not the biggest events, but depending on their status they might be able to shift some tides. Ideally I would have the players begin by choosing a Clan and creating a new family for them, ala the system John Wick presents in Blood & Honor. They would then have a shared goal and heritage. It would be a newly founded family, allowing the players to come to it from different schools or backgrounds. I think it could be really cool- and might be an amazing way to get the full epic sweep of the history.

However, when I mentioned this idea to my players- they were skeptical. We've never done anything like a seasonal campaign, and the idea of a multigenerational character I think make them hesitate. That's something I'd have to consider before I tried to do anything like this.

6. Regicide and Shadow
System: ???

Some time back I talked about Clockwork and Chivalry, in particular how the authors had managed to make a kind of fantasy post-apocalypse game. That's been done in other ways in other games, as I mentioned in More than Flirting with Disaster: Cataclysmic RPGs. I like the idea that a battle between factions ended in a symbolic act with significant magical and spiritual repercussions. What those repercussions are and what the path forward is remains in doubt. As a result you have many splintered factions with different readings on the situation. Add to that a focus on community. The players come from a settlement. They may have different philosophies, but they have the same goal of preserving and protecting that place.

Now I can see a couple of different ways to make this playable at my table. A really severe transformation could make for a Dogs in the Vineyard-style game. That's interesting but perhaps not the best approach. I could go with a more classic fantasy approach- perhaps using Microscope to set things up and see what the players come up with. I could set a few terms (a political event which has had fallout, multiple factions or the like) and let them define them further. That could work. On the other hand, I could also use that as a framework/background to do a couple of pseudo-historical games I've imagined. For example, the Mage: Sorcerer's Crusade game I mentioned above. It would be cool to do a game set in Britain during that period. I've also wondered if it wouldn't be possible to do that History of Hogwarts game during that period. That the kinds of schisms in the Muggle world impact the Wizarding world. That leads to Hogwart's: First Class.

to be continued...