Posted in Tools & Techniques

GM Cues: Impressions, Aims & Pitfalls

No Plot? No Problem! is a great little book that describes itself as ‘a low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days’. It’s written by Chris Baty, the guy behind Nanowrimo, which I’m participating in this month for the fifth year running. Writing a novel in 30 days requires at least some improvisation. GMing often requires a lot. I’ve read this book each year but I figured looking at it from a different angle it may have some hidden insights into gamemastery. And I think I’ve found some.

The book talks about, among many other things, making two lists: one with all the things you like in novels and one with all the things you don’t. It’s not quite a pros and cons list, but close. It’s sort of a list of cues or reminders for yourself. I realised that doing the same thing for RPGs could keep us GMs on track, especially for on-the-fly or improv-heavy GMing.

I thought this idea was too simplistic at first to bother posting about, but I think it has legs. The Nanowrimo lists are supposed to help you identify what you like (and don’t) and write to that (or avoid it, respectively). If you have a theme for your game or just some goals (or pitfalls you’re prone to) you could make similar lists. I’ll give it a quick go now and see what we get.

Aim for…

  • Interesting NPCs with human motivations
  • Cinematic fight scenes
  • Fight scenes incorporating the environment
  • Situations where all answers creates interesting situations

Avoid…

  • Drawn out conversations without a story purpose
  • Lengthy, boring combat
  • Rolls where failure is boring
  • NPCs hogging the spotlight
Okay, so those were just some quick lists off the top of my head. But, put them on index cards in front of me while I run the game and I’ll have a few touchstones to call upon. We run into combat and I have a reminder that I want it to be cinematic with use of the environment, but not too long and never boring. It’s easy to forget some of these goals in the heat of the moment and easy to fall into traps you wanted to avoid. After writing the lists above, I also feel that for the aims and avoids I wrote, maybe I should make one index card for ‘social’ and one for ‘combat’, perhaps expanding on each a little.
For theme this method may be even more useful. If I have a Demonsea campaign I know I want a few things to be at the fore.
Aim for…
  • Exciting, swashbuckling high-seas adventure!
  • Demonic touches and twists to pirate tales
  • High adventure world, but with real and gritty consequences
Avoid…
  • Generic pirate adventures (remember there are demons too!)
  • Having everyone heavily involved with demons; make it subtle
  • The different cultures ending up just the same in roleplaying
Now this gives me some solid ideas to incorporate each time I play. Again, I probably have to revisit these lists, especially after play when I’m like ‘Oh, I wish I had done this there’ or ‘Whoops, forgot to do X’. Add those to the list. I’m using quick examples that I’ve made up as I’ve written this, but for themes some better ones spring to mind.
The Goblin Hole and The Shallow Sea are both modules for the excellent Dungeon World and feature lists of 20 ‘impressions’. These are things that evoke the theme of the area. The Goblin Hole has such gems as ‘a goblin with his hand tied to a ring in the ceiling’, ‘hairless, blind rabbits in hutches’ and ‘a talking bird skull on a string’. All of these are quick and evocative ideas that can be used to give the impression you desire or might spin into a full encounter depending on how the PCs react.
Using lists of cues, impressions, aims, or personal pitfalls to avoid can help you keep your game on track and coherent. It’ll help you hit the right notes and beats and keep in genre and theme. I’ll be trying it next time I run a game. Give it a go sometime and see how it works out.
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Posted in Tools & Techniques

What Nanowrimo Taught Me About Roleplaying

I participated in and completed Nanowrimo last year, for the fourth year running. I’ve learnt more and more from it each year, about myself, writing and even roleplaying and gamemastery. This time, there were some particularly useful things that I wanted to share. So, here’s what Nanowrimo taught me about roleplaying.

Be Willing to Let Go

I wrote a love interest into the story within the first few paragraphs. She and the main character connected a few chapters later and then agreed to meet up in two days. I spent the rest of my 50,000 words on the next day and never got to the point where they met up to continue that relationship. By the time I had done this, I realised that the relationship was interesting, but not as interesting as the rest of what I had written.

