Jul 292013
 

I will happily admit that this is another of those posts that I start while knowing full well that there’s a whole lot I have to say on the subject, and it probably won’t fit into just one post. I make no promises as to when I will get back to the rest of it though, as right now I have one particular element of the character generation process on my mind.

I am a few short months away from creating a character for a game that I will play in for roughly 9 months, and providing I don’t go and get myself perished, I will play said character for the duration. So I should be thinking about playing the kind of character I would happily be stuck with for a good long while. But here’s the kicker; there’s every chance that I won’t get to play that character. There are several factors determining whether or not this is the case, and I’ll deal with a few below, but I’m popping the advice for any gamer out there right here: Be prepared to play a character that you never planned on playing.

The game I will be playing has a character generation system that mixes dice rolling for attributes and a points system for skill levels. Lets look at the dice rolling though, as this is the most obvious way that your finely considered concept could be turned on its head. I wish I could share with you all the character creation system, but it is still a work in progress and as such they have asked me not to share it. To sum up, each attribute is decided by three 20 sided dice, but certain nationalities roll more dice and the player chooses the three they would prefer. Dice being what they are, it is totally possible for a character who really wishes to play a hard as nails Northern pirate raider, but when she rolls the dice, ends up with a strength score of seven in a percentile based game.

I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of people out there who will tell you that they have had amazing games with characters that sucked. I know there’s at least a couple because I’ve read about them. What I’ve found to be more common though is people who would much rather ditch a character build as they’d got their hearts set on something that is now unfeasible based on the stats they’ve rolled. My advice here may not be popular, but in its simplest form it is thus: change the thing you want to play.

People may be tuning out now, thinking what the hell is this crazy person talking about?! I don’t mean change the entire concept, just change the bits that no longer make sense, A little while ago I wrote a quick little plot seed up about the start of an adventure that I think would actually be a lot more typical of starting character’s jaunts out into the wild away from their homes and families. You may want to be a huge viking warrior, but if can’t, re-imagine her as a younger woman. Starting out with nothing but a knife and a rotting leather jerkin, it may not matter how she strong she is right now, but the character you want her to be, becomes a promise to yourself of the hero that the character will become.

Of course you also have the more extreme option to just change your concept. I have never yet been in a position where I have felt the need to do this, but that doesn’t mean this situation doesn’t exist. The closest I have come came down to a series of random rolls for backgrounds. What started off as a pretty cool idea for a conman character, would have been hamstrung by poverty and a drug addiction. Either of which is far from ideal, but both together meant that I had little I could bring to the character other than these facts when starting out. Rather than start from scratch, or struggle with a character concept that I had very little interest in, I spoke to my GM, and we decided to just re-roll the things that had such a negative effect.

Talking about issues is the biggest tool you have at your disposal when it comes to a bad result on the dice during character creation. Most GMs are at least open to a discussion if you’re thoroughly unhappy with what you’ve got on the rolls, but be prepared to not get your own way. Compromise is key at this point, and if you are able to really sell your concept to the GM they might be willing to allow a bit of wiggle room to get you closer to where you want to start.

Of course, there are times when talking about the character is exactly what leads to you not playing the type of character you have in mind, and this for me is slightly more important. I dislike creating characters in a vacuum, and for me this means doing it without any sounding board. I have in the past as a GM ended up having to create an entire group of characters one at a time with only myself and one player in the room. Sadly it was a necessity because of scheduling clashes before the game that I wanted to get started by a certain date. If I could go back and change it though, I would start a week later and let the players sit together in the room and make their characters as a group.

party_balance

That’s not to say that the characters necessarily needed to be part of a gang that already know each other, but I really like the idea that some thought has been put into making a group that when they do get together, are able to function. Now, I’m not saying that you need to sit around and worry about having the absolute correct balance of healer/fighter/mage/McGuffin, but avoiding the loneliest of lone wolves problem is worth taking some time to think about.

