I rarely do very much planning for the games I run. One of the benefits of using a rules-light system is that it’s easy to make things up on the spot, so I don’t see the point of spending a lot of time drawing maps and looking up stat blocks that might or might not get used. That doesn’t mean I improvise everything, just that I try to keep my plot ideas as open as possible so the players have plenty of room to make their own decisions. What kind of planning I do depends largely on what kind of game I’m going to run. Since a depressingly high percentage of games I run are convention demos, most of them fall into five broad categories for planning purposes.
These are games where the basic premise is just a genre, like “Sword & Sorcery” or “Super-Heroes.” I usually run genre demos either because I want to show players how QAGS can be used for the genre or because when I’m coming up with games for the convention I think “I’d like to run a [genre] game.” Since I tend to run genres I’m familiar with, I usually just think of a conflict, often a specific bad guy with some kind of scheme (“Anathema The Dark is trying to steal the Cauldron of Despair to raise a zombie army”) and rely on genre conventions to get the players caught up in it. I might also think about a few scenes, locations, or supporting characters that are likely to show up or that I’d like to use, but I rarely try to plot out exactly where and how they’ll appear in the game.
Setting demos are games I’m running to try to get someone interested enough in a setting to buy the book or PDF. For obvious reasons, these make up the majority of my convention games. Nine times out of ten, the game description in the program is generic, so I’m not locked into a particular plotline. In that case, I usually have an idea of which existing scenario I can use (“seems like a Sharkcano kind of day”) or a vague plot idea similar to the ones I come up with for genre demos (“I’ll have them go up against Al Capone’s voodoo master”), but those are just back-ups. I prefer to rely on setting knowledge to build a plot around the characters that the players create at the table whenever possible. For example, a couple of years ago at GenCon I was running a generic M-Force game and went in with the fallback of "I'll throw some goblins their way and let them track down a massive nest." When the players decided they wanted to be members of the Honolulu field office, the goblins got tossed out for a plot about a secessionist cult who used a magical tiki mask to command native monsters to carry out a political murder, then summoned a volcano god. The goblins would have worked fine, but the plot probably wouldn't have been resolved in part by PCs doing "white hula magic" to counter "The Hula of the Damned." In addition to having a plot I can use, I also go into setting demos with a mental list of setting-specific tropes that I want to try to include, either because they show off the setting particularly well or because I just happen to like them.
These generally fall into another category as well, but if you write up a con blurb that promises a mystery, making it up as you go along won’t cut it. At the very least, you have to go into the game knowing what the mystery and the solution. For example, if you’re running a murder mystery, you need to know who’s dead, who killed them, and why. You might be able to create the clues based on player actions with just that, but it’s best to have at least a few big clues in advance, along with likely ways the characters can find them. The key is to make sure you don’t create a mystery that requires the players to follow a specific flowchart to reach a solution. Wherever possible, make sure there are several different sources characters can use to arrive at key information. Getting the PCs involved isn’t usually an issue, since most mysteries are either “mission” type games where solving the mystery is the characters’ job (a private detective or CSI game) or “bottle” games where the characters have little choice but to solve the mystery, either because there’s really nothing else to do or to save their own skin (the standard “how to host a murder mystery” set-up).
Character Driven Games
When it comes to conventions, character-driven games require pre-generated characters. Otherwise you’re basing your whole game premise on the hope that the players will create interesting characters with their own plot hooks and that you’ll be able to improvise a game based on those plot hooks. This does happen from time to time, but not often enough for it to be a safe bet. Most of the character-driven games I run are based on pop-culture, either as direct adaptations of some book, movie, or TV show, or as a mash-up of two franchises. The most important aspect of preparing for this kind of game is to make sure that the characters are designed with built-in plots and reasons to pursue them. You’ll probably also want to think about some likely scenes that will give each of the characters a chance to be in the spotlight, along with possible stories that can lead to those scenes. The amount of plot planning required depends a lot on the premise. My usual plot outline for “Muppets of Sherwood” is along the lines of "Sheriff is up to something dastardly; NPC merry muppets will get captured and possibly nearly hung; make sure Gonzo gets a chance to do crazy stunts and Kermit Hood has plenty of opportunities for swashbuckling and sharpshooting." On the other hand, running "Lock, Stock, and Two Ruby Slippers” for the first time required very detailed (for me) planning because the concept needed to at least somewhat adhere to the Wizard of Oz story structure. So in addition to translating Dorothy, Tin Man, and the others to the modern-day London crime underground setting and giving them reasons to want to see the Wizard, I had to work out, for example, what "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" would mean in a Guy Ritchie movie.
