Sunday, December 7, 2014

What I Learned About RPGS from MC'ing a Wedding

Yesterday, Saturday December 6th, 2014, my best friends got married. They were both beautiful, and the wedding went off without a hitch... Which was surprising, considering I was both Best Man and Master of Ceremonies, so a lot of the screw-ups (which thankfully didn't occur) would have been on me!

The whole experience got me to thinking: planning and running a wedding is a lot like running an RPG as the GM. In fact, the two are so similar, that I wouldn't be surprised if that was why I was chosen for the role!

So here are a few tips for both MCing a wedding and for running a successful RPG session.

Tip #1 - Over-Plan, Under-Plot
When planning for the special day, I looked over several revisions of run sheets, spoke to everyone who may-or-may-not speak, collected together a series of items for the Groom in case of emergency, and ran through every situation in my head before it could surprise me. I also wrote a giant stack of palm cards with every step of the day marked out clearly.

Now, do you think the day went according to the plan? No way. Herding wedding guests is like trying to direct players - except you have about 10x as many, or perhaps even more! And yet, all this planning wasn't wasted.

Because I knew how the day was supposed to go and why back-to-front, I knew what I needed to change on the fly to get it back on track, or just as good. It also allowed me to be comfortable enough with the material that I could improvise when I needed to (which I did need to with several points).

For RPGs, I would recommend this sort of over planning, yet under plotting. Know who your characters are and what they want deeply (and why!), and then figure out how they're going to get their goals completed. Once you know this through and through, throwing a few players into the mix wont hurt so much. Your players will mess everything up, but your finely crafted NPCs will be able to reel with the punches and deliver some great dynamic game play!

Tip #2 - Get to know your guests and supporting cast
I spoke to everyone (or near everyone) on the Bridal Party, close family of the Bridal Party, and Church/Reception Staff before their roles were exposed to everyone else. I knew where their weaknesses were (Would they dance? Would they give a speech? Would they prefer to mingle early, or take a break from photos, etc?) 

This enabled me to know who I could rely on for what tasks, and to delegate out pieces of the evening. If I needed something for the Bride or Groom, I knew who to ask. If I needed to shuffle around some of the speeches, I knew who to talk to. If I needed to get the music changed, I had that covered.

Obviously I couldn't do everything at the Reception myself, and nor should I. The parents of the Bridal Party would want to help out on the newlyweds wedding, and I was more than happy to have their help! This delegation allowed me to focus more on the Bride and Groom, and also allowed the rest of the Bridal Party to feel more included, and to actively shape the happy night their children will remember for the rest of their lives, and that is truly special.

For RPGs, this advice boils down to: know your players, and know what they're good at. Do you have a player who is great at maths? Have them keep tabs of HP. Do you have a player who loves music and has a great ear? Have them run your playlists. Do you have a player who can bake? Have them bring some delicious treats for the rest of the players!

Keeping your players involved beyond just being characters enables them to build culture with the RPG group, beyond just in-game memories. You'll have your players talking about not just the two-headed Troll they slew, but also the sweet music going on in the background, and the delicious biscuits to go along side it! This sort of culture is, in my opinion, deeply important to RPG groups.

Hell, it's the reason the Bride and Groom are my best friends... I became close to them through my first campaign in Melbourne!

Tip #3 - It's ALL about the Bride and Groom
The single greatest piece of advice I received when planning for last night was that nothing matters beyond the Bride and Groom having a great time. Nothing. If they are happy, the wedding is going well, and in return they are happy, ad infinitum.

I made sure to keep my Bride and Groom stocked with drinks, food and anything else they could possibly need. I made them know that if they needed anything I hadn't offered, they could merely ask and I'd get it. (I also discovered a form of Wedding Sorcery - honestly, if you're ever on a Bridal Party, try going to the Reception Staff and asking for something for the Bride or Groom. They will drop what they're doing and run for it. I may have gone power-crazy.)

For your game, know that so long as they players are enjoying themselves, the game is going well. So what if you'd planned for a Dragon fight at this point - if they're having fun discussing court politics with the aging King, then damn well let them! However, if they're starting to nod off, have the Dragon come to them! Bring them the fun - don't make them find it.

