Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Crowd Scenes

You know, occasionally, when you see something done right, you have to take a few minutes and say so.
I was privy to a formal court scene recently in the Requiem game that I'm playing in. Mostly, I tend to dread big scenes. They have this way of dragging like Jacob Marley's chains. And I've been in a few of them over the years. So, Based on what I saw at my game the other night and a few independent thoughts, I thought I'd lay out some guidelines for the way crowd scenes can be run in order to maximize efficiency.
1) Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
…And by this, I mean, you should pre-script a LOT and cut and paste as you go.
Now granted, Not all Chat software is amenable to cutting and pasting. Which is an aggravation barely to be borne. But if yours does, then there is NO reason whatsoever for scene descriptions and long speeches not to be written ahead of time. Truly, We don't mind a wall of text, and you can fire off description text in PM's to anyone who walks in the door late.
2) Keep it Simple, Stupid.
Resist the urge to load down the itinerary with a large amount of stuff. Much past 4 or 5 events, in the course of a formal meeting, and you are courting boredom. Some players when bored just stop listening. Other players, when bored decide it's time for the "My Character has decided to get Ig'nant" Show.
Also: If your formal court is likely to have something happen that is going to be time intensive, like a trial and/or sentencing, You might consider making it the ONLY thing on the itinerary, or conversely, making it a closed affair open only to certain players.
3) Allow your scene to breathe.
Keeping the schedule tight allows you the opportunity to actually throttle back some. Part of what is going on, is the player reaction to news and events at court. After you've dropped a bomb, Step back and let the PC have reactions to it for about 15 minutes. Allow your players who've spent a point or two on Politics dots get their money's worth. Our ST actually said, "I'm going to give you guys about 15 minutes to react to this before we move on to the next thing." It was invaluable.
4) Let me sing you the song of my people!
There WILL be attention whoring. As a matter of fact, If you've got the whole venue gathered, it's likely that the various attention whores will attempt to outdo one another in a veritable orgy of exhibitionism. The characters with multiple derangements will be under stress, making them volatile and unstable. The Anarchists will likely do everything but shit on the rug. and your frustrated novelists will post a wall of text describing in loving detail about how their character appears bored and could not possibly care less.
Let them.
Oh I know, Most hard-case vampire elders are not happy about that sort of shit. Most decent players are annoyed beyond measure too. But sometimes you just have to let the attention whores have some attention. 
This is like the Superbowl for them.
Granted. Not ALL of that attention is going to be wanted or desired. An elder might want to know exactly who that damn fool was who was nattering on constantly during the proceedings. That Elder might decide to teach that person some manners in ways both subtle and obvious. In fact, one might posit that this sort of thing happens all the time and that traditionally, one can get out from under an elders "regard" by making a formal public apology for one's behavior.
Don't like it? Don't start none. Won't be none.
Seriously, That Elder can pretty much have your car towed at will.
So. let them go. Let them do their thing. It's their way of having fun and occasionally they'll amuse others too with their antics. And you should allow those antics up to the point of allowing them to lay hands on another character with harmful intent.
Then, you should shut them down so hard that spectators ears pop from the pressure wave. There should always be an obfuscated Nos or Mekhet on the payroll, with a stake in hand, Rigor Mortis prepared, and a comprehensive list of troublemakers and ne'er-do-wells in their back pocket.
5) Elders can keep it in their pants.