Note: The characters for both "Muppets of Sherwood" and "Lock, Stock, and Two Ruby Slippers" can be downloaded from the Hex Pre-gen archive.
Sometimes I run games like "Players Choice" (the players choose what genre they want, roll up characters, and the GM runs it) and "Life is Random" (the premise of the game is generated randomly using The Book of Dumb Tables or The Book of Dumb Tables 2). The whole purpose of these games is to show off the versatility of the QAGS system. Since by design it's impossible to plan them, those succeed or fail entirely based on the ability of the GM (and players) to improvise. The only time the GM has to plan is while the players are making characters, and usually at that point you’ve just got the genre or setting to go on. I spend that time trying to come up with a good conflict or villain, but also trying to think of what parts of that genre the system can handle especially well so that I can try to include ways to highlight how well the system works for that particular situation.
And When I’m Not Running A One-Shot...
When I actually get to run a campaign outside of a convention, I combine all these plotting schemes as needed, but for an overall storyline I usually rely on knowing what’s going on in the world independent of the PCs. If you’ve got a world where lots of different characters and factions have their own agendas, and those agendas intersect with one another or the goals of the characters, the adventures basically write themselves. I usually also come up with ideas for a few generic stand-alone adventures/encounters (for example, a haunted house to investigate or highwaymen attacking people along the roadway) that I can drop in when things get bogged down or I feel like players need a break from the ongoing story.
Unless you’re running a dungeon crawl or railroading the players, or are lucky enough to players who can generate character-driven plots that you just have to flesh out as the game goes along, you’re going to have to do some planning. Most people probably plan more than I do, but if you want to keep the game open-ended, it’s still important to think about what you’re trying to do in the game and plan the things you need to get the point across.
Sometime last year, I got involved in a reddit thread about women in gaming and ended up getting interviewed by Jamie from The Lonely d12. She posted the interview earlier this week, and I think I’m officially the first non-lady to be interviewed for their Ladies of Gaming series. Since I’m still easing back into coming up with stuff to say about gaming every week, I’m going take the easy route this week and give you a list, in this case of completely random characters that I’m going to make up as I go along based on (in some cases, slightly altered) random names generated at Behind The Name.
1. Suspiria Crimsondoom
Job: Motherfuckin’ Sorceress
Goal: To awaken ARARARARAR, God fo FIRE! and EVIL!
Fun Fact: Not her real name.
WWPHITM? Sarah Paulson
2. Bubba Ray Brady
Goal: Regional Championship
Fun Fact: Surprisingly good at math
WWPHITM? Dave Franco
3. Almira Faust
Job: Wealthy Socialite
Goal: To get away with murder
Fun Fact: Has excellent marksmanship
WWPHITM? Catherine Zeta-Jones
4. Cosmicfreak Groovedropper
Job: Electronic Musician
Goal: Oneness with the universe
Fun Fact: Is SOOOOO high right now
WWPHITM? Terry Crews
5. Masher McNeil
Job: Small-time Crook
Goal: To pay off his debts
Fun Fact: Knows all the words to “Let it Go”
6. Bertrand Sinclair Orsini
Job: Rare book collector
Goal: Ancient occult knowledge
Fun Fact: Speaks 9 languages (3 of them dead)
WWPHITM? Oded Fehr
7. Carolina Hightower
Job: Local News Anchor
Goal: To become a household name
Fun Fact: Collects Barbies
WWPHITM? Hayden Panettiere
8. Gertrude Boothman
Goal: To finish her novel
Fun Fact: Used to be a dominatrix
WWPHITM? Betty White
9. Seveli Busto
Goal: The American Dream
Fun Fact: Wears way too much cologne
WWPHITM? Tommy Wiseau
10. Felix Silva
Job: Safe Cracker
Goal: One last big score
Fun Fact: Fluent in Klingon
WWPHITM? Clifton Collins, Jr.
11. Icarus Aleshire
Job: Eccentric Inventor
Goal: To show them. SHOW THEM ALL!
