Friday, February 02, 2018

But that trick never works! "This time for sure!"

It's just me trying to host an image for a wiki. Everybody relax.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Numbers Game

I think you folks probably know by now that I look at each and every opportunity to play as an opportunity to also learn.
if nothing else, You can learn a great deal about human psychology...Ok. GEEK Psychology... by sitting down with friends and chucking some dice, or throwing some chops in anger at deeply unpleasant antagonists.

The only thing that can throw a real damper on this, are inequities in play. The sorts of things that can really rub you raw.
Let me give you an example: I play at a Javachat site. I have a character who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a combat character.  I mean, I have a significant amount of my points sunk into combat stuff. I am also playing a werewolf, and of the supernatural races in the games we’re playing they’re considered to be rampaging ravening engines of destruction. I am playing a member of THEIR warrior class. In fact, my character is built in such a way that I am perfectly capable of handing out a beating to other werewolves without having to change form.  Now granted, there are players that are capable of kicking my ass while in full on wolf-man form. But that doesn’t help them with a fight in public now, does it?

In some of the things I can do, I now have ridiculous dice pools. Been playing this particular game for better than six months. Love my fellows and I don’t have MUCH kick against the Storytellers there except for one thing.

I have yet to meet an antagonist on the field of battle that I could hit or damage much. And on those rare occasions when I could actually do some damage, the antagonist, invariably a spirit creature, would just fuck off for greener pastures not much the worse for wear.

There is a vast sea of difference between giving the players a hard-won victory and giving them a massive case of blue balls. And I think it’s high time that storytellers learned the fucking difference.

The Big Bad:
Frankly, it’s just goddamn lazy to have the main antagonist walk out into the middle of things and dare the players to mass fire on him. (And if you don’t think that players will immediately ignore their current attackers to mass fire on the main bad guy, you are very very new at this and adorable in the bargain.) But it’s also incredibly demoralizing to realize that even the combat dudes can’t hit the guy because you gave him a ridiculous amount of Defense. Or a ridiculous amount of Armor.  Sure, it may force your players to get more creative. But it also gets fucking old after a while.
   Never mind the actual problem of the fact that the antagonist may be able to mop the floor with your primary bad-ass PCs. What happens when you put all of them on the deck, and the only players left are not nearly as capable of fighting back?
Look: Throttle back on that shit. Make your enemies hittable but savvy enough to use cover and the battlefield conditions to his/her advantage. Perhaps the bad guy knows the terrain of his lair like the back of his hand and uses the choke points to his advantage.  Perhaps his running off is a calculated move designed to draw off some of the PC’s and maybe turn the tables back to his/her advantage. (Vampires are GREAT at that. Get chased down only to turn around and nail someone with Dominate and then fuck off while the rest of the party has to put one of their own on the deck.
Maybe your big bad has enough smarts to keep from revealing he’s actually in command and you don’t exactly know WHO is pulling the strings. Maybe your Big Bad has a lot of mooks but also has a goodly number of second-string baddies who are willing to cover his retreat. And those second stringers are CRUNCHY.
   You can even pull the old Anime switcheroo if you’re feeling particularly sadistic. Maybe the players get crazy lucky on a dice roll and wax your bad guy.  And he falls down...and then he gets back up, Maybe twice as powerful or at very least completely refreshed.
   You can do the “Toy Surprise” villain too.  Kill off the bad guy and as he/she/it dies, the creature explodes covering the PC’s in acidic blood, actively teratogenic or mutagenic chemicals, or even just pissed off scorpions. A satisfying win, but not without consequences.
Enemy tactics can also play a significant role in making the players sweat. Tactically savvy antagonists can make life hell even for vastly superior forces. Knowing the terrain better than the enemy can make an enormous difference. Hitting an enemy from one side and then once they’ve committed their force to that direction, hitting them from another direction is a great way to stress out players and make them feel very vulnerable.  Don’t feel all that great as a tactician?  Take a look at history for great examples of how a battle unfolds.  In fact, let me recommend a book.  “The 33 Strategies of War” by Dr. Robert Green.  Fascinating, and damned useful stuff for the basic principle of tactics and strategy.

