The end of Amber

14 March, 2014 at 7:47 pm (Amber, game mastering) ()

I started an Amber game. One of the players was okay with playing but not too enthusiastic, one was very enthusiastic, and three others something in between. One of them was going too leave at some point.

One of the players, the enthusiastic one, wanted a political game with secret actions, players against each other and also against environment. Why not, for does not the rulebook also suggest that? He suggested playing between games by email, and so I implemented that. To make things even more interesting, I decided to recruit some background players who would play non-player characters of their choosing or design. This would also happen between sessions.

It turned out that not one of the players actually contributed substantially between games, in any way, not even the one who had suggested this. The organisation of the game was geared towards making this kind of game happen, and it became quite cumbersome and unmotivating when the players were not engaging with the game between sessions.

The background players did their jobs better than I could have hoped, and they did contribute. For a game of political scheming and plotting I will in the future consider similar implementations. I could have tied them more closely to the player characters and each other.

Also, in retrospect it is easy to see that the players, though enthusiastic at the table, were not generally very comfortable with using email for long messages, or responding promptly. Maybe some other players in some distant future will show more interest towards this kind of play.

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Not saving NPC dignity

18 September, 2011 at 9:48 pm (actual play, Amber, game mastering) (, , , , , )

So, we were playing Amber. There is this one NPC, lady A!Gyre of the house Meria, that holds a lot of very limited power and has been using it once or twice. She is also hidden in a place that is very hard to reach, even for Amberites.  And nobody knew she was there.

One of the player characters got in the contact with agyre. The form of contact was conversation through an old TV display, barely capable of showing colours. The picture was blurry. And on the other side there is this woman-like entity sitting on a far too tall black throne. She has a black featureless mask covering her face, and is made of stone, is the colour of stone, or is just covered with dust.

Some negotiation about who built this certain trap, and a’Gyre demands something in exchange for the information. Simeon, the character who had in his life played the part of Bond-like secret agent, offers a hot night (as reads in the session log – the exact phrase I can’t recall).

A_Gyr had not moved from her seat in ages, so the offer was surprising. She was a fairly unknown chaos entity, so it was surprising to me, the GM.

The two did end up in bed, but we not comfortable with playing through that. I and the player in question did play it out a bit – not the physical stuff, but more the emotional side and building trust and psychical meddling that happened.

Saying yes

My typical preparation for the Amber game is as follows: I have a list of stats for the NPCs, I know what many of them are up to, I have a relationship map which illustrates some of that. Further, I have the next scene for each character somewhat prepared, based on what their plans were at the end of the last session. I may also have a random scene or a few ready, for when the circumstances make it possible (if some NPC has prepared it) or when a good opportunity arises.

I also know, with varying levels of details, what has happened in the past. I also know something about how different powers and items of power function, but exploring this is a significant part of play, so much of it is unknown to me.

I knew a little about aGyre’s motivations, but nothing about personality. Would she accept Simeon’s offer? Could have gone either way, so I left it open for a bit, but than later said yes. In very certain terms – Simeon was at her court, such as it was, full of monsters and entities of unknown powers and intentions.

Status quo?

In Apocalypse world, one of the principles is to look at everything through crosshairs. Consider killing whoever your attention lands on, and do not try to maintain the dignity of NPCs. This does not translate to Amber as such as especially the elder Amberites demand some extra consideration, but in the situation – why not? I don’t have a precious plot to save, so why try to maintain status quo, and not let an adventurous Amberite get it on with a lady of a Chaosite house?

This is something for me to think about, and for something for other game masters to also consider, supposing they are playing a game where big and powerful NPCs roam the lands. Should there be a status quo that you strive to maintain? Why not let the player characters kill Elminster (or maybe fuck Elminster) – the consequences will create enough material to run the game for next sequence of sessions, and the players will be happy. Maybe I’ll look at the elder Amberites through crosshairs – blood curses expected.

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Metagaming in Amber

1 July, 2011 at 8:46 am (Amber, game mastering) (, , , )

In my Amber game, none of the players are familiar with the setting. None. I am, somewhat, and thus far sufficiently.

So, we start with the standard amnesiac plot – you are all prisoners in this facility and know nothing. Have fun.

The players of course knew what I told them during character creation. I also told them to freely read the rulebook, and if they happen to read Amber material online, that is also completely okay. Their characters recover their memories to the extent that the players find out about things. They should still note that my Amber is, by necessity, not the official Amber, as I don’t remember that well enough. So their characters might have misconceptions and remember falsities. I get all that for free by allowing metagaming in these ways.

