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Author Topic: [Heavy Gear 2nd Ed.] Where's The GM Fun?  (Read 4948 times)
IMAGinES
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AKA Rob Farquhar


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« on: May 09, 2006, 09:05:28 PM »

I’m trying something I read about over on The 20’ By 20’ Room, creating a campaign “design document” complete with a goal. Although there’s not much detail on what a campaign goal is meant to look like, I’ve been giving the notebook a workout, making notes on what I want and don’t want from my game mastering experience. As a result, I’ve been thinking about the first and last serious campaign I tried to run - which I found largely unsatsfying - and as you folks recommend new posters (which I’m not really, but I’ve never really done this before) talk about their experiences of actual play, I figured that the examination of my memories of that campaign would make for a good post.

It was 2002. After I ran a fairly successful con module the year before, I thought I’d try my hand at actually running a campaign of Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear roleplaying gamee. Prior to this, I’d attempted to start off a few campaigns but none had ever got beyond the first adventure (my Bubblegum Crisis attempt comes to mind). Basically, I’d get a huge case of writer’s block, promise players I was working on the next one, but never actually came up with an Idea for the session to come.

The Black Talon campaign was the first time I’d bucked the trend; from memory, we’d got in around five or six sessions before it ended. The problem was, those sessions were interspersed across just under two years, and that was with a whopping great hiatus in the middle.

I managed to get some friends and fellow gamers (most of whom played in the Heavy Gear module at the con or my play test of it beforehand) interested. I had a couple of Campaign Concepts: a duelling team trying to make it big in the organised-crime-controlled circuits of the Badlands, or a team of Black Talon special operatives, sent across interstellar space to fight a monolithic enemy behind its own lines. The majority vote was for the Black Talon.

There ware a couple of rules-kludges from the start. I gave the players an extra ten points for skills over the “Adventurous” reality level in the rules, as there was no way they’d be able to buy the prerequisites in the Black Talon Field Guide and still have enough for a meaningful selection of other skills. I was also planning on using a boiled-down version of the Gear combat rules, as I wanted gear stats to have some meaning to the game, but didn’t want to swamp the players with statistics.

I also figured on having three “story arcs” in the campaign: a training arc, which would help the players (few of whom were aprticularly familiar with Heavy Gear's Silhouette rule set) get used to the rules and introduce the Black Talon organisation, a Terranovan arc, allowing the players to get to know their characters’ home planet, then the Caprice arc, when the players went to the enemy-held planet Caprice and started doing the serious guerrilla warfare stuff. The prep-work I did before and during the campaign was huge, checking out the Storyline books, making up timelines, figuring when the PCs ought to go to and come back from Caprice, notes on the opposition and what they were up to, mission ideas for each session, etcetera. On the latter, I had the distinct feeling I was doing something wrong; the Talon squadron’s CO, a PC, was meant to set individual missions, but I had no real idea how that ought to work, especially as I thought I was supposed to be planning out adventures ahead of time. I even drew up a list of mission ideas based on a combination of S. John Ross’ Big List of RPG Plots and Gamescribe's LiveJournal entry, Adventure Axioms and Campaign Construction, all the way out across thirty or so sessions.

From memory, I tried to “solicit player involvement” a few times, asking for ideas, only to be told “Keep doing what you’re doing, we like it.” On reflection, though, there were times that the players did make suggestions as to what could happen next but, partly because I didn’t have the nous to see them as not just suggestions but Flags and partly because they didn’t fit my picture of the Talons, I knocked them back. (Now, I’m kicking myself.)
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IMAGinES
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AKA Rob Farquhar


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« Reply #1 on: May 09, 2006, 09:07:50 PM »

Play itself, from my perspective as GM, was awkward and frustrating. Each of the sessions we played consisted of training missions and exercises, which were really rather boring for me. I’ve been reading lately about how the dice should be rolled when something interesting could happen either way. The only problem was, my experience of traditional RPG combat was telling me that if the dice go bad, the PCs die, and that’s just not interesting. I think I was also being driven a little by fear of the “whiff” factor; I didn’t want my players’ bad-ass special-op PCs looking stupid, the same way I didn’t want the larger Talon organisation looking stupid.

