GM Tricks: Short Session vs. Long Session

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A friend who’d primarily played in and run long-session games found herself about to run a weekly game on work nights, and asked for my advice on how short sessions differ from long. Here it is, repackaged and with advice from the other side (for those who’ve done short games but are intimidated by the longer form).

Regularity

As a meta-consideration, how often you’re going to run the game can make a big difference. In general, the less often you can play, the longer you’ll want to play when you do get to play. The longer you go between sessions, the more your players will forget, and the less inertia you’ll have at the start of a session (which lets you get even less done, as your players try to rediscover their characters and remember their goals).

  • If you’re playing monthly or less frequently, you generally want to get enough done in a session to reach a solid stopping point, where time can pass in play as well as out of play; if you leave your players in the middle of a mission or dungeon and they don’t play for a month, it’s going to take forever to get them back up to speed.
  • Conversely, if you’re playing weekly (or more frequently!?), you can often leave off at the closest break that makes sense as soon as you’re ready to quit for the night, and trust your players to remember what’s going on when you resume.
  • When you’re playing every other week, you’re in a weird spot where you don’t really want to leave too many irons in the fire, but you also don’t have to end on too much of a solid note. Your players will forget minor things, but probably not major things.

All of these issues can be mitigated by having someone at the table that takes copious notes and can recap the events of the last session at the start of the new one. It’s a really big help to have someone like that, and if one of your players is a natural game journalist, encourage it.

Short Sessions

For a short session, I’m generally assuming that this is a weeknight at or after dinner for 3-4 hours. Some of this might not apply if you’re squeezing in gaming at an odd time, and your session length restriction is not because you’re playing after work/school. Some of this may apply even more seriously if you’re only playing for an hour or two during a mealtime. The three big limitations of a short session are side chatter, spotlight time, and combat time.

If possible, establish a set schedule of when you’re focusing on the game and how much table chatter is too much, and make sure everyone sticks to it. Nothing kills your time worse than people gabbing about what they’ve been up to all week and otherwise chatting about meaningful but non-game things. Your biggest issues are how long it takes to actually get started and how often people get sidetracked once you start playing.

The first is a function largely of when people show up and when they’ve eaten. I tend to not even try to get people in game until everyone’s there and done eating; if you try to start and someone shows up later and/or someone’s still eating, it can be really hard to make the game go because they’re a distraction. Conversely, you want to make sure people aren’t showing up super late or taking forever to eat. It also really helps if your players see each other more often than game night, particularly if they’re good friends: if your game time is the only time good friends are going to see each other face-to-face this week, it becomes much harder to get them to focus on the game instead of catching up.

The second you have more control over, but you may have to be more draconian than you’d like. Small jokes are fine if they don’t derail focus on the game: it’s when someone tells a joke and someone else uses that as a “that reminds me…” to talk about something else that causes a problem. You basically have to yank those back to the game if they go on for more than a few seconds, and start to determine which people can safely quip without breaking focus, and which people can’t even be trusted with one-liners. If you’ve got a cut-up that’s causing problems, you have to school yourself and the other players to not reward the behavior; people that are constantly trying for a laugh to the detriment of the focus on the game will (generally) eventually pick up that people aren’t that amused at the distraction and pull back, as long as they’re getting tolerant annoyance off the others rather than laughs.

Player spotlight time is best kept small in short sessions. If a player is off doing something that takes a while and is doing it solo, that can potentially eat up a huge chunk of your playtime so the rest of the players don’t get similar focus for the evening. If a player wants to go off and accomplish something alone, try to narrate it down and err on the side of just letting her accomplish it (particularly if it doesn’t have a major impact on the main plot). If you want there to be a chance of failure, try to sum everything up to a few quick dice rolls, with varying degrees of accomplishment depending on how many rolls are a success.

In general, try to just err on the side of giving players what they want if it won’t make a big impact on the story. Time spent on them convincing you that they can do something and then having to improvise challenges for it, when you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a success, can be wasted time. You can just as easily offer them a devil’s bargain of something like, “Okay, you can do that, but it’ll result in the town guard being pissed at you.” The caveat is that you can absolutely play out unplanned side-excursions if everyone at the table seems super into it. It’s not about using narration to gloss over everything outside of the main plot, so much as not wasting time that could be more productively spent.

Combat time can be a huge pain for shorter games, particularly in D&D and other heavily tactical games with mapping and miniatures for fights. Particularly for games with slower combat, but possibly for any game where fights can eat up too much time: try to figure out if there’s a reasonable game resource you can use as a “narrated success” tax. For example, in D&D 4e and 5e, if there’s a fight that the PCs will get to take a short rest after, you can just ask them to use up a couple of healing surges/hit dice and maybe a daily resource. Then just describe the gist of the fight with a total success. Essentially, if you think there’s no chance of anyone getting seriously injured, using permanent resources, or being that engaged in the fight, it’s perfectly fine to just describe how flawlessly they party wiped out the minor threat and move on so there’s more table time for more interesting fights.

