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Flexible and Adaptable:

I have been a bad friend, and for that I apologize. Life has been… busy. I do hate it when life gets in the way of the important stuff, like gaming, but it does happen from time to time.

I’m back now, so enough of that.

Among the things keeping me busy is RetCon prep! It’s that time of year again, and this time around I’ll be running Savage Worlds. It’s a whole new system for me from the GM side, which is exciting and fun! It’s also a lot of work trying to get the game balance in my head and making sure I have the rules for various situations down pat. I have three totally different modules in three very different genres brewing in my brain as I write this. There will be more specifics as the dates of RetCon (8/23 – 8/25) draw nearer. I will say this though: prizes for the Super Villains game I’m running made their way into my hands today and they are very sweet – if you like autographed books about Super Heroes and Zombies that is! And who doesn’t like that?

So I’m pretty busy on the work front (things are really ramping up in my little corner of the 9-5) AND being constantly distracted by story ideas involving Space Colonialists, 1940’s Relic Hunters, and Super Villains. Fortunately my coworkers have accepted that I’m an odd duck. There are so many possible plot threads, so many areas to explore, so many ways I can really ruin a PCs day that I can’t reasonably expect to get to them all in a single session of each scenario… and so there will be a wide range of what I call “modular elements” for my one-shot adventures.

Putting elements into a one-shot adventure is in many ways like furnishing an apartment. You want to have enough furniture to have a sense of style, and make the place look interesting and lived in. You also don’t want to have so much furniture that somebody calls the Hoarders crew about you. Having moved a few times myself (and very recently I might add) I have learned the joy of having modular pieces, because you don’t need any particular one of them, so if you don’t have room for an L shaped sofa now you don’t need to buy one. However, if you buy a modular piece, then when you move into a bigger place you can get a matching piece to have that enormo-sofa you always dreamed of for game nights without needing to ditch the piece that you originally purchased! (Leaving you more money for games!)

Of course, there are certain elements that you do need, your apartment won’t be very liveable without a fridge for example. Adventure plotting is the same. You need certain key elements to get your story across to the players. However, if you find that they are ripping through those necessary plot elements way too fast, or maybe you’ve decided to run the same adventure again and have a longer time slot to fill, or perhaps you are finding that they need to be led to the clues by the hand like young children,  you can sneak in a modular element to fill that need if you have one prepped that suits the adventure.

For example, when I wrote my Asylum adventure I hoped that I would get to run it for a group of people who would really ham up the idea of being a film crew making a “Ghost Hunters” type of TV show and act out some on-screen monologue-ing  and such. Of course, I had to accept the fact that there was every possibility that the people I had at the table wouldn’t be into that level of improv, so I dreamed up some NPCs they might run into on the grounds of the abandoned asylum in case I needed to fill some time. There are some gang bangers who might be tagging the dilapidated buildings, some ravers partying in the potter’s field, some elderly folks visiting the graves of relatives buried at the site, a care-taker who can be played as either a surly pain in the rump, knowledgeable source of historical information, or a kick-ass man of action depending upon how the game is running, and of course the odd cultist or two who might be up to any kind of shenanigans. None of these characters are necessary to drive the story along if the players thoroughly investigate and want to act out the filming. (Which is planned for tabletop play, but really could be used as a LARP night if one is so inclined and has a good location handy.) I planned the game with handouts containing information that are given to players who make certain discoveries during the game, so that they can describe what they uncovered in their own character’s words. Those handouts are the key elements. Of course, it’s always possible that they will simply pass around the piece of paper and then look at me to “give” them something to interact with, which is where the Modular NPC Elements come in. They are organically woven into the narrative so they won’t feel like something just thrown together as filler, but at the same time they aren’t necessary to drive the plot so they can be dropped in favor of other things that are working well without the game feeling rushed.

Another good thing about well planned modular elements is that they can be ported into other adventure if you put a fresh coat of paint on them. Gang bangers in an seedy location can be easily re-purposed as head hunters in a jungle, or organized thugs. The nuisance/crazy/knowledgeable/kickass/all-of-the-above groundskeeper could be a drifter, a doorman, a homeless person, a wealthy eccentric, or a malfunctioning android depending upon your setting. The raw stats will largely carry over, you just need to spice them up with the right ties to the location and theme of the adventure.

And the best part is – when you run the adventure again you can toss in different elements this time! They are all right there for you, so whatever strikes your fancy and fits in with the players’ choices is all good if you have it prepped.

Remember, the players will nine times out of ten refuse to do something that makes any kind of rational sense whatsoever. You will want to have a few modular elements prepped and ready to make them suffer for it!


Mages Make Me Cry


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

This Was A Triumph!