It should be understood both in and out of character that Elders are not going to start shit at Elysium. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is simple. They have had a lot of practice at dealing with this sort of thing. Oh sure, You may be some pipsqueak mouthing off at your betters about things you have only the dimmest understand of. You may be someone's catspaw or just an idiot with nothing better to do than bark like a dog at the clouds. You may be disrespecting not only your elders, but your city and the traditions that have served the kindred since the earliest nights.
But elders know, there is always time to deal with such people. And if Elders stop respecting formal court and Elysium, then kindred society literally falls apart. Many elders have seen this sort of thing happen, once or twice in their unlives. So even though dealt a mortal insult, or marinating in a brain-pan full of homicidal mania, Elders have a lot of practice being patient. And if you lay hands on them…"Well, Keeper. I can hardly be blamed for being vigorous in the defense of my person."
Out of Character, what this means is, that the Elders aren't going to slaughter anyone in an Elysium unless circumstances are particularly rare. Again, this essentially falls under the rubric of "Don't start none. Won't be none." I've been to more than one kindred gathering where there was a scheduled coup or some other insanity and I have always asked myself, "Why didn't you do this far away from the eyes of any kindred who could stop you?" Jeez, just walk in swinging the prince's head by his stupid ponytail and people will get the message soon enough that YOU'RE the guy in charge now.
6) Break it up as soon as possible.
Big scenes are exhausting. As soon as you are able, allow your NPC's to break off into different areas and allow interested PC's to follow. This saves some massive scroll. Also, as ST, you should farm out as much of the NPC stuff to fellow ST's as possible. Give them a basic description of the character they're playing, an agenda, and maybe a scripted bit or two to use and turn them loose (Ask them, in return for playing one of the powerful NPC's that they take good notes or save the logs of their play.) As main ST, you should lay back in the cut after the main scene is over, so that you have plenty of energy for answering questions from your NPC players. Because they are going to be asked a lot of interesting things by the players. Tell the NPC players that it's perfectly okay to rub their chins, get a far away look, and say, "That's a very good question. Who is your sire, young fledge?" While you come up with an answer for them.
Ok. Going on the basic premise that you're not interested in having a fight during your big scene. There are things to remember.
A) Your Keeper is not going to fuck around. But in all likelihood he's not going to kill characters unless they make him. It's much better for the Keeper to allow you to live because odds are, the Prince is going make certain that the offenders, and probably their sires, are suddenly going to be in hock up to their eyebrows. Also, the Harpy can be leaned on to blacken the offenders name too.
B) If you're the ST, and you don't want a fight, Go Cinematic and put the offending jerk on the deck. Again, leave him alive. No one shot, one kill bullshit. You do that, and nobody wants to go to your damn scenes anymore. But make certain that everyone understands that Elysiums are where fights DO NOT HAPPEN.
Be sure to say something along the lines of: "I am not interested in having this scene grind to a halt because you're butthurt. You've gotten every bit of the attention you desired. And now you're done. Rub some dirt in it and walk it off."
C) If a fight is inevitable, and for whatever reason, you have to allow it to happen, allow every other kindred who wants to leave immediately, to do so. Prevent new players from entering the fray until it's over. Kindred fights generally take seconds of real time. Even if they take HOURS of real time. Also, If you think the fight has to happen, and it's already 11:00 PM server time. Seriously. Think again.
D) Elders tend to flee if they attack someone and they don't go down in three hits. This is mostly because Elders have learned to conserve their blood and if it isn't damaged in three hits, it may not go down at all.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Hopper and the Birth of Painted Corners

