Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Satisfy My Soul

I am in the process of re-organizing my gaming schedule.

To be more precise, I am thinking of dropping one of my regular gaming days in order to free up more time to work on material for my remaining games and possibly add one new one that would occur less often. 

It goes like this...

I run a weekly game on a weekday evening.
I run a biweekly game every other Friday night. 
I play in a biweekly game every other Friday night I'm not running mine.
I run a monthly game the first Saturday of each month. 
I run a second monthly game one Sunday a month, the specific day of which changes. 

Of these games, the weekly one is the toughest for several reasons. First, it is during the week and though relatively short I still feel really tired the next day and that's no fun. Not so tired it effects my job or anything so serious, but I don't always feel completely rested as I move into the weekend. 

Another issue is that while I like that game and the players, it's not really keeping my interest. I am losing enthusiasm for it as it were. It's a Fantasy game and while I am occasionally (if rarely) in the mood for Fantasy, it's hard to stay in the mood. I get bored of Fantasy settings and stories very quickly, even when I really like them. 

Lastly*, and most unfairly to said weekly endeavor, I am so much more interested and excited about my other campaigns that I'd much rather be spending time working on them instead of the Fantasy one. The night I run the weekly game and the effort I put into doing research and creating stuff for it is beginning to feel like time I could've spent adding to my other projects. That's a lousy feeling because it mixes creative frustration with guilt. Never enjoyable. 

Now, once this game ends, which incidentally should be soon, I could just run another one, something in a different genre, or perhaps someone else could run that night but I am feeling more and more like I could just take that night off and do other things. Of course by other things I mean prep and design material for other games. In fact, by not gaming that night I could free up enough time to devise...another monthly game.

One of my best buds just got a new job that frees up his weekends. While mine aren't totally free, they flexible during the Summer, so I could pick out one day a month and do another campaign with a floating day to be announced when we figure out who's free. 

Just some thoughts going through my head right now. The success of my FRONTIER campaign has really revitalized my love of gaming and Gamemastering, though a particular style - my style - that I am just not able to bring to all my tables at present. 

If I can do more me, why not do so?

Barking Alien

*My 'last' reason noted above is not really my last reason. There are other reasons the weekday game isn't doing it for me, some of which are hard to convey. Suffice to say I would much rather produce a new campaign similar to FRONTIER than continue or create one in the format of the aforementioned weekday sessions. They just aren't quite scratching the itch. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Do The Right Thing

In the past I have made posts that were critical of various aspects of player approaches to the hobby of Role Playing Games.

Specifically I am talking about things like overthinking, doing nothing on your turn, failing to immerse oneself in the setting and/or your character, and the like. These things irk me a great deal, still do, and I still encounter them more times then is enjoyable (which would be exactly no times. These things are never enjoyable).

This post instead addresses the positive habits and things I love to see players do. I am also proud to say I saw all of these leading up to and during the first session of our new 'Year Zero Engine' Science Fiction campaign, FRONTIER. 

Get Into It Before We Get Into It

I first announced that I was putting together the FRONTIER campaign around May 15th of this year. The first session, the 'Pilot Episode', was run on July 6th.

I had most of the character concepts and questions regarding character creation to me and answered by the last week of June. Practically all the characters were completed about 3-5 days before the first session. 

All the players had come to the table with character names already in mind. 

That is how it's done. 

Know Yourself

The first session had a 'cold opening' in which a transport ships nearly collided with the space station serving as the PCs home base. I then announced klaxons and alarms going off all over the outpost as the place shakes like go-go dancer at a 70s LA nightclub during an earthquake.

I then pointed at at player and asked, "It's 0600 hours station time. Where is your character, what are they doing?" 

Each player responded via a short scene that established who they were and how they react to emergency situations. No one took more than a minute or two. Perfect. I then gave them each another minute or so follow up before forwarding to the station's flight deck an hour and a half later.

The group was assembled at the airlock to a Scout/Survey vessel belonging to one of the PCs. Each Player Character had been chosen to go to the surface of the planet below and see if the transport, which crash landed, had any survivors. Also, they needed to retrieve any intact cargo. Every PCs had a different Skill Set useful to the mission. 

In both that scene and the short trip to the planet we got to know a little bit more about their personalities and interactions with each other. Again, brilliant. 

Think Fast

Each player quickly and smoothly decided what their character would do to accomplish the group's goals. They split up into teams - two guys went to look for survivors inside the ship, two went to check on the cargo, and three more went to check out footprints and heat signatures leading away from the transport in the direction of a cliff. The Pilot PC stayed with the Survey Vessel to monitor and coordinate the operation and also stay in touch with the orbital station. 