This is possibly more relevant to running modules (where there are often a bunch of filler encounters that don’t affect the plot or really challenge the players), but even when you’re planning your own stuff, be ready to throw out your babies if you realize you’ve put in a combat encounter that won’t actually raise the tension much but will eat up a lot of time to play out. You could even do this on purpose: plan out fights where all you have is a description of what’s in the room but you haven’t bothered to organize the stats, and they’re essentially just opportunities to make the players feel awesome and to let you burn off some of their daily resources before a real fight. Conversely, if players are clever enough to get around them or roleplay through, then they save the resources, but if they totally mess something up you can add a couple of speedbump fights together into a real threat.

Long Sessions

I consider a long session to be over four hours (often six or more hours). You’ll generally get to have these on weekends and holidays unless you’re still young enough to manage an after-dinner-until-after-midnight session without everyone falling asleep before the end. They often overlap at least one mealtime (unless you have an early lunch and a late dinner with a session in between), so the biggest considerations for long sessions are blood-sugar and attention-span related.

For short sessions, particularly those that start with or right after dinner, table snacks are fun but rarely required. For long sessions, they’re more or less essential. You should absolutely get in the habit of either rotating snack duty or getting everyone used to bringing a little something to the table such that there’s a bounty of available foods. You should also work out the healthiest assortment of foods that the group will eat and can afford: cheesy poofs and candy are fine when you’re still in college, but nuts, veggies, and fine cheeses are better for the over-thirties to not wreck their increasingly delicate internal mechanisms. All of these things are to keep hunger from being a distraction.

Unless you truly bring copious snacks or lay out a buffet, a mealtime is probably going to hit mid-session and will require a pause (to consume the food, even if you can get it to the table quickly, but usually to make, order, or go get the food as well). But that’s fine, because one of the problems with long sessions anyway is the mid-session lull. After three or four hours, it’s hard to maintain tension and attention spans start to wander. So even if you don’t have a meal break, plan your game as if you did. Try to have a major story beat, cliffhanger, accomplishment, or other stopping point happen close to the middle of your session time. Then break for food (or just take a general purpose stretch, conversation, and smoke break if you aren’t breaking for food). Ramp back up slowly after the break so you can end the session on another high point (i.e., it’s very much like stapling two short sessions together around a meal break). The break and ability to ramp up again gradually helps with fraying attention spans in the middle of the session.

Straight-Up Premise Theft: Haven

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The Elevator Pitch

Audrey Parker is an FBI special agent sent to a small Maine town after a fugitive, but the simple assignment is much less straightforward than it seemed. Immediately, the manhunt is complicated by the insular community reticent to give up one of their own, even a criminal, and veiled allusions to “the Troubles” from a generation ago. She quickly begins to realize that this is a community covering up a history of strange supernatural events, which are now beginning to recur with life-threatening consequences.

Perhaps more importantly to Audrey, a poorly-explained newspaper picture from the last troubling time displays a woman that looks just like her, who was apparently instrumental in saving the town. Could this be the mother that gave her up for adoption, or something even stranger? Regardless of the cause, it’s clear that she’s been maneuvered into this town for reasons other than a fugitive, and she has a vital role to play in its unfolding supernatural drama.

This becomes all too clear when more and more powers break out and she appears to be largely immune to their most destructive effects: is she, herself, troubled in a way that makes her the perfect foil for other citizens of Haven that are unable to control their powers?

(This show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The nature of the setting can vary from a straight lift of the Stephen King-style small town supernatural mystery, to any kind of urban or traditional fantasy, to straight up sci-fi (nanotech gone wrong?). What’s important is that there are dangerous powers in play that need to be controlled, and what the PCs have going for them is that they’re more or less immune (probably due to some mysterious past).

This immunity is selectively total, but not a guarantee, as it only protects the body and mind of the PC, not the environment or allies. A pyrokinetic can’t set the PC on fire, but he can burn down the house she’s in. A kid that causes everyone to see their worst nightmares looks perfectly normal to the PC, but that won’t help her control the panicking bystanders. A Groundhog Day-esque encounter with a time rewinder leaves the PC able to try to end this unending day, but good luck trying to convince everyone else that she’s stuck in a time loop and not just insane.

In a setting full of things that break all the rules of the mundane world, the PCs’ advantage is that they can generally assume that these rules will at least keep applying to them. It’s an edge against powered threats, but they’ll often find themselves wishing for powers of their very own; powers that are fundamentally denied them by their own gift.

The Rationale

There are few things more empowering to players than explaining that everything is awful, all the NPCs are afflicted and terrified, but their PCs are so awesome that they’re perfectly fine and can act unimpeded by the crisis. This premise takes the standard intention of players to have their characters stay in control and unhindered by the unfolding chaos and makes it into their core PC benefit.

You don’t have to meet in a tavern, you don’t have to be gathered by a mysterious elderly person, and you don’t have to figure out how you’re friends from childhood. Unexplained and dangerous things are happening and you’re the only ones that seem to be mostly unaffected; everyone’s counting on you to save them. Go be heroes.

Player Tricks: Solving RPG Mysteries

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A lot of RPGs, particularly your more skill-based, modern, and/or horror games, tend to feature frequent mysteries. The mystery might be a straight up “who/what killed this person and why?” or it might be something more abstract like “what is the villain’s plan and how do we stop it?” Basically, when the game moves beyond an up front info dump where your choices are strategic (how do we get into the encounter area and what do we use against the opponents there?), you’re often looking at a mystery.

