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Sorcerer "Boot Camp" Applied (MLWM & DD)

Started by Tim C Koppang, July 07, 2004, 03:18:53 AM

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Tim C Koppang

Note: I actually wrote most of this last week, but 4th of July plans postponed my posting until today.  Since, I've run another very powerful Dust Devils session--last night in fact--and the group will be at it again next Monday.  Perhaps I'll come up with another play account afterwards.

Actually this is a combo post.  It's been a few weeks now since my newly formed group finished up a My Life With Master--what I'm calling demo game--and one week since beginning a new Dust Devils campaign.  However, the theme of the post is "pre-game preparation."  Back at DemonCon III, I listened to Ron give a tutorial on pre-game Sorcerer preparation.  While I'm not running anything with demonic magic and humanity scores, the advice, tweaked a bit, is still sound.  Three sessions later, I've learned that opening up the pre-game details to your players results in both productive and powerful narrativist play.  I'll leave the nitty-gritty details of "boot camp" to Ron, but let me explain my recent experiences...

When I organized this new group in May, I did so as a summer project.  We talked through email and face-to-face conversations.  The consensus was to play Dust Devils.  At least two of the other players were fans of the "Weird West," one of whom just recently sold every Deadlands book ever printed as a lot on eBay.  The group was pumped up on the old west aesthetic for sure.  On the other hand, I'd been itching to play a bit of MLWM.  So, after more convincing than most groups I've read about here required, I managed to secure a two-game slot before settling into my Clint Eastwood attitude.

As MLWM would be our first game of the season, and time was limited, I made an executive decision to run it more as a demo then a full-blown experience.  This meant that the master and a sampling of characters were already on paper when Mike, Matt, and Scott walked in the door.  Mixed reactions ensued.  My thought was simple: avoid wasting a session with prep-work and get right into the action.  I thought this was a plus, but the combination of my stock characters combined with a seriously themed game didn't sit well with a group accustomed to the ever goofy InSpectres.  But we pressed on.

Compare this to the much more successful launch of what I hope will turn into a rather evocative run of Dust Devils.  With two sessions of MLWM under our belts, the group took half a session (post InSpectres intermission) for character creation and another half a session to nail down the details surrounding everyone else's characters.

More on Dust Devils later, but the point is simple.  If you can't get everyone on the same page from the beginning, you're bound for choppy waters.  Granted, in a demo setting time is tight and people are anxious, but what a difference it makes to spend a session working as a team to flesh out the game's details.  For MLWM, I did my best to evoke the horror movie genre and to set up the loathsome world of the minion, but there wasn't any sort of connection to it all for the players.  In retrospect I can see now that I simply plugged them into rather cliched personas and then plugged those personas into a world solely fashioned from my brain.  That situation is bound to make some gears grind when I tell them in the next breath that the game will work better as a collaborative effort.

Even against that backdrop however, MLWM was mostly a success.  The master was one Veronia Olson, who was attempting to transcend her fleeting reputation as a burlesque dancer by transfusing the brain fluid of her live victims into her own cortex.  The idea was to impress an onslaught of male suitors with brains instead of, well, boobs.  Operation complete, the lobotomized victims were whisked away to the always welcoming Olson Insane Asylum.  PCs ranged from asylum caretaker to stableboy to Veronica's beautician.  And I bet you can guess how the master met her demise: brain fluid, reverse flow.  Sprayed the walls.

Besides the expected hang-ups that occur when we all run out of ideas, the game went smoothly.  We had a couple of powerful relationships develop, one without the help of any dialogue.  Also entertaining was the first time any horror was revealed.  A church full clergy met it's demise, much to the surprise of everyone at the table.  Oddly enough, that monologue came from the mouth of one of the more religious players.  From a mechanical standpoint the only snags were the task resolution formulas.  There were too many to memorize.  In the future, I'd surely photocopy the reference sheet for everyone, but in the mean time the lack thereof caused some slow-down.  Otherwise, the only complaints concerned what the players described as a "restricted feel" to the two sessions.  Although once they realized how the game was to progress, play opened up, that their characters often had to obey the master irked them.  In the end, they did say that they'd play again.  However, character, not to mention master creation would have to come first.

