Musings of a Chatty DM
It’s been a dry couple of months on the D&D front for our group. March has always been brutal in this respect for me, with approximately 174 birthdays (including my wife’s and son’s), and just to make things more fun, everybody in my family managed to critically fail their saves vs. ear infections, strep, and <random illness here> for weeks on end. I’ve been trying to come up with a suitable comeback from the Worst Session Ever, but I haven’t been satisfied with anything thus far.
It was during these attempts that I realized I have a means of telling whether or not I am about to do something stupid as a DM. It’s incredibly obvious, in retrospect. If I am about to put the players on the rails or otherwise make terrible, arbitrary plot decisions, I nearly always start having the bad guys be dark, corrupted, oozy with some kind of evilgoo versions of regular bad guys. I guess the monkey at my controls believes it will be scarier somehow, but it is wrong.
My friend that left the gaming group recently had offered to let me bounce some campaign ideas off her, and I happily accepted. We made a few inroads, but then we started talking about the things we enjoyed from the last campaign. I’d wanted this time out to go for high fantasy, journeys across the continent, and epic battles. Nobody at the table, myself included, was ever wrapped up in my gripping story about saving the city and the world. It was always the little stories, the character interactions, and the random things nobody planned for.
I am starting to suspect something about myself, based on this and my experience with trying to write a novel this past November. It seems I might not actually be that great at writing a compelling epic storyline.
I am, however, a damned wizard at making strange things happen and crashing them against each other to make stranger things happen.No Potion For You
The new idea is simple. I’m setting the bar lower. Waaaaaaay lower.
My inspiration is the premise of the long-running, wildly popular, and pretzel-commercial-spawning 90′s sitcom Seinfeld – “a show about nothing”.
This campaign will also be about nothing — that is, nothing of dire importance to the world, the city, or even most people nearby is going to occur (by my hand, at least). However, there will be lots of characters with strange quirks and issues, and sweet Pelor will they hold petty grudges. This time, instead of laying out a master plan where an evil force finds some way to unleash an army of oozy darkness unless the party figures out how to work my deus ex machina in time, someone is going to open up a rival sandwich shop right across the street possibly forcing the PC’s to take drastic action to save their favorite lunch spot. Campaign finale, in the bag.
There will need to be some planning involved, of course. My thought is that I should map out several neighborhoods near the PC’s base of operations, and decide who all the residents are and why they might hate each other. To this end, I will be paying particular attention to property lines and how much lawn is between each residence, because that kind of thing can fuel a lifelong blood-grudge. There will be curious benefactors who want to make the PCs do uncomfortable things. There will be townspeople with hearts black as coal but without the ambition to act on any of it. There may be ideas that make me dance with glee that I don’t want to spoil because my players read this. The sacrifices I make for you people.
There may also be magical shrinkage. Most editions of D&D have rules for that. It’s canon. I’m pretty sure there’s a Greyhawk mage who specializes in it.
Some of my players have asked for more combat with more options for winning and losing aside from “one side kills all of the other side”. I think this is fertile ground for combat the likes of which very few have ever seen. One possible downside to this approach is that the Seriousness Knob is probably going to have to go a few more clicks toward “campy”, and it’s already pretty firmly in that territory. People are going to get more murdery than usual for very silly reasons, and there will likely be few consequences. I can’t very well have them hanged for going along with the ridiculous plot I placed at their feet. At least, not without a really awesome reason. As the PCs are all respected members of the city guard, I’ve also considered doing a weird arbitrary “you all have new jobs” swap a la Are You Being Served‘s move from a department store to managing a country inn. That didn’t make even a partial lick of sense either, but it was still awesome.
Of course, I haven’t spoken to any of my players about this yet. I suspect this will suit them just fine, but it If I go through with this, I haven’t decided if I’m going to retcon the events of the W.S.E., simply cause them to be not nearly as important as they seemed, or just encourage everyone not to give a crap about the coming darkness anymore. Maybe I will have a dark oozy monster come out of the shower and be like “hey everybody, it was all just a dream”. Now that I mention it, adding a bit of Dallas into this is an interesting idea…..
