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Tech at the Table:

Tonight’s #RPGChat, tonight as I’m writing anyway, made me feel compelled to say a few words about working gadgets into the game table experience. Naturally mileage will vary with your group of players.

I would have a very difficult time running Mage without my laptop. There are just so ridiculously many things my Mages can do (See: The rest of this blog) that if I had to print out all of my notes there wouldn’t be a tree left standing anywhere on the planet. I also keep their stats on an Excel spreadsheet so that I can make secret die rolls for them from time to time without having to ask what their dice pool is, which would blow the secret now wouldn’t it?! Then of course there is the nightmare that is tracking initiative when people are speeding themselves up, slowing each other down, and mucking with the time stream. I don’t think I need to name any names here, do I Aenaiyah?

Yes, a laptop at the table is this GM’s friend.

The problems can happen when the players have them. They can make a player easily distracted. I admit that I have been guilty of being distracted myself from time to time, which is no one’s fault but my own. We live in a world of multitasking. We’re all so used to needing to multitask at work that we even multitask when we’re supposed to be relaxing and enjoying things.

One thing that makes it easier for me is the fact that I GM in a modern day setting, so the characters have just as many gadgets as the players. As a result I can work them into the game. When I’m researching a setting for a game session I’ll keep track of what comes up with interesting Google hits. Then I’ll work those things into the game session. For example, I was looking for an abandoned location for a less-than-sane Mage killer to be hiding out in and settled on a monastery in Staten Island. I chose this particular location because not only did it suit the general feel I was looking to evoke, but there had been some interesting stories about the location posted on various sites around the web. These sites had everything from your standard hauntings, to a fire set by a crazed monk (who continues to haunt Staten Island), to 17 flooded levels deep beneath the ground that hadn’t been entered in a century or more. Not only did this give me great encounter seeds, I knew that I could count on my players to Google the place as soon as I said the name. When they did they turned up the same links I had, so I was prepared for everything they decided to do at the location. Furthermore, I didn’t have to worry that they would “know to look into something” because “if the GM bothered to make this up about the location it must be important”. Some things were absolutely not of any consequence whatsoever and were just random facts they found on the internet. Other things they found on the internet were absolutely important. All of them had equal weight in the minds of the players because I hadn’t made any of them up.

By taking advantage of the laptops the players had with them I was able to not only prevent them from being taken out of the game by the distraction, I was able to bring the game into the real world just a little bit more. By using real life places, and real life search results, I was able to make everything just that little bit more eerie because it was more than simply something I made up. It was real.

And real is creepy.

Mages Make Me Cry

Death is Always an Option

As a matter of fact, not only is the death of PCs an option, it’s the one I look forward to each time I run the game. Sadly, it sometimes just isn’t very likely. Even more sadly, tomorrow’s Mage game is looking to be one of those times as it seems as though my players will actually spend some time gathering information. It’s been a while since they’ve done anything remotely resembling research, which I have to admit isn’t entirely their fault. Sometimes fans get hit, and things need to be sanitized. When that happens sooner is generally better than later.

For example, on their way back from dealing with the “crazy homeless guy” who was actually a former police officer that was about to change into a Werewolf for the very first time*, the Mages and Werewolves stumbled upon a nun that was possessed by a demon. This is the kind of thing you typically want to fix as quickly as possible. you want to take care of it even more quickly when you realize that the demon is Sangre Santo:

Sangre Santo: World of Darkness RPG Demon

Sangre Santo is not much fun at parties. He does enjoy making deals though!

My co-GM and I made sure that there was at least one way to come out of the encounter unscathed. We also allowed for the possibility that they would figure out other ways to come out of this OK, though we could only think of the one, and we were reasonably certain they wouldn’t avail themselves of it.

As you may have already guessed – they didn’t.

Death was very much an option during this encounter. In fact Sangre Santo made it quite clear that he might kill them all quite by accident if he wasn’t careful!  The sad truth is that this is one of those cases where simply killing them didn’t make sense. Quite frankly, that would have been way too passe for Sangre Santo. He didn’t want to kill them, he wanted to corrupt them. If he had to knock each and every one of them unconscious and then play “Let’s Make A Deal” with the first one to wake up over and over again until someone broke down and decided which one of their friends should be killed, so be it. After all, being an abyssal entity means that Sangre Santo has too much time on his hands. While this made a TPK unlikely, it did make it quite possible that one of the characters would be forced to sentence another one to death in order for the majority of them to live. Since it is unlikely that any player would make this choice, a successful “RESOLVE + COMPOSURE” roll would have been needed to not give in. The corrupted PC would have suffered some Morality loss and a possible derangement, the other PCs would be shocked and horrified (well, the ones that weren’t the dead one anyway), and my co-GM and I would have congratulated each other on a job well done.

