Archive for February, 2010

The Importance of Genre Conventions

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

In thinking about small endings, I ran into this idea about genres, which I’ve been mulling over since then. Stewart and I have been discussing the next campaign I plan to run and over the course of that discussion, I have become more and more aware of genre tropes and how aiming at them can really improve the feel of a campaign. The first thing that solidified this thought in my head was a thread on the Steve Jackson Games’ roleplaying forum where a new GM was asking for advice. In that thread, a poster called Brett said:

My very best piece of advice is to make sure that the players are supported by a clear understanding of genre expectations. This is particularly important when anything is new: GM, players, game system, setting. When I start a new player, or a new game system, I would ideally like to be able to show the players a movie or a TV show and say “Help me make it turn out like that, [except…].”

This has circled back around in my head on and off since I read it as I’ve thought more about the next campaign I plan to run, which will be set in the Firefly universe and try to capture the tone and feeling of the show. It is the first campaign I’ve run where I really could point to a TV show or movie as source material. It may be the most clearly defined genre for any campaign I’ve run, as well, which is a bit of a funny thing to say about a scifi/western.

However, consider my current campaign, Kjemmen. It’s nominally a “dark fantasy”. What does that even mean? I’ve taken inspiration from Lovecraft and Howard, George R. R. Martin and myriad other fantasy sources. But because it’s so cobbled together, I can’t create a picture in the minds of my players of what the campaign genre is without showing them in play. And that’s fine, but it means that I have to do all the work of making it feel like I want it to feel. They are doing nothing in particular to contribute to the “dark fantasy”ness of the campaign, other than playing characters that I helped them create in a way that would fit well into the setting.

Before reading that thread, it never occurred to me that there was another way to do it. It seemed immediately obvious, and I realized that I had heard other GMs obliquely refer to doing this kind of thing, but never saying it outright and so I never saw it: They’re asking their players to cooperate in creating the feel of a campaign. This can be sort of hard, but if you have mature, intelligent players who’re verse in the genre you’re trying to use to tell your story, it seems like a very, very good idea. So I’m going to give it a whirl with my Firefly campaign.

In thinking about this (note this is all theoretical at this point), I’ve identified a few points I think are important. Firstly, the players and you have to be able to reach an agreement of the genre at issue. Pointing to an existing work of fiction works very well, but a subclass could as well (It need not be Chinatown, but could be “noir private eye fiction”).

Secondly, the players have to agree to make choices and have reactions in line with the genre. If you’re doing a who-dun-it, then they should be expected to look for an opportunity to have the parlor scene and reveal everything. Likewise, the GM has to give them the right opportunities. This is sort of railroady, but also sort of not. You’re all agreeing to play with the same genre, which, when you get down to it, is a sort of formula of story bits. Or maybe, since I’m a linguist, a vocabulary of story bits would be a better term. The point is, you’re agreeing to use these units of story ahead of time, so expecting the players to use them seems reasonable to me.

Maybe this will seem like an obvious thing to do for some, but Stewart and I haven’t solved this GMing thing; we’re chronicling our exploration of techniques for being better at it. If it seems like I’ve made any naive assumptions here, or like I’ve missed a salient piece of advice regarding this, please point it out in the comments. I’m going to try this out with the next campaign and I could use the advice.

Categories: RPGs as a Medium

Ending Things

February 16, 2010 4 comments

As the category of this post indicates, this is another somewhat embryonic idea I’ve been batting around. Generally, I look for the ending of a campaign to be heroic. Most of my campaigns are fairly adventurey and that leads to some kind of confrontation with some kind of villain and, in the end, the PCs “win” in some sense. They vanquish an evil or whatever; they upset the status quo. That is, I’d say, also probably the most common ending in adventure fiction, as well. The Evil Empire is defeated, the Federation is saved from the Borg, The One Ring is destroyed, Buttercup is rescued and Prince Humperdinck disgraced. You get the idea.

However, there is a class of fiction that doesn’t end that way. In the end, the protagonists aren’t heros to the masses and probably haven’t even upset the status quo on a temporary basis, let alone a permanent one. In fact, the victory seems to be that the events of the story didn’t kill them (or didn’t kill all of them). In the last few scenes, they all sort of look at each other and say, “Phew! Well, I’m certainly glad that’s over.” They still ride off into the sunset, but only to go back to what they were doing before, more or less. The ending of the pilot episode of Firefly has this feel. To a certain extent, the ending of (at least the most recent remake of) 3:10 to Yuma is like this, too, though with a high death toll. The ending of a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is like this; The Road or The Postman (not the movie). A lot of horror movies fall into this category as well.