One of the questions I’ve struggled with, and which Harbinger gives some good advice on, is what to do as a GM if your mysteries are too hard and your players can’t solve them. Sure, there are things you can do to make it easier on players, but there are also things the players can do to become better at solving mysteries, allowing the GM to step up rather than simplify her game. That is to say, I think most times that a mystery is “too hard” it’s either a failure of GMing of another type (e.g., the GM is not playing fairly with information access, is putting in too much time pressure, and/or is trying to lock the PCs into only one avenue of investigation; see this post of mine and this from The Alexandrian for ideas on how to break those habits), or it’s just that the players don’t realize the supreme power available to them in an RPG.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’m notoriously good at solving mysteries in RPGs. I will routinely smash open secrets the GM thought would take all session to figure out, forcing inventive scrambling to move on to the next bit. I get pulled onto staff for live action games because I figure out the major game secrets that the plot committee thought they weren’t going to reveal for months. I really enjoy solving mysteries in RPGs.

But I’m not a mystery fiction fan, in any real sense. I don’t read many crime novels, and those I do (like Dresden Files), I don’t figure out the mystery much before the reveal. I watch a fair number of TV procedurals, but when I figure out whodunnit it’s mostly because I recognize that they cast a recognizable actor for what seems like a bit part, which probably means he or she is going to be important later. Which is to say, I’m not great at solving scripted mysteries.

What makes RPGs different? Agency.

When you’re passively consuming media, you’re limited to the information the protagonist thinks to uncover. Since the author is usually going out of the way to make sure the mystery isn’t obvious early, the protagonist will often miss opportunities to uncover information that would be very helpful to the case (or will notice it, and not remark on it until later). But when you’re playing the protagonist, you get to do things that will generate more information; you don’t have to patiently wait for the GM to dole clues out to you.

Here are some techniques for getting at that information:

Abduction, Induction, and Deduction

If you haven’t read through my article on mysteries I linked earlier, read it now, particularly the section on “-uctions.” (There’s even better explanations of them at the Forge thread I was summarizing.)

Essentially, there are three ways you can work toward solving a mystery in an RPG:

  • Deduction is the one most players are familiar with, particularly from published scenarios, where the players assemble so many clues that there is legitimately only one conclusion that can be drawn from them. The GM doles out unmissable clues as the game progresses (faster or slower depending on how aggressive you are, how your skill checks go, and whether you make bad decisions), and eventually you have enough puzzle pieces that the missing one is completely obvious. Even at its fastest, waiting for clues until you can work up a deduction tends to be really slow.
  • Induction is most useful at the mid-ranges of an investigation, because you take incomplete evidence and try to extrapolate something that explains it (but which might not be the only thing that explains it). Often, it’s the trick you use for figuring out if there are any other things you need to check before deciding you’ve got it all figured out. It’s your main way to generate falsifiable theories: we know a bunch of things, and it seems likely that X would explain them, but something else could explain them. Let’s figure out how we can prove and disprove X; if we disprove it, we need to think about these other clues in a different way.
  • Abduction in this context really means brainstorming to come up with logical explanations for clues based on known rules, which give you immediate things to check (such as whether those known rules don’t apply in this case). This is the thing you do when you don’t know much at all yet to try to figure out more things. Abduction is where RPG mysteries really diverge from scripted ones: you can jump the clue sequence pretty much whenever you want by working backwards along what seems like the simplest explanation. “The murderer got into the house somehow. One of the ways he could have gotten into the house was the nearby window. Thus, we can check to see if that’s how he got in!” Hopefully your GM has prepared enough for a lot of this tactic, because it basically means trying to skip straight to the solution using common sense and hoping proving or disproving your theories will at least narrow down the idea space you should be looking at.

I’ll drill down some more on those techniques and their corollaries.

Abduce and Accuse

While abduction is the weakest technique for proving anything at all, it’s the most powerful technique for hitting the ground running in an investigation. It means coming up with presumptive ideas, stomping around in places your character has no justification going, and being rude to NPCs by accusing them of lying and collusion. You know, the stuff you were probably going to do as PCs anyway.

This technique often benefits from avoiding a skill check. What you want here is a “yes” or “no” answer: “Is anything under the window disturbed?” “Was the butler lying about not being here last night?” “Is there anyone in town that could have befriended a unicorn or summoned a nightmare, or can we take for granted that these are actually horse hoofprints?” If the GM requires you to make a roll to see if you’d know, and you fail, then you haven’t really learned anything at all; only outright denial with a success or no roll required should be enough to dissuade you. What you’re trying to do here is not annoy the GM with fanciful ideas, but to figure out the possibility space of the investigation. Which ideas are plausible within the game world, but irrelevant to this case, and which ones actually have merit for further investigation?

Honestly, there’s a bit of metagaming involved in this technique: you can watch the GM’s face when she answers to see if it’s surprise that you’ve hit so close to the mark so fast or blankness that you’re asking about something that clearly makes no sense and was never meant to be included (GMs that really know their worlds, have prepared extensively, and/or have really good poker faces are harder to use this particular trick against).

