Gen Con – Useless Advice

Tomorrow, I’m off to Gen Con. This isn’t going to be my usual Gen Con as I won’t be there with the Accidental Survivors crew. I’ll be there working, running some Nefertiti Overdrive, trying to sell some Centurion and Sword Noir, and generally trying to have a good time.

This is my fourth time out to the rodeo, and I was trying to think of advice I would give to people going. These are just a few very minor thoughts regarding my preparations for going.

1) Get your rest before you go. It’s a little bit late to mention this, but if you are already tired when you hit Gen Con, it’s going to steamroll you. A body in need of rest is also more susceptible to illnesses that are always floating around cons. You can still get a good night’s sleep while at the con, but it means you need to prioritize sleep, which is generally pretty low on most people’s hierarchy of gaming needs.

2) Have a schedule notebook. I usually have a notebook specifically for Gen Con with one page for each scheduled activity. That page includes timings, required equipment, place and map. The rest of the page and the back of the page I leave blank for notes linked to the appointment. I put them in chronological order and have a small paperclip to mark the present/next event. The rest of the notebook is available for game notes, writing down phone numbers/email to keep or pass on, or even jotting down ideas that strike in the exhibitors’ hall.

3) You need to keep clean. Yes, this is just plain common sense, but also yes, it probably needs to said. Take a change of clothes for each day and don’t forget your toothbrush and tooth paste. Take some gum as well, for the in-between periods. You will be surprised how few “catpiss gamers” you’ll meet at Gen Con (thank you to Brad Clark for that evocative turn of phrase), so don’t be the person at the table that befouls the atmosphere.

4) Be flexible. Stuff is going to happen. Don’t go in with rigid expectations. Some events are going to be cancelled, some will change, some won’t be what you expect them to be. Don’t worry about it. You’re at Gen Con! Roll with it. Don’t be afraid to walk away from situations you don’t like. I’d be very careful about doing that in the middle of a game, but if you meet the GM and the individual is a total d-bag, just walk away. You don’t need that shit in your life for the next four hours.

5) Don’t be afraid to lurk – as long as you aren’t being stalker-y. A couple of times when I was running games on the side – at a free table or in the lounge at the hotel – someone has stopped to watch. That’s cool. I usually greet them, let them know it’s cool to ask questions, and if there is space, I’ll offer to have them join us. If you are interested in a game, feel free to politely watch. If you are doing it because of an attractive individual at the table, that’s not as cool. And if that attractive person studiously avoids looking at you, move the fuck along.

6) If you are coming from outside of the US, don’t expect wi-fi at the hotel unless it explicitly states it is available. When I am travelling in Canada, I am honestly shocked when a hotel doesn’t have free wi-fi. It’s pretty common in Asia and Europe as well. In the US, I am generally shocked if the hotel has free wi-fi. Maybe this has changed since my last visit, but it has been super-frustrating. At the convention centre, there are free wi-fi hot spots, so take your laptop, tablet, or phone, and check in there.

That’s all I could think of right now. Nothing ground-breaking. There are no epiphanies to be had here. If you are coming to Gen Con, I hope to see you there and shake your hand. I’ll be at the IGDN booth (#734, right beside Indie Press Revolution) on Saturday from 2PM to 4PM. You can also see me at the Indie RPG Matchmaker seminar Friday morning at 9 at the Crowne Plaza: Pennsylvania Stn B or at the Historical Gaming seminar Saturday at 1 PM at Crowne Plaza: Pennsylvania Stn A.

You can find my Gen Con calendar here.

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Gen Con – Train in Vain

As you may have heard, I’m running a couple of games with a system I was calling Fancy Pants but now has two names – F#ck You Up and Face ‘Splosion. Yesterday I told you about F#ck You Up: Gangwar. Today, let’s looks at Face ‘Splosion.

I’ll be running Face ‘Splosion: Train in Vain Thursday evening. It sees the characters arrive on the planet Anesidora in an attempt to get the secret location of a vault filled with alien artifacts known as the Pithos out of a mole within Cronus a mega-corporation with both mining and manufacturing interests. Anesidora was once a mining colony but has since been mostly abandoned. Mostly.