So what I’m wondering about is whether this kind of ending would play well in a campaign. On the one hand, I have always personally liked this feel. It makes for a smaller scope story, but that’s OK to me and isn’t common enough. I think, though, that it could potentially be a bit of a let down for the players. Or too easy to make it not feel enough like an ending to the story and, so, feel like the campaign just sort of stopped for no reason.

Take a post-apocalyptic setting, for instance. The PCs are a group of people scratching out an existence 15 years after The Day near your home town, say. They’ll fight some motorcycle bandits in football-pads-with-spikes. They’ll explore some ruined sky scrapers, that kind of thing. There’s a bit of an impulse, for me, to have the plot end up being about the apocalypse. Since it’s so central to the setting, it ends up feeling like the plot should involve it. So do the PCs learn what happened and how? Do they learn how to undo it, or prevent it from happening again? Suddenly, I feel like it’s turning into a super hero game.

On the other hand, if the PCs don’t solve the apocalypse, will the players feel like whatever ending (saving their little junk town from bikerbarians, say) is too small and wonder what knocked over all the sky scrapers and killed off 95% of the population? Will they be left unsatisfied that their PC, who was doing heroic things yesterday, is going to go back to rooting through the ruins of Walmart for tools they can adapt to farming in the hopes of getting something to grow in the bleached soil?

In fact, this brings up another interesting angle: Genre. Is the small ending a vital component of certain genres (horror, disaster, and western)? Maybe the reason I feel like undoing the apocalypse feels like a supers game is because the small ending is required for post-apocalyptic stories. Similarly, if I tried to have a story in another genre with a small ending, would it fall flat? Can space opera or action stories have these kinds of endings without feeling like they’re really a western (or whatever)?

What do you think about fiction that uses this device? Would you enjoy playing in a campaign that ended thus? Have you done so? Or run one? Can you think of any off-genre examples, or maybe genre I missed? Let us know in the comments.

Categories: Crazy Ideas

Making Maps

February 11, 2010 2 comments

In my previous post, I talked about some of the ways that I think about map making and the sort of mental hows. In this post, I’m going to talk more about what tools I use to make a map, some techniques I’ve used that have had good results and some resources I’ve found useful. But, before we get quite to those points, I want to ramble philosophically a bit. What I’m about to be talking about mostly applies to Big Maps because it applies to things prepared in advance, which is a major determiner for me. When I’m thinking about making a Big Map, I always try to make it in-character, if I can. If it’s not literally something the characters have, I at least try to make it look like something that could exist in the game world.

For the ski resort map that I mentioned before, I made a cheap-looking tri-fold brochure thing from one of the hotel chains in the valley. This was not only in-game, but meant I could excuse it looking bad and also not having any sense of scale whatsoever. For the tunnels under Niagara Falls later in the same campaign, I drew myself a map and then took a sharpie and drew a different map for the players. This, too, was an in-game prop. It was inaccurate and looked the part, so it was neat. For Kjemmen, I don’t imagine the PCs carrying around a map of the city with them everywhere, but I implied its existence in the game world by selecting a thematic font at least.

Disclaimer: You Do Not Have To Be A Great Artist

The two examples above of the ski resort and the tunnels also illustrate something which I think is important: a GM’s main job is not to draw things. As such, a lot of GM’s aren’t particularly skilled artists (I contend that most people are more capable than they think they are, but that’s another issue). The trick, I’ve found, about wanting to make a map yourself and not being a great artist is to find a reason that the map should look crappy. Just because you’re running a modern campaign needn’t mean that you have to produce maps as good as the United States Geological Survey.


The GIMP is a cross-platform image editing suite akin to Photoshop. The upside is, it’s free. The interface is a bit clunky for some tasks and it isn’t quite as powerful as PS, but man could I use that $700 for something else. There are a couple of the tools within the GIMP that I’ve found stunningly useful (regardless of what I’m doing in it): Layers, Layer Masks and Paths (click those links for some tutorials that’ll hopefully get you started). With a solid grasp of those, you can get a whole lot done.

