Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The GM as Magician

Just a brief rumination that occurred to me while driving home today. There's a lot of tips about how to GM better games. And that's all well and good. But keep in mind something as you GM - you are like a magician to your Players. Well, I should caveat that by saying that it varies to a certain degree depending on the type of game your running. The more Narrative your style of game, the more Magician you become.

How so? Well you set up encounters. You create Maps. You create NPCs. You act them out improvisationally during the course of the game. No one knows really exactly what is going to happen because the Dice and the Players conspire to change whatever plans we may have had. And so improvisation is required.

But what the Players don't know, and in my opinion shouldn't know, is exactly what's been planned, and what's being improvised. They know its a mix. But they don't know how much of a mix. And that's a good thing, and should stay that way. Because one of the things that brings interest and excitement to the game is the idea that the GM's World is this real "other Place" that you can use your imagination to venture into. And when that works and you achieve some level of Immersion - it's awesome. Provided of course that the GM's World is actually awesome. But that's a different point. What I'm suggesting is that the GM should not divulge to the Players what his 'tricks' are... any more than the Magician will show you how he does a coin trick. The moment he does - the mystery is finished. You may have learned a trick, but you've lost the Immersion.

So unless you are teaching a new GM the tricks of the trade - don't tell your Players anything about what's going on behind the curtain. It's more fun for them, and probably improves the quality of their experience overall.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On the Rational for Professional Gamesmastering

Recently we've been talking a lot about Professional Gamesmastering. In fact, to facilitate brainstorming and discussion of this idea I started the Professional Gamesmaster Society on Google+

The first reaction was "That's impossible!".

The second reaction was "If it IS possible, that's Immoral!"

So why even think about it? GMing has been free for 30 years. No one complains. Everyone is happy with it. So why change things?

I'll give you some of my reasons why some people should shoot for Professional Gamesmastering. I'll be curious to hear if you agree or disagree.

And by the way, the third reaction was "If it is possible and not immoral ... how can I get into that? Because it sounds pretty damn cool, if it can be done, actually."

Here's our thinking:

1. Gamesmasters put a huge amount of time and effort into their games, and for very little reward other than the "that was fun" of their players. Given the proportion of GMs to players (about 10 to 1, if I'm not mistaken) there's something to be gleaned from the fact that few people are willing to put the effort into it. When I ask players who are looking for a GM why they don't GM themselves, they complain "It's too hard! I can't do that. Way above my pay grade." To wit - the fact is that GMing is a scarce commodity. And it should be recognized as such, and Gamesmasters should get something more than a "Thanks" for putting in all that work. I would argue that GMs should be paid because it's the right thing to do. Show your appreciation. Next time you go to a game - slip your GM a $20 as a way of saying "that was great. I appreciate it. Thanks." Gamesmastering is an art. Well, ok, ok ... let me caveat that - GOOD Gamesmastering is an art. And those who are good at it are frankly some of the best entertainers in the world. The only people I know who can put me into another world the way Tolkien did with Lord of the Rings, are GOOD Gamesmasters.

2. When activities involve money everyone gets more serious. And the quality goes up. Lets face it. A lot of games are run sloppy. People show up late.  This is especially the case in online Virtual Table Top games where the most common complaint I hear is from GMs who schedule games only to find that their online Players fail to show up.  But this also happens at regular Table Top Games as well, and Players tend to not take any of it all that seriously.  After all its just a game.  But more importantly its "after all - it won't cost me anything."  So they dick round on their cell phones, get cheese doodles all over everything, don't update their Character Sheets, get more cheese doodles on stuff, and so on.  Even the GMs sometimes are half loafing around. "Eh, I didn't really have enough time to prep for this game, guys... it's ok. We'll wing it." It's not that uncommon.  The entire enterprise is basically one big sloppy messy loose ship.   Of course, this has been going on, to varying degrees, for 30 years. Why? I'd argue because players have very little skin in the game. Most of the work falls the GM. All the prep work. Hosting the Game. Buying the snacks. Cleaning the house before people come over. Organizing the players. Fudging for people when they fail to show up. And worst of all, pandering to the players to keep them "involved". It's frankly completely ludicrous. And what's the effect of all of this loosey-goosey-ism? Pretty sloppy games. Now - bring money into the equation. Woah!! All of a sudden things change. Now people are serious. You mean I'm paying for this? Oh NOW I care. NOW my fellow players better get here on time. NOW the GM damn well better be prepared. NOW I give a crap about what is going on. Snacks? OK - I expect my cheese doodles on a platter, thank you very much. I believe that everything improves as soon as money gets involved in the equation. Why? Because then, and only then (pretty much) does everyone have skin in the game. And it makes a big freaking difference.