Also, there wasn’t really that much in the way of PC-NPC interaction aside from a couple of scenes I threw in with another team being trained at the same time. There were the trainers, but they weren’t really tied into the PCs in any meaningful way, so they were basically there as Mission Briefing Robots with colour.

There’s one instance that I think sums up my experiences with the campaign and a lot of what I was trying to say. In early 2003, one of my players, Altin, decided that after about three sessions the campaign really wasn’t doing it for him and told me he was leaving. I didn’t really ask for any serious feedback about what he didn’t like, but I don’t think I had the vocabulary to understand the reasons or apply them meaningfully to a game anyway.

What did happen, though, was paralysis: What the hell was I going to do about his character? Kill him off? You must be joking; he’s in the middle of one of the most secure places on Terra Nova, more top secret than top secret. Have a spy or mole kill him? No way. I really don’t want the Black Talons look so incompetent as to have a spy in their training camps. What to do, what to do?

It took six or seven months of panioc and GM’s block to realise that the solution was right there in Altin’s PC’s background: An older brother, MIA-presumed-dead during the Interpolar War. The Southern Republic finds him, he’s hailed as a hero of the league, and he immediately asks for his younger brother back from the Talons. Heck, there’s another adventure for the PCs right there; get Altin’s PC alive and unharmed to a rendezvous point so the Republic can take him home.

Like the first session which brought them to the secret Talon training base, the players trek off in trucks across the desert (I think I let them have one Gear) and, of course, they get ambushed again, by the same guys who ambushed them the first time. If it seems like railroading, it probably is; I just didn’t really know how else to do it at the time, and I really wanted the same guys for continuity purposes. The dice get whipped out and things slow down into tactics, shots, etcetera, but eventually the players and their trainer get captured (except for three who sneak off and later capture a raider’s Gear). I’ve always found it odd that, for the part of the game where the exciting risk is meant to happen, combat is usually the most boring part of the whole exercise, especially when I’m GMing. I can’t remember how the session worked out, except there was another firefight, the escaped PCs helped save the day with their captured Gear and the team paid the raiders back in kind by capturing a couple of them.

Of course, the question came up about how the raiders knew about the second convoy, especially if a super-secret organisation like the Black talons arranged the transport details. Coincidence, they weren’t buying. A mole in the Talons? Again, my knee-jerk “The Talons are too good for that” response. (There goes another flag. For crying out loud, Rob, it would’ve given the PCs something to do other than train…) Besides, I had a better idea – a mysterious man paying the Dogs to take him across the Badlands so he could observe Gear duels. Heck, that would be the big Metaplot of the Terranovan arc: He’s really an enemy observer, out to learn as much about Duelists as he can so he can set up a duelling school on Caprice (which the players would then have to take down)… of course, that still leaves coincidence as the explanation for the second raider hit. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
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Always Plenty of Time!
IMAGinES
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AKA Rob Farquhar


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« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2006, 09:10:16 PM »

The pace of the campaign was slowing some. It had always been a once-a-month deal, but as we discovered, scheduling problems often extended that (I hated the idea of running without somebody). I suggested some blue-booking (an idea I’d liked since reading about it in Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads) via e-mail or text, maybe with some XP awards, but while some players liked the idea, others, my wife included, didn’t get it, didn’t like it, or both. It was only tried once.

Of course, right after I sorted Altin’s character out – it was December 2003 by now – another player, Mandi, announced that she’d got a year-long job in China, leaving in a month, which dropped to two weeks when the company hiring her fast-tracked a few things. The majority vote was to hold Mandi’s seat until she got back (I’ll confess I wasn’t in the majority; not that I didn’t like Mandi, but after all the monkeying around with Altin’s character, I just wanted the character juggling over with). We were now down to four players, so I made it known via e-mail I was after one more to join. I got two, which meant that when Mandi returned we’d have seven players, a number I wasn’t really looking forward to GMing.

So at the commencement of the next session (which was second quarter 2004, I believe) Mandi’s character collapses on the shuttle back to base (Why didn’t they just ship us out on one of these in the first place, instead of all that mucking around with the trucks, my players asked?) as she’d took a chunk of shrapnel during the last firefight (GM retroactive fiat). That session and another one drew the Terranovan Arc to a rather unsatisfactory close – there was a Gear fight between the PCs and the competing team (over who got the full-on special-ops Gears and who got the modified stock ones) which I felt woefully under-prepared for – of course, the players won, which was cool, I didn’t really want them to lose.

