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?

Oct 092012

Today my gaming society gets together and each GM gives a pitch for a full academic year long game that they want to run, and hope to get enough interest to make it happen. We’ve sadly had a body drop out for personal reasons, so with the field shrunk I should be fine to run my post-cyberpunk game set in Warren EllisTransmetropolitan universe, using the Cyberpunk 2020 rules. below is a little bit of prose that I’ve been working on as a teaser for prospective players. It basically gives a tiny bit of background about the characters’ origins and the world they will be playing in. What I haven’t done is go into detail about the style of game play – as I want that to be decided upon by the players as a committee - and the types of character they can play. The beauty of starting a campaign this way is that the players will be every-man characters, meaning they will get the chance to play pretty much anything they want, within the scope of the game. Which basically limits them to ‘human’.

I know most of you won’t be at the meeting tonight, but feel free to read it anyway, and as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments box below.

You all had your reasons to take a spin on the roulette wheel of cryogenics. Those reasons are your own, but with the money out of your account and a detailed form filled in you were hopeful for what the future would hold. In the future, they would rebuild you. they could even make you a better you. Never liked the way your chin looked? Fine, take that picture of the person you always wished you would be and clip it to the form. Maybe even just a younger version of yourself, giving you the chance to live your life again, to avoid some mistakes, or just make sure that this time, your youth wasn’t wasted on someone young.

And then it happened. Your clock ran out. Luckily you were close enough to a hospital and had your will prepared, and after the postmortem was carried out, your head was detached and inexpertly flash frozen and sealed in its container, your paperwork stuck to the side in a clear plastic envelope. Your hopes and dreams, and your brain, thoroughly damaged by the flawed freezing procedure was placed on a shelf with dozens, hundreds of others. People like you, who threw a coin into the wishing well that is the future.

And then the day came. A day of wonder that could only happen in a future so far removed from what you could understand of the present, that to you it was just so much science fiction. They rebuild you, all of you, from the flawed respiratory system that has been the cause of countless childhood deaths by choking on food, to the human eye, a camera so complex as to stagger belief, yet made out of such simple materials as jelly and water. And as the last layers of epidermis form, and hair – wet from the chemical solution your second birth takes place in – starts to colour, the signals are bundled up from your old brain, and prepared to jump start your new head meat. You come around in fear for your life, already starting to swallow the liquid as the glass fronted door of the chamber opens automatically. Your body is unceremoniously dropped to the floor. A cold floor. hard tiles with someone else’s biological matter still staining them.

You enter the future alone, unsure what you’re doing there, and within seconds you’re vomiting onto the tiles like so many before you. It takes the assistant five minutes to notice the process has been completed, and by the time he walks into the room to look down at your naked vomit stained form – thinking about what he would do to you if the activities in this room weren’t recorded – you’ve gone into a mild shock. A grey and brown dressing gown is dropped around your shoulders as you’re asked questions to jog your memory. You answer as well as you can whilst pulling it around yourself, using the edges to wipe yourself clean as you speak, your mind beginning to come to terms with what’s happened. You’re told there’s a taxi waiting outside to take you to a hostel, that your money will be refunded in line with inflation, but without interest. They would never be able to work that out…

All these things make sense to you. Words and concepts that make you feel secure. ‘Just how different could the world be’, you think as you close your eyes and breath out as the front door is opened for you, ready to breathe in the future. Eyes closed tightly, waiting to open to allow you to take in the sites so few people from your time would ever get to experience.

The sights, smells, and sounds are now only remembered as a cacophony. The werewolf having sex with a Chinese business man. The child with half the skin on her face apparently scraped off sat watching a TV screen in the sidewalk. You think the show was called ‘Sex Puppets’, but that can’t be right. The guy with a floating digital camera behind his head talking to a women eating what was clearly the cooked arm of an Afro-Caribbean child. The adverts for Ebola-Cola, for a U.S. President called the Beast, for an enclave where feudal japan is lived and relived while people from outside watch on. The police dog talking to a drug dealer.

You don’t remember the taxi journey at all. You barely remember the first month at the hostel apart from the beatings as every penny you had was taken from you by the gangs of veteran revivals who have banded together to pray on the weak. You were lucky you recovered quickly, before you were put out on the street for business. You found a few other lost souls, all wearing someone else’s cast off clothing who no longer whimpered themselves to sleep every night. With nothing else to do, you shared stories of the time you came from, fighting back the influence of this future that seems so wrong. The only thing you seem to have in common is the time you came from. But that association is enough to keep the gangs away, to give you breathing space to take stock, and maybe, just maybe, find your place in this future.