But even beyond hopefully scoring a palpable hit on the GM, the information you get should push you closer to the right ideas. If your GM tells you “they’re definitely mundane horse hoofprints” and then later reveals that it really was a nightmare, then your GM is not playing fair; assuming your GM can be trusted to not subvert your character’s perceptions to delay a reveal, you now know not to waste more time on investigating magical horses. (This is why you want to avoid a skill check; if you fail a roll and your GM tells you something, it’s obviously a suspect answer that can’t bias your reasoning, but you’ll feel like a metagamer if you don’t let it bias you, so its best to try to avoid the risk of failure altogether. Game systems like Gumshoe move clue-finding to automatic purchases for precisely this reason; it’s generally no fun for anyone to give players the wrong information because of a failure, unless that misconception is easily corrected. Possibly with ninjas.)

The secret of abduction is that there are any number of facts about the environment that mystery fiction writers can assume their protagonists are investigating and discarding or storing away for later, but not bothering the audience with the minutia of, but as a player in a mystery game you need to make sure you have a firm “yes” or “no” on. You are probably not a skilled investigator in real life (and if you are, thanks for reading, please include your thoughts on this article and additional techniques in the comments), and even if you are, your only access to your character’s senses is what the GM describes. You can’t do the hard work of being your PC’s brain without substituting additional factual information for all the sensory information that’s not actually going from the game world to you.

Good GMs will let you make a roll to realize something your PC could have seen earlier was relevant once new information is introduced. Good players will have uncovered that information back in the original scene, written it down, and connect the dots without GM prompting.

On Avoiding Red Herrings

Proposing theories that might fit what few facts you have is a great way to generate falsifiable leads that can put you on the right track once disproven. But sometimes the GM won’t have prepared enough to make it easy to falsify them, or the existing prep will support a wild-ass theory longer than it ought to (“Yes there is an elven paladin with a unicorn for a mount in town. She’s probably not a suspect.” “Paladin, huh? What an excellent cover… for murder. Let’s go stake out her house!”).

Especially in the early stages of an investigation, you’re in danger of abducing too far. This technique should really be coming up with things for the GM to shoot down, not coming up with crazy theories and then haring off at them (unless you’re really, really good at figuring out the crazy mysteries your GM comes up with by guessing). Keep an eye out for if your GM looks uncomfortable with a theory you want to investigate; maybe she’s just mad you’re skipping ahead in the adventure further than expected, but you’re probably seeing annoyance at having to improvise something for a red herring.

There’s a school of GMing advice that supports perfect illusionism for players: if they wander off after a red herring, you try to lay things out in front of them that are interesting wherever they go, and they either eventually find their way back to the plot or they enjoy the weird ride they’re on now. (I totally discount the idea of “you move the answer so their red herring is retroactively correct” unless you’re playing InSpectres, Technoir, or otherwise have that as part of the contract; in a normal mystery game, part of the fun is trusting the GM to have an unchanging answer behind everything that’s going on that you can figure out.) In the real world of GMing, you often don’t get enough time to game in the first place, and/or not all of us are master improvisers, so the players going haring off after something false in a way that will take a lot of time and description is not always fun.

I’ll often just tell my players when they have a red herring that they won’t let go of (if subtle hints didn’t work and I’m not feeling up to playing out slack on an ultimately useless tangent). Your GM might be less lazy than me and not feel comfortable outright stopping you from wasting time for worries about metagaming or illusionism. So when you have a wild idea for a solution early in an investigation that your GM seems lukewarm or worse about, try to figure out a much simpler way of falsifying the idea before spending a lot of table time on the guaranteed test of the theory (“Before we go bother the paladin and leave the house, our ranger has really high Nature; can he tell the difference between horse and unicorn hoofprints?”)

On Shaking the Tree

If you feel stuck at any point in a mystery, and your GM doesn’t seem to be following the pulp tropes of having a man with a gun burst in on you (or ninjas attacking), it’s up to you to enact another pulp trope: go shake the tree.

This means being proactive and figuring out something you could do to try to turn up new leads, oftentimes by pissing off the mysterious villain in a way that causes her to try to kill you. The clever pulp detective knows that, if he had a day that seemed unproductive to him, but then in the evening someone tries to kill him, that probably means that the seemingly innocuous conversations of the day may have made the villain think that he was closer to her than he actually was, and they deserve further examination.

This does not mean badgering recurring and powerful setting NPCs (particularly mentors) for ideas, because usually your GM is just going to feel like you’re begging a mouthpiece for the solution. (Again, Technoir is an exception because the recurring NPCs are often also the villains and the system requires you to bother them for information.) Instead, it means revisiting NPCs and locations that have been pertinent to the case to see if a repeated examination turns up something new. In particular, if your GM has crafted a particularly hard mystery, this gives her a chance to tell you something that’s changed since the last time (e.g., an NPC that was previously being watched by an authority or didn’t take a shine to the PCs can be convinced to reveal something he didn’t before, the PCs notice something/someone at the location that could have been there by chance once but being there twice is unusual, etc.).

