Capsule essays


These are my responses to the optional theme-for-the-issue posed in Alarums & Excursions

How would you treat sentient plants?

Should they be mobile? how would they communicate? How would they react to harvesting their fruit?

I never so much as considered this sort of thing in any of my games, even though Ents, the Aldryami, and the various plant peoples in Stapledon's Star Maker were part of the genre background. (My exposure to the possible motile sentient plants of SimEarth came only shortly before my burnout.) But I do have one war story about them.

It was one of our “armageddon” games — a bring a couple of characters for a wild weekend's gaming — back in the mid 80s, aimed at superheroes and using Champions. As some players were lacking any Champions characters, they brought along character concepts for statting up. One of them was Pete Windsor's character, Falain, a sentient, motile tumbleweed, with a Judge Dredd-style hoverbike — apart from that it was generally a Pete character (aligned chaotic-daft); apart from its making disparaging comments about animals (the other PCs), I can't recall any other details at this decade-plus remove. ISTR that was also the game where another player had a swarm of killer bees — People's Attack Regiment #5 — with a yellow rain area effect NND.

Not quite a sentient plant war story — One player's non-gaming wife, had managed to take on board, from games being held at their house, that Gloranthan elves were walking sentient plants; so some while after the Glorantha game crashed, and we were playing Shadowrun, she commented, à propos of something that the elf street samurai did “But aren't you supposed to be a lettuce?”
The character was ever after known as the Electric Lettuce.

(How) do you limit the spectrum of choice of PCs

My first reaction was: Doesn't everyone, at least when it comes to “genre appropriate”? But then I remembered the Arduin Techno character class. The real limitations I'd impose along with genre are “able to get along with all the others” and “plausibly sane” which are both fairly vague; and usually unspoken or implicitly expected of players. I have done “no non-humans” as an explicit limitation in D&D games, but that has been a part of the setting — I've deleted the damned clichés and added in different races without the usual baggage of preconceptions.

I don't really recall any significant player reaction; the general principles are part of the cooperative playing style that evolved fairly naturally; a style that led to “Does not compute!” reactions when later once faced with Paranoia.

There are a couple of instances where I should have limited but didn't — vetting character secret agendas up-front for the Vampire game (rather than having it explode into five separate solo stories), or helping a player doing a one-off appearance in out mid-80s Champions game who had no experience of the superhero genre to build a superhero rather than a fantasy character.

What makes for a Sense of wonder moment?

Thinking hard on this one, I think I can honestly say that the only gaming related sense-of-wonder experiences I can recall have been while reading the books, or maybe a decade ago (c.1991), trying to infer Glorantha trivia with a similarly minded friend. GMing is always looking at the scenery from the wrong side; and as player, the charge I used to get was adrenalin highs from chancy combat.

One how not to do it with a really nifty setting is to play tour guide. Taking one example from experience, visiting Tada's High Tumulus in game is likely to concern itself more with logistics than any “gosh wow” one might derive from taking the old RQ2 Prax map and talking out the consequences of assuming that it depicts the tumulus to scale, never mind whether the other players are or are not Glorantha groupies at the time.

What's good or bad about Convention games

I had a brush with tournament style rules (a choose-your-stats D&D where CHA was made useful by controlling how many times the player could speak during the game) at the first Dragonmeet I went to (c1980); and didn't stop to play. I've only actually played or run “delegate organised” games, haphazard pick-ups that were at worst forgettable.

What makes for Bad experiences

Well as I note elsewhere, they have all been about alienation from the hobby (not alienation as a tool within it), when I could no longer say why I was doing this thing. Encounters with dorks get forgotten, or maybe turned into war stories.

When is breaking character the right thing to do

I think one needs to take a utilitarian approach — what will bring the greater good for the greater number of those assembled to play. This covers the jerk chaot and narcissistic thespian cases nicely with reasons for breaking (or retiring) the character. It also stands against the breaking character just to follow along with what the GM alone wants.

For me, keeping character usually led to PCs leaving the story to do their own thing off-stage, while ciphers prospered.

How have you used game mechanics to explore religion in your games

I never did much with this. RQ cults were the best mechanism I've given any time to — they did give a notion of concepts like “holy” that an entirely barren (i.e. state education requirement for religious instruction) Church of England background had only rendered meaningless.

What to do about occasional players

When in the past players have been unable to show up for one or more sessions, the characters have by default been played by the other players by committee, and somewhat in the background. In some genres (cyberpunk, superhero) it is easier to agree that the character is doing his/her day-job or similar schtick and can't respond to “Avengers Assemble” or whatever.

Does your GMing style vary by the rules set you're using

In hindsight, I can't see much difference in my own style in broad, save perhaps in some slight and gradual maturation over the years. There may have been a selection effect, in that games that didn't gel with my style I simply passed by.