Pen, pencil and paper are seriously not to be underrated. If the PCs want directions somewhere or are buying a map made by someone in a fantasy world, it will have been drawn by hand. Don’t be afraid to do it yourself. Sometimes fiddling with transparency in the GIMP takes more time than just drawing something lightly with a pencil.

I have only recently come across Google SketchUp in a serious way. I played around with it when it first came out, but it didn’t change my life. Recently, I messed around with it again and, once you get proficient with it (it’s easy to understand and learn from the program itself), you can make pretty detailed CAD-type models fairly quickly. You can then turn on “parallel projection” and use the top view to print out a map of your area. If you want, you could put the map markings on a different layer so you could use your model for other purposes, as well.


Google Maps is good for two things, really: inspiration and theft. If you’re looking for a rural town in England, you might could use it to get a feel for rural English towns and make your own from scratch. Alternatively, you could just use an existing one by taking screen grabs of your browser and piecing them together in the GIMP. You could then trace over the roads or make modifications if you feel the need.

map of Moscow

Click to embiggen.

For my map of Kjemmen, I needed a city that wasn’t on a coast and didn’t have a river. Those are really hard to find. I ended up piecing together screen grabs of Moscow, which does have a river, in the GIMP (pictured at left).

map of Kjemmen without markings

Click to embiggen.

I then used this as a basis for the major road network of Kjemmen, tracing the beltway and radial highways, then moving to smaller streets. I had to make up much of it on my own, especially since I was erasing the river and adding in the large chasm in the center of the city. You can see the end result at right and if you compare carefully to the Moscow map, you can find the blank spots I had to fill in with streets.

Finally, I made a version with a compass rose, the city’s name and other markings. Specifically, I made a version that indicated what territory was controlled by which noble house without assigning specific boundaries. If you’re terribly interested, you can look for yourself.

Other Resources

The folks at the Cartographers’ Guild fora are really friendly and there are some seriously awesome tutorials over there. I’ve learned a lot about how to leverage the GIMP from this place. A good place to start is the Tutorials subforum. in particular, I found this tutorial about making artistic regional maps useful, and this one about making coastlines (which is similar to the below-linked tutorial from Zombie Nirvana). Note that you have to create an account and be logged in to see the images in the forum.

Also, the Cartography tag at Zombie Nirvana Games has some really nice (though Photoshop-centric) tutorials, complete with videos. In particular, I got started with their post about using clouds to generate coastlines.

I hope that this gives some inspiration and direction to those of you who have maybe refrained from getting too into mapping in the past. Because I have a lot of fun tinkering with them, I tend to pour a lot of time into maps, but that needn’t be the case and I really think something good enough to be useful is way better than not making anything just because you can’t make a life-altering map. Have you had any interesting inspirations for maps or cool styles? Any resources you’ve found useful that I should know about? Talk about it below.

Categories: Tools and Techniques

What Makes a Good Campaign Setting?

February 4, 2010 3 comments

Most packaged role-playing systems come with their own setting to play in. If you’re a GM that likes to use those sort of settings, this post isn’t aimed at you. But for those of us out there that enjoy building worlds from whole cloth, I’ve found, through trial and error, some criteria for what makes a good setting for an RPG. “Setting,” in this context, is a broadly inclusive word. I don’t just mean the place itself, but also the nations, cultures, laws, and notable personas that inhabit it.

The potential for good PCs

This is always my first litmus test. If I can’t come up with at least four playable PCs off the top of my head, then it’s a no-go. If, for instance, I was considering a campaign where the PCs were pirates off the Spanish main, what are the possible PCs? The captain, dashing and well-rounded. A first mate in the bruiser/enforcer mode. Um… a rich noble’s son who ran away and became a pirate. And… and… I dunno. A native? A freed slave? What makes those characters fun aside from their nationalities? What if nobody wants to play the native? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the pirate campaign.

The first question you have to ask yourself as a GM is how varied you want the abilities of the PCs to be. Most of the pre-built settings assume a wide variety of character archetypes in a single party. A thief, a cleric, a wizard, and a paladin. A street samurai, a hacker, and a shaman. Vampires of clan Ventrue, Malchavian, and Tremere. These archetypes are defined by their special characteristics and abilities and give the player a roadmap for their character.

