Saturday, August 17, 2019

RPGaDay 2019 Day #13 Engage

Today’s theme is “Engage.” (Yes, I finally got around to it.)

What does it mean to engage with the mechanics of the game? The simple answer is that anything that makes you look at the rulebook or your character sheet is engaging the mechanics. Deciding whether to roll dice can be as important to the outcome of the session as what dice you roll or what numbers you want to see on your dice. And some important rules don’t use dice at all. In my own game, Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, the most important rule of the game doesn’t use dice at all. Calling in a Friend is something that happens automatically when the player spends an Oz Point.

It’s tempting to say that the more complex your mechanics are, and therefore the more time spent looking up stuff in the rulebook, the more engaging your game is. As the RPGs of the 1980’s will tell you, there is only so much mechanical complexity that the human mind can stand. And the worst thing is putting engagement in the wrong places. If your players must make a lot of decisions and roll a lot of dice to do something, it should be an important focus of the game. If it’s not an important part of your game’s theme or story, it should be avoided.

Encumbrance rules are a good example of this. There aren’t many gamers that use them these days and they mostly hang out as evidence that the designers know how to build an equipment list. But there are some genres where encumbrance is actually very important. A heist or dungeon crawl (and it could be said that they are the same thing) could hinge on what they brought into the job with them and how much capacity they have to haul out the loot. But to use encumbrance rules in, say, a science fiction game of space piracy, doesn’t really serve the theme. Maybe there are detailed rules on what a ship can carry, but characters need only worry about how many hands they need to carry their weapons.

RPGaDay 2019 Day #12 Dream

Today’s theme is “Dream.”

It’s time to talk about our dream games. Most of my games are dreams right now, as I’m still getting to a point where I can run my own campaigns.

But I would love to run a Star Trek game. I had notes for a sandbox style campaign and the pitch was “Deep Space 9 on a starship.” The players would be the crew of a starship, but they were doing an extended sector patrol so they would be visiting the same planets on a regular basis. I had notes on how visiting the various planets and solving this problem or that problem would have effects on the other planets in the sector. Maybe I can dust them off and run with them once I make a few more friends.

Another idea I’ve had was the ultimate D&D sandbox game. Basically, the world map would be randomly generated, with no towns, cities or kingdoms. The only things that the party would have would be what they could make, find or build. There would be no kings or nobles to give them quests.

Part of this came from my desire to run a sandbox style D&D game involving domain-level play. Another part was a desire to run an experiment in player agency. To give the greatest amount of freedom to the players means stepping back as far as possible as the GM. See what kind of story they create when I have no vested interest in any outcome whatsoever.

There’s also the possibility of this turning into a 20-year campaign. I’ve known people who claim to have run the same campaign for 10 years or more. This doesn’t always mean that they’ve been keeping the same or similar butts in the same seats for the last 10 years, but that they’ve been running the same setting from the same set of notes for the last 10 years for whatever group they can wrangle.
With my 5-6-year long megadungeon campaign behind me, the thought of doing something big and long-term seems more possible. But one thing that I’ve had to confront is that I’m not creative in the usual sense, but I am analytical as all get out. I’m not sure I could create a setting detailed enough to hold up to 10 or even 20 years of consistent play. But the tools exist for the players to do that very thing themselves.

And there’s also a little bit of a confidence crisis in all of this, too. It’s been so long since I’ve run a campaign that getting back in the saddle is a bit intimidating. My coffee shop gaming was at the tail end of 2017. I tried running a game for Jordan and his group, but that wound up being a disaster. (Though to be honest, I wasn’t completely sold on what I was running, which might have had an impact.) There’s the fear that I can’t write a plot anymore. Running a pure sandbox with no set plot and doing as little work as possible might be a baby step towards running a more complex campaign of something else later. Or maybe my 20-year plan pays off and the sandbox starts simple, but the players work to build it up into a thing of majesty over time and I watch each group add some new piece to the setting.

RPGaDay 2019 Day #11 Guide

Today’s theme is "Guide."

Some games describe the Game Master as a Guide, which is partly accurate, but not really. You want to make sure that the players know the rules of the game and you do have some responsibility to teach them. But taking a hand in guiding your players through the story is considered bad form. Even if you are the most railroading GM out there, you don’t spend time telling your players what their characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene. (In that case, you probably tell your players “No” a lot until they do what you had scripted.)

This also open the door to the GMC, the Game Master Character: A member of the party who is played by the GM. This may be done with the best of intentions, such as giving the party a clue when they need one or allowing the GM to have the fun of playing a character, it is very easy to screw up. Being able to play both sides of the screen is an advanced technique that not everyone can pull off.
My advice to that sort of GM is to say “The story that comes out of the game is more important than the story that you wrote going into the game. If the players don’t have information, make sure that they’re still moving and still acting. Even if it’s wrong and stupid action. It’s theirs and that’s the important thing. Also, if you want to have a character, do that and let someone else run the game. If you want to be the GM, understand that you are approaching the game from a different angle than anyone else at the table and you should be having fun doing that.”
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