I also tended to treat games more as different ways to slice reality, and impose different limits on the possible; and can't off-hand think of any game which came with an associated setting that I have ever used the setting from, at least without having customised it myself, until at the very end when I used the Planescape setting.

Even the late slide into a style which was more low-dice, narrative with adjudication came more as a response to trying to fit more than just a fight scene into an evening's play, and happened as much with AD&D2 as with V:tM! It was an exploration of what I could do to improve the execution of the game based on current received wisdom rather than being tied to the actual set of mechanics or genre in play.

How do you treat anachronisms like Futuristic Wizards

Futuristic Wizards are entirely OK if the genre accepts them (e.g. ShadowRun). Things like the Arduin Techno class are, as written, much more of a problem as their tricks would really need a large technological and industrial base to support, and thus don't ring so true. Like the old “mages can't use swords” argument, it's best if the players just take any limits as one of the canons of the game, and the worst is to respond to provocation with a tantrum — “I'll ban it forever!”

What helps players stay in character

I'm not sure my experience is typical. In recent years at least, the problem, when gaming in the evening after work, was keeping players from lapsing into a comatose state, rather than dropping to player level. Caffeine has little effect on the habituated. Worse, when players were out of the limelight, multi-tasking happens as people took to maximizing the use of their free time (reading, checking e-mail on laptops), to the extent of needing to prod people when their PCs' actions came round in combat.

At that point a simple “Your turn” and a pause for context-switching sufficed.

No-one violated character, but were active only fleetingly.

What rôle does Party pressure play

This is more a player level set of agreed — even unspoken — conventions in my experience. The characters work together as a genre given; so I can't really comment on in-game effects.

Restarting old games - whether to and how

That's restarting as in a car, though one could have written revive, to avoid the sense of reinitialise.

Ignoring essentially stillborn games, in my experience games falter most often for one of two reasons. The most prevalent is that the game mechanics have given way under play; restarting means porting to a different system, in which characters don't work like they used to, and it soon needs to be put out if its misery (after seeing it happen a few times, we stopped doing it).

The other is that some of the players — often the GM — can't get out enough to justify what is being put in. This may manifest as the thread getting lost, perhaps due to pushing past a logical stopping point, or an acrimonious terminal session where divergent goals can no longer be smoothed over. In this situation, admitting that this is dead, and burying it is the only way.

Pulling heartstrings-friends and family as levers

I never did much with this. On the family side, starting RPGing at college when leaving home was a big step just being taken, characters had automatically done much the same thing. For those of us who stayed close to University, and especially those who have also refrained from breeding, the same lifestyle decisions seem natural. The only vestiges of such things were the DNPCs taken for a few odd points, when other disads have been mined out.

But then much F/SF writing has the same conventions.

What do the players want the PCs to accomplish

I don't really recall having much in the way of grand PC-level goals. This was one of the difficult things about trying character play. The satisfactory games tended to be the ones in which what was to be accomplished was limited and tactical — goals like “Clear out the deserted Wiri colony on 3rd level”. Such goals, of course, arose on a player level, answering the question “what do we want to do tonight?”. The episodic nature of the games — dungeoneering, superheroics — lent itself to such tactical play. Adding continuity did tend to replace the answer of “whatever we feel like” with “whatever we were lumbered with as a leftover from last week, again”. This, in retrospect, may not be an entirely unalloyed plus.

What tips can you give about starting a gaming group

Thinking about it I guess I was always lucky, I always joined existing groups, already accumulated by someone I knew from university, so it was more a case of finding a group than founding it.

Creating a home base for PCs

In many cases, PCs were peripatetic, where not simply garaged somewhere abstract between weekly dungeon delves, so the issue rarely arose. In the earliest days, some characters had (off-screen) castles - something spend six figure fortunes on. My MU, Ororo, was planning to create a demi-plane, a cottage in an eternally summer garden in a small valley magically hidden in the middle of a howling snowy waste, the way in being through a gate in the wastes, but the campaign folded before she could organise the magical wherewithal. It would have had home comforts, defence in depth, and, most importantly, significant swank value.

The one home base that had significant time invested in — both design and play - was Doc Savage's lab in the London Watch Champions campaign, but despite the fact that I did the job of putting it into a CAD system, the passage of the years has eroded memory of the design process. In that game I did have a PC with a defined pied à terre; Pushover had a flat [never detailed] in the block containing the Women's Centre where she worked, but having been developed as a character, decided that the macho super-hero thing wasn't for her and faded out of play. [I'm getting my revenge now — an alternate version of her is co-starring in my latest fiction, and she's going to have to deal with being faced with the problem of saving the world this time.]

