How to Prepare for your Gameday Event

<------- This is the second is the series of essays I'm writing for potential Gameday GMs/facilitators. I thought I would have more to say on this topic than I did, but this seems to capture the most important points. Again, feedback is welcome. ——>

Depending on the kind of game you’ll be running for Chicago Gameday, you’ll likely need to do some preparation ahead of time in order to fill a time slot with enjoyable play. Many RPGs require a great deal of rules knowledge, as well as materials that need to be created in order to facilitate a session. While you may be used to this sort of preparation in the course of running games for your regular gaming groups, the one-off, time-constrained nature of a Gameday event can pose unique challenges. The following advice aims to guide you in overcoming these obstacles.

Do Not Procrastinate
As with any long-term project, the sooner you start your preparation, the easier the overall effort will prove to be. In addition to creating a scenario or event premise, it’s likely that you may also be learning a new set of rules, creating an entire group of player characters, making handouts for the players, and gathering or building specific accessories (such as miniatures or terrain). In essence, you’ll be doing a number of jobs that, in a regular gaming group, would normally be spread across multiple people and multiple instances of play. It is thus imperative that you not put off work on your event to the last minute. All of the tasks mentioned above will most likely take more time than you expect. Finding yourself under the gun the day or night before Gameday is incredibly stressful and sucks all of the fun out of Gameday. Instead of looking forward to your event, you’ll simply be waiting for it to be over.

Pro Tip: Set yourself some deadlines. At a bare minimum, you should set an end date for your prep — a day by which you plan to be completely finished getting ready. Ideally, this is at least the Thursday before Gameday, thereby giving you Friday night to take it easy and get a good night’s sleep. If you break down your deadlines even more — rules read by this date, character sheets ready by this date, etc. — all the better.

Character Sheets Will Take the Most Time, So Do Them First
Creating pre-generated characters — if your game requires them — is one of the most time-consuming tasks involved in event prep, and it always takes longer than you think it will. If you’re formatting the character sheets yourself, even more so. If possible, create characters and prepare their sheets first, before you do any other prep. A side benefit of this is that you then have the characters in mind while you are crafting your scenario, and can adapt it to the characters, and vice-versa.

This same advice goes for handouts, such as rule or setting summary sheets, maps, visual aids, etc. While they don’t need to be the first thing you do, they should definitely not be the last.

Pro Tip: If you have character creation software available for your game, great! Use it and save yourself a lot of time. If you don’t, focus on creating the character data first; don’t worry about formatting it. Formatting-as-you-go can turn into a huge time-sink. (Nothing helps you procrastinate better than choosing just the right font.)

Make A Rules Cheat-Sheet, Even If You Know The Game Well
A smooth-running event requires a GM that knows the game well enough to facilitate play without spending a lot of time referencing rulebooks. Making a rule cheat-sheet for your game forces you through a study process that enhances your comprehension of the game. By parsing the rules into a digestible set of notes, you solidify your understanding of them. In addition, the product of your labor is a handy summary sheet that likely will be easier to use during play than the actual rulebooks. Not to mention, you can use them as a handout for your players.

Pro Tip: I find it most useful to make procedural notes, typically in an outline form. That is, I format my notes in order of application: “Step 1: Do this. Step 2: Do that. Etc.” Each step may also have subsections that note options or related rules that are relevant to that step, as well as page references, if needed. For example, if the first step is “Roll initiative”, but there are exceptions or modifiers to the basic initiative mechanic, I’ll note them under that first step. Then I can just run through the steps every time we use that set of rules, until I pretty much have them memorized.

Make Notes, But Not Too Many Notes
The notes for your event only need to be as detailed as you need them to be. Remember, you’ll be spending most of your time talking to the players, not referencing documentation. For most of us, the model for scenario notes are published adventures, but remember that those are products designed to be read first and then digested into playable knowledge. They generally include a great deal more information than is actually used at the table, like extensive background and guidelines for the person running them. You, on the other hand, already have most of the knowledge you need. Your notes only need to serve as prompts for your memory, so they can be brief and to the point. Most of the in-the-moment detail will be filled in by you during play.

Pro Tip: If you can fit all of the information you need for your event on one sheet of paper, do it. If you can’t, try to keep distinct sections of your event — such as a given encounter or everything about a specific NPC — on a single sheet so that any given moment of play, you’re only looking at one page of data.