Of course, failing that Sangre Santo would have eventually gotten bored again and just killed them all in the hopes that more entertainment would arrive soon.

The PCs actually caught a break here. It was down to final health points for several of the characters, and the big guy himself. Aenaiyah pulled a Hail Mary and managed to sever the connection between Sangre Santo and the mortal plane just before he managed to kill her.

This entertained him so much that he later sent her a gift!

Sangre Santo is nothing if not appreciative of a good time.

It’s important for death to be a very real threat in the campaign. The possibility of character death creates a sense of urgency and tension. The specter of death makes it clear to the players that the choices they make for their characters are important. The trick is that too much death, senseless death, and unavoidable death cause the same problems that no fear of death causes. If the players know that their characters are going to die anyway it takes away that very sense of urgency and tension – they are going to die no matter what they do!

Death needs to always be on the table, but it should always make sense, always be meaningful, and always be avoidable. If it isn’t it becomes cheapened. It becomes a certainty instead of a risk. Once the outcome is certain it just isn’t much of a game anymore.

Mages Make Me Cry

*Let the record clearly state that the Mages and Werewolves actually opted to help this guy! (Let it also clearly state that previously the Gaurdian of the Veil handed him a fresh bottle of whiskey and pointed him toward the nearest subway tunnel.)

Player Priorities

One of the trickier things to deal with when running a long term campaign is player absences. It’s bound to happen from time to time when a campaign stretches out over a couple of years, and when it does it leaves you stuck figuring out what to do with that player’s character during the session they missed.

Many GMs would say that this is the perfect time to put that character in mortal danger. This approach does have the advantages of:

  • Being fun
  • Making an example of this player to others who would dare miss your glorious session
  •  Being really fun!
  • Deterring this person of questionable priorities from ever missing another session
  • Did I mention that it’s fun yet?
What it lacks however is the pure bliss that only slow torture can bring. Sure, I can kill your character if you don’t show up, but frankly I can kill your character if you do show up, and if I do it while you’re there I get to see your anguish as the dreams you had for your pitiful creation are smashed to bits before your very eyes. I can watch as the tears stream down your face and hear as you cry out in pain, “Why goddess, WHY?!”

… excuse me… I was having a moment there…

Really, the only thing that can top killing your character while you watch is killing your character while you watch after having spent several sessions stringing you along and giving you hope that I’ll be a merciful goddess after all, as all the while I am making life absolutely miserable for your poor witless character.

For example, when a certain Mage who shall remain nameless couldn’t make it to NY from Boston for a session or two I could have easily had him be hit by a meteor or devoured by a spirit. I can’t deny that I would have enjoyed that.  Who wouldn’t? I decided instead to savor the moment by having this former scientist turned Awakened Mage run some experiments in the Sanctum’s basement… after asking if this was something his character might be doing of course. You see, I knew perfectly well that said unnamed player would think it a marvelous explanation for his spending time away from the group. By asking a question to which I already knew the answer, I made it entirely the player’s fault that what happened next happened at all.

So, what happened next you ask?

Well, only that his character, by messing with spells he really didn’t understand yet, created an extended Paradox that not only nearly blew the entire Sanctum (and all of Manhattan if you believe the Acanthus Mage) straight to Hell, but created a Prime Manifestation duplicate of the Mage in question. I then had that player play his own evil duplicate for a while, and attempt to widen the affected area to make for a larger boom at the end of it all. Then his actual self called Aenaiyah while she was talking to him in the house, and hilarity ensued! Now his Cabal-Mates don’t trust him at all, and live in dread fear of the possibility that he might ever miss a session in the future.

And now that I think about it, I believe he won’t be making it to the next session, will he…?

And then there’s all that stuff the senile Moros Mage can’t remember he did when his player missed three sessions in a row! Like when he… oh… wait… they don’t know about that yet… never mind!

Slow Torture: it really is the only form of punishment a GM ever needs!

