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?

Mass Effect 2: Diary of New Guy, p2

Part 2 of 2, by Jay Watamaniuk

“Shake them like Christmas elves until the missing string references fall out”.

And thus, my final day of my first week began. Every morning we have a quick stand up meeting for the design folks working on Mass Effect 2. We assemble in a big meeting room and go around summarizing, in about three words, what we are working on for the day so the Lead Designer gets an overview of what is going on with the team in detail. Once we have gone around the room, he gives some announcements to the entire team or deals with critical issues. When he is done, we scamper back to our offices and begin tapping on our keyboards.

I have spent my first week chiefly doing four things:

1. Trying to get a handle on all the new software on my computer that involved filing bugs, document security and game engine-related things used by developers. This also included the game itself which is more interesting by far then the the other stuff

2. Giving feedback on my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2. Things like loading screen hints, journal entries and general gameplay. This feedback is valuable because it is impossible to reproduce initial impressions from people that been working on the game for years

3. Wrangling something called ‘string reference numbers’ which didn’t involve colored yarn but are codes that are associated with every piece of text in the game. There are many, they hide and come from nearly all disciplines working on the game

4. Working on the wording of the achievement list

Working on a project right at the very end has its advantages for the new guy. I’m not really expected to know much about what is going on and everyone else has been doing this for years and can answer just about every question with absolute certainly. This disadvantage of coming in at the very end is people spend a lot of time running screaming down the hallway only pausing long enough to be set on fire. This leaves little time for showing the new guy the ropes.

I’ve been here a week and it’s overwhelmingly been about the mechanics of getting writing into the game more than the writing itself. I have a clearer understanding that there is a huge technical side of being a writer at a video game company; certainly far more then one would expect. I see no writers with giant quill pens, and sheets of parchment, breathing through a perfumed handkerchief, reclining on overstuffed chairs, while servants bring peeled grapes, and shade them with palm fronds. I’m O.K. with that because that image is pretty creepy in any case.

I hope the technical stuff can be learned so well it effectively disappears from view. I know I have a lot of learn about writing itself from the veterans here and would rather have anything obscuring my view of that goal removed while I still have the luxury of being an amateur. I suspect it will be a few months of a steep learning curve on technical stuff followed by a few rather nerve-wracking months of…y’know…writing.

I will be sure to record my thoughts along the way if you’re interested in reading how it all turns out. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a guy about some delinquent elves.

Mass Effect 2: Diary of the New Guy

Part 1 of 2, by Jay Watamaniuk

A few things have changed in the last week that have altered my life at BioWare pretty dramatically. I accepted a position as a writer on Mass Effect 2, which meant that after 8 years I no longer helm the stormy seas of community. I leave that to Mr. Priestly, who has far more aptitude and skill in this; proving his value since his days back in QA when he was basically doing his job now but not getting paid for it. I have no fear for community under his direction. He knows his business and he is passionate about doing right by the fans.

For me… I need to learn a completely new job at a company with which I have grown very comfortable. I need to see up close how games are made. In marketing, we work with the development teams to help tell fans about their work; to spread the message and to show off proudly the work the dev teams do. Marketing BioWare games – though complicated, as the games are complicated – is easy from the perspective that the product is of a world class quality; something that sets a standard. As a marketing guy, you need to ask little more than to feel good about the work you do.

But I never got to peek behind the curtain despite a few family connections. All I knew was that the teams worked incredibly hard, under tremendous pressure, to create these games. Pride in their work keeps them at their desks late into the night and pride in the BioWare legacy of games gets them here early in the morning.

I recall my first few days of being a Community Manager- a job that was very vague and ill-defined at the time- and being somewhat lost among sea of paper and books given to me to help clarify what I should be doing. I feel the same way now. I’m here because somebody in this department gave me a stamp of approval and opened the door despite potentially damaging samples of my writing.

I moved up from the second floor where marketing, the hand held group, administration and HR all make their nests to the mysterious third floor where Mass Effect 2 is being created. Apart from work being done in Montreal, everything Mass Effecty happens on this floor here in Edmonton, Alberta.

Last Friday, I arrived to find my desk, computer and box of office bits had already been moved and, in its place down on the second floor, a dark void. I said my good mornings to my old roommates and walked up the stairs still wearing my coat to see how the new office looked.

I think standing there at the threshold of my new office, with new roommates, it finally hit me: I had made a big career change and there was no turning back to the familiar. No turning back to a job that I had grown into, and helped to shape over nearly a decade.

Nope, I was the new guy and had no idea what I was doing.

BioWare at PAX, p2

Part 2 of 3, by Jay Watamaniuk

Yeeowsa was it busy on Saturday for day 2 at PAX. I am still waiting on the official numbers but the crowd was huge. I was very fortunate to have some time before the public arrived to see some of the show floor because all is fire and chaos once the fans arrive.

I got a chance to check out that little up-and-comer Diablo III as well as play around with the new goblin and worgen races in the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion.

gw1The wait for these games was pretty astronomical when the fans had arrived, but I think the wait for Dragon Age: Origins was even longer. We had taken the approach of providing a closed, personal environment to show off Dragon Age properly. It is always a difficult thing to explain a BioWare game in two minutes or less, let alone provide a show floor demonstration that encompasses the complexity. The cost of providing this 25 to 30 minute personal time with Dragon Age was a very short list of people who could get in to play. This made for line-ups of several hours. I salute the hardcore resilience and dedication of everyone who waited it out for a chance to play.
To add a little spice to the booth visit we encircled the whole experience as a challenge. Mike Laidlaw, dressed in full chainmail, welcomed the fans and spoke for a short time about Dragon Age in a closed off room when fans had finally got inside the booth. He introduced the game and showed off a video of some of the key ideas. Mike then detailed how the fans had less then 30 minutes to complete the joining and become a Grey Warden in the game. This involved sitting down to learn how to play the game, venturing into the untamed Korcari wilds, dealing with Morrigan and returning to base to perform the joining ceremony.

If you were successful, then not only did you get a fine Dragon Age t-shirt that was better than anything your friend ever got for Christmas, but you also got yourself a picture geared up in front of the Archdemon statue out front announcing you are now a Grey Warden with blood smeared across your forehead. Here at BioWare we don’t just make games, we make awesome.

photo (2)
Mass Effect 2 had a far more open booth with 12 stations that were packed to the space-gills with fans waiting to play through the run and gun battle to acquire the galaxy’s most dangerous assassin: Thane. They were also treated to a surprise visit by some crazy in his space pajamas.

The day continued with Mass Effect 2 Lead Writer, Mac Walters and Dragon Age Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw (I’ll let you decide who is who- note some suitable clues in the pictures) both doing on-camera interviews with G4 T.V.mike

And finally, Mac signed many, many covers of the comic series he is creating with Dark Horse comics. Is it just me or is that the most epic-looking Salarian you have ever seen?

Table Toppin’s

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.


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.