I’m always nervous going into a convention game. Call it “stage fright” if you like. With my regular troupe I pretty much know what I’m getting into, but GMing a group of players you’ve never met before… well it can be a bit daunting. I have all my story lines ready, all the clues that they can find are plotted out, the PCs are fully statted and given some personality nudges, but no amount of planning on the GMs part can determine what kind of players you get at your table.

RetCon, once again you did not disappoint!

Hunter: the Vigil: I had three modules to run this weekend, and the schedule had me starting off with my “Hunter: the Vigil” adventure: Quit While You’re Ahead. I had decided to do something slightly different this year and set my modules in the same game world as the adventure I ran for RetCon 2010, Asylum. In that adventure, the players are a film crew hired to shoot the pilot for a paranormal TV series called “Truly Terrifying Tales”. The crew arrives on the scene, shit gets real, and hilarity ensues! For this year, I decided to look at those same characters after the events of Asylum. They have been through that experience, and now they are aware of the supernatural. Their footage (and that first group of players came away with incredible footage!) was not taken as seriously as they would have liked and it is instead being turned into a low budget horror movie, but life goes on. They have now been hired to shoot a series called “50 Shades of Play” about the wonderful world of strippers.  Since this is the World of Darkness they will be crossing paths with the supernatural once again! I was in a “1950’s Horror Movie Theater” state of mind, and so I decided to base this particular scenario on the film “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”.

Highlight of the Hunter Session for the GM: The film crew’s decision to interview the decapitated head! I had given myself a detailed run-down of how a poor young woman mere months from her wedding day became a severed head attached to a dialysis machine and a respirator waiting for her husband-to-be to arrive with a suitably attractive replacement body for her (because a dialysis machine wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as a stripper body on the wedding night), but never in my wildest dreams did I dare to think that I would actually get to play out an interview with her! She was, as one would expect under the circumstances, stark raving mad and the film crew was able to convince her that they wanted to interview her fiance because what he was about to achieve was too momentous to not be preserved for posterity. I was expecting a big fight scene with the group of Hunters, a bunch of animated headless corpses being controlled by the will of the severed head, some animal mix-ups that the good doctor was practicing on before he got to human experimentation… you know, good times! Instead not a single drop of blood was shed, two strippers were saved (one pre-surgery and one post-surgery), and whoever suppressed that last bit of footage these guys got is gonna have even more fun with this one! It’s a wrap people!

World of Darkness – Innocents: I had never run this system before. In fact, I’d never even played this system before. The basics are all typical “World of Darkness” which I have years of experience with, but Innocents does have some differences. For the record, I greatly prefer “Assets/Faults” over “Virtues/Vices”.

This particular group of 12 year olds had just been dropped off at their new boarding school by their disgustingly wealthy families. Naturally the school has a diabolical plan for these poor youngsters. The kids are all miscreants. They are little con-artists, hackers, pranksters, thieves, bullies, and partiers.  Their parents really don’t feel like putting up with them, so they are willing to pay this school ludicrous sums of money to turn these kids into model citizens. The school has unsurpassed results! This is mostly owing to the fact that they are removing the kids’ souls from their bodies and replacing them with the souls of disgustingly wealthy old people who aren’t quite ready to die yet. Naturally, these disgustingly wealthy old people pay an exorbitant fee to the school for this service, so the school wins on both sides of this transaction. The old people are young again. The families get well behaved and respectable heirs… everybody wins! Except the kids of course. The kids pretty much loose.

Highlight of the Innocents Session for the GM: The person playing the party-girl decided to pull out all the stops this game! That child coached her classmates into milking the nurse’s office for every last ibuprofen they could get, scored all the mouthwash on the floor to mix cocktails with, and had tears of laughter rolling down my face pretty much the whole game. This was a tough act to keep up with, but when my con-artist (played by the only person at the table that I knew before the game started: Aenaiyah) asked the group if someone could possibly create a diversion “like, if the nurse thinks someone has a back injury they won’t want to move the person so they’ll have to come to you!”, and my bully replied “I think something can be arranged” I knew no good would come of it. I had given him the fault “cruel”.

Defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out of a window.

Sadly one of the players wound up really needing to leave by 11pm, whereas I had been scaling things to reach a story milestone at 11pm (either an escape attempt or the players stocking up for a fight with the administration… or both!) such that we could end by 12am – the scheduled session end-time. As a result the ending of the story was more rushed than I had wanted it to be. Instead of having school security snag the kids attempting to escape the grounds and drag them back to perform the soul-swapping ritual early, I decided to simply have them chased by dogs and let them escape if they could climb up the fence fast enough. A fight simply would have taken too long. The party girl decided that she was too scared to leave, but don’t fret. I’m sure the administrators treated her very well and gave her all the pain killers her little heart could desire right up until the big moment.

