Thursday, July 30, 2015

My Own RPG Characters

My main gaming interests may be DM Theory and designing and running adventures... But when I do get a chance to play I like to be characters who are interesting and entertaining! In order to keep my characters fun and thought out, I usually limit myself to a handful of old standbys. Today I would like to share a synopsis of the characters that I play when I find myself on the other side of the screen.

They can each be adapted to any system, so I typically define them by archetype, the general style and inclination of their character. I will also include the traits that define them as well as the party members they will be most drawn to, because I think this is always important to building a cohesive group. Also, most of them are at least partly inspired by some famous performer or character, because it gives me a fun foundation to build off, and helps me quickly establish the character's look and voice. Some folks prefer playing as basically themselves in a game, and some don't like to act out their part so much, but this is my preferred way of playing. Hopefully you will find this entertaining and perhaps glean some spark of inspiration from these fellows, as I have from observing the characters I have played alongside.

1. Tracer Ero (Rogue archetype) 

Tracer is a Lawful Neutral rogue, that is he is a 'professional' thief. He takes personal pride in his work, and serves the needs of whoever is currently employing him (Usually the highest ranking party member on his team.) He is loyal but socially inept, unable to relate to the world outside of the context of his militaristic training and discipline. Inspirations for the character include Batman, Solid Snake, Snake Eyes from GI Joe, and Sosuke Sagara of Full Metal Panic! Tracer's name comes from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip character Tracer Bullet.

2. Dave Presley (Paladin/Fighter archetype) 

Dave was inspired by Louis CK's police officer character from Parks and Recreation. Staunch and uptight, Dave is nonetheless compassionate and protective of the weak. He speaks in a stodgy but friendly manner, and tries to enforce the law as firmly and compassionately as possible. He will often view himself as bodyguard and protector to the weakest or gentlest member of the team. 

3. Zelda Wyldfyre (Rogue archetype)

Zelda is a renegade who is out to get rich and live in a palace. She is the chaotic antithesis of Tracer Ero, a street urchin turned criminal. Dynamic and free-spirited, she will relate most to whichever party member comes from the humblest origins. She is based on actress Willa Holland (I don't like to play characters of a gender opposite of my own unless their voices and mannerisms are very distinctive, and I feel like she fits the bill.) 

4. Bretek Drinks From the River (Cleric or druid archetype)

Bretek is a native from a more primitive tribe, but he has a deep understanding of the ways of man and nature. He reveres his sacred ancestor, Bazuum Climbed the Mountain, and responds to others with a simple sort of kindness. He is at times innocent to the point of naivete, as he spent much of his life in a hermetic solitude. He will find an instant connection with anyone who shares his interest in the natural world.

5. Zatara the Underappreciated (Magic user archetype)

Zatara is a mage with something to prove. Bombastic and with natural sense of flair, he speaks in a commanding theater voice. He will look to ingratiate himself with the most well-known and powerful of his comrades, and take the lesser ones under his wing.

6. Samantha "Scopes" Rambeaux (Ranger/Sniper archetype)

A tough-as-nails ranged combatant based on actress Milla Jovovich, Scopes is a veteran of many engagements, and the only PC on this list that evolved from a pre-generated character given to me by a DM. Scopes is a natural leader and team player, and will learn her team's strengths and weaknesses, caring for each of them like a bear and her cubs.

7. Theta Six (Druid/Shapeshifter archetype)

Theta Six is a quirkier character, a shapeshifter who is comprised of six separate identities. A knight, a scholar, an adventurer, a cop, a barbarian, and a monster who represents her primal id. Usually running from a dark a mysterious past, each part of her personality will favor a different teammate. 

8. Lucious Lavender (Evil archetype) 

My lone bad guy, I reserve Lucious for teams who can keep him contained. I usually don't like playing villains because I don't want them to interfere with the team or get away with heinous acts, but Lucious is Lawful Evil and will toe the line when it comes to his behavior. Sir Lavender is a pompous nobleman of a disgraced house who is willing to do anything to rebuild his reputation. He will seek out the most ambitious of his teammates with which to form an alliance. He is based loosely on Maximillian Pegasus from the animated series Yu-Gi-Oh! 

9. Orren Stoneweaver (Cleric archetype)

Orren is a dwarven cleric who talks like a distinguished American from the South. He is stalwart and loyal, and ready to jump into the fray as much as any fighter. He typically finds himself drawn to whoever is most different to himself, as he is secretly curious about life outside his own culture (Though he'd never admit it!)

