ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 2: Of Dice and Men

We interrupt this regularly scheduled series of posts to blather on about the minutiae of running actual games.

Since I mainly run conventions and one-shots right now, I do a lot of pregenerated characters just to save time.

A big part of the trick to using pregens is leaving enough room for the player to take over, especially in any system based on Fate. I often leave out or minimize the actual details of backstory and I usually don’t include names or specific personal details on the sheet. These days I let the players fill almost all of that stuff in, usually by having each one star in a little one-person vignette at both the start and end of the session.

DG Cover.jpg
I stole the vignette idea from Delta Green. Go buy it.

The vignettes are my favorite part of a session, give or take the mid-game shit show. They put everyone on equal footing and help to get buy-in even if the player isn’t all that interested in the game starting out.

In a lot of my older scenarios, I got the same effect with questionnaires, which is what some of the official Evil Hat scenarios do, but I find that tends to slow things down too much. The vignettes work better because Fate, overall, is a narrative system: everyone’s telling a story. If you give everyone the chance to actually star in their own little side-story, it helps get them hooked in for the rest of the session. It also does wonders to frame everything that happens between each set  of vignettes – you can do foreshadowing, you can get the players to give you ideas to fill in any gaps the scenario might have, and they get to define their character through play rather than sitting around jotting things down with a pencil.

And you’ll notice I said “Fate, overall, is a narrative system.”

That’s because you can basically run it as anything from Dungeons and Dragons with a few extra gimmicks and alternative dice to Fiasco with a GM. It’s probably the most robust, versatile system I’ve ever dealt with. You can augment it or lobotomize it at will and it works just fine regardless.

In my own games, I like to toss out the stress tracks as anything other than a vague reminder of what a character can cope with, and I go fast-and-loose on aspect invocations. A lot of players don’t get either of these things and it bogs the game down trying to ‘do it right.’ Speaking as both a player and a GM, ‘doing it right’ is one of the most annoying things you can focus on in any system.

Rule Zero of roleplaying games, and games in general, is that you’re there to have fun. If rules get in the way of that, rules are expendable.

Eclipse Phase
Stole that one from Eclipse Phase.

Another thing I do is emphasize player agency. Fate, as written, is really focused on compelling people to do things. Sometimes I’ll do that but I hate to feel like I’m railroading my players and most of them don’t need me to do that anyway. My formal/informal replacement system for dishing out fate points is as follows:

  • Roleplay according to aspects.
  • Make me laugh.
  • Do something awesome.

This is not unique to me. Some of it’s hard-baked into the system, some of it I shamelessly ripped off of the guys at Roleplaying Public Radio.

Thief_8BitTheater
Sensing a pattern here…

I make it easy to get fate points until a player has at least five of them. After that, #2 doesn’t award so many and you have to actually work a little bit at #1. There’s nothing stopping them from getting more. This way they’re not afraid to spend points, and some of the quieter players tend to bank fate points up, turning into MVPs when everyone else runs out. It also really heightens the drama whenever someone runs out of points all together and has to do something awesome without them.

I also keep a cheapo white board handy for writing down temporary aspects and consequences. I now feel like it’s common sense, but I didn’t actually think to start doing this until my friend, Donald, of the Inverse Genius family of podcasts, recommended it to me.

Another thing I do in my games is to incorporate conventional dice – the ol’ D20 and its friends.

My big thing there is to make people roll Common Sense. This isn’t an actual stat anywhere in the Dresden Files; it’s me giving players an out if I think they’re gonna do something incredibly stupid. It’s usually played for laughs, but every now and then it works really well for heightening the tension and fear.

In actual games of the Dresden Files, D20s are also my main way of forcing Soul Gazes. My players have almost always tried to avoid those, so I make it into a matter of random chance any time they deal with a major spellcaster. On a 5 or lower, hilarity ensues.

Tom Cruise
Picture unrelated.

My third use for D-whatevers is in how some of the aspects are laid out.

I usually design aspects to get players a flat +3 bonus to one or more stats when invoked – it simplifies things and lets them have a framework for how and where to use their aspects, but it doesn’t force them into doing so. Sometimes I’ll give the player a full-on plot device tied to an aspect (the Occult Detective in a recent session had the aspect, And I Can Do A Similar Trick To Your Organs – a once-per-scene trick to empty all enemy firearms while doing an Intimidate roll).

Sometimes though, I’ll give them multiple plot devices, tying it to a D-whatever. One character in a game had a chart’s worth of random items in a bag of holding; statless items they had to make up powers and uses for. Another had a bunch of crazy contacts and favors they could call in; everything from a Congressional librarian to a CIA drone strike. A character in my recently concluded Dresden Files campaign had a D6 summoning chart. She could burn an extra fate point to skip the roll, but often went with the D6 just because it was more amusing and/or dramatic.

I also have a couple things I do with the fudge dice that Fate is actually supposed to run on.

If the dice come up all positive, it’s a critical success and will almost certainly do whatever the player sets out to accomplish in grand fashion. If they come up all negative, I have a field day at some poor bastard’s expense. If they come up all blank, I call it a critical meh. A crit meh can be a success or a failure, but it’s always done in the most boring way possible. Players often get a kick out of just how boring it is, especially if they roll crit mehs multiple times in a single session.

