Saturday, April 12, 2014

Improv GMing, part 1

The other day I posted a link to the blog that I wrote about my first experience with Dungeon World to the Google community and in response I was asked about my methods for improvisational GMing. As my response got longer it seemed like it might be easier just to blog about it.

First, let me say that I don't claim to be any kind of expert on the subject. I'm absolutely certain that there are others who do it better than I do. Nor is it the only way that I GM. For me it's all situational. If I have the time to do prep, I usually do, and my games are generally better for it. Right now however I have work and school and four kids at home. That kind of time is precious, and very rare.

That said, even when I have plenty of time I've never been into super heavy prep. I think that games run best when they incorporate the ideas and plot seeds woven by the players, and too much prep makes that harder to weave in. In general my prep revolves around world building and finding ways to fit the character in to what is going on around them, to mix their ideas with my own.

All of that aside, that's not what this post is supposed to be about. It's about how I improv without any prep in general, what techniques I used in my Dungeon World one-shot in particular, and what kind of tools the game gave me that I used to generate setting in play specifically.

Let's start with general tips.

The very first thing I like to know about a game is: Who is the bad guy, what do they want, and what will they do to get it. I ask myself these three questions first any time I start thinking about a game, regardless of how much prep time I have. If I have those three questions answered, I have what I need to play. From here, I simply play the bad guy like my PCs might run their characters. They don't get screen time of course, but I work from the assumption the bad guys are going to get what they want unless the PCs intervene, and then rely on the players to come up with a plan for how they intend to spoil things. Once that happens the bad guy reacts to the new circumstances, and the cycle begins anew until the PCs eventually win. That's very simplified of course, but it works very well.

Of course, for that to help you already need to have some sort of inspiration.

And by inspiration I mean, of course, a willingness to steal good ideas. Bonus points for stealing them from the players, but any source of media will do. In my actual play I mentioned that the government was called the Federation, that it had outlawed magic, and implied that it would be a major long-term threat within the setting. Every bit of that was ripped whole cloth out of the Heritage of Shannara series by Terry Brooks, which I am in the process of re-reading. I needed a villain, and it was what came into my mind so I grabbed it. You don't have to be that obvious and direct, but there's no rule saying you can't be. A long time ago I ran a two year campaign of DnD 2nd edition where the players had to gather pieces of a mysterious artifact that would expel the demons who had been invading their world that was inspired by a cartoon called The Pirates of Darkwater and no one ever noticed. The key is to make a choice quickly, move on, and be willing to adjust it later as needed. As long as the game keeps moving few people are going to second guess where your inspiration comes from so long as you don't use obviously stolen names.

As for making choices quickly and moving on, that can be the real hard part. For that I recommend that you find some excuse to give yourself a breather when you need it. Time only passes when everyone is sitting there staring at you, waiting for you to say something. Very few groups need much of an excuse to take a short break, get a drink, and tell a few bad jokes, and so long as you're not in 'game time', no one even notices if 5 or 10 minutes pass. Give yourself what time you need, move away from the table and out of range of whatever questions people might be asking. Allow yourself a quiet moment to just think without being responsible for anyone else's entertainment. I like to grab a drink and step outside for a little fresh air, but sometimes it's easier to make a quick trip to the bathroom if you don't want anyone following you or trying to talk to you (which you really don't if you need to think). Worst case you can always just tell them why you need a second and excuse yourself. Players get it that you sometimes need to process. The real key here is to do it sooner rather than later. Don't wait until you're stumped or you run the risk of creative block from frustration. Take a break right after characters are all together or right after the initial action to put at least the outline of what you think is going to happen together in your mind.

Next, think of a couple of generic openings. The kind of things you see in movies that aren't really related to the story at hand, but introduce the protagonist. James Bond movies are great at this. A lot of times the movies start at the end of his last assignment, just to show off what a badass he is. Personally I like to start with action. This serves a huge number of functions: It helps the group to learn the system, introduces all of the characters, let's them stat to gel as a team from the very beginning, and shows you as the GM how they interact with one another. Also, it buys you time. For most systems an opening combat is low enough impact that you can start to link character histories, and think about who that bad guy should be. Do they look like they are enjoying beating these guys up? Are they making up good reasons why they're in this fight? Ask them. If they are, then maybe these bad guys are related to the larger plot. If they're not, move on to something that hooks them better and just treat this one as a warm up.

