Tuesday, October 1, 2013

These are the Rules I Game by...

So recently a friend asked "I'm planning on running a Tabletop RPG, do you know an good resources to get me started".

Now mind you, it's been months since I've played any tabletop, Amanda and I have spent some time getting moved into a house, and even before that, conflicting schedules left us not much time together.  But, storytelling games are neither jealous nor fickle, when you need to take some time for yourself its books wait patiently on your shelves, its dice and pens sit in their organized cubbies, its hand-crafted map tools and miniatures wait silently in their boxes.  And when you're ready, they embrace you with open arms, and I am ready to start again.  Every weekend that I'm not sitting around a table rolling dice with my friends is a weekend I want to jump out of my skin.

Aberrant Bunny Man, Tentacle Woman, or
Three-Eyed Intelligent Mutant Rat. But a few of
Gamma World's Character Options.
...but I digress! As I said, it's only been a few months, so when the gears started moving there was no rust to stop them.  "Which Game? What kind of story are you running? How many Players do you have? How long will your sessions be? What sort of map are you using? Who're you antagonists? What is your theme?"  of course, before I could ask any of these he added "...Specifically for Gamma World".

Ah...Gamma World, you know what's great about Gamma World? Everything's great about Gamma world.  Gamma World is a little bit of everything.  It's a little like if the Shadowrun tabletop RPG and the Fallout video game series had a baby, but the baby was too ugly so they put it up for adoption, but then it was adopted by Dungeons and Dragons, because D&D has a heart of gold, and Gamma World was too ugly not to love.

To the initiated, I'm of course talking about Wizards of the Coast's October 2010 release of Gamma World (or 7th edition)

To the uninitiated, Gamma World is an adventure game that takes place in an alternate reality where, well, all "Alternate Realities" collapsed on one another, including many like our own in an event called "The Big Mistake" due to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider.  In many realities nuclear war had broken out, in many strange and alien creatures walked the earth, etc.  Just about anything you can imagine can appear in the haunted, irradiated, apocalyptic landscape of Gamma Terra.  You are one of the strange mutated denizens of said planet, your body undergoing constant "Alpha Mutation" due to your strange physiology or perhaps just quirks of reality.  Ruins of countless "old worlds" dot the landscape, as does their discarded technology.

As bleak as this mess sounds, the game's guide urges storytellers and players to "Embrace the Weird".  Storytellers are armed with strange creature to throw at players, while the players themselves create characters from a random table of origins, mixing tropes to make Psychic Yetis, Pyromantic Intelligent Plants, Genetically Engineered Giant Roaches, Kitten Swarms, Empathic Hawk Men, Radioactive Androids...the list goes on, and any combination of those things really.

Penny Arcade knows what it's all about.

The system is based strongly on Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition rule set, making Gamma World, a fantastic game for new players and storytellers alike.  So maybe I should get back to that part, instead of writing a review of the game...

I started to compile a list of what I'd learned as a Storyteller for table-top RPGs, a few rules to live by when it comes to running a game. Said list is as follows.

This guy's D&D campaign would be
1. Know your Audience:
Like any great performer, you're looking to make sure your audience has a good time, have an interactive audience makes that job much easier.  These are your friends and loved ones playing a game, tailor it into something they will love as much as it's a cool idea you had for a story.

2. Characters are Characters, Stories are Stories, Know the distinction:
Those new to tabletop gaming often come up with a grand tale when faced with creation in a game, full of scenery and great characters.  None of this great creativity should be wasted, it should be shared.  Storytellers and players alike should remember this is a cooperative storytelling experience. Enforce your roles as players and storytellers, but don't be afraid to give ideas and build a story based on collaborative ideas.

3.  Know the Rules at least well enough to Fake it:
You don't need to know the game like the back of your hand, but you should know it well enough to make rules as you go so that you don't have to waste time going through books.  Just remember to explain to your players that you are taking liberties for the sake of keeping the game moving and they should be pretty understanding.  If you do fudge a rule though, make sure it favors the players; ruling off the cuff is risky, and at the end of the night you can either have people walking away from your table wondering why you were making up rules to cheat them, or talking about how awesome it was when their character used their "Use Rope" skill to lasso an airship and swing to it like Errol Flynn.  I'd prefer the latter.

4. Never Punish your Players:
Friends get goofy, especially if your game goes late into the evening, or allows alcohol.  These antics can go from simple distractions, to game-breaking disruptions that angers everyone at the table.  As a Storyteller (especially in a state of exhausted, Mountain Dew fueled, frustration), it's easy to lose your temper and say "You've been struck by lightning", "your horses are dead", "All your stuff has been stolen", "you don't get paid".

...this one's would probably require
quite a few savings throws.
Catching yourself before "bringing the hammer down" is tough, it's a bit like supressing the urge to strangle the life out of someone who has just slapped you in public and is now laughing to everyone around you about it.  They ruined your game, they've wasted your time, and now they're going to pay the price. (I could do a whole post about this).  IF you have the good sense to identify this situation as soon as it starts say "let's break a few minutes before this escalates". Stand up, grab a drink, talk to your players about what's going on in the game.  If things are going in a logical direction and you think the game can be salvaged, then gather your thoughts and prepare, then get right back in there.  If you feel continuing in this direction is only going to create more disruption, or worse hostility, don't be afraid to call the game for the night.  Everyone's here to have fun, Storyteller and Players.  If someone isn't having a good time, then the game wastes their time too.

5. Challenge your Players, and Never Leave that Challenge to Chance:
A story is nothing without adversity, and if there's anything my good friend Kristina Elyse Butke has taught
me (shameless name drop), it's that "the stakes have to be life or death, anything less your audience won't give a shit about."  Death doesn't just mean character death though, it can also be a change of life as they know it.  Your players should be striving to work through something, and though bad rolls can rob your player's characters of glory, simply leaving such finality to the roll of a dice is boring, especially if they have nothing to gain from it except "Not Dying".  Don't throw needless, tedious combats at them (a crime I have been guilty of, MANY times over), and don't pigeon hole their options to "Door A, that's all".  "Challenge" means more then "heap of monsters to kill", and a player's "hard decision" shouldn't amount to whether or not they can kill something.

Wrapping up, I'm sure I could come up with many more rules, but that would diminish my point.  Running a game is more then memorizing rules.  It's easy to get swept up in trying to recall procedure like "attacks of opportunity", the bonuses you get from certain types of cover, and whether something made a saving throw for ongoing damage.  So long as the people around your table are laughing and having a great time, you can't go wrong.