Saturday, September 9, 2017

Empress session report - My Beautiful Sociopaths

I am, of course, referring to my players, the crew that refers to themselves as the "Murderhobros."  But before we catch up with them, I just want to let you know that you're in for a special edition of "What Did I Learn?"  Today I'm going to go big and list my Principles of Gamemastering.  This is eternally a work-in-progress, which is how it should be for us all.  Life lessons, people!

So anyway, where did we last leave our winsome charmers?

All credit to Gus L. - check out his awesome blog, Dungeon of Signs

Ah yes...they had just received a massive text dump of plot hooks, courtesy of the GM with two thumbs (i.e. "This guy!").  And they were very curious about the effects of their sabotage on the Pie Cult.
The party put aside the quest for sick rock for the moment, since two other matters demanded more immediate attention: their campaign against the Pie Cult, and fulfilling their promise to retrieve a musical instrument from a nearby ruin for the professor they had hired to write a white paper on sick rock.

They attended to the Cult first, listening for and spreading rumors about poisoned pies.  Within a day, the rumors and reality came to a head.  As the PCs were scouting the Pie Cult's shrine, they espied a gathering mob angrily calling for the monks inside to come out and account for themselves.  The bros quickly insinuated themselves into the crowd, shouting out things meant to tip the situation towards a riot.

In short order, a large squad of the Unyielding Fist, followed by a Steel Leviathan, marched in double-time to the scene.  Things were happening quickly, and the mood was swiftly turning dark.  The PCs started to pull back, Duncan skulking into a nearby alley, the others moving sharply away.

The Unyielding Fist aren't big into yielding

Ed failed his Stealth skill check, so a sergeant spotted Duncan's furtive movements and shouted for him to present himself.  At this, he panicked and ran, and the sergeant set two troopers on him.  Zab tried to intervene, but the sergeant drew his pistol and two more men moved to his side.  The man fired a shot that luckily deflected off Zab's armor, and Zab pulled his disappearing act one more time.  Radj decided to slink away inconspicuously.

Meanwhile, Duncan was racing down a narrow alley, slipping in mossy puddles with two halberd-wielding soldiers at his heels.  They almost caught him when he barked his shin on a stray crate, but he pulled away from their grasp and rounded the corner.  To Duncan's horror, an eight-foot wall loomed ahead.

Desperate to avoid being cornered, he ditched his backpack and attempted to leap back and forth between the narrow alley walls, vaulting the wall parkour-style.  Ed made the roll and Duncan made his get away, one backpack short.

A backpack containing the Bust of Challa.  A priceless artifact that produces one healing potion per day.

Suffice to say, Ed was not happy when I asked him if the Bust was in the backpack.  This was after the fact, and the kind of thing you have to be merciless about as a GM.

As for the riot, the Fist and the rioters briefly joined in a melee...but then the Steel Leviathan came around the corner and opened up.  And that was the end of that.  After a few blasts of its machineguns, all that was left was blood and guts; even a few guards had been torn to pieces.  Life is cheap in Denethix.

All hail Gus L.!

After surviving the riot, the PCs decided that it might be a good idea to get out of town for a little while, and it would be a good time to attend to that instrument fetch-quest.  Christ...the players were even calling it a "side quest." That's my fault.

The good professor bid them travel west to prosaic Retennis, where they would meet a farmer named Pud who would lead them to the entrance of the ruin, a place that the locals colorfully dubbed "The Well of Souls." When pressed, the professor confessed that he had already sent one party, but he believes that they didn't return because they didn't want to split what they had plundered.

With Retennis a day away in safe territory, the group headed there without delay, and met up with Pud.  Despite the relative prosperity of this town of orchards and vineyards, Pud was a filthy and relatively unsuccessful turnip farmer.  I didn't have much in terms of description written down for Pud, but I had a clear idea of who he was.  With that in mind, I read the players the short bit of text I had composed:
Pud is a slack-jawed dullard who wears no pants.  He has an ill-fitting loincloth, from the side of which protrudes a tuft of mud-caked pubic hair.
I don't expect that the players were imagining precisely what I had in mind for the man, but I'm sure that whatever they had in mind was vividly etched.

We're all Pud today!

Pud wanted thirty gold pieces to lead the party to the Well.  Zab offered instead to give Pud five of the seeds that he had taken as a reward from the dragon long ago.  Zab had no idea what the seeds were supposed to do, but he told Pud that they will grow into trees of gold.  Pud, none too wise, eagerly accepted the deal.

In short order, he conducted the party to the crumbling well that he had uncovered while plowing his turnip fields.  Pud then provided them with charcoal rubbings of the tablets he had originally uncovered near the well and given to the first party.  His business done, Pud withdrew to plow his field despite the withered crop that awaited harvest, and from there he stared with open curiosity at the PCs.