Even if you don’t get any new information, if you tell your GM that you’re shaking the tree, particularly if you talk to the NPCs on followup like you know more than you do, that should encourage your GM to throw some hitters at you who you can then interrogate after the fight (or search their bodies for clues, if you aren’t good at prisoners).

Induce and Improve

Abduction is good for extending the reach of individual clues, but your real meat of getting good at these mysteries is induction. This is generally the point at which you have multiple clues from multiple locations/NPCs and they don’t really speak to anything obvious yet. Induction is, in puzzle terms, like laying your pieces out on a whiteboard even though none of them connect yet, but seeing if you can arrange them in such a way that you can draw pieces that would connect them (and once you know what that piece looks like, you can go try to find it).

This is the point where it’s important to write down things you know, make sure that your PCs are not hiding vital clues from each other (deliberately or just because only one of you saw something and didn’t realize it was important), and keep an open mind. You will likely come up with a bunch of things that you think are related to the mystery, but which don’t have anything obvious to do with each other or seem to contradict. Start pitching the rest of the group ideas for things that are plausible within the setting that could explain two or more of these disparate clues (particularly things that could resolve a seeming conflict between clues).

“Alright, we know there are hoofprints outside the house that are part of our window of opportunity. We know there are really only a half dozen horses in this one-inn town, and we’ve accounted for all of them. Either someone is lying to us about where their horse was last night, or we need to try to figure out if anyone’s seen a strange horse that they didn’t think was relevant. We find the strange horse, we find the culprit, or at least someone that saw the crime.”

The goal is to come up with answers that seem to make sense and explain all the clues (or at least explain some of them and don’t contradict the others) and are falsifiable (e.g., “Maybe our villain is a crazy person and just did crazy things to throw us off” is not a valid induction unless you’re solving hard mysteries easily and your GM is now throwing you curveballs, because that’s not an induction that’s easy to prove false). You should now have some things that are either potential solutions to the whole mystery or will get you very close to the solution, and your goal is to go check them out thoroughly to try to disprove them.

You still should make a strong attempt to keep your solutions reasonable; overly fanciful solutions could still lead to red herrings, so err on the side of answers that are quickest to prove false. If your GM created a mystery where the actual explanation turns out to come down on the wrong side of Occam’s Razor (i.e., your explanation for the clues is more elegant and straightforward than the real answer), it’s now on her to figure out how to get you additional clues that lead you to the weirder solution.

Generally, if you make a reasonable attempt at inducing an answer, and your investigations prove false, the GM should try to reward you with additional information that makes subsequent inductions more robust (e.g., you shouldn’t just wind up with “Nope, nobody knows whether there was another horse in town.” but something like “I didn’t see no strangers, mister, but I do see Sir Oxney riding out to visit his mistress sometimes when his wife is out of town; he probably would’ve told you he was in bed. Don’t tell ‘im I told you.”).

Overall, while solving a mystery, you should start trying to induce early and repeat often. The group’s refrain should be, “What do we know, what does that make us suspect might also be true, and how to we confirm or deny those suspicions?”

Deduce and Destroy

If you get good enough at the other two -uctions, deduction is just a formality. It’s the way of checking your math before you go storming the prime suspect’s lair, to make absolutely sure you aren’t taking out an innocent (or someone guilty of something else). It’s a way of telling the story of what happened and seeing if it makes sense.

You need to write everything down and/or have a really good memory for clues, even more than you did during the induction phase. You’re going to lay out everything that you can prove with everything that you suspect and haven’t had disproven and try to weave a tale that explains the mystery. This is the point where you list out in exhaustive detail the five Ws and an H, and it would be the thing you accused the killer of in the sitting room in front of all the suspects if this were a murder mystery. You’ll probably just be listing it out for the other players to make sure nobody can poke any holes in the logic.

When you’re deducing, keep an eye out for discrepancies. Do you have any clues that don’t seem to fit anywhere in the narrative, or a missing W or H? It might be fine to have one thing go missing, for the final confrontation (“…and as you ran into the hills, Sir Oxley quietly assumed that it wasn’t his business what you were doing leaving the house as long as you didn’t ask him why he wasn’t at home. The only thing I can’t figure out is what kind of weapon left that hole in the victim.” “Perhaps… because you didn’t know about my trip to Numeria last year! Have you seen one of these before? They call it… a laser pistol!”). But if they seem to cause major problems with your story, you’re probably ahead of yourself and need to go shake the tree some more to get answers that lead you to a more complete narrative.

If you get it right (particularly if it was complicated) you’ll probably see a warm glow coming from the GM because you were actually paying attention and reassembled the backstory she worked so hard on.

Dresden Files: Alternate Lawbreaker Rules

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I’m thinking about running a warden-focused Dresden Files game in the not-too-distant future, and I was thinking about adding a simple change to the way the Lawbreaker stunt works. For those unfamiliar with the universe of the game, there are seven laws of magic (don’t kill with magic, don’t mind control, etc.) that are formalized by the wizards’ ruling body but enforced somewhat by reality: since you have to believe fully in your magic to get it to work, doing terrible things with it (even for initially noble ends) warps you. You gradually become the kind of person that does those horrible things as a matter of habit, which is why the council generally has a zero-tolerance stance on breaking the laws. It’s a lot like going to the dark side.

