Today we talk about group dynamics and table management both in and out of character. One of the unwritten responsibilities of a GM is the fact that you are often the de-facto leader of the table, and the task of managing player expectations and experiences falls to you.

Think of yourself as a moderator in that sense, where your goal is to ensure that everyone (including yourself) has a good time with the hours and effort that everyone invests in the game.

That said, let’s look at 2 specific concerns raised so far:

Find out what they want

Different players want different things from a game. This is why I tend to stress the pitch phase of a game with a lot of dialogue with your players. Tell them what kind of game you’d like to run, and ask them if they’re willing to give it a try and what they’d like to do in it.

The more information you have about the style of play they expect, the easier it is to understand what kind of game to run. A lot of times that a player group feels “problematic” stems from the dissonance of expectations between the participants. Maybe one player wants more drama and character acting, while another just wants to cleave orc heads.

Get the group to sit down and buy into the central concept and themes and adhere to them. Write them down if you have to to form a social contract of sorts if you feel the need to.

In this way you get to mitigate the incidences of players who are out to “derail” your game by acting against the established mood of the game.

Help! My Players are kicking the asses of my monsters in combat!

This is a very common sensation for a lot of GMs. There’s something to be said about the gut-level panic at seeing the players wipe out an encounter that was meant to be more difficult.

But fret not, this is merely an illusion.

Players who are rules-oriented are naturally able in terms of wiping the floor with the enemy. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

The best way to overcome this panic is to think of it from the perspective of the world they occupy. That kind of sublime skill in the art of slaughter is bound to pick up a ton of complications that players can’t just shrug off. These can range from job offers to apprentice applicants to rival combatants that seek to test their might against the players.

In addition, if you’re looking to make the players sweat a bit, throw in a mix of challenges. Think of GMing as boxing. Throwing jabs for an entire match isn’t going to get you anywhere, you need to mix it up with a combination of jabs, straights, hooks, and uppercuts aimed towards both the head and the body.

So don’t be afraid to throw players in mix of social and physical challenges. Maybe they get forced into a fancy dress party where they could start a war by sneezing wrong. Or they could be caught in a devious trap somewhere that requires puzzling their way out of it. Engage them on all fronts, and always, always follow up with consequences.

Remember that RPGs are also about playing a role, and that the player characters don’t exist in a vacuum. As they do more impressive things, more people are going to pay attention and soon things will snowball into more challenging scenarios that don’t always play to their strengths.

That said be careful to not get too caught up in this that you ignore their strengths all together. Let them wipe out an enemy force in a single turn, they deserve that. But don’t let up when they find themselves sweating bullets in a social scene, because they deserve that too.


Hey everyone, due to popular demand, I’m shifting gears to move on to a topic that seems to be of interest to a lot of GMs: Improvisation at the table.

GMing is often portrayed as being similar to juggling, or other feats of mental and physical dexterity. While there is some truth to the number of things to keep track of when running a game, I also feel that this paints an unfair picture of the role of a GM as being incredibly difficult.

So here I’m going to try to paint a different picture, and that all starts with the ability to improvise.

Improvisation in the context of running RPGs is the ability to keep a game moving despite not having and set plans. Take note that this doesn’t mean the absence of any plans, but rather having the flexibility to run a game from point A to point B without having any rigid paths set down.

Let’s break it down to it’s components, shall we?

Goals

More than anything else, the ability to improvise relies on having a goal. By having a set goal for each of the characters in the game, you have something to steer them to, rather than letting them run aimlessly around your setting until they run into something.

Goals don’t have to be big, but they have to at least impart direction. Players appreciate it when their characters feel like they’re getting somewhere, and that happens only when they achieve a particular goal. When thinking of goals, think of where you’d like to bring the character next.

“Get Gerry the Paladin to discover a clue that leads to a Heretic Cult” works well since it engages the character in an issue that matters to him personally and leaves the door open for the rest of the players to join in and help.

“Have Alia encounter her uncaring father, the King in the middle of the banquet” is another because it helps push an ongoing plot hook and opens it to new consequences that can spin off into different directions.

The Journey

Now that you’ve got Goals down, how do dress up the journey to make it look like you planned everything down to the smallest detail?

That’s where the second article comes in. By structuring your descriptions and plot elements along the Themes, Mood and Motifs you’ve chosen early on, you can improvise a scene easily by checking against the three.