So. Once upon a time, I wrote this:

The Hopper
(Yeah. I know I keep hearing those stupid commercials in my head and the boston accent. But I haven't come up with a better name for this. "The Bin" just doesn't seem right.)
In any case. I've had this thought percolating in my brain meats for a bit and I want to share it, because I think it's a good one.
I'd like to have a forum in the ST section called "The Hopper" and into the hopper i'd like to put things that I know we'll need for a game. Like Floaters, Floaters are NPC's that your players can bump into in play, that aren't necessarily attached to a specific character or NPC. For instance, any game set in a city is going to need someone who can manufacture fake identification. I've seen exactly ONE PC that was built around this concept in my whole career as a gamer. So, odds are good that there's a NPC out there who does this sort of work, and maybe he knows stuff and maybe he don't
Crimelords, Crazy street people, members of the city council, any person like that you can dump into the hopper.
Drop-ins are also a good thing to throw in the hopper. A drop-in is a description of a place, and maybe there's hinky supernatural stuff going on, and maybe there isn't. A drop-in normally has a full description of a place and some text about the people that normally inhabit it. Nightclubs, strip bars, all-night gas-n-go, stuff like that.
The next thing you can throw into the Hopper is widgets. Things with some kind of mystical juice that are floating around the supernatural landscape of your town. Mostly this will be a description of the item and just a bit about what it does. But you don't want to go into a lot detail, which i'll explain in just a bit.
The last thing you might want to throw into the hopper is Legendry. If you find that you've found some obscure bit of city lore or a rumor that just keeps coming back like a bad penny, this is where it would go.
There are only two rules about Using the Hopper.
1) Each entry in the hopper receives it's own thread. If you use something from the hopper, you must describe HOW it was used and who was involved. This helps others keep all the movements of things straight.
2) You must not get too terribly hung up on mechanics for things in the hopper. Especially if you're running a cross-over game. Not all games have the same sort of power level and not all things translate across well from game to game. (Spirits in both Mage and Werewolf leap to mind) As a result, a drug dealer that appears in a vampire game might be tougher than expected in a fight, but in a werewolf game, is still likely to be "Hors de combat". A widget in Mage might function differently for a vampire who's interested in it's properties. Nailing HARD mechanics on things in the hopper restricts who can use them and starts fights. And in truth, certain types of things ought to be outside the actual scope of mechanics.
Why would you want to have a Hopper in your game?
Because, those ST's who have an affinity for painting the corners of the World of Darkness, are likely going to make things and put them in the hopper making it seem as if you done a MASSIVE amount of work to detail a huge number of the nooks and crannies of your world. Hiding toys and little easter eggs in every square foot of your sandbox. Some people really appreciate that sort of effort.
I know I do.

The Hopper, as an idea, never really caught on. I shopped it to a few people who I thought might get some use out of it, but as it turns out, it never seemed to gel anywhere…At least as far as i aware. I'd LOVE to find out that I'm wrong on this.

I suspect I know why. Running a game on a chat site is an enormous energy drain. There's always something you should be doing and even more crap you should be reading. So who exactly has TIME to build an entire city of people, places, and things for a world of darkness. Chat games are, at their basis, ALWAYS a sandbox, and while some players might jump at the chance to detail a goodly swath of that sandbox, other players WON'T.  And not all players would even be good at it.
You'd need an editor for submissions from players and ST's alike.  And if there's a thankless job in any chat game, It would be this.

But, since it was something that I enjoyed doing. And since I knew I could do this project piece at a time, and since I wasn't running a game or setting something up for a specific city…I knew I could create something that was useful and maybe people would use it.

And that's how Painted Corners was born.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Short Attention Span Theater


No. I didn’t die or anything. I’ve been off doing various things.  I just haven’t had much in the way of original thoughts about game theory. Or at least, nothing that I thought was widely applicable. I’ve been mostly a player these days. Had a few brief flirtations with running games but thank God, they make pills for that now.

The thing that is prompting this Crank Report is not to get you hip to the various thing I have going on in various other corners of the web. Although I can certainly do that here:
The Templeton Institute of Advance Human Dynamics: (Which contains links to my Zazzle store and my downloadable books and the one's linked at Lulu. as well as original World of Darkness writings and Aeonverse writings.)
Painted Corners Blog: (Which is a repository for a largely mortal population i'm writing for use in any WOD game or urban fantasy game.)
The Berkowitz Blog: (The Place where Pinky holds forth on whatever he's on about this week.)

No. What’s prompting this Crank Report is a basic idea, that I think needs to be explored.

Ongoing games seem to be going the way of the dodo.
Which is not to say that Ongoing games are bad. They’re not.

The problem isn’t with the games. It’s with us.

I am on record as saying that you never get to game as much as you did when you had no money, and no booze, and you all lived in the same dorm. And that’s certainly true.  RPGamers are an aging demographic.  Video and computer games have surpassed our wildest teenage imaginings and now the idea of hanging out with fellow gamers and playing a game with pen and paper, built solely out of our imaginations seems quaint now, and worse, faintly ridiculous to outsiders.

And as we grow older, we have demands on our time. Jobs which eat up our free time in exchange for miniscule reward. Homes that require maintenance and cleaning. Kids that require looking after, and spouses that may not necessarily understand the deep spiritual need to throw dice and slay monsters.   Hell. Most adulthood consists of being too tired to do much of anything that isn’t heading off, or dealing with, a goddamn crisis.