Mage: the Awakening: This session was also tied to the Asylum session that I ran during RetCon 2010. You see, that film crew escaped with all that awesome footage of supernatural creepiness, and somebody has to suppress it and keep supernatural baddies in check. Enter the Mages.

While the Guardian of the Veil Mastigos Narsil from my campaign world deals with the film crew, and Gladmring, the NYC Head of the Adamantine Arrow, is dealing with some horrors stumbled upon by the campaign Mages, someone needs to find out what drove that film crew from the Asylum grounds, and deal with it. According to a well placed source, the problem appears to be zombies. It’s time to send in the B Team.

Highlight of the Mage Session for the GM: I completely expected my favorite moments of this session to involve the use of Post-Cognition. This seemed even more likely when two of the players who played Asylum at RetCon 2010 signed up for the game, since it was their run through that I had based this scenario on. (A later run-through saw a very… different… outcome.) While describing the events of the zombie-raising ritual as seen by a Mage using Post-Cognition was indeed amusing (and yes, I decided that the spell granted a much longer vision than it normally does for purposes of hilarity) it actually turned out to be not my favorite part of the session after all. The best part: My Very First TPK!

Making a Note Here: Huge Success!

How did this happen you ask? Paradox. When I asked the players if they would like to mitigate their paradox rolls, and started to explain how they could do that, they tapped their chins and said “go ahead… right here… I can take it!” And so I rolled. And I got successes. And it was good. And had the Moros Mage not turned himself into a zombie-magnet so that they wouldn’t need to bother looking for the zombies they might have even survived. Had any of them thought to end the scene by turning off that spell and running into the nearby crematorium the adventure may have continued. Had, when one of them did think of ending the scene by running into the crematorium, they actually done that and ended the scene I might not have had nearly as much fun as I did. But these guys, they told me to bring it. And verily, it was brought! The Thyrsus Mage (aka: the healer) was not in play, and the Moros Mage was looking a little beat up. As a result my Acanthus Mage asks if he can speed up time in a bubble around the injured Moros Mage so that enough time will pass for his bashing damage to heal. Gotta love those Acanthus Mages, am I right?! So, being a sick and evil GM, I say of course you can do that, but it will be vulgar you know. It will be 6 glorious dice worth of vulgar.

Are you sure you want to do this?“, asks the GM.

“Kick me in the Jimmy.”, says he.

And I roll.

  And I roll a Temporal Anomaly.

    And the radius of this anomaly shall be 80 yards.

      And the players tell me: Don’t hold back. Enjoy it.

And enjoy it I do!

The Moros becomes a 2 year old. The Acanthus becomes an 86 year old. The Obrimos is suddenly an awkward teenager. The 2 year old Moros Mage is still attracting zombies from all over the site, and he’s what’s for dinner in no time at all. The first round of attacks leaves him with one hit point, which leaves him wanting his teddy bear, which makes him think it’s a great idea if the nearest thing to him would happen to turn into a teddy bear, which turns the Acanthus Mage into a teddy bear.

The Acanthus Mage reflexively attempts a Shifting Sands spell to prevent this whole turn events by preventing himself from casting that accursed time bubble in the first place, but he’s in the middle of a temporal anomaly and only gets one success. I rule that he arrives just in time to see a version of himself turn into a teddy bear but whether it’s past-him seeing future-him turn into a teddy bear on arrival, or future-him watching past-him turn into a teddy bear is far too confusing for me to be sure of.

Next round ZOMBIE BABY! Because the 2 year old Moros Mage was killed by a bite attack he turns into a zombie, but is quickly dispatched by his erstwhile friends. One down, two to go.

The Acanthus Mage manages to successfully cast Acceleration on his teenaged Obrimos companion, who in turn tries to convince the Acanthus to get the hell out of Dodge and report back on what’s happening. The Acanthus does not do this. The Obrimos rushes in and fights off several zombies before being turned himself, and then it’s player against player as Zombie Obrimos tries to eat the Acanthus’s brains!*

More zombies are pouring in… Zombie Obrimos is doing his best to chow down on the Acanthus… and ultimately he sucks out that final Acanthus hit-point! The GM wins!


Mages Make Me Cry

*Clearly only enough to be an appetizer. He’s an Acanthus after all.

Session Scheming

Tonight on #RPGChat* we were discussing the virtues of session planning, and how some of us like to go about it. This feels appropriate to me for two main reasons, this first of which is that I have a new chapter starting up soon for the Mages (the blog is behind the campaign’s timeline but we’ll catch up to them eventually!), and the second being that RetCon is rapidly approaching and I’m in convention game planning hell.