Enemy forces:
Yes. this will mean more work for you but ratchet down how dangerous your average mooks are. But instead of having one mook per PC, have three.  Yes, this will mean that certain PC’s will mop the floor with your mooks. That is to be expected. However, it will also mean that they will be busy helping the other PC’s who aren’t as combat capable from getting themselves slain.
Let’s face it: I have yet to be in a game combat situation where the only players involved were combat capable. There’s always one or more players who are along for the ride, who frankly, have exactly no business being there. They figure that the only way to get experience or character recognition is to participate in fights.
And if that IS true of the game you’re running, SHAME THE FUCK ON YOU.
But that’s neither here nor there.
The issue is that if you’ve made all of the bad guys on the board super crunchy, and then there are people involved in the plot that aren’t terribly combatty.   Or maybe they have combat skills but tend to get mentally passive in battle or aren’t really tactically wise.  People bring a wide breadth of experience to each and every conflict.  There may be even PC’s involved in your game, who can actually end the fight without using violence.  NEVER stifle this impulse. They paid some fucking points to be able to do that sort of thing, you should let them and not jack them up just because you wanted a fight.  That’s as bad as not letting the combat character’s hit anything.  It’s just blue balls of another shade.

The Dice/Dice Roller/Chops
In any given sortie group, there is likely to be at least one player that suffers from the vagaries of chance. I’ve been that guy. 15 successes to pick a lock, can’t swing my bat to save my life some nights.  (if you’re a player and you’re having this problem, the best thing you can do is go to the defensive/support end of things. You might just save the day THAT way.)
But sometimes the GM has that problem. 
So cheat.
Oh, come ON. You KNOW you’re going to. But if you do so, then do it with an eye towards at least being fair.
Ok. Say you’ve done like I suggested.  Let’s say, Captain Jones, The Great Bandini, his girl Friday Della Overstreet, and Sabai Khan are all set upon by the Peruvian Mantis people.  And instead of having them tackle the Mantis King and his royal guard, You’re having them set upon by enough of the Mantis people to have at least 3 of them attacking each player.
And let’s say, and why not, that the Dice roller is fucking hating you tonight. and you want them to sweat a little, but they flatly aren’t.   
   So simply do it like this. Simply assess each player one bashing or one lethal per round of combat NO MATTER WHAT. until the Mantis people are either slain or chased off.  There are three attackers on each. Each round the Mantis people will knock off at least 2 defense of each player so it’s not impossible that they’ll hit and maybe they won’t do much damage. but if the dice roller gives the player a little hate too and the combat drags out, It will make them sweat and after the fight, use up some of their healing resources. After all, The Mantis King is still out there.

The goal here is to make it a challenge without fucking them over because you went overboard or don’t know what you’re doing. People don’t play games because they like to LOSE.

Pacing in combat is super-important. Anything that is supposed to happen in the combat, that is actually NOT combat itself ought to be pre-written. In fact, you might want to create a flowchart for your combat. indicating the decision tree of thing that will take place if the players kill the bad guys, fight them to a draw or get trounced. because ALL of these are possible.  
You need to have your act together as much as is humanly possible, and not only that you have to keep the players from bogging down the pace of the fight too.  In the place I play, we have a thing called the “3 Minute Rule”  From the moment the ST calls you in the Init Order, you have 3 minutes to post your actions and dice roll or get yourself skipped.
It is the ONLY thing that can keep a combat scene that involves 15 people from slowing to a crawl.
    if you’re a player and have a question about how something works, you should ask it before your turn. Preferably in Private messages to the Storyteller.  If you have flavor text you intend to add to your dice roll you should type that stuff before your turn comes up.  The only time that you ought to write from scratch as a player is when the person right before you makes your action moot and you need to do something different.  In THAT case, Brevity over color.

Now, of course, there may be times when the fight bogs down anyway and maybe the only way to fix it is to go “Cinematic”  And that’s fine.  Let the players describe a cool thing that their character gets to do before something cinematic happens.
And when you do something cinematic, try not to make it a big fuck you to the people who have chosen to come play in your scene. Like having your favored set of NPC’s show up and make everyone look bad.  Far better to have those NPC’s show up and do support for the PC’s.  Buffing the FUCK out of them will do the trick.
Can’t do that?   Why not have the Big Bad grasp his head and go. “By The Thrice-Damned! They’ve begun the ritual. I have to stop them. YOU! Take command and destroy these striplings!” and then he fucks off for the high cotton.