Then life hit my wife and me hard for the next few months, and in the beginning of October 04 a nasty real life issue involving one of my players led me to close the campaign prematurely. A week later my wife and I decided we were sick and tired of Sydney and moving back to Cairns.

Now, I have an opportunity to GM a campaign again, and I really want to make sure that each and every session is as interesting and fun for me as GM as it is for my players; thus, the attempt at analysing years-old play for clues on what to do and what not to do to get Ron Edwards’ minimum of “fun and pretty good” each session. Over the past couple of months, I’ve tried my hand at Dogs in the Vineyard, the D20-based Starship Troopers and InSpectres, and I can say with certainty that I’ve had the most fun with the latter.

A general observation: One thing I don’t like about GMing is getting caught in your own plot holes. When you come up with a justification for something, the players start digging at the details and say “No, that doesn’t make sense.” I’m tempted to yell, “Dudes: leave the plot holes alone!” except from their perspective that’s info that might save their characters’ lives (Heavy Gear’s rules are geared to be unforgiving when it comes to combat). Heck, I don’t really like the GM-as-source-of-all-detail business anyway; it was one of the main problems I had with that Dogs in the Vineyard session I ran a few months ago.

Questions, comments and suggestions more than welcome. As this and other actual play reports probably indicate, I’m still very new at this “writing about my games” business, so don’t hesitate to ask me to clarify something or provide more detail!
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Belinda K.
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« Reply #3 on: May 10, 2006, 03:21:55 AM »

Hi Rob. That's an interesting post. I think for the GM fun - what made you keep hacking away at a campaign that wasn't fun to run? Was it the social obligation? Enthusiasm of one or two players? An responsibility that 'you were the GM and had to run the campaign?'

I think if you keep pushing at the story design all the time, without the players pushing back at the game world, you run out of puff fairly quickly. Maybe it's a problem with military campaigns; generally the set-up has the players being ordered around by the military. When I played in Scott Lette's Jovian Chronicles campaign, he made an effort to get backgrounds off everyone before we started in and chucked the elements into his backstory, but it was all done in isolation from the other players, so the agendas and secrets of the other characters had to be determined only during play - it was all very blackbox. So we followed orders, but stuff from our pasts would come up and it was interesting to see where Scott would take things; I was keen to see where my character would end up next. It was an interesting mix of military plot shoving and other soapy elements that would bubble up between the characters. None of them really crossed over though - it was all PC/NPC relations mostly. But I was keen to watch the other's plot threads unfold just as I did with mine.

In your case, I think your players may have been in TV watching mode, eagerly waiting to see what was next to them, not really aware that they could have any influence over the direction of the game - this means that the entire plotting becomes your responsibility, as well as that of your plot holes. Some players I've met don't like to have OOC discussions about the direction of the campaign. I myself was in TV watching mode and was therefore turned off by a recent D&D game when a GM was saying, "Now, Tony wants to go over and do something about those drow ruins, so we'll spend an adventure there, and Belinda wants to do something with her kobold empire, so I'll put that in a bit..." The illusion was broken, in a way. The god-like GM was scrabbling for ideas and had failed us!

 But if before the game had started, we'd been asked for what elements we wanted to explore, and created backgrounds and kickers etc, the game would been much cooler, and there wouldn't have been a sense of directionlessness, as I would have been more invested in the game to kick and push at the world and do my stuff - which is hard when your D&D characters have little in common apart from a need to 'adventure together'. Some crossover would have been better.

I find watching my players talk between each other and react to stuff in play very entertaining. Now there's me as a GM watching player TV! So you need bit of back and forth - let them act for you, and you act for them, and it's much more fun than you just pushing by yourself.

As for plot holes, if you don't plot out the entire campaign, but sort of build it and nudge it as it goes along, it's much easier to address holes - if something happens, build something into the backstory to justify it, make it a feature, rather than a bug, and see where it goes. It's all good.
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IMAGinES
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AKA Rob Farquhar


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« Reply #4 on: May 10, 2006, 05:13:23 AM »

Hi Rob. That's an interesting post. I think for the GM fun - what made you keep hacking away at a campaign that wasn't fun to run? Was it the social obligation? Enthusiasm of one or two players? An responsibility that 'you were the GM and had to run the campaign?'