Fun Fact: It’s pronounced “AL-i-shire”
WWPHITM? Kelsey Grammer
12. Heidi McKendrick
Goal: To get the hell out of this town
Fun Fact: Loves 80s music
WWPHITM? Reese Witherspoon
13. Landen Vaughn
Job: Fraternity President
Goal: Fast cars, faster women
Fun Fact: Majoring in Flying Disc Sports
WWPHITM? Bradley Cooper (from Wedding Crashers)
14. Chantal Lemieux
Fun Fact: Loves miniature golf
WWPHITM? Lyndie Greenwood
15. Crispus West
Job: Computer Scientist
Goal: To upload his brain to the cloud
Fun Fact: Owns several very valuable comic books
WWPHITM? Crispin Glover
16. Pandora Mercer
Job: Musician (Sales Associate)
Goal: To become a professional musician
Fun Fact: Raised in a commune
WWPHITM? Zooey Deschanel
17. Raphael Volk
Job: Fencing Instructor
Goal: To own a vineyard
Fun Fact: Has seen every John Woo movie ever made
WWPHITM? Hank Azaria
18. Nina Foster
Fun Fact: Inevitable stowaway/runaway; Someone should really call social services
WWPHITM? Maisie Williams
19. Alex Olsson
Job: Treasure Hunter/Ship Salvager
Goal: Discover something awesome
Fun Fact: Has a PhD in Archaeology (Oxford), Masters in History (Princeton), and Bachelor’s in Marine Biology (University of Phoenix)
WWPHITM? Chris Pratt
20. Europa Teague
Job: Crime Boss
Fun Fact: Scared of clowns
WWPHITM? Katheryn Winnick
It’s really tempting to put these characters all in the same town and use it as a game setting. I’m at least 95% sure the town is in Florida. It might make a good backdrop for an M-Force game.
I realize now that I didn’t mention this back in November, but the lack of new posts for the last month and change was intentional. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, everyone’s busy, in a food coma, pissed off, depressed, or drunk--sometimes all of them at the same time--so I don’t want to write a blog and you probably don’t want to read a blog. I’ll be posting weekly again now that all that nonsense is over, but the day of the week may change. I’ve recently been working toward my life’s goal of earning an income in a way that doesn’t require dealing with middle managers or putting on pants, but I’m still trying to get the routine down so updates might be random for a while, but they’ll be weekly.
I promise I’ll get to something resembling a topic soon, but first a few updates. Don’t worry, I’ll carefully ignore even mentioning our dearth of new releases in 2014 and the fact that M-Force still isn’t finished, except to say that we’re working on stuff and will release it when it’s done. Also, Carter’s Hobomancer novel, Suicide’s Run, is coming very soon and is very good. Unless you’re a heartless monster who despises all that is good and decent, you’ll want to read it.
Last time around, I mentioned that I was working on a faction choosing widget on Inklewriter for a contest on the Playing D&D With Pornstars blog. Yeah, I gave up on that. It turned into world-building and was going to take longer than I had to get the thing in before the deadline, so I did something else instead. This isn’t so much a tool you can use as an example of how to use the Inklewriter site to plot out a campaign. I might return to the other thing at some point, but it’s pretty low on my list of priorities.
Also, I’m re-starting the series of role-playing articles at Hub Pages that I started a few years ago but got distracted from. I’ve cleaned up and edited the older articles a bit and posted the first new article, which you can read (and upvote and comment on) here. The articles are mostly general, basic stuff geared toward new role-players, but hopefully they’re thorough enough to give even old hands a few ideas. I plan to post new articles there monthly-ish.
And I’m not the only one who’s back to blogging about QAGS. Brian over at The Gnomish Embassy has recently posted two new QAGS-specific entries, one about his plan to run QAGS Blackmoor and one with some tweaks for blunt weapons to make them a bit more desirable. In addition to pointing out some QAGS-related articles that readers might find interesting, I’m mentioning Brian’s blog here because of something he said in the Blackmoor article: “I'm not sure if I'm committing some kind of sin amongst the old guard by mixing my Blackmoor with ‘Storygames’...”
