roleplaying games

Behind the Blog: PbtA Cyberpunk

Yesterday I posted a fairly well-read post over at Cannibal Halfling comparing The Sprawl and The Veil as the two current standard bearers of Cyberpunk in Powered by the Apocalypse. Though the post was partially because I thought people would read it (and indeed, the post got in two days more hits than this blog receives in a month), it was also borne out of trying to work through my own gaming desires through writing, much in the same way that I did when I wrote about hexcrawls, of all things.

First, an apology to Mark Richardson. Mark Richardson is the author of Headspace, another excellent PbtA Cyberpunk game. The reason Headspace was not included was fairly simple: the conceit of Headspace is remarkably specific and fairly narrow. For those who don’t know, characters in Headspace are a team of operatives that share a mental headspace, much like in the TV show Sense8. It takes place in a Cyberpunk setting and is an extremely cool idea, but it is what it is. I’m not knocking the game (I kickstarted it), merely viewing it as an avenue to explore a particular idea rather than a range of broad Cyberpunk themes.

Second, I’ll share here my goals for talking about the two games I did beyond the desire to explore the current offerings in Cyberpunk and get clicks from those who wanted the same. It’s simple, really: I’m going to run a PbtA Cyberpunk game as my next long-running campaign. I had decided on The Sprawl before I read The Veil, then I read The Veil and became a lot less sure. Now after having reread and reviewed both, I have no idea.

You can read my other post for the full details, but long story short, the games are quite different and designed for telling different stories. As I am quite the Cyberpunk aficionado, the whole range of stories interests me. The basic rundown is this: The Sprawl gives me the mechanics to extend a style of Cyberpunk campaign I’ve been running since 2010 or so, if not even earlier, with Cyberpunk 2020. The Sprawl is in some ways the perfect PbtA reimagining of games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun, where the characters are assumed to be operatives working in the grey triangle between law enforcement, corporations who act above the law, and criminals who deliberately break it. As far as running what people imagine to be a “Cyberpunk game”, The Sprawl does very well.

Problem is, exploration of Cyberpunk as a genre, transhumanism as a broader genre or idea, and the wider gamut of literary ideas, is hard to do but yet desirable. When I first ran a Cyberpunk game in GURPS, my players created characters that were incredibly interesting and sat outside of the class archetypes in Cyberpunk 2020. Those characters also, maybe not coincidentally, align with some of the playbooks in The Veil, now that I reflect on it. Stepping outside the abovementioned “operative” framework is kind of difficult, and it’s one thing I feel like Interface Zero really tried to do and yet failed at. The Veil presents a number of themes that are exactly the ones that other Cyberpunk games have difficulty supporting with their rules, and appears to execute on them.

When I think about what I want to run going forward, The Veil comes to mind first because it is doing something new and something I’ve wanted to do in some form or another. I also think it plays on the relationship mechanics in a way that my players would like, based on the time I’ve spent running Apocalypse World. That said, The Sprawl is also thematically aligned to what I want to do, and presents some mechanical elements that I really want to play with…the clocks gamify PbtA in a way most other systems don’t, and I have a desire to use that as I write. Beyond that, having each player write a corporation and having them all in the center of the setting is making my intrigue brain go nuts…there’s so much potential with that.

Every time I think I’m leaning towards one system or the other, some feature of the other system comes to mind, and I’m unsure again. I may just have to poll my players, ultimately, and I’m not sure what result that will produce. What I want more than anything else is a game that the maximum number of my players will engage with, that will produce a fun campaign that I can also write about. I’m not worried about one choice or the other…I just want to play both. Once a slot begins to open up for me with my online group to run at all, I will explore this in more depth.

Commentary

Rest in Peace, Chez Pazienza

http://thedailybanter.com/2017/02/in-memory-of-chez-pazienza/

I discovered the personal blog of one Chez Pazienza, Deus Ex Malcontent, when I was in college. This was before the internet opinion sphere had ossified to the degree it has now, so reading not only such vitriol, but such clear, compelling vitriol was quite novel to me. Even as the internet media realm has expanded, giving platforms to numerous more voices, Chez and his bluntness, his cynicism, and most importantly his anger stood out to me. I kept reading his blog, and kept reading his site The Daily Banter.

