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.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

"...As was foretold in the PROPHECY!"

Which, incidentally is another phrase I'm no longer allowed to say at work. Right along with, "That's what she said." and "Funnily enough, that was our prom theme" and "No kidding, that's also the name of my "blank-blank" cover band.

But I digress.

The path of life is full of twists and turns. Most people who have a bit of sense try to see the road ahead and figure out what they're going to do.  You, as GM, have to be ahead of the curve.

Let's tackle this one without being at all flowery.  You've usually got a few players who have made some kind of investment in some sort of prophetic powers.  Some are volitional, like tarot readers, tea leaf readers, those few gifted with enough skill to call a prophetic vision. But others are people who are willing to invest some points in an ability they have little control over.

Bless those people.

It can be difficult for a Game Master because players often want multiple ways of avoiding knowing about things. If they know about things, then they might have to do things, and by extension, do things they don’t want to, or do things that are manifestly dangerous.  It’s the same impulse that makes the hero turn away from the call of adventure, at least the first time...Which is cool and all. But that’s literary. It doesn’t make as much sense when you are playing a game that the point of, is to have an adventure. I often scratch my head over this, and look as puzzled as Amish folk at Best Buy.

In any case, when you have someone who WANTS to be told things, even if the things are all some variation on “DOOM IS COMING!” You should certainly treasure them, but you can’t exactly make it easy for them.  Prophecies are finicky and in order for them to work dramatically, They have a few rules.

1) Prophecies should be confusing.
Ideally, a prophecy is a hint of foreshadowing of a planned event, that is only ever figured out when it’s almost too late to do anything about it. In fact, you might hold a tiny piece of the puzzle in reserve right up until the players are running against the clock. Just so that you can drop it in their laps at the last moment. Oh sure, If they figure it all out righteously, don’t STEAL that from them. But if they are still struggling and the bad guys are about to win, give them a “Penny drop” roll and watch them run like hell.

As a result, You as GM, should have a license to be as opaque in the early going of trying to figure out what the visions mean.  If you run games, it probably means you have a few occult books on your bookshelf. Go out and buy a dream dictionary so that you can use the imagery in it to make the vision confusing and/or poetic.  You might see if you can’t find a good book on occult symbols and choose the most  obscure ones to figure prominently in your vision.  Visions should feel like a dream most of the time. with a sort of twisted, and yet internally consistent logic to them.

In fact, one of things that I have done in an actual game was to give a player a list of imagery on a piece of paper and then begin a countdown from 30, and at 30 take the piece of paper back.  I've even tinkered with the idea of making the list on a piece of flash paper, just for a bit of extra flair.
Memory can be treacherous, and dreams and visions fade as a person wakes. Ain't that a BITCH.

2) The more concrete a prophecy is, the more misleading it should be.
I’m not saying that you should ever give information to a person with these gifts that is flatly wrong. But you should on occasion make certain that the things that they experience in a vision or prophecy are never exactly straightforward, and that the ones that APPEAR straightforward are anything but.  My suggestion to you is that the television show, “The Dead Zone” is a masterclass in this basic concept.  I am particularly reminded of the episode where there is a bank robbery and Johnny keeps seeing different versions of the same vision with someone different dying each time.  Rapidly evolving situations, with many moving pieces, may do exactly the same thing. 
Also: there is the concept of point of view being very fluid. A trusted friend pointing a weapon at you and firing may be firing on someone behind you or your point of view may be from looking in a mirror. You or someone else performing some horrible act that you’d ordinarily NEVER do, may come about as the result of a necessity that you can’t SEE right now.   Hey, the prophecy says that the Chosen One will definitely die. But it doesn’t say anything about the Chosen One STAYING DEAD. know what I mean? Good thing I had that crash cart parked nearby.
The rule of thumb to follow here is that very little in a vision is exactly what it seems to be.

3) Prophecies should never be Proof.
Prophets are not necessarily the sort of people that rational people ought to take seriously. I mean those people who make pronouncements to the National Enquirer don’t hit more than 50 percent of the time. Otherwise the Pentagon and Wall Street would be all over that shit. Individuals are certainly free to make their choices as they will do. But you should never allow a prophet to walk into a situation, make a dire pronouncement, and have the entire group of players turn on the dime as a result.  There are safeguards for this.
*You should probably make certain that the NPC’s either don’t believe, or think that the prophecies are politically motivated.
* You might take some effort to make objective reality look like the prophet is foolish or crazy.
* You might mention to the Prophet that he sees the following thing happening in 6 out of 10 frames.  This especially good for extremely short duration visions.  It occasionally means that the prophet will be WRONG. and may make hash out of his credibility and/or his confidence.