I had run out of time, so once I hit my word goal for the month, I summarised the rest of the scenes. I included scenes about the love interest, but I felt that in a rewrite, it might be best to just let her go, or maybe kill her off before the hero got a chance to know her better. Or perhaps meld her with one of enemies or in the story.

Sometimes when GMing you come up with an NPC or a city or some cool thing that you really love… and it falls flat. PCs ignore the city and don’t connect with the NPC. It happens. In cases like this, sometimes it’s best to just let it go. Don’t push them. Instead, just let the NPC or city or whatever quietly slip away.

Alternatively, you could twist it. If the NPC is being ignored or poorly treated by brash PCs with god-complexes, maybe they become a villain intent on putting the PCs in their place. The Incredibles is still one of my favourite examples of this, and its plot is easily tweaked to many different genres (particularly fantasy and sci-fi).

Improv Can Be Better than Prep

I prepped a basic outline of the story I had in my mind, but let the details fill themselves in as I wrote. In particular, there was a fae woman who I described on a whim as having burning golden eyes. In a blur of keystrokes, I instantly decided that they were literally burning and she was a sun fae. I doubt I would’ve thought of that during laborious, detail-oriented prep.

Another good example of this was the spells my urban fantasy hero was casting. He was just learning magic and music was his means of casting. He listened to songs and they would allow him to cast certain spells. Only he – and I – didnt’ know what spells each song let him cast. So, I had the songs on my playlist and listened to them as he used them, coming up with much cooler descriptions of how they worked than if I had prepped.

His healing song became one that let him issue healing water from one hand and a soothing breeze from the other, rather than a generic white light sort of thing. His song that I knew was going to save him in combat against a giant creature didn’t give him miraculous fighting strength, but the grace and timing of a dancer to dodge the beasts’ attacks.

Improv can be difficult, and sometimes you stuff it up (in which case, you can sometimes twist it or just let it go). When it works though, you can surprise yourself and hopefully your players.

Prep Can Be Better with Scrivener

I use Windows, so I have been deprived of Scrivener in past years. But now, there is a Windows version too! For those of you who don’t know, Scrivener is a popular writing program with an in-built corkboard/overview function. It allows you to break your text up into scenes or however you see fit. You can easily view them on the corkboard and even give each a category and a little description on their virtual index card to quickly refer to them.

After using this to prep an outline of the scenes for my story, I felt much more confident about filling in the content of each of those scenes, splitting the scenes into several scenes where needed, and even deviating from that outline. I haven’t had the chance to yet, but I plan to use Scrivener to prep some RPG sessions. I found it a very useful way to organise my thoughts, as well as disparate plot threads.

Do What You Know and Love, Try Something New

I write about fantasy stuff mostly. This time, I went a little different and did modern urban fantasy (I did this the year before too, but it was different again from 2010’s stuff). I wrote about things I really like, namely fantasy, an unlikely hero, big responsibilities suddenly gained and putting twists on classic creatures. But I added things I wasn’t very familiar with. It worked well.

Doing this in a ratio is a good way to go about it (I read this somewhere, but can’t find it right now). Try keeping 80-90% of what you’re good at, what you know and what you love, but try adding 10-20% of something new and exciting. This way you aren’t throwing yourself in the deep end and if the new stuff falls flat, at least you know that you’ll like the rest.

Lead With the Cool Stuff

This article from Treasure Tables sums this one up nicely, but I’ll put my own thoughts forward here. I had an idea in my head for a scene where the hero would get his magical powers. It happened like I planned, but that was 20,000 words into a 50,000 word story about that character. I had all sorts of cool scenes in mind about how to introduce the various factions he was helping/avoiding and my twists on several folkloric monsters.