Mages Make Me Cry

Keeping it Real

Life is stranger than fiction. Pretty much anything you can think of, someone out there has tried to do. Scary thought, isn’t it? That very fear makes life excellent RPG session fodder!

Even as I type this I’m watching Ancient Aliens. I know what you’re thinking. Ancient Aliens isn’t exactly chock full of gritty realism – but it is an attempt to explain some pretty strange real world stuff. Could the Carnac Stones have been arranged by space travelers visiting our planet in a long forgotten past? Maybe. Or maybe it was actually Ancient Mages. Maybe Carnac holds some clues to the location of Atlantis, and the nature of the Fall! Atlantis itself gets screen time on the series also, as well it should!

And if you’re looking to build an ancient civilization (Awakened or otherwise), you owe it to yourself to watch Engineering an Empire. Then let your players try to tell you what features should or shouldn’t be in your city! (Bonus: the more you know about the architecture, the easier it is to lay sneaky traps!)

Programs like History’s Mysteries provide wonderful background for modern day stories. My own campaign’s story involves the truth behind the secretive project MK-Ultra, and what hopes (and fears) LSD brought to Awakened societies.

Of course your game world is your own creation, and as GM it’s up to you to decide how to adapt reality to your setting. Remember, any shows you’ve seen or books you’ve read, your players can find them too. If you take things too precisely from the research you may find that your players can guess where the game is headed a little too easily. The research is a starting place, and the truth for your game world need not exactly mirror the real world. You don’t have to stick strictly to reality, but taking a real world situation and tweaking it just a bit can bring a very real sense of dangerous urgency to your campaign.

Mages Make Me Cry

Inspired by Fictional Events

A wise man once said: “Plagiarize! Plagiarize! Let no one’s work evade your eyes!”

I prefer to call it an homage.

As RPG players I’m sure we’ve all done it at least once. You name your character after a favorite character on a TV show, or in a book. Some of us like to make sure that our characters have a good song to go with their name. You might name your Changeling Motley after a band (Motley Crüe)… or a TV show (The Fae Team)… or both – you know, if you’re just that kind of special. Heck, you might have a tabloid in your universe called “Sick, Sad World!” It’s a tribute! The original creator would probably be honored to know that their work has been so inspirational. I know I like to think so.

While I generally try not to lift a plot directly from something else, the fact of the matter is that intentional or not it may well happen. After all, with so many books, and movies, and TV shows, and songs, and rambling blogs being written every day there is bound to be some crossover. Great minds (or in my case not so great minds) are bound to think alike at some point. I try to avoid it mostly because if I lift a plot device or a puzzle directly from something I’m familiar with, chances are my players will be just as familiar with it. That said, some settings are just too juicy to pass up. For example, if you make your PCs a camera crew filming a paranormal reality TV show at an abandoned asylum I can assure you that hilarity will ensue!

Truth be told I really do prefer the oblique references to things. For me, naming a character directly for another character is a little too easy. I can’t pretend to be above it completely, not without being ratted out anyway, but sometimes there is a better way. Could I have named my Adamantine Arrow Sentinel Eowyn after a certain shield maiden of Rohan? Xena, Artemis, Buffy… all are names that conjure images of kickass chicks. Any of these would have been appropriate for her but that would have been too easy. Instead I decided to name her Glamdring, after Gandalf’s Sword. I ask you, what mage kicks more ass than Gandalf? (No offense Potter. When you tell the Balrog of Morgoth the he SHALL NOT PASS you let me know, k?)

My little trick of naming Mages after cool weapons fell into place real easy. I have a Glamdring, a Narsil, a Guthwine, an Orcrist*, there are just so many named weapons in Tolkien to choose from – and with the rate at which my PC’s look for trouble that’s a very good thing! What’s scary is how easily other things in the campaign fit the theme without my consciously thinking about it. A few weeks after the campaign started I picked up my Seers of the Throne book and it fell open to an entry about the Seers of Panopticon! What better enemy for a group of people named for Tolkien Weapons than the Seers of the Great Eye?! It was a strange quirk a Fate I tell you, the book opening right to that page when I set it down… completely randomly…like…that…

Naaaaaaaah… it couldn’t be…

Mages Make Me Cry

*Hmmmm… I wonder if Sting is a Mage in my World of Darkness…
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