Saturday, April 24, 2010

Crisis, Quest, Mentor

So, you have decided what sort of game you want to run. You have the genre, you have the method of communication, you have the database. You have advertised and you have players, they have characters you approve of.

So, what is next? You have to get the band together.

Having the PCs meet can be simple or complex, but to insure the game gets off on the right foot it should at least be interesting. Some settings make this very easy. In this article I will explore some of the different game settings and the various way players may meet and begin their adventures.

Star Trek is probably the simplest of all. Everyone works for Starfleet or are in some way associated with them, or have some valid reason to be on a Federation vessel, it is just a matter of them meeting the captain, saying “hello!” and moving on with making introductions to the rest of the gang. While that is a nice, safe way to go, it probably mirrors how 99% of Star Trek games begin. How can you shake things up?

One way to do it is to suggest many of the crew already know one another. Talk to the players, see who wishes to know whom and how. Have some of the crew already serving on board. While some ‘Trek games assume the ship still has that brand new smell, odds are the vessel should already be in service and the PCs are coming on board as replacements.

And there is an awesome hook; replacements. Why have so many new officers been assigned this ship? Have the old officers been killed in action? Or were they arrested for mutiny? Will the crew trust the replacements? Perhaps the captain was the former XO and is in many ways as untried as the officers he now commands. An environment of distrust and uncertainty might be an interesting way to start things off.

When I ran my first Star Trek game, Lionheart, it was during the Dominion war. Lionheart was a beaten up Sabre class vessel, it’s crew a combination of shell shocked survivors as well as those being ferried back to Earth for reassignment. Lionheart was destined for scrap upon her arrival, her officers along mostly for the ride, to keep things together for that long.

And of course, things did not work according to plan. Lionheart got sucked into a future where the Dominion won the war, and Lionheart was somehow responsible. The crew’s mission was to discover what they had done wrong and to go back in time to fix it, and I consider myself very, very fortunate to have been blessed with a batch of players who made that first game rock. And it began in part because the adventure hook went beyond simply a bunch of new officers coming on board.
Another genre is fantasy. When I used to play Dungeons & Dragons the PCs first meeting in a tavern became a tired cliché that could cause many eyes to roll. It was boring. But why would such a gang of diverse characters be together? What would a fighter have in common with a mage? Why would a paladin sully his good name being seen in public with a suspected thief?

Again, this is where the crisis can come in. In one game I played the GM had this town attacked by an outside force. Everyone in tow-the PCs included-were charmed and chained. An opposing force broke the spell and in the battle the PCs-chained ankle to ankle, had to work together to escape. It fell apart when Herb decided his character wanted to strike off on his own, but I think he was just doing that to be a dick. Point was, the GM thought outside the box, decided to create a crisis to form a bond.

I used to game with a guy named Chuck, and Chuck was the sort of GM who did not plan very far ahead. Every game he started began with the group waking up in their underwear, often imprisoned, which really sucked for the players whose characters were dependent on big guns or the like. It got so no one wanted Chuck to run things any more. However, his method did have the benefit of getting the gang motivated.
When I ran a D & D game I used an attack on the caravan the players were part of to create the crisis. The survivors had to flee the orcs, had to reach a town some miles away. There was safety in numbers and along the way, if friendships were not made at least a respect for everyone’s respective talents.

Sometimes the crisis does not have to be so immediate. I ran another game much later, when 3rd Edition came out. In this the players were the apprentices and squires of powerful adventurers on a quest. They were the heroes of tomorrow learning from the heroes of today. While on the quest they were left behind to watch the horses and mind the camp as their mentors went off to inspect some castle ruins. A day went by and the heroes did not return. Then two. By the third, the young adventurers knew something had befallen their teachers.

Now they had to step up and not only complete the quest, but they also had to discover the mystery of their mentors’ disappearance. This was an excellent way to get the gang some starting magic gear:

“This is Eveningsong’s Elven cloak! Why would she hide it here in the hollow of this tree? Look, a note is pinned to it, a clue!”