A party of characters needs to be able to work together and even if you don’t set out to create a lone wolf, it is totally possible to have one or more members of the group with characters that just don’t mesh with the party as a whole. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as societal class or criminal leanings, none of which should be a reason for a party not to work, but will need talking about. To look at a game that really does social classes well, lets focus on Unhallowed Metropolis. Why would a high ranking nobleman spend his evenings hanging out with a working class pick-pocket and whore? Sure there may be reasons, but take the time to work these before hand, and sometimes this means you might have to make some changes.

Don’t feel like you need to completely re-write something from the concept up, but there are things that can be altered that will make the group more playable from the starting sessions. As a group plays together then party friction will cause interesting relationships, but to start with, try your best to come up with concepts that will at the very least be able to play nice with each other. Again, compromise is going to make everyone’s lives easier here. If one person is totally unwilling to back down from an overtly disruptive character concept, it might be time to have a chat with the GM as a group, but for anything other than that talking between players should  be enough.

Jun 172013
 

I live in a large town in the north of England that used to be known for its woolen industry. These days we seem to be little more than a net importer of students, but that’s not a bad thing, as it keeps us fairly well stocked on new recruits for our gaming society. One other thing my home town does pretty well is places to grab a drink. True, a lot of the pubs I drank in as a teenager, and even in my early twenties, have long since closed their doors, but there is still a huge array of choice for the discerning drinker. This is how it should be in any large settlement, but in most fantasy settings, pubs are either bawdy taverns or gentile gathering places. I’m going to show you some other options.

One of my favourite watering holes. Click for pub website.

One of my favourite watering holes. Click for pub website.

The Adventurer’s Rest. This is what i think of as a typical tavern in fantasy settings, and even in some cyberpunk and sci-fi worlds too. It tends to be run by someone who used to make their living in much the same way that the player characters do now. There’ll be a board with adventuring opportunities, and plenty of shady corners for people to smoke pipes in. All much of a muchness, so lets move on.

The Student Bar. Most large cities have some form of higher education institute. Just think about Ankh-Morpork of Discworld fame. Although the Unseen University is by far and away the most famous – and in other fantasy cities, a Mage’s college is not too difficult to include – each guild could reasonably have a training college. So imagine a city of thieves in a fantasy world. There would almost certainly be either competing guilds, or one large one in charge of most municipal affairs. Having a college devoted to teaching anyone who can afford it the finer arts of sneak thievery and cut-pursing would be a great way to make more money. And the moment any kind of institute of education opens up, local publicans are quick to cater to young people with spare cash and a far from restrictive schedule.

Adding such a watering hole to a campaign world is pretty easy then, but why would the characters go there – unless students themselves, in which case; job done – for a pint. Hiring a student to a do a job is far cheaper than bringing in professional help, although risky to say the least. It is also not unheard of of faculty to share a drink with the students, and could be a way of getting an informal audience with someone whom has no desire to converse with adventurers.

The old man’s pub. I’m half way through my thirties, and have been a fan of this kind of pub for a very long time. I like being able to chat with friends rather than shout over other noises, and the choice of ales that are available are usually top notch and more varied than the more popular watering holes. In a game world, this will be about as far removed from the bawdy taverns and nightclubs as it’s possible to get. I know it doesn’t sound very interesting in role playing terms, and using this may get differing mileage for different GMs, but it can be quite good fun.

Seething resentment can be well hidden in such venues, with cliques that have existed for decades still sharing the same 12 foot of bar with their bitter enemies. New people coming into the pub are treated with suspicion, and if you’ve ever seen an American Werewolf in London, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean. There are usually bar games to play though, and I imagine that a lot of retired adventurers are much more likely to be found in such a pub. Not everyone likes having it rubbed in their faces that they’re too old to do what they were great at only a decade or so ago.

The Sports bar. They exist in any world that enjoys organised sports, even if the GM has totally made them up himself. Decorated in local team colours, with prints on the walls of famous players, and maybe even a trophy cabinet. The atmosphere will certainly seem jolly from the outside, but team affiliation is key in some of these venues. Walking in wearing the wrong colours can be enough to ensure you don’t walk back out, in the rougher class of drinking houses. They do have their uses though, as mobs can quickly be formed from their patrons, and famous folk from around the city like to call in to show their devotion to a team.