Tip #4 - Be Sincere, Be Happy, Laugh When You Fall, and Help Up Everyone Else
My last tip is simple - don't take yourself or anyone else to seriously... At the Reception, I didn't write in jokes. I was nervous, and I just said what came to mind. I opened the night by standing like a dick in front of everyone chatting away. I thought, How will I get their attention? I picked up my fork and tapped it against the glass in front of me like I'd seen in the movies, and like I'd always wanted to do. Everyone shut up and looked and me, and I forgot what to say, so I said what came naturally to mind...

"I've always wanted to do that."

People laughed, I laughed, and I remembered everything I was supposed to do. I made myself a momentary prat, and then captured the audiences attention and empathy. We were all there to have a good time. They weren't there to listen to my verbosity - they wanted to see and toast and love the newlyweds.

Plus, the line became a running joke for the evening, bringing everything together. Whenever I needed attention, everyone looked over and laughed again, and it kept the tension broken. We could get on with the good stuff. During my speech, I spoke sincerely. I didn't shove in Buck's Night Humour as one cousin congratulated me on afterwards, but spoke from the heart, and matched how I felt. I hope I did them well.

And so my last time is this: Don't run your game like a TV Comedy Panel, trying to force entertainment on your players. They want to have fun along with you, not be entertained by you. They want to build their own fun out of a game session, and build it co-operatively. So let them. It will make your job easier, and make the sessions better! Just run a game as you'd tell a good story to a friend down at the pub. Your players will laugh in the right bits because you will. Your players will be tense in the right bits because you'll feel it. And they will laugh when you fall, and you'll laugh when they fall, but just as you should help them back up, so to will they.

Final Words
I love my RPG group. I really do. We are all the best of friends, and I feel comfortable around them in and out of game with anything. I've seen two of them fall in love, and two others get married now.

The game is nothing compared to the culture, and that's what I want to protect. We're an RPG Family. Thanks, M.O.R.T.E.




Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Lightest RPG Ruleset Ever

Don't worry, I'm still writing the next part of my recent series.  I haven't forgotten! This is just something I thought about on my way to work this morning...

The following is a ruleset for a light RPG you can play in any amount of time, even less than 30 minutes. Character generation takes 10 seconds, and combat (if you even have any) takes a single dice-pool per 'side'. It can be used for any setting, ever.

Each player chooses 3 things their character is good at. This could be anything, from Strength, to Running, to Talking People to Sleep.

Each player ranks these traits from +1, +2, and +3. You have to use each, and you can only use each once.

To make a test, a player rolls a d6. If they are testing an action against something that they have a trait in, they roll that many more dice and add all the results together.

The GM sets the Difficulty of an action (or in the case of a contested action, the other party rolls and compares the highest). Difficulty 4 is the base-line.

If a player rolls equal to or above the Difficulty, then they succeed. If they get equal to or more than twice the Difficulty, they have performed a Critical Success, and they can describe the extra awesome things they've done.

Combat is fought by both sides adding up all their dice and rolling it as a single dice-pool. The side with the highest total wins, and the other side loses. It is up to the GM and the players to decide what this means.

Weapons and armour, and other gear add more dice, or have cool effects determined in the moment.

Rules of Thumb: Don't be a dick. Play to have fun with everyone. Trust each other. Do these things and the system will work.

Have fun!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #2 - Involving the Senses

This is Part #2 of a 5-part series. For the other 4 parts, go to these links: Part #1, Part #3, Part #4, and Part #5.

Since the beginning of versamus my writing and my GMing has grown considerably. As such, I felt it would be a good idea to re-write the first series I ever released on here - Emotion in Gaming (1234). This post is a revision of the second part: External Influences, which I am renaming Involving the Senses. I'm actually breaking this one into 2 different posts, as it was getting a little long!

This series is useful to GMs and players alike who want games that really stay in your memory, long after the session in which it was played has come and gone.

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #2 - Involving the Senses


Often the greatest barrier between your players and their emotions is, oddly enough, your game. Not the story, or the characters, or anything on that kind, but the fact that you're all sitting around a table and playing something. Whilst true immersion is impossible (and not even ideal), you do want your players invested in your game world. The best way to do this, I have found, is by influencing your players' senses.

As I touched on last time, we have more than the 5 senses that good ol' Pliny put down, but we can hardly include proprioception into a campaign. What we can do is influence Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, and Taste. Some of these tips are elsewhere, and last time I left them out if they were, but not this day.
Procrastination, always putting things off till another day.