Speaking of asking them, don't try and do it all yourself. Got a detail you don't know or care about? Ask someone. I recommend a single player, rather than the group at large. Point to somebody and say "Why are these guys trying to kill you?" This is not a time for discussion. If they hesitate, or don't seem to have something quickly, point to someone else. If it's weak, have another player expand on it. "We stole something from them," should be followed up with: "What did you steal, and why?" Spread it around the table though, the game shouldn't be any one player's story, not even your own. If it is a player asking a question ("Does the Federation have somewhere they could keep a prisoner in town?") let them answer it themselves ("I don't know, you tell me."). They're obviously the ones most interested in the answer.

Finally, keep notes. I'm all about running games with little or no prep beforehand, but you really need to write things down afterwards. It doesn't have to be anything big or extensive, but at least enough to give you an idea of what happened and any important names that you should be remembering. It's ok to come up with something on the fly and just throw it out there, but sooner or later it needs to be integrated into the overall plot or explained away. Not every random encounter with a goblin horde needs to become a major storyline, but by explaining it later in a way that makes sense ("Hey, did you hear that someone took out those goblins that have been raiding the King's Highway? Seems like they finally messed with the wrong group, maybe trade will start flowing again.") adds to the sense that the world is lived in, that what the players do matters, and ties up loose ends. For me personally I think this is what makes playing improv games work in the long term. Their biggest weakness is that they can feel random, like a monster-of-the-week. By taking a few minutes after the game is over to remember important things and integrate them in you r mind you can avoid the worst of that.

Ok, I promised to get into some specifics, but it's getting late and this has gotten really long. I'll have to wrap up how all of this fits into Dungeon World tomorrow. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dungeon World

I ran my first game of Dungeon World last Saturday night. Given that I was suffering from food poisoning and had to eventually kick everyone out mid-dungeon it went relatively well. I made a few bad choices in retrospect, and I'm not entirely certain that my players quite got how important it is to be proactive, but it was fun.

I hadn't actually planned on running it at all. I usually run my fantasy themed Fate game for this group, but one player wasn't going to make it at all, and another was several hours late, so it seemed like a good chance to try something new.

Since I didn't have anything prepped I just started with a basic situation. The players were returning from a night in the inn. From there I decided to roll with whatever happened. I was hoping that, by not actually starting in a dungeon, I'd have time along the way to come up with any details that needed to be filled in.

As the group passed through an alleyway the paladin decided to search for evil, so of course evil men were waiting in the shadows. He yelled to his friends that evil was about and rushed toward one of the ambushers, who promptly let fly an arrow that bounced harmlessly off the paladin's shield. The thief took the opportunity of the distraction to slip off into the shadows, and the ranger leapt to the side to avoid a second arrow, but a bad roll sent him into a stack of crates that he managed to knock over leaving him sprawled on the ground. After that the rest of the enemy was upon them, grappling with the warrior types and bearing them down where their daggers and close weapons would be more effective.

Luckily for the party this is when the thief decided to step in. Coming out of the shadows behind the enemy she ran two of them through before they knew what hit them. That, and a little intimidation on the paladin's part, was enough to send a third guy running and cause the fourth to surrender.

The thief started after the fleeing brigand, deciding to discern reality in hopes of seeing who they were, but one bad roll and an unwelcome truth later she discovered that they weren't thieves at all, but agents of the Federation government wearing cloaks to disguise their uniforms.

This of course lead to the paladin parleying with the prisoner, offering him freedom in exchange for information about who they were and why they were ambushing the PCs. The guard agreed, and told them they had been following a bard who had been seen slipping something into the possession of the PCs while they were carousing in the inn. The paladin claimed to know nothing of this, but after finding that his belt pouch had been torn during the fighting the alley was searched and a lumpy clay statue was found among the rubble. Realizing that there was no way the guard would believe that the two dead agents were all a misunderstanding (and given that they had detected as evil to the paladin) the group took the opportunity to flee into the night, leaving the small town behind and making a camp in the nearby forest.

At this point there was a lot of discussion about what should be done, and the thief took out the statue to examine it. Noticing that the clay was covered in a thin layer of paint and cracked from the fighting, she decided to break it open and found a second, small golden statue inside along with a map written on which was "The goddess Theodonus holds the key in her hands".

Not sure of what this was supposed to mean, the group decided they needed to find the bard that slipped them the statue. Since the guard had been watching her it seemed likely that she was in custody by now, and thus there was only one obvious choice: prison break, something the ranger agreed with whole heartedly since it played directly into his alignment.