In some worlds, it’s far from a stretch to imagine that organised crime cartels would have something to do with such establishments too. Book making and contest rigging are sure fire ways to make money, and if a sport is very popular indeed, it can do a gangster’s credibility good to be seen with such respected public figures. Hell, maybe the characters are just fans of the sports team, and fancy a drink in friendly pub, what happens after that is up to the GM.

So there you go, just a few examples of how to change your drinking holes into something a bit different. I hope some of it was useful, and feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section below.

May 092013
 

This is my first real post for one of the new menus I’ve fitted to my home page. After this, each time I put something out that has my brand on it, I’ll post about it here, with links so anyone who is interested can quickly and easily find what they’re after. The aim is to put out a two page adventure seed once a week. Sadly that’s not always going to happen, as with this week. A long Bank Holiday weekend with my beautiful girlfriend, needing to put some finishing touches to my card game so it can hopefully get another play test this evening, and working some odd shifts has set me back a couple of days. Hopefully though, normal service will be resumed next week.

For now, I offer a rundown of what is available so far on DriveThruRPG, all crafted at Shortymonster Industries.

System Neutral NPCs. This one pretty much says it all in the title, but the back story is fun, so I’m going to share it with you. When I hit my first big mile stone on the blog, I wanted to thank everyone who had taken the time to head on over and check me out, so I offered to write up one NPC of their choice. Just prose, and based off as little information as they wanted to give. This ranged from “pirate character” to “Star Wars universe trader on a space station”. All of them were fun, and special mention has to go to the father who had me write up his son as a kick ass fighter in a fantasy game. While it is true that you can grab all of these for free by trawling through the comments section on the original post, I just figured that it’d be easier to collate them all together, and correct a few niggling bits of bad grammar and spelling so that they looked good, and package them up for anyone who needed a bunch of ideas in one bundle.

Death at a Funeral. This one has a slightly bigger price tag than all the other stuff, but it took a hell of a lot more work to get it ready. It is a larger adventure, with non player characters sketched out, and even includes maps. And if you’ve been following some of my other posts, you’ll know I suck at maps, and really don’t like drawing them. The adventure is inspired by a tournament game I ran a few years back using the Unhallowed Metropolis system, but since I have no working relationship with the fine folks at Atomic Overmind (yet) a lot of the specifics had to removed, and turned into a generic game of alternate Victorian horror. I think I managed it quite well, and since it has been played about a dozen times in the writing of it, and the tournament, I know the game works. If you fancy the idea of playing Victorian ladies and gentlemen on the hunt for an underground and unknown foe, as you struggle through undead creatures and humanity at its worst, then this might be just what you’re looking for.

The Midnight Priesthood. I can’t actually take 100% credit for this one, as the original idea was a game my girlfriend ran. I liked the basic concept, but thought it would play better in a standard fantasy setting though. The idea itself is of an organisation who effectively take a monthly tax of one child. The settlement it all happens in is happily complicit in this arrangement, and the players take on the role of adventurers knowing nothing of the reasons behind this barbaric practice. There is a reason for the madness, but even the people of the town have no inkling as to the actual dark and terrifying truth.

Murder Incorporated. This one is based on actual historical fact, but massively altered by the addition of some elder gods and Lovecraftian horror. It started with watching an episode of the West Wing, when we discover that one of the main characters’ Father was an hit man for the Jewish mob. I just loved that idea, and it stayed squirreled away just waiting for inspiration to hit. As I started reading more and more Lovecraft, I realised that it was a very good match, and would significantly alter the dynamic of the investigators if they were constantly questioning whether what they were doing was morally acceptable, or even if the methods they were using justified the end result. Possibly the most fun thing to have written so far, but there will be more to follow as I move forward.

Speaking of which, I have two other little bits on the go at present, that should be making a DriveThru appearance in the near future. Another long form adventure, this time in a Cyberpunk world, and a short horror adventure seed set down an old abandoned mine. For regular updates, email subscribe to the blog, or head on over and hit the Facebook ‘Like’ button.

