The Name Game

I’ve talked about Fallen London before, but they recently brought back some content that I think is worth talking about as a new focus. Seeking the Name. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one of the most interesting, disturbing quests you’ll ever regret taking on.” to quote Rock, Paper, Shotgun article here. I mean, the whole next paragraph is as follows:

Seeking The Name is the exact opposite of most RPG quests. You can argue it has an element of fighting for justice to it, but that’s not really the point. Really, from the point of view of your Fallen London character, it’s less a quest than it is a curse – a voracious hunger, an unstoppable drive that strips them of everything they have and promises nothing in return. One of the standard Fallen London slogans is “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Seeking The Name is so far removed from that, the game itself regularly breaks character to tell you that you are making a mistake, that you should turn back, and that nothing awaits but pain, suffering and more pain. Pain like losing half your stats in a single click. Pain like throwing away your Destiny. Pain like sacrificing your hardest earned possessions just for a chance of progressing.

Normally, in Fallen London, you build up your character by doing storylines. Usually most are repeatable mini-quests, following iterations of a few choice forks like a choose your own adventure book. You do them, build up stats and resources and further yourself into stories deeper and deeper. This one is instead one that you will be broken on, as mentioned above. A lot of the in game backstory is discussed in places like this, a Fallen London tumblr discussion page and it is quite an interesting story, but I mostly like it for the idea of how it is giving the players literally enough rope to hang themselves and then the freedom to do it. Something that, as Rock Paper Shotgun says, you don’t see enough of in games. An actual ‘Hey, go do this thing that will literally make your game harder, because it’s different’.

I like the idea because it actually has real consequences for the choices players make. There is actual loss, actually giving up of resources and things that way. Something you don’t see very often in games. Actual consequences that can hinder a character or story in the future. That to me is interesting, because the whole essence of drama is conflict. John Wick, game designer, wrote

 A Dirty GM, on the other hand, is someone who uses every dirty trick in the book to challenge the players. Keeping them off balance with guerrilla tactics, he increases the players’ enjoyment with off-beat and unorthodox methods, forcing them to think on their feet, use their improvisational skills and keep their adrenaline pumping at full speed. 

I think losing some abilities of your character due to choices made is a perfect example of that sort of challenging players.

The idea of this means things given to the players can be lost at any time due to their actions. This means that a game of this nature has to be agreed upon by all players when they begin, so that they know if they send one of their allies into combat with a big bad, they could lose that ally. Perhaps someone breaks into their house and blows it up, making the PCs homeless. Perhaps someone catches the thief and cuts off his hand, or someone wants to bring a PC down a peg so hires some thugs to tool them up and breaks their knee in the process and reduces their mobility. The essence of drama is conflict, so be willing to sometimes take the fall to make the story that much more interesting when the players finally win by somehow overcoming the odds.

Parson Gotti: That, um, game I was developing at home…
It had rules.
But it couldn’t be won within the rules.
I wanted a game where the players had to surprise the GM with lateral thinking.
So I was essentially goinna cheat them.
Undermine everything they tried.
Until they found a clever enough way to cheat me.
To break my rules, and win. (Source: Erfworld Book 1: 134)

The above paragraph may not sound like an example of that sort of thinking, especially when you talk about cheating them out of victory. The idea is about how far you are wiling to go, what sort of punishment you are willing to take and still get back up and fight. If done right, the players feel like big damn heroes for overcoming overwhelming odds and pulling a clutch victory. If done wrong, it may be like this quote from TV Tropes Failure HeroOne of the major problems most fans have with Young Justice is that no matter what the heroes do, it almost never matters. They usually end up soundly defeated, and on the rare occasions that they do win, it just furthers the villains’ goals somehow.

Granted, superheroes are a great example of this idea, how they become separated from anyone they may care about because they have to be the person there to save everyone. They don’t have a chance to be the person who sits back and relaxes and enjoys things, otherwise you end up with bad guys winning. Instead, they chose to turn their back on significant others  because they don’t want them to become targets or worse (I mean it could be worse. You could be this, and that is one worse option in my mind). 

So, let players know they can lose, maybe start off with small things to see if they are willing to go along with it. You could surprise with a major loss, but some players may not agree with it as they spent time and resources to get it in most cases and thus should be compensated for the loss. Whether you do compensate depends on your game, but as long as you don’t do it all the time and don’t always target the biggest advantage the players may be willing to accept a loss from time to time.

Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me…

In trying to find some inspiration for adventures and plots, I find myself revisiting classics to try and find new ideas and new twists to throw in. In a Shadowrun game, I had my players do a strike on a drug lab after watching Robocop 2, which is a pretty basic example of inspiration but for something more complex, after watching the first Mission Impossible movie, I had the idea of what if there was a second team that was already on site. Granted, I took some liberties with the idea and turned it into a story where the second team was already infiltrating the facility the characters were going to, but it kept the players on their toes, especially when the guard caught one of the characters surveilling the building and thought it was part of the other team and tried to catch him.

