Thinking About Running a Tabletop Game…


Part 1 of 1, by Jay Watamaniuk

The last time I ran an actual tabletop game myself I was in university I think. I held the reigns for about three session while the regular GM took a break. Recently, two stellar GMs (one being the fellow with lots to say on Respecting the Character) in my circle of gaming friends, finished up their games creating a void of tabletop adventuring. I play in but one game at the moment run by a groovy fellow named Scott (founding member of iVardensphere) in which I created a fine character. I am used to being a player in two or three tabletop games at a time so things seemed a little lacking.

Last year, I made the switch from Community Manager to joining the design team on Mass Effect 2 as a writer. I have a whole lot to learn about writing for BioWare games, and even more to learn about writing, but I thought one way to get my creative brain going was to try and run a game myself for some of my friends. I began to think about what sort of game I would want to run. Some big questions need to be addressed before I sit down with some sweet graph paper:

1. What is the tone of the game? Serious, silly, something in between?
2. Main theme and setting? Superhero, Sci-fi, fantasy, steam punk, horror, western or a mix of something?
3. Rule set? A tough one. I am not much of a rules guy, and I know that the GM should have a good grasp of how it all works. From D&D to Fudge rules and everything in-between.
4. Players? Both number and who exactly. I have a large gaming group to call upon and certain people play in certain ways. What mix would I want considering I am a new GM.
5. Length of game? I suspect I will elect for a 3-6 episode game to get some experience before committing to a full campaign.

Some of the questions are easier to answer for me. I know that in a game I run it will range from deadly serious to super-goofy. I know the players will insist on it, and so I should count on just that. My friend, Jackie ran a Ravenloft game that was, of course, very serious but people are people and the characters found humor here and there along the way as real people often do even in very bleak circumstances.

Main theme? Tough one. I keep coming back to a Cthulhu-type investigation theme but something isn’t quite right about it. More thought required. I love horror games ) but I know running a game based in horror has its own problems as you cannot sustain that tense, on the edge feeling over the long haul. Fear is a thing to be handled very carefully and I have seen GMs get frustrated because the players were not into a scary, atmosphere walk in the Horrorville when they wanted a Buffyesque episode of hi-jinks and witty banter.

Ruleset? I like the FATE. rules but they are also somewhat without foundation that can lead to players feeling ineffective. I don’t think I want to run something as tightly controlled as D&D or Shadowrun but something in-between. I am unsure about trying out a new rule set but I just might. I had heard Unknown Armies was a good one…but trying out an unfamiliar rule set seems like a bad idea if I’m new to this GM thing…

Players? A tough one. I have a lot of gaming friends but each will bring a certain energy and personality to the game. I would need to think of who would compliment a new GM. I want to keep the player number small in order to help me address each player personally. In my new job, I am getting used to thinking of a plot or character concept and watching it evolve through feedback into something else; similar but different. I can see how that applies directly to running a game. The game must have focus, but it also must allow for evolving on the fly according to the players.

Length of game? Yup, 3-6 with maybe the idea of hitting about 4. Enough time to establish some characters but also short enough in case of catastrophic failure I need only weather the shame for a short time.

How did you get going on a new tabletop? How did you decide on setting and rule set? What basic questions am I missing that need answering?

Table Toppin’s

orge
Part 1 of 1, by Jay Watamaniuk

It was pretty cool when we were allowed to mention that the fine folks over at Green Ronin publishing were doing up a table top version of Dragon Age. I confess I have not seen any of the rules yet for the game but these guys do great work and I’m keen to put on my gamer hat (tall and pointy with stars and moons) and see what they can do with the world.

Chris Pramas of Green Ronin folks just released an interview about the Dragon Age RPG.

I played Dungeons and Dragons almost exclusively for the longest time with the occasional dalliance with Villains and Vigilantes (two of my of fav artists/game designers back in the day were Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham).

dddetroyersI also had a few trysts with Gamma World, Traveller, and a game my brother created which got him a job here and BioWare which a group of us played for years and years. I went through a period where I did not play a lot of table top games (I called that ‘university’) but in my recent adult life have embraced my table top gamerness once again. In the last 6 or 7 years I have been introduced to Earth Dawn, Shadowrun , Legend of the Five Rings, FATE, All Flesh Shall Be Eaten and a one-shot game I can’t recall the name of where my nervous, washed out character had the ability, when all hope was lost, to black out and summon Baba Yaga. Just try and call that boring.

