Sunday, April 27, 2008

When Players Collide

I didn't post last week. I'm very sorry. Real Life got in the way.

This week, I'm going to look at conflicting gaming styles. Specifically, I think of the reasons that GMs run games, as compared to reasons that players play in those games.

One example: I had a GM once who loved the feelings of power he got from running the game and having absolute control over what happened. He loved the look of shock and amazement when he caused something to happen that the players not only did not expect, but could not reasonably be asked to expect. He was a very dramatic gamer, and loved the exquisite timing and flow of intrigue that came from having players at his mercy. I sometimes felt as if I was a plaything for a dark and cruel god.

Another GM I played under: he was an excellent storyteller. That is, he told excellent stories, and he told them well. The only problem was that sometimes his own strengths would get in the way. He was very good at predicting how people would react to certain situations, and excelled at arranging events in such a manner that the story would go in the direction he planned by giving the players just the right stimulus to nudge them in the direction that he wanted them to go. Unfortunately, after a while, it starts to feel like the players aren't really involved in the story at all; they're just there to serve the needs of the storyteller.

In Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, there is a suggestion that the purpose of the GM is to ensure that all players are having a good time. That means that if they players aren't enjoying themselves, you need to do something differently. All too often, the GM forgets that his players are trying to have fun as well, and he sends the story in a direction that will only please himself.

Granted, the GM should include himself in "the players;" that is, if the GM isn't having fun, he needs to do something new. This usually means finding a compromise between his desires and those of the players, but sometimes it might mean that he needs to stop GMing and let someone else hold the reins for a while.

A great suggestion also to be found in Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering is the "choices" system. That is, if there's a character entering a scenario for which the GM hasn't prepared, he can think of four things very quickly: what would be the obvious result, what would be the challenging result, what would be the surprising result, and what would be the pleasing result? After you've thought of this, decide which would be the best option to go with, and use it. If it's really necessary, you can roll a die.

An example of this in action: The players have been researching a puzzle that, when solved, will lead them to the next part of the story. However, one night, they decide that they're tired of working on this enigma, and they want to go out for a night on the town. The obvious result is that they go out to a bar, have a few drinks, dance a bit, and come home, only to return to the puzzle the next day. The challenging result might be that they get stopped for drunk driving and wind up in jail. The surprising result might be their arch-enemy might be at the bar, and they get into a fight. The pleasing result might be that they meet some new friends (this route may depend on what sort of players you're working with; Method Actors are most likely to prefer making new friends, or other chances to allow their characters' personalities to shine, while Storytellers might prefer some new plot hooks that they can follow up later, and Power Gamers/Butt Kickers/Tacticians might like a drunken brawl to break out for some simple cathartic violence).

Given these choices, you decide not to go with the obvious solution; if they players just wanted to go right back to the puzzle, they wouldn't have set it aside in the first place. The challenging result probably seems a little heavy-handed, as if you're punishing them for taking a break from their task. The surprising result has some potential; however, you're not ready for an encounter with the villain just yet, as it would negatively affect the flow of the story you're telling. You don't see any likely problems from the pleasing result, so you think of a few interesting story tidbits to throw out to your players, and you're off for an evening of light-hearted adventure.

But the important thing to remember is that if someone's not having fun (whether it's you or one of your players), then something needs to change. Of course, if everyone's having fun, then you're doing things right, and you can ignore everything I said above!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gaming Costs

Today, I would like to talk about the high cost of gaming.

Gaming has always been an expensive hobby. In the documentary Über-Goober, one of the interviewees says that gaming saved her from a life of drugs. She follows this by saying, "How can you afford drugs when you're spending all your money on gaming books?

And I know this to be true. I've been there. I've been the one spending the majority of my weekly income on gaming paraphernalia. I used to get a new gaming book every week. I had quite a collection (much of which was lost when it was in the car that got repossessed).

But today, it seems as though a week's salary won't get you as much as it used to. Things have been easier for me since I stopped playing (or even attempting to play) collectible trading card games like Magic: the Gathering and Arcadia: the Wyld Hunt. And there aren't a lot of standard RPGs out at the moment that I feel a need to collect; the last two games that held enough of my interest to entice me into buying anything were Changeling: the Dreaming (which was put on hiatus and left languishing there until they ended that game line) and GURPS (which is in 4th edition as of a couple years ago, and all the GURPS products coming out at the moment either don't interest me or are basically compiling and updating 3rd edition products for the new edition, so I already have all of the material in these books). I don't play D&D, I'm not interested enough in Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun to buy any of the books, Little Fears folded, and I have only a passing interest in most of the other systems out there.