3. Improvement of the craft. If Gamesmasters were to be paid, and sufficiently so that they could actually focus on the craft, their skills would go up. And up. And up. They'd have a vested interest in making sure that their players are thrilled by the game. They'd be willing to put in the time it takes to truly prep for their games in a way that makes them all the more amazing. They'd study for it, do research for it, live it and breath it. And what we would see is that there blossoms a class of Gamesmaster-Artists who produce truly phenomenal work.

But how can Gamesmasters make that kind of money? Enough to actually devote themselves to Gamesmastering as a career? Who would pay for it? I mean you can't expect a handful of players to support a GM and his family. A handful of players can't do that. Unless they're rich as hell. Then they could. But of course instances of GMs who hook in professionally to ultra rich players who are willing to pay them, no matter what, are going to be very rare. So for most GMs, at best, with a handful of players, you could gain some nominal extra income, enough to defray the expenses related to hosting a game, and compensate you for the time you put into preparing for it.

However - what if Gamesmasters attracted audiences? Audiences who would be willing to pay? I'm thinking, once again of Improvisational Game Theater. The real money is in volume. Just like with musicians. The money is in the size of the audience, because the audience is willing to pay. I won't go into details of how I think this will get set up at the moment as this post is already too long winded, but in the long run that's where I believe things will wind up going. And frankly, I think it's awesome. And I look forward to participating in that.

Just some thoughts for you folks.

And by the way, if you are interested in contributing to the brainstorming, planning, and implementation of this concept, and you feel you have something to offer in the way of experience, knowledge, or enthusiastic support ... do drop by our community and give a holler.  We're looking for bright and engaged members to help put this all together and actually make something happen.  I will periodically be posting here regarding our progress.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Difference Between Computer and Table Top RPGs

Everyone knows that Computer RPGs and Table Top RPGs are different.  And we usually talk about that in terms of graphics vs imagination.  And that's a valid point, of course, and probably the biggest difference, or at least the most obvious.

Another difference, though, and one that I find even more interesting, is that CRPGs are designed from the point of view of Action and Suspense through mechanisms that are wholly different than TTRPGs.  First off TTRPGs are typically (I don't know if there are exceptions) turn based.  They are an offshoot of tactical war-games.  They are Strategic or Tactical in nature.   You plan your moves, you think carefully, you plot out distances and make calculations based on math.  Then you move and your characters take their actions.  The dice are rolled and outcomes are determined and described.

Conversely, in CRPGs you move fast, you run towards the opponent, rapidly assess whatever skill or spell you're going to use or "fire" and twitch your way to ever-loving glory.   It's fast paced fun and exciting.

So between the two games where do you get suspense?  In one you get it from the live action element.  In the other ... and that's the interesting part.  For Table Top RPGs you need to do something extra to gain the element of suspense.  You need to build a story.  You need the Characters to be invested in that story, and you need to build suspense in the Players by cultivating that story in such a way as to make them, at some point, sit on the edge of their seats ... and when you do that, you've achieved a particular kind of mastery in Table Top RPGs.  It's not about system.  This kind of mastery is about story telling.

When I Gamesmaster I try to build up towards climactic events that will along the way create a mounting suspense among the players.  I do it by emotionally involving their Characters in the story.  For example, recently a Character named Hermel was essentially a retired hero.  He saved his town from the bandits, uncovered a mystery or two along the way, helped to eliminate a dangerous gang from the local town, found the girl of his dreams and, well, was satisfied.  He didn't want to take any chances on adventuring his way into self destruction.   Understandable!

Yet the world goes on.  And adventure was calling his name.  Mostly because there is a new campaign brewing.  A very interesting one.  Right near the village where Hermel settled down and started his farm and family.

So one day adventure came looking for Hermel and his friends.  It came in the form of a Town Hall meeting.  Hermel waited outside, not wishing to get himself involved.  At the end of the meeting the bad news was told.   While the town had been prospering after the elimination of the Bandits, and the building of the town wall (at Hermel's suggestion), and the opening of a local sulfur mine (by one of Hermel's adventuring Compatriots Ishcandar's father, the wealthy Mr. Rockerfellah) ... there were problems.  Hermel stood outside patiently waiting.  It turned out that there had been kidnappings recently.  No one knew by whom.  Three children had been taken in the past three nights.  During heavy storms.  Right out from under their parent's noses.

It began raining.

Hermel looked at his lovely wife who was seated next to him on the bench outside the doorway of the the Town Hall.