Now, he’s gone. Even as someone who didn’t know him personally I still knew him through his writing, where his struggles with drugs, depression, and the vicious personal cycles that both arise from and also create the need for self-medication were evident. Despite the fact that some people may have seen his death as an inevitability of past behavior, I can’t help but see his passing as a casualty of the political era we live in.

We need more people like Chez. He and Freddie de Boer, who thankfully is still alive, are both people I see in my reading who have the ability to articulate, defend, and contextualize an opinion with no regard to how popular it is. Ultimately, agreeing with them was not the point, because agreeing mindlessly to anything you read is just another declaration of surrender to eyeball-grabbing, approval-seeking internet culture. Though I doubt it was intentional in this respect, it was good that Chez pissed you off because then you had to go back and actually try to figure out what he was saying. Writers who make you think are way more important than writers who make you nod.

Chez’s timing was terrible. Now is when we need more middle fingers in the air, not fewer. His death diminishes everyone who is trying to write about the truth, whether they have an audience of thousands or (in my case) maybe a dozen. It’s a reminder that speaking truth to power is emotionally draining, and those who do it need all the support they can get.

roleplaying games

Mythras: for my consideration

I caved and bought Mythras over the long weekend. While my book is tied up in warehousing logistics, I’ve already had a chance to give the PDF a quick read. As Mythras is both a) the most recent iteration of a long-running game system and b) pretty universally praised, I’m not really going to review it. Instead, I’m going to consider how it would fit with my planned post-apocalyptic fantasy game.

First off, I like character creation and the Passions system. One critique of the GURPS advantage/disadvantage system that I’ve taken to heart recently is that a lot of disadvantages really aren’t…enemies, loyalty pacts, and other “restrictions” of that nature serve to give the character more screen time and don’t necessarily hinder the player in any way. The Passions system acknowledges this, and gives a backstory element that’s also mechanically engaged with the system. Some of the rolls, like social class, I’d likely eliminate, though part of that has to do with my intended scenario rather than complaints with the system. That said, randomly rolling for starting wealth is irksome, especially when there’s such a gulf between slavery at one end and nobility at the other.

The combat system, at first glance, both reminds me that I haven’t run crunchy combat recently, and also makes the game look very old-school. There’s a sidebar about balancing combat styles (and how the system doesn’t intrinsically do this), but there’s nothing stopping a GM from, say, writing an obviously superior combat style and locking it to a cult. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but considering it’s mostly incumbent on the GM, I’m not worried about it, per se. I like the special effects, but that’s a long list of things to reference.

Speaking of cults…I like these rules. They aren’t as robust or detailed as what’s in Reign, but they have more PC-facing detail. I think I’d likely port over some of the Reign organization rules…inter-cult conflict and the potential of PCs starting a cult, brotherhood, or guild need to be fleshed out for my intended game.

The magic rules are just what I was looking for. Sorcery as-written is too D&D-ish, but I can take it out. My setting would likely use folk magic, mysticism, and animism…the fact that mysticism and animism can be gated using the cult mechanics is fantastic, and exactly what I want for this setting. Folk magic as the only ungated magical art, paired with a relatively low power regeneration rate, should give the feel I want. Add to that the class-less character builds and I can limit magic without feeling bad about character balance. Also worth noting, magical healing is gritty as hell in this system…it’s beautiful, really.

The issues I’m going to have with this game involve the amount of prep I’m going to have to do. I don’t mind prep, but it’s going to take some effort to give this campaign its sandbox feel. The bestiary in the game is a bit small, and design shortcuts available are in the GURPS school of “just don’t stat everything”, the Savage Worlds school of “difficulty can be eyeballed by comparing skill levels”, and the D&D school of “just use the average stat-block over and over”. Some of this is crunch-shock…I’ve been making do with the Powered by the Apocalypse “never roll, all NPCs have 4 harm or so” mode of encounter creation for a while, so going back to something this detailed is very different.