Story game? QAGS? I’m not sure that I completely agree with that, at least based on my gut feeling about what constitutes a story game. My impression of the meaning of “storygame” may differ from the generally-accepted definition. I’ve only had limited experience with the genre, so it’s possible that the things I think of as identifying characteristics of story games are specific to the handful of specific titles I’ve played or read about. While I do think QAGS is a different kind of thing than traditional RPGs, I’m not sure it’s a story game. In my classification system (which I entirely made up just now, so it may not have anything to do with what gamers, game theorists, other game designers, and big game hunters think), there are three general types of RPG-like games:
Traditional RPGs we all know about. It I had to pick one trait that defines this type of game, it’s that the game is defined by system. The system determines what kinds of characters you can play, what they can do, and to some extent what kind of stories you can tell. This is in part because traditional RPGs tend to provide very specialized rules for the things that are common in the genre covered by the game, which makes it more difficult to apply the system to unusual situations. As a result, both players and GMs mostly avoid situations that aren’t covered by the rules. Traditional RPGs mostly focus on action resolution and usually have a strong “GM vs. Player” element, even though they claim they don’t. Since the rules take center stage, a lot of the story comes from the GM and players trying to bend the rules in ways that give them an advantage.
Story games, as the name implies, try to put the story front and center, in part by making the mechanics simpler and less crunchy and, usually, providing strong core mechanics that can be applied to a lot of different situations. That definitely sounds like QAGS, but there are some other aspects of (my understanding of) story games that make me shy away from the name. One is that system is still very central to the way the games are played. The main difference is that where traditional RPGs focus on numbers, story games focus on words. While words usually leave more room for interpretation than numbers, there’s still a sense that everything needs to be quantified in terms of the system. The main difference is that instead of rolling against your character’s Dexterity score, you Immanetize your character’s Dexterity Eshaton or Activate his Cat Chakra or some damn thing. There’s still a lot of rules fuckery going on, it’s just hidden under a blanket of (often very precise) jargon. Because it still boils down to rules, story games also have an adversarial feel, and in some cases it’s formalized. In fact, one trait common to many story games I’ve seen is that the rules don’t determine what happens in the game, they determine whether the GM or the player gets to narrate the outcome, which indirectly implies that the GM and player and opposing goals. So basically story games, as I see them, are just traditional RPGs with an added layer of abstraction that makes them favor English nerds over math nerds.
Freeform: This is where I’d put things like Fiasco, Pantheon and Other Role-Playing Games, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and maybe Once Upon A Time (at least when nobody cares who wins). There are some rules, but they’re mostly there to serve as inspiration and provide snags that keep the stories from getting boring. Many freeform games don’t have a GM, so adversarial relationships are limited to in-character rivalries and opposing story goals. While the lack of structure can be an advantage, it can also be problematic for some people. As I might have mentioned before, I know one guy that can crank out a D&D character in 20 minutes but takes weeks to make a QAGS character because he’s used to having a list of pre-defined options to choose from; being told he can choose anything that works for the game and his character has a deer in headlights effect on him. The other problem with freeform games is that, for reasons I haven’t quite figured out, most freeform games don’t make for good campaign play. Some (like Munchausen and Once Upon A Time) just aren’t really designed for it. As for the others, my best guess is that it has something to do with the lack of structure, the lack of clear character definition, or just the fact that the freedom of freeform games means they tend to go from zero to batshit crazy epic in the first session, so by the end or the first session most of the characters are either dead (Fiasco) or gods (Pantheon).
QAGS, of course, has too many rules to be considered a freeform game, but that’s the type it most resembles in actual play (at least as GMed by most people I know). Like in freeform games, the goal is for everyone involved to have fun telling a good story (which, contrary to what the “Rules Mastery” crowd seems to believe, is not the same thing as a story where everything goes the characters’ way). The rules aren’t there to provide the GM and players with ways to outsmart or outplay each other, they’re there to provide some structure, add an element of randomness to make things more interesting, and settle conflicts about which direction the story should take. The rules aren’t there to drive the story, they’re there for when the story stalls. In fact that gives me a tortured analogy: In traditional RPGs and story games, the rules are the wheels; In QAGS, the rules more like jumper cables. I think that means that in freeform games you’re riding a magic carpet or broomstick or something.
So what is QAGS? Hell if I know, but I don’t think of it as a story game. It’s also not a traditional RPG or a freeform game, and I don’t know of anything else to call it. If anybody’s got a good suggestion--especially a highly-marketable one that we can advertise as a bold new era of gaming (that’s only been going on since 1998)--please let us know. As our writers, artists, and staffers can tell you, we offer a comprehensive “nickels and gratitude” compensation package.
