Saturday, December 31, 2011

GM Tips: GMing 101

GM Tips: I've presented articles extolling the role-playing game as a great past-time that is an intelligent, imaginative, and creative way to spend your time and money. It's a growing hobby that has become much more popular since the formative days of 1979, but there's still a huge hurdle to getting involved: the GM. It's easy to get into any number of RPGs as a new player, but getting started is a rocky, uphill battle for the Game Master, as he must wrangle player personalities, schedules, and the rules of the system in addition to developing his own plot. Hopefully, a few personal lessons will ease your GMing burden, or at least illustrate how I shoulder the burden of the Game Master.

As the year ends, the crush to get a few more blog posts finished mounts. Will the stress of publishing three (or more!) articles in one week make my head explode in a viscous explosive aneurism of productive overload? Only time will tell.

This article has been stewing for a while, and I'm quite ashamed to admit it. It's been promised to a young friend of mine for several months now. Well, reminiscing about early RPG experiences and then distilling them into productive advice has been an invigorating and frustrating process. I hope these tips, meant for brand new GMs especially, will help other nerds elsewhere pool their collective imaginations even more harmoniously due to their elegant wisdom.

Either that, or at least you'll get a better idea of how I personally harangue my players into serving my RPG plots.

The task of leading a group of RPG nerds as Game Master is a daunting one. As I mentioned in my Nerd Bread post about RPGs, the GM has to be outgoing, coordinated, extremely well abreast of the rules and plots of the game, and really has to do all of this at a pace that keeps his players entertained. But, while there are numerous responsibilities to being a GM, I find that most new GMs (myself included, once upon a spaceship) neglect to realize that they only need to be responsible for a few key elements of the game at a time. Below I have four manageable areas that are pretty easy to address and go a long way towards setting the foundation for a long, successful, and fun RPG campaign.

Know your RPG system.
This bit might be easy to overlook, especially when you only know a single RPG system, but it is important if you're a first-time GM or an old beardy fellow like myself with a dozen systems on the shelf and another dozen on the computer. The key to knowing your system is knowing the features of your chosen rules set. This is different from simply knowing the rules. This is about enlightened awareness, not empirical knowledge of your game's book. Your system of choice might have rules for survival in the wilderness, but you really should know if they work well if those rules might come up in play. Knowing what does and doesn't work in your system--or how certain things work--keeps gameplay smooth and well-coordinated.

For instance, when playing a game of the latest edition of Gamma World, I keep in mind that gameplay is supposed to be tough, fast, and fun. So I cut loose on my tendency to have overblown plots, well-developed antagonists, and hyper-detailed combat. Players might have a poorly placed botch result in the death of one or more PC, but in a system where character creation is just a couple of die rolls, that makes it fun and quick to get back into the game.

In a GURPS game, on the other hand, I keep in mind that the system is all about detail and drama. There's a tendency for combat to bog down if you don't manage it properly, as there's a large number of great-but-overwhelming options for players. So when I use the full combat rules, I use the NPCs to drive player actions and lead them in how to fight. I might emphasize that an NPC is getting desperate and using Fatigue to make rapid attacks to help nudge players towards matching their frenzy, etc. But in any case, I try to keep GURPS combats shorter than most other RPGs when you look at it turn-for-turn, and instead emphasize the heavy cost of those intense, short sequences of violence.

When I first started to really GM games, it was to the sweet western tune of the Serenity RPG, which uses the Cortex system by Margaret Weis Productions. It's a fun, cinematic system that really dials in the dynamics of the TV show that gives players the ability to spend plot points to modify dice rolls or even spontaneously add plot twists to the story. At first I led this as I did other games I'd played in the past (notably Dungeons & Dragons 3.5), and that was an okay start. But when I started to properly direct the plot point dynamic by giving players unfair challenges that forced out-of-the-box solutions, that created some fun moments that my players still reminisce about nearly seven years later. Conversely, my early attempts to learn and memorize the nitty-gritty paraphernalia of the rulebook met with failure and frustration--remembering a lot of the fringe rules off-hand is nowhere near as important as mastering the system's core dynamic.

In any case, the habit I have formed for my own games is this: obsess over learning and refining the game's rules right until a session starts, and then stop. Once the game starts, I try to forget about the stack of rulebooks on my gaming shelf--it's just my players, our story, and my rules. Anywhere from twenty to fifty percent of all the judgments I make in a game are off the cuff, and while they're informed by the rules I read doggedly in my free-time, I try not to obsess over an abstract sense of whether I made the 'correct' call or not. I'm the GM; all my judgment calls are correct. Except when they're not.