Suffice it to say, the commitment necessary to make or play a good game is increasingly hard to come by. This is often compounded by the fact there are SO MANY interesting games out there right now that one can get caught up in the new shininess of anything that comes down the pipe and suddenly no longer want to run the thing your currently doing.

I often have the problem of desiring to run something flavored from the last good thing i’ve seen.  I watch a cool spy flick, and I want to do an espionage game. I see a nifty pulp thing and I have the itch to do something pulp-flavored.  Fortunately, they make an ointment for that now and I pick up a tube when i’m getting my Anti-GMing prescription filled.

And this sad state of affairs afflicts players and GM’s alike.  One really slow night at a game and you might consider staying in the next time and drinking instead. Not enough players turning up and having a good time? Why not pack it in? Burnout plays a role too.

And you know, Talking this over with a friend I was reminded that Google Hangouts are a thing, that Roll20 and Skype games and various types of Java-chat games  can certainly take up a goodly amount of this slack.  And that’s true as far as it goes.
Lord knows that I’ve been a fan of pants-less gaming in the past.

But one of the reasons that I enjoy Larps and actual tabletop games, is that I need excuses to leave the house. I have the tendency to live like a hermit when I’m not working on a show. Past the age of 30 a man’s social circle tend to start shrinking. And I want to fight that tendency tooth and nail.

Also: it’s been my experience that games that take place in person are more polite. It’s easier to enforce the social contract when you have a face you can slap.  I have seen over and over how the darkest impulses come out to play when people have anonymity and an audience, and frankly I don’t have the money or the time to get on a plane and dick-punch the players that so desperately seem to require it.

So, with that said, I’ve been thinking on a way to fix the problem. Because you know I’m all about the solutions. I’ve got a good friend who is a BRILLIANT gm.  But he’s seemingly unable to keep a game rolling past 8 sessions.  Hardly worth the time it took to write the game and organize the players into it.

Or is it?

The basic premise i’m laying out here is that maybe a game should only be planned in limited arcs. Like a television mini-series. Run a game that goes from 2 to 6 games as a solid story arc. Build the game as a story with a solid beginning, middle and end. Run it to satisfying conclusion. And you know, taking a cue from Hamlet, you could even work in a total party kill as a WIN.  And if you do it right, you can always come back to that world and tell new stories there.   This way, you’re  always working towards a real ending, and tendency is to not want to stop at a natural resting place, but press on to the climax and denouement.

There are multiple advantages to this approach:
* You get to front load
I don’t know that I’ve EVER had an opportunity to play a character that managed to work themselves into the more powerful powers. You only have to have a game end ONCE, 2 points from acquiring the level 5 power to feel horribly horribly burned.  So, since you, the GM are going to be building the PC’s yourself, you can afford to front-load them somewhat. make them potent PC’s and the kind of people who liable to pressed into service to save everyone’s bacon.

Why are you building the PC’s instead of the players? Because you aren’t playing a sandbox game here. (You can always sandbox later, if you discover that the game has legs)  You’re telling a SPECIFIC story here and that specific story requires specific characters.   Make a spread of about 10 PC’s with different roles in the game to come.  Give your players a choice as to what ROLE they want to play, but make the effort to generate the PC’s themselves with the right talents, backstory, and attitudes for the story to come.   This also can obviate a lot of that whole, “Yes, i’ve come to play this game, but my character is impossible to find, talk to, or convince to come along on the mission” bullshit that I have seen so very often.

What about the PC’s that the players don’t choose? Heck that’s easy. Make part of the story about going to talk to or recruit those unused PC’s. Plus this makes it easy to get them involved with the players and then at a dramatically important moment, you can wax them.  Get all “Whedon” on those players of yours.