For reasons too asinine to go into here I committed to running three brand new adventures this year: Innocents, Hunter, and Mage. I have a vague idea of what these sessions will be, which you can check out for yourself if you click through the links. RetCon is in two weeks.

No good can come of this.

There is a lot of flying by the seat of my pants that I do with the Mage campaign. With seven players tossing around god-like powers I’m pretty much forced to. My convention games however are much more solidly put together. There are packets with background info on the characters and their basic attitudes toward life and the current situation to be put together. Naturally the characters all need to be fully statted. The packets also include a brief explanation of certain concepts so that if I have people who are new to the system they will know how things work, for example how the Virtue/Vice selections come into play. I am absolutely a fan of having things to hand out during game sessions and that all has to be put together too.

I like to give my convention players as much of a sandbox environment as I can, but the fact is that I’m running for people I don’t know and may or may not see again. This means coming up with specific goals for them that will keep them in a reasonably predictable area, and then giving them free reign to interact with that environment. I also love to give them free reign to interact with each other. This is where those character “attitudes” come into play. I make every effort to give the PCs things to argue about. Some will totally believe in the presence of the supernatural all around them, while others are skeptics. Some will be bright eyed, bushy tailed, and enthusiastic to learn something new from their team mates; while some of those team mates are just hoping they haven’t been saddled with some brown-nosing, over achieving, suck up. of course having a “Brainey Smurf” around is always good for inter-group tensions. When folks play up those personality types hilarity is sure to ensue.

The story has to be short enough to run in the time allowed, but it can’t run too short either. To that end, I try to plan out things that will be fun for the players to do yet aren’t necessary for the storyline to make sense. I plot out filler scenes. The trick is to make sure they don’t feel like filler scenes. I always give myself a way to trigger the finale in case they don’t get through all of the ‘necessary events’ with at least 30 minutes left in the session. I don’t want things to feel forced, but more importantly I don’t want the players to leave the table feeling incomplete. That isn’t good for anybody.

So, basically, I still have a lot of writing to do, and I have a rapidly diminishing amount of time left in which to do it. It’s all good though. I have my trusty coffee and the day off. I can do this! So, if you’re in the New York area I urge you to check out RetCon this year. There will be chances for me to kill your character! There will be prizes! There will be cake!!**

RetCon: Long Island's Gaming Convention

*It’s a Twitter thing, and if you aren’t there at 9pm on Thursday nights then… well… you should be there is all I’m tryin’ to say!

**The cake is a lie.

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

One of my favorite parts of GMing at RetCon is not having to deal with having a bunch of insane, over-powered monsters at my table. I go into the convention assured that my players will indeed be insane, but at least for two out of three sessions they won’t be able to stop time, summon supernal demons, and change the laws of physics. For two out of three sessions I will be torturing mere mortal humans. It is exhilarating!

I enjoy running Mage, truly I do, but after a while it becomes difficult to find ways to challenge characters that can do pretty much anything. RetCon gives me a chance to scale back a bit. I don’t need a house filled with hundreds of zombies, and a variety of traps, and an over-powered Mage with a ridiculous familiar… a dozen or so zombies and a crazy guy trying to raise a loved one from the dead will suit my needs nicely when the protagonists are a TV Crew.

I also like setting up pre-generated characters for the story. I wouldn’t want to hand out pre-gens for a long-term campaign because I’d rather give the players in a campaign more freedom about the type of character they want to play. This often taxes my brain trying to figure out why the characters are working together. (If they are… sometimes they just try to kill each other randomly which is always fine by me!) It also vexes me when players have things in their back stories that are difficult to reconcile with the reality of the campaign world. For a convention one-shot I build the protagonists to the story that will unfold at the table. I can balance them so that each of the players has something important to do. I can give them motivations to make sure that they stay reasonably on track if they are actually trying to play the characters as written, though I must admit that it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, my previously mentioned TV Crew adventure was run twice. The first time I ran it the players saved each other from near death and walked away with some great footage! The second time around… well the character that had the keys to the van survived. The camera with what little footage they actually got… yeah not so much. Probably a good thing too, since most of that footage was of the camera person and the lighting guy trying to kill the on-screen talent for no reason whatsoever. (Somebody call TMZ!)

Of course, the third session will be Mage. I kind of feel obligated to run it, I am the Mage Mistress after all, so it’s a good thing I know how to have fun with it. I might decide to use a setting that I put my regular group through with a few tweaks to see how the convention crowd fares against my “regular” troupe. Or I may write something entirely new and different. I haven’t completely decided yet. I should probably do that soon because RetCon is less than a month away!

And be warned, pre-registration for RetCon will be closing at the end of the month. Which is to say that your last day to pre-register and save 25% is this coming Tuesday! So what are you waiting for? Run… go… now… get to the preregistration site!

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