10. Jumping Jack Titan (Bard archetype)

Jack is a charismatic showman based on Jack Black. He always looks for the best in his comrades, though he is not much of a warrior himself. A natural hambone and con artist, Jack will nonetheless see any good adventure through to the bitter end. He will usually stand alongside the best looking member of the group, and try to make them look even better with his bardic talents.

11. Davood Sharriff "Delta Sharp" (Sci-fi/modern/cyberpunk archetype)

For games that need a more modernistic character, I like this special agent/hacker based on actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani. A free-running survivalist who bears fiber-optic tattoos, this guy will typically connect with anyone who is also trying to escape their past. 

12. Darmok (Cleric/Paladin/Priest Archetype)

Named after an episode of Star Trek, Darmok is an acolyte of the dragons. He reveres and respects all draconian forms. He is a mystic, prone to valor and solemnity. Slow to action, but swift in retribution. He usually takes to whoever will tolerate his windy prose and proselytizing of the draconic scripture.

13. Kote Castellan (Magic User/Swashbuckler Archetype)

A dashing hero of style and panache, Kote is a subtler mage than Zatara. An illusionist or swashbuckler who avoids confrontation, and only fights when he must. Kote will bond with whoever he thinks would make a good business partner, as he hopes to accrue a fortune for himself and his comrades.

14. Count Declan/Drogo Moffat (Leader/Planner Archetype)

Count Declan, or Count Drogo, is based off John "Hannibal" Smith of The A-Team. Cocky and crafty, he likes to think his way out of a problem. He's a cigar-chomping, hard-drinking, wily old fox with a hankering to misbehave. He will connect most strongly with trouble-makers who impress him with their sheer chutzpah. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Players Make the Game!

The Would-Be Knight, The Princess, The Scoundrel, . Time for adventure!

Build Campaigns, Not Modules

Once a campaign gets underway there are many directions it can go, and a good game-runner will want to keep a steady flow of interesting new developments and challenges for the group to take on. Unfortunately, many DMs put too much pressure on themselves to generate content for their campaign in a creative vacuum... that is, charting out adventure paths and plot hooks in the same way you might write an adventure module. This process is one in which the adventures are built before any of the player characters are introduced, and the characters are then inserted into the existing campaign plans.

But creating a campaign for a play group that is designed like a published module is far from ideal. Modules come heavily pre-programmed because they don't have a choice in the matter. No publisher can predict the intricate relations of the player characters and the choices they will make, nor can they teach you how to adapt the story in a drastically different direction based on an unplanned sequence of events. Modules are like microwavable pizza. They can be tasty, but they are prefabricated and manufactured for convenience. When baking your own pizza from scratch, it is counterproductive to try and make it taste like a microwavable dish. It's a home-cooked meal after all! Why not use fresh ingredients and make it the best you can?

The ingredients of your home campaign are the players and their own creativity. They have each built their own characters with unique backstories and motivations. Take the pressure off yourself to come up with the material for ongoing adventures, and find out what your players want. In the words of Stephen Wardle of D6 Mafia: "Let your players tell the story... when they have their story, step back and get out of their way."

Planning ahead in broad strokes is fine. You can assume that there will inevitably be a battle with whatever Big Bad is threatening the realm. You can plan for the inevitable involvement of The City of Brass, or whatever unique location you'd like to showcase. But trying to plan an entire campaign in minute detail is like trying to predict the next year's stock market trends.

The best adventures are the ones that are adapted from the ideas of the players. These are the stories they are guaranteed to be invested in, because they had a hand in their conception. So keep your quests to save the world, your ancient hordes of golden treasure. But let the players show you the personal stakes. Add connections between them and the story, crucial connections that may drastically alter your initial plans.

It's not about the end of the quest, it's about the journey
Drawing Out Character Traits

Your player characters are your main characters. Your NPCs are your supporting cast. The main characters should have the most impact on your story, and the most influence on the direction of your game. Your greatest task is in drawing out the important information from them so you can build around their characters. And the most important piece of information to start with is "What does this character want?"

The answer to this question should be concise but not necessarily simple. Any player character worth their salt will have a goal and purpose that guides their actions (Even more so than their moral alignment.) This goal may change over the course game, but it is important to establishing the current vector of their story. It also is a more nuanced question than it seems "I want to get paid." May serve as a solid answer in-game, but it is not the real answer. Money is only a currency for the exchange of goods and services, so what does that person want to do with this money? Escape their past? Live in a mansion by the sea? Start their own company? That's the kind of goal you want to define, because that's where the real story lies.

