Great Expectations

So, there’s been an interesting discussion on UK roleplayers about how “mooks” are treated in RPGs, and why more GMs don’t treat their mooks as fully-fleshed out (well, not entirely faceless, anyway) NPCs. This led to an interesting comment about genre expectations, which I shall now shamelessly steal and riff off.

Genre is a great tool for getting your audience in the same headspace (or for deliberately creating expectations only to defy them in some sort of twist). The mooks example is terrific. As mentioned in the thread linked to above, it would be a dreadful violation of genre expectations if James Bond were tracked down and sued by the family of two heavies he shot in scene 3 of the movie. Doing this could qualify as a twist on the genre, but if so you’d expect it to be telegraphed in advance. Doing it thoughtlessly would destroy any sense of what the James Bond franchise was about, and most likely alienate the audience to boot.

The same is true for RPGs: you flout expectations at your peril. Indeed, the whole GNS theory of roleplaying is essentially about how we can sort it out so that our games reliably give us the experience that we expect/want. The reason the theory exists is because the authors felt that gamers were frequently not getting the experience they wanted, for predictable reasons. But I digress.

A theme that I’ve noticed in roleplaying discussions over the last year or so is that a good GM is constantly observing his/her players’ behaviour and adjusting the game to meet it. We are told that we should give the players the game that they want. It is bad GMing, we are told, to just plough on ahead without regard for the way the players are, uh, playing. But this is taken a step further by a school of thought that says: don’t plan your game at all, but create it in reaction to what the players seem interested in.

This is all well and good, but it has the potential to be the ultimate in genre expectations fail. You can’t establish a clear set of genre expectations if you’re waiting on the players to tell you (through their behaviour) how the game should be. Worse, it’s possible that different players have different ideas about how the game should be. How are you gonna deal with that, hot shot?

I’m not saying that GMs shouldn’t be ready to give the players what they want, or react to their behaviour. That would be crazy. But if you set out some clear ideas about what YOU want, in the form of genre (or clear explanation of where you plan to break from genre), then you stand a far better chance of your players giving you appropriate behaviour from the get-go. This also has the added advantage that if your players hate the game you’re describing they can tell you before you’re halfway into a campaign, and you can either adapt or find some other players.

What this comes down to is, I like to talk about my roleplaying. I like to discuss it with my players, and find out what they like (and don’t like), and I like to let them know the same in turn. Genre is a terrific way to shortcut that conversation, but the conversation is still worth having – and not just hoping that by masterful GM skills you’ll just be able to muddle through and somehow give the players what they wanted all along.

Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.

Roleplaying over the internets

Today I ran Disaster Strikes! over Google Hangouts for Indie+. I have roleplayed over Skype/G+ before, but never with anything more than a very rudimentary set of mechanics, and only with people I knew quite well. So this was a new experience for me.

I was feeling pretty trepidatious; nobody had signed up in advance for my Indie+ event. Was this normal? Would there be a last-minute rush, or would I sit like a lemon for fifteen minutes and then give up? It turned out partway between the two. A couple of minutes before start time I got my first sign up. Woot! And then a second very shortly after. I started feeling quite excited – maybe this game would go ahead after all. But I think maybe my second signup had come in via whatever the google equivalent of chat roulette is, because he signed off as soon as we started talking about the game. At least he wasn’t confronted by an image of a penis, which I gather is the usual chat roulette experience.

Undeterred, we decided to go ahead with the game with just one player. I was quite unsure as to whether this would work – the game is really designed for 3-4 people. Well, the good news is that after a fairly tentative start things took off pretty well, with explosion and killer AIs aplenty. Indeed, we had one of the more satisfying DS! finales that I can recall, as our intrepid fire safety officer put the lives of innocent bystanders first, getting them off the oil rig and only jumping into the ocean at the last, on fire and with several broken limbs. We even had the cliffhanger ending as the killer AI seemed to escape to attack the hospital our hero was installed in for the epilogue.

Anyway, I digress slightly. We were using an app called anywhereboardgames, a free google hangout app which I can recommend. It provides you with a virtual tabletop upon which you can create various game objects – in this case, playing cards and tokens. The game comes with a bunch of pre-created ones but it’s reasonably easy to create your own; all you need do is create images for each of the faces of whatever it is you’re using (front and back for cards, presumably multiple sides if you want dice or whatever). It will let you stack and shuffle cards, and you can create a screen to hide your cards/tokens/etc behind. Once one person has set it up in a google hangout, everyone else automatically gets access to it. Basically it’s your ideal tool if you need something more than dice (for which I gather that catchyourhare is considered the place to go). My only complaint is that it doesn’t work with internet explorer, although I may be the last person on earth who still uses IE.

I had hoped to get a sense of how easy G+ roleplaying is with multiple people, which I obviously didn’t do in the event. The brief chat session I had with my mystery person who disappeared seemed to be working ok, but it was quite short and not the best test. We also briefly had a fourth person drop in, which revealed how badly the sound can go if you don’t all have headsets – we immediately started getting echoes from his speakers, which had previously not been a problem. So I would recommend getting headsets if you want to try this at home.

All in all though I was quite pleased with the experience. It was disappointing not to get a full set of players, but getting to roleplay with someone in Latvia more than made up for it, and the game was great fun. Will probably give indie+ a go again next year if I have the time.

Vote for Black Armada in RPG Geek’s 24 hour RPG contest!

I’ve been meaning to take part in one of RPG Geek‘s RPG design contests since I found out about them, so when I noticed that their 24 hour RPG contest overlapped with my week off, I jumped at the chance to take part.

The result was Farmtopia. The game is about revolutions, and is (loosely) based on George Orwell‘s Animal Farm. You play farm animals who will rise up in revolution against the farmer, and subsequently have to deal with the moral, social and practical problems that arise under the new regime.

It’s a rules-light, GMless, zero prep game. The bulk of the game is concerned with providing a premise and structure for your game, the only rules being a very simple conflict resolution system based on voting and a status system which determines who is in charge in the farm and provides the potential for politicking and counter-revolutions.

It’s silly of me, but I’m most proud of the two-page spread listing all the farm animals you can play and how they might figure in a revolution. That and the art, which I did myself and some of which isn’t too bad if I say so myself.

Farmtopia is only one of 38 games produced for the competition, and they’re all available for free here. Some of them look quite good. Please do go and take a look, and vote (ideally for Farmtopia, but whatever).

If you’d like a look at the game but don’t want to vote, it’s available in our free games section.