Team One was investigating but also had our PC Doctor. Team Two had a Biologist and an Engineer - one figured out what was perishable and important and needed to go first while the other figure out the best way to load up and move the containers. Team Three had a Scout to determine how to move along the loose sand cliff, a Security Officer in case they ran into dangerous local wildlife, and a Scientist with a variety of skills for dealing with, shall we say, the unexpected. 

At least one, maybe twice, the teams modified what they needed to do and who should do it. 

Basta! That's it. Quick and clean.

Take Action!

I have to single out one player who really did an amazing job of just freaking doing something. We'll call him Nick.

Nick is playing a Scientist whose specialty is First Contact, Archeology, and Anthropology. There are no intelligence aliens in the setting but various clues have indicated there might be so we need a guy who knows First Contact protocols. OK.

So at one point, Nick, the Scout, and the Security guy drive a buggy/jeep type vehicle to the edge of a loose, sandy cliff to find two survivors of the Transport Ship crash wrestling on the ground.

The Scout and Security guy leap out of their vehicle and run over to drag these two morons away from a long, steep fall to their deaths. In addition, sensors indicate native worm creatures are rapidly approaching that position. 

As the PCs yank the survivors to safety, the vicious worm beasts lunge at the group. Nick's Scientist is still in the car and when I get to him he says something like, "I am not really a combat person. I...I go into the front seat and drive over so they can get into the car faster." A great idea except...our Scientist also has not driving skill and a low Agility. 

So what does he do? HE DOES IT ANYWAY! I think I teared up a little. 

Was he successful? Not really, but he tried and it pointed to his character! Similarly there was another moment when an NPC had a gun, a concealed pistol, and Nick's character panicked while trying to get it away from the guy. He failed to disarm the opponent but his startled reaction made the driver in the front seat at the time - Security PC - aware of the situation. 

It was AWESOME to see a player act like a Human Being in a tense situation and not like a PC in an RPG. Also, Nick didn't rationalize or argue that his PC SHOULD HAVE been able to do X, Y, or Z. He said straight up, "This guy is not the guy for this moment in time." Ha! I think he was perfect for that moment. He made it memorable.

Anyway, I got to run but WOW, if all my players in all my games were like these guys I'd not have felt like I needed to run this one. Wait...I...whoah. That's actually true. Well, thank goodness for varying degrees of awesomeness I suppose. 

Barking Alien

Monday, July 8, 2019

Don't Call It A Comeback! I've Been Here For Years

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Barking Alien blog to bring you this important announcement...

This past Saturday - July 6th, 2019 - I went back to my roots so to speak and started a new campaign at my FLGS, The Compleat Strategist. 

In the process of doing so a pretty amazing thing happened. I got my groove back. I felt like my old gaming self again. I didn't second guess myself or my players, no one second guessed me, and I didn't pull any punches. 

It was pretty damn glorious.

The campaign is titled, simply, FRONTIER.

Based on an idea I've had for over 30 years now but could never quite figure out how to put into motion, I was lucky enough to get a large group of players to buy in on what I described as, "A Science Fiction story about scientists at the very edge of known space trying desperately to save a dying Earth. Our home world needs a miracle. It's up to you to find or make one."

The setting is basically a Hard Science Fiction, Space Exploration universe with a look and feel reminiscent of late 1970s and 1980s Sci-Fi films like Alien, Aliens, Blade Runner, Outland, The Abyss, and The Thing.

The game's setting has more advanced technology than is seen in many of the aforementioned movies, with artificial intelligence, robots, cybernetics, genetic engineering, and laser weapons being a bit more common place. A bit mind you. I wanted to keep things grounded in real and current speculative science with allowances for the game's year of 2212. 

What makes the game special and rather unique for me is that it includes elements of dystopian fiction and horror, two things I generally avoid except as a little seasoning here and there. FRONTIER on the other hand truly comes alive by telling the players that the Earth is a hair's breadth from either dystopian ruin or a new utopian age. It's all up to their PCs. At the same time the job is hard, space is dangerous, alien worlds are deadly and unforgiving to those who come from somewhere else. The players need to be smart, they need to be decisive, and they need to deal with bureaucracy, the greed or ego of government officials, and finite time and resources. 

Saving the world is not going to be easy. 

There is so much more I want to say about the setting and how the first session went but I will save that for another post. Suffice to say I had a fantastic time and the group seemed to really enjoy it as well.

More than anything else, it just feels like this is MY kind of game. I feel in my element. I feel like this is going to be one for the ages. It's been a long time since I felt this way. 

This is Frontier Station, SITRI Project HQ, from SA-2, 18 Scorpii system, signing off...

...for now.

Barking Alien

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

What's The Story Mother?

In case you didn't get the memo, I'm a big fan of the Alien franchise. 