One way to draw this out is to play out vignettes, flashbacks of certain key moments in your cast of characters' lives (I will detail this method in a future entry.) Another method is having NPCs question characters about certain aspects of themselves. When the sad orphan boy asks a player if they ever lost someone close to them, it is a moment of discovery and character building that you will be able to build off later. A more contrived but nonetheless effective method is some kind of ritual or magic that requires the players to openly share something about their character. I once introduced a perfume that smelled like each character's favorite memory, and so the group related something about themselves through a description of the scent and where it originated (Such as the scent of seawater and smoke that belonged to their father, the chain-smoking sea captain.)

A team with a lot of variety, but a lot in common as well.
Characters Grow From Your Game

Some groups encourage players to think up these backgrounds and storylines ahead of time and even write them down. It's not very conductive to a smooth game, for a couple of reasons. First, the group really doesn't have time to hear a detailed biography of every character, it is better to have that info come out naturally over the course of the game.

Also when you create your character in a vacuum without collaboration with the other players you get a mish-mash of diverging plot threads . I have seen this happen too many times, when each character's backstory has no connection to anyone else's, and is extremely involved in its own regard. It's as if every character is the main character from a different movie, and they just happened to cross over with everyone else's story. John Mclaine, Frodo Baggins and Robin Hood all happen to be on the same team, all come from different lands, and all have their own goals to pursue but none of them have anything in common so they fight for the spotlight.

Instead I recommend bringing a couple paragraphs of general background for their character and then letting the character develop organically during the game. I also encourage players not to marry themselves to particular character details right off the bat. If, like a Dungeon Master, they are willing to adopt certain new attributes for their character that they hadn't considered before, then they will have the flexibility to tell a better story than if they didn't allow themselves the option.

And of course the main purpose of this is to allow the players to tie their story more closely to the setting and each other. This is another key to a great campaign, when the player characters share connections to each other and the world around them. If two characters come from the same land, perhaps they know each other? Perhaps they share a history? Events in that land will have had an effect on both of these characters. They may have to return to face some sort of consequence. That's a story with direction. That's a story with characters with which you can empathize. That's DMpathy!

Art from Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick (Giant in the Playground)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Creating NPCs on the Fly

Don't let your NPCs be an ERROR
It is a classic situation... you have a guardsman escort the group through the palace to speak with the king. They ask this guy a few questions about the lay of the land and his own role as a guard. Next thing you know, they want to know his name and address so they can come back and find him later. What's a DM to do?

Firstly, don't worry. It's better to have your players clamoring for more non-player characters than less. If you included too many named, prepared NPCs the players will feel confused and lost in the shuffle. Most of the extras in your campaign do just fine as nameless and sometimes without games stats. The laymen of the realm, who aren't really fleshed out yet. However, there are times as mentioned previously in which you will need to create some details to support the story and their role in it. Be prepared for this contingency, and understand ahead of time that is is practically guaranteed to occur at some point during a session.

Building Character

The best place to find ideas for a new character are your campaign notes. Remember, everything in your campaign serves the story in some way or another. Even if it just establishes background features of the setting, it should be directed toward telling the story of the game. So look through your notes for what you are wanting to convey to your players right now. A miner who is a victim of a goblin attack, a snobbish aristocrat, a noble paladin... each of these could indicate something different about what kind of place the characters are in, and what is happening. These on the fly NPCs can even surprise you, and become some of the most important allies or enemies in your campaign.

If this is going to be a legit NPC, you will need to find a name for the character. I recommend keeping a list of names on hand at all times. Cross a name off the list when you use it, and add the name to your notes. Chris Perkins has made a great name list for Dungeons and Dragons, and for other settings there are random name generators available online. Print out about twenty names and keep them around for when players inevitably ask for the name of the local barkeep.

For making an NPC memorable just after he popped out of your head, it might be a good time to brush up on your impersonations. Basing the character's voice on a specific performer or cartoon character is an easy way to make a character stand out and distinguish themselves. After all, a character you made on the fly is not intended to be a stand-out original creation, but should be kept interesting.

When it comes to stats, these kinds of characters only ever need certain attributes anyway. They don't need to be meticulously worked out. If you have a generic stat block for certain levels of civilian or soldier, that will work fine. If not, you can decide these values on the fly based on what seems reasonable. The point is, don't sweat it.