So, as you can see by the above and may know after reading this blog,  one big thing that I believe in is that players don’t win all the time, and it may not be the belief of many GMs out there. I don’t directly stack the deck against them ad obvious as that example may seem, but I got the idea as a twist on the ‘Stealing the Pinch’ bit from Oceans Eleven where after an off-camera steal of the item they have to rescue their collegue who went in after them and got noticed.

As I referenced a few times in my blog, I love a challenge. I play Roguelike Survival games where death can happen at any time because I like to be put into situations where I have to make tough choices like ‘Do I risk going into an area for a supply I need but could get killed going for?’ I use the same mentality on my players. As another example, I had a random encounter with a small party of slike level 5 characters going against three giant elephants. The elephants didn’t care about the players, they were just around the water hole and one of the players attacked it which got the others attacking. They then built, as Spoony calls it, The Conga Line of Death. The elephant charged and basically could have slaughtered half the party in the single attack given the damage dealing. After the one hit, my players ran and I explained my world view of ‘Adventuring is a Deadly Pastime’.

To bring all these examples to a point of an article, I was rewatching some classical favorites of mine, the old Disney animated movies. I want to talk anout ‘Art of Avoidance’ using Aladdin as a perfect example of this in the One Jump Ahead song. As the song progresses, we see Aladdin using his acrobatic skills (and luck) to dodge danger until the climax where he gets cut off on the street and then at the tower, leaving him one way out by jumping. 

This sort of attitude is something I very rarely see from PCs, as once they encounter a target they will try to figure out how to beat it in combat. Usually, they’ll straight up fight hoping on their stats to win. If they fail, they will state they never thought of running. I think part of this comes from the mentality that it has always been that way, both in video games and in encounters in tabletop. From a player point of view, I can understand the reason for it, but at the same time it can be a habit GMs may want to break.

How can we break it? One way is by throwing enemies en masse and giving them really only one way out that they won’t get tgemselves killed. There was a scene in the early bits of Final Fantasy 7 where Cloud was surrounded by enemies and then jumped onto a passing train which was his only way to escape. Another is by showing a cohesive force, especially an intelligent one. Tucker’s Kobolds are a great example of this sort of mentality, but a police force is another example  as they operate as a unit and link together their actions. Play them that way, even if you have to brush up on police tactics. A large enemy can be one as well, sure, like a dragon or another creature with a large amount of HP and armor like the Godzilla type of creature.

Another example that we can do with this is start by utilizing the horror tropes of eliminating their avenues of traversing, slowly closing it so that they only can go in certain directions. Locked doors, collapsing tunnels behind them, flooded areas they would need to swim through, areas swarming with monsters, one way passages (ladder broke, floor gave way, zip line away, waterfall ride, etc). You don’t want to railroad them into a specific path, so you want to pick some choke points and come up with ways to limit its usage, by commenting on things like the rusty ladder and the rickety bridge. This can cause players to think strategically, as they will be wondering if their next action will cut them off from another resource.

A perfect design of this is a network of nodes all interconnected, like rooms in a mansion to use a horror example. 

One may be a secret tunnel through a grandfather clock that leads to a slide down to a lower level, so players cannot get back the same way. 

Another could be a ladder in the clock tower that rusts and breaks after they climb it (up or down) and now need to find another way through. 

A fight in the library causes bookshelves to block a doorway, making you have to go around, or now allowing you to climb up them as a ramp to reach a now revealed door.

Sometimes it may be a secret door or combination of secrets as you can see in “Hidden Spaces” episode on Richard Garriott where there are some unique access to hidden areas set up.

However, all the while you have monsters closing in on them. You could make this a survival ‘Last until Dawn’ sort of thing or a mystic artifact they need to find or simply they must find the way out. The idea is they cannot kill these monsters enough to save themselves from death. Maybe even have an NPC get captured and show what happens.

Don’t Play Video Games

The title of this might sound weird for this blog, especially given as how I have talked about video games in some of the most recent posts. However, I was re-reading “Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads” which is the writers from R. Talsorian Games giving advice to the players on ways to run better games. This was one of the articles under their Dirty Tricks for using on players and it got me thinking about how it basically says a lot of what I felt like saying and very succinctly, and its title was ‘Don’t Play Video Games’. (more…)

Character, I Do Not Choose You

In “By Your Powers Combined….”, I talked about the idea of how in a JRPG game the player plays as a party of heroes, and each of these characters are unique entities and the story is all about how these people came together to achieve a goal, while in a Western RPG it is a tale of ‘The One’ hero who is out to save the world. Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, and so forth borrow from the idea of there being ‘The One’, one special person selected to make things right. But here’s a thought…. What happens when The One isn’t you?

You see it in movies a lot, where you have a viewpoint character and then there’s the real protagonist. The key is that the protagonist is the one who the story revolves around and usually is changed by the experience, and sometimes you don’t get to see that right away. Star Wars prequels didn’t introduce Anakin Skywalker until about halfway through the first film, and the prequels and the original trilogy could be said to be about the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, in his quest to bring balance to the Force.