The game rules model this descent as a power you have to buy the first time you break a law, and you have to buy it to a second rank if you keep breaking the law. If you break the law even further, it begins changing your Aspects to twisted versions that mention the lawbreaking. The power gives you a +1 (+2 at rank two) to any further magic rolls to create effects that break the law.

The problem I’ve found with the standard implementation is that my players are outright allergic to suboptimal character build choices. They’ll refuse to break magical laws not because they’re not tempted, or because they’re worried about the wardens, but because that +1 for a power isn’t mechanically optimal. Particularly for wizard characters, who are pretty strapped for powers after buying their standard package, there’s practically zero temptation to do anything that will force them to spend character build currency on a power they don’t want (and which is mechanically very weak, compared to the other power and stunt options).

So the tweak is simply to make the power “free” up front, but, when the character is compelled to break a law, the cost to buy out of the compel is increased by the rank of the power. For example, if you have rank two of Lawbreaker: First (i.e., don’t murder with magic), when the GM offers a fate point to murder someone with magic, it costs three fate points to choose not to. And, if you continue to sin and sin, those twists to your aspects will make you much easier to compel in a variety of circumstances.

(A slightly less downward spirally version of this change suggests that players cannot be compelled to break laws until they have Lawbreaker rank one and that doesn’t change the cost to buy out, and rank one just increases the cost to two fate points. This would prevent the GM from straight up engineering falls: you have to make that first choice yourself.)

A character trying to redeem him or herself could reverse the process, cleansing aspects and eventually removing rank two with an unbroken sequence of buy outs of the compel to sin further (up to the GM how many buy outs in a row are required to recover). But you can’t ever get rid of rank one; per the source material, once you’ve broken a law, it changes you, and you have to resist the urge to keep doing it for the rest of your life.

I think this tweak should preserve the intent of the system, while making it much more attractive to character optimizers.

Straight-Up Premise Theft: Sense8

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The Elevator Pitch

Eight unrelated individuals from around the world share a dream one night: a woman commits suicide to keep herself and her friends from a creepy old man and his conspiracy. Each in the midst of his or her own problems, they begin to see and feel strange things. They find people they don’t know watching them in moments of crisis, and find themselves seeing others from across the world in their own troubling moments. Soon, they haltingly learn to do more than project as “holograms” that only the others can see, and to actually share sensory impressions and skills with one another when one member is more suited to dealing with problems. And problems they have, for these new tendencies to space out and see things begin to exacerbate their own issues, as well as putting them on the radar of the conspiracy that killed their “mother” to these strange gifts.

(This show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The reason for the powers, the setting, and the nature of problems and conspiracies can vary vastly, but the powerset is specific:

  • Player characters can project at will to experience what any other member of the group can experience (manifesting as an observer that only the others can see).
  • While projected, the character is vulnerable, but not unconscious: when you’re visiting someone else, your body continues on in an autopilot that can handle most things that don’t require a skill check (you’ll continue walking, even driving if it’s not too complicated, and space out but not immediately obviously abandon a conversation, etc.). If you’re just having a conversation with another PC, you can flip back and forth between locations, each taking turns being the one projected, with minimal loss of concentration toward what you’re doing.
  • With permission of another member, you can take over that member’s body, using your traits to handle his or her problems (you basically take over the PC using your PC’s skills; it’s up to the GM and system in question whether it makes sense to also give him or her your attributes). Any negative effects suffered while puppeting another character are suffered by the puppet.

Essentially, any PC can be present in any scene with another PC as an observer that only the other PCs can detect. If a PC doesn’t have the right skills for a problem, he or she can temporarily cede control of his or her body to another PC that does. The only limitation to the ability of a diversely skilled group is that they’re often only bringing one person to bear on a problem (albeit a person with any skills necessary for the task).

The Rationale

I’m not sure how common it is at other tables, but groups I’ve played in have never followed the “don’t split the party” mandate. A common way to run games is, in fact, for the GM to introduce everyone as unrelated characters, cut between scenes where one player character is active and the other players just watch and wait their turns, and slowly create a situation that naturally draws the characters together (but it might take several sessions). Even after meeting, the PCs might have built up unrelated sidequests and problems that don’t really demand that the group tackle them as a unit.

The Sense8 powerset fully enables this type of play. PCs start out unrelated, and can be distributed across the world if the GM’s got enough locations prepared, but they can each be present in one anothers’ scenes. There’s no time spent having to catch the others up when you do happen to synch back, explaining how much of what their players witnessed that you actually remember to tell them (one of the worst things in this style of play is when you, as a player, spot something that your character would want the other PC to notice or drill down on, but you can’t actually do anything about it until you get back together and hope the other player considers it relevant to mention passing on; with these powers, you can just tell the other PC to ask about it or look at it). And you can participate fully in a scene that you’re not in, even beyond being the peanut gallery: when the active PC needs to make a check that he or she isn’t great at, you can lend your skills.

Essentially, this powerset means that the party cannot be split, and the GM is free to run lots of simultaneous scenes where nobody feels like they need to sit, be quiet, and observe but not metagame.