A few things, I suppose. Pride that the campaign hadn't turned out to be my usual One Hit Wonder With Promises of More. My players were my wife four friends and a gamer who lived a couple of blocks down whom I met with the con (Altin); with the exception of Altin, all the feedback I got was positive (mostly non-specifically). Heck, Vickie wants me to run Black Talon again sometime; she likes her PC and wants another opportunity to play her. Also, I think, a factor that Ron Edwards and others have pointed out in other threads - the "Keep going; the fun's got to happen soon!" factor - was involved.

I think if you keep pushing at the story design all the time, without the players pushing back at the game world, you run out of puff fairly quickly. Maybe it's a problem with military campaigns; generally the set-up has the players being ordered around by the military. When I played in Scott Lette's Jovian Chronicles campaign, he made an effort to get backgrounds off everyone before we started in and chucked the elements into his backstory, but it was all done in isolation from the other players, so the agendas and secrets of the other characters had to be determined only during play - it was all very blackbox. So we followed orders, but stuff from our pasts would come up and it was interesting to see where Scott would take things; I was keen to see where my character would end up next. It was an interesting mix of military plot shoving and other soapy elements that would bubble up between the characters. None of them really crossed over though - it was all PC/NPC relations mostly. But I was keen to watch the other's plot threads unfold just as I did with mine.

On reflection, it seems I'm one of those GMs who was educated on player involvement via a character's background. After reading games like Cyberpunk 2020 (with its Lifepath system) I came away with the impression that if a player is going to build intersting stuff into his or her character, it'll be built into that character's background; you know, connections, events, etcetera. Aside from maybe one character I made for an Aberrant campaign (which never ran), who was designed with an "at an emotional crossroads right now" issue, that's how I've treated PCs. I know I was treating them similarly in Black Talon, because I was worried that the trip to Caprice meant they'd be leaving all their back-stories and plot hooks behind. I can't remember whether I discussed that with my players.

It's only been recently, with reading Sorcerer and Primetime Adventures, it's really sunk in with me as to how "where a character is right now" can make just as good RP fodder (if not better) than backstory. I also wish I'd somehow found out about Kickers and Bangs back then.

In your case, I think your players may have been in TV watching mode, eagerly waiting to see what was next to them, not really aware that they could have any influence over the direction of the game - this means that the entire plotting becomes your responsibility, as well as that of your plot holes.

If such was the case, and it wouldn't surprise me, then I really wasn't much different, simply because I didn't really know that there were other ways it could be done. Heck, one of my players, Nick, was talking about this crazy, "hot-seat GMing" idea he wanted to try, and I didn't like the thought; the traditional players/GM dichotomy was familiar and (I thought) comfy. (A little later, I'd started toying with InSpectres, which seemed like the perfect candidate for that kind of gaming. Ah, well.)

Some players I've met don't like to have OOC discussions about the direction of the campaign. I myself was in TV watching mode and was therefore turned off by a recent D&D game when a GM was saying, "Now, Tony wants to go over and do something about those drow ruins, so we'll spend an adventure there, and Belinda wants to do something with her kobold empire, so I'll put that in a bit..." The illusion was broken, in a way. The god-like GM was scrabbling for ideas and had failed us!

:-) I tell you something, it's worse when the GM realises that hes not really god-like - or even, heresy of heresies, that this whole god-like business isn't anywhere near as fun or engaging as the ads said it'd be!

As for plot holes, if you don't plot out the entire campaign, but sort of build it and nudge it as it goes along, it's much easier to address holes - if something happens, build something into the backstory to justify it, make it a feature, rather than a bug, and see where it goes. It's all good.

I have the feeling we're sort of talking about two different things - I've experienced a similar feeling playing both a trad-RPG (the Starship Troopers sessions, as well as various games in Sydney) and an indie one (that DitV session you commented on), when players ask you for fine detail about something I'd introduced earlier that same session rather than something in an onder session that was addressed in a later session.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: May 10, 2006, 05:37:40 AM »

Hiya,

Check out the recent Champions thread for some ideas about how to get Kickers and Bangs from extensive character back-story, especially when creating that back-story is integrated into the points/details actually on the sheet.