The Power Of One

To the tune of The Power of Love – by Huey Lewis

The power of one is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing
Polymorphed to a little white dove
More than a failure that’s the power of one.

Tougher than diamonds, make you scream
Screw you harder than a teenager’s dream
Make a bad one good make a wrong one right
Power of one that makes you lose the fight

Chorus 1:
It’s just not funny, more quite lame
Don’t need know the odds to play this game
It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes
And it might just take your life
That’s the power of one
That’s the power of one

First time you feel it, it might make you sad
Next time you feel it it might make you mad
But you’ll be glad baby when you’ve found
That’s the power makes the world go’round

Chorus 2:
And It’s just not funny, more quite lame
Don’t need no math degree to play this game
It’s strong and it’s sudden it can be cruel sometimes
And it might just take your life

They say that all the dice are fair
Yeah, but you don’t care
But you know what to do
When it gets rolled by you
Ask for a little help from above
You feel the power of one
You feel the power of one

Can you feel it?


Chorus 3:
It’s just not funny, more quite lame
Don’t tell me the odds to play this game
Tougher than diamonds and you can’t appeal
You won’t feel nothin’ till you feel
You feel the power, just the power of one
That’s the power, that’s the power of one
You feel the power of one
You feel the power of one
Feel the power of one

Hard Facts About Soft-RP

I talk a lot about improv in some of my blog posts. The reason is because roleplaying is as much, if not more, an improv than it is a story writing. Still, so many people fall into the trap that they want to tell interesting stories, and they feel when they write stories that don’t seem to go anywhere they are failing. Just look at this writer’s advice blog entry as an example, as these could be reasons that people could do an RP scene in a game.

I do play in persistent worlds, worlds that have people from all around the globe on so there could be a story told at 2AM or 8PM or whatever, so you could find people interested in a scene but not interested in a full adventure. This is a godsend for those who like to get into their characters and react to scenes, as you can find scenes you can play from time. You’ll need to study some improv, especially the scene building bits like this, and they should help give you some ideas. The book Play Unsafe is a book about how to incorporate improv into the roleplaying game.


Let There Be Cakes

There is a picture about the internet I like to compare to when people complain about their ability to GM not being good enough:


I love it so much because people will ALWAYS find a reason to put themselves down when it comes to GMing or any ability, even if they’re good. There are some horrible GMs as any Internet search will be full of stories, and Knights of the Dinner Table magazine had occasionally featured stories where a character tried their hand at running a session and mostly it turned out humerously due to either player issues (the group was known to be hack n’ slash over RP) or GM ineptitude (such as not fully prepared, stealing plots direct from TV).

So, how come I joke about those examples but still try to get unprepared people in? Well, this attitude is because those comics were intended to be humorous, while in real life most people want a GM so they will work with you over rough patches. You just need to be willing to do the work.

On one place I used to play online would have 20 to 30 people on (unique players, no alts) and be asking “So, who is doing anything now” instead of offering a scene or plot or anything. That attitude can quickly make someone who runs plots bitter, because sure you get to GM but you don’t get to tell your character’s story. So, while I could rack up the experience gained being the GM and my character could  advance, I didn’t feel like my character had really done anything to warrant advance and I wasn’t being challenged so I didn’t see a need to advance yet.

I learned to GM in tabletop as a school kid, probably started in junior high, mostly because no one else wanted to do it. so, I would pick up skills on the fly, since this was back before the game really got the public attention it has today. Today, there is a glut of websites and Youtube channels and GM help books that will tell you how to do things. The problem with a lot of the information is that it can contradict other information or it can be stuff that is too general like ‘Learn to Improvise’. So, you can filter information that works for you and the rest, you can ignore because the idea of the game is to have fun and if something is making you not have fun, then avoid it.

So, to takeaway from this, the only way to get better at Gamemastering is to do it. Don’t be afraid to take some time behind the gaming screen, and if you stumble and fall the first few times just get yourself back up again. There is no specific criteria to be a Gamemaster other than the desire to be one and the will to put in the work, since you’ll need to prepare things and then learn to do off the cuff when the players decide to try something different.

Mashup Background

In the style of trying new things and being creative, I once tried to submit a background for a character on a RPG written purely as song lyrics. The lyrics were cut from a number of different songs to tell a story, and I figure it might be good to post them here and get people’s opinions. The character was a street level gang member, which should be evident from the lyrics.

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s not much left
coz I’ve been blastin and laughin so long, that
even my mama thinks that my mind is gone…


Grotesque Encounter Design

I discovered a definition today that had really got me thinking. To take from Wikipedia;

In chess, a grotesque is a problem or endgame study which features a particularly unlikely initial position, especially one in which White fights with a very small force against a much larger black army. Grotesques are generally intended to be humorous.