Just in case it’s not clear enough, this is a riff on the concept behind the Borderlands video games.

The characters for Train in Vain are:

The Assassin (picture Zer0)
Elements: 2d6/1d10 – Alertness; Stealth
Tools: 2d8/1d12
Plasma Blade; Hologram Projector
Traits: 2d4/1d8 – Physical; Social

The Deathbot (picture Gaige’s Deathtrap)
Elements: 2d4/1d8 – Electronic Brain; Hover Drive
Tools: 2d6/1d12 – Plasma Claws; Laser Eye Beams
Traits: 2d6/1d10 – Physical; Mental

The Gunslinger (picture Nisha)
Elements: 2d4/1d8 – Fast; Cunning
Tools: 2d8/1d12 – Big Bore Pistols Akimbo; Attitude
Traits: 2d6/1d10 – Physical; Social

The Leader (picture Maya)
Elements: 2d6/1d10 – Presence; Mythic Entity
Tools: 2d4/1d8 – Communications; SMG
Traits: 2d8/1d12 – Mental; Social

The Mad Scientist (picture Gaige)
Elements: 2d8/1d12 – Science!; Make things go BOOM!
Tools: 2d6/1d10 – Electro-static Plasma Atomizer; Sonic Screwdriver
Traits: 2d4/1d8 – Mental; Social

The Scout (picture Mordecai)
Elements: 2d8/1d12 – Awareness; Survival
Tools: 2d4/1d8 – Bioform ISR/Strike Asset (hawk); Big Ass Rifle
Traits: 2d6/1d10 – Physical; Mental

You can find my Gen Con calendar here.

Read more about Fancy Pants here.

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Gen Con – Gangwar

As you may have heard, I’m running a couple of games with a system I was calling Fancy Pants but now has two names – F#ck You Up and Face ‘Splosion.

I’m running F#ck You Up: Gangwar on Thursday morning. It sees the characters caught in the middle of enemy territory – that being a part of the city run by another, hostile gang – and forced to fight their way back to safety. They learn that not all is at it seems and something might be waiting for them in the place they thought was safe.

The characters for Gangwar are:

The Boss
Elements: 2d8/1d12 – Precise; Cunning
Tools: 2d4/1d8 – Tactics; Presence
Traits: 2d6/1d10 – Mental; Social

The Duellist
Elements: 2d6/1d10 – Balance; Daring
Tools: 2d8/1d12 – Blade; Awareness
Traits: 2d4/1d8 – Physical; Mental

The Face
Elements: 2d4/1d8 – Persuasive; Connected
Tools: 2d6/1d10 – Charm; Insight
Traits: 2d8/1d12 – Mental; Social

The Muscle
Elements: 2d8/1d12 – Tough; Strong
Tools: 2d4/1d8 – Fists; Speed
Traits: 2d6/1d10 – Physical; Social

The Thief
Elements: 2d4/1d8 – Agile; Silent
Tools: 2d8/1d12 – Acrobatics; Timing
Traits: 2d6/1d10 – Physical; Mental

On Monday, I’ll introduce you to Face ‘Splosion : Train in Vain.

You can find my Gen Con calendar here.

Read more about Fancy Pants here.

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There was a post and an article I read recently arguing that RPGs needed less story. You can imagine my surprise. Only what both were arguing was that a story is constricting, it forces railroading as the PCs must conform to the plot. It seemed that both thought of “story” only in the strict sense of a story one would read in fiction or watch in a movie.

That is not a definition of story I had ever encountered previously in regards to the RPG discussion.

Story, as I’ve generally seen it used in RPG discussions, refers to the narrative, the non-combaty parts of the game. And in that sense, it is no more confining or railroading than any other aspect of RPGs. In fact, I’ve been arguing – and trying to implement in my games – for more narrative, not less.

Sure I would like to see less railroading in RPGs, but there are some issues with implementing that. I personally see it as an issue of GM comfort. If you relinquish control over the narrative, if you do not have set encounters and at least the outline of a plot, you will need to be ready to create on demand. This is what I call improvisational GMing – it’s GMing on the fly. Not everyone is comfortable with doing it.

