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Variety is the Spice of Pre-Gens

There are those who feel that you should always make your own characters, even for a one-shot convention game. It is, they often point out, a good way to get a feel for the system if you’ve never played it before. I can’t entirely disagree with that opinion, but I also can’t say I agree wholeheartedly.

If I’m starting a campaign I absolutely want the players to make their own characters. The intent is that they will be living with these characters for a while, and I want them to feel comfortable with them, happy even. Additionally, we can spend an entire first session making sure people have the rules down, working out any questions people may have, and if there are any House Rules this is a good time to work them out. Players can write backstories and I can weave them into the campaign world, making it feel as though the character has been connected to and interacting with this world for the number of years the character is old. It’s a beautiful thing.

It doesn’t always work for a one-shot.

For a long term campaign the players have motivation to make characters that mesh well. Not only will they be living with their own characters for a while (hopefully), but they will be living with each other’s characters too. There’s a strong chance that if you’re starting a campaign the players know each other (though I can tell you from personal experience that this is not always the case) and they might just work together to give their characters reasons to be working together. If your players are fantastic they will also work out pet peeves to play off of.

At a convention all bets are off. You don’t know who will be playing at the table, or if they will get along. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard, but I’ve heard some horror stories. You also don’t have the luxury of a character creation session, and the GM simply doesn’t have time to rewrite the module on the spot to incorporate a character’s backstory.

Additionally, I enjoy making new characters. I love trying to figure out who they are, what makes them tick, and what skills they would pick up along the way. There simply are not enough days in a life for me to play enough campaigns to satisfy my love of making new characters. I also enjoy watching other people play them. Sometimes they take those characters places I never in a million years would have thought of going. Other times they make choices I totally would have made. Either way it’s fun for me.

And so, I’m coming up with my pre-gens for the Savage Worlds modules I’m writing for RetCon this year. I want to make sure that the characters in each module have reasons to work together, but I also want to give the players ways to get under each other’s skin a little bit. There will be a built-in alliance or two, some bad habits here and there, and ties to the big picture of course.

I tend to make my pre-generated characters based on some trope or other. I want to make sure that when someone selects a character packet they are going to see the character they are expecting. After all, what they are expecting is the character they would like to play. If it wasn’t they would have picked something else! For example, if you pick up the Innocents Character labelled “The Face” you’re going to get a character with loads of dots in Manipulation, Persuasion, Subterfuge, and Streetwise, and the character description is going to make it clear that this character is a silver-tongued troublemaker who never gets punished because the teachers have a tendency to blame someone else. On the other hand, if you’re picking up “The Toady” then chances are you’ll figure on hacking someone’s email by punching that person repeatedly in the face until they give you their password… and you would be right on both counts. I want to make sure that when you pick up the character you have a pretty good idea of what it is without having to read through pages of descriptions or needing to know what everything in the stat block means. I want the characters to be both accessible to people who are new to tabletop roll playing games (or the particular system), and fun to play no matter what your level of roll playing experience.

I also want to make sure that with the mix of characters available to the players the module’s core issue can be solved. I don’t want to set up a no-win situation for the mix of characters. That’s easy to do, and no fun for me as a GM. I want the players to use their wits, but if fisticuffs really is the best way to solve a plot-point I want to make sure that at least one of the characters is capable of throwing a punch.  Furthermore, if they need to stop a computer virus that is activating a rampaging army of robots I want to make sure that they have at least one character with computer skills in the group.  I want to stack the deck so that the players have characters with the skills necessary to solve the main crisis. If the players make up the characters at the start of the session they may wind up making an squad of fighters with all kinds of fighting skills who are trying to calm down an angry mob before a riot breaks out… or spin doctor to a group of nearby reporters. No good can come of that.

Of course, no good will come to the computer programmers when the army of rampaging robots arrives if there is no one around who is capable of dealing with the robots.

And so I will be spending the next few weeks making some space marine types, and some scientists. I’ll stat up some people with medical skills, and some people who can cobble together just about anything out of spare parts. There will be some characters with an incredible knowledge of history and the occult (if they believe in that sort of thing), and some who exist to pick things up and put them down. Hopefully when I’m done there will be something for everyone.

Mages Make Me Cry


Letting My Geek Flag Fly

It’s been a busy week getting ready for I-Con 31!! I’m very excited to be GMing at this year’s event.  In fact, I’m all over the schedule, running events for “Mage: The Awakening“, Generic “World of Darkness” (Humans vs Supernatural), and “Hunter: The Vigil“. So yeah, I’ve been busy. Even the adventures I’ve run previously need to be combed through so that handouts that have been previously handed out are replaced, and of course it’s always nice to refresh my memory as to how the adventure is supposed to run.

And then of course there’s the adventure debuting at I-Con 31: “Your Safety is our #1 Concern”. (See Link Above) I’ve never run “Hunter the Vigil” before so it was a bit of a challenge making sure I had everything together properly, and scaling the challenge to the characters. Of course, this being a convention and not a campaign I only have to worry so much about whether or not there is a TPK. After all, even a party wipeout can be lots of fun as long as the fight is worthy of drunken tales in the hotel bar later that evening. I believe that in that regard I have a winner! (Of course, I may be biased.)