Player Involvement

Some of these instant NPCs can and should be brought to life by the players themselves. I often let the group add minor details or names for new characters to drive the story and re-establish their role in building the adventure. In fact, my challenge for DMs who have a bit of experience under their belt is this: introduce an NPC who you don't know, and let the players tell you who it is. A familiar face walks up to a player, let them decide where they recognize them from, who they are, what they want. As I said before, every NPC should be important to the story, and what is more important than someone associated with a player character? It will give you more to work with and also draw out more details about the PC that you can use. And in the end, your campaign is about the PCs, so any opportunity to build upon them should be embraced. On the other hand, even a character that is brand new to your PCs can benefit from some "crowd-sourcing." Let your players add details and quirks to some characters sometimes, and you will have an easy source of fine details that have been personally endorsed by the group. (There's more on building around player preferences and expectations in this previous entry.)

For even more instant NPC inspiration, check out Dungeon World's nifty NPC generating tables. Also, you might be interested in using Story Cubes as part of the process. Next week there will be a lot more about the benefits of letting the players direct the story, how to draw out details about their characters, and how to keep your group engaged and part of the action. Until then, happy ventures!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Adventuring Gear: Story Cubes

Once you become experienced with running games, you will be ready for more improvisational methods of game-running. And one tool that can aid you greatly in your adventurous free-styling is Rory's Story Cubes! These cubes are available from their home site, Amazon, or your local game shop. I recommend the three box set that includes the original set, a set of travel-related dice, and one for describing character actions.

How to Read the Dice

Reading the dice is a very abstract process and can be tricky at first. A series of disjointed images may not seem to have any meaning or association with each other. 

The way to start is to describe each image or things associated with the image with two to three separate words. 

So the image of a pill might be PILL/MEDICINE/DOCTOR. 

A man with a thought balloon over his head becomes THINK/DREAM/WONDER.

 A flower would become PLANT/FLOWER/GARDEN. 

So let's say we roll and get all three of these results together. Now we need to consider the context of the current storyline. 

If we assume that this is a roll to determine a random encounter on the road, we can start to get an idea of what this encounter is going to be about. Perhaps a doctor is gathering herbs by the roadside, or the group comes across a rare medicinal plant that provides mental clarity. Either scenario will work, and you have the inspiration for an interesting scenario or maybe just something to build atmosphere. With a little practice, it will soon become easy!

Methods and Uses of Story Cubes
I don't recommend rolling more than three dice at a time (four dice tops), and no more than one of the "action" dice should be included in the roll. A lot of images and keywords will just make things confused and cluttered. Don't feel beholden to every image on the dice, either. If two of the pictures you rolled have given you a great idea, don't feel forced to shoehorn the third image into your concept. The dice are there for a creative kickstart, something more naturally story-based than your standard numerical set.

The best way to use these is not for major encounters, which typically need planning and care to be enjoyable. The cubes are better suited for atmospheric world-building moments that wouldn't happen without an extra bit inspiration. Of course a roll of the dice before your game might give you the starting point for an upcoming encounter as well, and some DMs recommend them as a way of giving NPCs distinguishing characteristics on the fly. Whatever you end up using them for, I strongly endorse these unique dice as a storytelling tool and useful aid to your next action-packed gaming session.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Metasprawl: A Variant Setting for Shadowrun

Shadowrun 5e Cover Art, Catalyst Game Labs

Welcome to the Sprawl

Classic Dungeons and Dragons has debuted a number of distinct worlds with their own histories and sense of style. It is also fun to create new worlds for players to delve into, homebrewed campaign settings that fit a personal play style and allow for major differences in the history and overall feel of the universe. But there aren't as many of these variant settings for some of the other major brands of tabletop RPG. 

So now I would like to share some details on my own variant of the Shadowrun setting, the world known as The Metasprawl! This 'hack' of Shadowrun makes some key changes to the setting, and any of these concepts are free to borrow or use as the basis for your own creations.

"New Hotness"

The first change is a more modernistic aesthetic that trims out some of the more retro aspects of the setting. Wireless connections and smaller computer systems are more common, but corporations still resort to closed circuits that can only be accessed from local terminals to keep their systems safe from hackers. The term 'decker' also goes the way of the dinosaur, as does anything else that evokes the age of punch-cards and CRT screens.

Magic is more subtly integrated into the setting. Metasprawl takes place in an alternate history where magic was always real but mages were driven into hiding. They re-emerged during the first world war as they became a part of global escalation of warfare. Depiction of mages in this setting was heavily inspired by modern urban fantasy settings like The Dresden Files. Mages can openly practice their craft, but they are part of a relatively closed society.
By IzzyMedrano via deviantart
The Metatypes

The Awakening is the definitive event in Shadowrun, but in The Metasprawl, its cause and effect have been changed. Firstly, The Awakening did not give birth to the various metatypes of humanity. They are instead products of science, being created through the advancement of genetic modification and recalibration of stem cells during the Transhumanist Wars. The metatypes are identified by simple signifiers like 'elf' and 'dwarf' but they are all humans with augmented DNA.