“Oh, my. Look at the time...”
Villains split. They just do. They turn up at inconvenient times. (Weddings, funerals, affairs of state) and get all Ig’nant and then when people take issue with them and turn the tide of villainous behavior. They usually want to bugger to bother the players another day.

As I’ve written before, this is another form of NPC’s favoritism and it’s largely pointless and is another source of Player Blue Balls.  Sometimes it’s ok. Just don’t do it EVERY fucking time. That’s all.   Instead of having the favored NPC roll in and kill steal. How cool would it be if the NPC rolled in while the monstrous spirit was discorporating and stopped it cold? Then turned to the players and said, “Dudes and Dudettes, I can only hold him so long him. FINISH HIM!”

That would be a fun story to tell another gamer some time down the road. And that’s what you want.
Be flexible
Recognize that you’re trying to create and good and memorable story.
Encourage the players rather than demoralizing them.

And someday, they may tell tales of the stories you’ve run.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Only Warning You Are Going To Get

You might want to copy this down somewhere.
There may come a day where you’ll want to paste this into your text box or send this via PM or FPM.

“Hi there. There is a thing that I want to tell you that may have slipped your mind.
I don’t know you.

See. That’s kind of important.
 I don’t necessarily know your sex or your ethnicity.
I don’t know your orientation or whether you are short or tall.
You might even be a “Bot” for all I know.

And I’ve got news for you.
You don’t know me either.
You have no way to know if I’ve got a Nazi flag on my wall
You have no way to know if I’ve been taking my medication.
You cannot knowledgeably speak to any of my motivations or attitudes.

We are, not to put to fine a point on it, STRANGERS.

Now, that being said, My CHARACTER may not like your character much. May consider them a stumbling block to most of their plans and might consider taking them off the count before starting any serious enterprise.  The fact that I might want to kill your character might even be a subtle compliment.

After many years of this kind of gaming, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that In Character Soap Opera is almost always good.  By this same token, Out of Character Soap Opera is almost always bad for chat games and larps.  It wrecks games. It wrecks friendships. It divides communities.

I make an effort to keep my attitudes and the attitudes of my character separate.
In fact, generally speaking, It’s one of the reasons why I tend to avoid the foyer altogether if I can help it.
I’m not averse to making friends out of character. Don’t misunderstand me.

But I am dead set against making enemies out of character. If you have ANY sense at all, you should feel much the same.

This is not to say that all people feel this way. Certainly, I have witnessed people being bounced from games for being raging assholes, racists, sexists, and militant jerks of every stripe.  But that’s their business. and if they want to be that way, they are certainly entitled to be that way. Far away from here.

Look, all you need to know about me is that I am here to play a game and have fun.  If we can agree on that we’ll be fine.
If we can't, I am going to decide you are a troll, or mentally ill, or quite possibly both.
If that IS the case, I am not going to conspire behind the scenes against you. I'm simply going to have nothing to do with you altogether.

I've got drama of my own. I don't need yours.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

K.I.S.S. (Keep it short stupid.)

You would be surprised at how much time you can waste doing a chat game.
Seriously. it’s astonishing

Picture a simple premise. There are bad guys. They are probably doing bad things. They seem to be headquartered in this particular spot. You may want to go round there and fuck up their shit.  You may even want to plan such an excursion. GO!

Any Gm with any experience will be able to tell you that your players will take as much of the game session as you let them to plan the assault. And usually, it’s a plan that goes by the wayside in 2 minutes time.  This is par for the course, and not necessarily something to get upset about.

But in a chat game, these long planning sessions are far longer. All the discussion is typed and usually from scratch. The number of players who have their gear and their act together from the jump are so rare as to be near mythical.

And as any chat ST can also tell you, Even for things that seem simple and straightforward, they can bog down. and of course, Combat tends to bring things to a screeching halt. I know it does for me both as a player and an ST. After 3 separate versions of my game of choice, I find myself still having to go, “What’s the roll for that again?”  Thank God for Searchable PDF’s.

So my advice for the prospective Chat ST is fairly simple.
Don’t plan a 6-hour jaunt. Because it might run 10 hours and by the time it’s all over, everyone will be crabby and tired. Most of all, you!