Honestly, the bigger challenge in planning convention events for me is one of pacing. In my campaign it doesn’t matter if they don’t get as far as I figured they would in one session. In fact, sometimes that’s a blessing as it gives me a bit of a leg up on the next session. Conversely, I’m all too used to my players going off plan and I can improvise around their weirdness. I’ve grown used to their weirdness. At I-Con I’ll have all new weirdness to adapt to, which should be interesting!

Of course my bigger concern is that at a convention game there is no next session. You have to make the one session count! It has to have enough going on to fill the time slot without feeling like filler, and you have to reach the final challenge before the session ends. I tend to like planning a bit more than I think we can cover, with modular areas that can be dropped if we’re running short on time without negatively impacting the story’s flow.

One of my favorite things about planning a one-off convention game though is the researching. I’m kinda weird like that. I love wandering aimlessly through internet searches for keywords like “abandoned building”, or “subway urban legends”.  I’ve found some incredibly inspiring things that way, that help me give the scenario that splash of reality that I like to bring to the World of Darkness. It may not be exactly like the world we know (especially if I’ve messed up my physics a bit since I haven’t had to calculate breaking distance in… well in quite a while let’s leave it at that!) but it should be close. A splash of realism makes the event hit that much closer to home, which is always creepier.

See you on the gaming track!

Mages Make Me Cry

Fudge: It’s Not Just for Brownies Anymore

Sometimes #RPGChat on Twitter inspires me to write about a particular topic on the blog. Last night’s chat was no exception.

To Fudge, or not To Fudge? That is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to say “to hell with THAT!” and give the Big Bad extra hit points during a fight with the PCs?

There are those who will proclaim that it isn’t fair to fudge in the Big Bad’s favor. There are those will will say that it is breaking the rules. But really, what’s the better story here: “our group trounced the monster in the first round before it even got the chance to move”, or “it was an epic struggle, the battle waged on and on, and then I bit Cerberus’ balls off!”?

(Yes, this actually happened.)

You really need to consider carefully before you fudge. Sometimes the PCs do something that is just so incredibly epic that letting them kill that baddie so fast is just the right thing to do. For example, years ago when a friend of mine rolled a critical hit – decapitation instant death and killed a dragon in the opening shot of an encounter (a fight he was supposed to avoid mind you)… as a first level character… that was a pretty big moment and the GM absolutely let him have it. He should have had that moment. It’s a great story!

Other times the fight ending early is just anticlimactic. The first time we brought the Mages and Werewolves together to fight a big bad evil spirit we severely underestimated the amount of damage they could do. When we constructed the baddie we didn’t build a high enough defense for it because we wanted to make sure it was possible for them to hit it. They had ludicrous rolls with all kinds of roll-ups and it wound up totally spent before the end of the first round. Sure it happens to all guys every now and then, but does that mean they want to tell their friends all about it for years to come? Hells no! So my co-GM and I exchanged a quick glance, tripled its original hit points, and continued the fight. The players never even knew. (Well… they know now.) “Cerberus” (we never explicitly called it that, but the legend comes from somewhere!) got to try out a few nifty abilities, the PCs were battered around a bit, and yes… the fight ended when a Werewolf castrated him with his teeth. Two years later we still talk about it!

The fact of the matter is that those stats: the Defense, the Hit Points… they were just numbers we chose. Sure they were based on various other stats, but we made up those stats too! We could just as easily have made up higher numbers to begin with, and truth be told we almost did but wanted to make sure the PCs had a fighting chance. No matter how hard you try sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes you need to adjust on the fly. What’s important is to remember that everyone is at the table to have fun, and in the case of RPGs (generally speaking) to tell a good story. If you err in the service of those two goals then chances are you’ll be forgiven if you get caught.

Just remember… next time you give that baddie more hit points! And better armor… and minions…

Mages Make Me Cry

Morbid and Creepifyin’

With Halloween right around the corner it seems like the perfect time to talk about bringing some terror into your players’ lives. It’s only fair, since if your players are anything like mine they make you shudder with fear and loathing every time they show up for a session. You need some pay back, and I’m here to help.

The fact that my campaign takes place in the World of Darkness makes it somewhat obligatory to have an element of horror, but you don’t want the horror to become too “one note”. You can only hold suspense for so long before the players simply get used to it. Additionally, it can be difficult to sustain a feeling of dread when you have to pause and pick things up next session. That said, there is no reason to not add horrific elements into your long-term campaign.

My current chronicle started out as so many do: with a dead body. The scene was pretty gruesome. A stop-motion animator had been killed (Sorry Matt!), and his body had been vivisected and filled with modelling silicone. A careful examination of the body revealed that whoever filled the body’s cavity with silicone actually color matched it to the animator’s skin. There were small patches of silicone on a flap of skin at the wound site that were clearly a form of color palette.

