Saturday, June 11, 2005

Slowed to a Crawl

We've all been here, either as Game master or Player. Some situation has come up during the course of the Game and everything has taken a turn into Dullsville, and at times there is precious little that can be done about it. But, an experienced GM can do a few things to speed certain types of situations along and there are times when having the game slow down can work to your advantage.

1) Have the Bad Guys show up.

Your players are piddling around. You know it and they probably know it too, but they just can't seem to get off the dime and act. Simple as pie. Have their antagonists show up and make trouble. The main bad guy doesn't necessarily have to attack them directly.(Kill their friends and leave taunting notes,set fire to their house, turn their allies against them.) but if your players are simply not moving fast enough, having the heavy show up guns-a-blazing might be enough to do it. Just don't allow them to grease him right there. The Bad guy will catch them by surprise usually and be away while they are still going "What the..."

2) Having other Bad Guys show up:

Player-Characters have this wonderful propensity for making enemies. At times these enemies will choose to make themselves felt in the P.C.'s lives. It is sometimes amusing to goose the players into action by having an old enemy turn up out of nowhere and attack in the middle of some plot that he is completely unrelated to. The players have been combating one particular menace for a while, and that menace is on their minds when the old enemy turns up. Talk about making the players paranoid! This serves a number of purposes. It give the players an enemy to shoot at and drive off (and this should be a real slam-dunk. The prevailing attitude among the character's will be "Omigod we don't have TIME FOR THIS!") It will make the players wonder how the old enemy is connected to the new enemy and if you want to lead them down a primrose path who am I to say nay (He said with an evil smile) it also has the happy possibility of being an opportunity for the old enemy to meet the new enemy if you so desire. If the new enemy has the targets under surveillance and the old bad guy jumps up and slaps them down real good... Well... If I were the New bad guy, I would certainly want to make contact. Talk shop,compare notes, exchange poison recipes... That sort of thing.

3) Have the World Turn:

A fact players need to have rubbed into their faces from time to time is that the N.P.C.'s have minds and lives of their own, and that while they may be important to the plot the world doesn't turn by their schedule. So when players have gone off to do some sort of thing and spent a long time time away (frittering away their time no doubt) I generally have things happen in their absence. And this doesn't have to be the apocalypse either. You can get mileage out of the simplest offstage occurrences. Say the P.C. is off doing something and while he's gone his child falls off the slide and hurts himself. The character later rushes to the hospital and gets into a big wicked fight with his wife who has been trying to find him for hours. Maybe it's the beginning of the end of their marriage? Heck, In a good game of Vampire the political climate can change overnight if you aren't careful and not showing up at a party can cause talk about you.

4) Penny Ante Bullshit:

At times, it is possible to annoy the shit out of your gamers for their own good. If players are on the the wrong track and are fiddling around, I may not destroy them with a blue bolt from beyond but I might zap them a bit with standard house current. Have them be late.... Everywhere. Ticket their car. Tow their car. Have them get panhandled on the street. Have them get harassed by traffic cops. Make them wonder if they left the iron on when they left the house. Have the window close as they reach the end of the line. Make everyone unfriendly and unhelpful. Etc... When the players return to the right track. Have these annoyance disappear. Immediately. As if the the fates have smiled and god has seen fit to clear their path of little nuisances. Do this often enough and the players will get the hint (either consciously or unconsciously) without you having to club them over the head with it. There is nothing more annoying than having to actually come out and say, "You guys! You're going the wrong way!"

