Gaming

Back from Ironic Hiatus!

I don’t know if this is explicitly ironic. I’m sure my English Lit friends will be glad to call me on it if it isn’t. My last post was about how to effectively use WordPress to space out posts and be able to effectively communicate and backlog entries to keep with some sort of posting rhythm.

You can see that did not work out the way I planned.

Now, I did have a week worth of posts backlogged just in case something were to pull me away. That week that I had discussed scheduled postings, work caught up with me. It happens. Changes are made and now everything is a critical build. Oh yes, fun indeed! But I wasn’t worried. I had a backlog! So I took advantage and worked through my usual posting breaks. You know, otherwise known as ‘work time.’

Then I got sick. Apparently that many critical weeks in a row caught up with me and the slightest lull made my body shut down. I had burnt through my backlog. Oh, I tried to write, but when you ca n barely operate a television remote*/**, blogging does seem like an unachievable feat.

I wasn’t however completely unproductive. Sure, I couldn’t work and barely watched TV, but I could chat to anyone who could follow my spaghetti string stream of consciousness. I pitched my idea to a couple more people, knowing full well that it was a form they could follow and it would start at a time where they would all be freer in schedule. November was coming up, you see, and Fic Season was starting. Yes, if you have online gamers, they area almost always participating in some kind of Christmas Fic Swap or National Novel Writing Month. Since I promised someone I’d try NaNoWriMo again this year, I knew even my schedule would be tight.

That is how you make sense of sick time. You reschedule, rework, and pitch. That is if your game isn’t started yet. If it is, be a player, not a game master. It is easier to interact and put a sequence into a lull than it is trying to manage complex plots and action sequences loaded on DayQuil. Then, when you’re back to par, you write a dozen posts so it never happens again! ***

* A television remote, not a VCR remote. Those things are the Devil.
** Did I just say VCR remote? Do you remember when Remote meant ‘connected to Device by 6 foot wire’? That’s why my hair’s gray, by the way.
*** It will totally happen again.

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Pitfalls: Playing with Friends

Obviously, I wouldn’t suggest playing with people you don’t know or worse don’t like. If you can avoid it, do. If not because a lot of your players like playing with them and you can be adult enough to admit that maybe your dislike for this player is merely your dislike, then you can also be an adult and suck it up.

By now in my game, I’ve recruited a couple ringers. As I’ve mentioned, ringers are people I’ve played with before. People who I trust for creative and gaming reasons. It means that we’ve also developed characters together before and had a great time doing it. It all sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Well unless the game doesn’t expand beyond those players, which I truly hope it will, it can be a problem. Cliques can kill a game before it starts and will remain a looming monster through the lifecycle of a game. When you start a new game with old players, you start with a clique by default and the worst behaviors can worm their way in.

Everything will change. When you come into a new game with a new group, anxieties aside, your first question is, ‘Who can I play with?’ When you have friends in the game, the question becomes, ‘How can I play with you?’ This isn’t necessarily bad, unless you’re running the show. In that case, you need to play with everyone. You have new players. New players are unknowns and unknowns can be scary. Treat them well and the scary can be great.

I ran into a bad habit. I have a few characters I love playing but don’t have a lot of opportunity to. Their storylines close, or the games end. When I prototyped my first character, I started clean. I knew I already had the advantage of being able to shape the generating process. I had to not lean on one of my more familiar archetypes. I needed to be able to build a character with a new background into a new system or how could I ever hope new players would understand it?

Well, as I mentioned before, I finished my prototype and the feeling was great! I wanted to do another. And as I was talking to one of my ringers, I thought, ‘Remember this one character? She’d be perfect for this game.’ And that’s where the slope started to drop. ‘And remember this other one? I really want to bring him too.’ Do you know what happens when you bring over a bunch of characters from an old game to a new game? You have the same old game. What do the new players have? Nothing.

Well, eff. I decided to limit myself. I would be in need of characters, sure. And I did need one female to balance out my load so that if one set ended up lopsided, I could add some balance. I decided to port over that one. At least then I could hone out the generating process. But the other guy? Well he would have to wait. I found other places for him to be. A villian or a later ally. Or both! It all depended on how things unfolded. It would also happen so far in the future that I would know how the game would fit him and if it was even worth the trouble.