If you are comfortable with creation on the fly, it is easy enough to get started if your group feels the same. Don’t discourage players from interacting with the story elements and the other PCs. Give them control over events. If you don’t mind improve GMing, let them answer their own questions. When a player asks “do we find any clues?” your answer could be “you tell me.”

Giving players control over the plot is something into which you might need to ease them, especially if they have been involved in games with tight GM control, like how D&D, GURPS, and Savage Worlds are traditionally played. Players will likely flounder at first when you give them control, like a first-time driver nervous behind the wheel of a car. That will change.

Oh my, how that will change.

So I would agree that we need less railroading in games, but I also believe that some GMs are not willing to improv GM or comfortable with creation on the fly. It’s not easy.

But I do find it fun.

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Bunraku Redux

On Sword’s Edge, my blog where I talk about movies and writing and personal stuff, I wrote about the Bunraku effect. In that article, Bunraku refers to a very interesting movie with sets like a stage play, modern costuming and no firearms. The minds behind this movie decided to try to explain all of that with a prologue.

I found that to be the worst decision possible.

Now, in writing, it is possible to avoid providing causes or background to readers. Sometimes you want to do that. In Bunraku, the reason for the lack of firearms was not the point of the movie, so why even bother? There are no guns, live with it. Not knowing would not affect my enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the movie.

I kind of feel the same with RPGs. You might be the kind of GM that loves to write pages of setting information and backstory for a campaign. You might even try to get your players to read that. But would the characters necessarily know all that information? And do they need to know it?

Do you really need to explain to a player why there are no gunpowder weapons in this fantasy world with Renaissance or even Enlightenment levels of technology? Nope. The character wouldn’t know. The character wouldn’t even know what a gunpowder weapon might be. So why is it important, other than providing a reason to argue?

I would say that for much of our history, a vast majority of the population did not know that history. Even today, those “person on the street” interviews reveal a huge swath of ignorance regarding history, technology, and the world around us. Should we expect the populace in RPGs to be any different?

I am not suggesting this as a way to keep players in the dark so the GM has an advantage. I am suggesting that you should consider if it is important for the players to know the complete backstory of the setting. If not, don’t bother them with it. Maybe you don’t even know, and that is totally fine. The PCs can learn about his world as they explore it.

You don’t need to provide a reason for everything in your setting, but it would be kind of nice if you provided a fun setting.

You can read that Sword’s Edge article here.

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Violent? Sure! Evil? No thanks.

With the announcement of Fallout 4, I’ve gone back to play the shit out of Fallout: New Vegas . . . again. I’ve almost completed the main storyline as an independent, having taken out Mr. House and completed as far as I can go in the Legion storyline before I’m asked to do something I’m not willing to do.

And I should be willing to do it, because it’s just a game right? I even restarted the game in order to play through the Legion storyline, but I have a real hard time doing it. I mean, I shouldn’t be worried about spoilers, but there comes a time when the character is asked to start removing factions the new Caesar considers threats. Given that I have generally made alliances with at least one of these factions, I don’t really enjoy pushing forward with that. I’ve delayed it as much as I can.

It reminds me of playing in an “evil” campaign back in high school. I was okay with it when we were being naughty – thievery, extortion, even a little assassination of other bad NPCs – but at some point it actually got evil. I walked out of the game when the crew were talking about raping the princess. I made some comment about not understanding how anyone could find this fun. The response that it was all just a game just didn’t cut it for me.

There are those out there that enjoy that kind of thing, and perhaps there is some actual value to it. My parents could never understand why I enjoyed movies with extremely foul language and graphic violence. I kind of follow the Aristotelian idea of catharsis (or at least, the generally accepted interpretation of Aristotle’s reference to catharsis in his Poetics) that it can purge the mind of emotions linked to the subject. I once read an interview with John Woo, who is a very mild individual by all accounts, in which he said that the movies allow him to examine violent encounters without the need to resort to actual violence.

I can understand the desire to play criminals and badguys. I did, after all, author Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery. I find that desire very different from playing in an evil campaign. In most cases, these criminals and badguys have lines they will not cross. Tony Montana loses it all because he won’t allow the murder of a mother and children, and kills to protect them. Henry Hill gets in trouble because he dabbles in drug-dealing, originally off limits to Good Fellas. The Killer is basically a knight errant out to kill other badguys, but unwilling to harm innocents. These are the kinds of “evil” campaigns I could deal with.