As I said earlier, Dust Devils is off to a much more meaningful beginning.  Even before character creation, I took some time to read from the game's introduction, to quote from a few applicable westerns, and to really encourage the players to generate their own ideas about how the overall feel, or aesthetic of the game should be.  I can't tell you how much this helped.  So often in the past I've read an RPG off by my lonesome, gotten pumped up by the game fiction and mechanics, but then just assumed that everyone else "got it" like I did.  Not so.  Even if the vision created by the group differs from the one you had in your head, you and the group will gain so much more in play rewards by taking some time out to "jam" before character creation.

Aesthetic generally settled, we attempted to shove in a quick round of character creation--so quick that each player had to finish up in the interim week.  The devil mechanic caused most of the "huh?" reactions, but with a week to think it over, they all created something robust.  Moreover, I encouraged them each to create a few established relationships, most of the time with relationship map type links, to round out their devils and brief backstories.  Although I stumbled upon it, these relationships led to yet another jam session the week following.  Instead of a brief summary of mechanics and then play, we took some time to review not only important NPCs created by myself, but also those created by the players.  We established links between them, rounded out or even changed wholesale NPC devils, and generally got all riled up about play before letting loose for the remaining hour and a half of the session.

I learned so much from these three sessions of both MLWM and Dust Devils that I'd venture to say I'll never quite run things the same again.  The value gained from including players in the pre-game process is simply invaluable for everyone at the table.  It's key to relinquishing control as a GM and to establishing a collaborative effort.


Thanks for sharing this story Tim, it actually helped me out quite a bit, as I'm about to try a NAR game (Sorcerer) for the first time and have a group full of people who wants to "game" not plan when we get together.



Matt Snyder


Tim, I'd love to hear more about the characters in the Dust Devils game. Can you share their Devils, and maybe some starting situations?

I've really been thinking about Devils lately, and how I did such a mediocre job in creating them when I published Dust Devils. For example, Gentleman Jim's "Wanted" Devil could use some work (or at least some explanation).
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra

Tim C Koppang


Hey, I'm glad it was helpful to you.

As for your players, I can relate.  For the longest time I was convinced that most of the details could, or rather should be worked out during play--that the key to a smooth start was to get through character creation as quickly as possible.  For certain styles of gaming, the above is probably true.  For instance, you don't want to sit around discussing relationships before a rousing game of Rune.  On the other hand, for game a bit heavier on theme and moral dilemma, knowing where all the other players stand in relationship to each other and the NPCs is vital.

One technique that really opened up my players to the idea of a pre-game jam session was asking them to create two or three strong relationships for their characters.  For example, one of the Dust Devils players, Matt, created a character Jack Huntly.  Matt came up with a couple major relationships for Huntly all on his own.  Those relationships included Montgomery, the town sheriff, and Elsa, waitress at the casino "The Pocket Ace."  Out of those relationships, the group--not just Matt and I--eventually came to the conclusion that Jack and Elsa were occasional lovers and that Jack was actually deputy to the cowardly Montgomery.  From there it was easy to work out Devils for the NPCs.  Some of that I did on my own and brought to the table for player input; some we did on the spot.  Bottom line though, is that Matt and everyone else now had solid material to riff off of for their own characters.  So, the collaboration began before any official scenes were set.

You could also look at it from the point of view that as we all worked together to define the game aesthetic, our characters, and each devil, that play in some way had already started.  Creatively, it felt at least like we were on the verge of playing.  It wasn't boring, but rather very satisfying.

Tim C Koppang



QuotePlayer: Matt

Character: Jack Huntley

Devil: Selfishness.  He seeks his own ambitions at the expense of others.

Backstory: Once a Union Soldier, Jack Huntley was part of a Westward expedition team.  His platoon was sacked by Apache warriors, and was one of seven soldiers that remained alive after the raid.  Taken prisoner, Jack spent 7 months on the Apache reservation, kept alive for amusement of the warriors.  Jack contracted an illness during the winter months, and was on the verge of dying.  However, was kept alive by the Apache because of his usefulness during times of labor.  Of the other soldiers that were taken prisoner, two died in the camp, while the remaining four managed to escape.  The soldiers took Jack for dead when he became ill, and left him in the custody of the Red Man.  Mal-nourished and angry, Jack fought off the illness to his best of abilities, and managed to escape during the spring months when the tribe moved to follow the Bison herd.  Jack integrated himself back into society and discharged from the army.  Jack forever feels betrayed by his comrades in arms and only looks out for numero uno.  Now, Jack works as a hired gun and bouncer, keeping the peace for the local casino, Pocket Ace's.
As it turns out his selfishness has translated into not only a powerplay for control of the town (by gaining popular support over Montgomery, the existing sheriff), but also a certain amount of hatred towards Native Americans that are making frequent appearance in the campaign.

