Friday, November 27, 2015

The tip of the iceberg

If there is one thing, that I would suggest to each and every GM looking to make a new Chat/Larp game somewhere, I would start with the pragmatic and save the cranky, mystical, zen flavored stuff for later. The most salient piece of pragmatic advice that I have to give is the following.
Hire someone to handle your wiki.
Pay them in EXP, boons, sandwiches, sexual favors, or actual cash for all i care, but get somebody, who is primarily concerned with keeping your wiki up, and running, and organized.
The reason for this is manifestly clear. Your wiki is likely the first contact that a new player has with your website. It is quite literally the tip of your games iceberg. It tells the new player the following things:
* What games you have
* How many players each game has (Or at least the number of players who can be arsed to put up a wiki page of their own.)
* How creative those players are (Based on how pretty and well designed the players wikis are, and how well written their flavor text is.
* Whether the Storytelling Staff is a bunch of control freaks. (Based on how large the page of Restrictions of character types/merits/bloodlines are.)
*Whether the players are a bunch of schizoid douchebags. (Based on how large the section is for "Code of Conduct" and "Sexual Harassment")
* How well organized the ST is as a whole (Pretty obvious, if the last book approved for use in the game was "Armory")
* Are the ST's decent writers? (Usually born out by any flavor text written for the Setting or added to the section on "Interesting Places" Interesting Places should make me want to go there, instead of making me want to sleep.)
In addition, there is one point of organization that I can't seem to make people understand no matter where I go. If you have House Rules, they belong on the wiki. They DO NOT belong on the constantly expanding Fora. If a rule is under discussion, or is being worked over. Fine, the Forum is the place for that discussion. But if there is finally some consensus over what the new rules is supposed to be…Then it NEEDS to go onto the goddamn wiki where it is easily findable. There have been multiple episodes of me, stepping on my dick, because of some rule, that everybody ELSE seems to know about, tucked into the middle of some 8 page thread on the fucking forum. That's like putting a building's directory in a washroom on the 6th floor.
Another thing about Wiki's: For god's sake, Do yourself a favor and use a very simple form of wiki like say PBWiki, but if you don't do that, AT LEAST make certain that there is a good Wiki help page and some well made templates for player use. It will make it much easier for players to get in and monkey around with the Wiki. If the wiki stuff is too complicated, players won't bother with it. 
That person who's handling your Wiki for you, make sure they periodically archive it, so if someone monkey's with it, you can tell and put it back the way it was. Some wiki software does track changes to the pages automatically.
Also: It might not be a bad idea, and many places DO do this, to add a section on how to submit your character via PM to the appropriate ST. Many times, this will be left up to the player stumbling around and asking questions. In fact, I'm so used to it, that finding it in the wiki is a nice surprise.
So as you can see, there are a number of first impressions that your wiki makes. Nice graphics on your homepage are pretty and all, but this is the place where a number of unasked questions get answered. And it's important that you have someone on staff whose gig it is to keep it up to date.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why crossover games suck!

Ok. I admit, I expect a bunch of pushback on this, but I'm going to simply come out and say it.
I don't think Crossover games work very well.
I've played a few. I ran a tabletop game for about 7 years that went all over the map in terms of crossover. (Mage:The Ascencion was the primary game and it seemed to handle crossover better than other games.) And I'm not saying that crossover games can't be fun.
But in my completely arrogant bastard opinion, they are simply not my cup of tea anymore.

I feel, that crossover games, by their nature dilute the themes, tones, and tropes of their constituent games. Moreover, I find that any part of a particular that players are prone to elide because it makes them uncomfortable or is inconvenient (I.E. Feeding and humanity loss in Vampire) gets lost in the shuffle entirely in a crossover game. Various player types stop being monsters. The tendency is for groups of players to stop dealing with the scarier elements of their essential natures and morph into kind of supernatural Sentai team.

Needless to say, running any kind of real horror story is right out. There's no sense of immersion, also there's no real sense of running up against something that your player Back-brain, isn't trying to stat up based on OOC knowledge. Also, there's the problem of one group having some supernatural based problem and being able to just hand it off to some other group. Vampires who run afoul of ghost are usually S.O.L. Most of their powers have nothing that works on them. But if the Prince can just call up the local head of the Sin Eaters, well. That sorts that out toot de suite.