To me, there’s a big difference between assassinating bad people and killing innocent “civilians.” If your campaign was the Silence of the Lamps, would you want to play Agent Starling or Buffalo Bill? I know some of you want to answer Hannibal, but in the movie he is more of a sage than a figure of evil, and his violence in that movie is reserved for a faceless (sorry, couldn’t resist) cop and the violence is perpetrated off screen. Were Hannibal to be murdering characters for which we have sympathy he might not seem like such a great choice.

But then again, to some he might. This is what I can’t understand.

I can understand stealing from the rich, even if you aren’t giving to the poor. Even if an individual gained wealth through hard work and perseverance, the individual has more than enough to meet a person’s needs, and taking a percentage of that doesn’t seem like a real harm. Stealing from the poor? This isn’t fun to me.

I can even understand extortion. Imagine you live in a realm in which the resident lord has absolute power over you, in which you fear opposing the lord’s minions as they break laws and ignore tradition. Now imagine you could fund a police force that could protect you from predations. Some would argue this was the infancy of the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime). It might still be extortion, but it’s easier to swallow if you are honestly protecting innocents for a reasonable “donation.” And our badguy Yakuza thugs would never have to shake anyone down – they’d be busy defending the villagers and protecting property.

Extorting shop owners and burning down their shops if they don’t pay doesn’t seem like fun to me.

The difference for me between role-playing violence and evil is that violence can be used in the preservation of the good or for the protection of innocents. Violence need not be evil. The extreme violence in Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies, such as the aforementioned the Killer or something like A Better Tomorrow, is never directed at the innocent. Badguys gun down worseguys and avoid collateral damage. When collateral damage occurs, the heroic badguys are devastated by this and attempt to make amends or seek redemption.

I don’t run or play in games in which the violence targets the innocent or the good guys. I had a really hard time accepting the violence directed against the police in GTA IV – the first GTA I had ever played. I messed up one modern campaign in which we were specifically criminal hitmen when my character stated: “No cops. No civilians.”

And perhaps I am belittling a valid gaming choice. I honestly don’t know. Can this work as catharsis? Can we explore the motivations and drives of evil? This would seem to me to be justification for an evil campaign. Just as literature or movies can give us unsympathetic but fascinating characters, I would expect RPGs could do the same.

I just likely wouldn’t want to play in such a campaign.

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The Languid and the Focused

Most of my games have some way for the players to communicate with the GM their desires and what they want their PC to do in the game. In Nefertiti Overdrive and Centurion, these are Pivots. Pivots are not only signposts for the GM, they are reminders to the players of what they said they wanted their PCs to be about.

Pivots are pretty important when I design adventures. The players are telling me this is what they want their characters to do, so I better make sure their characters get to do that. However, there is a large difference between using Pivots in a regular, ongoing campaign and in a one-shot or convention game.

In a campaign, having each character hit at least one Pivot during an adventure is fine. An adventure might last a single session if you are lucky enough to have six-hour sessions. For the adventure I’m running over Google Hangouts for two backers from the Nefertiti Overdrive Kickstarters, our sessions are two hours.

In a one-shot or convention game, the session is the adventure, and it has to fit into a specific timeframe – generally four hours. The adventure in the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart was designed as a convention one-shot, and fits into a four-hour session. In it, each of the six characters can hit both of their Pivots. I’m finishing my Gen Con adventure right now, and I am wrestling with Pivots to try to make sure each character hits their two.

This is important because in a regular adventure, there might be scenes that have a purpose and might even spotlight a character, but that do not hit a Pivot. In a one-session adventure, each scene needs all three. That’s tough.

Think of the regular adventure or campaign as a novel while the one-session adventure is a short story. A writer can engage in diversions and sub-plots, characters that only tangentially touch on the story but are of interest, scenes that can explore at great length some small point. A short story needs to be laser-focused, everything contributing to moving the story forward.

A regular adventure can be languid and discursive while a one-session adventure must be focused.

You can find Centurion: Legionaries of Rome at Amazon and Drive Thru RPG.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive here.

You can find the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart here.

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