"...remembering a lot of the fringe rules off-hand is nowhere near as important as mastering the system's core dynamic."

Know your setting.
Knowing your setting is all about having the principles of the fictional universe well-established, even if the canon itself is hidden. It's a key to good fiction and to good role-playing. This doesn't mean you need to know every little detail about the farmer's outhouse in that little hamlet on your world map--it means you know why things work the way they do. That way when your players ask you an unexpected question--like how many strawberries they can buy for the party with ten shillings, or if they could hit an enemy boarding shuttle with the armored underside of an unarmed transport--you can come up with a reasonable, consistent answer even if the rules are coming out of your keester.

And this ties in to preparation. Preparation is good, and if you are thinking about the world and campaign as a whole, I don't think anything is wasted. That said, if you've got a game coming up and you've only put in 30 minutes of work into the upcoming session, don't panic. Don't panic. Just play the game, and let player decisions and curiosity fill out what you didn't plan. Besides, the average group of players will probably destroy your plans about one hour into the session anyways, so no need to stress over a little ad libbing. A lot of times when you find yourself making spontaneous GM calls in the moment you'll find that you make the game feel even more responsive to player choices and consequences, and that's the heart of role-playing in the end.

And another note on knowing your system, which I'll expound upon in later posts: change stuff. Make house-rules, redesign character sheets, cut and paste your own GM screen, and do anything else that makes the game more intuitive for you. Just because you're playing with professionally-made materials doesn't mean they best fit your gaming style or preferences--nerd up and make it fit.

" means you know why things work the way they do."

Know your players.
No matter how well you do as a GM, you need your players. Even if you have a totally antagonistic play-style where the players huddle together and say, "oh sh1t, Benz got Trow nao, we're hozed"* you still need the players to enjoy the session if you want them to bother coming back. And if they come to game expecting a well-balanced combat-heavy experience and you instead deal a dramatic plot with high-minded social interactions, they will cry "OMG, hackz."**

So know what your players are expecting, and make sure you give them a good idea of what you have in store for them--in story terms, in content, in pacing, and in game mechanics. A number of GMs out there even go so far as to make prospectuses while planning out a new campaign, distribute it to interested players, and gather feedback before the first session even begins. That's a little overboard, but if you don't do something similar in an informal manner, at least, you're asking for trouble.

In describing the story to your players, let them know what stories inspire you, but also what specific elements inspire you. Saying you like The Lord of the Rings isn't as helpful as explaining you love the details of the journey, managing supplies, and crossing diverse terrain that is emphasized more in the book than the movies. Also be sure to give your players an idea of the content you'll be including in the story. A general movie rating is helpful, especially if you go by category: "PG language with R-rated violence" for instance. In my grittier campaigns, I like to plum the depths of my personal knowledge of anatomy when describing violence, and that's not something you should generally spring on unsuspecting players in my experience. Pacing is an after-thought for a lot of campaigns, but if you have unusual pacing in your games you need to be aware of it. I think most RPG players expect 1.75 fight scenes per session: two in an ordinary session, with one large boss fight every four or so sessions that takes up the majority of a night's game. My current campaign so far has had about .5 fight scenes per session: we might have two or three sessions pass without combat altogether, and then have one adventure dominated by a single fight scene or a couple of brief, violent ones. The pacing is sometimes dictated by the game mechanics and your own interpretations of rules, which is why it's important you spell that out to players ahead of time, especially if they have their own copy of the rules.

I'm good friends with the members of my core gaming group, so I've been lucky on these counts. Before starting our current game, for instance, we had a couple of nights where we just hung out, talked about the setting and their character ideas, and watched movies that I explained were inspiring to the composition of the campaign. Our first RPG together, however, was a more special case, and it helped me learn the lessons described above. Being a Serenity campaign, we already had a few of the elements of story, pacing, and content laid out for us, and since the Serenity RPG rules had just been released, I thought that was taken care of as well. Note that uncertain qualifier. The inaugural game night began with the players assuming a mix of ship crew and prisoners on a penal transport ship that struck disaster while under-weigh. When I described the grisly scene of one crewman who'd suffered explosive decompression, I realized that--while the women players' looks were tremendously rewarding--I probably should've warned them. Eh, tough cookies. Later in their adventures, the players balked at the prospect of buying food and fuel for their ship--issues that are normally dire but still glossed over in the movie and television series--when I prompted them to do so. And, even though the rules were designed for the setting, I still needed to house-rule after-market modifications to spaceships, specific strength limits, and the running rate of slaves on Whitefall. All lessons learned.