Elves were bred by the more decadent nations to be beautiful and graceful, ideal for roles in the entertainment and fashion industries. Their potential as assassins was later realized by opportunistic military contractors.

Dwarves were bred as a working class by some of the more fascistic nations. Hearty and stout, they made for an ideal labor caste. Gnomes are a sub-race of dwarf that were intended for the more technical positions, crawling through maintenance tubes to fix wires and circuitry.

Instead of Half-Orcs, The Metasprawl has Bio-Men. These big guys are lifted straight from the video game/TV show Defiance, and they are the product of an American super soldier project. Simple minded and huge, they are named based on the batch of genetic material they were produced from. These are designated by the names of US Presidents so they bear names such as Woodrow-99 or Barack-112. They are huge, strong, hairless, and their skin color ranges from blue to purple.

Trolls in this setting are replaced by Sasquatches, or Squatches for short. These are chimeric hybrids of man and beast that were developed to challenge The Bio-Man Project. The Western Squatches tend to look simian in appearance, while the Eastern-bred variants look like humanoid bears.

Of course the majority of the population are your basic humans, but even these are most often loaded up with cosmetic gene alteration and cybernetics. The zeitgeist in this universe is one of 'correcting God's mistakes' using whatever means science can provide. Fashion is based on being wildly original, so recolored skin, crazy hair and nanofiber tattoos are all the rage. You never know what you'll see next on the streets of the sprawl. 

Awakening, Aether, and Metasprawl

The namesake of this universe is The Metasprawl, a super-powered infinitely fast computer network built by tapping into The Aether, which happens to be the source of all magic. This fixed every conceivable digital obstacle by providing infinite data processing and a network that moves at the speed of thought. Unfortunately the intrusion of the Metasprawl permeated the membrane between the planes of reality. And that allowed all sorts of weirdness to cross over. That's where most the more supernatural stuff comes from... everything from the shaman's spirits to devils, mind-flayers, gremlins, and elementals.

This means that the matrix of the Metasprawl is technological as well as magic in nature, so there is some crossover between the worlds of the mage and the hacker. At times, a hacker might even be able to see something from The Aether through the walls of the digital world. And mages actually embrace technology because of the fact that it is now integrated with the source of their powers.
Image by Eidos and Square Enix 

"Gimme the Deets"

Other than that, it's still Shadowrun with all the megacorps and hackers and cyberpunk themes you know and love, though with its own unique factions and history

In this setting, for instance, "Papa Doc" the Haitian tyrant was an actual voodoo shaman and avatar of the voodoo loa known as Kalfou. Doc was killed by a mage from New Orleans, and that man's descendant, Remy Duverne, is now a head of the White Council. The Council is the global ruling body that manages the affairs of mages. All magic users are considered to have neutral citizenship and must register with the Council, who oversees their activities. Your Shadowrunners won't be too concerned about abiding by those rules, of course.

Some other concepts I have used in this setting:
  • Yakuza minions run the Neo-Tokyo underworld, where they trade with the biker gangs and deal in various street drugs and cyber-crime.
  • Rising crime and poverty levels in Detroit led to its evacuation and conversion into a city-sized penitentiary. It is now filled with labrynthian walls of scrap metal and patrolled by Cyberdyne's robotic security units.
  • Illithids (mind-flayers) have formed a cult by manipulating the dreams of humanity. Many important executives and movie stars now unwittingly serve their sinister purposes.
  • There is a biker gang in Japan who are enamored with archaic Western media and all dress like classic characters played by Johnny Depp.
  • Video games are a mainstream professional sport, and in some locations are some of the most-watched events being streamed.
  • Private military contractors are popular among the corporations, most dangerous of which is Shining Wolf, a company of 'splicers' who use injections to alter their DNA and become werewolves.

So there it is, a unique new take on an old school setting. May it inspire more exploration and interest in the world of Shadowrun, and hopefully provide some material for even more unique home settings. 

Until next time, see you in the sprawl.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Running a Shadowrun Game

Image from Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun: Dragonfall
So you want to play something different than your typical sword & sorcery campaign? You want to play some science fiction in an urban dystopia? Then you are ready for the world of Shadowrun!