"Did we leave Peaches (his daughter's nickname) at home?" he asked.  "Of course," said his wife, but before she could finish the sentence Hermel was already running full tilt towards the commons beyond which, at the edge of the village, his farmhouse stood in the darkness.   "Peaches!" he yelled at the top of his lungs as he ran.  "Peaches!"

The towns folk, who all knew Hermel quite well, ran outside.  There was a buzz around the hall, and some ran after him, while others ran to their own homes to check on their own children.  Hermel's wife, Apricot, gathered as many friends as she could quickly muster with a shout and ran after her husband, her dress dampening in the increasing rain.  The wind began to howl.  The rain came down in pelts.

She was gone.

And so Hermel wasted no time in finding the thin trail of odd shaped tracks that lead him and his friends into the wilderness...

And that's how suspense gets built with story.  It's fabulous fun.

And for me, that's the big gigantic difference between Computer and Table Top RPGs.  I can do that with my Table Top RPG.  I can't do anything like that whatsoever with my Computer RPG.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Thoughts on The Trouble with Movement Rates

I just read "The Trouble With Movement Rates" over at ((nil) is (not(null))) Blog, and that was a thought provoking reminder of my own experiences with the problem of movement rates in my game. I think I'll chat a bit about it here.

A conundrum I've run into about movement in my World of Elthos was revealed not too long ago (after three decades) when the human Player Characters in my campaign got shrunk down to tiny size. At one point they were crossing their back yard when they encountered ... ants. They were at roughly the same size as the ants at that point. And this become a bone of contention for a brief period while I worked out how to handle movement.

My movement charts show that humans move 6 hexes a melee or about 36 feet every two seconds or so (at a sprint). Whether or not that's entirely accurate was not the problem ... it was that ants have a movement of 1. But when shrunk down, what is the relative movement of humans to ants. Of course I made something up, and that worked fine for the game. But it left me wondering about how to do this in a legitimate way going forward. Given the possibility of shrinking and growing, I contrived to think of movement (and also other requisite based issues which are other symptoms of the same problem of relative scales, such as strength) as relative to whatever the predominant race of my world is were the races set at the same size. Thus humans are 6 and that's the base. Ants are 8 actually because with so many legs they move faster than humans if they are the same size. Kobolds, which are already roughly the same size, or close enough, are 4, and correspond to hobbits who for whatever reason I also thought of as slower than humans on account of their smaller legs. Just kinda makes more sense to my mind. Hobbits as fast as elves would mean legs that move at hyperbolic speed. I can't take that. Anyway, Giants, relative to humans, are x times larger, but were they the same size they'd be 6. So therefore their speed is a factor of their increased size. Humans are on average in my world 5 feet tall. Thus a giant who is 30 feet tall is six times faster than a human, and therefore his movement will be 36 hexes per melee, or 216 feet every two seconds.

That said I have Dwarves as slower than humans, and Elves as faster. Goblins are as fast as humans, but Kobolds and Hobbits move at the same rate as Dwarves. Horses move twice as fast as humans (though in thinking about it they probably should move three or four times as fast). Wolves move twice as fast as humans as well, and about the same speed as horses (I don't know if that is real-world accurate or not, but that's what I've got). Ghouls are faster than zombies. Zombies are faster than skeletons. However, zombies are really hard to kill and don't get tired. Skeletons are even harder to kill and don't get tired either. They're also horribly single minded, and they usually are attached to some dreadful force that has animated them and will show up and do bad things as well. Slow as molasses though. So my thinking in terms of monsters is to more or less balance out movement with other factors. I also take into account these days that movement for different races is effected by terrain. And that's a big deal. Humans do not swim at the same speed they can sprint. So there is water movement and land movement. Birds don't swim as fast as they can fly. So there's water, air and land movement. And for some races they don't move nearly so fast on land, air or water as they do in molten lava. And so on. So I have a big table that maps movement on terrains by race. That's a pain to look at, frankly, and I'm pretty sure I didn't finish it. But I did get a start on it, and I do think it's basically the correct, albeit unwieldy solution.

Of course in the Elthos RPG each GM is called upon to create their own worlds, and so it will be perfectly normal for some worlds to have fast hobbits, and some worlds to have slow hobbits. I'm down with that. It's fine. We all have different visions in our heads as to what is what, after all, don't we? I think that should apply to movement as well. But the key to my innovation on this is that movement charts show the relative movement to the predominant race of a given terrain. That's because humans can't fly, so their movement in the air is zero. Making other race movement factors relative to humans would, mathematically speaking, but a bad idea. So I'll pick a bird, like the Eagle, for that. Lava? Salamanders, probably, or devils maybe. Not sure. But each terrain type will probably get its own Base Race against which movement will be determined. And so, if a human does happen to learn to fly, his speed will be relative to Eagles.