Bonus Pro Tip: Use all of the formatting tools at your disposal to help organize your event notes: highlighters, color printing, post-it notes, colored paper, etc. If it works for you, use it.

Extra-Credit: Play-Test Your Event If You Can
This is “extra-credit” advice given that it essentially doubles your effort, but it should not go unsaid. If you have the time and players available, take your event for a test run. It’s good to do this no later than one week before Gameday so that you have time to digest feedback and make any necessary modifications to your event or player handouts. At the very least, having run through the event once will make running it at Gameday feel like a breeze. Not only will you have internalized a lot of the details in your scenario notes, but you’ll have a better idea what to expect from the players.

Pro Tip: You’ll want to debrief your players after the play-test. Ask them what worked, what didn’t, what made sense, what was confusing, and look for an honest assessment of how well you performed as a GM. Did you pace the game well? Did everyone feel involved? Were you speaking loud enough to be heard? Let them be brutally honest.

#chicagogameday

A friend of a friend of mine went to see Frozen when it came out and frowned disapprovingly. “Not a lot there for boys,” he sniffed, dismissing the movie as okay, “for what it is.” I said “Really? Why? Because it’s about two sisters? And yet, girls are expected to be held in the thrall of stories about boys all the time. All the freaking time. Are you saying that, because the narrative does not focus on the story of a boy, boys will not be able to relate to it? Because not only does that relegate the status of females to sub-human, it suggests that boys are sociopaths, incapable of relating to, empathizing with, or even liking a female protagonist.” He reconsidered and admitted that I had a point. And Frozen went on to make a billion dollars. What The Force Awakens suggests is that, as Donald Trump will no doubt discover before the end of 2016, the era when the straight white man is unquestionably given everything he wants is coming to an end.

Alcott. Is. Killing. It.

Some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron and General Hux

In The Force Awakens, clothes make the man. That’s not a stray observation, it’s a defining principle. It’s the same reason why the First Order requires their Stormtroopers to wear their completely useless armor — it makes them look scary, and it denies them their humanity. The same thing that makes them intimidating also allows us to cheer when thousands of them die. At the beginning of the movie, we feel Finn’s anguish when he doesn’t want to kill villagers, but an hour later we cheer as he mows down dozens of Stormtroopers. Now that we know that each Stormtrooper is an individual with thoughts and feelings, why do we still cheer?

Todd Alcott is killing it with his series on TFA’s main characters.

some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Kylo Ren

​How to Run a Great Gameday Event

<-------- I've been meaning to write up some Gameday best practices documents that codify some of what I've learned over the last decade or so in running events for it. This is the first in a series that will address various aspects of Gameday GM'ing. Others will talk about prep, scenario/event design, props, etc.  I'm also hoping that this kind of documentation might encourage more people to come forward and run games for us, and help those who do run create more enjoyable experiences for everyone. Feedback is welcome. ——>

Running or facilitating RPGs can be as much art as science. Running an RPG in the context of Chicago Gameday can be even more so. Gameday events impose challenging constraints: limited time, unfamiliar participants, and ephemerality. You are given a brief moment in the spotlight and yet expected to leave a lasting impression — and have fun doing it! How do you accomplish this, much less do it consistently?

The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned in running events, both the good ones and the bad, for Chicago Gameday.

Make It Special
Everyone who attends Gameday — including you, the GM — has taken time away from their busy lives to be there. Some have traveled for hours. As a GM, your primary goal is to reward this effort. For some attendees, this may be the only gaming they do that month, or even that year. For others, this may be their first time attending a Gameday, or even their first time playing the kind of game you’re offering. Put your best foot forward and run the best damn game you can.

Pro Tip: Bring fun or interesting props, print your character sheets on fancy paper, make colorful handouts, or heck, wear a costume if you are so inclined. This isn’t to say that you need to spend a fortune on paraphernalia. I’ve had a model human skull sitting on my bookshelf for ages, a gag gift from a friend; it made a perfect prop for a Dresden Files RPG event I ran a few years ago. The point is that if you’re going to bring accessories, bring them, in the inspiring-cheerleading-movie sense. The sensory experience of even something as basic as a character sheet or a map can add a while new dimension to the players’ enjoyment of your event. The more senses you engage, the more invested the players are likely to become.