Dang.

Even looking at pictures of those old rule systems brings back a huge part of growing up.

Death Duel with the Destroyers cover art taken from RPGnet

Jay Watamaniuk has lived in such faraway and make-believe places like Thailand, Greece and Japan but has always returned back to Edmonton, Canada to put down some roots and to avoid the fricken’ huge insects that lived in those places. He has been BioWare’s Community Manager for over 7 years and has never once- not once- dressed up like a pirate at work. Shameful.

Telling Stories

tellstory
Part 1 of 1, by Jay Watamaniuk

I’d like to step back a moment and let everyone in on a little secret: playing games is like lying. It’s telling an elaborate yarn that you and your friends will believe just long enough to participate in some group hypnosis voodoo that results in a new work of fiction where you are the hero, villain, victim or observer of events both large and small.

To me that is the essence of gaming.

Everyone agrees on what your reality is for the evening, and over the long months if it’s an ongoing campaign. You each build on what the others are doing with the help of a story guide who has some ideas he wants to throw into the mix. Creating a character is one of the best parts of starting a new game but the playing of that character and interacting with your fellow players is where the immersion and emotion that make a game memorable surface. Having spent some years in the trenches of amateur and professional theatre I know that the actors are all aiming at the same goal of telling a story for the audience. Gaming is different only in that your audience is the other players. You perform for them.

As a player, there are two things that make a game great. The first is acceptance of the basic core setting and the characters that have been created to populate it (we are fighting monsters in Ravenloft, we are Shadowrunners in Victorian England and so on). The second and more subtle is not just accepting the fact, but working toward the idea that you are playing with a group to tell a group story. An example of this thinking is that your scenes of angst, horrific revelation, romantic drama, ridiculous comedy and all the rest are ideally performed for the other players, not in some secret back room or away from the gaming table. This may seem unnatural, as we all have the drive to conduct private moments in private, but some of the most fascinating parts of the game are seeing what your fellow players are doing. I am fortunate to play games with people who understand this second distinction to varying degrees.

Of course, there are exceptions to this and it isn’t a rule but more of a piece of advice from an experienced gamer. If you are there to tell a story, let everybody read as many chapters as is possible. You will need to trust that your gaming friends can separate what their character knows vs. what you know as a player. That can be very difficult even for the best players.

Another example of keeping the idea of a group story in mind is knowing when you are the star of the scene and when you are the supporting chorus. We have all played with people who don’t seem to get that there are other characters in the room, and other stories that can and should be told. That does not make for a great game, and the GM is placed is a tough spot when trying to give each player their time in the sun. Enjoy your moments of attention, but also pay attention to other characters as they have their dramatic epiphanies. It takes a gamer of skill and experience to hand over the spotlight.

I am very fortunate to play with some very experienced gamers. Some of them, like me, have played countless games for decades and have matured as gamers. To maintain a hobby for most of your adult life, it must evolve and change as you change. But that, I think, is a tale for another time.

Jay Watamaniuk has lived in such faraway and make-believe places like Thailand, Greece and Japan but has always returned back to Edmonton, Canada to put down some roots and to avoid the fricken’ huge insects that lived in those places. He has been BioWare’s Community Manager for over 7 years and has never once- not once- dressed up like a pirate at work. Shameful.

Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p2

medievil2
Part 2 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

God or Gods. First off I radically changed my game world’s religious landscape because I just couldn’t imagine the medieval world as I was discovering it without one of its core pillars – the Church. Previously, my games had almost a shopping mall of temples where you could find any of the hundred gods that were about. There was so many gods that it was hard to give more than a couple of them the TLC they merited. Had I seen the HBO miniseries Rome perhaps I would’ve given polytheism a more concerted go, but at the time I couldn’t see it or really grok it.

But more importantly faith is a matter of belief. If you know there’s a God(s), after-life, and that all clergy can perform miracles – then enter the alien society again. I made a rule in my game to never give any definitive evidence that the divine exists. That’s not to say there can’t be miracles – it’s just that God can’t come down and lecture people directly about the importance of dental hygiene. Not every priest should have an array of spells at his command, instead I modeled it after history. Those rare blessed souls that seemed to have a special connection to God. And their miracles were often subdued, and a skeptic could argue it was entirely bunk or outright lies. I wanted room in the game world for an atheist, and for him not to sound like a chump.