Sight

Sight is the easiest and cheapest trick in a GM's book. A GM can go to really any length on this spectrum, from finding good image boards on Pinterest (of which there are many), and checking out the two Greatest Damn Art Resources(1, 2), to making PowerPoint presentations or AfterEffects clips showcasing the art, all the way to performing your own "holograms" like I described last time.

Really, anything can be mocked up easily for your players' benefit.

Not only is sight easy to trick, it is also quite effective at rallying your players behind a single mindset. A map is great to give a sense of scale to a journey, and a monster image will help build the epicness. But all of these techniques are surface deep.

The best use of sight I have ever done was in limiting it. By controlling the lighting in your sessions you can build fear and apprehension (much as I did, by making the corners of the room difficult to perceive). This can be done in any way from replacing electric light with candles (or those "electric candles" you can get from craft/homeware stores) to a dimmer switch.

Sound

Sound can be a great addition to the tabletop for building emotion, but it can be a distracting tool for the GM to use. Building playlists around themes may work for some, but I often find myself either ignoring the playlist completely, or tripping over it as the mood changes.

Luckily, fantastic alternatives now exist! Syrinscape, a subscription-based system enables you to more seamlessly integrate sound effects and music into your game. However, there is a lot there, and it might not be to everyone's taste. Therefore, a free alternative (though you really should donate!) is Tabletop Audio, a lovingly curated background ambience web-player. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Music should be played at low volume so that when only one person is talking (hopefully the GM, not players talking over each other) it can be heard in the background, but when everyone is getting into the spirit, it doesn't make you raise your voice. Sound works best to create emotion when you match the flow of your own voice to the music, so make sure to describe those dark caverns in a slow, deeper method than a pirate swinging from the riggings!

Smell

Smell is a very difficult sense to trick, especially so at the tabletop when you don't have anyone behind the senses. Whilst I used to think incense was a good idea at the tabletop, it can be very distracting if done incorrectly. Instead, I now advocate for mixing Smell with the other senses:
  • If you're using candles for lighting, consider scented candles (or maybe even church candles if you want to get that waxy smell really strong),
  • If you're cooking (see Taste next post), make sure you do it shortly before playing, so the house smells strongly of the food,
  • If you're not directly cooking, put some spices in a pan for a few moments, or brew some coffee, or make fragrant tea,
  • Spray a little perfume under the table at a pivotal moment,
  • And so on...
Smells should be used sparingly. Not everything needs a physical smell, but you should always describe it at least. However, if you have a villain who always smells like sickly lavender, and you spray some under the table every time they appear, the next time your players smell it yet you've said nothing they will go into frenzy.


Next post will be about Touch and Taste, my two favourite senses at the tabletop!


Have you ever used sight, sound or smell at the tabletop to heighten the ambience, and create more memorable moments? Did it go well? Did it go poorly? Let me know!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #1 - Group Dynamics

This is Part #1 of a 5-part series. For the other 4 parts, go to these links: Part #2, Part #3, Part #4, and Part #5.

Since the beginning of versamus my writing and my GMing has grown considerably. As such, I felt it would be a good idea to re-write the first series I ever released on here - Emotion in Gaming (1, 2, 3, 4). This post is a revision of the first part: Group Consensus, which I am renaming Group Dynamics.

This series is useful to GMs and players alike who want games that really stay in your memory, long after the session in which it was played has come and gone.

Emotion in Gaming 2.0 - Part #1 - Group Dynamics


Emotions play a massive role in tabletop gaming, whether it is the anger felt over someone building your route in Ticket to Ride, or the sense of conflict-camaraderie when you push back the Barbarians in Settlers of Catan: Cities & Knights. Whilst these experiences are fun, powerful and memorable, they do not hold a candle to those had during a roleplaying game... Our group still shares a few moments of silence when Saint Ghanima's name is mentioned.
Is it that I don't like Catan? Or that Catan doesn't like me?
These emotional responses create long-lasting memories for players. Everyone around your table will remember the time when the young innocent barmaid is sacrificed for the greater good, or the villain slays a party member who then miraculously (and dangerously) comes back to life. (I'm getting chills writing these examples, as they are all excerpts from my Praag campaign!) These events will create a shared narrative around the table, and represent the height of the GM's craft - you've created events so real to your players that they count as 'memories'.

However, this isn't for every group. I'm lucky in that my group trusts me to run damn near anything. I've scared the shit out of them with sadistic cultists of Khaine, and I've brought (at least a few of them) to tears when their gruff mentor himself broke down weeping. I've been lucky in that my group are happy to experience these greater emotions. Not that we don't play for fun, but we are far from a beer-and-pretzels game.