Be Prepared
Know the rules for your game. Be thoroughly familiar with the scenario you are running. If you’re bringing pre-generated characters, know them well enough that you can help coach their players in their abilities or any other applicable rules of which they make use. Have your notes in order and organized in whatever way is easiest for you to use at the table. Have any dice you need ready, any miniatures or accessories you need at hand, and any handouts for the players printed and ready to distribute.

Pro Tip: Get a good night’s sleep before Gameday. Coming to Gameday fatigued from lack of sleep makes every aspect of being a GM harder. Even if you manage to run your game without a hitch, the effort will be double, and any enjoyment in the process will evaporate. Gameday is a special day for you, too, and spending it wishing you were home in bed is absolutely no fun.

Front-Load your Characters
If your event involves bringing pre-generated characters to the table, “front-load” them as much as possible. Namely, provide any and all necessary information that the player might need in order to run that character. Ideally, a player should be able to look at the character sheet you provide and almost instantly understand the basics of who that character is, what they want, and what abilities they can bring to bear to get it.

Pro Tip: If you want to have players choose equipment or spells, or make certain character build decisions, provide them with a limited set of choices, and make those choices easy to implement. For example: hand a player a set of index cards, with one spell on each (with all details), and have them choose a “hand” of spells to use for your event.

Focus on Playing, not Lecturing
It’s not uncommon for players in your event to be unfamiliar with the rules or setting of the game you’re running. Resist the urge to spend a lot of time explaining your game in detail at the start of your event. This can be a real mood-killer, as it asks players to process a lot of new information at once with no real idea how much of it may be relevant once play starts. At most, ask the table how familiar everyone may be with the game. Depending on the level of familiarity, offer just a sentence or two of high-level summary and then move on once the players have acknowledged that they understand.

For example: “This is a game about fighting for your character’s beliefs. These beliefs are written on your sheet, so please take a minute to look at them. When your character takes action, you’ll roll a number of dice equal to their skill rating; any dice that show a 4 or better count as successes. If you roll a number of successes equal to or higher than your target, you accomplish what you were trying to do. Make sense? Okay, so your group is arriving at the town when…”

As the game proceeds, bring up rules as you use them and explain as-needed. Let players describe what they want their PCs to do in plain language, and then help them translate that into game mechanics. You’ll find that the players will start to catch on to commonly used rules, and the game will keep moving forward.

Pro Tip: If one of your players is familiar with the RPG you’re running, deputize them! Ask them to help the other players with the rules, allowing you each to help different people at once, or for your deputy to handle one player’s rule question while you handle a scene with another.

Start with a Bang
Your time is limited, so get the action started as soon as possible. Instead of a mysterious job offer in tavern, start the adventurers at the mouth of the dungeon with a band of orcs hot on their heels! Instead of a mission briefing at HQ, start by throwing the agents out of plane, without parachutes, and the ground racing up at them! You don’t want to make players spend time figuring out your event’s “hook.” You all know you’re here to game, so start gaming!

Pro Tip: Start your event off by having everyone roll initiative (or your game’s equivalent) and play through some or all of an initial conflict, but don’t offer any more context than is needed. Get to a stopping point and then flash back to the “real” start of the adventure and have players figure out how the heck they got into that first fight. Once they get there, flash forward to the present and continue onward.

Keep an Eye on the Clock
Your event needs to fill at least four hours, but not go over five, so it’s crucial to keep an eye on the time as your event progresses. Put your watch or your phone on the table where you can see it during play and be mindful of it. The pacing of your event will greatly impact the players’ overall enjoyment. Rush too quickly and players will lack time to forge a strong connection with their characters or to the situation they’re in; plod too slowly and they’ll feel like nothing is happening and they’re just meandering.

Pro Tip: Set alarms on your smartphone or watch to mark various milestones. 30 minutes in: Are we done choosing characters and introducing everyone? Have we really started playing? If not, get moving. 2-2.5 hours in: Time for a 5-10 minute bathroom break and to assess how far we’ve gotten. Have we hit the “meat” of the session yet? 45-60 minutes before the slot ends: Time to start wrapping up. Are we close to a meaningful conclusion? If not, get there now.

Give Everyone a Voice
As the GM, you are both the de facto host of your event, and most likely have unique authority under the rules when it comes to directing the flow of the game: starting or ending scenes, choosing which player moves next, or deciding what contributions are “true” in the game world. Use this power to make sure that no one player or subset of players dominates the game. Move focus from player to player, making sure that everyone get to offer input. If a player is quiet, reach out to them and pull them into the game. If a player is steamrolling ahead, stop them with a quick, “Cool, hold that thought”, and then ask the rest of the table what their PCs are doing at that moment, and come back to the steamroller afterwards.