This sounds like a job for Post-Cognition!

Since I am a particularly evil and twisted GM I was prepared for this. I pulled the Acanthus aside and asked her what she was looking for. I was prepared for any number of things she might want to see. How did the animator die? Why was he killed? Who was the last to see him alive? The event she asked to see happened to be the one I was hoping she would ask for: how did the silicone wind up in his chest?  I thoroughly enjoyed describing to her in gruesome detail the small, stubby hands cutting him open with the sculpting knife, testing shades of silicone against his skin, and squeezing gob after gob of silicone all around his internal organs. She asked the natural question, “Small, you mean like a child’s hands?” Oh no… I mean very small hands… hands that don’t look quite real… in fact they kind of look like they might be made of silicone.

“We’re in a stop motion animation studio filled with puppets… aren’t we?” The GM smiles innocently in response. “And they’re being ridden by something… aren’t they?”

On the nosey!

Puppets and modelling knives cover virtually every surface, except of course the ones covered with bottles of turpentine, cigarette lighters, and the tools you need to build small scale set pieces: duct tape, hammers, nails… caltrops anyone?

The fact of the matter is that the puppets didn’t kill the guy – they were just a red herring. Still, I had hoped that a rampage through the studio would commence. Of course I couldn’t count on my Guardian of the Fail to point out that keeping spirit ridden puppets around isn’t a good idea. Instead he’s totally fine with teaching them to tend bar in the sanctum’s basement. #facepalm

Then again, using the puppets to help clue the players in to the fact that something was decidedly wrong in their basement several sessions later was enjoyable, but I digress.

When they finally did get around to Post-Cognitioning how this poor guy actually did die it involved blunt force trauma to the head perpetrated by an invisible assailant, a very strong invisible assailant. They couldn’t tell at first because the assailant, clearly a Mage, had cast Corpse Mask to make it look as though this person had died of an overdose of some sort. The detail I gave of the actual killing was just enough to be creepy without taking away the player’s imagination as a factor completely. Always let the player come up with some of the detail in their own mind. What they come up with on their own will always be creepier to them than anything you make up for them! Instead of describing the damage itself, try describing the type of action that would have been necessary to cause “this kind of damage”. It gets them every time.

Afterward Aenaiyah found a dead guy in the parking lot of the bar where she works. Hello Post-Cognition old friend! Don’t worry Aenaiyah, I won’t make you see anything too gruesome…

Mages Make Me Cry

A Momentary Reprieve

I previously promised to get to the dream-invading “nocturnal activities” of the most recent session. Sadly, due to some players who shall remain nameless (but not unpunished!) who missed the last session, I can’t do that just yet. I will, and it will be hilarious, but I can’t… yet.

That’s a big yet for some, eh Arrow?

My current dilemma is this: The Recap.

You see one of my players was there for most of the session (during which he caused all sorts of trouble at the Vatican and the Temple Mount), but had to leave early. Ordinarily I would not forgive this, but his brand new baby boy is adorable enough that I will let it slide this once. His character was very much present for the hilarity, and I did in fact feel compelled to make a few decisions on his behalf. I believe I made the decisions he would have made if he had been able to stay – which is to say that they would not necessarily have been the best decisions he could have made under the circumstances. It’s his way.

My current plan is to take the opening moments of the next session and hit him with some “decision points”, by which I can accurately judge how well I know this particular player. I’m guessing I know him pretty well but there’s only one way to find out, right? Along the way maybe I’ll have him make a few WITS+COMPOSURE rolls to see how much of what was going on around him his character was actually paying attention to. This is likely to amuse me. I like this plan.

My next problem is the two slackers who missed the last session altogether. I already have a plan in place to punish Niels, and I am hatching a wonderful plan for our memory-challenged Cabalmate Rex. Their punishments will be slow, drawn out, and brutal (as they should be) and are not my problem per se. My problem is what to do with them while we catch Argus up to speed on the things his character was around for, but he wasn’t. On the one hand – they weren’t there and in theory should not hear the recap. On the other hand – it will be even more hilarious to have them around hearing events unfold as Argus finds out what he missed and certain others start to squirm uncomfortably in their seats.

I suspect that I will err on the side of hilarity.

As part of this I have to decide where their characters are right now. Since the Cabal is on an Astral journey it’s always possible that their characters will simply show up later than the others did because it took them longer to enter a meditative state. Rex probably fell asleep a few times making the attempt, and Niels was probably distracted by Physics. Damien was using spells to help everyone arrive in Astral Space together so in theory they would find the others eventually. Since this is not a physical journey, and dream-time is even more wibbley-wobbley than real time, they could be arriving just in time to bear witness to hilarity. This would completely excuse their being party to The Recap since their characters could in fact have witnessed it, which in turn would have a synergistic effect on the hilarity!

Are you squirming yet Arrow?

You will be!

You. Will. Be.

Mages Make Me Cry

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