At the same time, I’m not allergic to prep. If I’m going to do this bottom-up, I’m still going to be writing tables and generators to spit out a world in the parameters I want. I may have been hoping for settlement rules, but those aren’t common in any RPG, really, and I already own a game that has a very serviceable set of settlement/organization rules that should synergize with the organization rules in Mythras. And at the end of the day, even if my “bottom-up” game still has a ton of front-loaded writing, I’m pretty sure it’ll be easier in Mythras than in GURPS.

With Mythras I can start to see the path I have to walk to make my campaign vision a reality. The system has a lot of things I’d need to fill in, but these tend to be things I understand how to write and things where I know what I can pull from. In comparison…

  • Torchbearer has the right feel but the entire town-cycle mechanic doesn’t fit with the setting.
  • Reign would require me to write an entire grimoire, likely from the ground up.
  • GURPS would require me to select a grimoire, write a bestiary, and gatekeep the entire advantage/disadvantage section, while reading and incorporating at least one full supplement (Low-Tech)
  • Any edition of D&D would require me to rebalance/rewrite the wizard, cleric, paladin, druid, sorcerer, etc…

In Mythras, I’ll need to write/modify hexcrawling mechanics (needed for all the games save maybe D&D), adapt the hex generation tables from Welsh Piper (needed for every system), adapt and expand organization and settlement rules (needed for every game, a bit less intensive for Reign), and select and expand a bestiary (needed for every game, though D&D has enough already written). It’s a fair amount of work, but definitely doable, especially as this is the campaign after next for me.

So now, after several blog posts worth of wavering and wondering, I sucked it up, bought the game, and found it to be worthy. The next step is actually writing!

Addendum: Mythras and Runequest have, from what I have found, much better cross-edition compatibility than, say, D&D (especially 3e and onward). So now I’m looking at Runequest: Monsters and Runequest: Empire from the Mongoose edition of the game to port into my campaign. Find a wilderness guide and I’m more than hooked in.

roleplaying games

After-action report: Apocalypse World, February 12th

I’m still running this game in the background, moreso now that one of our GMs is moving and the other is buying a house. At 7 sessions in, I’m seeing where the current arc ends…and I’m not sure I’m interested in pushing further. This game has built up a lot of material around a relatively small area, and the big Fronts that came to the fore are about to get interesting…in game terms, the clocks are running out. As a result, this past session was a unique and dramatic one. That said, I’m getting to the point where new threats have to be introduced, and I’m a) not sure how to do that given the current state of the setting and b) not sure I want to start a new chapter of this campaign.

As I’m thinking about what the game would look like going forward, I realize part of the problem with continuing past the initial conflicts is that, as a low-quorum game, buy-in is heavily stratified. I have a couple players who have been really engaged with the story so far, and that’s been great. That said, while I can look at both their characters and the rules and come up with interesting continuation stories, I feel like most of the others would just be dragged along. That’s a problem.

There’s also the issue of game progression, specifically pertaining to Apocalypse World itself. The character arcs are only so long…once you start getting into the advanced…erm…advances, you’re heading towards a point where characters leaving the fold becomes not just a possibility, but eventually an inevitability. If you want someone to retire a character and then make a new one, you need some continuity in place to make that an appealing choice.

As I’ve been preparing to run The Sprawl, I’ve thought a lot about game length. In case it wasn’t obvious, I’ve had a strong desire to run a long, epic campaign for some time now, and I haven’t quite made my peace with the fact that The Sprawl, and most PbtA systems for that matter, aren’t designed for it. The Sprawl is better than most…once you get out to the big advances, you have to start fighting for them, especially when you consider that rewinding a corporate clock is expensive, and retiring even more so. That said, even if the endgame can be prolonged, you end up having the same issues…if you choose to have a character retire, why continue?

