Sunday, April 10, 2016

Style and Substance in the Desert of Gaming

Earlier this week I wrote on the confined yet swirling gyre of muck and trollery plaguing tabletop gaming. In that post I promised to reveal my overarching gamemastering style as well as debut my system regarding the content of my games. Just as my gaming style has changed over the years, so will this system evolve. Whenever I run a private or public game and advertise that game, I will openly post the content info on this blog; the link to the blog entry will be provided in descriptions of my convention and game day events. Before we delve into the mix, I'd like to thank lorc and Delapouite for the open use of their icons from under the Creative Commons 3.0 license.

The Style of My Games

Being a writer, I tend to favor story over rules and roleplaying over roll-playing. I tinker with the rules when necessary, whether it's in reverting to an older version of a rule or creating house rules to cover official rules that don't seem to fit.

The Details

The GM is in Charge: As the GM, my word and judgment are first and final, period. We're here to have fun, not pixel-bitch about rules and canon. If I make a mistake or someone has a question, please say so. I'll usually either make an on-the-spot correction and fix the mistake if possible, or make a temporary ruling and look into it after the game has concluded. We can then address it at the beginning of the next session, or I might address it to the group by email. The fastest way to annoy me to the point of blacklisting is to be a rules lawyer or canonista and bog down the game.

Rule Zero is in Effect: To steal a page from a previous version of Bruce Gulke's Mythosa website: "Every [game element] is subject to change or removal at the discretion of the GM. Even if a game element is initially permitted, if it is later deemed incompatible with the campaign, it will be modified or removed. Any characters (PC or NPC) that use that element may be required to adjust to the change (in other words, grandfathering is not guaranteed). [I] will attempt to keep this sort of thing to a minimum (if at all), but sometimes this may happen in the process of keeping the rules appropriate to the campaign setting."

Tinkering and House Rules: No game system is perfect. I have yet to find a game system that I haven't tinkered with or amended with house rules. In conjunction with Rule Zero, though I try to keep this to a minimum, I will keep players in the loop with regard to changes from the rules as written.

Story First: I run RPGs in order to tell heroic stories. I'm not in this for Player-vs-Player deathmatches, evil campaigns, socio- or psychopathic PCs, lone wolves, or murderhoboes. At the start of the game we will discuss character concepts and the kind of story you want to tell - but it must be a heroic story. While I'm happy to have the players steer the story, I'm not above taking a firm hand to keep them on the right track. Don't deliberately dead-end the story, slaughter NPCs left and right, or otherwise act like a bunch of psychopathic nutbags.

Drama: The stories in my games have highs and lows - victories and defeats; ambushes and escapes. Just because the characters are heroes doesn't mean the cavalry will be there to save them at the last minute; bad things do happen to good people occasionally. However, good redeems its own in that the characters have acted to better others' state of life. Conversely, evil eats its own. Though an evil overlord may rule for years in a game world, they will fall, either at the hands of the heroes, a vicious minion, or through self-destruction.

Scary and Disturbing: This aspect is dependent upon the players and so is not a constant. Because we are telling stories of heroes, the villains in some - but not all - of my games are equally horrible - cultists, traitors, murderers, slavers, outer gods, and things that go bump in the night - those are some of the things the PCs will face. I also don't shy away from some adult situations. A character's family and friends might incur tragedy at the hands of a villain or his minions. I'm not one to revel in gore or distressing situations. I will fade to black before I do anything gratuitous.

Run!: A lot has been made in the past about game balance. Though I'm not one to kill characters wantonly, their players have to use their common sense and brains to stay alive. If they wander into a cave and start poking a dragon with a ten-foot pole or wade into the midst of a charging horde of orcs, they'd best be prepared to run - and maybe have another character at the ready.

Heroism: Even though I've lived in this world for a good many years, I still possess a shred of idealism, believing that good overcomes evil. I despise evil campaigns. That being said, I expect my players to be playing the heroes. I'm not saying the PCs have to be saints walking on water; they could just as easily be antiheroes or rogues with hearts of gold, but when push comes to shove they should be do the right thing, even if it means walking a hard road at great cost.

Consequences: This aspect is connected to the concepts of "Story First" and "Drama". Characters have the agency of free will, and as such, all their actions have consequences. Tracy Hickman wrote an excellent series of essays regarding morality in RPGs. To paraphrase part of his third essay, games without consequences cheat their players. We expect things to work a certain way in the real world - when you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts and you try not to do it again. In a fantasy world, if you commit a crime, there should be lawful repercussions - to have it any other way is to make the entire game a lie.

Character Death: I don't shy away from character death, but I'm not one to kill characters willy-nilly, however. I believe a character's death must serve a purpose in relation to the story - such as noble sacrifice, to demonstrate the serious nature of a situation, or the lethality of a dungeon, creature, or trap. If you are overly attached to your characters, you may want to avoid my table.

Mirror: Players have a part in building the world around their characters - it's only fair. I'll mirror back any ideas I think are interesting in the game. Feel free to fly by the seat of your pants and improvise on your character's background. However, keep in mind that I reserve the right to modify or completely veto any idea. You may say your character is the heir apparent to a great merchant house, but that doesn't make it so. However, I could always make it so, leaving you, the player, saddled with how best to handle the family business, its debts, its allies, and its enemies. So be careful what you wish for.

Tactics & Teamwork: I value teamwork and tactics in a game. I hate lone-wolf tactics and grandstanding. I reward teamwork and ingenuity in all situations, not just combat. Having a plan requires communication between players, and I encourage you, the players to do so in-character. The same goes for setting goals and objectives for your individual characters and the group as a whole.

Improvisation: No plan survives its first contact with the players. I welcome player ingenuity and the improvisation it requires and I try not to railroad the players (too much). I have seen players come up with some madcap ways of dealing with enemies and situations alike - whether it's locking a tractor beam onto an asteroid to use it as a flail to smash pursuing pirate fighters or using gold paint to defeat an eldritch creature vulnerable to gold. More often than not, I laugh my head off as the players make the wheels come off my villains' machinations...

Pre-generated Material & Maps: I'm only human and sometimes I run out of time, energy, or inspiration. As such, I do make use of pre-generated material, including characters, maps, and adventures. I will modify the material to work with the game I am running as necessary.

Technology at the Table: While I understand that technology such as cell and smartphones, tablets, and laptops can be a boon to tabletop gaming, I also know they can be a distraction. I ask that laptops and tablets be used only to refer to PDFs of rulebooks or online SRDs. Phones should be set to vibrate or otherwise left alone. I have no problem with people answering necessary calls (family and work, ordering food, etc), but that's the limit.

No Harassment: As detailed in my previous blog entry, I will not tolerate players harassing their fellows or otherwise making them to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Offenders will be given one chance to straighten up and fly right before being told - not asked - to leave.

As I've noted before, this system is always going to be a work in progress and will no doubt change as my tastes in gaming change. Hopefully in the meantime it will serve its purpose well despite the intermittent sideways rain of mud and turds going on in the hobby.

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