The strangest part of this for me is that I didn’t particularly care for Seinfeld when it was on. I find myself wanting to watch it now, just to get good ideas on how to make NPCs that are total self-absorbed jerks. I won’t need to worry about the players’ contribution. I’ve been rather enjoying watching them fight their morally-challenged PCs’ baser urges to try and play ball and be heroes (mostly) for the last campaign. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I don’t even try to make them do that a little anymore.
I’m getting that “this is going to be a glorious trainwreck” feeling about this. I’m not sure it’s healthy to be happy about that, but I am.
On Feb 2nd 2013, I invited game designer, writer, editor and otherwise swell guy Ryan Macklin to meet me in a Google+ Hangout to share how he dealt with his Inner-Demons. Afflicted with an ailment that causes him chronic pain and anxiety issues that brought him even more pain, Ryan’s been brought to the brink. He’s seriously considered the worst and planned for it.
The following is a recording of the 55 min discussion Ryan and I had on the subject. It talks about suicidal thoughts, medication, toxic environments, the challenges of health insurances (and lack thereof) and many other things. The mood ranges from informal banter to emotional sharing as Ryan digs deep to relate some painful details of his recent past. All’s not doom and gloom as we end up showing how nerdy we are by geeking out about TV shows and tech devices.
The whole thing lasts 55 minutes. It’s unedited, the lighting’s bad and we obviously follow no script. But we make it up with being open and honest about our conditions and how we try to deal with them. I hope you enjoy it. You.Are.Not.Alone.
Let me know if you think I should do it again with other guests in the future. That could become a semi-regular thing and I’d love to talk about it more. We need to be less isolated and more open about it. We can still function and for many of us, the broken bits in our minds open up some incredibly creative channels others can’t tap into as easily.
Please note that I shall host a similar form of talk at Pax East at the end of March. I’ll post more details as soon as I have a date.
N.B.: Given the delicate nature of the subject, I will be watchful of comments. Please be sensitive and cordial… you usually are but I’m playing it safe.
You can see it by following my Google+ Stream and it will automatically be uploaded to YouTube right after.
You can follow me on Google+ @Philippe-Antoine Menard
It will be named “Inner-Demons: Gamers Dealing with Mental Health Issues”
Because of the delicate nature of the subject, we decided not to allow multiple participants in the hangout. I also want to focus on Ryan’s experiences and stories.
I will however try to keep an eye on Twitter (@ChattyDM) and the Hangout chat window to field questions. If I can’t keep up, I’ll explore with Ryan the possibility of a followup blog post to address those questions.
I look forward to the experience and I hope you appreciate it.
See you tonight!
As the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide’s Kickstarter is progressing at a steady pace, I’m holding my breath, hoping it will crash through the next stretch goal, unlocking the expanded version of the Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying.
My original contribution to the campaign is one of the reasons why Dave and I are teaming up to make Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying. Dave told you his story where he created the prototype for the game here. Now let me tell you about my original Cortex Action fantasy hack: The Old School Job.
When Cam sent out a call for submission back in 2010, I was deep into the Leverage RPG. Not so much for the setting and the game itself but for the way that this game successfully portrayed high-tech heists without any of the bulky mechanics I’d come to expect from post-d20 era games. This made me think it could emulate so much more than heists. As you know, I’m a huge fan of D&D and like all 40 year olds, I have a very wide nostalgic streak about my D&D games of yore. That’s why I’ve long sought a way to recapture what I liked most about the earliest editions without some of the legacy cruft I had no particular taste for.
Cam’s call for submission kicked me into creative mode, which led to this fateful tweet:
A dungeon crawl is nothing more than a badly planned heist
The rest practically wrote itself. I started mapping the character Roles in Leverage (Mastermind, Hacker, Thief, Hitter and Grifter) into fantasy archetypes. While I initially created five: Warrior, Holy One, Scoundrel, Mage and Monk. I ended up dropping the Monk. I realized you could create one by mixing the Warrior/Holy One and Scoundrel roles to make one so I settled for four roles.* I playtested the hack with friends and during a few cons, it showed it had great potential.