I agree with you that Situation This Minute is an amazing, liberating insight when compared to the Elaborate Finished Story that we all used to scribble during character creation ... but getting the former from a fairly constructive and almost-certainly briefer version of the latter shouldn't be tossed out the window, as it's a useful and fun technique when reined in properly.

I'm interested in this whole "plot hole" problem, but it'd be really, really helpful to talk about it with more actual-play discussion. I think it'd be good to stay with the Black Talon game for that purpose, possibly because of the distance you've established. Here are my brief thoughts based on what you've posted so far.

At first glance, that problem looks like the predictable outcome of plain old GM desperation. If I'm reading you right, it's perhaps a relief to admit that, during this time, (a) you frankly had no idea how to accomplish any GM-tasks at all, (b) you'd been badly misled by certain key texts (and one of these days I'll talk about Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads as a well-intended disaster for a whole generation), and (c) the golden ideal of the brilliant novelist/film-director GM provided a source of impossible ambition as well as hidden shame when it didn't "somehow" happen.

Under these circumstances, you were faced with a great paradox - the characters were these bad-asses at the bad-ass HQ, and yet they had to face danger. You felt the need never to violate the bad-assery, yet somehow there had to be conflict ... and yet no conflict suggested itself, not off the character sheets, not out of interpersonal dialogue, and not out of anything intrinsic to the game text (setting, etc).

Solution? Fight! Someone attacks! Ambush! (Why ambush? Because you figured that if the characters were surprised, the players would be surprised, the fun could happen now, and you could get some kind of explanation going later ... except that for that purpose, "later" was the same as "now," because the paradox waited for you in the "later" too.)

Again, it seems to me you were desperate. Desperate to have fun, desperate to provide fun as you'd been advised (disorient, endanger, and amaze the players), desperate to keep everyone else involved in the game, and desperate, perhaps, to establish yourself, to yourself, as "the golden GM" and not a fake. My immediate urge, upon reading your account, is to find your younger self and tell him - hey, it's all right, no one is that golden GM, most especially not those guys who are writing those rulebooks. They're doing something else in play that they are having a hard time articulating, and you're getting stuck in that communicative-disconnection.

(And for those who may be saying, "there goes Ron's alleged telepathy again," eat me. I've discussed his GMing with Mike Pondsmith, in detail. My critique of Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads is not speculation.)

Desperation actions have a tendency to avoid honesty, because the uncertainty underlying the desperation is a source of shame. They also tend to miss the mark of whatever they were supposed to solve or do, providing distraction and inconsistency. That seems to fit with your description.

So I think that once the desperation gets cleaned out of there, and it seems like you're well along on that path, then you'll find the plot-holes disappear too. Not because you're providing amazing well-knitted genius consistent plots, but because you're focusing on things people care about, with the result that the whole group will be invested in establishing consistency during play. In my experience, they do this to an extent that, well, works. "Inconsistency" simply vanishes like a bad smell, because the pile of dogshit that produced it is simply gone.

Looking forward to more discussion of the Black Talon game.

Best, Ron
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« Reply #6 on: May 10, 2006, 07:09:34 AM »

A general observation: One thing I don’t like about GMing is getting caught in your own plot holes. When you come up with a justification for something, the players start digging at the details and say “No, that doesn’t make sense.” I’m tempted to yell, “Dudes: leave the plot holes alone!” except from their perspective that’s info that might save their characters’ lives (Heavy Gear’s rules are geared to be unforgiving when it comes to combat). Heck, I don’t really like the GM-as-source-of-all-detail business anyway; it was one of the main problems I had with that Dogs in the Vineyard session I ran a few months ago.

LOL, it annoys me when the PCs take a sentance the GM says and decides to focus on it.  Especially when I have done little prep and I try to cobble something together.  I have taken to letting them figure things out.  I place a bunch of clues, give them time and opportunity to discuss the details between each other.  That's when I get ideas for the "truth" of the matter.  They usually are unaware of this and if they are they do not know WHICH idea they have is the one I take the ball with and run so they don't feel like they are being jerked around.  This has the distinct advantage of giving them a sense of real accomplishment and I don't have to come up with convoluted plots for them to argue with :)
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IMAGinES
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« Reply #7 on: May 10, 2006, 08:38:17 PM »

Hello, Ron. Thank you for responding!