Let’s go back to Gerry the Paladin for a moment. If the Theme is “Grimdark Fantasy” and Mood is “Black Comedy” and Motif is “Skulls and Superstition” then you already have a good idea of the broad strokes involved in setting up a scene.

Likewise, if Alia’s elements are a Theme of “Romance and Espionage”  Mood is “Secrets and Shadows” and Motif is “Renaissance Italy” then you have a solid image upon which to play towards that encounter with her father.

Confidence and Delivery

Ultimately, improv also relies on confidence and delivery. Never admit to not having notes. In fact feel free to shuffle some papers or index cards behind the GM screen.

Use silence. Rather than saying “umm…” take a moment to sit quietly, take a sip of your water, and go through your options in your head.

Listen to your players. If your players are caught up in the moment and suddenly come up with a theory that blows your reality out of the water, go with their theory. It’ll make them feel clever, and you’ll benefit from looking like a clever bastard.

And that’s my 2 cents on Improv. Obviously it requires that you know your player characters really well. It’s best to rely on improv when you’ve already got a better handle for what makes the characters tick. When I start a new campaign, I begin with an adventure or two that is really well planned and has many opportunities for the players to step in and do something by themselves. Once I know what hooks get bites, then I start shifting to improv mode.


Now Renegades are the people with their own philosophies
They change the course of history
Everyday people like you and me

– “Renegades of Funk”, by Rage Against The Machine

Welcome back! Today we’re talking about Themes and Moods. These are old tools that I’ve admittedly cribbed from the World of Darkness games, but I’ve found them quite useful so I figured I’d pass it on.

Themes

Themes, in the literary sense, is the main idea of a literary work. In the context of RPGs, a theme informs what the campaign is about. The events of the game, the way the conflict is structured and the kind of encounters that the players will find their characters in are all informed by this.

For my Mage: the Awakening game, I’ve decided to focus on two themes:

  • Family is Everything – Being a Mafia inspired setting, the Mage game will have moments where Loyalty is painful, and Betrayal doubly so.
  • Magic is a Drug – The temptation to use Magic is a constant in the lives of a Mage. While some spells are “harmless” there’s always a more compelling motive to use it beyond what is considered moral… But if you’ve seen the truth of the world and know that there are no Angels or Demons watching over you, then what’s stopping you?

Okay, so you’ve identified one or two themes you want for your game, now what? Well, if you’re planning your session, see if there are ways by which you can enforce these themes, either symbolically or directly. Maybe in this game an NPC that the Cabal loves like a brother betrays them in a moment of weakness, or the love of a woman, or some other cause. Or perhaps that “harmless” floozie from the other cabal is finally revealed to be in a constant haze because she’s been feasting on the dreams of those around her, driving them to misery and she just. can’t. stop.

That said, learn to mix it up so that you don’t end up sounding too preachy, or too heavy for your players.

Mood

The other half of the equation is the Mood of the game. If the Theme is the cerebral part of it, then the Mood is the emotional tone.

While Mage is often about power struggles, this particular game should be a mix of emotions. I want Mages to forge incredibly intimate ties with one another, to see each other as Family. Much like the Mafia movies, weddings and friendships are key moments that deserve their spot in the sun. That said, when the rain comes, it comes down hard.

The Moods for my Mage Game are:

  • Joie de Vivre – The exultant celebration of life. Mages have seen wonders that so many mortals never will, and it is because they hope to see it again, Mages cling to life with a ferocity that is unmatched.
  • Paranoia – The flipside of this is that Mages also live in a world surrounded by so many threats that it is also possible that a single misstep could cost them dearly. This Paranoia could poison friendships and ruin reputations or worse.

Motif

Here’s something that isn’t from the World of Darkness, but is in line with the Themes and Mood of a game. Being a game inspired by the mafia culture, society and conflicts, the game also carries some of its motif.

A Motif is a distinctive feature or element in literary work. In this case, I plan to give the mage game a strong 1920s’s art deco vibe. From fashion, to architecture to automobiles, there will be elements that harken back to the heady days of the Prohibition era. Cabals will meet in renovated speakeasies to conduct their business, wear snazzy pinstripe suits to high society functions and have jazz music playing in the background.

The setting will still be 2016 of course, but these elements will help paint the world and make it much more memorable.