The Sprawl gives a few mechanics that make this a little easier. While the system has Threats like Apocalypse World, the core antagonists in the world are the corporations, who canonically don’t go away. A story with massive power imbalance is one that is easier to continue, because the dynamic will continue to exist…on the other hand, the current Apocalypse World game is having its local power struggles resolved. Also, in Apocalypse World, where the world is based on scarcity and survival, the minute the core questions start drifting from “how do we keep going” to anything higher up on the hierarchy of needs, the storyline is close to wrapping up. We’re running into that issue as well.

I have some ideas to give The Sprawl more legs, but like a lot of worldbuilding in a PbtA framework it’s going to depend on player buy-in. If the group becomes a cohesive unit in-game, it’s easier to keep the story going with a slightly rotating cast. A slightly rotating cast also keeps the novelty factor there for the players. The main difference I need to embrace is that the nature of this group has to, in at least some form, be defined by the players. My older Cyberpunk campaign, the Iron City Samurai, is a template, but with a different setting entirely, who knows what this one will end up looking like.

I’m also feeling that cohesion will be encouraged with a little pressure. My thinking here was simple at first: it’s easier for a character to retire if they aren’t the first to leave…and in RPG terms this boils down to character death. The casting dynamics for a longer term Sprawl game become much more effective after a few characters die and the game goes on. This is a very different dynamic than most of my games, where character death had been studiously avoided. We’ll see how my players react…I’ve definitely offed characters before, but it’s actually been quite a long time. The balance here, of course is to get people invested first, but also make the deaths seem both fair and worthwhile. It’s very easy to kill characters. It’s not easy to do it in a way that makes the story better.

Beyond all of my brainstorming to give The Sprawl legs, there’s also the more pragmatic issue that if The Sprawl does only last 10-15 sessions, I don’t think I’ll be ready to give up the GM’s chair. Whether or not I have to depends on who else wants to run at that point, but generally speaking fair is fair and it’ll be someone else’s turn. At the end of the day, I kind of have to get over it. Hopefully, with so many other ideas and some which are quite ambitious, I’ll have some leeway to keep running something. And who knows, maybe I’ll finally burn out on GMing. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

I’m glad I’ve gotten the opportunity to run Apocalypse World with this group, and it’s not quite over yet. That said, it’s also been a learning experience, and in seeing why I’m having difficulty in continuing the game beyond the first set of fronts I also see how I can improve next time. Hopefully next time is soon…I have so many ideas.

roleplaying games

World-building: Brass Tacks

My post-apocalyptic fantasy setting has been muted in my mind by a number of other writing ideas which I’ve wanted to execute. That said, it is still high on my list of games to actually run. In looking both at this idea and my outlining for The Sprawl, it’s become clear to me that I’m moving further away from writing stories for my players, and closer to the notion of creating game spaces where they get to tell stories with me. The Sprawl is about giving a strong framework to develop Cyberpunk narrative…the fantasy apocalypse is arguably about creating a huge canvas and using immersionist game ideas to provide as much freedom as possible. Almost opposite approaches for the same intended effect.

In reevaluating the idea now, I’m looking at it from a game perspective. In some ways, my ideas about religion and magic didn’t fit in with the gameplay elements I wanted to arise from religion and magic: while I wanted the campaign to be low magic, I also wanted magic to be ancient knowledge that can be uncovered. Ultimately, assigning the origin point of all supernatural puissance to spirits removes that. I also wanted to give some screen time to the notion of religion as exercised by the Apocalypse World Hocus: what are things that people hold fast to in times of uncertainty? This also required more flexibility and a bottom-up approach.

In looking at actually running this game, I’ve been reading and re-reading a series of articles on hex-crawling from the site The Welsh Piper. In addition to a bunch of neat random encounter generation tools, the site also has hex templates that scale from 5 mile hexes all the way up to a world size. While the author offers the caveat that the world template is a fair amount smaller than the Earth, it’s also 23 million square miles, and if I think I need more space than that I’m probably deluding myself. The world template also has climate bands, answering the oddly fiddly (but still important) question of “what’s the weather like?”