Another problem with a crossover game is nobody you meet is going to be a plain vanilla human. Why in the hell would you play one in toybox full of exotic toys? Some people DO play P.V. Humans, but then they get other players fighting over them like some precious resource. The only exception that I ever had was character in a crossover game, that I had decided was destined to be a Vigil hunter. This was some months before the release of Vigil. I made a character with the idea in mind that he'd level up in mundane stuff pretty fast. (It's amazing what you can get for your points when you aren't supernatural.) And then once Vigil came out, the ST staff came together and decided they didn't want IC hunters in their game. I thought it was kind of a jack move, but hey, I didn't run the place. Eventually I elected to make him into a mage, but it just wasn't the same, and I dropped the character after that.

Let me put it this way, If nobody walking around in your crossover town is likely to be a P.V. Human or even a half template like a ghoul, or Second Sighter, Then whole SECTIONS of the game never come into play. Frankly, I'm of the opinion that Vampires need humans to rub up against in order for Vampire to be Vampire. If most of the players you bump into are in the know, the masquerade stops being something that you work to protect and becomes a minor inconvenience when talking out loud at one of the buck-jillion nightclubs littering the supernatural landscape.

Additionally, In crossover games you stop being in charge of your own game. When players begin to contend with one another, the ST's have to get involved and try to resolve it, usually in manner that leaves no one satisfied. Rarely, if ever, do things degenerate into a full-on war between the Supernatural races. But what this means is that often terms,methodology, and policy ends up being dictated by the Storyteller who is the biggest whiner. 

Recently, I was helping a friend build a venue for a site that will remain nameless here. We were trying to build a vampire venue and had made a few design choices already. We were taking over the former venue because the old ST had just had a baby and was swamped. Hey, it happens.
We were told at the outset that there were certain design characteristics from the old game that we'd have to live with, and after some discussion, we decided we could. So we began building. After submitting some guidelines on character creation, we were greeted with a chorus of squeaking and beeping from all of the other ST's that you'd have thought we'd killed Christ.

See, what they'd told us, was that we'd have a number of months as a venue by ourselves, and then after a while, we'd become a crossover venue. Which as you can imagine, didn't make me overjoyed. But apparently, a decision was made, without our input that the crossover would be moved up to the opening of our venue.
The next thing that occurred was that the Changeling ST threw a hissy fit, because we'd planned to allow our player to front load their characters. (Our plan was for most of them to be Ancillae level.) She went mental about the fact that we were going to give them any points at all. Even though her Changeling venue had been running the better part of a year, she opined that beginning vampires would be able to roll anyone in her venue. We dropped down to 10 points and a few free dots of Haven and things like that, and she still cried and carried on like she was having a nervous breakdown. Sadly, the head ST of the place and the owner, wasn't exactly much of an Alpha wolf about the whole thing. So we were constantly being hassled to re-tool our game over and over and over again.
Eventually, I tapped my wrist and looked at my friend with the questioning look, but he was convinced he could still save it. Who knows. I pulled the ripcord and then heard from him the whole sordid story of how it all flamed out.
Lest you think this was an aberration, I've heard more than one story of an ST finding out that another ST was wandering around in the forums of their games and causing trouble with the players of the other venue. I'm sure there are people here who've seen it happen.

I don't know about you, but I want to make decisions about the sort of game I run without having to worry about making a case to some other ST's about whether I can do it. I can tell you definitively that if you're another ST and you come around and say, "You can't do that." my response will be, "Watch me, fucker."

And here's another thing, If I want to run a Vampire game, or a game of Vigil, or something like that. I Do NOT WANT to have to have to be up on Changeling, which I don't dig, on the off chance that some Changeling will take it into his fool head to wander into the middle of my pissed-off vampires or hunters. I already have more to read than I know what to do with. My knowledge of the games I run is going to be comprehensive. My knowledge of whatever you're playing over there is going to be. "Eh. fuck it. He dies from sheer weight of numbers." And you know what, I don't really care what your Storyteller has to say about it. YOU DON'T BELONG IN MY GAME.  I am GOING to protect its integrity, even if that means killing you every single time you come around.  Assuming of course, you can't take a hint. I'll even have my elder bad-asses turn up, rip you to pieces, and punt your head over the St. Louis arch.