Frontloading also has another interesting aspect. Experience becomes less important. As the game progresses, you can gift your players more directly by handing them powers or various merits. Powers and merits that YOU know, they will likely need at the climax of the game. And, if you decide to continue the game at some point down the road, then you can always switch back to a more traditional form of experience expenditure system

*Metaplot NOW!
Fuck waiting 6 game sessions in before introducing the first hint that the conspiracy is moving about. You want to grab your players by the naughty bits and not let go until they are firmly in the business of SAVING THE GODDAMN WORLD.  You only have “X” number of game sessions to make the threat horrifying and the bad guys terrifying. Have those bad guys out there doing bad things.  DON’T EVER USE A WHOLE GAME SESSION FRUSTRATING YOUR PLAYERS!  The clock is ticking and if you have any bloody sense at all, you’ll fix it so that the players can practically hear it in their heads. If your game is scheduled for six sessions, each game session should have a conflict that has to be resolved.(Note: I did not say “Combat”)   In a game that is limited in scope, you don’t really have “No Plot Night”   When you start talking in your GM voice, people should understand that dicking around to no purpose or pursuing goals that have nothing to do with what’s going on right now, isn’t going to go well.
Seriously. In a short duration game it is ALL about pacing.  You cannot afford to bore the tits off your players for even one game session.

* Smash the Reset Button
The problem with most television is the stultifying sameness of it all.  A thing happens, somebody reacts to it. Maybe another thing takes place. Maybe someone learns a lesson or some crap like that, but by the end of the episode the reset button gets pressed and we start the next episode in essentially the same place, with the only major changes happening at the season finale.


You want to get your players attention? Get three hours into the game session and then nuke the city of London. That is some shit that is not going to get retconned and it’s not just going to fade into the fucking background.  If the players dropped the ball and London got nuked because of it, you should haunt them with the fact that the TV is talking about the atrocity 24/7 and now there is a benefit for the survivors and refugees being hastily assembled.  Springsteen’s going to be performing there.  
Do your actions MATTER in this game? 
Yes. Yes they do.

*Joe Bob is in the house.
Joe Bob Briggs is a film critic for the sorts of films that don’t normally enjoy the tender mercies of deep and penetrating film criticism. Horror films and grindhouse cinema and the like.  And Joe Bob is famous for the Joe Bob Briggs rule.
“Anybody can die at any time.”
There is exactly no guarantee that all of the characters will finish the game. There isn’t really a guarantee that ANY of the players will make it to the end of the line.   And you know, maybe that means that the players might have to pull their heads out of their ass during a serious combat instead of trying to succeed in spite of an abject lack of communication, tactics, or strategic understanding.
Good thing you have extra PC’s lying around right?

* “No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die.”
And since we’re on the subject, You don’t even have to protect the antagonist until the end of the line either.  It may be that his plan is such that it can completely continue after his demise.  It may be that his plan is even TRIGGERED by his demise.  I’m not saying make the antagonist into a pushover or even easy to get at.  The players ought to fight their way through mooks, and crunchy second string bad guys before finally bearding the dragon in his den. But there is nothing that gives a player blue balls like the feeling that the Bad Guy is impervious to their best shot.
Of course, it’s always possible that the bad guy they killed, isn’t the REAL bad guy.  Maybe they’ll find it out during the current game...and maybe they’ll only discover it if the game ends up continuing into another arc.

*Once they’ve completed the story. You get to rest.
Someone else gets to take the reigns, and hey maybe they decide to do something like what you’ve done and you get to play. Trying to schedule things against an ongoing may be seen as a social slight or even, in some circles, an act of war. But if most of the people in your gaming group are doing things like this, then having an opportunity to get in and GM something new and interesting is easy and requires less patience.

*People might try things they’d never commit to long term.
You know, back in the day, I had an interest in running all sorts of things. But I could never interest people in trying most of them, for fear of bolixing our various game schedules.  But today, I could probably put up a message to the effect that I am running four game sessions on the next four sunday nights of Victorian Hunter: The Vigil. and have people come out of the woodwork.  But I don’t think they’d do so for an ongoing game of the same. Do you see what I’m getting at here? 
Huge commitment is no longer required.

And that, is kind of the whole point.
More fun, less stress about making the fun happen.

Sono finito.