Monday, July 29, 2013

Other Side of the Screen

Occasionally, Game Mastering feels like a thankless task.  GMs give and give and give.  Sometimes they receive an accolade here or there, other times the scornful, disapproving eyes of ungrateful bastard players!  Hopefully, that's a rarity at your table, but yeah, GMing isn't always glamorous.

That means a long-term Game Master must find fulfillment in different ways.  Chiefly, his achievement is the power of creation, and sometimes that alone must sustain him in the dark times of whining, looking up stupid irrelevant stuff on one's internet-capable cell phone, and weaselly avoidance of any possible damage or ill effects.  Just as God (assuming He exists) must be thoroughly disenchanted with the sentient beings running roughshod over his world, there has to be a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing you made something cool, something alive... and that it wouldn't exist without you.

But this blog post really isn't about GMing so much as returning to playerdom.  Yes, a mere mortal again - or vampire, half-orc, mutant, etc.  It can be quite a shock.  A comedown.  Instead of manifesting a world and controlling nearly everything in it, he's now little more than a scavenger trying to survive another night.

I recently played in a friend's Call of Cthulhu one-shot.  As GMs tend to agree, it was a refreshing change of pace.  Playing is its own kind of fun, different from GMing but still a good time.

There's a mindset that comes with running a PC for a change.  The GM-turned-player wants to make up for lost time.  You see, he's watched all his players blasting away at imperial stormtroopers, beheading trolls, drinking blood, smashing cars, manipulating shadow, committing treason against the computer, and summoning nameless servants for dark puposes.  There's all this awesome stuff that a career GM has voyeuristically lusted after for months or even years.  Suddenly, it's within his grasp!

Prepare thyself, GM, for the second come-down of Christ.  Chances are, a former GM's player experience won't live up to a sliver of what he was hoping for.  These days, I've become a master at managing my expectations.  Years ago, I fell into that trap.  I thought my years of GM service entitled me to a fantastic experience in front of the screen.  I was due, right?  Haha, not so.  A combination of bad rolls, bad luck, player inexperience (yes, years of GMing can corrode forms of common sense), and trying too hard... they all put me in my place.

Older and wiser, I now let the game evolve organically, and my place within it.  Mostly, I was comic relief.  An impossibly handsome and intelligent drifter without much education and the worst dice rolling possible.  In the end, I played my character as if I was him.  Didn't try to be the best, outshine the other PCs, save the day, accumulate fantastic loot, or do a bunch of radical super-maneuvers to impress anyone.

My expectations in check and sense of entitlement gone, I had a lot of fun.  And better yet, I was able to better facilitate the table's fun rather than hot-dogging it, failing miserably, and becoming indignant.  Focusing upon my character allowed the GM to do his thing and the other players to do theirs.  Sure, I was wounded, driven insane, and seemed kind of NPCish next to my companions... but that's the life of a PC sometimes.  His experience isn't always glamorous, either.

I was playing and made myself realize how fortunate I was to be roleplaying at all.  I welcomed the idea of not having the session's success resting solely upon my shoulders.

So, if you're normally a GM and about to play, keep that in mind.  You may not slay the dragon or roundhouse kick Dread Cthulhu in the eye, but fun can still be had.  And if you're a career player, then do something nice for your GM this week - send him a "Great game, man!" email after the session or buy him a 12 pack of his favorite soda or even volunteer to GM for a night.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kindred: The Embraced

As I've done in the past, I'll be volunteering my services as GM to those who've never played an RPG in their life, as well as, those who haven't played in awhile.  I started with Dungeon Crawl Classics, then Swords & Wizardry.  For a change, the end of August's meetup will be Vampire: the Masquerade.

Not only will it be refreshing to do something different like Vampire, but I'm also going be running a Vampire chronicle in September... and it will be nice to have 1 or 2 new players.  Yes, volunteering to run an RPG via your local game store, library, internet meetup, or whatever is a great way of finding new players or games looking for players.

I recently re-watched Kindred: the Embraced.  That was a blast from the past.  The Godfather meets Melrose Place by way of Dracula (The Lost Boys?).  A lot has transpired since 1996, so K:tE looks dated.  However, it's also an eight-episode guide to creating a chronicle, a living city with clans, sires, and plenty of blood-soaked secrets.  Here are my top 10 reasons why Kindred: the Embraced never made it past the first season.

1.  The main character, Julian Luna, played by Mark Frankel died in a motorcycle accident soon after the show aired.

2.  I don't think the word "vampire" was used once in the entire show.  I can understand the aesthetic reasons for wanting to avoid the V word, but marketing-wise... that was probably a bad move.  How are casual vampire fans going to find out about a vampire show if there's nothing to identify it as being about vampires in the title?  Sure, there's the roleplaying game, but that's pretty niche.  Plus, this is pre-internet.