Pro Tip: Initiative systems aren’t just for combat. Feel free to use them to direct out-of-conflict play as well. Have everyone roll a die (any die) and then address them in descending order. Or, draw cards; high draw speaks first and then chooses who will go next (including you).

Bonus Pro Tip: In old-school dungeon-crawling games, it’s not uncommon to designate one player as the “caller,” i.e., the liaison with the GM. The players can deliberate all they want, but eventually they must decide on a course of action, and the caller conveys that final plan to the GM. So, make use of a caller. Choose a different player to be caller every turn, or every major scene, or even every fifteen minutes or so. And don’t just do it for dungeon-crawly games; it can work in lots of scenarios.

Go High or Go Home
Never forget that your event is a one-shot; a singular moment in time that will never come again. There’s no larger campaign, no “same time next week,” no regular group you’ll see again and again. Consequently, do not hold back! Let your event be a defining moment in the characters’ lives. Have them face their greatest enemies or their worst fears. Put them in situations that may change them forever; ones they may even be willing to die for! Dangle their most coveted treasures before them, and threaten those they hold most dear. Don’t think “monster of the week,” think “series finale”. Your imagination has an unlimited budget, so you might as well spend all of it!

I hope that this advice proves useful to you, be it at Gameday or elsewhere. Let me know what works and what doesn’t, or if you find other techniques that reliably make your events more enjoyable.

#chicagogameday

My album of the year is Big Wreck’s Ghosts

Odds are good that if I was posting about music in the latter half of 2015, I was most likely posting about Big Wreck. Since I discovered them in July, I have probably been listening to them almost every day, and more often than not, listening to this particular album. (It was released in 2014 in Canada, but not until 2015 in the US, so I’m considering it a 2015 album.)

It was this album’s “I Digress” that first hooked me on the band, and I love “Diamonds” so much that, honestly, it literally brings me to tears sometimes. Seriously, I’ll play the song for my son and some combination of the two will get me pretty choked up.

There’s nothing particularly hip about this album or Big Wreck; they make a kind of music that I love — songcraft-y guitar rock that is neither metal nor prog — but that, IMO, is largely a dead genre. And that’s okay; music changes, and we don’t always change with it. As a 45-year-old male, popular music isn’t targeted at my demographic anyway. I’m happy to ignore it, especially if I can stumble upon artists like this every once in a while.

What I find really strange is that it took me thins long to find out about this band. Frontman Ian Thornley is possibly one of the best guitarists currently alive and recording. Earlier in 2015 I was doing a lot of Googling for “best guitarists of the 21st century”, trying to find some new artists that I might like. And not to sound grumpy, but for my tastes the current landscape is pretty barren. How I missed Thornley, I have no idea.

So, if you’re interested in old dude guitar rock and want to have people laugh at you when you drop this band’s name, get no reaction, and then say, “Well, they’re really big in Canada”, then take a listen.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghosts_%28Big_Wreck_album%29

In not-TFA news, my wife and I finished Lost Girl season five — I.e., the final season — over the holiday.

Honestly, it was a slog. LG was never a great show, but it was a fun show with a good premise and a solid cast. But, for some reason, all of the show’s faults were multiplied tenfold in this last season: nonsensical MacGuffins every episode, incoherent Big Bads, inconsistent mythology, and Ksenia Solo leaving the show (again) and then coming back (again) and then leaving, and then…

I would gripe about this after each episode (as is my habit), but after a while my wife just said, “Look, don’t try to make sense of it. Let’s just finish the thing.” Eventually, I (mostly) gave in.

What’s always sad about LG is that it has great potential. The writers, however don’t ever seem to fully live up to this potential; they don’t seem to care about the nuances of the show the way good creators do. They throw everything at the wall and then keep both what sticks and what doesn’t, sometimes seeming at random.

The paraphrase Gene Siskel, “You don’t remake good shows; you remake bad ones.” Instead of always remaking good shows from other countries, I’d love to see the right US network try and revise LG. Assuming there was a network and staff that could handle the sex as well as the original, I think that with the right tweaks to the mythology and stronger writing, you could have a really kick-ass urban fantasy show with a different take than the usual vampire/demon stuff out there now.