Chat games are a strange animal insofar as they run 24/7/365 but a plot may take weeks and months to resolve.  Since this is the case, it is incumbent for you to build your plots to be small and modular.

Instead of planning a clash between your PC’s and some antagonist that will take ages to resolve, why not break it down into much more manageable bits.
Say my players are having trouble with a particular street gang. And maybe they want to go around to that one place where they are and put paid to them and whatever supernatural assistance they may be getting on the side.  Well, that might work as a long game session but it could also work okay if you stretch it out some.

Let’s say I’ve got some guys pushing some Meth in my city. and maybe, my players being all civic minded and shit, decide to shut them down.

1) Getting a line on those dudes. (This game session could involve going around to some biker bar and asking some questions. Could be social. Could be a fist fight. Could involve undercover cops trying to get the same sort of intel.

2) Getting on the inside. ( Decently sized criminal organizations rarely put all of their eggs in one basket. It ain’t like New Jack City where they all have their stuff in one building in the projects. They might have a number of places that they use to hang out in, that they use for a distribution hub, They’ll likely have a lab, and a backup for the lab. They might even have “Bank” of some sort.  So stomping them all in one shot isn’t likely. You can hit one place only to have another pop up in less than a week. You can actually make a target for the player to go around to at least once every couple of weeks. Rather than play whack-a-mole, you might have to make your way inside the organization in order to find out all of its limbs and vital organs.  This will certainly give the social types something to do.

3) The Get Back  (Criminal organizations that come under attack are not going to take it lying down. They’ll want to know who’s causing them problems. They’ll lean on people in the neighborhood where something happened. They lean on anybody in the police force who is on their payroll. They’ll send round their troubleshooter (Who may be supernatural too.)  And if they can find out who might be causing them troubles, they will see what they can do to stick a spoke in your wheels. Like maybe filling you so full of lead that you could use your dick for a pencil. Or maybe coming around and firebombing your apartment.

4) The Fist in the Gauntlet (At some point, you have two options. (A) There’s some supernatural backing and if you locate THEM and wax them, it will likely break the back of the criminal organization. or (B) there is NO supernatural element guiding the bad guys, but this means that the bad guys will NEVER go away completely and you can feel free to have them merge with other criminal groups and/or hunter groups and try to evolve with the threat arrayed against them.  Option 1 is the kind of option that might involve going after the bad guys in their extremely dug in operation. (Might be good for a large group of players)  Option 2 means that those guys become a permanent fixture of the game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, some supernatural nasty might decide to try to take them.  It might even be one of your PC’s

The key here is scaling. Have more than you need at any given time.  Plan a short session, and if it goes quickly, give them a little more.  Keep it broken into chunks. If you start small and scale up, That’s always easier than creating something epic and having to water it down.

And why do I suggest that you keep things so short?
There are many reasons.

Plan small, because maybe you aren’t the most patient GM and if you don’t want to spend all day on the game you’ve prepared, this can be the best way. You don’t actually want to run a scene that runs so long that you don’t have the energy to make your after action notes.

Plan small because real life will fuck you. Someone may be called away in the middle of combat. YOU might be called away in the middle of combat. You can lose a couple of players to a particularly nasty thunderstorm in some far off portion of the country. It sounds all well and good to “Bubble” a scene because a particular scene has gone so long,  but getting those very same players together in order to continue that scene a couple of days later will be as hard as trying to get a health care bill through Congress. And after a week or so, those players are going to want to get on with their lives.

Plan Small because you won’t always get the same players for each section of the story. Some players will be investigators. Some will be social monsters. Some will be combat wombats. But you may not get the same ones each time.  It’d be a shame if the session you plan to have the big knock down drag out fight in, turns out to have exactly no combat characters show up.

Stepping on the gas

Combat and certain types of scene work are time intensive and frankly, that’s okay.  However, there are times when you simply need to speed things along. Mediation is a good way to do that.  You throttle back from the IC situation after you’ve had a good look around. Your players probably would have been okay if the dice roller bot hadn’t decided to bend a few of them over the coffee table and have its nasty way with them.   You can ameliorate this somewhat via Mediation.  Like, “Okay guys, at this point, the bad guys would like to break off the fight and run for it, so maybe everybody takes about 4-5 level of lethal and those dudes limp away and your guys get to limp away too.  Is that amenable to you? “  Sometimes it will be, sometimes it won’t.