The organisation which imprisoned the player characters is (heavily inspired by) the SCP foundation. They have, for example, already had several encounters with [REDACTED], have sort of allied themselves with certain employee of the foundation, and attacked it more than once, generally pretty unsuccesfully due to lack of preparation and disparity in manpower. I have stated that they are free to read any stuff found there and use it to their own advantage, though my SCP foundation is not exactly what they find there, as before.

As a game master it takes some trying to not simply tell things or hint at them or whatever, especially when not playing. Games with serious secrets and hidden information are pretty much unlike the games I usually run, where there is certainly unknown information, but revealing it is not a problem. Here hidden information and not knowing are parts of the game. We also theoretically use secret notes, though actual use has been sparse, mostly due to old habit of not using them at all. I should send some dummy ones. And some proper ones, too.

As with all things, claiming that metagaming is good or bad is useless. In this case, it is mostly desired, but players are also free to stick with what their characters know. It might even be more fun that way, depending on the player. Players are free to make the call either way.

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Now running: Amber diceless

8 June, 2011 at 10:34 pm (Amber, game mastering) (, )

I’ve been playing in several fairly short games with the Monday rpg group, but now I have again managed to start running a game, or maybe even a campaign, with some energy to it. We’ve played five sessions thus far. The players are Aleksi, Henrik, Mikko and one who on the internet goes by the name of Thalin.

Amber diceless is based on the Amber books by Roger Zelazny that seem to be quite obscure hereabouts, which is sort of pity. I read the roleplaying game first, then at some point (it has been more than five years, I suppose) read the books when Gastogh bought them, and then reread the rpg. Recently Thalin gave the rpg to me, or, rather, I saved it from an unknown destiny when Thalin moved.

Some mild spoilers about the books follow.

The cosmology of Amber is vast. There is a central pole, the city of Amber itself, which (simplifying and lying a bit) represents order. On the far edges of the multiverse there are the Courts of Chaos and behind them there is the Abyss, vast nothingness. Between these are innumerable shadows (of Amber), each of which is a world or a universe in and of itself. Our world, the shadow Earth, is one of them. The entire setting of Planescape presumably is one of them. Amberites can walk from shadow to shadow – they can, for example, find a shadow of their desire by starting anywhere and shifting between shadows until they get there. So, the multiverse or the cosmology or whatever is, well, quite large. There are philosophical issues and details that I choose to omit, as they are not really relevant until someone starts seriously playing around with the Pattern, i.e. the power of walking between shadows.

More accurately, almost all Amberites can walk through shadows. Of the four characters, one has in public admitted to having the power. This is somewhat due to the peculiar character creation rules and certain psychological factors, I presume, but more on those later.

Amber diceless is actually a diceless rpg. It does not use any other randomiser or bidding system or other complicated resolution system, either. Characters have attributes and they are compared. In a fair fight, the higher attribute wins. In practice, what the play is about is not having a fair fight. This can be accomplished by manipulating the fiction and using certain mechanical powers, more on which later.

For reference: The game was published in 1991 and was designed by Erick Wujcik. One interested in its design philosophy could do worse than read Wujcik’s article on diceless roleplaying. The articles is short and though it is hosted on the Forge, there’s never any GNS mentioned. Really.

I do also intend this article to mark the rebirth of my humble blog. Let us see how it goes.

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Repetition

17 July, 2010 at 10:17 pm (actual play, game mastering) ()

Briefly: Use the same short description over and over again to describe something that is or will be significant.

This is a trick learned from Ludosofy‘s Runequest game. There was a shaman in his hut. Our characters knocked on the door, the shaman (eventually) opened it, checked who was intruding, turned and walked inside, leaving the door open. This happened whenever our characters met the shaman. The phrase Ludosofy used to describe the event were almost the same, or maybe even exactly the same.

The descriptive trick creates an expectation and catches attention. Attention is naturally powerful – this trick can be used to create a clear vision of some place or character. Acting contrary to expectations is an effective way of creating a sense of foreboding – the shaman greeting us and not going inside in silence would have had us assuming a ploy of some kind. Creating a pattern and breaking it could be used to evoke the elusive beast that is horror.

Using the same short description over and over again to describe something that is or will be significant also enhances the potential of it being turned into an inside joke or story. Such inside jokes are can strengthen one’s role as a member of a group or clique, which might or might not be desirable.

Do remember to keep the description short, and don’t do it with everything.

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Serious gaming

11 May, 2010 at 8:26 pm (actual play, game mastering, Solar system)

I am currently running a Solar system game. Last session contained something I have not often seen in roleplaying, so maybe it is worth sharing. First, some background.

I started the character generation by outlining the general situation and setting: science fiction, mostly hard, characters are people sent to the prison planetoid Pluto. Game can happen there or elsewhere if the characters get away.

