Thursday, September 19, 2019

My Players, and Working with them

Every gaming group is different. I do believe there is a spectrum that most people fall on between Thespian Method Actor and Hack N'Slash Munchkin. It's safe to say that a normal distribution is probably appropriate- most players appreciate a mix of both, and the populations of fanatics tapers down on either side.

That said, groups also differ on how they approach problems, how much they like to plan and prepare, and even on how much in-character banter they want to have.

So I'm going to talk a bit about my players, and how I adapt my games to run more smoothly with them.

As a Group:

  • Group preference is for text-based campaigns. When I floated using voice chat reaction was nearly unanimous that text was the preferred medium.
  • Pace of play is fairly slow and methodical- while not nearly as slow as PBP, it's still objectively on the slower side.
  • Every player is capable of not being in the spotlight. It is hard to overstate just how easy this makes things for me. Try as I might, occasionally someone gets injured and has to recuperate, a single PC dominates the screen time of a session, or someone gets stuck on overwatch outside while the stealthy party within aces things and no outside threats emerge. None of my players have ever raised this as an issue.
  • Engagement is generally high- this is aided strongly by the text format and the maturity of my players. It's highly unusual for people to be unaware of what's going on in game- largely sidestepping issues of having to catch people up on recent events because they went to go pee, or were stacking dice, they got bored because their PC had nothing to do, or had to help their roommate snap out of a flashback.
  • The group is Focused. Everyone is highly aligned on the group goal, and having their PC contribute to the mission. This group does a really good job of not deeply exploring what I consider to be roleplaying empty calories- wenching, asking what booze is available at the bar, etc.
  • The group thrives off preparation, planning, and executing their strategies. While willing to improvise when needed, they generally take a very methodical approach.
  • Pinebox as a campaign doesn't have a huge emphasis on Roleplay, with more focus on the tasks at hand for the PCs. That's not to say that the Players don't Roleplay their characters, it's that they've rolled with the pacing and campaign structure. This goes back to how focused they are.


I'm going to use the PCs names as pseudonyms for my players to maintain their privacy.

Gaston is the newest player to join the group, currently playing the team doctor/demolitions expert. He's attentive and does a really good job playing up the generous/selfless nature of his character. Being last to the table and chargen, he filled in missing skills for the group, and has crushed it ever since, which isn't always easy in my games. I might encourage him to consider playing a face the next time a new campaign comes around.

Otto is one of my two players who have stuck around since Agency 17. Otto's instincts for combat tactics are among the best in the group- if he's thinking it's a good time for a retreat, it's probably time to get out of dodge. Otto frequently keeps me on my toes, oftentimes recalling old plot points, NPCs, or piecing things together from clues. He pays way more attention to things than he lets on.

Alex is a long-time IRL friend. His flexibility and overall competence has allowed him to fill numerous roles within the group- from skulk, to hacker, to combat heavy. It's really hard to single out things that make him such a good player, although I will say having the shared context of knowing him about a decade does make dumping specific things into the game much easier. For example, I knew he'd know what the Mirai Botnet was when I referenced it in-game.

Hassan has continually been the one stuck with the leadership role in the group since they participated in my Agency 17 campaign. I largely think this is due to his good executive function and capability to break problems down into actionable items. We have a rapport where he seems to just innately get how things function in my campaigns- which means that if he whips up a plan, there's a high chance his enemies are going to be in for a lot of pain.

Kujo has had the most PC deaths/injuries out of any of my players, a consequence of their preference for playing combat heavies. Kujo is starting to grow into being the closet thespian of the group, steadily improving their roleplaying and characters since their beginning losing their PC session 1 of Prohibition Mob. Kujo's often responsible for bringing a little bit of zaniness to things, helping bring humor and vibrancy to what's going on, all while being just as laser focused as the rest of the gang.

Accommodations :

Currently, we've been playing Pinebox for 122 weeks- 2.3 years. At this point we've settled into a steady rhythm, so it's not so much of active accommodations as it is continuing what already works.

  • I generally allow the players ample time to plot, plan, and discuss their next actions. Obviously this doesn't apply when combat's going on or they're on a crashing plane, but there are very few situations where they're rushed.
  • I put a large emphasis on allowing the players to decide how they want to pursue their goals. While the campaign has rails ("Your objective is to prevent Imprint Technology from being finalized"), those rails aren't very restrictive. As the plot demands I might throw constraints at them, but the onus is on them to decide what they're doing.
  • I do my best to telegraph information to my players when appropriate. They're playing badass operatives, they might just have a hunch that someone approaching them can throw down without needing to roll. Their planning habits also thrive off having information at hand.
  • I occasionally skip skill checks when it's obvious success would be trivial for their characters.
  • I stop play when it's clear that I'm getting gassed or need time to plan out ahead.
  • I allow the players to create unfair situations for their enemies and then curbstomp them.
  • I don't fudge results in combat, and the group has occasionally gotten caught with their pants down, wound up in an unfair situation, and almost got hosed because of it. ("Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.")
  • Enemies generally don't have good enough intel on the players to specifically plan for their individual capabilities.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Observations on GMing Mistakes and Momentum of Play

Some sessions are going to be less energetic than others. Maybe there's a person at the table having a difficult day. Maybe there's multiple players having difficult days. Outside of the external factors, campaigns will naturally ebb from high energy to low, as the story has its beats, rising actions, climaxes, and the fallout.