*Computer-gamer language, personally associated with the worst habits of RPG players.
**Hackz: Petulant players will usually attribute unexpected or unjustified defeat to being the victim of aggressive cheating through game-hacking.

"Even if you have a totally antagonistic play-style... you still need the players to enjoy the session if you want them to bother coming back."

Know the atmosphere.
GMing the right atmosphere is that little something extra that--when done right--can make a game session truly special. Good atmosphere--and being aware of it--can be the difference between a game of fantasy epic goodness and a night of combat-guessing-games. You can make atmosphere through vocabulary, voice, sounds, sights or even food. Vocabulary is one of the fundamental ways of creating atmosphere, but it is more often a pitfall for bad RPG atmosphere, because you and the players are improvising and it is therefore easy to say something ridiculous. For instance, in a medieval European setting (or any of the countless fantasy iterations thereof) your average town guardsman should never be heard to say, "You've gotta be frickin' kiddin' me!" no matter how apropos it may be. If you can manage a passable accent to fit a character, do so, but even if you're lousy at accents, a good GM changes his voice to match distinct characters if only to differentiate them from the dozens of speaking roles he will assume.

Sounds are my favorite tools in crafting a good gaming atmosphere. I now have nearly 9 hours of music in my iTunes Myth RPG playlist, and I've even split up the list into music appropriate for general mood, action sequences, tragic moments, or scary scenes. With the click of a button, I can queue up a good theme to supplement a grand speech or a disturbing dirge to set my players on edge in a dark cavern. I also have a couple dozen tracks of ambient sound effects--rainfall, campfires, marketplace noises, and battle clatter--that I pull up whenever players spend much time in a given setting. Sure, it requires a bit more preparation, focus, and coordination to play composer for your RPG, but it makes the emotions of your game run a bit higher.

Food can also create or interfere with atmosphere. As someone who personally doesn't snack, I don't usually choose to provide snacks in game. Fortunately for my players, my wife and one of the other wives who plays with us are big into bringing or making snacks for everyone. But crunching into a bag of Doritos when the player-characters are marshaling for grand battle can really tank an atmosphere as well, so I try to make sure every session has some low-key time that works for snacking. That manages the disruption of food on gaming atmosphere, but food can help improve gaming atmosphere, too. You can eat food that, if not the actual food  eaten in your setting, invokes the same mood you're trying to establish. For an RPG session that coincided with my birthday in real-life and a winter holiday in our Myth game's timeline, for instance, we ate a meal that would be typical of citizens in the setting: coney and civey (rabbit stew) and Italian panforte for dessert, two entrees that date back to medieval times. It was a good meal, and made for a very focused gaming experience.

"Good atmosphere--and being aware of it--can be the difference between a game of fantasy epic goodness and a night of combat-guessing-games."

So there you go, GMing 101. Just remember: know your system, know your setting, know your players, and know your atmosphere. These are good principles for the preparation and execution of your games, and they span GMs of all rules sets and abilities. Next set of GM tips will probably provide some more concrete examples of how to make your game your own.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Bob Hoskins

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie (or television show) invoked will be one I either own or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

In a major break with recent blog policy, I'm posting two days in a row. And today's article, like many of the posts that will be following, is one that I've been sitting on half-finished for a while. Believe me, the movie web stretches far and wide, so don't make the mistake of thinking that the chain of succession stalled in the gap. This week, we have the inimitable Bob Hoskins in three movies where he plays three engaging villains that each have a plot that involves assuming a sort of distorted father role in protagonists' lives.

Bob Hoskins: Correctamundo

Movie: Enemy at the Gates (own it)

The intro to Enemy at the Gates is a marvelous juxtaposition of savagery. We begin with Joseph Fiennes' narration that quickly sums up the stakes of the battle, remarking that the fate of the world hinges on Stalingrad. (There are few places in World War Two history where such a statement could be supported, but I think it's fair to say that the siege of Stalingrad is one such linchpin.) Then we get to see the brutal, cruel, and apathetic machinery the Soviet Union employed to desperately wage this stage of the war. Men are shipped to the front lines with virtually no supplies in crowded train cars that superficially resemble the popular depiction of Nazi internment cars. Only half of the soldiers are equipped with basic weaponry. They are launched on suicidal wave-attack formations, and then shot by their own officers if they retreat without orders--orders which never come. It's a grim conflation of values from the average World War Two movies that makes the Nazi and Soviet belligerents feel more interchangeable and ambiguous.