3.  The pilot started right in the middle of things.  That can be cool, but also confusing.  If K:tE was done today, then not only would it be called Vampire's Embrace or something, but it would have the first 10 minutes explaining what a clan was and how they see each other, why there was a small table full of primogen, why a city needs a Prince, etc.  If you knew absolutely nothing about the Vampire RPG, then you'd get the gist by the last episode of the season.

4.  They're all day-walkers!  Vampires who can go out in the daylight, as long as, they're not starving?  I guess that makes sense, but it takes a huge part of the common vampire mythology out of the picture.  Basically, this made the show more Melrose Place than Dracula.

5.  Where was the beast?  Philosophically, K:tE made a big deal about the whole "A beast I am, lest I become."  However, except for a couple Brujah versus Gangrel mean girl looks across the club, there wasn't much to write home about.  How about some Kindred frenzy?  I wanted to see the dark animal below their vampiric surface.  Dexter is more beast than these guys.

6.  Where was the blood?  I think there was a little red stuff here and there - badly dabbed on an actor's skin after a fight scene - but I wanted so much more!  Blood is the essence of a vampire's (un)life.  It's like sex, drugs, and rock n' roll all symbolically wrapped up into one powerful thing.  The lack of crimson joy, again, made the series look less like Dracula and more like Melrose Place.

7.  Phosphorescent guns!  These were somehow large Tommy-style guns that could hurt or kill a vampire.  Yeah, I get the idea, why the writer(s) wanted it, suspension of disbelief, etc.  But... no.  That's just stupid and takes away from the Kindred's mystique.  If you want a vampire dead, you hunt him down and stake him in the heart, chop his head off with a sword, or burn him alive.  Probably all three, just to make sure.  Some Kindred died in the traditional ways, which was nice, but those phosphorescent guns were way too prominent.

8.  C. Thomas Howell's acting.  I know he can act.  I've seen it.  Plus, he's been in a thousand different things.  Howell is not really watchable here.  Almost so bad it's good levels... but not quite.

9.  I didn't realize how much of a launching pad K:tE was for a lot of great shows.  Ok, three of them:  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dexter.  Hmm, all of those shows are the first names of the protagonist.  Anyway, half the cast is recycled between the three.  Yeah, this isn't really a reason why K:tE didn't last, I just wanted to mention it.

10.  No sense of mystery, the supernatural and unknown which man cannot fully explain.  Maybe, the writers and producers were going to wait for season 2 before bringing up the "why" of vampires instead of focusing only on the "what".  Or, maybe it never occurred to them.  I wanted something deeper.  Sure, a couple plot hooks were there: drinking a baby's blood by the full moon around some standing stones to bring back the old ways of the Nosferatu, but that was just an episode and it was never expanded.  Cool idea, no legs.

Well, that's it for this blog post.  Still, for all its faults, Kindred: the Embraced was a good show back in 1996, just as it is now.  Worth watching if you're going to run/play the RPG.  Want to talk about anything Vampire-related?  Comment below!


p.s.  Expect to see more blog posts about Vampire: the Masquerade and Requiem in the coming months.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Unexpected Encounters #5

Next to reading someone's journal, one of the most effective ways to convey information in-game is for the player characters to eavesdrop upon a private conversation.  And that they did.

On the outskirts of a large Drow settlement, they spied a dimly lit mausoleum tenanted by long-dead Dark Elves of prominence.. and two very much alive, conversation in progress - Thesselor of House DuVont, dressed in violet robes accented with silver glyphs and Hanzred of House Morcane, clothed in the black spidery brocade of Drow nobility.

Hanzred:  Do you believe Lloth is coming back?

Thesselor:  Of course!  Lloth's attention is focused upon her hatred of our enemies and their assured destruction.

Hanzred:  Its been three weeks - no manifestation, no sign... nothing.  This is Lloth's longest absence from Maerimydra.  I don't like it, Thesselor.

Thesselor:  Are you afraid?

Hanzred:  I merely anticipate... trouble.

Thesselor:  You believe the natives are getting restless?

Hanzred:  I fear House Morcane being overthrown.

Thesselor:  Why is that?  You have soldiers, wizards, assassins, and clerics just as the other noble houses.

Hanzred:  Do you forget what is in our house's possession, Thesselor?

Thesselor:  Ah yes, of course.  The Ruby Spider of Thokrahn.  You believe there will be attempts to steal it?

Hanzred:  I believe the artifact is so powerful that some will try to bring down House Morcane in its entirety.

