Saturday, March 25, 2017

12 Things I Wish I Would Had Known Before Running My First Game

Well, +Ripper X started it on his blog over here. It's a fun idea for a post (thanks, Ripper!), so I thought I'd take the opportunity to post a little something myself like that for you guys to ponder on this weekend: what's the things you'd like to have known for your first game(s)? Comment them, post them, share the love wisdom! Here's my (very personal) take on the question:
  • People are strange. Or in other words: no campaign construct, regardless how elaborate, will survive enemy player contact.
  • Let the players talk and take them serious. DM makes the pitch, players run with it. Or: you give the motor, they give the fuel and you'll never run out of fuel for the game if you let them talk. It also gives you room to plan ahead!
  • About those pitches: always let your agenda have agendas. Think moves ahead in your game, like you are supposed to in chess.
  • Never pitch the problem itself, let it manifest. Letting the players realize the problem is half the way of getting them to solve it. Give it all room and time to unfold.
  • One of the first things that will happen, is that you describe a little strange fact on the side and the players will jump on it as if it's the first crucial clue in the mystery that is life itself (42 ... just saying). It'll happen. Don't be annoyed, run with it, push it even, quote it later if you can.
  • As a matter of fact (and it deserves a point on its own), little strange things make a narrative tick, be it some strange NPC behavior, a weird character idea a player has, some unexplained magical effect or just a random, puzzling thing the players find on the dungeon floor or hear or smell or feel ... have some of that ready if you can (and chose them according to the atmosphere you want at the table).
  • Keep the players on their toes. It might be one of the most difficult things to do in the beginning, but never (ever!) let them have no problem to solve. Throw something strange at them if things get idle ... see above. A good way to keep the ball rolling is adding little problems to problems that are already in play.
  • About being idle. Be ready to get your game derailed as soon as players don't feel engaged anymore. There is no evil intent behind it, the freedom to do anything you want is just scary like that.
  • Randomize everything. You'll never be more concrete in your ideas than you are after letting go of the illusion of control. DM tools are there to help you and free you.
  • We have a tendency towards harmony (I have, anyway) and I think it can be kind of hard to give disharmony room in the game. Not on a social level, but in the narrative. What I'm trying to say is, don't jump on the obvious and satisfying solution that emerges in a session but think about the implications first and let the players be the force to establish (short term) harmony with their decisions.
  • Don't care about your non-player characters, make the players care instead.
  • And finally: NEVER let discussions (about rules or politics or any other topic not relevant to playing the game in the moment they occur) bring the game to a halt. Resist the urge to join the fray and put a stop to it as firm as you can and rule what needs to be ruled to solve the thing on the spot. Then move on. You should always give those issues room to get discussed after the game or during pizza break or whatever, though (unless it's a poisonous topic, then kill it right where it sprouts).

I aimed for 12. Maybe I'd come up with more if I'd think harder about it. And it seems that the things I missed are mostly about the skills we need to be aware of to "work the crowd". Anyway, friends and neighbors, please feel free to comment and share your thoughts about it. And if you have a blog (or any other means to contribute!), please do so ... make it a community thing :)

Now +matt jackson followed up with a nice piece on his blog (bandwagon!).

And +Eric Diaz is with us now with this great collection of advice on his blog (rollin', rollin', rollin' ...)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

More thoughts on writing Modules (Design Post) - Part 1

I have been busy. Very busy. So busy, indeed, that my brain denied any kind of after-work activity for the last couple of weeks. Thus the neglecting of the blog. Sorry about that. It'll pass, as it always does ... When I have the time and the capacity right now, I push forward with Monkey Business instead of being productive here. So there's that, too. But it overlaps with things I want to write about here, so please consider my thoughts about the process of writing a module. It turned out a bit rambling ...


Let's start with that. Who do you write for? Yourself? People aiming to DM it? Previewers? Do you write it for use at the table or for those reading stuff like that for leisure (I mean, let's be real, the majority of us read rpg material for leisure, not to actually use it!). There are debates about this. Not enough public debates, but they are there ... 