So miracles were incredibly rare, as was magic in general. But it’s all out there. And the PCs were going to see a heck of a lot more of it than almost anybody else – because that’s what heroes do. Explore past the boundaries of the civilized world and experience true adventure.

After all that (and more) I found that the world held together. That you could have noble intrigue living side-by-side with ancient ruins filled with mythological monsters. That farmers could till their fields and on the sly give sacraments of milk to the fae and there would still be room for the rare and powerful mages. It gave the world, from my perspective, an authenticity it was missing before. It was a labor of love and I’ve enjoyed continuing to refine and world-build ever since. I think the players appreciated it more, too, but you’d have to ask them to know that for sure.

If any of this is striking any chords there’s a wealth of information out there. Ars Magica and Vampire: The
Dark Ages
and its related source material give a high level view of the time period in an adventuring context. Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) is also quite knowledgeable about history and has hilarious shows about it like Medieval Lives and The Crusades. Daniel J. Boorstin has written a series of books which talk about the history of man’s knowledge and belief. The Discoverers especially really blew me away because it made me realize what medieval people knew – but also what they didn’t. Imagining a world where people did math with roman numerals, for example, and without the concept of a zero. Mind-blowing to me. Ask around in many forums and I have no doubt you’ll get other excellent leads.

And if suspending your disbelief isn’t a problem, I recommend savoring it. One day you may be a jaded old coot like me where disblief can agitate you like beach sand in your tennis shoe. Ultimately it’s about what’s fun – and for me as a GM I find it a lot more fun if I can close my eyes and the whole world is there and it makes sense. But your mileage may vary. 🙂

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.

Bwahaha.

Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p1

medievil1
Part 1 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

There is one time period that fascinates me like no other – the Middle Ages. Knights in armor, kings and queens, and Crusades… what’s not to like? When I was a young kid and played my first game – I had no idea what medieval times were like. Honestly, I didn’t care. I got to kick goblin’s teeth in – wee! But as I got older I found that my suspension of disbelief was harder to swallow. So I thought quite a bit and wondered – what the heck was that time period actually like? On a summer vacation I picked up several books of medieval history and read them voraciously. That’s something I still do on occasion. I realized that the sort of Tolkien-esque worlds I’ve played in or had run, although fascinating, really paled to bits of real history. It also made me realize that the best way to smooth over the disbelief issue is to inject a lot of historical realism into things.

So I’ll tell you a little of my gamemastering journey. Hopefully it’ll make you think of a thing or two or be vaguely entertaining or interesting.

First off, I started thinking about the people. What they believed, why they believed it, and what were their lives like on a typical summer day. High magic worlds like I’d been running really would destroy everything the medieval people believed in. You can embrace high magic and it can make a rich setting that’s fascinating – those to me feel almost quasi-steam punk. But I wanted to take the players into a mythical, fantasy version of medieval Europe – so that didn’t work. So I decided to try and make it that the medieval peasant wouldn’t have to change his whole world view in my game. If magic were uncommon enough I think it would actually reinforce some of their views instead of upending their world.

A lot of my thoughts were about how to inject the fantastical to a player’s perspective – yet keeping it plausible that the peasants, nobles, and clergy wouldn’t seem like dimwits. Humanoids really weren’t a problem because they’re very analogous to barbarians, something parts of medieval Europe were entirely too familiar with. But spells really threw me for a loop. I’d always taken for granted that people could be resurrected in fantasy pen-and-paper games – but as I thought through the consequences I was appalled. If resurrection existed to powerful clerical types – those clerics would be enormously powerful politically, kings and high nobles that could afford their services would be guaranteed a natural lifespan to achieve things. I imagine people would start reacting like the denizens of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld Saga – where strategic suicide could be a legitimate tactic. Any element that started making the society seem alien to me had to go – so no resurrection.

Every spell in the book (and I used two systems over the life of the game setting – Rolemaster and Dungeons and Dragons) I went through with some thought. Some spells got nixed or heavily modified for other reasons. A pet peeve of mine are spells that reduce NPCs into tools, not people. If I can command any Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street to do my bidding and tell me anything about everything – it sort of kills role-playing. You could easily go the other way, because mythical mages like Merlin certainly could have that sort of power. But for me, I wanted people to have to interact with the high and low and use their wits, guile, and persuasive abilities to get by.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.

Bwahaha.