But not every game is this way. Along with your Standard Table Contract, you'll want to discuss what emotions and topics people don't want to explore, and which ones they do. Some people love horror, others hate it. Some want romance in their games, others are uncomfortable about it.

To go through this, I advise three levels of gradation with each topic and emotion: 
  1. Green: The topic / emotion is completely fine. No issues with it being included.
  2. Orange: The topic / emotion is fine thematically, but keep it 'off screen'.
  3. Red: The topic / emotion is out-of-bounds. Keep it away from the game.
In the case of a Green topic, it's fine, just leave it, and let everyone know they can always flag it with Orange if they get uncomfortable. 

With Orange, discuss as a group how best to present it: "fade-to-black" is my personal favourite, where you say how it begins, and then allow the scene to explain itself in player imagination while you change the scene. 

With Red, just leave it out. If it is thematically necessary, discuss it with the group, but it is better to not have compromise. Nothing is worse than a player feeling out-of-character uncomfortable at your table.

Discussing these issues will help your game significantly, as it will allow your players an idea of the games you want to run, and the mindset that they should be coming to your game with, because at the end of the day, if the players don't want to feel a certain emotion, you're going to have a very difficult time making them...

Have you ever used a strong emotional response in your games? If so, let us all know! These tend to be the best stories from the tabletop, so keen to hear about them!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Versamus 30k: We Did It, Baby!

I'm very proud today. I'm proud because versamus has reached 30,000 page views!

That's pretty intense, I have to say... 30,000 is a lot more than I ever dreamed I would get way back when I started. My writing has changed a lot in the 3.5 years, and my life has changed a lot more. I've grown as an individual and, most importantly for this blog, as a Game Master.
This photo is a metaphor about how I've been standing still with my hands cupped in front of my for so long that a tree has started growing in them. It has no relevance to this blog. None. Nothing about Growth. I'm just bragging that I can no-hands photograph.
In the 3.5 years I've finished a major campaign, graduated university as a Games Designer, and begun working in the industry. I've even started freelancing! I helped release a WFRP 2e fan supplement, and began writing my own... It's been a busy few years.

To express the growth that has gone into this time, and to pay homage to the beginnings of versamus, I am going to rewrite, and re-release my first four articles on the site - Emotion in Gaming (1, 2, 3, 4).

Thank you to everyone who has ever read anything on this site. A second thank you to anyone who has ever commented! (I don't get many, so when I do, I get very excited!!) And a third and far-from-final thank you to those who have encouraged me along the way, shared my work, or let me know that anything I've written has actually been worth reading. You guys are the reason there are 30k views on this blog. Not me. I had very little to do with it...

Cheers, and I hope I'll be doing this for a lot longer :D

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

RECIPE: Fusion-ish San Choy Bao

I normally don't write recipes, but I do love to cook often, and I love to write, so I thought I might combine the two. Lets see how this goes.

San Choy Bao is a favourite of mine - I remember eating it as a child, and enjoyed the messiness of the little lettuce-wrapped parcels. This is a traditional Vietnamese dish, however as with a lot of what I cook it takes on a Japanese bent here, replacing sherry with sake, and switching up from the usually sweeter and lighter soy to Japanese soy, which is a bit more savoury.

This dish is relatively cheap - I bought everything from the supermarket for around $40 AUD - and feeds a lot of people. It's also quick and fun to make, as well as tasting great for very little work. Just cut everything up and add it in stages. No fancy techniques go into San Choy Bao, so anyone should be able to do it regardless of cooking skill.

I don't have a picture from last night, as I didn't have the foresight to take one. I also don't know the legality of posting someone else's picture here, so I'll just Google it for you.

Preparation Time: ~15 minutes.
Cooking Time: ~30 minutes.
Serves: 6-8*.

* I made this for dinner last night and fed 6; our house is a little odd, however, so this could probably feed more if you have small eaters.