Which brings me to the other classic fantasy adventure hook: the Quest. The Quest is a fine idea, but if given a choice, I will take the crisis over The Quest every time. The crisis gives a more action packed start and also gives the players a more immediate, tangible motivation. If The Quest is used, then I think a twist needs to be added to it, like the one I mentioned above.

Which is not to say I would rule out The Quest entirely. An example of a good quest hook might be the various players each possess a piece of a map, and together they can use it to uncover a hidden treasure. Such a map could be pieces of paper, or the lines of a riddle, or as they did in a Star Trek episode, lines of DNA discovered on different planets. In Star Trek (or another sci-fi setting) the PCs receive haunting dreams and feel compelled to gather together. Starfleet assigns them to a single vessel (Does it even have to be a ship they are on? Why not have them act as passengers instead, a strike force ferried from place to place. (Alternate Star Trek adventure ideas will be discussed in a later article). Who is sending the dreams and why? Are they a warning, and if so, of what?

And this segues into another potential plot hook; the mentor.

In Shadowrun he was known as “Mister Smith”, the guy who provided the team their missions. Gandalf in Lord of The Rings might be considered such, to an extent. When I began my Vindicators game the team was assembled by Marion Bradley, executor of the Margaret Ashe Foundation, which was bank rolling the team. It is a quick and effective way of starting things off, although it can be a bit boring. But sometimes boring is okay if the players trust you and when I started The Vindicators many of the players already knew me well enough to roll with it. And boring might be the way to go if your players are as inexperienced as you are. Vanilla can be a tasty flavor as well.

The mentor might not be a benign force. What if the gang were brought together to participate in some sort of death match by the game’s main villain? What if it were some sort of contest of champions set up by cosmic forces? This idea can work in almost any setting, even Star Trek. In The Savage Curtain Kirk and Spock were forced to fight in order to see which was stronger, good or evil.

No doubt I have missed many examples, but I think I covered the general categories: crisis, quest, mentor. In each case I have illustrated some examples but like I said, it is far from an exhaustive list. Whatever you choose, just bear in mind the choice is may have an impact on the rest of your game. Remember; once you have seen someone else in their underwear, you never look at them the same way again…

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bad Cop

When running a game a time is going to come along when you and one or more players are going to butt heads. You are going to disagree on subjects, or receive criticism. One player may make a disparaging comment about another.

Let me say this right now; the advice I give here I have not always followed. I am short tempered, I have made mistakes. I have done things I am not proud of and have been frankly embarrassing. So before anyone checks out posts in my Vindicators game and call me a hypocrite, I just want to state I believe in what I say here, I just do not always follow my own advice. I am fallible.

Now, on to the advice.

First of all, if a player butts heads with you, do not lose your temper. It is just a game. Yes, it is your game, but it is still just a past time you are not being paid to. Keep it in perspective. If he insults you, if he criticizes your GMing style, if he finds fault with your game, follow Dalton's advice and be nice.

Take a breath. Walk away from the computer. Take a day off and think about what you want to do. You are not going to make any good decisions with your blood up. Whatever you do is going to have consequences for you, the player, and the game.

Here are your options. Bear in mind these options will be colored by your relationship with the player and the severity of his actions. One thing I can insist on is to take the conversation off the board, make it private with the player.

If he has insulted another player, then politely insist he/she apologize publicly. There can be no compromise on this. Players must feel as if they can rely on you, depend on you, and that means you standing up for them by standing up to a potential 'net bully. If he has insulted you then whether or not you want a public apology is up to you.

If he has criticized your game, consider what he has said. Maybe he is right. Maybe he has a point. Maybe you do need to change some aspect of the game. If so then you might want to make it a public forum.

However, if he has just come out and said your game sucks without giving a valid reason, then privately ask him up front if he wants to quit. Find out what is wrong, both with the game and perhaps about his private life. Sometimes real life stress causes people to say things they do not mean.

In the end, firing a player must always be an option you should entertain. The quality of their play, the length of time they have gamed with you, their "real world" friendship are all factors you must take into account. But some guys just need to go.