The intrepid sociopaths descended into the darkness.  About sixty feet down, the well opened into a large water-filled cavern.  Fortunately, someone was kind enough to leave a few boats.  The initial choices seemed to be north and south, so they headed north down a wide man-made corridor of stone.  After emerging into a room, a portcullis slammed down behind them.  A quick survey convinced them that it would be nearly impossible to move.  So they disembarked from the boats, forced by a termination of the waterway.

The room they found themselves in was lined by skeleton-filled niches.  A few steps beyond that was a room with raised panels on the floor carved with pastoral scenes, and a featureless door of iron.  Their way forward and backward blocked, the PCs studied the raised panels.  Zab leaned on one, and suddenly it collapsed ten feet into the ground.  Reacting slowly, he tumbled in, injuring himself in the fall, and a stone clamp emerged from the walls of the pit to painfully crush his arm and ribs.

Zab was incapacitated by the sudden injury.  As the party was trying to decide how to proceed, they heard the clacking of bones behind them.  Emerging from the niche-filled room, a trio of skeletons advanced on the party.  And that's where we left things.

Well shit

So like I said, instead of the usual "What Did I Learn?", I'm going to hit you with Principles of Gamemastering.

This is just a list of my current set of principles.  It is neither meant to be comprehensive nor definitive.  It represents only that which I have learned to better run games the way I like to run them.  Applying these principles has, within the context of the games I've run, consistently led to fun for me and my players.

That doesn't mean it will work for someone else's play style or current campaign.  I'm absolutely sure that you could GM for a game without applying any of these principles, and it could work.  You'd probably need to follow a completely different philosophy.  Plenty of folks do.

That being said, I do think there is some broader applicability of the principles that I've identified.  They come out of an OSR experience and tend to be most relevant to that sensibility, but some of these ideas could also work in very different kinds of role-playing games.

It's all just food for thought.

Without further ado, here are the principles:
  • Shoot for "yes, but..."
  • Roll the dice honestly
  • Prepare, but don't over-prepare
  • Descriptions should be short and punchy
  • Memorable NPCs are very important
  • Simple puzzles can be very engaging
  • Leave space for the players
I'll briefly describe each one.

Shoot for "yes, but..."

I don't like to make things too easy for players, but I don't like to shut down their ideas, either.  The credo of improv theater is "yes, and..."; i.e. affirm the reality that your fellow actors create, and build on it.  "Yes, but..." means that the players can try anything, but unless they are lucky or careful, there will be risk, complications, or both.  There are limits, of course.

Roll the dice honestly

The flip side of giving players a lot of leeway to try things is that there must be some risk for almost all endeavors.  And that risk comes from the dice.  Most GMs want the players to succeed, and I'm not an exception.  But fudging the dice deprives you and them of the joys of a great roll, as well as the benefits of a plan that allows them to forgo any rolls in the first place.  Roll the dice in the open.

Prepare, but don't over-prepare

I like to plan about one session in advance.  I may throw out references and even hooks to other adventures all the time.  But these days, I don't actually create much concrete material for more than the next session.  What's the point?  If the players truly have freedom, a lot of that preparation will be wasted.  Not only that, but by not nailing everything down to the floor, it's easier to improvise when the situation demands it, or even when it doesn't.

Descriptions should be short and punchy

I've hit this point a number of times in previous posts.  If you over-describe something, players will forget half the details, and get bored.  If instead you throw out one or two very vivid details, the players' imaginations will be activated, and they will fill in the rest of the description with details that they will remember.

Memorable NPCs are very important

Speaking of memorability, multiple times I've been pleasantly surprised with how well the players have responded to striking NPCs.  One need not dwell entirely on the strange, horrific or comic; players can be quick to sympathize with an NPC who has suffered misfortune.  Even murder hobos.  And by NPCs, I am including monsters, even the ones who just attack.

Simple puzzles can be very engaging

Puzzles shouldn't be too complicated.  This makes them brittle, which means they can either bring everything to a grinding halt (sometimes very literally with some traps) or be easily circumvented (which may be OK).  A simple telegraphed risk/reward situation can have the players engaged in lively discussion to the point where you may need to cut it short.  Stay away from Rube Goldberg and Grimtooth.

Leave space for the players

This embodies my general philosophy.  I want to create a space for the players to explore and interact with, and I don't want to constrain their choices.  Those choices may result in danger and death for the PCs, but as much as possible, I'd like the constraints to come from "the environment" and not me.  Even though I'm directing all the action behind the scenes, I'm as much on the edge of my seat to see what's going to happen.  I have no idea what the players will try or what the dice will have to say about it.  I'm not telling a story; I'm creating a space, and the players are creating a story through their actions.


I think this is a good summary of where I stand on the art and science of gamemastering. That's all for now.

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