Check out the recent Champions thread for some ideas about how to get Kickers and Bangs from extensive character back-story, especially when creating that back-story is integrated into the points/details actually on the sheet.

I agree with you that Situation This Minute is an amazing, liberating insight when compared to the Elaborate Finished Story that we all used to scribble during character creation ... but getting the former from a fairly constructive and almost-certainly briefer version of the latter shouldn't be tossed out the window, as it's a useful and fun technique when reined in properly.

Been reading those threads with interest. I definitely see your point, and I'll keep it firmly in mind when working on my next campaign.

In the case of Black Talon, the problem as I saw it was that the PCs would leave any relationship map based on their pasts behind them when they went through the Tannhauser Gate to Caprice. So lurking in the back of my mind was, my players have made these characters with interesting histories (which might be relevant; I had them HTMLised at one point, so I’ll see if I can dig them up) which will become redundant a quarter of the way into the campaign.

(Perhaps worthy of note: I tried to exercise some GM-authorial control on back-stories and concepts that weren’t quite what I had in mind, even if in retrospect my objections were trivial and likely didn’t help get where I was hoping to go anyway, i.e. fun.)

I'm interested in this whole "plot hole" problem, but it'd be really, really helpful to talk about it with more actual-play discussion. I think it'd be good to stay with the Black Talon game for that purpose, possibly because of the distance you've established. Here are my brief thoughts based on what you've posted so far.

At first glance, that problem looks like the predictable outcome of plain old GM desperation. If I'm reading you right, it's perhaps a relief to admit that, during this time, (a) you frankly had no idea how to accomplish any GM-tasks at all,

On one hand, I had graph paper, NPC stats and personality notes, adventure notes of the “Here’s Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the adventure and what generally should happen in them; don’t plan specifics as that’s railroading your players” variety, Ideas about How the Campaign Should Go, a willingness to try and “get a sense of the room” and not let any player drown the others out – it seemed like I was doing everything right as written.

On the other hand, I had no idea exactly how all of that was supposed to add up to “fun”. Although the world-builder geek in me was delighting in the prep work, the rest of me was finding it a chore and dreading the next session.

(b) you'd been badly misled by certain key texts (and one of these days I'll talk about Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads as a well-intended disaster for a whole generation),

If/when you do so, I will read that thread and probably nod my head through it. I mean, there’s a throwaway note about how someone’s campaign was all about helping a Netrunner in his forties to love again, and I think, “Okay, how did you play that? Huh? Come on, guys, how did it work? Tell us, please, ‘cos there’s no real advice on that sort of stuff in the rest of the book or the CP2020 rules!”

and (c) the golden ideal of the brilliant novelist/film-director GM provided a source of impossible ambition as well as hidden shame when it didn't "somehow" happen.

Well, yeah, I’ve been known to write the odd bit of fiction, and the “story-creating” aspect of RPGs is I think a good part of what got me into the hobby. Also, my wife reckons I was after a sense of control absent from my life when I first got involved in RPGs. So yes, I think I was aiming for that myth.

Under these circumstances, you were faced with a great paradox - the characters were these bad-asses at the bad-ass HQ, and yet they had to face danger. You felt the need never to violate the bad-assery, yet somehow there had to be conflict ... and yet no conflict suggested itself, not off the character sheets, not out of interpersonal dialogue, and not out of anything intrinsic to the game text (setting, etc).

Pretty much, that’s it, yes. Especially as risking the bad-assery under Silhouette often means (blam) Oh, look, you’re dead.

I remember one training mission when a sim-hovertank returned fire, single shot with its main gun, on the PC in the heaviest Black Talon Heavy Gear, a Dark Kodiak – and Overkilled the guy, putting him out of the action after he had only fired a single shot. I let the result stand, and the player was okay with abiding by the rules. Still, you can probably imagine the “DON’T TAKE A PLAYER OUT OF THE FUN!” alarms that went off in my head when that happened, right? It felt like I’d fucked up.

As it turned out, I’d forgotten that all Black Talon Gears have the Stealth perk; the hovertank mightn’t have even been able to spot where the shot came from, so I had kind of fucked up. (Still, I figured that was why I was having the training sessions, so we could all, myself included, get used to the rules.) Nonetheless, I reckon I was looking for some mythical rules/stats-based sweet-spot where challenge is provided yet the actual chances of PCs getting taken out of the game are nearly nil. How, I thought, can I endanger my players in a fun way without the risk of elimination?