I had space constraints: the hack was supposed to be less than 2000 words long so I needed to fit a lot of ideas in as little space as possible. I ended up cheating and wrote four parts to the whole thing. The Old School Job (previewed here) describes making new characters and adds special Talents for the new character roles. It also introduces a new game element called “Gold Points”, something that acts like undefined, but potentially useful, treasures (likely my favorite part of the hack).
The other parts: The Dungeon Fixer’s Guide, Old School Combat and The Old School Quest Generator completes the hack into a playable game. So far I found it ideal for one shot games and, given a bit of expansion for character growth (new talents and such) could easily handle short campaigns.
Looking back, what I really like about the hack is its pervasive attitude. There’s a lot of punk in there and it reflects the kind of adventures I like to play most. I love Mages that have no qualms about playing with the rules of reality, I love Rogue-types that can’t help stealing from their allies and I expect Holy types to be quite vocal about NOT being walking band-aid stations.
This attitude has pervaded the many sessions I’ve run. We’ve battled germophobic ogre-mages, explored a necropolis while an efreet posing as a monkey tagged along and faced hordes of undead as they took over a Brothel-Temple!
This game can do that, and more!
Want more? Please back our Kickstarter, we’re so close to hitting our stretch goals!
*Someone over at the Kickstarter Site suggested adding a Ranger/Survivor role to the mix. I like the idea very much and will likely add it into the final product.
I recently wrote a post about things that could make convention games less than ideal. I don’t want to imply that such games were all bad though, many of my best RPG experiences have been at Conventions. In fact, some of the games I’ve played have been downright amazing. I’ve tried to isolate some of the elements that contribute to such games.10) That Guy
I swear it’s the only one!
There’s one version of “That Guy” that can be very useful: The non-selfish instigator. That player can spell salvation for an otherwise bland, risk-aversive group. While others may hesitate to take decisions or spend too long pixelbitching the environment, the instigator goes forward, kicks doors and pulls levers. The presence of this guy can even turn the game into pure gold when the GM learns to channel the instigator’s impatience and enthusiasm into a pacing mechanic. In such cases, if a sufficient level of trust can be established, the instigator won’t go out of his way to get everyone killed.9) The Venue
Con games can be quite bloody noisy. So noisy that I considered putting it as one of the “sucky” elements in the previous post. However, sometimes a game will be held in an area that is both airy and comfortable. This is especially true if you can manage to sneak a game in a quiet corner of the convention. Such cozy environments remove the stress of having to filter out ambient noise and allows players to act more natural and get into the game more easily.8) Friendly, Enthusiastic Players
The great majority of players I’ve GMed for have been nice people. Yet, once in a while you get that one (or several) gems that just makes the whole table shine. They’ll be cheery, will promote table cohesion and just irradiate fun. Such people often become what I call positive leaders, establishing a sense of camaraderie that make the experience a charm for everyone.7) An Organised GM
You spot them from 20 feet away. The table is ready before you sit down. Every player has a full-colour character sheet, a set of pencils/markers and dice. The GM has a rad GM screen, tokens and initiative markers. She knows the adventure front and back and she’s ready to go as soon as everyone is seated.6) Perfect Character Adventure Synergy
Dave the Game has a saying that everything on a pre-generated characters should get used during a convention adventure. Rogues need to spring traps, Investigators need to find clues and Bards that use Tribal Belly Dancing should… You get my point. This is important because players expect their characters to play a significant role in the session. You absolutely want to avoid having one or more players sit around for 4 hours and never make a significant dice roll/action.5) An Assertive, Fair GM
They exist, and when you play with one, you remember it. They are not tyrants, but have a razor sharp focus on the game’s pacing and everyone’s fun. They don’t take crap from anyone, have no tolerance for rule lawyers and call out “Those Guys” when needed. They make sure everyone has a fair time in the spotlight and will interrupt extroverts with a polite “Hang on to that thought” and look at other players who haven’t spoken much to ask “What does your character feel like doing?” We need more of those.4) A Phenomenal Adventure
A convention adventure is a strange beast. It needs to fit in 4 hours (or less) and it often must cover what the game is all about. That’s a tall order that’s not consistently met. Yet sometimes you hit just the right adventure for the group arranged around the table. My favorite are those that mix exploration (setting or rules), conflict resolution and difficult choices. But it goes beyond that, the very best adventures are those that bring you to the cusp of abject defeat and then lets you manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… without obvious manipulation by the GM.