That leads right into a question I’ve been trying to answer: how many things will I be simulating with this? In a role-playing game context, simulating the weather often means you’ve gone off the deep end. In previous games I’ve run this was certainly true: in a Cyberpunk game, the weather simply doesn’t matter. As such, when it’s rained in my cyberpunk games it’s been strictly atmospheric, and that’s fine. In a game with exploration as a cornerstone, weather is a tad more important, as it affects what your adventurers decide to do.

I’ve also looked into the notion of random encounters. Especially if the game is a sandbox, random encounters are important, but it’s equally important that they have some sort of consistency. I’ve found some neat articles about lairs and ranges…that’s probably exactly the right level of detail for what I’m going for. At the same time, I can come up with some rules about how settlements “clear” the space around them, based on how large their town guard is. This offers the beginnings of a course of action to civilize an area. Beyond that, thinking about what sort of encounters are in the area is helpful too…I’d probably want to push the range of animals somewhat into the supernatural, but not necessarily very far. There’s also the question of other sapient encounters, which then brings in the issue of things like reaction rolls. It may sound like a lot, but the whole goal of the endeavor is to make things interesting without writing an overarching story. Details that the players can follow down a rabbit hole are part of that.

Interestingly enough, everything I’ve looked at so far has been system-agnostic. While talking about magic brings in elements that will be handled differently in different games, everything else can be adapted ad nauseam: Weather, maps, random encounters, none of these things have an impact on game mechanics unless the mechanics specify them, and if they do, that’s great. This means I keep on looking at mechanics as an open question. I’ve already determined that D&D is too restrictive, especially as I want access to magic to be dependent on finding it in the game world. More immersionist games like GURPS are ideal, though GURPS specifically is probably a little onerous in this genre (especially compared to, say, Cyberpunk or Supers games, where GURPS comes to the table with very little tweaking). This means I’m looking at fantasy-centered immersionist games, and right now near the top of that list for me is Runequest. The wrinkle here is that I’ve never played Runequest…that said, reading about 6e and Mythras indicates to me that the game would suit my purposes very well, combining detail with a fantasy flavor (magic systems, specifically) and a unified mechanic that makes it at least as easy to use as GURPS, with less deep tweaking. There are other possibilities…I like Reign quite a bit, but rewriting the magic system in a balanced way is intimidating and the system doesn’t necessarily lend itself as well to exploration and the wilderness as it does politics and intrigue. Burning Wheel would as always be excellent, but the relative specificity of the starting conditions and same issues with inbuilt magic system means that it’s both going to be work to convert and also just not the ideal campaign for the system. What I really want is a simulation-based fantasy RPG with no setting and a flexible/modular magic system…Runequest seems to come closest to checking all these boxes. Not that many people read this blog, but I’d still note here that I am open to other suggestions.

So now this game looks like it could be real. There’s still writing to do…I’m going to trip over myself figuring out how to explain why the characters know nothing about the world around them, for instance. But other than some of the narrative issues, I actually think I know how this game would play. This excites me. The next step is to take all these systems and tables and things I’ve read about, codify and then modify them, and figure out what my procedure will be for running the game. And for all that, I have no idea *when* I’d actually run this game. One step at a time.

roleplaying games

GNS and other nonsense

I’ve been reading a fascinating RPGnet thread about the notion of ‘System Matters’ as coined over at The Forge about 18 years ago. As frequently happens with discussions about The Forge and their approach to RPG mechanics topology, GNS theory came up. Now, I’ve considered turning my reflections on GNS into an article at Cannibal Halfling, but the theory, while useful, is so reductive that posting an article that isn’t an editorial runs the risk of endorsing it, which I don’t want to do.

Still, George Box’s quote comes to mind: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The three poles of GNS, imperfectly aligned as they are, help people consider what they aim to get out of a game and why. The major thing wrong with GNS, as Vincent Baker has identified in post-Forge blog posts, is that the categories are not discrete and neither games nor players fit into these three boxes neatly. While some games that Edwards criticized, like “Vampire: the Masquerade”, clearly had issues, it’s not clear that attempting to cater to multiple playstyles was what caused them.