Look in my eyes and determine whether I am kidding or not.
If I'm storytelling, and my characters are having cross-over trouble with another group of Supernatural critters, there may come a day when I say to the other ST.  "One more incident, and the war we don't want to have happen, is going to happen.  And your players will lose. Rein them in, or reap the whirlwind."

So. If you're an Admin for a site somewhere, do yourself, and your players a favor. Make the games separate and discrete. Do not give into pressure from the players who are suffering from delusions that crossover games are cool and fun and I think I was in one that was cool that one time... Players have a tendency towards amnesia about how cross-overs tend to work out. Trust me. I know.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Some thoughts on the art of Character Vetting

It is one of the major stumbling blocks in Chat gaming that you can't just put your character in some database and just go play. I am NOT saying that's what should happen. There are enough twerps, griefers, twat-waffles, and PK-nuts that such a thing would be wildly impractical for any Larp or Chat that wasn't incredibly exclusive and invite-only.
And even then, probably not a good plan.
But on the same token, Vetting can be stressful, and frustrating to the point of making a player want to rage-quit before they even get started. It flatly, doesn't have to be that way. I've had experiences with character vetting that have made me want to pull out my hair, not that there is much left, and other experiences that were so painless, that I wanted to sing hosannas to the Storytelling staff.
So let's see if we can find ways to make this thing a bit easier.
* The first questions out of your mouth as a Storyteller ought to be the following and you should ask them each and every time. Cut and paste this block of text into your first interaction with a player:
1) Have you ever played role playing games before?
2) Have you ever played this particular game before?
3) Have you ever built a character for this particular game before?
4) Have you ever game mastered before?
5) Have you ever game mastered this particular game before?
6) what is your actual age?
These 6 questions help you gauge your players level of rules understanding, his experience as a player and as a GM, and hopefully give you a good idea as to his general maturity level. As you can see, there are a number of Axes upon which this understanding might turn. You may have players who are prodigies at play but are only 15. You may have players who just got into RPG's but are in their late 30's. You may have players who are dew fresh and eager to be molded into some kind of role playing wunderkind. And you may have people who are old and crusty like me, who may resent being talked down to by some college kid. I have had to point out to at least 2 GM's that i had DICE older than them.
*I've talked about character background before and how important it is to the vetting process. (It isn't)
Whether a players presents you with a novella or a set of bullet points, you should be aware that the vetting process is NOT the place to be hyper critical of a person's creative output.
And that is JUST EXACTLY what it is. Dots on a sheet are nothing special, but the backstory is. At least to them, They may be great at it, but not right for your story, and they may be okay with anything you want to do story wise, but a terrible writer. Not everyone is good at this. But no one truthfully needs anyone busting their balls for it.
Be kind. And if you must be critical of something in the character background try to use the method of finding positive things to say and sandwich the bad things between the two slices of good.
*Also, it might not be bad idea to make sure that you keep your more aggressive tendencies in check. Although, you might BE an alpha wolf, (and as an ST, you probably need to be.) You need to not be aggressive with people who you are meeting, ostensibly for the first time. If you have a canned speech that you want to give every player that comes in the door, go over it for overly aggressive attitude and tone it down. It's certainly alright to be protective of your game and to let players know that there are certain behaviors that won't be tolerated. You can do that without threatening to shoot anyone in the face. No one comes off as cutesy as they think they do, doing so. In a larp you give such a speech with a smile on your face. That does not work in a private message window.