Borrowing from Video Games: The Witcher’s Tally War

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Each Witcher game introduces several minigames to divert from the main gameplay. The Witcher 3‘s addition is Gwent: a deck-building card game that is structured to resemble warfare. In the context of the game’s world, there has just been a long war that engulfed the nations that your character calls home, and the cards in the game reflect the factions and characters involved in the war. (Not germane to the use of the system herein, but it does a really good job of reminding you of characters you’ll be encountering in the main plot: if you’ve seen their cards in the game, you know who they fought for and what their general role was.)

A good overview of the game can be found here. But for the highlights:

  • Each player must have a deck of at least 22 cards, and ten are pulled for the match.
  • Each card has a value associated with it.
  • You alternate turns playing cards. Either player can pass instead of taking a turn (but then the other player gets as many turns as desired until she also decides to pass).
  • The goal is to have the highest score at the end of a round (after both players pass), and win two rounds out of three.
  • You don’t normally draw more cards during a match, so the basic strategy involves tricking the other player into using up all of her good cards for an easy first win, leaving you with enough cards to win two rounds. Or just having a much more powerful deck with more high-value cards than the other player (cards are collected during play of the larger RPG, rather than any kind of balance being involved in forming the decks at the time of a match).

When you first start playing, the highlights are all you really need, but as you gain more cards and face opponents with better decks, you start to notice deeper functions:

  • Cards are siege, ranged, or melee. Different special effects modify cards based on what type they are.
  • Many cards have special abilities such as being spies (lets you give the card to your opponent’s tally, but draw more cards from your deck), medics (lets you instantly play a card from your discard pile), morale boosters (increases every ally card of the same type by +1), mustering (lets you play every card with the same name instantly even from your main deck), tight bonders (doubles the point value of identical ally cards), or agile (lets you treat the card as ranged or melee when you play it, whichever works better for your strategy and available cards).
  • Special cards can be weather effects that reduce all cards of a certain type to base value 1 (for both players), warhorns that let you double all ally cards of a particular type, scorch cards that take out all the cards with the currently highest value (possibly including your own if you aren’t careful), and decoys that let you pull a card back into your hand (to take back a high-value card after forcing your opponent to waste cards to counter it, or to pick up a spy that your opponent has just used so you can turnabout and turn it into a triple agent, drawing more cards yourself).
  • The most notable characters in the game are hero cards. Heroes are generally very high value, and are immune to negative effects (they can’t be reduced by weather or scorched). Unfortunately, they’re also immune to positive effects (they can’t benefit from warhorns or morale boosts, be restored by medics, or be picked back up with a decoy).
  • Each faction has a special ability and can have one version of a commander card (with an additional once-per-match special ability).

Taken together, what initially seems like a slightly more complicated version of War actually proves to have tremendous strategic and tactical depth.

And it might be a really good system for doing mass combat for D&D/Pathfinder.

In particular, things it does by default that work well for d20 include:

  • There’s a built in understanding that one protagonist is worth a whole unit of basic NPCs: cards with a named character are generally worth more points than cards that represent whole units. This tends to jibe with actual D&D play in a way that most mass combat systems don’t: clearly, a single PC with good defenses and AoEs is able to mow unharmed through a whole squad of lower level soldiers.
  • The heroes system seems purpose-built to represent PCs and major NPCs.
  • The point value of cards maps pretty directly to level, while special abilities can represent specific training boosts.
  • It’s much faster and more fun to play than traditional mass combat systems.

Specific changes I’d make to the game to fit it specifically into a campaign include:

  • Decide early on how many soldiers are needed to create a unit card. This can be many or few, as the drawing system will wind up balancing them. Larger creatures might need fewer for a unit (e.g., a unit of archers might represent 40 characters, but a unit of Ogres only 10). Also decide whether non-hero NPCs are just the face of a unit (e.g., is that NPC card just representing him, or him and a support staff?). This will influence how much you need to force the PCs to care about paying for their units during downtime, and should ultimately reflect how many mooks you think a single PC could take out during a battle.
  • Figure out what the bar is for gaining a special ability. The standard game features cards that don’t have specials and ones that do, and if you’re using level as the card’s value number it’s harder to balance the card by reducing that level when you add a special. Instead, having a special ability should usually be the sign of an elite unit (possibly one that has better gear, PC class levels, or just some expensive form of training).
  • Figure out whether there are certain bonuses and penalties for setting up a battle. For example, having a stronger battlefield position may let you start the game by drawing more cards than your opponent, or, assuming neither side has a caster with Control Weather, weather cards might be completely up to the GM to play based on the conditions during the battle.