Aside from all that, running a roleplaying game is a huge exercise in understanding the social dynamics of a group, even if it’s a bunch of people you’ve never met before.

You have to learn and account for everyone’s quirks and you have to be able to wing it. This is especially true for any game involving a mystery. If you stick with a rigid setup, your players are going to hit a wall and they’re going to feel like dumbasses and it’s not gonna take long for them to disengage from the game afterwards. This happened to me the first time I tried running Eclipse Phase, it happens to me a lot as I try to figure out Shadowrun, and it happened a couple times when I was starting out in Fate. It’s one thing to have a checklist of people and/or clues to find. It’s another to insist that they be found in a certain order through certain means with no flexibility about the how or when.

If someone’s disengaging, you have to reel them back in. For me, vignettes and fate point banking do a good job of that, but I also like to just zero in on people from time to time. “[Player name]! What’re you doing?” is a good go to.

If someone’s trying to hog the spotlight, you have to give them just enough of the attention they crave without making it all about them. Ultimately, we’re all attention-starved creatives wanting people to look at our stuff and be awed by it. GMs are especially vulnerable to that urge, but we lucky (and foolhardy) few have a stage from the minute anyone signs up for our game. Players don’t have that same spotlight unless you give it to them. The big challenge is just being equitable about it.

If you’re running with a loved one in the group, you have to make sure that person isn’t privileged over other players and you have to make sure you’re not shortchanging them. I’ve run into the latter problem a couple times because my fiancée often plays in my games. She is, frankly speaking, better than me in every damn way when it comes to games in general. She’s better than most people for that matter. Couple this with not wanting to focus on any one player to the exclusion of others and I sometimes forget to give her fate points, expecting her to do just fine without them. And she does, but that’s still a dick move on my part.

As dense as this post is, a lot of the stuff I’ve talked about becomes instinctive over the course of running a couple games.

The End Result
Pretty much this.
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ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 1: Welcome to the Nightside

“A macabre and thoroughly entertaining world.” – Jim Butcher

So there’s this British guy who penned one of my favorite guilty pleasure reads. His name’s Simon R. Green. His story’s called The Nightside and it revolves around a magical private eye who wouldn’t know a clue if it bit him, a blizzard’s worth of memorably special snowflakes, and the gaudy, grand, grimy secret heart of London – a square mile of Hell that’s so much bigger than it should be.

I could write a whole series of posts on the Nightside alone.

I got into it before the Dresden Files and, honestly, I kinda miss it more than I anticipate the next Dresden book.

SAMSUNG
I’m sorry, Jim. Please don’t hate me.

It’s a devilishly clever, fast-paced series riddled with interesting characters, quintessentially British humor, and more cultural references than you can shake a stick at. I actually gave it most of its TVTropes page back in the day. Two of my all-time favorite books – Agents of Light and Darkness and Just Another Judgment Day – come from the Nightside, as do three of my favorite scenes in all of literature. The earliest of those scenes, which takes place in Agents, I read while blasting Nightwish’s End of All Hope.

It’s a series practically Taylor-made (hyuck hyuck) for the Fate roleplaying system.

I’m a pretty obsessive game master. I’ve got core books and supplements for Eclipse Phase, Nights Black Agents and Delta Green, and a bevy of .pdfs collected over the years. I’m tentatively poking Shadowrun with a stick. I don’t branch out much.

What I’m saying is I took the Nightside and crammed it into the Dresden Files RPG. It’s based on Fate. Close enough, right?

pbc
Like chocolate and peanut butter.

In the process, I mostly shucked off the actual background fluff of the system, ditched a couple mechanics, and basically just kept its stats and character sheets. Because I’m a bad person.

The end result played pretty well though. I’ll probably re-tool it for actual Fate play, give or take whatever I can scrape from the supplements (I like having more stats than standard Fate seems to allow).

I basically took Agents of Light and Darkness and broke up John Taylor and Shotgun Suzie’s roles to include Tommy Oblivion, Dead Boy, and Julien Advent; all major characters introduced later on in the series. I would’ve included Razor Eddie and Ms. Fate, but that seemed like it was a bridge too far. Eddie is a walking Plot Device and I don’t know how well Ms. Fate would’ve gone over Down South (although I’m thinking of statting her up anyway just to use her if I ever run the game elsewhere). I also thought about including Chandra Singh, the Indian paladin from Just Another Judgment Day, but I couldn’t think of a good way to include him that didn’t horn in on Julien Advent’s territory.

The translations from named characters to anonymous high concepts and aspects were pretty easy.

  • John Taylor = The Occult Detective
  • Shotgun Suzie = Shotgun-Toting Bounty Hunter (could stand to re-title this one)
  • Tommy Oblivion = The Existential Detective
  • Dead Boy = Revenant with a Really Cool Car
  • Julien Advent = Superpowered Victorian Adventurer
  • Fate = Non-Binary Superhero (that or Transgender Batman; I’m still mulling it over)

I’m curious as to how the Superhero would’ve worked, but maybe if and when I run it again I’ll have more to say there.

The Occult Detective was a social dynamo and manipulator in the test run but ended up being an intimidating Sight-wielder with a family obsession in the actual con. The Bounty Hunter helped make the test run but nobody wanted it at the con. The Existential Detective was a wild card in both sessions, the Victorian Adventurer was always the first one to stand up to the angels, and the Revenant was defined by their car. More on all that later.