*The whole bloody point of Character Vetting is that you keep out undesirable character concepts from your game. This is unfortunate, as no two storytellers are capable of agreeing on what constitutes an "undesirable character concept" I think we can all agree that the Lesbian cat-girl stripper ninja and the character built around the concept, "I kill all things with my gun" are usually a good starting place. Beyond that, try to be flexible. 
*If there is a numerical problem on a player's sheet, don't be afraid to offer point debt to fix it. Most problems are fixable for less than 4 points and if you take a single point from each EXP earning, until it's paid off, it's almost completely painless.
*Do not assume, that because a character is front-loaded with combat skills that all they will be doing is combat. Some players, myself included like to make sure that their character can survive at least a mid-level threat from the jump, but may not be interested in spending much of their experience on combat stuff. Personally, i like to get that stuff out of the way early, so i can concentrate on social and influence spending during play. Even players who insist on creating a beginning level character with 5 dots in a martial art, you should maybe remember that each and every point that they spend HERE is a point that they cannot spend THERE. It makes them weak in some area or other. And frankly, it is morally wrong not to exploit those weaknesses.
* If you see a problem with the character, instead of being brutal and direct, why not get Socratic and ask questions. Sure, vetting a character can be a time consuming process, especially if you're doing it live rather than through forum PM's. But it's better to question than say "This is fucked up and/or wrong." in a dismissive or condescending manner. Tone can make a huge difference.
* I've talked about Stress Stating and Reserve Lists before, but one of the things, you need to be on the lookout for as an ST is players who are looking to play the long game. Combat Monkeys are short timers usually. So are griefers and they usually draw a fatal response from the rest of the player base. Any character based on a character from something else is usually a one trick pony and will be dropped in favor of something else. But if you have a player who has done some work to try and meld his story with your city and your existing player base, and has plans mapped out and ready to go, sit up and pay some fucking attention, because THAT guy is going to do his level best to generate plot. You won't have to come around and make sure he has plot cookies to chew on. He'll make his own. 
And let me say one more word about people who play the long game, although it may deserve it's own article at some point, They have plans and plots and schemes that have NOTHING to do with your plots. Just because they don't jump on your plot, doesn't mean they aren't interested, but they may have their own thing going on. Shoehorning them into the plot that everybody else is dealing with is a good way to chase them off. I'm just saying.
*Caps are bullshit
They just are. They are essentially the practice of saying to any incoming player, "You aren't allowed to play this clan or this faction because we have too many of them already, and it doesn't matter that a percentage of them haven't been around for months, and some of the players wouldn't know how to play that clan or faction if their lives depended on it."
It is actively psychically painful to watch others plays a character type you normally play and do it fuck-off badly.
Look. it may just be an element of your city that there are more Ventrue than you know what to do with. Or that Ordo Dracul are thick on the ground for some weird reason. Don't create artificial limits in order to fill roles in an arbitrary manner. It's bullshit. If you want to fill certain roles in your chronicle, offer incentives, like the occasional free merit dots, or some exp.
*Make them answer the question: "What are you doing here?" Don't be afraid to say, "Try again."
Because the reason why someone might uproot themselves from some other place and come to your city and set up shop should never be fucking trivial, or an afterthought. It ought to be at least ONE of the reasons that your character would involve himself in things. And it ought to be something serious. If some trouble comes over the horizon, and you don't have a very good reason to be in this city, then why in the fuck would you stay?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Not Everyone Can Be Saved