Solution? Fight! Someone attacks! Ambush! (Why ambush? Because you figured that if the characters were surprised, the players would be surprised, the fun could happen now, and you could get some kind of explanation going later ... except that for that purpose, "later" was the same as "now," because the paradox waited for you in the "later" too.)

Yeah, I think I see what you mean; that is pretty much what I was doing, though I never really thought of it that way. Unfortunately, it rather buggered my players’ suspension-of-disbelief (a term for an author or scriptwriter) which then stuffed things up for me.

Again, it seems to me you were desperate. Desperate to have fun, desperate to provide fun as you'd been advised (disorient, endanger, and amaze the players), desperate to keep everyone else involved in the game, and desperate, perhaps, to establish yourself, to yourself, as "the golden GM" and not a fake.

Yes, desperate does sum it up. I didn’t really need to prove anything to anyone else; all my players, my wife included, were telling me what a good GM I was and that they were interested and having fun in the campaign. I’d say I was desperate to prove to myself that GMing could be fun.

The problem was, if (people I assumed were) experienced gamers were telling me I was already doing the GM job well, then logically me-as-good-GM equalled little-to-no fun, which meant I’d been wasting my time since early high school on it instead of finding another hobby.

My immediate urge, upon reading your account, is to find your younger self and tell him - hey, it's all right, no one is that golden GM, most especially not those guys who are writing those rulebooks. They're doing something else in play that they are having a hard time articulating, and you're getting stuck in that communicative-disconnection.

Ron, I tell you something – half the time, my younger self was seriously contemplating putting most of his RPG collection up on eBay, slinging the un-sellable stuff in the bin and getting the fuck out of the hobby. As the sessions dragged on and the fun stayed over the horizon, it seemed more and more obvious that RPGs weren’t for me.

That’s one of the main reasons I got onto The Forge – all those great Actual Play posts that not just said “Holy shit! We had a good damn time!” but also, “Here’s how the rules we were using helped us achieve it!” Those descriptions of the rules and how they worked were drastically different to what I’d seen in RPG texts up until then; I suddenly started thinking that I’d been missing out on something all this time, or maybe I’m wired for a different kind of RPG fun than the traditional texts encourage.

Still, that thought might be better off in another thread.

Desperation actions have a tendency to avoid honesty, because the uncertainty underlying the desperation is a source of shame.

Shame. Yeah. How could I tell my players I was having a bad time when they insisted they were having - that I was giving them - a great time?

They also tend to miss the mark of whatever they were supposed to solve or do, providing distraction and inconsistency. That seems to fit with your description.

So I think that once the desperation gets cleaned out of there, and it seems like you're well along on that path, then you'll find the plot-holes disappear too. Not because you're providing amazing well-knitted genius consistent plots, but because you're focusing on things people care about, with the result that the whole group will be invested in establishing consistency during play. In my experience, they do this to an extent that, well, works. "Inconsistency" simply vanishes like a bad smell, because the pile of dogshit that produced it is simply gone.

Ron, I’ve had a taste of GMing without desperation during three games of InSpectres, and boy do I want more. Maybe I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially when that Champions thread and Belinda K’s thread about her Vampire game indicate that the kind of fun (I think) I want can be had a game driven by a trad-RPG rule set, but part of me wants a rules set specifically geared toward that kind of fun (like Primetime Adventures or Sorcerer), just to get all the other stuff that seems to bore me out of the way.

That’s why I think Jere’s “campaign design and goals” business might help identify what I’m really after.

Anyway, on the topic of Black Talon, I think I’ll have a rifle through some of my notes, handouts and other materials I prepared, see if there’s anything noteworthy there. I should have a “player’s guide” I whipped up as an advertisement / primer for the campaign; it’s six or seven printed pages in length, though.
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« Reply #8 on: May 11, 2006, 02:01:47 AM »

Aha. Here we go: All eleven pages of the Black Talon Player Characters document. This isn't a listing of actual PCs, mind you; this is just what I issued to prospective players to get them interested / bring them up to speed.