And then we get Bob Hoskins as Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. You first meet him as he gives a Soviet commander a pistol to kill himself for failing to hold the line, and then you revel in his snapping badger of a speech to the remaining officers of Stalingrad's defense. With Hoskins behind the characterization, Khruschev is both wryly funny and deadly--deadly deadly--serious. Plumbing the officers and commissars for suggestions, he listens to a handful of nervous party-line suggestions, all of which fall into the category of 'shoot those who don't fall into line'. When Joseph Fiennes as Commisar Danilov suggests that the Soviet political officers actually try to find good examples, heroes, for the beleaguered defenders to emulate, the Soviet pit-bull creeps up to the beanstalk Danilov and asks in a Brillo-pad-tender voice:

It's such a great, fun little moment, but still played completely straight thanks to the subtle depth of Bob Hoskins in this role. There's sinister anticipation, intimate anxiety, and sadistic humor all commingled in one perfect vignette. This deep introduction colors his later scenes as Khrushchev ingratiates himself as a bullish father-figure in Vassili's growth as a hero of the people, adding an engaging level of tension from another Soviet source in the second act of the film.

Movie: Hook (own it)

Steven Spielberg's Hook is one of the defining pieces of cinema that my generation devoured at a young age. A modern adult-centric sequel to the classic Peter Pan story, Hook follows the mid-life adventures of failed father Peter Pan as he gets dragged back to Neverland. At the bottom end of the intended audience's age, I went through junior high hanging out with kids who'd chant "Rufio! Rufio! Ru! Fi! Oh!" at large events, kids who earnestly worked on their crow, and otherwise enjoyed Hook as one of the few fantasy films accessible to kids in the early nineties. Part of the elegant power of this film--like many of Spielberg's enduring works--lies in the strength of the four principal characters: Robin Williams as Peter Pan, Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, and Bob Hoskins weighing in as the most enjoyable iteration of Smee ever--by far. By liberating the consummate goon from the mindless affirmative support Smee has always embodied, Hoskins' Smee was still mired in comical stupidity, but the actor also made him engagingly charismatic and vaguely devious at the same time. The marvelously unique minion's character is wonderfully encapsulated when he and Hook brainstorm how to get poetic, meaningful vengeance on Peter Pan. With a ding of a bell, Smee announces his own wicked plot with:

With Hook condescendingly correcting his henchman's verbiage, Smee nonetheless outlines a plan to use Pan's children to gain thorough revenge on Peter Pan--a plan that Hook clearly would not have developed on his own. Smee being a productive part of Prosthetic's crew is not just a novel approach, but it is so dynamically and enjoyably developed throughout the film that Hoskins stands shoulder to shoulder with Hoffman as the eponymous villain--even stealing a few scenes. Add to that the charismatic manner in which Smee barks back and forth with the rest of the pirates in the film, and you get a sense that Hoskins' Smee is the real power behind the Jolly Roger's tiller in Hook.

Movie: Unleashed (own it)

Unleashed is the most violent saccharine movie you're ever likely to see. It's a film about a quiet, child-like martial arts prodigy raised to be a human attack dog for a British loan shark, and it sits on the action chops of star Jet Li and director Louis Leterrier as well as on the acting chops of Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman plays a saintly, patient, blind piano-tuner named Sam, who stands opposite the man holding the main character's leash: 'Uncle' Bart, played by Bob Hoskins. The juxtaposition of the sweet and the dangerous in this movie cannot be overemphasized--just taking a selection of moments from the movie's three acts illustrates this. Act one includes a scene where a man is killed outright when he's punched repeatedly in the windpipe. The second act has the main character learn about ice cream and his first brain-freeze with a cute girl, and the third act involves our hero tossing two bad guys at once by their junk.

That's right, I said it. I'll just give you a moment to let that sink in.

As with the other two movies, Bob Hoskins plays a character who is interesting and deep even in his most profoundly iniquitous moments. Unlike Khrushchev or Smee, however, Uncle Bart is absolutely vile and it's really only the marvelous realization of the actor that makes his loathsome character bearable on screen. He's a torturous loan shark, involved in blackmail and prostitution, murder, and he's a methodically cruel slave master to the main character Danny. And yet he plays the right moments off with a coy smile and understatement that make the audience actually enjoy the human diaper stain's contribution to the story. A prime example is when Bart is asked how he managed to turn a human being into a mindless fighting machine. His reply: "It's like my saint of a mum used to say..."

Look at that coy smile. Out of context, you might try slapping congenial as a label on that mug, but he's using that old wives' proverb to euphemise the systematic dehumanization of a person. It's boggling to watch, and enjoyable in its powerfully disconcerting subtlety in a movie that is otherwise un-subtly painted in contrasting tones of blood red and shining gold.