A closer look, then: writing it for yourself seems counterintuitive at first, but so seems writing a book and that definitely happens a lot. It begs the question: what kind of medium of expression are adventure modules. For example, a guy got molested in high school and writes an adventure as part of his therapeutic process to digest the horrible experience. Sounds fair enough to me. I'd read it and I might consider playing something like that. If I think it's any good.

And that's another thing. Regardless of the intention behind the written thing, it'll always be read as potential gaming material. But context does matter (see example above), it's just barely talked about because, let's face it, most publications that cost you a pretty penny are written to serve a market. And if you write it with the market in mind you'll most certainly have other priorities than the potential DM that bought it.

A hug is a hug, right? [source]
So although you always somehow talk to the DM reading it to use it, you'll most likely focus on the dressing. Nice pictures, professional layout, good "social media marketing" ... the works. Of course we do have phenomena like famous authors or quality publishers, but you'll have more than enough material just going through the motions, coming, so to say, from the other side of the spectrum, achieving much of the same. Go to drivethru and wade through the heaps of material on there for sale.

That's not saying there isn't any good material, that's saying there is not much culture about it other than that of selling stuff. And if you are sitting there right now, huffing and puffing about that "culture" comment, I'd like to ask you why you can find all kinds of books in book stores but no rpg books among them (and I worked in a book store for years, so I'd know).

Really, people don't realize the mass of different and weird books that will find their way into shelves of book stores. Or local libraries, for that matter. At least in Germany that's to a huge degree because books are considered a part of our culture and need to be protected so that all kinds of niche titles get a good chance and an audience.

There is a reason for rpg books not being part of this, and it's not about "not being mainstream enough". It's about rpgs being a product most and for all. Articles of consumption, not a new kind of medium on par with books or movies.

Consider this: imagine a rpg module written by a famous fantasy or science fiction author.

Why not use that? [source]
I know many of them actually play, but again, to get real authors (or artists in general) to put work into something like this is really, really rare (Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only label I'm aware of that actually put some real effort into the idea ...). Here's another thought, say an author you like actually did write a module or offer his writing for it, would you actually care much about the form?

As it is, I'd say lots of stuff gets written for those previewing modules in public or those taking a quick look at it, deciding if it's worth their time on a whim. There's nothing strange about that and there is the collector aspect of the hobbyist. RPG books can be art in that regard and worth collecting.

But it's more like having an expensive picture or vase or whatever and not so much about the content, isn't it? I mean, I love expensive books and totally get the appeal of something like the Quran written on silk sheets or the Lord of the Rings trilogy signed and illustrated by the author, in hard cover, with his hand written notes and all bells and whistles you'd imagine ... I totally get it. But when reading them, I have a totally different set of expectations on books.

That's just it, when we talk about content and tone, we enter a totally different realm of expectations. And in a way, we have two different phases here. The first is triggering the imagination of a potential reader to an extent that allows him to carry that into his game as Phase 2 and unfold it in his own narrative with his group.

It's not even that much about usability, it's about tone. I think a good tone for this kind of thing is a conversational one. A dialogue, if you will, between writer and reader. It's nothing new, of course, but the reason for this being nothing new, is, that it works. Why not give the reader of a module the reading experience? And I'm not talking technical-manual-reading, but opening realms of imagination instead. I always hated reading old TSR modules for exactly that reason: they denied me the reading experience. I, as a DM, wanted to experience the adventure before DMing it.

So much about tone

Yeah, great idea, let's start another series :P But as I wrote in the beginning, I'm pretty stressed out right now and this is all I got in me for today. I have at least on more post about how modules aren't books and how rpg systems figure into that and one about the idea of play-testing while writing (which all might end up being in one post, I think).

This is not complete or by any means the only way to write a module, but I hope it gave you some ideas about what decisions I had to make when writing Monkey Business. I know it's a bit controversial to claim RPGs as media in there own right, especially if seen from a marketing perspective and I hope I could give you guys some ideas why I think it's at least a topic worth considering.

Now it also has an example!

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.

And enjoy your weekend, guys ... [source]