There are, however, campaign settings where this is not the case. If you’re running a military special ops campaign, your PCs are all going to have the same core skills and abilities, with minor variations to set them apart. They all have skill with guns and tactics and hand-to-hand combat and so on, but one guy is the explosives expert, one’s the sniper, one’s the machine-gunner and so on. If you’re okay with having PCs with small differences in capabilities, you have a lot more leeway in terms of settings.

I really enjoy having parties where all of the PCs bring vastly different skills to the table, so I try to find settings where different flavors of adventurer are playable. The important thing here isn’t just that there are character options, but that there are fun character options that your players will want to play without feeling shoehorned.

Something that captures the players’ imaginations

What makes this setting interesting for the players? If it’s a campaign set in space, how is it different from the existing, established space settings? If it’s a fantasy setting, what makes it unique? Does it have some unusual magic system, or a strange geography, or unusual fantasy races and monsters? You want something that makes your players think “Yeah, that would be a cool world to inhabit for a while.” It’s important to keep in mind that whatever hooks you provide will be the ones that players gravitate towards when they make their characters.

I’ve touched on this setting before in a previous post, but it also serves well here. Bakad was a fantasy campaign set in a city by the same name. The setting had five sentient races, none of which were humans.* The races were the Niall, an artistic, nimble, monkey-like people; Goblins (in the GURPS model, which means smart, social, and sneaky); the Kzin, ferocious cat people stolen straight from Larry Niven; the Inari, a race of cerebral and emotionally detached flying reptiles (stolen from GURPS Aliens), and the Fantir, a peaceful race of minotaur-esque creatures that tended to be builders.

The other tidbits that I passed along to the PCs before they built their characters: the city borders on a giant jungle full of dangerous flora and fauna. It is ruled by a vampire (a Fantir), and he has two lieutentants (a Goblin and a Kzin). No other vampires are allowed in the city. There is a tower where most of the magi live and study. Assassination is legal, as long as the proper paperwork is filed and the proper practices observed. Some Kzin have extraordinary senses of smell that let them track people.

So what PCs did the players make? One was a Goblin who worked for the vampires who ruled the city, and wanted to become a vampire himself. One was an Inari mage who studied the wildlife in the jungle. One was a Niall assassin that treated murder as an art form. And the fourth PC was a Kzin bounty hunter who tracked people with his amazing sense of smell. Nobody chose to play one of the peaceful minotaur guys – they seemed boring. Instead, they latched on to all of the things that I had provided to give the setting flavor.

For a less positive example, Star Wars is pretty standard space fantasy, but with Jedi. When people engage in RPGs in the Star Wars universe, most of them want to play Jedi. As a distant second, they want to play a bounty hunter. And if they can’t do that, they want to be a smuggler who owns his own ship. Probably a Wookie. Why are these the only archetypes that people gravitate towards? Because those are the only interesting things about the setting. Jedis, Wookies, smugglers, and bounty hunters are cool. Nobody wants to play C3PO, or an Eewok. If, however, there were a new branch of the army consisting of Vader-style cyborgs with built-in weapons and enhanced strength, then somebody would probably try that (they’d probably still want to be a Wookie). Or you could introduce a clan of secret ninja assassins that knew how to make themselves invisible to the force, and used low-tech weapons instead of blasters. Anything that you add that seems new and cool will excite the players, and give them ideas for characters.

Well-chosen constraints

The setting for a campaign governs what is possible and/or desirable for the players to accomplish. When you’re making your own setting, it’s important to think about what sort of things you want to have happen, and particularly what things you don’t want to have happen.

For instance, the first real GURPS campaign that I GMed was set on a polynesian island. GURPS combat, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is pretty realistic, and consequently significantly more lethal than standard RPGs. I was really worried that one of my PCs was going to get into a fight and die, particularly in a setting with no armor. So I created rigid social rules about how combat was handled, and what weapons were allowed. The rules stipulated a list of weapons, but it just as easily could have read “nothing that cuts or impales.” Blunt weapons could still be quite damaging, but they weren’t likely to kill someone before they had the opportunity to surrender.

The standard RPG systems also have these sorts of constraints built in, but they tend to be subtler. The original D&D strove to be clean, classic high fantasy. One of the ways that they accomplished that was by constraining what weapons, armor, and abilities each class could use. Mages can’t use swords or axes, clerics can only use blunt weapons, fighters can’t climb walls, and so on. Vampire: the Masquerade wants its action to be shadowy and full of intrigue, instead of gun battles between vampires in the middle of crowded shopping malls. So they created the Masquerade, a feature of the setting that constrains PCs from doing things that would expose themselves as vampires.