I know this comfort is bound to rear its ugly head again. There are storylines I lean on and thankfully only one of my ringers has played with me enough in recent memory to know what they are. And thankfully I’ve recruited enough really social and interactive players to cover up the fact that I do tend to lean. One more rule, be prepared to recognize your weakness and have people around who can disguise it as a ‘quirk.’ Now, I have characters to write up.

Prototyping

Prototyping, it is absolutely necessary. If you haven’t done it yet, don’t force it on your players. It’s a fairly simple rule. Perhaps I should start a page with rules…

1. Start simple
2. Prototype everything

Since this was going to be a character driven game adapted from a system that I’ve never used before, prototyping was doubly necessary. I needed my players to be able to do it and I had to be able to explain how to do it. Simple, yes? Ah ha ha…

Right.

I found the Fate system when I picked up the Dresden Files RPG on clearance. Besides it being the only Game Master’s Manual that did not have a single example playthrough or adventure in it to be a bold, if not pretentious, move, the character generation system was actually very interesting. It was a total departure from the class-skill system I was used to. The fact that you can run a game with almost no numbers was a lifesaver for me. I had a lot of friends who liked those sorts of games but always got bogged down in the numbers. Or a few rare cases that just loved rolling up characters. Over and over and over again… We would never get to the game because we spent so much time rolling up weird characters and trying to rationalize them.

The general Character Generation cycle for Fate was to create a character in five phases. Each phase, you wrote for a specific period in your character’s life. In two of those phases, you could add onto another player’s story, fleshing out yours and making connections. The Fate 3.0 model game the system uses is called ‘Spirit of the Century,’ which is a pulp adventure that takes place during WW2.

Phase Dresden SotC Sentinel
1 Where did you Come From? Origin Origin
2 What shaped you? The Great War Freshman Year
3 Story Story Story
4 Guest Star Guest Star Guest Star
5 Guest Star Guest Star Guest Star

When it came to actually prototyping my character, I found the phases to be a little more difficult than I had imagined. It had been years since I’ve had to profile a character! Even in online games, all I had to do was fill out a few vital statistics and maybe do one writing sample before I started playing. Three writing samples? This was a different animal.

I ended up writing Phases 1 and 2 first. Drawing a supreme blank on what my Phase 3 would be. Then it occurred to me, how convoluted would it be to have to write a Freshman year adventure outside of the academy, then have everyone start their year when… October? November? That wasn’t going to work.

So it took some moving around. I did want to give the characters a chance to explore the Academy on their own and have their own adventures. I also wanted to give the characters an opportunity to have adventures outside of the campus as well. I had an idea, but I had to ask myself how willing was I to have things be possibly out-of-order, chronologically?

Phase Dresden SotC Sentinel Sentinel (New!)
1 Where did you Come From? Origin Origin Origin
2 What shaped you? The Great War Freshman Year Orientation Week
3 Story Story Story Story
4 Guest Star Guest Star Guest Star Guest Star
5 Guest Star Guest Star Guest Star Guest Star

Apparently, I was fine with it. Well not fine, but it seemed to be the easiest way to get writing in without getting tied to timelines. If things are off, I don’t really care. I know experienced players wouldn’t care at this stage in the game. And I know new players don’t like being pressured. Renaming ‘Freshman Year’ to ‘Orientation Week’ gives the phase a fresh sense. It also allows the player to write their story as part of any part of their pre-freshman year life as they please.

It’s not ideal, and hopefully the next time I do this, I’ll have a better idea. For now, yay! I have a character written!

Starting Simple

The way most people choose an online game is to find a premise and system they think will be fun and engaging, or simply a universe they want to toy around in, then poll for players to throw into the wild. While I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, it was only after I knew what kind of players I would have at the ready.

The players I have are low impact. They have schedules to worry about. They didn’t have the same fandom interests, or in one case had no fandom at all. I needed a game that could accommodate them. A game that didn’t require dredging through source material or worrying about in-fighting about what was or was not canon.

Lewis Black had this joke that started, ‘If your company cannot explain in one sentence what it does…’ I applied that principle here. I wanted to be able to explain my game premise in one sentence.

Sentinel Academy, it’s a coed prep school for young spies.