This old school cyberpunk setting is heavily defined by its origin in the 80s. As such it will seem quite retro to most audiences and is usually associated with a tone of hard rock and cynicism. But even though cyberpunk is most often associated with an earlier decade, it has remained and evolved as a genre to this day. Some of the later developments in the genre became classics such as The Matrix and the films of Niell Blomkamp, and video games like Mirror's Edge and Deus Ex. If your group likes the aesthetic defined by advanced tech and social decay, they will enjoy a setting like this.

You don't have to run Shadowrun in its home system if it is not to your taste. The details of the setting can work just fine when ported to other tabletop systems. For this reason, my suggestions focus on the basic characteristics of the setting, not the specifics of the rules and game mechanics.

Establishing a Theme

Image by Warner Brothers
The most vital aspects of any genre are the themes, stuff that should remain consistent throughout any iteration of these stories. The themes that I consider integral to Shadowrun are also elements of cyberpunk fiction in general. First and foremost is the threat to the very nature of our humanity. This concept could be portrayed by the struggle of man and machine, or man versus the unknown nature of the arcane world, or through the dehumanization of the general populace by megacorporations. The world is becoming overrun by urban sprawls and people are becoming a lesser priority in the grand scheme. This is the element that brings out the darker and grittier characteristics iconic to cyberpunk.

It also serves as a primary source of the conflict, because at their core, humanity is obstinate. They don't want to be pushed around and manipulated by machines, magic forces, or human oppressors. They find release through actions of revolution and mayhem. In Shadowrun, crime is how you express humanity. This is an important sticking point, because it is key to understanding that every Shadowrun player character is a criminal, but usually not evil. In a world where freedom and free thought is criminalized, every adventurer is an enemy of the state. This means that as the heroes perform shadowruns, secret missions for various clients, they will inevitably come up against these opposing forces and fight against them for their last vestige of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Setting the Scene

The aesthetic style of cyberpunk involves a dizzying overload of information and extrapolated sci-fi concepts. In Mirrorshades, an early definitive volume, Bruce Stirling described these details as a "wall of sound."  Cyberpunk emphasizes the hectic speed at which society and technology races on, so you want to convey that in your descriptions. Brand names, slang terms, technical jargon, and all sorts of dense info should be packed into your narration. In fact, this is so important to me that the number one DM aid I bring for my Shadowrun games is a "cheat sheet" of terms and ideas for things like:

And more! These notes will be nothing more than names or words I can draw on so that I can keep up the atmospheric patter when a scene is set.

"You step outside onto the street of Neo-Tokyo. The neon glow of the holo-arcade lights up the street as you hear the cries of splice junkies fill the air outside the matrix bar known as The Node. A Cyberdyne security drone hovers nearby as an automated speaker pumps Blastercard music across the freeway."

Keeping the information flowing like this is important to the feel of these games. It gives the sense that the world is fast-paced, chaotic, and dense. It builds itself into the genre's iconic narrative claustrophobia.
Image by Sony Pictures

Working Together

Shadowrun games are sometimes tricky to run because of the specialization of many of the classes. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, the modernistic setting of Shadowrun creates a world where the 'jobs' of the various classes don't synergize quite as obviously. Shadowrun has classes that are built like characters from a heist movie, like Ocean's Eleven. They each have a role to play, but when it comes down to a sword fight it will be mostly your street samurai taking the hits, and if a file needs to be collected it is the hacker's show.

This means that the DM's main job in a Shadowrun game is to make sure these challenges overlap and intersect as much as possible. The swordfight needs to go on at the same time as the file is being downloaded in order to give your party something to do. You don't want the entire game to be players taking turns doing their own activity.  The designers knew this too, and much of the game design is built to prevent that. For instance, hackers can generally only access data from terminals at certain access points within their targets. This means that they will have to enter the building and rely on their teammates for protection, just as their team depends on them to open doors and reprogram security systems.

Also remember that a big part of the game is the opportunity to make detailed plans ahead of an operation, casing the joint, getting in touch with contacts and gathering supplies. Guile and preparation are a big part of what makes a fun and memorable run.

Magic vs. Tech

Shadowrun is unique in that it introduces classical fantasy elements to the futuristic setting. This isn't always to everyone's taste in a "You got chocolate in my peanut butter" way. Balancing the nanobots and pre-cogs against the elves and warlocks is one of the dicier hurdles that you have to approach when running this game. If your group prefers cyberpunk only, you would be better served by the setting of Cyberpunk 2020. I personally enjoy the idea of blending the cyberpunk and fantasy genres to a degree, though I customize my own Shadowrun adventures by running them in a unique homebrewed setting which I will describe in a follow-up article.