I got some of that done, but I ran out of time for a lot of it. In fact, I stopped writing and started summarising just before an awesome mage-vs-mage fight scene. In a story you’re writing for yourself, this might be okay. You can go back and edit. In fact, I’m quite happy with the pacing of my story, it just turned out that I need more than 50,000 words to tell it at that pace.

In roleplaying games, though, if you’re running a game about fighting a dragon or killing an evil king or confronting the dread pirate lord, you want that to happen. If you spend all your time getting to the lair, infiltrating the castle or following sea charts and then the game ends… well… you’ve missed out on all the cool stuff.

If your game is about radioactive vampires, have one in the very first session. It can be too tough for the PCs and maybe they have to get saved, or maybe it attacks and then tilts its head and leaves for some unknown reason. Now they’ve seen its power and are probably pretty freaked out. You’ve got them hooked.

If your game is about political intrigue, you want the PCs to be wrapped up in it from the start. Trysts, accusations, lose-lose decisions, imposters and more. Have these things present in the first few sessions so that people can see how the game is going to be and what it’s about.

Think of it like this: your first session (or two or three, maybe) is the pilot for the series that is your campaign. Yes, it needs to tell them what the game is about, but it also needs to be awesome enough to get people hooked and make them want to come back every week.

50,000 words sounds like a lot when you start, but you quickly realise it really isn’t. When you know you’ve only got six sessions left before someone leaves the group to go live overseas or something, make sure you fit the cool stuff into the time available.

Know When to Stop

Just as important as all the rest, be aware that you can ruin a campaign by stretching it on and on long after the spark that made it special has died. Most of us have TV shows we once loved that got stale after too many seasons. Some ended too soon, so it’s also important not to cancel your campaign short. Some of the best campaigns I’ve played in and run were about a year in length. Although, more recently, I have run some very poignant campaigns that were much shorter and much better for it. They wouldn’t have had the same impact long-term.

It’s important to know when to stop.

The End.

Posted in Announcements

Nevermet Press Monster MashUp Contest

Nevermet Press’ Monster MashUp Contest involved checking out an illustration of a new monster and writing a backstory, narrative or description to go with it. Public voting has now begun on the entries – and there’s a lot of great ones! So get your votes in before May 7th. After that, the top three entries will be judged by a panel and prizes will be awarded. I had a crack at it, producing the following entry (Entry #25).

EDIT: Sadly, the voting has been temporarily closed due to “widespread voting fraud”. Read the post on Nevermet Press’ website for more information.

Flanked by four small maws filled with needle sharp teeth, eight unblinking orange eyes encircle a ninth central eye in the crinkled face of this dark wiry creature. Clawed limbs and sinewy tentacles protrude from the muscular trunk of its lower body like a mass of writhing roots and vines. About the size of a large dog, this radial creature skitters about unnaturally, quickly changing directions and scaling any surface with disturbing grace.

Such is its ease of movement that time and space prove no barrier to this creature. It easily tears through the fabric of reality and its nine eyes see countless timelines and futures at once. It acts based on these stimuli and is highly unpredictable as it performs seemingly random acts – usually of violence – as it attempts to steer the world towards some unknowable fate.

Often sighted during disasters, wars and assassinations, many believe this creature appears at such times to ensure that these history-shaping events unfold as it wishes. Some claim that the creature does not just sway the outcome of these events, but meticulously influences smaller related events and key moments in the past to set up these eventual catastrophes.

Moderately capable in combat, this creature prefers to wait in the shadows or in time itself for just the right second to pounce. When overwhelmed, this creature will often come to its own aid – suddenly dozens of future versions of this otherwise unique creature emerge from tears in space to devastate their attackers before promptly returning to their own times leaving volatile gobs of warped reality in their wake. This corruption of space-time can lead to spontaneous changes of history, bringing long-dead villains back to life or even pulling ancient wars, plagues or other threats into the present.

I’m pretty proud of my entry, but there are a lot of great ones in the running. Head over to Nevermet’s website to vote on your favourite entry.