Oh, well. Maybe someday I’ll do my own version of it using Urban Shadows or something.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Girl

There has been much commentary on Rey as being a “Mary Sue,” ie, an unrealistically skilled cosplayer romping in a boy’s movie. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m 54 years old and I’d thought this kind of woman-hating bullshit had evaporated by now. Luke Skywalker can single-handedly destroy a space-station his first time out and he’s a “classic hero,” but if a girl can operate a machine and handle a light-saber she’s apparently a cynical ploy on the part of a heartless studio. It’s disgusting and stupid.

This article has already been among the rounds, but I only just saw the film and so was avoiding it. Alcott always has insightful film commentary, and I found the above quote especially worthy.

some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Finn

The Star-Wars-but-not-Star-Wars game that never happened

Way back in the early days of d20, my Saturday group played a few sessions of the original d20 Star Wars RPGs. The first one was okay, but the second one, the Revised Core Rulebook was, IMO, a really solid d20 game. Plus, it was basically self-contained; there was nothing in any of the splats that seemed at all necessary to me.

One session, I suggested that maybe we could basically use the rulebook to play a game that was our own take on SW. Basically, forget all the canon and just assume the basics that were true at the start of the first film (the real first film, not Episode 1): there’s an evil empire, there’s a rebellion, there are mystic knights with laser swords, sapient droids, etc.

No one was interested. The main guy GM’ing at the time was vehement that we stay within canon, even though that meant no one could play a jedi* (’cause there’s only Yoda and the Skywalkers left). Ergo, like most of the published scenarios at the time, we were all “scoundrels” doing crime-y things. I.e., we were basically playing a weak version of Traveller.

I have no real need to recreate this idea in some current system. This was specifically inspired by my interest in using the RCR sans all the Lucas baggage. If the book didn’t have Haden Christiansen on the cover, I might have considered keeping it. TFA was simply the first SW film in along while that had me musing about SW gaming, which brought up this never-was game idea.

* IMO, any SW game that does not involve jedi is completely pointless. Sorry, folks.

Man, “Snoke” is a goofy-ass name for a Supreme Leader.

“Snoke? You mean like the Monkey Trial?”
“No, that’s Scopes. I mean like the website that debunks urban legends.”
“You mean Snopes?”
“I thought that was the potions master from Harry Potter?”
“No, that’s Snape. You’re thinking of Snart.”
“No, Snart is that bad guy on The Flash.”
“Whatever. At least Rilo Kiley was cool.”
“You mean Kylo Ren?”
“Shit.”

The First Order are people, too

One of the things I really liked about TFA was how human the First Order* was portrayed.
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I mean, we have both Finn and Ren taking off their masks, showing us that there are poeple behind all of this ideology and tech. And you have instances where it’s obvious that sometimes ideology isn’t enough, and these people need to be put back in line, like when Phasma reprimands Finn (“Who told you you could take your helmet off?”) or when Starkiller Base is being attacked and one officer is all like, “FUCK THIS I AM BUGGING OUT!” and another is all “Get back to your post!”, not to mention when Ren is having a tantrum after Rey escapes and we see two stormtroopers decide to turn around rather than run into him.

And then there’s the diversity. It’s not just Phasma; we hear other stormtroopers with female voices, and we see all kinds of women sitting at control stations in the background. It’s largely white folks, but still, not just a sea of male white folks.

I also think it’s noteworthy that, IIRC, everyone in the FO is fairly young. At first, I thought it was weird they cast such a young actor to play the FO’s top general (Domhnall Gleeson is 32), but it makes sense. These are the Hitler Youth; they’re too damn young to really remember what life was like under the Empire. They’re grown up seething under the yoke of the Republic, i.e., their generation’s establishment. They are the rebels.

And, of course, there’s Kylo Ren, a wanna-be Vader struggling to figure out who the hell he is. He’s not just some dude in a mask; he’s another kid, too young and too stupid to know what he’s doing, but doing it anyway. I.e., a typical twenty-soemthing.

(I also think his mask looks pretty lame, so I was happy to see him doff it for the second half of the film.)

* Initially, I thought “First Order” was a dumb name for the film’s Big Bads, but then I realized that it’s basically a phonological callback to “Third Reich”, which makes sense, as the Empire has always been Nazi-eqsue, and the First Order, IMO, the most Nazi-like incarnation of them yet.

(Aside: you don’t know how hard it was to find a picture of “female stormtrooper” that was not cheesecake.)