I think if there is any harder lesson to learn in life, it is this.
most of us start out pretty innocent. Some of us even start out with an extra helping of smart, or even kind.
And as we grow we see a world where transcendent beauty and viscera-curdling horror live cheek-by-jowl with one another, like Kentucky weather.
If there is one thing, that I could change about Chat-games. If there is one thing out there that i could extol and expand upon, it is the desire to make the online chat world into a much stronger community.
I would wish that the Online chat community could be something that was so strong that it could weather the storms of human behavior. That you could play a character and have fun, but also have a place to go where you have people who don't hassle you because you're weird. Because when you're weird the FIRST thing you need in your life is a place to go where they don't hassle you for it.
We are all ages. kinds, creeds, religions or lack thereof, Sexes, or lack thereof, and orientations. If we share one thing in common, it is a desire to pretend, and that gives us more in common with one another than many of us share with our own damn families. We ought to be sharply aware of how important that is, in the lives of some people. It may be that the person on the other end of the net is struggling with gender identity, or addiction, or any number of problems. On any given night they may desperately need to talk to someone. You may, without even realizing it, have saved a life or two. Maybe you sat and talked to someone in PM's until the wee small hours. Or maybe your character said something to them that put the finger right on the problem they were having. You may never know.
And if you, like me, are an open-hearted individual, you can hopefully understand how a good game brings people together and how collaborative art can be the most healthy and therapeutic thing in the world. Not that that's what it's designed for. But hey, helpful hack? I'll take it. Games, especially games among friends, or even potential friends ought to be, by their very nature, a safe haven for people.
You may even come to a point where you realize that people don't always even have the same definition of "Fun" as you. You may enjoy dealing with the horrible consequences of a character's loss of control and desperately trying to handle the aftermath. Another player may enjoy playing his character as if it were a Gundam suit made of paper and dots. Neither of you are WRONG about what constitutes "Fun" and once we can see THAT clearly, we can make in-roads to understanding one another and building games where all sorts of types of "Fun" are possible. I like to delve into the dark corners of my character psyche, but I also can enjoy blowing shit up. Variety is the spice of life.
And you know, there ARE people who can be turned aside from doing wrong in a chat game. Sometimes, all it takes is one person to come along and say, "Dude. Not Cool."
Other times it takes a "Come to Jesus" talk where it gets explained, that maybe your actions or language was a little bit racist. Or sexist. or triggery to someone else. And maybe all it takes is the phrase, "I'm sorry. but that behavior is unacceptable and if you're intent on continuing to play here, I expect it to change."
Some people can be turned aside from that. if they see that the power players are responsible adults and that the culture of the game is the same way, then sometimes, that's all it takes. If you give someone a chance, they can surprise you.
I am a believer in the idea that people, on balance, can be good. Not everyone is a potential saint mind you, but even the crabbiest people may yet have hidden reserves of tenderness and compassion. Someday, i'd like for the Online Chat community to be the sort of place that a person can feel safe in being a good person…even as they play horrible despicable monsters. 
No. I haven't missed the irony of that.
But as much as I want these things. I know, in my heart, that there will always be a segment of the gaming community that is pure troll.
There's a fine line in playing a douchebag, and playing your character while BEING a douchebag. Sadly, most who do the later, don't even see the line. My god, the stories I could tell. Hell…I bet each of you have some horror story of players you've had to deal with in some way. And feel free to share them below. Remember rule one: No NAMES!
I am all for compassion. For second chances. I am for trying to help. I am for trying to be an example. And I don't get het up over people who offer offense by accident. That doesn't sweat me.
But if you're actually working pretty hard to offend me, then you go on the shit-list. and very few people come back from the shit-list.
Just because I desire peace, and fun, and all that good-happiness-stuff does NOT allow me to abrogate my responsibility to protect myself, to protect the people I care about, and protect the community. In fact, it strengthens my responsibility. Because the good parts of the community aren't possible without it.
I don't think there's anybody here who is a troll, or sexual harrasser, or a racist, or any of that. So if you would be so kind, carry this message to them when you meet them:
"Hi. You don't know me, but that's alright. If things have worked the way they are supposed to work, you've been given many chances to amend your behavior and if I'm speaking to you, it means that perhaps those chances have failed. That's sad.
We'd like it a lot if you'd straighten up and fly right, but most of us have given up hope that that may happen. Also, very sad.
Unfortunately for you, We've reached a point where you cannot be allowed to damage the community any further. Odds are good this will mean a ban.
I'm sure, a person like you will find a means to sneak back in and try and cause more trouble. We'll be on the lookout for that. If it mean banning an IP range. Then that may have to occur.
If it means banning the entirety of Des Moines, Iowa. in order to keep you from coming round. Then that will occur.
If it means contacting your local ISP and telling them you are abusing their terms of service. Then that will be done.
If it means contacting your local police and making a harassment complaint or reporting terroristic threatening. That will be done.
If it means we need to take up a collection, purchase a plane ticket, have someone fly out to where you are. locate you, and then punch you repeatedly in the throat. Then that will be done.
We are kind.
We are compassionate.
But even we know that not everyone can be saved."