4) Prophecies should never be free.
Magic is a not a gumball machine. You don’t put in a nickel and then get a piece of gum, like some protocol of cause and effect. There used to be a magic item in a game of mine which was an Italian water clock. It would give it’s possessor visions if a certain ritual was enacted. but the ritual involved filling the water clock with the blood of a living creature. And as time went on, it was discovered that the accuracy of the visions was augmented by the purity of the blood involved.  Animal blood was fine for some things, but when real stakes were on the table one had to consider how much clearer it would if someone sacrificed a young virgin...or even, an infant.
   In a similar vein, I had an NPC Demon, who was the Demon Prince of Awful Truths. He could look into things for a player, unless they were shielded from observation. But his price for doing so was a sliding scale.  To do so once, he would require the player to tell him a true secret.  To do so more than 3 times might involve the Awful Truth Dare, where a petitioner would have to avoid telling a lie for the turning of a moon.
If they did tell a lie during that period, then they would be struck for a non trivial amount of unsoakable aggravated damage.  Big jobs might require that you become INCAPABLE of telling a lie for a limited time. See the movie “Liar Liar” for how messed up a persons life can become as a result.
   The point i’m trying to get at here is that there is always a price for magic.  Sometimes it seems incidental. Like maybe during a vision, you happen to see another player who has a secret, and maybe that shows itself like the player’s character has two shadows and one is always whispering to the other. This will, by necessity CHANGE how that player interacts with the other person, and you should give that other player a “penny drop” roll to figure out, “Oh shit. HE KNOWS!”  Neither player has a scrap of proof of course.   
Sorry. Had to make some effort to wipe the sadistic smile from my face.
  There’s always the more pedestrian effort of making certain that the vision is actually frustrating AND painful.  I remember a Mage game some years ago, where the players were tracking a serial killer who beat his victims to death with his fists.  When our Cultist of Ecstasy attempted to use retrocognition at the crime scene, she found herself in the shoes of the actual victim and found herself being beaten to death by a masked figure.   When she came out the vision, she had plentiful bruising damage and we asked her what she had found out, and she said, “Apparently, it hurts to be hit repeatedly.”

Hey, if a hypnotist can poke you with a pencil and say, “I am burning you” and it will raise blisters in about an hour, then a vision of a nuclear apocalypse could result in a nasty sunburn and temporary blindness. I’m just saying.

Things to do In Character when you're dead.

Maybe you should have zigged, instead of zagging.  Maybe you should have found ways to solve your problems that didn’t involving killing as your first option. Maybe, you mouthed off to someone that, hindsight being 20/20, you probably wouldn’t have done if you’d known... and now, you are quite deceased.

It happens. 
In fact, in some some games it happens distressingly often.

But you know, while you are creating a new character to jump back into active play. You might give some thought to the repercussions of your former PC’s demise.  None of us live in a vacuum and when we die, we aren’t exactly sucked up whole and entire.  Too often, I feel that Larps pay short shrift to character mortality and as a result, no one seems to look beyond, “Gank the fucker” as a solution to the problem he or she may represent.  Done correctly, and with a bit of collusion from the ST staff. You can fix it so that killing your character might end up having all sorts of nasty nasty consequences.  MAYBE, it will be enough to get that maniac to think twice, or at least keep it in his pants

In most larps, there are secrets.  If you’re any good at all, you may have acquired a couple.  In WOD Larps most people live in some kind of society built on secrets. So, now that you’re dead, maybe its time to set those biscuits free.
Consider: Maybe you’re a vampire, and you’ve been told all your unlike, that keeping your existence secret is the utmost responsibility. But maybe, at some point down the road you begin to see that you are going to meet some horrible demise.  And if that really bothers you, you might think to yourself, “Well. If I’m going to be dead.I don’t think I give three-penny fuck about the sanctity of the Masquerade.”