One of the gaming blogs in my RSS feed is Playing D&D With Porn Stars. Since the blog is mostly D&D-centric and I’ve only played D&D something like 4 times this century, I usually skim the first paragraph and move on. I keep the blog on my feed, though, because the author, Zak S, occasionally posts good general gaming stuff (also, boobies). Anyway, a recent post was about an online tool called inklewriter, which basically lets you write your own Endless Quest books. Zak had started using the site to make a tool to help new players make their D&D character and announced a contest where people make a gaming tool using the site.
Since I’m a sucker for contest that involve doing random gaming stuff, I decided to submit something. My first thought was to do a QAGS character creator or Hobomancer lifepath generator or something, but since the rules specify that entries are more likely to win if they’re useful for a game the judge plays, I decided to go with something more generic. Also, I can use the contest entry as practice for possible QAGS-related stuff later on. Eventually I settled on a Faction Generator, which is being constructed here. I don’t have much of it completed yet, but I’ll be working on it over the next week or so. From what I can tell, the link updates as I make changes, so check back for updates.
Here’s the basic premise:
I tend to run very sandbox games, so I rarely plan adventures. Instead, I come up with a bunch of NPCs and factions, figure out what they're up to, and then let the players stumble across their schemes, hopefully in ways that encourage the players to either join them or oppose them. Sometimes the faction you need isn’t obvious, but you have some general ideas about what purpose the faction will serve in the story or how they operate. The Faction Chooser tool lets you answer a bunch of questions based on what you already know and eventually narrow your choices down to a specific type of faction.
For illustrative purposes, I’m going to offer at least one example for each faction type. Rather than mix and matching or trying to find a ficton everyone knows that has all of the different faction types, I’m going to pull a fantasy city out of my butt as I go along. It’s called The Red City and it’s located on the frontiers of a vast and decadent empire, far away from the center of power. The Red City is a major trade hub at the junction of a large river that flows from the capital to the sea and a trade route that leads through the Badlands of Kor to the Eastern Kingdoms. The ruler of the Red City in name is Prince Pharoshad (“Prince Ferrethead” to detractors), the Emperor’s son by one of his less favored wives. Since Pharoshad prefers enjoying the privileges of imperial birth to rulership, most of the day-to-day business of government in the Red City is carried out by his minions.
I usually try to avoid writing entries that are pure advertising, but this week I’m going to make an exception because (1) the thing I’m advertising is absolutely free of charge; (2) the thing I’m advertising is potentially useful even to people who don’t play QAGS; and (3) it’s been a long week and I can’t think of anything better to write about. Besides, I think the thing I’m going to tell you about is a really cool idea, and I can’t wait to add to it.
I’ve talked about the Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie? stat previously, and mentioned that I use it for basically every game I play these days. I might not have mentioned is that I often used photos of the WWPHITM? actors and actresses (especially the more obscure ones) on character sheets for pre-generated characters. When the players make their own characters, the WWPHITM? decision-making stage often involves players looking up IMDB or Wikipedia entries or searching around for a picture of a particular performer. In short, visuals can make WWPHITM? even better, especially for people who don’t know a lot of movie star names.
A couple weeks ago, a long-time QAGS player asked me whether we had some kind of web page for posting cool WWPHITM? pics. We didn’t, but I thought it was a great idea. In fact, I was a little bugged we hadn’t already thought of it. Long story short, there’s now a Hex Games Pinterest page. I officially dubbed it “The Who Would Play Him/Her Inspiration Machine,” mainly because I needed a title for this post, and “We’re On Pinterest” didn’t sound like the kind of thing a lot of people would go out of their way to read, which means they’d miss out on this amazing new part of the Hex social media empire.*
Right now the site has boards for Hex product art, WWPHITM? boards for the major Hex games/lines (and one or two minor ones), and some general character archetypes, like action heroes, most with about 10-20 pins. Don’t worry, though, we’ll be adding more boards and pics in the future. I’ve also got a few ideas for handy non-WWPHITM? boards that I’ll be adding as soon as I get time to work out the best way to organize them.
In the meantime, check the page out, and let us know if you have ideas for categories or specific actors/pics for the existing categories. You folks with Pinterest accounts can follow our whole page or whichever individual boards you like. If you stumble across any relevant pins, please send them our way. Next week I’ll post something slightly less shameless.
*Hey, at least I didn’t full click-bait and call this post “A QAGS fan suggested a site for posting WWPHITM? You’ll ABSOLUTELY LOSE YOUR FUCKING MIND when you see what happens next!! EBOLA! #Gamergate!”