Looking at it now, I wonder why I insisted that all the characters be stable "good guys", especially considering that psychiatrist's quote on Page 7. Still, I quite frankly would have had no idea what to do with a bunch of fractious personalities other than sit back and say to the players "Well, okay. Roleplay." Reading Primetime Adventures gave me some ideas, but I only bought that game after moving to Cairns.

I've also managed to track the PC web pages with stats and write ups down. Shall I make those available?
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« Reply #9 on: May 13, 2006, 04:52:56 PM »

At the moment, I’m digging through old e-mails and files, trying to jog some memories of the campaign. I notice that there are a lot of e-mails going back and forth about scheduling and rescheduling. Most of the time we couldn’t seem to get it together. Nowadays, I probably would have called the thing to a halt and gone with something lighter and more flexible if someone couldn’t make it.

It also makes me wonder whether everyone else was really having as much fun as they said, considering all the double-bookings and “just plain forgot” e-mails. I mentioned this to Vickie, my wife, though, and she does insist that everyone else was having a good time.

Anyway, I think the attempt at blue-booking is noteworthy. To me, it seemed the ideal solution for the ongoing time conflict problems we were having. I wrote, “I think it's a good way to do some roleplaying in between Heavy Gear sessions. It also allows you to do more social stuff with NPCs, especially if you want to go wandering off or have a private chat with an NPC.” What? Other players as audience? You think it’s fair to expect players to sit through other players’ stuff when their characters aren’t there? And what about certain players’ secret stuff?

Yeah, quit laughing, it made sense at the time.

Vickie was easily the person most against the idea and still is; she even vented some steam about it when we were talking about the Black Talon campaign a couple of nights ago.  Exclusionary and elitist weren’t her words, but a pretty good summary of them. (I just read that to Vickie, and she immediately agreed.)

In the end, only one blue-book episode eventuated and it was between Dan (a longtime gamer whose favourite system was HERO - he even tried to get me to convert the campaign to that system a few times, especially after he confessed to not grokking Heavy Gear's Vehicle Construction System) and myself. It was a brief interrogation scene that happened in between the session where the players escorted Altin’s character to the rendezvous point and the first session after Mandi went to China. Now, I have the feeling we might have had two differing objectives going in. Dan had created a character with a Secret Past, which is something else I’ll touch on in a moment, and – remember the Coincidence angle I was on about with the second ambush? Dan was interested in tying that in with his past, like the bandits were maybe tracking him. I saw it instead as the opportunity to introduce the mysterious traveller/CEF spy, so Dan’s character’s past served more to give his character/him a quick “Are they onto me?” scare (see, there's another flag I ignored). The back and forth took about two months of on and off e-mail correspondence, August to October 2003, and I pretty much railroaded the end of it so that the two bandit captives died, mainly because I thought it was a cool moment.

In the end, Dan wound up comign clean about his character's past - or, at least the fact that he had one, and that it might mean risk to the team. (I'll have to check that with Vickie; she has a better memory for conversations than I.)

A couple of other players were kind of keen on doing some inter-PC interactions via blue book, but I have the feeling we all forgot and / or wound up with other things on our plates.
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« Reply #10 on: May 13, 2006, 05:29:33 PM »

Yeah. Quick note on Dan's secret past: Basically, he created Caporal Shan Fryzel, a commoner from the Eastern Sun Emirates with an allergy to bananas who was really Shandar Antilles, member of the Antilles emirate in the city of Skavara, who would have been next in line to be Emir were it not for the actions of his devious brother, from whom he narrowly escaped death. On the face of it, it's an interesting idea and I allowed it; my experiences up to then told me it was par for the roleplaying course. Still, I really didn't think we'd have time or opportunity to hit it in the Black Talon campaign.

(Part of me is tempted to digress on Secret Pasts being a part of "kewl-factor" roleplaying and the influence of HERO-style disadvantages on play, but Ron Edwards has already written a great thread on disadvantages and the HERO system and I don't think it'll really add anything to this.)

Vickie wasn't thrilled with the Secret Past business either, seeing it as exclusionary (my PC's secret means I get cool stuff all of my own with the GM that I don't have to share with anyone until I want to). I don't think most of the players minded much. Oh, important note: It was Classic Player Character Secret Past in that none of the other players knew about it, except (maybe) that there was a secret. I did check with Vickie, and all we remember Fryzel telling anyone in the game was that he'd had a devastating experience in his past, not what it was or who he really was.
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