Any other questions could be directly related to that sentence. What’s it about? Spies. So what kind of characters would it be? High school prep students. See? Easy. If it’s easy with potential, then an experienced player will already have started thinking about what kind of characters they could make and what kind of trouble they could get into.

For a new player, you’ll end up with the following response: I guess it’s like that because we’ve all theoretically done it.

It’s a much less intimidated response than trying to explain how one alternate universe of a tv show can be extrapolated from various episodes through the series which they should totally watch. While that will get you the one or two people who are crazy enough to think like you do, everyone else will simply settle on that sounding crazy.

Crazy, in game terms, is synonymous with complicated. That isn’t to say that things can’t be complicated if you wait down the line. Even in a group where everyone is already comfortable playing aroundeach other, unless they are at a table with a strict rule set with tasks and dice, all players will need time to feel out their characters. The characters need time to settle. The start of a game in the start of a new universe requires time to be set aside for characters to interact. Players need to interact. Players need to get to know their characters. Once the characters socialize, then they can handle all the twists you throw at them. Considering how much work goes into getting a game off the ground, they may not even notice you using this opportunity to take a break from telling them what to do! That is, unless you blog about it saying exactly that.

The Guinea Pigs

My last post was about building a good player core. Great in theory, but how does it handle in practice?

As of now, I have 3 players. At this point, I need every single player to be a Good Player. To recap, that means I need three people to be creative, flexible, and willing. I can’t remember the last time I had that in groups of over a dozen. At least I can say this in front of my players without feeling any judgement: I am anxious as expletive! It’s not that I don’t think such a small number of people can’t be good. I know for a fact that it can. I’m worried that schedules will clash, because they always clash, and that everyone will wait so long that no one has any fun. If they don’t have fun, these three people who have never played together, I will have some kind of massive anxiety attack and try to hide underneath my couch. I won’t. But… that’s how this whole scenario ends in my head. Thankfully, they also know I’m neurotic. So I doubt they’ll judge me for that either.

The Ringer I’ve played with The Ringer almost non-stop in several games covering several years. When we haven’t been in actual games together, we played one-on-one free form games where we play out various characters and scenarios. There’s a certain freedom to that where you can literally be any character at any point and only have to mesh it with one person. If it’s a person you have good chemistry with, it’s almost a no-brainer. The only draw back is that I don’t want it to be a crutch. Thankfully, she’s run enough of her own games and still plays in various other game communities that she knows the importance of having a wide variety of interaction. She’ll be the one I lean on for game ideas and to keep things moving.

The Cheerleader Every game needs one. The Cheerleader will have so much enthusiasm for what’s going on that you can gauge instantly whether or not something will not play right. They’re responsive and will tell you if something is too difficult to understand or if there is something they really, really want to do. Their primary concern is that everyone around them is having fun because that’s how they have fun. They have that willingness through the roof. My Cheerleader is one of my best friends. She’s also a grad student in something biological. I know her schedule is tough to handle, which makes me nervous. She’ll try. It’s just a matter of how it’ll happen. I don’t handle unknowns very well. 

The Newb Every game needs about half a dozen of them. Newbs are fresh faces either to your system, your group, or gaming all together. This means they aren’t weighed down by the baggage most players have when it comes to bad game situations or bad chemistry with other players. It also means that they may need a fair measure of handholding and reigning in. The good thing about my Newb is that as her coworker, I have a damn good idea what her work schedule is going to be like. It also means my biggest fear for her is that she’ll have difficulty and a poor experience because of it. There are some things you just don’t want to hear at work. Also, she has a fondness for making me crazy. It will always make me look at her with suspicion. A very comedic suspicion.

That’s my player core. Hopefully it grows, but if it doesn’t, all I really want is for them to have fun. If they do, any impending anxiety attacks might well be worth it.

Building a Good Core

This is always my Step One in designing a game. That is to say this is the first step that actually requires any sort of effort on my part outside of saying, ‘You know what would be fun?’ This step is different from recruiting. A good game, whether at a table with four people or online with a dozen, always needs a good player core.

A good player, as far as my needs are concerned, have the following qualities:

  • Creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Social Willingness

Surprisingly, those qualities are ranked from least to most necessary.