Oct 222012
 

I’m going to be running a longish campaign again soon, for the first time in over a year, and as such it’s been on my mind quite a lot (for other things that have been occupying mental space, take a look at some thoughts on a card game I’m designing).When deciding on how I will GM the game, I tend to take quite a few cues from the type of game I would like to play. This is tempered somewhat by the players’ expectations and the fact that I’m running the game for people I may not know very well, but it’s more about what I enjoy as a  player. So, what do I like, and what don’t I like?

Well, I dislike a railroaded game any longer than a simple adventure that lasts one or two sessions. If you’re working on a narrow time frame – and I have for games that have been run at events etc – then those confines mean that you will have to keep your players on the straight and narrow. One good trick for this, and it works if you totally commit to the pretense, is to keep them going where you want them, but fake a little bit of despair. As if the group has pushed you off plot and then you have to come up with something killer to bring it all back together. I know it’s a bit dishonest, but the players will love thinking that in a short game, that’s probably been played with other groups in the past, they’ve broken the boundaries and made the game their own.

Just enough to point them in right direction…

For a longer game, what I love is a sense of a huge open world. Actually, that’s not quite right; the sense of a huge open adventure comes a little closer. I’ve played games where we’ve barely left one or two city districts, and been very happy knowing that there was still countless things to do, people to interact with, and places we could go. This feeling was helped by a GM who made it clear that player actions would guide the plot to a conclusion. So this is what I want to do in my next game, a sprawling adventure where consequences of actions will drive the plot forward. However, I’m running for a gaming society that meets one night a week, and the game will be finished by the next summer; that means that a pure sandbox is out of the question.

That’s not a bad thing, as I think that sandbox games aren’t always the best way to run games. Sure they offer a world of possibilities, but they can also mean a lack of resolution or an ending that fits with the expectations of the players who have had an awesome adventure. Not everyone wants to carry on playing until they become a warlord, ruling the local area with a band of mercenaries at their disposal. Some people just want to know that the threat to their way of life has been dealt with and that they can now reap the rewards for dealing with the problem. To make this work for me, I draw your attention back to the header at the top of this article.

My game will be set in a huge and sprawling metropolis, and after the first couple of sessions – during which I will be leading the players a little, just to get them used to the setting and system – I hope that my players will take advantage and explore The City. They will find plenty to do, and an awful lot of places to go and people to talk to. As they’re walking around they will stumble across a few hooks and seeds that I’ve planted around the place. Which ones they take a swipe at will let me know the way they expect the story to go, and from there I will be able to see a way to get them moving towards the end.

What I don’t want is for the players to see what’s that far ahead of them. Instead I want them to enjoy the freedom to make decisions and live with the consequences. My solution is make sure that the players know that just over there, whenever they’re ready to take a look, there’s something cool that should help them out. As long as it’s done with a hint of subtlety, there should be no feeling of railroading, instead just the plot moving forward. As an example – and not one I will be doing, in case any of players end up reading this – the characters could be quite happily planning a job of their own, researching how to use explosives maybe? They get put in contact with a guy, who likes where they’re coming from, but needs a little something doing before he’s free to lend a hand. It’s nothing major, but for the sake of them helping him out, he’ll waive his usual fee. This job could easily lead onto the main plot, giving plenty of opportunities to drop in other important NPCs and give the players a heads up on larger developments.

If that seems to obvious, then who’s to say that the job they’re planning won’t have it’s own seeds littered about it. With a well planned plot, and a setting you know inside and out, there are many ways to let the players know where they could go next. After all, it’s fun to play in a sandbox, but if you see a sign that promises  some great toys to make the playing even more fun, you’d take a look at where it was pointing, wouldn’t you?

Aug 062012
 

So, the players have broken up a major crime ring/necromancy lair or some such, and fancy cutting loose and celebrating. This of course would be a great time for the kingpin/necromancer NPC to strike back! That is at least according to every film made ever about such things. But would they? Really?

