I admit, we have not tried to game over Zoom. We are getting bored and would like to get back to a campaign we were playing with some friends. We are not alone. Many gaming groups are starting to do this, and we are late to the party. Incidentally, these articles will be a somewhat regular feature in my feed, since I need a break, and we all can help with COVID.
Incidentally that people are getting more supplements and gamebooks. Miniature games are hard to do remotely. The old paper and pencil games is a great way. You can be social, without necessarily being in the same room.
So I was thinking about how to run an RPG, and why I would not do the linear method, meaning a game goes from point A to point Z, and there is no deviation. A gaming group taught me this is not bright, or fun. I will tell you why.
It was early in my game mastering career, and we were having fun with a Mechwarrior 2 campaign set in Solaris. Mind you, that became a very long-running campaign that lasted years. The only reason it survived was this trial by fire. Like many young Game Masters, I was set on writing my own adventures. And by writing, I mean the whole thing. There were encounters, there was a plot, a character arc for major Non- Player Characters, and the order things were supposed to be found by the players. It was a murder-mystery. This adventure was on a rail and it was supposed to go on for a few sessions. In my mind it should have gone for at least four…and then the game master encountered the players.
The setting was Solaris Seven and some of this involved the Yakuza, and the Mafia, as well as the rest of the seedy side of life. Solaris is a place where you can have these adventures because the setting is not unlike the Las Vegas of the 1950s and 1960s when indeed the Mafia ran the whole town. I will abandon the pretense that some of this is not going in present-day Las Vegas, but Solaris is exactly that.
The fact that it is an International planet with people from all over the Inner Sphere, and some Clanners (due to the time period this ran,) is part of it. The planet has national zones in the city, and the rest of the planet is really immaterial. Well, except for the junior leagues where Mech fights happen, some sanctioned, many not.
So here I was, a young GM who spent weeks writing a scenario with many twists and turns. My future husband solved this in two minutes flat. So the linear scenario was done. It took him, and the party, ten minutes to decide what to do with the information. I had a whole adventure that was supposed to take weeks in my notebook. It was neatly written down, or as neat as I can handwrite. It had many characters they were supposed to meet. It was not supposed to be easy. Yet here I was, facing a group of players with still hours of gaming to go on.
Many a GM gives up at this point. Why? It’s hard work to write a piece of fiction, but if you are the referee of a game, you are not supposed to be writing a novella. You are there to guide your players and to give them the tools to have fun and find their way in the world. It is they who will direct the game session.
This is the moment I learned the most important lesson…my games became a series of possibilities. Some of my NPCs were very well fleshed out. Most were just a few notes, with a few stats to go with them.
This means that I have never bought a scenario and run it as is. They present maps, ideas, and perhaps a character or two. In fact, when I do run a game, I go where the players want. In time some of those characters became the flesh and bones for fictional characters that were transferred to a different setting and a different world of my own creation. Things like Mechs went away of course. But motivations, what drives a character, is what makes them be alive and functional in fiction. But when players encountered them in games, they became memorable, with their own agendas, yes. But details were fleshed out on the fly. Not even major NPCs started life as more than a few notes.
Let’s repeat this, most started as just a few crib notes, and more information was added to them as time went on.
This is what makes games fun, but not when a Game Master decides that players need to go into the cave when players have no want or need to go into the cave. There is a village over there!
So what do my early notes look like? Well, here is a place setting with a character.
* Lower floor: 10 tables, with one bar, and a kitchen in the back. It has a capacity for fifty people.
* Upper floor has two individual rooms for three and one common room for twenty.
* Access is through a central stairway
* Bathroom is outside in a shack, with a hole in the ground.
* There is an attached stable with ten stalls
* This place is known locally, up to twenty leagues, for its deer stew and black bread
* The barkeep is Josiah the Tall, human five levels higher from where the PC are at the first encounter. Generate those stats as needed in the system you are playing. He has high charisma, high negotiations. He is always interested in arcana. He is a failed wizard.
* Because of his interest, there are some wizardly tools around the walls. The bar is otherwise decorated with a goblin head and a couple of old, rusty spears. They could be the source of some investigation if players get curious. If a magic type is in the group, successful check magic will reveal them to be magical in nature. What exactly is up to you as a GM to determine.
If the character needs another skill, you can add it on the fly. Remember this is a barkeep, so he may have some fighting skills just in case a fight breaks up, But since he is a failed wizard you may give him a low-level spell or two that he uses to keep order in the establishment or amuse his customers. He also is not that muscular, even though he is very tall for a human. At seven feet that is a basketball player. So he usually stoops when he walks in the bar. What skin color, or the hairstyle he wears, or for that matter clothes…that is on the fly. And those details will be added as needed.
The fact is that many players don’t care if a character’s shoes are boots or just moccasins. They could care less if the keep is black, white, or since this is fantasy, green. Nor do they mind if the pants are brown or black, or leather or cloth. Some players care, and as they ask, add those details to your notes. These details may be relevant in a particular scenario. The shoes may matter if you need to climb or go over fire. Otherwise, these are nice to know, but really not that necessary.
What you may want to flesh out earlier than this: motivations. Does our barkeep have a family? Does he have friends in town? And if so, what are his connections? Is this a bar that has a long history? Or did it open a couple of years ago, and is just known for the stew?
And it goes without saying, there is your first floor. And why the chairs are like that? Well, you got to clean the floor from time to time. Also, one more detail about this. I used Inkarnate to produce that map. So no, you do not need to depend on map makers to get good looking maps. I tend to use it to produce maps for fiction, but hey, I created that for you to use in any way you want.