Next, players created character concepts (I had a bunch of skill lists as inspiration and guide) and I asked them to pose some question they are interested in, and that is about their character. “Why is your character the main character here?” was something I think I asked. Use the word protagonist if you will. The questions the players came up with were surprisingly high-brow, even though I even gave an example of something more task-oriented. Here’s a few: Was the massacre of Ganymedes worth it? Why is [the character] such a ruthless killer? Do ends justify the means?

Then, each player posed a question about another player’s character. All the questions have mechanical weight: When they come up in a scene, 1 experience. When a scene is about a question, 3 exp. When a session is about a question, 5 xp. When a question is answered (in play), 10 xp, lose the question, and come up with a new one at some point. (I’ll change those criteria in the future. Probably 5 xp when a question is answered and none when an entire session is about some question, since that is hard to judge and does not add much.)

We had some themes related to the worth of humans, the value of religion, and how far can one go to achieve one’s goals. Situation in play: The characters are leaders of one group in power and they are planning to soon leave and in the process stall the life-supporting processes of the entire prison facility (which is an old industrial complex, unsupervised by outside forces as they mostly don’t care). There’s an android or robot (a robot, as they later find out) preaching faith, goodwill and uniting the divided gangs to improve the quality of life of everyone there, and later to build a force of robots to take over as much area as they can (such as the Solar system in its entirety). As it happens, the robot walks to the players’ base and is neutralised, later to be powered up again. Once that is done there is a discussion with all but one player actively participating (and also the robot, so I get involved, too). The discussion is about the worth of human life, what should we do to the scum here, what should we do to this robot (who is judged evil or maybe only mad), and why all of this is right.

This conversation was notable in that it

  1. happened in character
  2. enriched the game and deepened the characters, especially the inhuman-seeming robot
  3. actively benefited from the game to the extent that such views would not probably have been brought up outside this context
  4. revealed us a new conflict among the characters, hence adding more playable material organically.

Some notable techniques I used to facilitate this were: to not fall back to dice (I had actively removed most persuasive and lie-detection skills from Solar system for this game, or more accurately made them hard to learn outside special training), to actively poke the questions with NPCs who take strong positions with regards them, and to then give players power to judge these NPCs (a trick learned from Dogs in the Vineyard, I think). The rules were there as a framework, but they were not explicitly invoked in this situation, which I think is somewhat optimal for may style of play.

And then the serious part

I have been explicitly called a Swine by the pundit, so of course my gaming must be ponderous and unfun. That is exactly why the robot preacher had the shape of an idealised white male (think of Tarzan or Conan) and used the name Arnold, and one somewhat shifty NPC is called Judas Calgarus, and why there is a bunch of old worker robots reactivated that have a hive mind and negotiated free time and pay to work for the PCs (there was certain speculation involving how they spend their free time, and many references to the strike that elevators did when people did not give them sufficient respect), and all the usual skulduggery and action bits, including neutralising the Terminator-like preacher Arnold by heavy gunfire.

Point being that the interesting philosophical discussion is good content, but much better when it is not too frequent and there is sufficient action and humour to balance it out.

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Some observations on Dogs in the Vineyard

14 February, 2010 at 10:02 pm (actual play, game mastering) (, , )

I have up to this point game mastered three, I think, sessions proper of Dogs (hereafter DitV) plus one character generation session. There is a pool of six players (plus me as the GM) and we handwave why the cast of characters changes between sessions.

If you, dear reader, are not familiar with Dogs, I’d recommend reading about it here or here. Now, some observations:

  • DitV is actually well-designed. Both the rules and the setting are. The writing is very conversational, which I occasionally find demanding to interpret, but most of the time the text is clear and entertaining enough.
  • Dogs is a game about religion. It is not a game that defends or attacks religion. This I find both rare and refreshing.
  • Dogs works well with three or four players. I think I actually prefer three. No testing with two or merely one player. (Plus the GM.)
  • The town creation rules work. Following them is recommended.
  • The game works best when one is trying to play it honestly – don’t create a tricky character to begin with (that will come with play), don’t create a caricature, but do try to honestly fix the towns and their problems. Playing inquisition is trivial.
  • DitV is difficult to game master. One should be able to play generally more than four actually different characters and make them somewhat compelling and sympathetic. This is beyond my skills, but one learns by doing.
  • Do call player characters by name. Always. All the time. It helps to establish the characters. Also, non-player characters. Don’t be ashamed of the names you or others come up with – just use them.