The most important thing that magic adds to the setting is an opposing force to the rise of machines and technology. By introducing a deep primal force, it allows for stories with a strong focus on tradition versus progress, or nature against technology. It also allows for unique character options, and integrates the fairly recent genre of urban fantasy that has been popularized by series like The Dresden Files. No longer viewed with superstition, mages are now working stiffs who must explore and define their arcane arts in a world which may view their source of power as archaic and outdated.

Alternately, some may try to blend magic with technology in a way never before seen, amalgamating the natural and artificial into something transcendent. There are many possibilities for great adventures, but be sure to make special note of what the balance between mysticism and futurism should be before embarking on a Shadowrun with your gaming group.

To be continued!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Link: Regarding the Phrase "I'm Just Playing My Character"

A friend recently directed me to the blog Improved Initiative, with these wise words about those players who justify disrupting a game by blaming the character they are playing.
"Ideally the characters will work out a solution through roleplay, and the players will be open-minded enough to seek an equitable answer. The problem is when one player answers any criticism of his or her character's actions with, "I'm just playing my character." Just as any man who must say I am the king is no true king, if you find yourself using this phrase too often to justify your actions you might want to take a step back and re-examine what character you're actually playing."
Read the whole article here and it will provide a better idea of how to address this classic problem at the game table.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Instigators in Your Campaign: Beware the Bugbear with a Temper!

"I'm gonna wreck it!"

In previous entries we discussed the different player archetypes, and now is a good time to highlight one of these player types. It is a group of players that a lot of DMs have trouble handling, the instigator. This is the player who is always itching to start a fight, a player who doesn't mind causing trouble and will rush headlong into danger without a second thought. In my own D&D campaigns, I often include the hairy bugbear monsters as a standard playable race, and if there is one on the party the chances are he will be the first to instigate a fight.

This can cause problems with the campaign when his impulsive tendencies don't coincide with the plans and needs of the group. However, there are ways to channel this behavior into something constructive. Firstly, you need to recognize that the instigator's personality is shaped by a need for action, a strong focus on combat and danger, and perhaps a short attention span. Instigators are looking for dangerous things to unfold because they thrive on action. They might even welcome a lethal challenge for their character, so don't shy away from metting out some vicious consequences for their rash actions. Typically a pure instigator is expecting some kind of backlash, but the idea of a straight-up conflict is exciting.

The first thing to remember is that they should have opportunities to instigate when possible. You do want to discourage continous foolhardy behavior, but you can also provide a constructive outlet for all that agressive energy. For some players, the rambunctious action is the game's main draw. Put them in some scenario every so often where going berserk will work in their favor. Just like you want to put in lots of traps for the rogue to disable and feel useful, so you may include bar fights and arrogant goblins to bash.

All of this is acceptable as long as the player doesn't cross any boundaries established by the group. If the instigator is acting out too much, acting out anti-social fantasies or deliberately disrupting the game by attacking everything senselessly, you have a problem player not an instigator. And as we all know, you can only ask a problem player to correct themselves, but you can't force them. Either you can find a way to compromise or not, but try not to end the situation any hard feelings.

The instigator can be useful as a barometer for the game's pacing. You can sometimes decide when to get the action started by recognizing when they are getting antsy. As always, a liberal application of DMpathy is recommended to know when to feed the instigator's thirst for battle. Use your player-centric empathy to read your their behavior and attitude to identify when they are spoiling for a fight. If things have dragged for too long, drop in some ninjas or goblins or what-not. Work in some action, because you can dictate when it happens. In a world of adventure there are always paths to justifiable action sequences. 

Of course a needy player might whine for action too often and annoy the others. Temper your DMing technique by your own finely honed instincts. Sniff out that perfect moment to sate the barbarian's appetite for action, and then return to the exploration and puzzle-solving for your more cerebral players! This ebb and flow of the game is what DMing is really about at its core. Master it, grasshopper, and you will be able to snag a D20 from your sensei's hand.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Keeping Bad Guys Bad

Player: "I don't know if I want to fight this guy or join him!"

Moral complexity is very interesting and thought-provoking when implemented in story-telling of any medium. However, it can lead to problems in gaming when it muddles the goals of the campaign and causes players to argue. This article is based on the assumption that your party is not comprised of murderhobos, but that topic is worthy of an entire entry itself (which I will address at a later point in time.)