QuotePlayer: Scott

Character: Johnny Redclaw

Devil: He has a short temper and an itchy trigger finger.  When angered, he usually resorts to violence, though he always regrets it afterwards.

Backstory: Johhny Redclaw was born into the Apache tribe, the son a chief. A natural tracker and hunter, he could have become an important member of the tribe. However, he also possessed a very violent temper, and a strong streak of bloodlust. Throughout his youth, he made many enemies, both Indian and White, and only avoided severe punishment because of his father.

On night of Redclaw's 18th birthday, however, he went to far. In a drunken rage, he attacked his brother with a hatchet, believing he had slept with Redclaw's wife. The punishment for his crime should have been death, but Redclaw's father tried to help him even then, reducing the sentence to banishment. Redclaw resented this at the time, preferring to die rather than leave the tribe.

Forced to leave the tribe, Redclaw (now using the White name John) fell in with a gang of desperadoes led by Nathan "Rattlesnake" Schultz. The Schultz gang rampaged through the Nevada territory for several years. John Redclaw eventually became 2nd in command of the gang, as well as one of the most wanted men in the Territory. He became blood brothers with Schultz, one of his few true friends.

After 9 years of success, the gang was ambushed in Nagodoches, NM by a group of bounty hunters. Only John Redclaw escaped the trap, killing a bounty hunter and stealing his horse to freedom. The rest of the gang was either shot or captured and hung. Schultz himself was shot over 40 times during the battle. The event shook Redclaw to the core. He knew that if he didn't change his ways, he'd wind up shot or hung eventually. Since the ambush, John has moved from town to town, trying to find out if he'll ever be able to tame his bloodlust and stop running.
Almost more important than the backstory for Johhny though, is his wife Annie who, although Johhny deludes himself into thinking otherwise, is slowly taking on the violent attitude of her husband.  Annie is the driving force behind Johhny's move towards redemption.  Fitting then that the woman he idealizes has a devil as mean as his own.

QuotePlayer: Mike

Character: James Buford

Devil: James Buford is an avid gambler who, as far as he believes, is the best gambler that ever lived.  His devil is that he is willing to prove it at the drop of a hat.  James always has to be number one at gambling and he will take any challenge no matter how stupid or dangerous just to prove he is the best.

Backstory: James grew up a scrawny sickly kid.  His father's disgust for his son was often taken out on the boy with severe beatings.  He was certain that his scrawny son would never amount to anything.  However, what James lacked in body he more than made up for in smarts and card playing.  When his father wasn't beating him, his father was gambling and losing badly and James knew why but would never help the son of a bitch.  One night in his drunken stupor James Father lost his scrawny son in a bet to a casino owner and James moved into the Deuces Wild Casino to work off his father's debts as a bus boy and cleaning hand.  The work was hard but it started to show in young James.  He began to have less sickness and the staff started to treat him well.  Soon he was old enough to start dealing and his way with people endeared him to the casino owner. Eventually James got sucked up into the world and would start to get into Poker games with his meager pay.  This went on for a while, his wealth was a rollercoaster, up and down, up and down.  Then he met the "Indian."  The Indian didn't take too kindly to a winning streak that James was on and challenged James to a duel. Now James was no slouch with and in the end the "Indian" was dead but James was down one working leg. He quit his job and took his money and went further west where he lives off of his addiction to win and to the thrill of the cards.
Of course there's a Poker tournament just revving up at The Pocket Ace when the game begins.  Players from all over are arriving at the booming town, as is an old acquaintance of James.  James has a long-time poker enemy, William Sutherby, who is dying to settle the score once and for all.  Due to some carefully crafted scene framing, Mike knows that the tournament is rigged, thanks in part to Jack Huntley in fact, but Mike played James' devil with skill nonetheless.  It looks as if Mike is setting James up for an ugly demise unless the cheats are exposed.

Otherwise, I have a detailed relationship map connecting most of the major players in town together.  It's chock full of affairs and under the table payoffs.

One final hook includes an abandoned copper mine, the dead owner, and a town-full of people claiming that they were all written into the missing will.  Taking it up a notch, and taking a nod from the hanged man scenario, someone has blown the entrance to the mine shut and trapped a yet unknown character inside.  Toss in a newly arrived, mysterious half white, half native american who just might be the long-lost bastard son of Mr. Olson (the dead mine owner) and you have race wars and a race for riches... with guns of course.