Ingredients:

For Frying
2 tbs peanut oil
500g chicken mince
500g pork mince
1 small red chilli, finely diced and deseeded
2 heaped tsp minced garlic (I prefer pre-minced for dishes like this, as they have more juice)
2 handfuls oyster mushrooms, finely diced
6 shallots, finely sliced
2 cans water chestnuts (about 500g), finely diced
1 can bamboo shoots (about 250g), finely diced
3 tbs soy sauce
3 tbs oyster sauce

Sauce
6 tbs hoisin sauce
2 tbs Japanese soy sauce
2 tbs oyster sauce
2 tbs sweet chilli sauce
4 tbs sake

To Serve
Lettuce cups
Tortilla wraps
3 cups uncooked rice

Method:
  1. In a large covered pan on medium-to-high heat, fry the oil, chilli and garlic until fragrant. Add in the chicken and pork mince, breaking it up and combining it. Cover with lid to keep moisture. Lift the lid and stir every minute or so to make it an even browning.
  2. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside. Alongside, cook the rice in your preferred method (I advise using a rice cooker so that you don't have to keep an eye on it throughout).
  3. Once the mince is browned, add the sauce, and the mushrooms, shallots, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. Cover again for 5 minutes.
  4. Stir throughly and add the remaining soy sauce and oyster sauce. Let this fry off a little, and serve hot.
Serving:

Traditionally, San Choy Bao is eaten without rice, wrapped in a small lettuce leaf and eaten whole. Personally, I prefer to eat it like a lettuce taco, topping it with rice (which also makes the meat go further, and makes it less salty). Some, my housemates included, prefer to eat it in a tortilla wrap with the lettuce on the inside like a burrito. Each to their own.

I advise you to set the table with the meat, lettuce, rice and wraps in the centre so that your guests can pick and choose how they want to make it themselves. You might also want to serve either red wine or spirits alongside this dish, as the deeper flavours will go well with the umami of the white meats and mushrooms.

Alternatives and Notes to the Picky Eater:

Normally San Choy Bao is made with a dry cooking sherry, or Chinese cooking wine. I chose sake, because I prefer the taste and I think it goes exceptionally well with chicken. However, if you want a richer flavour, try the original way the second time around, and let me know your thoughts on the differences!

If you're one to baulk at chilli, have no fear. My housemates (who loved this) dislike and don't tolerate chilli... They didn't comment on its inclusion, or complain that it was too hot, so you should be fine. If you like it hot, however, please add more (I would say no more than 4x the amount shown above, but you should know the tastes of your household to judge).

Lastly, you can also add in finely shredded cabbage and diced bean sprouts to increase the vegetables in this dish. If you do add these, give them the same proportions as the bamboo shoots size-(not weight-)wise.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Where Have I Been? And A Monster For Your Troubles...

Greetings,

It's been a while. It certainly has been a very long while. Much has changed, and now that the effects of Tzeentch are beginning to wear off I am finding a little more time to talk about those changes and other topics which I do love to natter on about.

So here goes...

Since I last spoke, I've: visited Japan for 2 amazing weeks; changed vocations (now professionally working for a Games Design studio in Melbourne, Australia - Twiitch); gained a housemate; radically altered (and somewhat stalled, due to increased work) my WFRP 2e campaign, Marienburg: Sold Down the River; begun work on The Sands of Athla in ernest (and hired a team to make it possible); begun freelancing for some professional tabletop ventures; and prepared myself mentally, physically (*laughs endlessly*) and emotionally for the prospect of being best man at my best friend's wedding...

So, you know, same-old.

Most (maybe all?) of these matters are topics I want to discuss more, though I wont make the mistake of promising them now. Let's just cross our fingers, shall we?

What I will give you now, however, is a monster concept that I wasn't able to jam into my latest submission (and as such it would go to waste otherwise). I give you the Hiveworm for your troubles:
Some travellers marvel at the strange formations that mountain ranges take. The educated among them often see mountains which don't quite fit with tectonic science. To some, these would be curious exceptions, but for those surveyors who have investigated, they have proven to be the source of nightmares. These 'mountains' are in truth gigantic hive-cocoons for a race of worms know as Hiveworms. Hiveworms come in three varieties; the small Slaver which coils around the necks of larger species to enslave them in protecting the hive, the horse-sized Chrysalists which devour rock and extrude it in a film to build the great mountain cocoons, and finally the mountain-sized Queens which live within the bowels of these cocoons and breed he lesser two varieties. These beasts operate towards their own goals with an almost sentient level of intelligence - certainly staring into their black beady eyes one feels a being of hate and madness staring back.
Stat it up (or suggest systems that you want me to stat it up into) and enjoy!

Hopefully we will talk again soon (and I will get a chance to show you some of what I've been up to!)