Here’s something I’m planning to do. There are six players total. After each session there is a moment for reflection. Here’s my plan: an entire session for reflection, socialisation between the players and free roleplay. Some possibilities within the fiction: A city where everything is okay. Return to Bridal Falls (where everything is okay). Number of players would be up to six. Probably no or very few dice used. Players sitting in a circle or semicircle rather than around a table other obstacle. Maybe even players freely roaming about.

My modest apartment is too small for this, I fear, but maybe sometimes, somewhere.

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Developing characters in play

10 April, 2009 at 9:33 pm (game design, game mastering) (, )

I’m a big fan of starting with fairly sketchy characters (and world) and letting them develop in actual play. Sometimes it works well, sometimes less so. There is one phenomenon that causes a sort of disconnect. The phenomenon is that of pulling out skills or equipment out of thin air or non-defined backgrounds, and doing this exactly when having that skill would be convenient.

To clarify, the problem is not that this is abusive or makes challenges too easy. If merely having a skill is sufficient to make a challenge null, it was poorly designed to start with. Abusive use is likewise a nonproblem.

The problem is that it strains credibility it feels abusive, even when it is not. As a friend said, a set of lockpicks will not simply materialise out of nothing. Still, this sort of thing seemingly happens all the time in whatever media one prefers to consume.

So, a potential solution I’ll be experimenting with: Equipment and skills and so one must be foreshadowed in a different scene before they can be brought to play. This may be the character telling about some related events, or buying equipment (naturally), or player narrating that the character is oiling the daggers he usually keeps hidden.

As a bonus, if there’s a gun in the first scene, someone might very well use it later. Chekov is not assured to be happy, but some movement towards that direction is achieved, I reckon.

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Music in games

1 April, 2009 at 1:53 pm (game mastering)

For some games I’ve been using background music in games. I generally don’t want to fiddle with computer while gaming, so optimally I construct a playlist that the computer can play in the background as we happily roleplay. The problem, of course, is finding or building suitable playlists. Luckily, one of my friend is pretty good at finding suitable background music, even if he prefers fairly epic music.

Benefits

Mood and so on are the normal cited benefits of background music. I also use it as an improvisational tool: A significant change in the tone of background music is a good cue for making similar change in gameplay. Works as long as the music doesn’t change dramatically too often.

Recommendations

Arcana and Dargaard are great for dark and fairly ambient background music. Darkwave is the genre, I think, but I’m not expert on those. There is chanting, melodic music and rarely singing.

Ambient in general is fairly usable; for example, check Dreamstate.

Of course, sometimes someone else has done all the work and you can simply play it. Last.fm is free for some time still, hence it can be used. The best bet is to find a suitable tag or user who listens to very specific music.

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Preparation: a case study

14 March, 2009 at 12:34 pm (game mastering)

In this post I will explain how I have prepared and do prepare for this game. The premise is that three mages (number may change still) are banished from the city of Carcassonne and they will build something resembling a settlement and probably get involved in the local politics (such as who banished them and why) and then there’s the issue of Catharism and the Catholic church and potentially upcoming crusade. Year 1200 + few more.

Characters

Chris Owens, a messianic leader of a hedonistic cult, whose tenets of faith are pretty much diametrically opposed to both the Catharism and Christianity of that age; venerates Rex Mundi (the Demiurge) whom Cathars believe to be the evil creator of the physical world. They believe that Rex Mundi was created bythe true God (along with other heavenly beings) and tried to do the same, hence creating humanity, but being imperfect made the world an evil place it is; very gnostic of them. Chris has perpetual wounds that will not heal and entered the other world in a tower full of all vices that were not enough for him.

Philippe, an experienced soldier who was kindly asked to leve his mercenary company due to issues of witchcraft; he feels no pain and originally entered the other world by being almost killed, or maybe even completely killed. Can see dead people. Can also make people dead.

The third character was once a doctor but failed healing a key patient, whose relatives took their revenge by stabbing his eyes with sharp objects; hence, blindness. Afterwards he was a beggar for quite some time, whom local monastery kept alive by offering shelter at night. One night tehre was an unearthly wind and he followed it; there he bargained a gift of scrying for the mere price of his name.

Thus far

They were driven away from Carcassonne and mostly by accident banded together (community is everything; a single champion is nothing, at least so the conventional wisdom goes). Chris, being well-connected, knew one of the local vine producers and arranged for some shelter for the night.

We’ll start actually playing later today.

Rules

I fear that the rules allow for too easy success; if that becomes an issue, I’ll negotiate to alter them. People have been giving each other tokens which is a definite plus. For the Finnish audience: Nappuloita, in reference to “älä paina nappulaa”, which references the “child pornography” censorship.

Preparation

My players may want to stop reading now. There will be potential and actual spoilers. Read the rest of this entry »

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