5) Bigger Troubles:

One of the major problem that can cause a game to bog down is when the gamers figure out your plot... In 2 minutes... Leaving you to fum-fuh and try to back and fill to make things challenging again. Also you might have difficulty with the group in the vein of they always want to explore the part of the "dungeon" that you didn't have time to make... A great way to give them something to do while you try to cover is to give them bigger problems to deal with. Let's say for instance, that you might be playing Vampire or some such and your players figure out where the main bad guy is way, way, way ahead of schedule. As their lights go on... Have the city's lights go off. A total blackout will throw a major monkey wrench into any plans they might have or make as getting across the city becomes difficult. Earthquakes and snowstorms and war breaking out can be useful too. Heck, even winning the basketball championships can be considered a natural disaster in terms of trying to get across town. (Remember, I live in Lexington, Kentucky, Home of UK Wildcats. I know whereof i speak.)

Chaos can be your friend. All hail Eris. All hail Discordia.

6) Time Budget:

One of the things that I really like about Vampire is that the sun always comes out. I don't care what any Player says, things have to get done in a timely manner or there simply will not be enough time to do things that will not wait like eat,sleep,shower,shave,shit,feed the dog,and other stuff like that. There are always consequences for fiddling around when there is work to do and make sure you enforce them. It isn't necessary to make every game session a race against time before the Cultists summon dread Cthulhu into the world but you should you remind them that time is, at best, a finite resource.

Planning ahead: a few secrets

Every GM has to find that happy balance between planning every single encounter and every minute and every event in the game, or flying by the seat of their pants. Most games need to have that balance because gamers are inherently unpredictable while a good story requires structure.

So here are a few secrets that will help you plan so that you don't get caught flat-footed.

1) Plan what the bad guys do:

Only in D&D do you have a situation where good people conflict with bad people just because they are bad. In real life that never happens. Bad people have goals. Perhaps they want money or power or the destruction of some group or control over something. It is the execution of these goals that causes them to come into conflict with the heroes. Therefore, don't plan what the heroes are going to do because try as you might, you'll probably fail. However you absolutely can control what the bad guys do. The Bad guys would just as soon the Good guys not know what was happening until it was much too late to stop them . But since neither Bad people nor Good people operate in a vacuum, the Good Guys can find out and go stop them. The Bad Guys can plan contingencies and escape routes and other stuff like that but generally can't plan for heroic intervention. It isn't until the enemies become OLD enemies that they start attacking the heroes preemptively. Or at least stage a diversion while they go about their real plans.

2) There is more than one path to the truth:

Never ever plan an adventure in an entirely linear fashion. Anytime you do I guarantee your players will go off in some undreamt of direction. It is neither pleasant nor fun to try to lead players around by the nose all evening. Especially if they figure out that is what is going on.( if that's the case, they'll fuck you every time.) Always try to figure out at least 2 or 3 ways that the players can get to the climax of the adventure. There is nothing more embarrassing than having to admit how ill prepared you are by saying, " why don't you try talking to the old man that you met earlier..." There are times when your players will be super sharp and pick up every clue and opportunity and there are times when your player couldn't catch a clue if they sprayed themselves with clue musk and did the clue mating dance in a field filled with amorous clues. Be prepared for both. Also, having more than one path to the truth might just obviate those times when your players go off on some wild goose chase of their own devising. If they have 2 sets of clues that don't gibe at least one set won't fit with the wild theory they've come up with.

Things that hog time and what you can do about them:

1) Information gathering and research:

You've got a problem solver in the group. You know if you do or not. He's the guy that didn't buy any combat skill at all but can translate ancient Sumerian. He's the guy that took computer skills and is more at home in a library than in a Labyrinth of Evil. He's the guy who causes the game to come to a screeching halt while he researches or net-runs or otherwise tries to gather the necessary pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes this is imperative other times it's a huge pain in the ass. Thankfully, Information is one of the few things you have absolute control over. And it is one of the few things you can pre-plan easily. Systems are built a certain way, libraries are organized the same way the world over. Hunts for information while gripping for the problem solver, are the kind of situation that you can cut back and forth to. (giving the gatherer time to digest each piece of Intel.) and can even be done through notes (Pre-writing these notes is a good idea.)