I’d suggest using the normal single-match method of play only for minor sorties with nothing really on the line. For campaign-deciding wars, I’d suggest a version that’s iterated:

  • Each match represents approximately a day of fighting.
  • Each deck represents all available units. If units are moving from distant places to join the war, cards that were not available on day one can be added to your deck for subsequent matches once they arrive as reinforcements.
  • The first match is played normally.
  • At the end of the first match, the loser removes all non-hero cards from his discard pile (they were killed or otherwise totally disbanded), and sets aside the hero cards (they were injured enough that they won’t help in subsequent matches). The winner shuffles her discarded hero cards back into the main deck, and moves the remaining discards to an “infirmary pile” (they’re not dead, and can be pulled from by Medic cards, but will otherwise not be available until the end of the war. Cards remaining in hand (because you passed and won or lost with cards remaining) are shuffled back into the deck.
  • Subsequent matches use the same deck (with modifications for reinforcements and non-injured heroes). If you have multiple players that are interested in having a go, you can trade out which player is in the hot seat from match to match. (On a round that a player is in control, you might consider having her pull her PC from the deck as an automatic add, if not already injured, because playing your own character card is fun.)
  • The war ends when one side gets totally run out of cards or forfeits completely.
  • In addition to deciding who won the war, the end of the game should provide a tally of units that are dead/disbanded, just injured, or still in fighting shape for later wars or just for the general story purpose of describing what happened. You might also consider giving surviving units a chance to level up based on how well everything went.

Ultimately, this should wind up playing similarly to my previously posted card-based battle system (which was fun, but time-consuming to set up), but likely with more feeling of fun and agency for the players (since there are a number of more interesting tactics you can pursue beyond just trying to assemble the biggest army).

Straight-Up Premise Theft: The Almighty Johnsons

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So you know how video game designers who blog tend to have blogs that go dark suddenly and for extensive periods when their game is about to come out? Yeah, sorry about that. It’s been a pretty attention-distracting year. But I come out of it with a bunch of new games played and media consumed that should hopefully serve as posting fodder for a while. And if you don’t notice the year tick up mysteriously on the side, going back through the archives it might only look like I missed two weeks! I’ll try to keep posting weekly, but until I get a big buffer built up I’ll play it by ear, such that missing a week won’t necessarily be a precursor to another long hiatus.

This week starts a companion series to Serial Numbers Filed Off. Instead of coming up with a setting/genre shift but keeping the plot structure intact (as with SNFO), these will be more about highlighting media that you might not have seen that I think contains a  premise that is readily translated to a campaign of your own, whether or not you keep any of the plot structure. Each of these may contain mild spoilers for the media property in question, but I’ll try to keep it to only what you learn in the first episode and/or from the promotional material unless there’s something really key to making the premise into a game that isn’t obvious until later.

The Elevator Pitch

Axl Johnson is just your average Kiwi college kid about to turn 21, the youngest of four brothers. After an ominous series of events strike Auckland on the evening before his birthday, his brothers take him out to the woods to clue him in to the family secret: the Norse gods traveled to New Zealand centuries ago as their powers started to wane and Scandinavia was no longer safe for them, they died but their mantle passed on to individuals within the family tree, and when one of those individuals turns 21, he or she comes into a godly identity and (much diminished) powers. His brothers are actually Ullr, god of games (with the ability to win any game of chance every time, and to track unerringly), Bragi, god of poetry (who can convince any mortal of pretty much anything, if given enough time to speak), and Hodr, god of the dark and cold (who hates his power to manifest and resist cold, because of the crimp it puts in his love life). His “Cousin” is actually the brothers’ grandfather, whose powers as Baldr mean he doesn’t age. And who is Axl? He is Odin, and his reappearance means the beginning of a quest to find the new incarnation of Frigg. If Odin and Frigg are reunited, the much-weakened powers of the gods will be restored, but if he dies before completing the quest, a calamity will befall New Zealand, likely killing all the currently incarnated gods.

And there’s a secretive cabal doing everything they can to prevent this from coming to pass and the gods’ powers from being restored. No pressure.

(The show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The specifics of the pantheon in question, the location, the nature of the quest and antagonists, and how things got to how they are now are fully up to the group’s own interests. But the operative premise is simple: you are thrust into being a modern incarnation of a god with a small suite of abilities based on your former portfolio. They’re enough to give you a sizable advantage over mortals, but not enough to really be what most would consider “godlike.” So you’re still going to have to work at achieving your objectives. And these diminished powers come with a whole list of godly responsibilities and enemies that are very likely to fall upon you at the worst possible moments.

This is probably best handled with a game engine where PCs are expected to be threatened by the mundane (i.e., something not level based or too high-action pulpy). The Storyteller system, Unknown Armies, Unisystem, BRP, or Savage Worlds are probably good choices for modern games, and A Song of Ice and Fire, Pendragon, The One Ring, or even Ars Magica might be good choices if you want to go fantasy. The godly powers work less like superpowers than like a mechanic where you automatically succeed at certain things if uncontested, and gain a substantial (but not insurmountable) bonus in a contest. The trick during gameplay is to figure out how to move seemingly insurmountable problems into a realm where your portfolio lets you win: when all you have is a hammer…

The Rationale

There are a number of games that have tackled the idea of modern gods, either specifically like Nobilis or Scion or indirectly like Aberrant, Godlike, and really any supers system. But those generally focus on giving you a whole raft of powers that quickly boost you above mundane problems. The Almighty Johnsons suggests a potentially new avenue where getting to that level of power is actually the central goal of the game: most of the gameplay focuses on using the remnants of your godly heritage to try to bring about a transcendence into greater power.

As a mythology wonk, it also provides a fun ability to recontextualize the pantheistic religion of your choice into a new setting, translating the characters and drama of myths and epics into a game where characters relate as individuals but also as gods. American Gods is also a good inspiration for this kind of thing.

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