The truth of the matter is that I am a massive fan of the first two films, the Alien: Isolation computer game, and what I see as the untapped potential of the universe that surrounds these offerings. 

I don't have much love for Alien 3 and Resurrection and I really didn't like either of the prequel films. REALLY didn't like them.

I've mentioned in previous posts that Alien and Aliens, like Blade Runner, Star Wars, and a number of other films, heavily impacted me creatively as a kid. For 30 some odd years now I've wanted to run an Alien Universe RPG campaign and never have. It's very rare for me to want to run something and just not get to. With the announcement of Free League's upcoming licensed game it's become all I can think about. It's practically an ache. 

I pre-ordered the game and a few weeks ago received the Cinematic Starter Kit. My mind immediately went into overdrive trying to learn the system and figure out how best to use it. What kind of stories could I tell? What does my interpretation of the Alien Universe look and feel like. How do the rules provided relate to all of that?

After absorbing the game to the point where I felt comfortable with it's mechanics, I listened to a bunch of actual play podcasts to get different perspectives on how to run a scenario and how players may react to the setting and story elements. 

Then I made the mistake of trying to run it myself.

First, I organized three separate get togethers with friends to try the game and not a one came to pass. Scheduling issues were the cause but I got this odd feeling in the back of my neck that this may not be as easy to arrange as I thought. 

I had an opening to run it with one of my regular groups that meets every Friday night. One of the regulars would be out so a one-shot, fill-in game was called for. I actually had two separate and distinctly different inspirations hit me so I said, "OK guys, how about either Aliens or Pokemon?"

One guy said Aliens, one guy said either but he'd love to play a Pokemon RPG, and the last guy...the last guy...he said he didn't know anything about Pokemon and then proceeded to basically crap all over the idea of running an Aliens game. 

Now this guy...he's a nice guy and a good friend but if there is anyone I game with at present who approaches games significantly differently from how I do it's him. In this particular instance his negativity just put me over the edge and I just cancelled the session. 

About a week later we talked it over and he gave it a try. After all of that I finally got to run my own homebrewed scenario last Friday night. It went OK but not great and indeed there were issues on both the player and GM sides of the table.

For my part, I didn't introduce it or pace it properly. I let things develop as I would the first session of a campaign, a bit of a slow burn to give the players the chance to get to know their characters, each other, and the setting. I should've gotten to the action and danger much sooner and more quickly. 

Let me be clear, the reason I should've gotten to the exciting parts more quickly are based largely on the time crunch and the players I had. I wanted to run this as a single, 4-5 hour session, not a multi-parter like the scenario that comes with the Cinematic Starter Kit. I really didn't have the time to waste on extensive role-playing.

Second, more time to think with this group is a bad thing. They tend to get either distracted from the main story, hyper-focused on some minor side issue, or overthink and overplan. I know this. I've been gaming with them for years now. I should've been ready.

The other reason it didn't work is that one fellow was trying really hard to play his character, a guy in this universe going about his job unaware of the existence of the Xenomorphs while another player - that aforementioned fellow who dumped on the idea initially - could not get any more meta-aware of being in a one-shot, horror game based on Alien if he tried. He didn't want the first fellow wasting time doing some of his character's engineering shtick because by X time we should be seeing Eggs, by Y there are chestbursters, and by the last act a Big Chap Alien should have killed most of us.

The guy trying to embrace the game wasn't completely free of responsibility for the mess either though. The player of said character games by way of paranoia, convinced that if he doesn't cross all his T's and dot all his I's the GM (whomever it may be) will screw his character. This is not helped by meta-guy who often says that is the proper way to do things. So, paranoia guy plays all his characters are super-OCD. Why fix a problem when you could spend valuable game time fixing it twice, the next way being more clever than the previous approach. 

It all made my heart and head hurt.

Yeah, kinda like that.

So the initial attempt I'd been waiting three decades for turned out to nothing more than a mediocre sci-fi session with a well know pop-culture creature. Exactly what I didn't want it to be. 

Barking Alien

Monday, June 24, 2019

Universes Versus Settings

I am thinking I love Universes and dislike Settings.

Say what now?

Let me explain...

The terms Universe and Setting, especially in Pop Culture and RPGs, are pretty much synonymous. They both denote the fictional milieu in which the stories being told are taking place.

That said, when I say 'Universes' I am thinking primarily of IPs, such as The Star Wars Universe, the DC Comics Universe, or The Ghostbusters Universe. These are massively popular franchises (to varying degrees of notoriety), generally familiar to anyone who is even remotely aware of Western/American pop culture. 

I don't expect everyone at my gaming table to nod appreciatively or fist pump at the mention of my running a Five Star Stories game. On the other hand, I would very surprised if the majority of my players didn't get a little jolt of excitement should I suggest a Mass Effect or Game of Thrones campaign (Ha! Me? Run Middle Earth? Oh, I do entertain myself do I not?). 