Emphasis on that last part.3) A Celebrity Game Master
Many times I’ve had the privilege of attending a game run by people whose names appear on the cover of the game books I own. When that happen, chances are the gaming experience will be EXACTLY as the creator envisioned it. If you are given the opportunity to be in such a game, Carpe the hell of that Diem!2) Game with Friends you Haven’t Seen in a Long Time
I used to go to conventions to network with peers and drop my card in the hands of potential patrons. While I still do this to an extent, conventions are VERY much about sitting at tables with friends I only see too rarely and GAME GAME GAME. RPG sessions with friends can attain that special space where magic happens and the game transcends itself. That’s why I so much look forward to convention season.1) A Safe Environment
The absolute best roleplaying games I’ve played were where I had no fear of expressing myself and going where I would not usually do. Sometimes, when multiple conditions from that list are met, you can unleash your inner actor and go to town. I recall episodes where I would be crawling on the floor, acting the moves of my character to drive the point of his intent home… much to the feigned horror of my co-players. A safe environment, bereft of judging, prejudice and any of “Those Guys” can truly unlock the full potential of convention games.
Be among those who can foster such games. Strive to make the experience better for those at your table, regardless if you’re a player or a GM. It will reflect on the whole table and it WILL make for better memories.
What about your favourite convention games? What clinched it for you?
Many of you may know that I have struggled with depressive and anxious episodes for many years. Back in 2009, I was diagnosed with type 2 Bipolar Disorder. I’ve since tried to deal with it in various ways, chief among those being a total online transparency about my condition. I reasoned that sharing my experiences, struggles and, more importantly, small victories wasn’t only therapeutic for me, it also showed others with similar issues that they weren’t alone.The Silverlining Panel
A year ago, I pushed things a bit further and successfully pitched a concept for a Pax East panel featuring gamers dealing with depression and anxiety. The idea was to outline, through life stories and anecdotes, how our respective tribes* were very powerful allies in overcoming the recurring hardships of those dealing with anxiety and depression.
The Pax East panel was a huge success. Along with my friends Brian Liberge and Melissa Lewis-Gentry, we shared poignant stories and hilarious ways that our tribe flew to our help in times of need. Many people in the room shared bits and pieces of their stories with us. Even a year later, I still get good feedback for it.
With such a resounding success, I planned an encore for last summer’s Gen Con. That time, we were graced by the presence of game designer and writer Ryan Macklin. Ryan shared a heart wrenching account of his bout with a condition that caused him so much physical pain that it drove him out of his mind with anxiety and the darkest of thoughts. His emotion-laden account had the whole room listen with rapt attention. Once again, many of those in the room hung around to share stories. A feeling of belonging, of not being alone pervaded the room.
Many have since asked if there were recordings or written accounts of such panels. I’m ashamed to say that there are none. Having to deal with my own issues at the time, this is one of the many things that slipped through the cracks. I have since vowed to ensure the recording of future panels.
Since Gen Con, Ryan and I have discussed back and forth about finding ways to transpose the panel experience over other types of media. We discussed podcasts and such and. As life would have it, we never quite settled on a format or a time…
…Until Google+ became an actual thing.The 2013 Playbook
So lets make the announcement! On Saturday February 2nd, at 9 PM (Eastern, 6 PM Western), I’ll have the great pleasure of hosting a G+ Hangout on the Air with Ryan. We each have a different account of our dealings with depression and anxiety and want to share our trials and successes with you in a friendly, informal format. The show will last between 45 minutes to an hour and will automatically be uploaded to YouTube after. I’ll be taking questions through twitter and emails during and after the show (Twitter @chattydm, email chattydm(at)critical-hits(d0t)com).
If the event is a success, I’m seriously thinking of making it a regular thing with various guests from the gaming industry. So stay tuned, I’ll post more precise instructions a bit later in the week.
I really look forward to this and hope that you will be there to share in this exceptional event.
See you Saturday night.
*Tribe: The group of people you keep close to you and trust implicitly. Often a mix of family and friends , quite likely includes your home gaming group