So let’s say that you have a particularly bloodthirsty player in your group, and he’s ruining everybody’s fun. They all like him, and nobody wants to kick him out, but something has to change. You, as the GM, could force him to play some sort of pacifistic PC. But that’s just going to ruin his fun – making people play against their own nature never works. You could, instead, build some constraints into the setting that make it undesirable for him to act that way. If it’s a fantasy setting, the Gods are real, they are active, and they are watching closely. If you kill an innocent, they will sweep down from the heavens and dole out some harsh punishment. If it’s a sci-fi setting, perhaps everyone is wired with special chips that shock you when you commit a felony. As the GM, you have a lot of dials at your disposal to tune the players’ experience.

Manageable scope

I’m fascinated by the apocalypse. I thought that it would really fun to play a campaign where the players were apocalypse survivors who were just beginning to rebuild, and then their home is destroyed, forcing them out into the world. I fleshed out the setting, worked with the players to build PCs, figured out what was going on in the world at large, and was all ready to start… when I realized that this thing was just too big. I had no idea where the players were going to go, or what they might choose to do. I wouldn’t have time to prepare for all of the possibilities, and while I’m good at improvising, it would begin to show quickly.

Also, I didn’t really know what was possible. If one of the PCs tried to rig a radio to work based on a ton of old car batteries, would it work? What if they went to a library and looked up how to make gunpowder? I didn’t want that. How was I going to stop it? Was I going to burn every library? What if they came up with a clever way to refine gasoline and get the cars running again? I don’t know anything about cars. Nothing ruins an experience for a player faster than being told “You can’t do that. Why? Umm… I don’t know. You just can’t.” I called off the campaign.

Similarly, I’ve always thought it would be cool to play in a setting where magic replaced technology. The world had modern-era levels of convenience, but using magic instead of science. So the elevators had built-in levitation spells, and everybody carried communicators that worked like cell phones and so on. Something about it captured my imagination. So then what makes that setting interesting? Why, the magic, of course. The players would be drawn to playing wizards that could tamper with the powers that drove all of the technology. Did I really want to have to figure out and then explain how the magic communicators worked in enough detail that they could manipulate them? Nope. Too big, too complicated (at least for me).


This seems really obvious, but it’s not. A lot of times the settings that capture the mind of a GM are not actually fun places for a character to inhabit. “Predator” is a kickass movie. The jungle terrain is interesting and cool. It’s main characters closely resemble a party of PCs in the special forces model described above. It has a lot of Rockmost moments. But at it’s heart, it’s a story about competent, skilled, well-armed soldiers getting stalked and killed by something better and stronger than them. Would that be fun for the players?

This is a common pitfall when people stray from the standard role-playing fare. The classic model of an eclectic group of talented individuals on a quest to kill a monster/save a princess/find a treasure works really well. When GMs get tired of that model, however, it’s common to go in the opposite direction – “you’re all peace corps workers in Liberia, trying to provide clean drinking water in spite of warlords and a corrupt government.” It sounds cool and different, but is it fun?

Ever since Ben introduced me to the idea of Rockmost, I’ve reworked my thinking on this a little bit. When I consider a setting, I think “what are the potential rockmost moments for this setting?” If the setting is a space station mining colony, what are the coolest, most rock awesome things that could happen there? They could shoot a hole through the hull and have to deal with sealing the breach. That’s kind of cool. They could have a battle outside the station in spacesuits. Also kind of cool. They could have space sleds that haul the ore back and forth from the asteroids, and have a fight on those. In spacesuits. Using laser drills as weapons. That sounds pretty sweet. But if that’s the best possible scene for the setting, it’s probably not good enough. You can either add some more things that make it more fun (Aliens-style power loaders, weird bio-enhancements for the miners, etc) or you can scratch that idea and come up with something else. Ultimately, the guideline for how to choose a setting is the same as everything else: “What would rock most?”

*I highly recommend trying a fantasy setting with no humans, as it puts the emphasis on the fantasy races and forces the races to more than just stereotypes. It is, however, more difficult for the GM, as every random NPC that they encounter can’t/shouldn’t just be some default race.

Categories: The Way