So, what do you guys think of Themes, Moods and Motifs? Is this something you think you can use? Let me know in the comments!


A few days ago, while entertaining the idea of running a  Mage: the Awakening 2e game, I asked a local RPG facebook group if they were interested in reading a blog about designing a campaign. The response was very positive, and so I find myself putting my money where my mouth is.

And so here we are.

In this series I’ll try to be as methodical as possible, breaking down my own personal thought processes as I build a Mage: the Awakening Campagin from scratch. Take note that I’ll be focusing mainly on the stuff that will apply regardless of game, so don’t worry about running into too much game-specific jargon. Also this series will deal with custom campaigns, as opposed to running adventure modules.

Anyway, without any further delay, let’s get started.

Establish Your Foundations

The first part about planning any campaign is often already established way ahead of any deep thinking. These will appear very obvious, but it helps to keep them in mind all the same. Let’s go over the basic questions:

What game / system are you running? Often this question is answered way ahead of any kind of planning, unless you’re the type who comes up with a story first and then looks for a matching system later.

What is the setting like? It’s one thing to say that you’re playing D&D, and other to say that you’re playing through the Curse of Strahd Hardback adventure. This is important because while a game’s setting might be huge, the GM cherry picks which parts of the setting to highlight.

What (if any) modifications or houserules are you applying? I’m not so hot on modifications myself, but if you’re applying them to your game, then make sure to note them and inform your players.

What are you looking to get out of the game? If there’s a time to be honest with yourself, this would be it. Understanding your motivations for running a game help a lot in guiding your decisions. If you’re in it for a tactical challenge, then own it.  Likewise if you’re looking to tell a story of intrigue and manipulation, then go whole hog into it as well.

Who are you running it for? A game consists of you, and your player’s inputs. Without them, you’re pretty much left putting together a game for some strange unknown future. The reason why I feel that it’s important to know your players is that you can tailor the game to their interests while still being true to your enjoyment as defined in the prior question.

Now that we’ve gone through that exercise, let me go ahead an answer my own questions:

What game am I running? Mage: the Awakening, 2nd Edition

What is the setting like? A world of darkness take on Chicago, the Windy City. A place whose history of organized crime and corruption has been glorified to an ideal. The times have changed, but the hearts of those who live there haven’t.

Any modifications or houserules? Nope, running this one pure vanilla, although I’ll be creating a new set of Mage NPCS as opposed to the ones in the World of Darkness: Chicago book.

What am I looking to get out of the game? A memorable campaign that draws parallels between organized crime with magic. Both are dangerous activities, conducted by clandestine operatives with arcane organizations and severe loyalties who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to get a leg up in their world.

Who are you running it for? My home group of players are a wide spread of personalities who have a penchant for clever (if ruthless) solutions of both the social and physical nature. Given the setting, I’m hoping to give them plenty of opportunities to pull off great “Gotcha!” moments and occasionally indulge in the darker side of their Obsessions… all while fearing for their lives.

Now that we’ve gotten the easy stuff out of the way, our next entry will deal with Themes and Moods in your campaign, and how to use them.


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After five years of chipping away at BADASS! I’m finally approaching the point where I can actually publish the game in a new and awesome form.

Son of BADASS is a direct sequel that keeps everything that made the original fun, but tweaks and improves on it further without adding complexity.

BADASS has always been an exercise in efficient small game design. It’s not meant to be a sprawling game with vast mechanics that cover every single possible thing that can happen in a game, but it does have to feel punchy enough that people will keep wanting to play.

I’ve had the good fortune to be able to playtest it a few times as well, and the feedback from play has been very helpful

Cover Art

Part of my budget to self-publish the game has gone in commissioning a splendid cover by the extremely talented Hinchel Or, who is bringing the awesome to life with his spectacular work. I’ve only got a fraction of it to show you for now, but you’ll start seeing more as I get it.

 

Crowdfunding

Which bring us to this. If I’m going to be able to afford a professional-quality product, I’m going to need a bit of capital to afford the talent to make it so. I’m looking to launch a crowdfunding effort over at Indiegogo (Philippines can’t open a Kickstater Account, sadly) and see if I can drum up the funds I need.

This isn’t just all for BADASS! though, the funds raised by this effort will also go a long way to padding the necessary art budgets for Fight Class, and a new project that I’m very excited about but it’s too early to talk about.