Before I go too far, let’s set down terms. GNS refers to three notions of play in RPGs: Gamism, or the desire to mechanically succeed or “win” the challenges delivered in the game, Narrativism, or the desire to participate in and create an engaging narrative/story, and Simulationism (likely more accurately called immersionism), the desire to get into the head of a character and experience the world. The primary reasons why GNS has to be approached carefully as a model are that a) there’s overlap between these elements in both players and games and b) there’s no empirical way to determine what attributes make something Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist/Immersionist.

Let’s take a typical “power gamer” as a broad example. This is a person who, when building and advancing his character, will make mathematically optimal choices in order to have the best chance at “winning” encounters. At the same time, combat is a thrill to this player, who relishes in using the abilities their character has, and gets into the events very deeply. At the end of the day, they’re also motivated by understanding why it’s so important for their character to keep on fighting, and part of the set of “winning” as they’ve defined it involves finding a satisfactory conclusion to the narrative their character is part of.

It might be a little contrived, but that example brings G,N, and S under one heading. In terms of players I know who fall under this heading, I’ve seen them enjoy Exalted (heavily Gamist), Apocalypse World (heavily narrativist) and GURPS (heavily immersionist) equally. So what gives?

I can find the most intersectional examples of my players and cherry-pick them, but my groups can lean one way or the other, and they definitely engage different sorts of games differently. I have players who are all about engaging the story, and some who are inveterate optimizers. I also have players who stay with consistent character types and try to build that fictional space around them. If my group has different motivations, then I as a GM should investigate different ways to engage them.

I’ve been using GNS as a rough framework to investigate different systems my group may like to try. Recently that means an immersionist tack, as that’s one element of play that I feel I haven’t done effectively, and that I enjoy. I mean, I’m a GURPS-head, and the way I approach worldbuilding should make it unsurprising that I like the notion of creating a world to be immersed in.

My recent idea has been to look for narrower immersive systems. GURPS is probably the best “universal” system I know, but at the end of the day “universal” is likely not what I need. When it comes to immersive gaming, I’m most interested in fantasy. My modern, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic games run well with story-focused systems, because the characters and interactions are what matters. In fantasy, I feel that the world is also a character, and the only way I’m going to succeed in my goals for the genre is by making the players feel like they’re there.

D&D is not an immersion-driven game, at all. The implied setting isn’t internally consistent, the mechanics are based on gamist “ability buying” rather than any reflection of how experience and improvement work in the real world, and the encounter and campaign design is built off of a treadmill I feel I can’t escape from. Zweihander is a game I’ve kickstarted, and while I’m still anticipating it eagerly, the heavy basis on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has given me more pause since I’ve been playing Dark Heresy. I’ve looked at GURPS again, but I’m just not sure tuning it correctly is going to be worth the effort. There are others out there. I’ve cast an intrigued eye to Mythras (The Game Formerly Known as Runequest 6e), because it seems to be the level of depth I’m looking for and has finally shed much of its baked-in setting. Rolemaster is another one that people have recommended, but I bounced hard off Cyberspace so there’s no way I’m going to be able to put up with the design. And there is Burning Wheel…while heavily narrative it does have lots of chewy details and neat subsystems. Actually running it, though, is likely a pipe dream so long as there aren’t PDFs. Torchbearer is a tantalizing compromise, but is very narrow, even if it’s arguably still immersive.

So yeah. I’m not giving up PbtA or Fate or any of my other story-driven ideas, but I’d like to take a different tack for approaching immersion than just GURPS. Some time in the future I’ll have a chance to read Zweihander. And who knows, maybe I’ll buy Mythras on the same sort of lark that caused me to buy Victoriana.

roleplaying games

Long-runners

In writing a future post for Cannibal Halfling on campaigns, I find myself once again stepping back and seeing if I can take my own advice. And once again, I find myself able to use what I’ve written in a positive way.