Thesselor:  Surely, it's well guarded.

Hanzred:  Indeed, it is.  By a crawling emissary of Yogsoggoth, no less.  We obtained it from Lackless the Black.

Thesselor:  The diabolic assassin?  I thought he was dead.  Just thinking about his one white eye gazing forever within the abyss at which he nightly prostrates himself... well, it makes my blood run cold.

Hanzred:  One and the same.  And what it cost, evil Lloth!  A truly blasphemous amount.

Thesselor:  For Lackless the Black or the crawling emissary?

Hanzred:  Both.

Thesselor:  Your House must be doing quite well.

Hanzred:  I cannot deny it.

Thesselor:  What's your secret?

Hanzred:  The Ruby Spider of Thokrahn.  It's ability to warp the nebulae of magic is... scarcely believable.

Thesselor:  It was wise of you to steal it from those unworthy fools.

Hanzred:  Yes.  Yes, it was.  Hahahaha.  Come, I feel we've paid our respects enough for one evening.  Let us dine at Szith Morcane before the envious thieves of Maerimydra grow bolder.

Thesselor:  Lead the way, Hanzred.

A few bits and pieces were borrowed from City of the Spider Queen.  As for the PCs at my table, they made quite a meal of my overheard dialog.  It was the adventure's hook, forging the story to end a campaign. Word of advice:  just speak both parts back and forth without regard for exactly who is saying what.  The players will get the gist.

Use this device sparingly, but use it.  As always, feel free to alter any of the above to suit your own particular campaign.


p.s.  Description and stats of the Crawling Emissary of Yogsoggoth can be found on this blog, published in March.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bittersweet Nights of Gaming

This post isn't about any particular session, so much as it's about that exhilarating rush we feel at the gaming table... and knowing the game must end at some point.  Just as bittersweet as nostalgia, it's awesome to remember the good old days, but, at the same time, it must be acknowledged that those days are gone.

I took a group of 6 players through B4: The Lost City last night using the Swords & Wizardry retro-clone RPG.  It was a local, face-to-face meetup for those who have either never played a paper and pencil roleplaying game before or those who haven't played in many years.  It was a great experience, and a fun time for all.  Three hours into it, we were getting up from the library's special reserved room and saying goodbye to each other, goodbye to the step-pyramid of Cynidicea, goodbye to gaming for who knows how long.

"Well, there wasn't enough time, Michael.  There just wasn't enough time."

This Saturday is going to be the last session of the campaign.  The cap to six months of weekly to semi-weekly gaming.  As some readers may know, this campaign galloped on the heels of my second child's birth.  My wife was kind enough to let me start gaming again after only a couple months of sleepless nights and constant attention.

And those first sessions would determine if I ever gamed again.  You see, I had become increasingly burned-out by roleplaying over the years.  Something got lost... maybe it was my gaming style or focus or the fundamentals had slipped through my fingers.  Fourth edition D&D definitely did not easy my gaming malaise.

Half a year ago, I took up the Dungeon Master mantel yet again with my old school gaming primer in hand and my head full of psychedelic Erol Otus eldritch science fantasy neo-nostalgia, as well as, visions of dancing sugarplum fairies with vorpal scimitars +3.  Luckily, the OSR did me just fine.  I was a new man and gamer.

Yet, all that gaming took its toll.  The scheduling and logistics - agonizing over who could be there, making sure everyone had transportation, food/drink.  Sometimes there were too few, a couple times there were too many... one night almost turned into a drunken brawl.  My wife complained about never seeing me on Saturday nights.

It needed to end, or, rather, it needed an ending.  The campaign should have a final chapter, I thought.  A conclusion.  And then a short break from gaming, followed by more gaming of a different sort.  You see, I also don't want to get burned out on fantasy - even the weird fantasy of sword, sorcery, spaceships, lasers, and Lovecraft.

So, I'll be going OSR circa 1992.  Yes, back when I was a Junior in High School, playing and running Vampire: the Masquerade on a regular basis.  Joy Division, lots of black ten-sided dice with dark red numbering, and riffing off cinematic bloodsucker classics like The Lost Boys, Near Dark, Fright Night, Sub-Species, Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, and Nosferatu.

Don't worry though, I'll still be blogging.  And my OSR mega-dungeon Liberation of the Demon Slayer is still being self-published by the end of August.  Hopefully, I'll be back playing D&D (more like a cross between Dungeon Crawl Classics and Swords & Wizardry) in September.  Who knows, maybe my wife will even let me run games twice a week!?!  Not going to hold my breath.  ;)

"We'll get there, Pop.  We'll get there."