Leave it to Hoskins to find that critical transitory element in such an inky black-hat character. And leave it to him to make him smarmy and funny and subtle even when the rest of his on-screen moments involve murder and beatings.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas at the Nerdery

We have a saying at my parents' house: "Shut the frak up, Whitey, I'll update the blog when I get the chance!" Or something to that effect. And, even though it's the twenty-fifth of December, that saying still got a holiday iteration tonight. So here's a little added Christmas present for my readers: a post.

You should enjoy it, I made it myself.

There are a few Christmas movies that I have to watch every year: It's a Wonderful Life, sure. At least one version of the Christmas Carol, definitely. The muppet version is quite good, and who doesn't love Michael Cain? A Christmas Story, absolutely. As of today I have three shirts that referencing some of this movie's best scenes. Die Hard, one or two. Yippy-kay-ay-yay, my friend.

And then there's a National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Now, I'm no National Lampoon fan. Chevy Chase is usually fun, though, and this installment of the Griswolds' tetralogy is by far the best. One of the things that this movie captures about the holidays (in my experience, at least) better than any of the others listed above is the way the much vaunted season can be magical and mundane, infuriating and intimate, maddening and soothing, all in turn. Sometimes, it can be all those things at once. When I was a kid, some of favorite moments from the film were those with the sled, or the crazy old aunt and uncle, or the squirrel-chase through the home. Now, while those scenes still give me miles of entertainment, a new scene resonates with me more than any other. As a father, husband, and former bank employee who got the holiday hose while breaking his back, I love it when Chevy Chase' character, Clark, hits rock-bottom when he realizes that his boss pulled the financial rug out from under his Christmas plans:

"Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is! Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"

I love that sentiment, and there's a certain clever progression to the Litany of Insults (tm). First, we have the obvious two: cheap and lying. Then Clark moves on to rail against Mr. Shirley's worthlessness with no-good, rotten, and four-flushing. Four-flushing, by the way, comes from poker slang and means someone who operates as though they have a flush even though they only have four out of the five cards needed. Then we have three hyphenated terms for a vile person: low-life, snake-licking, and dirt-eating. Follow that up with two past-tense verbs that serve as adjectives of habitual problems associated with evil southern men--inbred and overstuffed--and you have the first break in Clark's three-iteration pattern. It's too bad, but considering Clark's stress at this point, you can forgive him. Ignorance stands alone thematically in the list, appropriately enough, and blood-sucking and dog-kissing are good hyphenates for inhuman behavior. That's followed by four terms of lacking--brainless, dickless, hopeless, and heartless--that attack his intelligence, forthrightness, potential, and sympathetic value. Then, as any good slander should evolve, Clark's rant closes with a string of aspersions on Mr. Shirley's appearance (fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed) and a general vessel with which to store all these epithets (sack of monkey shit). At the end, Clark is impressed with the effective power (it's really a well-constructed deconstruction of another human being) and the weight (it's also extremely embarrassing, well-done or not) of his words--hence the hallelujah and holy shit, respectively. And after something like that, anyone would need some headache relief.

Masterfully done, Mr. Griswold. And I'm sure anyone over a certain age knows the feeling. Even if you don't watch Christmas Vacation every year for the holiday spirit it exudes, I highly recommend this scene for anyone coping with bad bosses in the corporate world.

A few years ago--exactly when is neither important nor hard to figure out--I tossed together some alternate words to Jingle Bells. It's an ode to the exhilarating-yet-truly-unsatisfying commercial hunt, the frustration of gifting that irascible and sphinx-like loved one who has everything, and the thoroughly sensational brain-washing of pop entertainment. I can't think of many things nerdier and Christmas-oriented.

Unless, of course, you sing along. Out loud. That would be better, and much nerdier.
Dashing through the store on an all-night coffee binge,
down the aisles we roar, living on the fringe!
Cash registers ring, making people fight,
what war it is to shop and scream a last minute song tonight!

Elmo toys, Elmo toys,
they're all out of stock.
Maybe my kid will be a brat and I'll get him a rock.

Standing in the row, while I'm thinking of my Dad,
I should start to go, I'm making people mad!
But they don't know my pop--how tough that it has got--
they don't know on Christmas day he'd bought it and forgot!

War movies, war movies,
who stars in that one?
If it's obscure enough he won't have bought it Amazon.

Fighting with your son over what's appropriate,
you don't let him have fun, he just doesn't get it!
"'R' stands for Relative, 'PG' is Pretty Gay,
if you really loved me you'd give me Die Hard Christmas day!"

Star Wars Three, Star Wars Three,
you're not thirteen yet.
Why the heck did George Lucas make Star Wars so violent? 

Merry Christmas, nerds.