The post hits next week, but in general I focus on three things: length, continuity, and story. Story I’ve talked about at length here, and I know my preferences: I like my story reactive, and I prefer to both give players narrative control and have them desire some degree of narrative control. Continuity is something with a lot of range, but my preferences lean toward a relatively high amount of continuity with various structures and differing story beats.

Length…oh man, length. It has been my desire for a long time to run a long, character-focused campaign with enough runway to really let players grow into their characters. I’ve wanted room to tell epic stories, and let characters do things simply not possible in shorter games without a lot of deliberate focus. Watching some selections from Critical Role, now at 78 (!) sessions, has further reinforced to me that long arcs like this are things that I want.

My online group typically runs games that span 12-18 months and 15-20 sessions. I know the reasoning for this, and it’s a good length to work with both a) our roster of people who want to GM and b) our natural tendency towards ADD and wanting to explore multiple genres. It’s also a length that, in many cases, is infuriating. For one thing, many more story-focused game designers (noted by Luke Crane and Vincent Baker in Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World, respectively) have identified the amount of time it takes for both players and the GM to really identify with the characters as about 12 sessions. A 15 session game is just long enough to get to this point…and then finish. For another thing, the year-long framework has, combined with group events and other GMs waiting in line, put pressure on GMs to end their campaigns. This tends to further exacerbate some of these issues.

To be fair, our current roster of GMs are relaxing their approaches to our previous time constraints. This is a good thing, as ultimately as a player I have some good characters and a lot of room to get into them. It’s frustrating that it’s happening while I wait to GM, but that’s part of working within a group. We are blessed to have so many people want to run games, even if it inconveniences me sometimes.

What it does give me, though, is the opportunity to figure out what would encourage my players to stick with characters longer and play a longer game. Part of this would be structural, based on system and story, but part of it is much more focused on my techniques as a GM.

Thinking back over the last ten years or so, one thing I’ve been slowly improving on is pacing. Higher-powered games are difficult to pace, and as characters acquire new abilities and equipment it becomes harder still. The mechanics of continually finding challenging encounters eventually lead straight up the stairs to the higher-level villains you didn’t want the PCs to fight until much later. Related to that is writing…the more world-building and secondary session writing you do, the less likely you’re going to burn through a main plot and end up at the final boss in eight sessions, shrugging your shoulders.

PbtA systems give me a chance to remedy this, as writing is supposed to be much more reactive. Thinking to my future campaign of The Sprawl, in particular, elements like Threats and the Corporation Clocks give a much better idea of how much trouble the PCs are in and to what degree you should ramp things up. The big thing, though, is trying not to have a story. Building one session at a time helps things happen more organically, so you can build up a base of events and experiences before trying  to push anything in one direction.

So in running The Sprawl, I hope that I can establish a base for a long-running campaign and that my players can put some characters on the table that they really have a chance to grow into. That said, I also worry a little bit about personal boredom. I ended my Interface Zero campaign because I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to take the campaign. This was in part due to boredom, but also due to a lot of characters not giving me much to work with, and those who did taking the plot in a million different directions. I can’t say for certain that I’ll avoid this in another cyberpunk game, but I’m a little more aware of what happened and think I can see some signposts that will help me avoid it.

Beyond the online group, I’m still trying to get things off the ground in-person. Part of this is group dynamics (mostly having to do with attendance and that whole having a life thing) and part of it is play-style. In the current iteration of the group, I haven’t had much success with PbtA…my players are used to more traditional games where the GM has the answers to setting questions. That’s perfectly fine, but it does mean I have to adjust my expectations and change my planning and writing style a bit. Two of my players have started to create characters for Victoriana, which should definitely be interesting.

In the end, I still don’t have the outlet I’m looking for for Burning Wheel or my crazy post-apocalyptic game. With regards to the latter, I’ve pretty much settled on writing it in Fate, hoping that the system will still shine when everything is more tamped down and gritty. Still, that writing has to be done, and finding time to write more than blog posts has been tough (my focus has been off for the last week or two). Even when I get my wits about me again, I’m still likely to go back to Paradox before writing this Fate hack.

Oh well. More game ideas than time for games, it’s an eternal problem.