Players Planning for Success

Players Planning for Success

dsc_0093Okay, so let’s say your character has a really big goal that can’t be managed through a full frontal assault.  You either need to politically tear down your enemy, gather the evidence required to indict them or set yourself up to have some sort of strategic or tactical battle to come. Let’s take a Vampire: the Requiem example and say you want to erode the head of Clan Ventrue’s power base and humiliate him until the entire clan refuses to have any dealings with him.

No easy task. If you start by hurling baseless accusations around, or take a step wrong, you’ll likely end up being the one humiliated … or even murdered. So what do you do? How do you take control in this situation?

Firstly you need to keep accurate notes on your enemies.  Find out their motivations, likes and dislikes, allies, enemies, assets and other resources.  Find out the same information on those allies and enemies.  Get the best perspective on the situation that you can and record it because if you don’t than you will forget it.

Then brainstorm some options with your own allies, jotting down (OOC at least) each and every idea for both short-term and long-term plans.  It’s easy to just toss around thoughts verbally without writing it down, but if you don’t, you’re likely to forget half of your best ideas and get distracted by a less-than-ideal option that seemed easiest at the moment.  If they’re all written down, you can also go back to other ideas once you’ve fully nutted out whichever idea seemed the most valid in the moment.

If you’re looking for new ideas on how to achieve those goals, perhaps take a look at your character sheet and brainstorm a list of ways you can use each skill or supernatural power to achieve your goals.  Oftentimes we forget what we have on our sheet or don’t realise the unusual ways we could use Survival or Socialize to achieve our goals.  Perhaps we could get their childe drunk in a bar or track their ghoul’s movements through the parklands after an Elysium.  Some of your ideas might be terrible.  That’s fine.  Jot them down and move on.  The brainstorming phase isn’t a good place for criticism as that can dry up your ideas.  Weed out silly ideas once you move into reviewing your lists.

It can also help to do some research into how other people with your character’s skill-set might manage the situation.  Read some books on CIA advice when looking at recruiting moles and manipulating events in your vampire book.  Check out the Writer’s Guide to Police Procedure or Forensics: A Guide For Writers (in the Howdunit series by D.P. Lyle, M.D.) when trying to determine some useful tactics your ex-cop might use (writer’s guides are great for outlining situations most likely to come up in a fictional universe).  After all, you’re probably not a secret agent or a police officer so it makes sense that you might not see things the way your character would … and you may be missing the right opportunities.

Finally it pays to know your game master and the genre assumptions appropriate to their games.  Every game master has their own biases in terms of whether it’s a good idea for vampires to attempt to manipulate the police or not.  Or whether it’s better to lay out precisely what your character is doing or to just call for a roll and let them tell you what tactics you use.  It may seem like a meta-game choice, and it can be if taken to extremes, but if you keep it to simple details related to how the world itself, or the mechanics, vary from the norm then you’ll do just fine.

What other general tactics can a player use to help their character’s plans succeed?  What are some pitfalls to avoid?  What do you think?

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

 

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One of the trickiest parts of starting up a game is ensuring that all of the players and the Game Master are on the same page as to how the game is meant to be played. Unfortunately, there are certain meta-game considerations that should be kept in mind when creating a character in order to get the most out of a particular game. Some of these considerations are in the feats and attributes chosen, but a lot of is about the character’s mentality and design.

If I were creating a character for a classic dungeon crawl where the whole point is to fight monsters for fun and profit, then I shouldn’t make a Barbarian whose fear of her own rage convinced her to be a pacifist. Now this isn’t to say that you couldn’t make a pacifist Barbarian, as that could be a fantastic character concept in a different kind of campaign (even certain kinds of dungeon delves) only that it won’t work in this particular campaign unless we toss the essential premise (kick in doors and hit stuff) out the window in favour of something else.

So what can a Game Master do to ensure that everyone knows what the campaign is about so that they can take that into consideration when creating their character?

Firstly consider whether what you intend to make is something they would be interested in playing. You should look to create something different for a party of combat heavy munchkins than you would if everyone was a budding investigative sleuth. This isn’t to say that you can’t include investigation among the combat or combat among the investigation (variety is the spice of life), but that a game that punishes combat or blocks off investigative routes just won’t be as satisfying for them. They’ll keep trying to creep off the edges of the social contract by instinct alone or will sit around bored and neither option is very fun for anyone.

Once you know that the game in question is something they might be interested in, begin with a chat about what the campaign is going to be about. While you can talk a bit about style and setting, the most important and so often forgotten element is how the game is best played.

Is this a conspiracy game fraught with hidden peril where even the other player characters might be out to get you? This sets out a very different kind of social contract than a game of silly goof balls where people jokes around and use their super powers in weird and wacky ways.