Shades of Gray Morality

When it comes to tabletop RPGs, characters that are morally ambiguous and have complex motives must be implemented sparingly and carefully. Most enemies serve as cut-and-dry antagonists to the player characters. The rank and file of enemies in your game should have clear motives and intentions. This is a facet of the game that has been a staple since every edition of Dungeons and Dragons, where characters have a quite literal set moral alignments that define their behavior as good, evil, or neutral. While an enemy does not have to be evil-aligned to be a threat, they do have to have some malicious intent in order for the encounter to be satisfying.

Even if you do have some deliciously evil villain, remember that the players will need to see some kind of proof of their villainy in order to really care about their defeat. Nobody wants to be the actual antagonist of the story, causing trouble and making the game world a worse place. As long as the players see it that way it will affect their enjoyment of the game, regardless of your actual intentions.

A cool guy with charisma and a taste for world-ending destruction

Remember to show, don't tell. Show signs of what might happen if your villains succeed. Show signs of past evils and their consequences. Above all, keep your bad guys menacing and malevolent. If your villains are tyrannical, they should be seen threatening and oppressing the populace. If they are murderous, then they won't accept any negotiation before they attack. Above all, the players should have a reason to oppose them that anyone could agree upon.

While this may seem obvious, you won't believe the number of times that I have seen groups choose to avoid confrontation because they didn't see any reason to oppose the campaign's main antagonists. Even if they did take action, they would often feel like the heel rather than hero. When there is no clear reason to oppose the so-called villains, the game becomes murkier and the players become indecisive. As fascinating as this may sound, I can assure you it is not. It only causes the game to grind to a halt as the players become discomforted by the question of moral relativity. If you want to ponder the complexities of ethical ambiguity, a tabletop action game isn't the best format to use.

Introducing Moral Complexity

There is a way to implement these complexities without messing up the game, of course. My favorite instances of this are characters who are capable of redemption. Bad guys who can be reasoned with are a great way to encourage the players to sometimes seek diplomatic solutions to their problems. The important thing to remember is that these characters do not need to crop up so frequently that their entire cause seems to be composed of misguided individuals. If the players start trying to save every goblin guard they encounter, your campaign is going to cease to be an action game.

Another kind of nuanced character is the bad guy with good intentions. This is harder to pull off, because this is the one that most commonly derails a campaign. The more your players sympathize with a character, the more likely they are to support them. What you must always keep in mind is that you must show the terrible consequences of the antagonist's actions clearly and compellingly. A sympathetic villain is still a villain and must be stopped at any cost. Their actions have consequences even if they don't realize it, and their actions are inarguably wrong. If your villainous scheme is justifiable from a reasonable ethical perspective, you can bet your bottom dollar that your players are going to argue about whether or not to intervene. In a best case scenario, some of your player characters have to compromise and still regret the actions the group takes. In the worst case the party splits or your campaign falls apart.

This will not be a problem as long as you remember to provide a good reason that the 'bad' guy has to be stopped. People will suffer, the world's safety will be threatened... an objectively bad result that must be prevented. Keep this end goal in mind, and make sure it is something the players would care about it. For more neutrally aligned characters, you might resort to a more personal threat, a scenario that would endanger something important to them.

A satisfying conclusion to a redemptive story

Of course these principles should work the other way around, too. You could have an ally of the team who is not entirely good, or perhaps even evil. This is just a matter of making sure that their evilness is inconsequential to the player. As long as the character doesn't cause overt harm with their wickedness, there is a chance that your party will be willing to work with them towards a common goal. In any case, attempting to force a collaboration between characters of opposing principles is a risky proposition. Keep in mind that it is an unusual case, and be prepared in case it does not acutally work.

Conflict Can be a Good Thing

Disagreement between player characters is just fine and makes for compelling story-telling! I do not advocate a play style of characters who always get along and agree. My advice is intended to avoid situations of irreconcilable differences between characters, scenarios which affect the group as a whole. There may be plenty of times that characters don't see eye to eye or have rivalries with one another, and that's okay. There are even instances where a character's conflict with the party results in the player choosing to have his character leave the team and rolls up a new one. As long as it is in character and no player feelings are hurt, that's totally cool.

Conflict is the spice of good storytelling! Don't be afraid to go there, but just remember not to set up moral quandaries to confound the team unless you and your players are prepared for such a scenario. If that's what your game is all about, more power to ya, but inform your players clearly and specifically ahead of time and plan for it. As with all rules in tabletop, you're free to ignore any of these recommendations as long as you have an alternate plan, clear communication, and consent of your group. Make a game that your players enjoy, that they can find common ground upon. And above all, enjoy your games!

Happy ventures!