You can always get cinematic too. Allow each player to describe one cool thing that their player can do in the ensuing fracas and then wind it up as best you can from that. DO NOT do the lame fuck around of having the power NPC’S show up and make everyone look like fat sleepy toddlers. That’s bullshit right there. Cinematic just means, you ran out of time to chuck dice around, it doesn’t imply any moral failing, so don’t fucking punish the players ok?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Tell, Don't Show.

Information varies in density.
I’m sure you know this, but I’m pointing it out in order to make a serious point
Information has a variable density and if you’re paying attention you can see it, and even manipulate it to some degree.

Let me give you an example. 
Take any suburban 4 way stop here in America. There are only so many inputs for you to deal with or buffer as you need. Maybe you have to be on the lookout for a wild variable like a kid on a skateboard, but other than that, you’re likely to be fine.
Now boost the gain. You’re in your car at a four-way stop downtown.
Boost it again, you’re at a four-way stop in New York City
Boost it again, You’re sitting in an automobile at a four-way stop in downtown Tokyo where the information is so dense you hardly even know where to begin looking unless you’ve already been doing it your whole life.

Games are no different.
Take your average table-top role playing game:
You’ve got a knowledge of each of your roles as players and/or GM’s
You have a social contract that enables each of you to pursue this hobby in a less than chaotic manner.
You have a shared understanding of the setting, tones, and themes of the game written by the game writers and the GM cooperatively.
You have an implicit and intuitive understanding of your character and a concrete schematic of what that character can DO under stress.
You have a portrayal of that character that operates as a gestalt incorporating Vocal tone, timbre, inflection, dialect, body language and facial expression  (In a larp you might have the additional elements of costuming and make-up which create subtle and not-so-subtle changes in that portrayal.)
And in addition to all of that, you have all the cues and bits of shorthand that you have developed in the time you’ve known one another, whether that’s 20 minutes, or 20 years.
Not to mention, all the informational elements that are probably slipping my mind, while I struggle to make this article make some kind of sense.

What I’m trying to get is a little slippery, so bear with me.
I’m playing a chat game that I’m enjoying very much. I have a good group and we have fun playing with one another and it turns out that I’m not the only one that likes venturing outside of our circle in order to pull in new people. If you’ve got a working brain, we want you with us. Or at very least, we want you to be the sort of Nemesis that we can fight with AND respect.

But chat games are not as informationally dense as other games and it makes problems.

All you have is text really.

Oh sure, you post the occasional pic, and you can drop a youtube URL, but by and large, all you have is text to work with.
And while I am certain that you can consume large amounts of text passively and hallucinate your own interface. (Which you are doing right now)
When it comes to communication, I think that text is incredibly limited.

To a degree, Technology has caught up for gamers.  You’ve got Roll20,  you’ve got Google Hangouts, There are people who can play games entirely on Skype or Discord.   But most large-scale dynamic games haven’t gotten there yet. and it’s probably just as well.
Last night I was involved with a scene that featured 20 players and a number of ST-run NPC’s and while that was happening, I was on voice chat with my pack mates at the meeting.  Now imagine all 20 players around the same table and the inevitable cross-talk between players.

Sometimes, text is all you want for something that large.

So, If that’s the case. Then we’ve got to find ways to express ourselves that are more efficient. Because in an interface that is only text, you live and die by your words.   And you know me, I am all about not dying by my words.

1) No joke: There is help available. Seek It!
I recognize that Spell Checkers can be a pain in the ass. I understand that Grammarly can slow down your typing and occasionally mess you up.
But no one wants to wait on your wall of text and then have to try and parse your meaning like some kind of ancient Sumerian codices. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time.  But if you’re having trouble with that stuff, use the help that is available. Don’t just gut it out and make everyone else gut it out too.

2) Speaking of Wall of Text...
If you’ve got something you’ve pre-written, then break it up into paragraphs and post it in sections. If you’re writing it from scratch, go for brevity over quantity.  And if you’re in the middle of some enormous crowd scene, for GOD’s sake, ask yourself if what you’re saying is necessary.  I recall a specific instance in a scene where an ST gave the players 15 minutes to react to the last bit of news he’d dropped in character and there was one guy who made him wait for an extra five to post a wall of text explaining in loving detail how bored his character was.
A very wise woman once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for THAT!”