Creativity is important for obvious reasons. You need to know that once a player is presented with a situation, they can come up with a response. It doesn’t have to be right, or dramatic. All it does is have to be engaging enough through either description or dialog that the scene will continue. Your basic Intro to Improv without any of that nasty ‘people’ business to deal with.

Flexibility is the reason why posting is better than chat, and why online is better than a the table. A table requires multiple people to schedule time and travel to be around each other. These sessions can’t last more than a few hours assuming you have things like a job or a family or friends. Online takes the travel factor out of that. It even opens up the avenue to meeting new people you might not have before due to distance or crippling social anxieties. It also allows one to play more than one part in a game making it feel fuller. The posting takes the scheduling problems that can still happen in chat. But there is also other areas than simply getting together where flexibility becomes key. On several occasions, I’ve played a game where a scenario was literally stopped by another player going, ‘I don’t like the way your character reacted! Take it back!’ The same has happened because an ending did not turn out quite right. Yes. Grown people will demand take-backsies. Yet, if you state it that way, they will report you to the moderator and no one will play with you. You need people who have the ability to roll with it and not have a panic attack because you were a bad puppet that didn’t play along.

Social willingness might not even be the right phrase. It’s more than manners and sensitivity, though I have horror stories about those as well. Many people with experience with these games will be resistant to meeting new people. Even when put in a game with dozens of people, the extent of their actions will be the same four or five people they talk to all the time. New people are unpredictable. They’re unknown. They might not like cheese! Whatever the reasons, they’re off-limits. A good core player will have a willingness to make them feel welcome and make sure their characters are interacted with. Any good player will take a sincere invitation and play off of the scenario. It’s like being a team player, if a team involved two people who wouldn’t necessarily know each other.

The concept of a player core simply accepts that all things are never even. Not everyone gets the same spotlight and not everyone puts in the same effort. That’s not necessarily a show stopper. A player core includes your most active players. People whose opinions you trust where you can bounce game ideas off of and who you know will make sure any player is properly connected, not because they have to, but because they want to. A player core at a table is everyone, because you all know each other. Online, it can be anywhere from four to six people, depending on who you can manage. I’ve seen many games where not just the player core but the moderators did not hit those three criteria. These are the same people who would think you can insert the latest plot from Supernatural and no one would notice. They force players to show up or horrible things will happen to their characters. They also refuse to point you in the right direction or even read your character’s profile.

A Good Core makes the flow of action possible and easy. They promote fun and entertainment within your group. They make sure people aren’t singled out. Question is… Who do I have for that?

PROJECT : SENTINEL

That is a very intense title for an otherwise very bland post. This is my new project. I used to have this fantastic hobby where I would play and run tabletop and play-by-post role-playing games. I had friends, time, and fun. Then, cue the color to change from vibrant to pale and gray, things got busy. I fell out of contact with my friends, probably because they had done something so stupid they were unaware of the inanity of it and I simply could not handle them anymore. School ate my time and when you have no friends and no time (and at the time, no money), you have no fun.

Then I entered The Industry. For those unaware, I earn my living as a front-end engineer. And when it occurred to me I could run things online again, since I’m in front of a computer every day at every moment, it was as if I was enlightened!

Then I realized I don’t know how to do backend. Hence, front-end engineer. And my hopes were dashed.

Then I picked up the Dresden Files RPG. Now, I like Dresden Files, but I’m not the biggest fan. But the book was on sale and I’m a sucker. It was also huge. It also fleshed out the first ‘real’ example of the Fate Game System for me. It. Was. Magical. My main gaming problem, besides lack of players, is that my online friends were always story first, action later. Some were open to the idea of turned based action, but that was too few and far between. This seemed to be the first storyline-based system where I didn’t need to track grids and character position and roll probabilities. Granted, they were fun for me, but no one else.

Now the story-based Fate RPG gives me another avenue where I can play action online without worrying about dice-honesty and all of those other piddly details.

So why not kill two birds with one stone? All I needed, as far as I knew, was a website and a blog to host a game. My experiment came into this form: Run a Fate game online using players unfamiliar with the system while building out a game website to shore up my web services skills!

Oh yeah. That doesn’t sound like a train wreck at all…

AND SO BEGINS… PROJECT:SENTINEL.

I am taking auditions for a new name.