Then talk about the sort of tactics which could be particularly useful in this kind of game. While rule books give people a vague idea, they’ll only take you part of the way. Will the conspiracy be primarily solved through clue hunting, resource gathering, social maneuvering or violence?

The point of this talk about tactics isn’t to create a comprehensive list of what the players can do (hello rail roading!) but to give them an idea of what could work. And definitely get them to ask questions and pitch ideas. Is creeping around through air vents a viable option? How about nonlethal tactics? Would they work? Would not killing the bad guys only feed into the villain’s plans or will it help the PC’s bypass obstacles while keeping their integrity intact? Is the police department well-funded or corrupt? Be willing to compromise.

Maybe your game world has a well-funded police department and skilled ballistics team when a murder happens but they just don’t pay all that much attention to high speed chases. Now be aware the point of this exercise isn’t a series of Thou Shalt Nots. The point is to ensure that everyone knows what consequences this game is running with and the easiest points of contact. If the players know that an assassination will be seriously investigated, they will know to plan out their murders with greater care and perform them more rarely.

It doesn’t remove creativity to set up a campaign in a particular style and setting for players who could enjoy that. It enhances it. Get them onboard, talk about your various game expectations and then have people build their characters. That way, at least, there’ll be no useless skills.

Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

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Fahrenheit is a videogame example of this hook.

Something happens … but the players can’t be sure just what it means.  Perhaps they receive a mysterious letter addressed to a previous owner and have to find out who they are and what it’s about.  Perhaps they find themselves with blood on their hands and have to figure out how that body got there (akin to the Sudden Event but far more slow-paced).

The mystery hook requires active participation on behalf of the characters because their enemies aren’t (yet) looking into them and so if they persistently ignore the hook the campaign will fall apart.  Therefore it is important to have the players on board first and foremost.  If they are the type who hate doing something that wouldn’t make sense for their character, make doubly sure they have characters built who would take the bait.

The trick with a Bizarre Mystery is to take the initial situation and make it odd enough to inspire attention.  It can help to have a second hook in case the first doesn’t provide sufficient incentive.  Perhaps after the mysterious letter, they find a mysterious break in as someone steals the letter.  This is still not a Sudden Event hook because it happens while they are away and if they simply file a police report and ignore it than there will be no further pokes from plot.

So make it interesting and tie it into the characters as best you can — both through nudges in character generation and through adjusting the hook to suit them.  The Pathfinder campaigns often encourage players to select campaign traits that provide in-built motivation.  You could borrow a page from their book to nudge die hard character immersionists into having the incentive to follow the plot line.  Sample traits could involve an interest in local history or a desire to be an amateur sleuth.  It doesn’t really matter so long as it helps ensure the characters get involved.

Once involved, the characters need to behave proactively for the first section of the game until they draw enough attention to themselves for the villains to put them on the defensive.  If you’re curious about seeing this sort of hook in action, take a look at the grand majority of Call of Cthulhu games where the character hunts down a particular clue thread until they surprise the evil villains in the middle of their ritual.  Naturally if it’s a campaign the situation might not remain so proactive throughout but it is important to bear it in mind that to begin with the PCs will control the pacing unless you put in an obvious ticking clock.

Do you have any advice for baiting a mystery hook?  Seen it done particularly well?  Feel free to put down more ideas in the Comments section.  Alternatively if you’d like to check out the base article you can learn more about other forms of campaign hooks.

Hook: The Slow Reveal

Hook: The Slow Reveal

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A great example of the Slow Reveal.

The Slow Reveal is a style of hook where the players are slowly but surely drawn into the tale through a series of off-kilter hints that all is not what it seems.  While it’s a bit of an older video game, Alan Wake provides a really good example of the Slow Reveal and you can readily imagine how it would feel to be the players behind the main characters in this game.

The game begins with an introduction to the characters as they’re traveling to a new town. We’re introduced to Alan’s wife, his agent, and his problems with the blank page. He has a massive dose of writer’s block and so they’ve rented out a nice little holiday home on a lake in order to find some way to break through that block. The characters themselves are the primary hook. They’re interesting enough that we’d like to know more.

These interesting characters are followed by some little hints that all is not what it seems. You hear about the woman who desperately tries to keep all the lights working in town. You try to speak to someone who’s locked themselves in a toilet in a dark corridor only to run into a rather creepy woman who stands in the darkest shadows of that corridor.  The small town setting flows into the resort home itself to add a very creepy vibe – a long and rickety-looking bridge promises future problems and the building’s isolation suggests future terrors.