And of course when it comes to oddball monsters like lions with human heads and wings and stuff ... well... Lions move on the land at 6 times human speed, in the air at 8 times eagle speed,  and ... you get the idea.

Ok, that's all I got on that. Curious what you may think of this solution, and any advice or ideas you might have.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Elthos UI - One Small Step

1st Ajax call of Elthos
I don't usually write about technical progress with the Elthos RPG website, but this advance is kind of a big deal for the UI.  Finally, after a long time of working on other more fundamental aspects of the project, mostly on the back end, I have made a number of forays into the UI / UX space.   My first major accomplishment (those who know how easy this actually is, don't laugh please - I didn't know until I tried it myself) is the implementation of JQuery Ajax to call a (don't laugh please) WebMethod and provide a data table that shows up in a label on the form.

For those not too in-the-know about this sort of thing, it means that the page does not "postback" to the server, but instead smoothly glides the data onto the page unobtrusively.  So the page no longer vanishes and then reappears with the data.   And it's a much nicer User Experience. 

Now that I have that down, I can make advances towards generally improving the UI (that is User Interface).  I'm pretty excited about this.  It represents a sea change in how Elthos will be managing data going forward.   Of course, that sea change won't happen overnight, and I have a bunch of alternate paths to explore before making a final decision on whether or not to use WebMethods, or WebAPI, or WCF technologies.  All of them do the same thing, and there's pros and cons apparently for each.  But still, I made my first WebMethod call successfully today, and its implemented on the production server and works rather nicely.  I'm delighted!  :)

Ok, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Elthos Cosmology Encapsulated

This diagram illustrates the conceptual framework of the Elthos World ... it includes the relative positions of both groups of Deities - the Cosmic Celestials and the Archetypes.

The Cosmic Celestials operate in the Realm of Divine Ideas, above the conscious mind.  The Archetypes, on the other hand, operate in the realm of the ID, below the subconscious mind.  Wilderness adventures will have a tendency to relate to themes pertaining to the Cosmic Elkron, and quests of the upper world.  Delving into dungeons and caverns will conversely explore the realms of the subconscious mind, and ultimately, if one goes deep enough, the realm of the Id.   So the higher or deeper you go the more mystical the nature of the exploration becomes.

The Cosmic Celestials are represented by Zodiac and Planetary signs, while the Archetypes are represented by the Major Arcane cards of the Tarot Deck.  Each Archetype has a corresponding Celestial.  So if you were to imagine the two groups of Ekron overlapped they would form two disks divided into twelve pie slices, and both disks forming two concentric circles, as can be seen below.


The Cosmic Celestials are pictographically represented here on the back face of the Elthos Tarot Deck. 


The Archetypes are represented in the Major Arcana of the Deck, and here's an example.

So what we see here is that this Major Arcana card is the Archetype of The Magician, and is associated to the Planet Mercury and the Zodiac Sign of Gemini. 

How this all plays out in terms of Elthos, the world, is that the Elkron are Cosmological Forces of the upper and lower realms of the Mind, and personifications of the Alignments to which they are associated.  They war and ally with one another in accordance with their natures and the movement of the Planets and Archetypes as they perform the Dance of the Spheres.   This all happens at the Cosmological level of the Campaign wherein the purposes and circumstances of the Elkron are charted. 

That said, it has been very rare for Player Characters to advance high enough or deep enough to experience or comprehend the true nature of the Dance of the Elkron, or even more than a passing glimpse of it.  However, it is there nevertheless, ever in motion, ever synchronizing elements of the back story with elements of the plot line.  It's quite an exquisite system in many ways.  Some day I do hope to rationalize it well enough to put into a book and explain to other GMs how it works, and what one might do with it.   Until then, however, its to be taken as a kind of philosophic art that enhances the Elthos world in some mysterious way, as yet quite unfathomable to the Player Characters (or other GMs).  Perhaps some day a particularly stellar mage will arise in the Campaign who will begin to make sense of it all.  



Monday, November 03, 2014

Hobbington Campaign Plot Map (2012)


This is the plot map that I created towards the end of the 2012 Hobbington Campaign.  It shows all the main Characters and Adventure / Villain Groups, and the primary locations in the Campaign.  The arrows show the movement of the Groups, and colored boxes show the related groups.  As you can see, towards the end of the Campaign, after about 24 games or so, things had gotten a bit complex.  This map helped me a great deal to keep track of the story in terms of plot lines and tidy up the loose threads by the end of the 38th game session, which concluded the campaign with our heroes victorious.  It was  a great campaign, and this map helped a lot to make it turn out that way.