Even so, I see the kind of books on the gaming shelves, and I wonder why anyone would spend that much money. It's all fluff, pretty wrapping paper around a lack of content. Or maybe not a lack, but certainly not enough to justify the price tag.

Let me put it this way: in the old days of the original D&D, there were few if any illustrations, the pages were plain black text on white paper, crammed full of rules, background information, charts and lists, and the like. Some games eventually started making their books look nicer, but really, does that change the content that you're getting? Is there any more info in the fancy full-colour tomes replete with page backgrounds that use a lot of ink for no other purpose than to make the glossy colour pages look like antique parchment than there was on the plain black-on-white pages in the original D&D books?

So it seems to me that we're paying more money for the same level of rules.

But that brings me to another point. Why keep buying new rules systems at all? I feel that I have gotten to the point where anything that you'd want to do can be accomplished using a rules system that you already know. The d20 system, just as one example, has supplements allowing it to be used not just for fantasy, but also for modern, horror, science-fiction, and various other settings besides. The original Storyteller system was set in modern day, but later supplements have used the same system for Cyberpunk, Medieval, WWI, Wild West, Renaissance, mythic, space travel, superheroes, and pulp-adventure. And let's not even discuss universal systems such as GURPS, Torg, or Rifts.

So any system can be used for any setting. I once ran a GURPS Celtic Myth game using the Storyteller System, because it fit better with the mood I was trying to create.

You don't need to buy new books. If you find a new setting you like, take the setting and apply a rules set that you already know to it. Save your money. And maybe, if you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can even create your own setting.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Play By Email

Hello and welcome to another week of the Game Dork's Gaming Corner. This week, I want to talk a bit about PBeM. For those of you that don't know, that stands for "Play By eMail." See, gamers have been playing games via correspondence since the 60s, when players in wargames such as Diplomacy would operate across miles of distance by sending their moves to their opponent in the mail. The opponent would adjust his own board according to the instructions in the letter, and decide what his own move would be, and then mail that back to the other player, and so on.

RPGs, being as they are a growth of the wargaming community, would of course follow suit. And with the advent of email, it only made sense that this correspondence would move from the mail system to computers.

I am in a unique situation, in that I have moved out of my country of residence to a new continent, and have left all my former gaming partners behind. So it would seem that PBeM is an ideal solution for my gaming needs, as it allows me to play with people thousands of miles away in a different time zone. Unfortunately, none of my former gaming crew think that PBeM is a viable option. So today, I thought I'd talk a bit about PBeM.

Here's what happens: The GM starts off with a scenario that he describes at some length
(this is, of course, after all chargen has been completed). He details the situation for the players, and sends it off. The players then have a few days to confer with one another (usually via email themselves), then they type up their response and send it to the GM. In response, the GM will determine the outcome of their reactions, and send them another email containing yet another description of the scenario. Again, the players confer and decide on a course of action, which they then email back to the GM.

Usually, this works on a sort of schedule. Most PBeM games are "twice a week" sort of scenarios, running with the GM sending out his end of the game on Tuesdays and Fridays, and expecting a response from the players by the following Thursday or Monday.

Obviously, a PBeM game wouldn't work well with each email consisting of a single line of dialogue; the game would take forever. Instead, the players and the GM will have to trust each other to have a pretty good idea of what's reasonable and expected in the scenario, so that certain details can be filled in to speed play, enabling more content to be fit into a single email. This sort of game often lends itself well to Storyteller style of play, but Method Actors can find themselves enjoying it as well if they're willing to allow some level of leeway with the GM's treatment of their characters. Depending on the type, Specialists can enjoy this as well. Tacticians, Power Gamers, and Butt-Kickers would enjoy a different type of gaming, that almost becomes more like the traditional wargaming style of PBM.

There are lots of other things to think about, and many different ways to handle certain aspects of PBeM games (just one example: how do you deal with dice rolls?), but I don't want to write a novel with this post, so I'll leave you to do a bit of googling to find more information yourself. Suffice to say, PBeM games are a real and viable option. Maybe you should look into it!