A Slow Reveal hook works because of anticipation. When hordes of the dead are running at you, you don’t have time to anticipate. You don’t have time to let your imagination work or to really get immersed into the situation.  You certainly won’t have time to connect to the other characters and grow attached to those locations that are about to be blown up.

This hook works best when the whole point of the campaign is a plot that has infested the world around the characters without overhauling it completely.  A vampire who moves next door and starts corrupting the local populace suits a Slow Reveal hook far more than a vampiric bikie gang who smashes up the town, turns the player characters and dumps them in Mexico.

It’s important to give the players something to do during a Slow Reveal that is interesting and filled with minor complications and hints of something worse.  Brainstorm the issues that currently face their characters and the signs and omens of what is coming.  Interweave these ideas so that the players always have something to do, some issue to resolve, and that they can additional hints as to important NPCs, locations and situations as they do so.

Remember you can make NPCs more memorable by tying complications to their introduction — such as having to track down the realtor to get the key and finding they broke down en route, or having to convince an argumentative couple to calm down long enough to pay them when you fuel up at the local petrol station.  By giving the players an interesting reason to spend time with these NPCs (while repairing the car or calming them down), you’ll make them more likely to remember those same NPCs when their personalities change (now the couple never argues) or a situation repeats (all visitors break down en route to that address).

LARP HINT: A slow reveal works best in a longer session or campaign game where the first couple hours can be involved in a relatively mundane situation.  Perhaps everyone starts off in a speed dating convention in an in-game pub and they don’t realise they’ve been put in quarantine because a few of them have fallen ill from some terrible plague or the wild west campaign of dealing with vermin and dangerous bandits also has a supernatural side that will slowly reveal itself to the player characters.

It’s important to inform your players that the game will switch conventions partway through and to let them know the kind of game it will become though you don’t have to give them any plot details.  This prevents them from becoming confused and frustrated when the game they signed up for suddenly ends.  Don’t worry, knowing things will turn dark and not knowing how or when will only build up the anticipation all the more.

What are some of the best slow reveals you’ve seen in action?  What’s some advice you would give others for using one?  Check out the base article for more hook ideas over here.

Hook: With a Bang!

Hook: With a Bang!

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Bam!  Soon you’re in the thick of it in this videogame.

The Sudden Event hook gives players a short amount of time to introduce their characters to the setting (typically between a few minutes to half an hour) before throwing them into the middle of the action.

Boom!  This happens!  What do you do?  The pace is frantic and the characters are forced to react.  There’s no time to think, no time to plan and nothing will ever be the same for them again.

Perhaps they’ve been turned into a supernatural and spirited away for training by their vampiric mentors.  Maybe a bomb goes off in the bowels of the ship and they must now try to find their way out.  Perhaps they all just happened to be in the same newsagency when a heart attack drops one of the first zombies into their lap.  Or maybe the mouth to hell merely opens up and the tavern is awash in demons.

Whatever it is, it sets up expectations for a high energy campaign filled with action and reaction.  The characters must react quickly with limited information to perform their objective or die.

This hook needs to occur in a mini-sandbox.  The players need to feel that there’s room to wiggle in this tight structure so long as it makes sense for them to do.  Perhaps they don’t immediately flee the newsagency but attempt to barricade themselves in and distract the zombies.  Sure that won’t work forever (discouraging defensive play is often important) but maybe the zombies are drawn away from the exit and that will help them escape when an accidental fire forces them to flee the premises.

React to them and make them react to you.  You distract the zombies, sure, but now there’s fire!  What do you do?

Keep the action moving.  Don’t let the players debate unless the characters get that chance.  Do build in rest breaks here and there so it doesn’t get too exhausting.  Maybe they can have a ten minute chat in a basement between the newsagency and the police station.  Once they start getting cozy, motivate them to move.

Keep the motivations simple.  The players haven’t had much time to immerse themselves in the setting so situations need to be clear and the objectives straightforward.  Escape the newsagency.  Fight off the demons.  Reach the emergency boats before the ship sinks.  Sub-quests should be equally clear and based around obstacles to overcome or additional goals to achieve (i.e. save the child, grab the wedding photos).

Be mindful, though, that a Sudden Event will give players certain expectations so it’s not a good one to pick unless you know the Finale, at the very least, will surpass it in terms of danger and excitement.

LARP TIP: Sudden Events are often best used only when there is a definitive leader (typically an NPC) and pre-set goals.  Remember that large groups tend toward inertia or pointless panic even when there is a clear real life threat.  “Smoke?  Yeah, I smell smoke, but no one else is doing anything so it must be fine.”  You can often deal with this by either having the players fully expecting the scenario, giving a quick in-character briefing from a superior that outlines the expectations, or having several in-game NPCs reacting realistically to the set up.

Get more ideas on how to write a good hook over at the base article.