3) Economize
Have a really good reason for everything you post.   You can just as easily say, “He shrugged” as you could say, “He shrugged with Gaulic eloquence”.   One of these marks you as a frustrated novelist.    While your character’s words ought to be exactly what they are, any additional descriptive text you post ought to be looked over as the best place to start cutting.  I’m not saying, NEVER describe. Far from it. As a GM you have to, and you know that, as like as not, the things you have to describe are already written.  But as a player and writing on the fly, make sure that the things you write and describe are necessary.
    Like for example. I recognize that it used to be that when you walked into a room, you had to describe what you looked like and exactly how you were entering and so on and so forth.  But nowadays, You’ve got wikis. Most places have a wiki of their own but even if yours doesn’t, you could always make one of your own and just drop the link to it.  Wiki’s can provide all that flavor text so you don’t have to repeat yourself over and over. Wikis can have pictures and music and moving gifs and all manner of madness. And even if you’re not great with the wiki sorcery, someone IS and you can offer them in-game favors, or even pictures of your naughty bits in order to get them to fix it up for you. And there’s no rule that says if you suck at wiki editing, that you have to stay bad at it.

4) Economize with Slang and Dialects
Dialect is HARD to write. It’s hard to write well and it’s hard to write it well enough to be both authentic and communicable.  Sure, it’s an element of your character and all, but most people are perfectly happy to accept *He comes in swearing non-stop in a thick Scott's brogue and looks right at you with blood in his eyes and says,* What the FOOK are you looking at?

One word of dialect. Pretty sure you parsed which one and what I meant there.

Slang is another thing that can be overused to the point of incoherency. Slang is often a kind of meta-language that is used to exclude and keep other people out. If that’s your INTENT, then, by all means, do that. I discovered when I worked at IBM, that Engineers do that sort of thing all the time. If you have to ask a question about the content of the message, it marks you as a non-gearhead. (Or worse, a not very serious gearhead.)  As a Theater major, I was none of those things. So I asked questions a lot. and I would get frustrated with the fact that Engineers would get so used to communicating in Acronyms that their speech was all but incomprehensible to outsiders.
They didn’t fookin care.

5) Name, rank, and serial number
Get used to not saying everything you want to say.  Anymore, I completely forego telling people what my character is thinking or feeling. I might characterize my facial expression or body language, but that’s it. Also, don’t feel like you have to tell your character's story to anyone who asks.
True Story: Met a dude at a larp, who was playing a new character for the first time, and he and I happened to meet at a bottleneck in some action, and we happened to be in a place where we could sit down. Feeling a little extroverted that evening. I began asking him questions about himself. And I am fairly confident that, in the space of 10 minutes he told me everything there was to know about his character. I felt so sorry for the poor lad, I didn’t even feel like destroying him because I knew everything about him. I ended up taking him under my wing somewhat and taught him how to keep a secret.

Sometimes the best way to keep a secret is to tell it in every way but language. You learn how to make the other guy read your mind through occasional flashes of emotion, bits of described body language and even descriptions of other sensory input...and people will be DYING to know what’s going on in that head of yours.  Mystery is a thing. You should cultivate it. it gives other people things to do.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Another one of those post where I put up an image just for hosting purposes

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Turn it up!

So, there are pitfalls in trying to run good games. Some are obvious, Some not so much.
I had to take a break from running games because i needed to get back to playing. I was burning out and like normal i had loaded my plate with too many things.  (A common problem for me at Golden Corral.)

So i throttled WAY back. Became more of a player in my larps, and refused to get into STing in my various chats. In some cases, this was unusually hard. My tendency to see what is missing in games can sometimes be a curse. Also i found my general permissive and improvisational attitude towards game mastering flies in the face of certain GMs with control issues.

But i am starting to feel the itch again. Maybe not to actually do a LOT of STing, but at least keep my hand in and keep the pot stirred.
Our last larp was a fairly quiet affair, bordering on dull. I'm not going to name any names, or point fingers or anything of that sort. Because these people are all my friends and i want things to stay that way. But lately, our membership has been in a slow slide and there are multiple causes.