As evidenced by numerous posts before this one on everything from Alien to Pokemon to The Orville, I really enjoy running games in franchise universes. I find it strangely liberating. I can take the same amount of time I would devote to running a game in my own original setting and generate so much more material because a lot of the ground work has been done for me. I don't need to create a universe from scratch but rather add my own ideas to a universe many are already familiar with. 

That familiarity is a key element as well. The buy in and suspension of disbelief required to make a Superhero or Space Opera game work is already there if the players come in knowing and liking the setting. It is easy to picture yourself on the bridge of a Starfleet vessel, inside the cockpit of an X-Wing Fighter, or battling a robot at the top of the Daily Planet building because you've seen those places many, many times. We know what they look like without having to really think about them. 

As far as play materials and information go - character images, ship images, locations, handouts, information on key elements - IP universes are pure gold. A quick Google search of 'MiB Weapons' reveals dozens of descriptions and images of the Noisy Cricket, Series 4 De-Atomizer, Reverberating Carbonizer, and more. Can't wait for your favorite company to put out their new sourcebook on your franchise RPG, no worries! Wiki and the IP's fandom has your back.

Now settings...

For the purpose of what I am talking about here my personal view of what a 'Setting' is (as opposed to a Universe) is that the makers of the game you're running/playing created the world in which the game takes place so you can have an established world to game in. 

In other words, instead of people liking Star Trek so much somebody said, "Hey let's make a Star Trek RPG", some one instead said, "We created this RPG. Hmmm. Now we need a Setting to go with it".

The biggest difference from this viewpoint is that in a licensed RPG, you know the Universe going in. In a RPG with an original setting, you learn about the setting for the first time when you read the game.

To be honest, I think it's very likely a great many modern RPGs have their setting and rules developed simultaneously. Unfortunately, for me at least, a lot of these Settings feel...what's the word I'm looking for? Lackluster? Cumbersome? Lackcumber?

More often than not, the original Settings that come with RPGs feel underdeveloped, overdeveloped, or just not particularly engaging to me. Take Mekton's 'Algol' Setting. It has everything you could want in a Giant Robot Anime world - An alien planet with exotic lifeforms, various governments and organizations doing battle in the field and courts of intrigue, and of course towering humanoid Mecha! It is also supremely boring. It's like they threw everything from every late 70s and early 80s Mech Anime in a mixing bowl and blended it until it had the flavor of mush - nothing distinctly stands out. 

RIFTS is a game with a complex interweaving setting of everything, the kitchen sink, and it's mother and for the life of me I just can't easily picture it in my head. What does an average day look like on RIFTS Earth. Who do you see day after day on your way to and from work? Do people work like they do today? I've read through the main book a few times and I just can't get the feel of it beyond post-apocalyptic chaos. I hear that if I read through the correct dozen of it's multi-dozen splatbooks I'll get the hang of it. Yeeeah, no. That sounds excruciating. 

I think part of it, perhaps a large part, is how I absorb the fluff of the milieu. With most IPs, I have slowly assimilated the Universe we're going to game in over the course of many years. As an example, by the time I first played the Star Wars RPG I had already lived with Star Wars for 10 years. I'd seen the movies all multiple times, collected the action figures and toys, read the comics, etc. 

On the flipside, you hand me Runequest and tell me you'd love to play in Glorantha, the setting of Runequest created by the late, great Greg Stafford. OK, great. Assuming this is the first time I am seeing Runequest and Glorantha, I now have to absorb the look, feel, and particulars (important personalities, creatures, relevant history, governments, etc.) of this setting before we play. Can I? Well the real question is do I have the time to grasp what makes it awesome, what makes it tick, before we run our first session? Maybe, maybe not. It would depend very much on how it's written and my level of interest I suppose. Thing is, I need to know it well enough so that I can run it for a group of fans of it and hit the elements they enjoy about it. Tricky with a setting I'm not familiar with. Easy for a universe I've had 40+ years of enjoyment with. 

In conclusion, I think this is why I gravitate toward IP RPGs or feel the desire to homebrew RPGs based on known franchises. Information on them is readily available, familiarity has trickled in piece by piece over time, and the look and feel of the world is shared by all those familiar with the brand. 

Given the number of hours in a day, days in a week, etc. that I am able to devote to my hobby (just look at the lack of posts on this blog over the past few months - this has been a BUSY year) it's nice to have the ground work not only done for you, but done in a way in which the players are on the same page. 

With an RPGs original setting, any given player and/or GM only has as much info as the books they bought and had the chance to read. This can result in the infamous situation of the players really excited to play that special splatbook class that the GM never even heard of. 

What about you? Any feelings on the subject?

Barking Alien