There was a home base in the last AD&D2 game, a castle, but as that was the holding of the NPC Baron for whom the PCs worked as elite forces, it was a given, rather than being chosen. In the paratime/60's spy game, we were also eventually given a base, an alternative where a paratime capable civilisation had been wiped out. The most involved base-like stories with off-beat design criteria would have come from the local Ars Magica saga ( Saxum Caribetum ), where founding the covenant took most of the first realtime year's play, and it took a resolving a lot of squabbling about the library before construction even began.

Have you tried hitting PCs with a baby

One time, this was almost literal - a small child was used as a missile by a supervillain (Malice, of the Bad Girls) in a Champions game. It's not a very effective thing to do, as they are limited in the damage they can inflict by their low BOD and zero DEF. Paving slabs are more effective.

As for the idea of inflicting parenthood, even adoptive or something like, and transient, it was never explored while I was involved. Heck, we didn't even have any “spunky kid” PCs (thank goodness, worse than kender…) The only episode I can recall in which children actually appeared was an almost off-screen incident in the Glorantha/RQ game where the PCs had returned to their home steading, and my Babeester Gor axe-murderess was co-opted by the Voria nursemaid as an assistant. This being a cult obligation, she grimaced, went along, and into an off-screen interlude.

Subsequently in the same GM's Saxum Caribetum saga, I gather the mages get involved in orgies, sparked off by faerie wine, which have resulted in offspring as well as points of vis, but I get the impression that the grogs are left to deal with the sprogs. There may be more sordid details on the campaign web page than I wot of.

Rules that players disagree with

Long, long ago, the real biggie was the wizards and swords one. We cured that one when one time the mages and thieves, the sole survivors of a mêlée, started to squabble over the division of the loot, drew swords and axes, and slaughtered each other tout de suite. Then they saw the wisdom of the arbitrary ruling. By the early 90's, it had even become one of the bits of antique charm of the *D&D rules (another thing to dislike about 3e) that made it attractive to pick up AD&D2 and play that rather than RQ.

And nobody liked the fire-and-forget magic system, so we replaced it almost from the get-go.

I can't remember any other focussed little rules that were contentious, though there must have been many. More often it was whole-system things not amenable to single-point changes (bricks über alles in Champions, the system sagging by about 8-9th level in *D&D, the unreasonable effectiveness of mages when played with a little thought in Shadowrun). The nearest to a point problem was with Pendragon (which we used in a Glorantha setting), where no-one liked the number of shots a slinger could get off on an opposing foot-soldier charging at him, a combination of range, rate of fire and movement rules conspiring together, but that was washed way by the other problems with that particular campaign.

Why are some players reluctant to GM

I can't say for sure about the habitual player-only type, but I might share some of the problems. For me, my reluctance to resume after burn-out was, and remains, centred about the problem of excessive GM authority in anything adjudicated. It's about not being able to sustain the necessary illusion of player free will from my PoV, while keeping the amount of GM prep needed to a manageable level. For a fully live quasi-simulation, a world that “runs itself”, in which the players can really do what they want, the workload is enormous (at least compared with the amount of time and energy I feel I can devote to it these days). That's before one faces the possibility that every player takes off on a separate agenda (as helped crash my V:tM chronicle). For anything constrained, I have to guide the players, and this feels wrong.

On top of that, choosing a system, choosing how to customise it, can all lead to analysis paralysis even before getting to the crunch point of selecting a setting, and trying to set it in motion. And then you have to worry about whether your players will be happy to consume what it is you have to offer, whether they will propose characters that you can handle, and that won't do violence to what you wanted to run.

It was all so much simpler when a satisfying evening's gaming could be put together by selecting opponents for two fight scenes and a skeleton of narration to join them up. Things started to go downhill when gaming evenings had to stop at half ten rather than one a.m., and violence had to be suppressed after the 9 o'clock watershed and/or speeded up by abstraction, and other things had to be introduced to fill the space. Nearly as good are the few very best pre-packaged adventures where the GM can just play the hand he's been given without needing to rewrite it to eliminate crass bits, and allow the time for the game system to produce results, rather than have to also make them up.

Saintly PCs - what makes them, what game mechanics might they use, and can they work in practice

I think we have to distinguish between pious characters and those who are merely holier-than-thou; and also have some ground rules on what the piety is being measured against to do this topic justice. How would a character that's not following something close to one of the Faiths of the Book be judged as saintly?

It is true that many characters that say “pious” or “holy” on the character sheet actually turn out aligned simply Lawful/Obnoxious — the one I remember from local play being an LG dwarf cleric by the name of Aman Naug who came over as very austere and puritanical, and noted as to be one of the first against the wall when the CG revolution came. Most interestingly, when dusted off post AD&D2, as a priest of Aurochs, lord of berserk strength (the CPHB Strength specialty priest type), he became the rather lighter-hearted Noggin the kung-fu barbarian dwarf in very short order. And he was doing a lot of righteous smiting as befitted his faith. Was he saintly?