This is a big one.  When it's time to Larp, you need to get your energy up and you need to be loosey goosey. Whether that means pounding some Mountain Dew and a 5 hour energy shot, or a shot of whiskey in order to loosen up. Do what you need to do. And i recommend that you do what you can whether you are a player or an ST.  Energy is contagious, especially in a larp. If you are literally falling asleep on your feet, you should stay home and rest. Seriously, not only are you not contributing, but you're sucking energy out of the larp without meaning to.
   If you're like me, (...and you KNOW you're dying to be...) You may have blood-sugar issues and need to step out for a moment or two to snack. Don't be afraid to speak up and say so. Also, if there are two games back to back, like we have (Changeling and Vampire with a dinner break between) The tendency can be to eat a big heavy meal which will steal your energy for the back half.   Not too many people realize this but the reason why you generally want a nap after a big meal is that the body needs energy to digest food. Sure it may mean you've got plenty of energy AFTER the larp, but that's hardly useful during is it?
    Energy management is important stuff. You can go to larp with a lot of problems but if the energy is right it can still be engrossing and pull people kicking and screaming into its shoggoth-like depths. And whenever possible avoid scheduling anything else on larp day.  And get some goddamn sleep!

When you hold your opening meeting, say what you need to say, and as quickly as possible At the top of the game, people are chomping at the bit to go, If you speak longer than ten minutes, you're stealing time and energy from your game. Use your opening meeting to ramp UP energy and get people excited for the game to come. 
Additionally. Don't stand up there and ramble and hope things come to you while you are talking. In the past i have advocated having a checklist of what you MUST cover for the opening meetings of a con larp. More and more i am coming to the decision that it's equally necessary for the regular games.

 if you've got pre-game stuff that must be handled before game starts, like blood draws, or ritual rolls, or any of a dozen other things, try to find means and methods to streamline these processes as much as possible. And if you can't streamline them, then farm them out to as many ST's and assistant ST's as possible. Make sure there is a standard policy for this and that it is written down for reference.

Moreoever, being an ST, means doing a lot of thinking about the game, away from the game itself. Be duly diligent. If you've got a piece of news for a certain subset of players, like everyone with Media influence, or everyone who's lived in the area longer than ten years or whatever, Put it on a 3x5 card.  That way instead of having half a dozen small meetings to disseminate information, you can just hand them the card and they can pass it around amongst themselves.  You might as create a list of the common influences as well as the ones unique to your venue. (For us: University influence, Horse industry influence, and Red Neck Mafia Influence.) and run them down prior to game time.

One of the things that i LOVE about our game, is that one of the players has taken to compiling the freaky things that happen in ALL of the venues and putting them into a "newspaper" along with a few real world freaky things.  It adds flavor, and it gives MY character things to do for each game session. I want to see more of this.  it also encourages a bit of cross venue stuff,   and as always, Cross venue play usually does aggravated damage.  

In most games, Court is deathly dull.  It normally involves a long damn wait for the prince and courtiers to get their shit together and then it's usually sped through like the tiresome chore it is.  Also: It's usually awkward, especially for the new players who often have to introduce themselves during formal court. Unless you walk in the door with some show business, you'll just be tripping over your tongue like everyone else.  I personally, have given up on trying to learn anyone's name at court, simply because most people mush mouth their introduction.

Court, needs to be jazzed up. In fact, i've long been a believer that Court ought to be like a long running soap opera with plenty of twists and political turns. Characters ought to be scared to miss it.
With this in mind, i'd like to  offer a list of things that nearly anyone can do to spice it up some.

1) Make a splash:  If you're introducing yourself to the player-base for the first time, you honestly need to put some serious show business into it.  If you stand up, mumble through your introduction, answer questions like you're having your teeth pulled, and then fade into the woodwork, then essentially you're sending the message that your character wants to immediately be forgotten and that you have no interest in making contact with anyone once court is over. Whereas it's a different message when the prince bids you rise and introduce yourself and you say in a clear strong voice. "I am Harrison Claymoore, Blood of the clan of Kings, and proud scion and knight of the first estate. I offer greetings to the Kindred of this city and I am willing to share news of my travels. I offer my service to the First Estate and I offer a minor boon to your grace for the privilege of settling in this fair city."
    That is the way to get noticed on the first night. Step up. Bring your "A" game.