The group snuck back into town where the militia was being called up to search for them, and took advantage of the confusion to make their way to the small stockade at the outskirts. There they found the agent they had let live and a handful of citizen militia guarding the bard and another prisoner. The ranger let fly an arrow that stunned the agent and the paladin stepped in and commanded the militia to flee, thus leaving the thief free to open the cells and let loose the prisoners.

At this point our late player joined us, which was interesting, because she hadn't heard any of our schpiel about how to make a character or play, but we handed her a bard sheet and told her to get to work.

One Spout Lore later she was telling the group that the goddess Theodonus was the goddess of magic and knowledge, outlawed after the last war when magic had been turned against the people to terrible effect. The map points to the last of her temples, hidden underground to protect it against the Federation.

It turned out that the other prisoner was being held as a spy for the rebels who were working  against the corruption of the Federation as well. There was something dark at the heart of the nation, and a government that would employ evil men to do its bidding was not one to be trusted.

Seeing his point the group decides there was naught to do but check out the temple and see what there is to see, so they set off into the wilderness, and three days later they arrived.

Here the bard told the group that the hidden temple had been built by a necromancer at the end of the Federation's invasion of the area as a place to store spellbooks and magic that might be useful in a future attempt at regaining the land's freedom.

Intrigued by the possibility that they might find something inside that could aid them in their attempt to put down the oppressive Federation the group prepared to enter, first sending the thief to check the door for traps while the bard searched the area nearby for clues.

The thief did indeed find a rather ingenious crushing trap on the door that would quickly lower a rock shelf down upon anyone attempting to bypass the lock. She also found  the keyhole, which looked to be perfectly shaped to accept the golden statue that the bard had slipped them.

The bard, for her part, found something as well. It was the long dead body of some previous adventurer that looked like it had stumbled from the cave and taken shelter in the trees, where he had died. What was intriguing about it was that he hadn't died from the crushing trap they found, but some sort of stab wound that he must have suffered inside.

After some discussion it was deemed worth the risk to continue. The thief slipped the statue into the keyhole where it immediately began to sink out of sight, while the stone door of the temple rose into the hillside. Noting that it would only remain open for a little while the group used a piton to hold it open and moved inside only to find themselves in some sort of large receiving chamber strewn with the bones of several men.

Almost immediately the bones began to move and join themselves into the forms of skeletal warriors. The paladin threw himself into the battle, with the ranger moving to his side to help. The thief used the cover to push to the far side of the room and begin to search the door there for traps and unlock it. The bard meanwhile wracked her brain for what little she knew about these creatures, but all she could come up with was the fact that they were difficult to kill, and could reform themselves if enough bones were still around.

Looking at the piles of bones around them they decided the fight might be a lost cause. As soon as the thief had the door open everyone rushed out of the room.  Everyone, that is, except the paladin who had gotten himself cut off from the others in the fighting. Thinking quickly, the bard wrapped a rope around herself, tossed the other end to the remaining members of the party and waded in among the dead after him. Both were injured in the attempt, but the others managed to pull them free and slam closed the door, placing its bulk and sturdy locks between them and the skeletons.

Unfortunately, that's as far as we got. I was pretty ill by this point, and had to send everyone home. We did have a fun time though, and got a fairly good run at the game. I was especially impressed at the fact that the bard's player was able to just pick up a sheet, build a character, and jump right into play even though she had never even heard of the game before, and missed our brief "how to play" discussion at the beginning.

I have a lot of thoughts about Dungeon World, and I'm bummed that I can't say exactly when we will play again. That'll have to wait for a future post however, this has gone fairly long already.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Introduction

I game a lot.

By a lot, I mean that I have usually run games multiple times a week for more than 30 years now, with only a few weeks off here and there for things like vacations and the birth of my children. In my time I've worked conventions, served several terms as a judge for the ENnie Awards, and like many of us - written a handful of never-quite-finished games.

I don't say that because I feel like it's some kind of accomplishment to obsess over a single hobby for more than 80% of my life, but by way of explaining where I'm coming from. I'm an old gamer who has been lucky enough to be introduced to some of the best that new games have to offer.

I started this blog as a place to air my thoughts, talk about what I'm doing right now, and share some of my experience and opinions on games and gaming in general. I expect it to be a place for reviews, actual play posts, and conversations about the hobby I love.

Thanks for taking the time to be a part of that conversation.