I find that is annoying to have to tell the researcher that he's found everything there is to find. So when the researcher guy has reached the end of his tether,I start introducing Trash-facts to make him realize that there is a whole world of information and not all of it totally reliable. You know, little things, like running across a theory that fits all the facts but comes from some flaky new age periodical or from the ranting diaries of some insane guy. Or from an old episode of the X-files. After a while, all you might have to do is mention that the author committed suicide and the Researcher knows he's reached the end... Unless of course you're playing Call of Cthulhu.. In which case you may be just starting.

Trash-facts may contain chunks of the truth. For instance; "Everybody knows that vampires rule the world from the shadows. These unnatural creatures stalk humans for their blood and rule by the simple expedient of making it appear that they don't exist.... And Elvis is their King...."

2) Making Connections:

He's the social guy, you know if you got one or not. He's the dude that has connections all over the city. He's the dude who can barely shoot straight but can get you into the most exclusive parties and clubs. He's got ears on the street. He's got friends in high and low places. He goes to off to check on things with them at exactly the wrong time. And takes the whole rest of the evening to do it. While this can be cool at times and might give you, the game master, an opportunity to add another coat of paint to the world you've built. It will cause the Researcher(often a social misfit of some type) to feel left out and will cause the Gun-bunnies to get fidgety. On those occasions when you want the Social guy to ferret out info by hitting his contacts, just lay back and let it happen. But on those occasions when it will be ill-timed, Have the social guys contacts come to find him.

"I had to come down here cause I heard about this heroin shipment coming into town and I knew you'd want to know. Did I do good?"
"Yeah. Here's a hundred... Get yourself something nice."

3) Negotiations that aren't going anywhere:

It happens at times that you'll have the P.C.'s and the N.P.C.'s meet at neutral ground to try to discuss something and maybe reach some common ground. The only problem? Your players are being dickheads and aren't really negotiating, just demanding things from the other side.

It is at this time that negotiations should break down... Dramatically. Have an enemy show up and try to grease both sides. Have an N.P.C. on each side sneak a weapon in "just in case." The idea here is to get people pointing guns at one another and maybe make people think and talk faster and even make concessions... Assuming of course they still want to keep their relationship cordial. If not...Oh well.

4) Gathering Materials:

I once saw a guy playing Twilight 2000 haggle with an N.P.C. arms dealer for 3 and a half hours over a largish amount of equipment. When he started haggling over each individual case of ammo. The other players took a vote and decided to frag him. Needless to say, you should never let it get to this point.

Whenever someone wants to get their hands on large amounts of gear I have them make out a shopping list. Then I rate each item by Time,Cost, and Availability. That puts the ball back in the players court as it forces him to budget his time to go gather materials, Especially if he's already under some kind of time limit. Besides, there are things that players will ask for will not come into their possession. I don't care what kind of connections and money they have to throw at the problem. Congenital hagglers and fixers will also have to realize that some like to haggle and others consider it a waste of time and air.

5) Separating from the group:

Taking off to go do something without the rest of the players is oft-times frowned upon. But there are times when I do allow it. Quick reconnaissance is a good excuse as long as it's quick. The longer the scout stays out in the field the more justified I am in having him caught. At times it's also been possible for a lone character to leave the group because they are too busy arguing with one another. This occasionally gets the plot back on track. Look. The rule of thumb is this; the longer the loner dominates the game the more trouble he's going to get into, trouble that hopefully will drive him directly back to his comrades.

6) Combat:

Finally, the number one game slower is Combat. If you are playing a system like Champions or Battletech there ain't much you can do about it. But there are some things you can do.

A) Know the system cold.

B) Have your players know the system cold.

C) Harass your players until they know the system cold.

Simple as that.

Nothing slows a game down quite so effectively as your gamers not knowing what they can and cannot do.This is a measurable scientific fact. As long as everybody is on their toes,this should happen less and less. Believe me. the better you know the system, the easier it is to wing it.

Sono Finito.


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