2) Fight over stuff:
If you have covenants that are at odds with one another it should be standard practice for those covenants to claim swaths of territory and hunting grounds. Hell. if you're feeling froggy start claiming turf in the enemies area and force them to contest your claims. This spurs some political horse-trading and might even spur a few IC arguments in court proper.  If two players are staring at one another across a table and saying "HOW DARE YOU SIR!" then you're doing it right.

3) Bring news:
The gossip mill needs grist. It can't grind things unless people come to court with public announcements.  Enemy movements, things going on in neighboring cities, public oaths (Especially for the assumption of court offices.) crazy shit that happened at the Nightclub last night,  all these things are fair game.   In fact, if you're a highly improvisational player, you can use this as a means of building things into your character as long as the events you describe aren't too far ranging. For instance, public thanks to a fellow kindred for being kind enough to handle body disposal because of a mistake that was made during hunting last night. Such a thing doesn't create huge plot and allows you to show certain sides of your character.

4) Make the rounds:  
If your character is a social powerhouse, you're dumb if you sit on your butt and wait for players to come to you. You need to be up and around and meeting people. In fact, if you're seneschal or Harpy, that's your goddamn job.  You need to be out shaking hands, writing down names, peeling the moody loner off the wall, finding out what he's interested in and connecting him up with other players who have similar interests. People are a resource and need to fought over like every other scarcity in a good Larp.

Who gets the Stick
I'm going to go out on limb here.  If you are an established player or you've been in the game for a long time, The ST doesn't need to spend the bulk of his time with you.  When you reach a certain level of play, you should be making your own plot rather than depending on an ST to make plot for you.
Moreover, If you're a power player, you don't need to be hogging up the plot that is out there. Plot needs to be built for people who walk in the door. New and fresh.  Save your crazy high power plot for special occasions and for Cons.

Look. it's like this. If the bulk of the ST's are tied up running plot that new people would be instantly slain by, that's a choke point.  If you NEED an ST for something specific for your character, you can always make an appointment, maybe even handle some things via chat session, email proxy or Google wave.  But with game time so very finite, it is imperative that FUN is spread out to as many people as is possible.

It would seem that building plot for players you don't know would be hard. You'd be right. But it's also easy. There are lots of human level plots that can be used, abused,  and even recycled over and over again.  Human beings and their troubles and foibles aren't going away anytime soon. You can use this.   In fact, it's less useful to have a player take on the part of some high level NPC than it is to have him take on the role of a particularly crafty drug pusher or gun dealer.

Now you might be saying at this point "Durr!" but i'm talking about thorough planning.  Sitting down and seriously considering where you want to go with various plots and characters. Not only that but once the game is over for the month, you should be thinking and making notes for what you intend to do next month.   You should be on the prod for plot elements that you can use to make each game interesting and engrossing.  Once per quarter you ought to have some kind of kindred social engagement, hopefully something with music and possibly even dancing.   This bumps up the tendency for players to "dress up" for those game sessions at least.   Once a quarter you ought to have an evening where the various covenants have their meetings, which can spur some inter-covenant plot. This is perfectly acceptable for an evening where you have NO plans for combat,   Have a night of meetings and then court at the end of the evening.  That's a game right there and nobody has to get killed.
    Planning lets your players know you're working hard on making things as fun for as many people as possible. The more planning you do, the less you have to come up with solutions on the spot.

which does not mean, "Bad guys turn up just as Elysium security miraculously fails....AGAIN!" 
Look, i understand as well as the next ST that there are some players that just aren't going to be happy unless they get their claws wet. You invest a certain amount of points in being a combat gumby and you want to see a return on that investment. But just as there are people who are going to be annoyed if NO fight breaks out, there are going to be players that are going to be annoyed if a game is nothing but killbox after killbox.

So. There needs to be more than one kind of conflict. There needs to be conflicts that have little to no combat element. Puzzles and investigations and trials for mentally based players. Influence wars and other forms of social conflicts for more socially graced types. In fact, these sorts of conflicts are best when they involve mortals and in addition can be the sort of conflict where killing the target is an unmitigated disaster.