In a more familiar style, I remember affectionately the write-ups from long, long ago of the Tale of Two Clerics, two pious characters and their unfortunate companion, the rather more self-interested Frank (and all his relatives — replacements - of the same name). They sounded saintly, and certainly seemed to work.

Had I actually completed character generation for Saxum, my character there would have been inspired by Roger Bacon, as portrayed in Blish's Doctor Mirabilis, and would have had a definite background from the Church, even if a mildly heterodox one, from time spent in the University at Paris, a pious inquirer into the majesty of Creation. As it turned out, I don't think he would have fitted the rest of the group, so that's saintly character that wouldn't have worked, but in that case only due to the particular context in which he would have been set.

Kill or stun - which to do

One reason to kill is when you cannot deal with the opponent in any other fashion. The last game I actually played had just about come to this point - the mind warping powers of the elves out of paratime were such that they couldn't be kept prisoner by mere humans for any length of time. So, for our own security, the only good pointy was a dead one.

What do you use for genre Sources

The one time I found I really needed to get players into the groove for anything I ran was Shadowrun when few if any of the players had read anything even vaguely cyberpunk-ish. To remedy that, I handed around the first accompanying volume of fiction, the Into the Shadows braided anthology, for them to read in advance of the character generation session. In other cases, my players seem to have already had some idea of the genre or at least conventions typical of these games absorbed by osmosis from the surrounding culture. The main exception I recall was a player who just wasn't into superheroes who joined in one session of Champions. I don't think a reading assignment would have helped in the short time available.

The time I really went looking for genre material (as opposed to things like historical references for period context before finally not getting around to joining the Saxum Caribetum saga) was when running Vampire — and there it was easy enough to find source material in the usual bookshops — which I then plundered for NPCs.

Working around Combat Patterns (he hits, I parry)

I didn't play Ars Magica for long enough for the variant “He hits, I soak” to become clichéd, though my converted high-CON ex-AD&D2 Uruk Hai was very good at that version of the old standard. And it depends what you mean by a pattern — if you take the software engineering meaning, that really means a stereotype, in the same sense that that word used to have in printing, of a ready made format Opening gambits are a source of behaviours that often get thus stereotyped — “Here come the flying feet of Kung Fu!” or “We Starsky & Hutch the door.“ — a reference from when they were on the TV (as opposed to the 2004 movie), not that long before the very early D&Ding days — the fighter knocks down the door while a mage stands ready to Magic Missile what may be revealed.

But I guess the real intent of the topic was on the behaviour that emerges when you actually invoke the game mechanics. At this point the fact that each entity in its turn — and that encompasses even the different turn rates for different entities that is part of the Hero system — is given an action that may be used to attack, and that usually meets some implicit resistance from the target. The underlying game mechanics will always drive you to some variant of the the “I attack, he defends” iteration; even in Over the Edge and Feng Shui, no matter what their respective authors would like to have you believe.

All that those games attempt to do is hide this inconvenient fact under layers of fluff. Such spurious detail has for me the effect of reducing both my immersion (as a distraction) and also the credibility of the action — I would rather hide detail I'm no expert in under the abstraction of the mechanics. Otherwise you get to the ludicrous things like in the Theatrix thread on r.g.f.a about 8 years back where what the acting player described in the belief that it is a strong move was resolved by the adjudicator taking the point of view that it was a weak one, or descriptions of a combat in terms of fencing stances (recalling a somewhat more recent thread on u.g.r or perhaps r.g.f.m). Not only am I not au fait with the technical terms, but I do not find it credible that such technically precise stances would be applicable to wilder melee — especially in the example I recall of a combat with a broo. This style of play also seems distressingly full of examples in which a player asserts what his opponent is doing as much as his own character.

No, either you go to systems that plot moves at the sub-100ms increment with Laban Notation, using complex transition rules to simulate physical limitations on how far you can move, and that you can't move one arm though another, and computing whether you'll fall over given that current stance, and how to recover, and then you have to learn how to fight properly, for real, to use it — something I contemplated over 25 years ago, and then drew well back from — or you're stuck with the abstracted action/re-action iteration.

The difference between Old and New campaigns

How old is old? While 1960s rock stars may have talked the talk, my experience is of campaigns that actually did die before they got old. Usually I was introducing new campaigns (often also implying new systems) to old players.

The only longish running campaign with some later introduction of players was the Champions game from the mid '80s. There, the genre conventions were strong enough, assuming the players understood them, that they could hit the ground running. In the case of the genre-unaware player cited above coming in later, I guess that the campaign in mid-flow had enough momentum to ride through that sort of local difficulty, whereas a newly starting one, with less player investment all round, might have foundered in favour of something more attuned to the new consensus.

Material Copyright © 2001–2003 Steve Gilham

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