What’s just happened is a small bunch of people have done possibly millions of dollars/gold pieces worth of damage to his organisation, and the costs still haven’t been counted for if they decide to restart the operation. What profit is there in going after those people? They have already proven themselves to be highly capable and resourceful killers who it would seem foolish to annoy further.

This post is inspired by the soon to be released film Taken 2, and the comic book series Sin City: Hell and Back by Frank Miller, touching on how the idea of revenge as a plot device could be handled in an RPG. A lot of what you take from this blog comes from the type of game you’re going to be playing. I’m not talking about sci-fi versus fantasy, but high adventure/Hollywood movie action versus dark and gritty/life on the line kind of games. If you’re rocking some high adventure kind of game, then you’re going to have players who are nigh invincible, especially if all the bad guys have to throw at them are mooks by the bucket load.

In this instance, I would advise sticking to using revenge as a motivator for the characters. It may be tricky to think of something that will drive all of the party to action. If the group are already well established this could be easier, as they may already share common goals and associates that could be compromised by the bad guys. In this kind of story the avenging angels (read:player characters) will almost always succeed, but the reverse is never true. Boss bad guys will look at the damage wrought on them by a group of heroes and send wave after wave of increasingly tougher mooks against them, all of whom will die without being much a challenge to the PCs. Only in the final act will the party face a real challenge other than attrition, usually in form of a right hand man, who’s been itching for a chance to take them out from the start. Even this will be an easily surmountable obstacle that will open the way to final Boss who will be the only real challenge before the thirst for revenge is satisfied.

This kind of thing is certainly fun, but the final speech from the head bad guy in the comic book mentioned above is far more realistic,

Revenge is a loser’s game. There’s no percentage in it. All that matters is profit… and power. …As for Wallace… let the man be on his way – and prey we never see his like again”.

After watching the trailer for taken 2, all I could think was, Why the hell don’t more bad guys think like that?!

Not every band of heroes is a mook grinding machine though, and if your game lends itself to more realistic combat, then it’s much more likely that the threat of revenge from a powerful criminal consortium, or even dark wizard, would be something worth worrying about. Handled well it will drive the players away from their safety zone, away from friends and allies, and will make them watch over their shoulder every second. It will take some thought on the GM’s part to give a sense of genuine peril without just killing someone,but there are plenty of ways to do it. My personal favourite is to play the first round of bad guys that are sent after them as way more clever and well organised/disciplined than the players would expect from a random group of NPCs.

Expect them to know how to use the terrain; know that trying to take out the PCs in a single rushed charge will do very little, but whittling away at them while keeping themselves as safe as possible makes a lot more sense. They will also know when to withdraw from a fight, and know to keep an eye on their own resources, not wasting anything while doing their job, but doing what they can to reduce the party’s supplies. It’s also a foolish evil overlord indeed who is stupid enough to send out only the one team. Don’t feel the need to swamp them with everything all at once, but use a second team to stymie the PCs as they seek to get themselves squared away after the first attack. Markets or inns that they would run to in times of trouble will be nothing but scorched remains, or closed to them, the owners fearing threats of violence for helping them in any way.

This all sounds very much like the characters are eventually going to die, or just stay on the run, fleeing for their lives for as long as the bad guy keeps his attention focused on them. There are a few ways to combat this, but if you have a strong group of role players, I’m sure they could figure a way out of it that their GM would never see. The opportunity to turn the tables on the  bad guy should be presented though, just to keep them interested.

Maybe one of an attack party over plays their hand and could be captured and ‘persuaded’ to give up some goods on the antagonist? I’m not going to do all the work for you, but you see where this could go. As long as nothing that happens is easy, and the threat from the bad guy remains constant, then there’s a lot of fun to be had with the consequences of your players’ actions, even if they were carried out from the moral high ground and especially if they thought they were doing the right thing. Eventually though, they will want to take the fight to the big bad, and this should be a hard slog indeed,but still a workable option. To deny the players closure after putting them through so much is just plain mean.

So, I hope that’s been useful, but if you have any ideas of your own, or some examples from play that you want to share, sound off in the comments and let us all know.