That said, if a GM mishandles things, it can completely grind a group's momentum to a crawl.

Preparation, usually the lack thereof:

It's on the GM to prepare enough that they can give the players avenues of action that they can take. This varies depending on genre, but if your players can't seem to come up with something to do, chances are there's not enough prep going into the campaign.

For a dungeon crawl game you should likely have an idea of the dungeon the group is going into, a sense of the denizens, or at least the capability to improv on the fly. For games not quite running on the Felltower wavelength, you really should be fleshing out factions, NPCs, and providing hooks.

It's entirely possible to have players who are looking for a quasi-sandbox experience who will hit that wall of not knowing what to do next- even if they are fully engaged actively trying to find a direction.

If your players seem interested in a hook you improvise the shit out of that hook, even if it's not necessarily what you had in mind, or anything you had planned. That interest, that desire to explore and check things out, that's the flicker of momentum starting. A hook meant to develop sessions later is probably better used now if players would otherwise be twiddling their thumbs.

Be practical about your preparation. You really don't need a full character sheet for most mooks or minor characters. It's often times safe to not have full character sheets even for important NPCs who can be reasonably expected to not participate in combat. It's perfectly fine to only lay out combat traits for combatants, and maybe note important social skills for a character who only serves as a merchant, informant, quest-giver, etc.

Furthermore, If players aren't going to interact with it, don't make it a big focus of your preparation. Having the players being adjacent to the most interesting thing going on in the campaign world is often a bad idea, unless that most interesting thing is invariably deadly (plague, mustard gas, swaths of destruction*, etc). It's pointless to make complex magic systems if your players don't want to interact with a byzantine magical system and instead wonder why their death spells get less DPS than an assault rifle. It's a bad idea to create a massive cosmology/pantheons of Gods if people are largely interested in playing secular or atheist characters.

Leave room to react, only the most linear of games allow for planning things out like a TV show. Games are volatile. Some settings allow for resurrections, some don't. It's not particularly fun to have to ass-pull or fudge something when the dice say that a critical (N)PC just ate a x4 damage headshot putting them well beyond -5xHP. Planning too far ahead isn't practical, especially if it's predicated off actions the players are *supposed* to take.

"I don't want to prep too much until I know what the PCs are doing"

So, this at first brush seems like a chicken or egg problem. GM doesn't want to over-invest in prepping in areas where it won't matter (good), but likely doesn't prep enough for the current situation (bad). I see it as coming from a few factors.

Lack of group direction/purpose. Everyone meets in a bar and then just randomly decide to join up together and form and adventuring crew? We've all heard this cliche, and it's a rotten way of starting a campaign unless you've got a good crew of thespians who want to hammer out why everyone's working together in-character for a session. I vastly prefer having strong purpose for the existence of a group of PCs. 

"You're part of the clandestine organization Agency 17, the existence of which is hidden even from the other 16 members of the US Intelligence Community."
"Prohibition has rocked 1920s New York City, leading to ample opportunities for criminal enterprises and their members to catapult themselves to wealth and infamy."
"You're a group of Augmented Humans hand-picked by an angel to fight off the forces of Hell."
This is almost entirely on the GM, right from campaign conception. Unless you're starting session 1 with a strong sense of what the PC purpose is, or an iron-clad** way of determining it through play, you're already behind the eight ball.

Related to overall group purpose there's Lack of Immediate direction. This usually results when players don't have paths, hooks, or things to do/react to. The players might be rip-roaring to do something, stacking dice and browsing on their phones while the group spins its wheels, but without something to actually *DO* it's pointless. This is almost always a result of not enough prep.

Players need information and context to make decisions. In a linear game, some of this can be taken away ("Your next mission is..."), but for many games players are going to be on the hook for choosing their next objective or goal, and they need a solid informational ground to stand on. They need to know the situation, the NPCs, the factions, maybe cultural or geographical details. It is explicitly the GM's job to provide these details.

Other Momentum Killers:

  • Allowing players to spin wheels too long, and/or rehash the same conversation multiple times while discussing plans
  • Not allowing players enough time to incubate and ruminate on plans
  • Not allowing players the capability to follow up on things they find intriguing
  • Allowing too much focus on extraneous BS (seducing wenches, drinking plans, trivial travel plan details, etc)
  • Specifically tailoring challenges so that a single player has a bad time (because once they clock out, risk of others doing the same goes up)
  • Being overly adversarial with players (Are you here to beat them or provide a fun experience?)
  • Not properly adjusting your campaign style to ensure it suits your players (grimdark campaign + players who just want to goof off = bad time)
  • Making or allowing others to make a player uncomfortable.
  • Not recognizing when things aren't working well and changing course/stopping

*A friend of mine knows someone whose Ranger's favored enemy type is Swaths
**Seriously, if you initial sessions happen and the group doesn't gel or establish a purpose, wrap things up cause you likely just scuttled the campaign right out of the gates.