There are many ways you can generate a decent amount of plot by simply having a certain amount of information in button-down mode. Say you get ganked, or driven into a very long torpor. Perhaps you have files that could be sent to journalists, police, feds, and scrappy hunter groups you’ve had your eye on.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if your online diary got sent to everyone in the community? So that they know PRECISELY what you really thought of them.  And if you’re doing that, well... Who says all of the conversations you’ve had with the others were strictly verbatim...or even happened at all. Perhaps your diary is a masterstroke of disinformation designed to jack up the vampire court that wronged you so terribly. Serves the fuckers right.  Hey, if you have a mailing address for Werewolves, a detailed treatise on vampire weaknesses could destabilize an entire region for generations.

Ok. Maybe that’s not your cup of tea. Maybe your character lived and died by the credo, “No Snitching”  Doesn’t mean your killer(s) ought to get off scot free.  Most supernatural creatures have a kind of “Family” structure even if they aren’t necessarily related by blood.  So, if you’re character buys the farm, wouldn’t it make a certain amount of sense for members of your family to turn up and start demanding answers? Especially if your family is WAY scarier than you.   Ask your ST if you can play a short duration NPC with some meat on it.  Be careful that this is not a revenge trip or that you use OOC knowledge to fuck someone over.  THAT’S NOT COOL.  But do show up and make trouble and show that when you kill someone, the people close to them may come calling.

You know you can even work this backwards. Say it’s the mortal family that’s flipping out about their son or daughter’s disappearance. And maybe, they start asking questions, and maybe they start finding answers. And maybe the family goes from being a support group, to a hunter group. And maybe killing them just starts drawing more and more attention.   You know, if I was a mage or a werewolf or some other creature with an ax to grind against the vampires, I would see to it that the family got a certain amount of support-that-you-would-never-be-able-to-prove-I-provided-so-there.  Weapons, Cash, Secrets...You’d be surprised what falls off the back of a truck in this neighborhood.

 Sometimes, we have plans about what’s going to happen when we die. The sort of plans that make for a Mona Lisa smile as the blade rises and falls, and maybe the killer(s) have no idea of the metric fuck-ton of hurt that they are opening up for themselves. Sometimes, it can be fairly immediate. I used to have a Nosferatu who, if he suspected someone was coming around to kill him, would cut open his belly and pack white phosphorus grenades into his long dead intestines.  Of course, He’s pull the pins but prevent the spoon from popping. and pack his belly tight and use his blood to heal.  That way, if he ever got ashed in combat, his killers were in for a rude surprise.  Other times it can be more long term. An actual will, triggered by certain code words to a trusted attorney, a number of pre-signed transactions, and a general liquidation of assets which are then donated to accounts and slush funds belonging to enemies of the community.  Could be a disaster if the vampires discover their favorite nightclub is now owned by vampire hunters.

Some night, The bad people might prevail, and that’s a shame, because there are people who depend on you.  But you should have a plan in place for THEM too, should you be taken off the count.  Generally, when regular mortals are bereft of leadership, they scatter, and GHOULS have it way worse, as they tend to become suicidal.  But there are times, when a sealed letter “In the Event of My Death” can give guidance and purpose to a ghoul after his domitor is gone.  Once, I was playing the Ventrue prince of a city. An old school southern gentleman. His children had been warned that if he was ever slain that his ghouls had orders to burn as much of the city as they possibly could.  Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been huge threat, But this game was set in the 1790’s. It was a bit more serious when your home city doesn’t actually have a fire department.

I heard about one that I rather liked. The seneschal of a particular city was a bit obsessive-compulsive and a touch paranoid.   It didn’t help that he spent a LOT of his time developing his influence.  They put the guy into torpor, down for the long count. and the whole fucking city ground to a halt and started to fall apart because of mis-routed funds and bureaucracy that had been smooth as glass as long as the seneschal had been in charge.

Another time, I ran a game where the prince of a city got perished. Some months before the event, she had purchased at an occult auction, an emerald pendant. It read as a magic item, but so far, no one had been able to make it work. She bought it because it was simply pretty and hoped to get the Tremere to figure it out for her in repayment of certain boons.  What NONE of them knew was that pendant was only useful to humans, and tended to amplify their natural psychic affinities. usually in a shocking flash.   After that lady prince had died, her morose ghouls were packing up her goods, and one of the ghouls picked it up.
Suddenly, the community was now being plagued by a precognitive ghoul with a serious axe to grind.  Do you know how HARD it is to track someone who has inside knowledge of the vampire community, has ghoul powers,  is willing to kill to keep those ghoul powers, knows exactly when and how to hit his targets, and ALWAYS knows when you’re coming?

My players do.