Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mind-Mapping Tools for Gaming

Hello reader.

I'm currently doing research for my Master's degree. One of the biggest headaches is keeping it all organised. I have several notebooks full of notes from my reading. I have dozens of links to policy documents, speeches, and news reports online. I am constantly inventing structures for my writing, and re-inventing and re-shuffling. I am in desperate need of some kind of filing system.

One thing I often notice is the overlap between education and gaming. For instance, this recent article about designing a gaming space has a lot of similarities with how teachers try to design their classrooms. So it occurred to me that the solution I've found for organising my research could help with my upcoming campaing. (I say "upcoming..." It depends on player apathy!) I've found two free (hooray!) mind-mapping tools: XMind and Personal Brain.

XMind allows you to create rather traditional mind-maps: a central topic with sub-points coming off. My favourite feature is the ability to hyperlink either to files on your computer or to web sites, which helps me organise my links thematically. There are plenty of keyboard shortcuts so after a bit of practice the interface is a breeze. XMind is best suited for hierarchical data, because its diagrams all assume that the parent-child relationship is the most important for your information. This mind-map is an interesting demonstration of the format. I use it for my research (central topic, subdivided into schools of thought, again subdivided into researchers, with subtopics to take notes on my reading). Because it is hierarchical, it would really be most useful for game notes that are also hierarchical: maps in mind-map form (divided into regions, smaller areas, and individual places), hierarchical organisations in your campaign world, or a campaign structure (divide into adventures, encounters, NPCs...).

Personal Brain
Also a mind-mapping program, but one I found immediately more useful for gaming (and less useful for my research). Personal Brain allows you to establish information hierarchies, but it also lets you create information that cuts across those relationships. Check out some of the samples to see what I mean. When you view your data, you look at one item at a time and things that are within one or two relationships of it. I've found this amazing for developing a campaign setting. My central topic is my city, divided into people and places. Under "people" I have little hierarchies described (most of the organisations in my city are hierarchical), and under "places" a list of sites in the city. The city also links to rival cities in the region, useful for long-term campaign development (eventually these cities can develop their own internal mind-maps). However, because you're not as restricted in how you describe relationships (any datum may have as many links, horizontal or vertical, as you like), it's better for describing a dynamic city. Within every hierarchy I've tried to create relationships that go across to different organisations (so some priest has a rival in the count's court, or one of the council members has a brother in the priesthood...). This makes the world feel less disconnected, and if I use my laptop at the gaming table (it's small, so I think I will), it's easy to situate any NPC in the grander setting. Another fun trick is putting the party in as a part of the mind-map so I can track the allies and enemies they make and how that entangles them in politics. The biggest downside about PersonalBrain, however, is the inability to visualise ALL of your data at once. I like it because you can establish the relationships between details, but if you want "big picture" software, go for XMind. (Or both!)

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Template for Improvisation

This is a response to Martin Ralya's nice little post on improvising your game. It is a template designed for a low-notes, improvisational approach to gming. As I mention in my response to his article, I see templates as a great tool for organising your thoughts and developing your skills. With a lot of experience, they're probably unnecessary, but for those of us who lack that advantage, there are tools. I've tried to incorporate Martin's six points as to what constitutes good improvisation. The bold represent section headings; the underlined are sections to fill out; the italics represent my commentary on how to use the template.

I think this section is probably the bare minimum for what you need to prepare for an adventure. Of course, some GMs might require even less. If you're going for improvisation, bare minimum is probably the right amount.
Adventure name:
Good note-taking practice more than anything.
Main task:
A conflict to be resolved or task to be completed. Anything that lends tension can be a task, as it takes tension to drive the game. Doesn't necessarily have to be a "task" as such. Make the task clear as early in the game as possible.
Necessary objectives:
A brief list of encounters that will probably play out as a result of the main task. These are the plot points that piece the adventure together. You will probably want to develop them seperately in some kind of detail.
Supplementary objectives:
A set of encounters which MIGHT occur in the adventure. In a murder-mystery, a duel with the villain, or a shoot-out with gangsters, could very well happen, but a lot of it is down to player initiative. This list will flavour the adventure. If your supplementaries are full of violence, you'll have a violent adventure. If they're mostly about negotiation, you'll have a diplomacy-heavy adventure. It's worth thinking these through as possibilities so that you have some good encounters to use "on the spur of the moment" without binding yourself to them as tightly as your necessary objectives.
Work out the main cast. Minor characters can be improvised on the fly. Remember, if you're not going to re-use a character after a single encounter, or if they're only meant to pose a minor annoyance, you're better off using templates. No one's going to care that "Sergeant Lathias" of the Elven Guard is just a stock Elven Warrior with a Dex bonus and a cool sword rather than a unique NPC worked out in exquisite detail.

Following Martin's first point, in the early game you should explain the tension to the players and let them make some initial probes into it. Be open to their suggestions, let them catch some easy clues (nothing too vital, but be generous), and use it as a time to set the mood and, more importantly, to gather information about the party's intentions. Remember Martin's second point, to make sure the first encounter is a detailed one, and take your time. It will give the players their best clues as to what the adventure will be about.
My players understand the adventure as:
You may have planned a diplomatic adventure, but the players quickly decide they're here to be assassins. Oh well. Don't try to railroad them back onto what you hoped the adventure to be about. Enjoy the collaborative process.
My players are mostly interested in:
If the players are making plans, talking about future directions for development, or otherwise expressing interests in what they want to have happen, write it down immediately.

As you observe what the players are saying, jot down some ideas below.
I should emphasise:
Which of your pre-planned encounters should be played out in full? Review your notes you wrote before the game.
I should down-play:
You can strike from the list any supplementary objectives that seem irrelevant at this point. But maybe you have some vital plot-points. Include them, but expedite them. They'll probably bore your players. Of course, if they show more interest when you introduce them, feel free to play them out in full. This corresponds to point three.
I should modify:
If they're in a mood for a fight, add more goons. If they're in the mood to wheel and deal, remind yourself that the NPCs will ask questions before they shoot. And so on. "Raid the camp" will play out differently with stealthy, combative, and diplomatic emphases. This is related to Martin's fifth point.

As you meander through to mid-game, quickly take stock of the following. This is about gauging energy levels, Martin's sixth point.
How is everyone feeling, or what do they want?
Bored? Excited? Unsatisfied? They want a final fight? They want to figure out whodunnit? General mood at the table.
I should end the adventure:
Give yourself either a hard or soft time limit (30 minutes, or "soon", or "whenever.") Give yourself enough time to wrap things up to a satisfying conclusion, without having the feeling that something was missing. Of course, you can violate this self-imposed limit, but forcing yourself to consider the end of the adventure at this stage allows you to adapt your pacing to the mood of the group.
Scenes left to run:
Jot down a quick list of scenes you want to run. Maybe you decide that a scene previously vital is now not worth including. Maybe you decide that a scene previously unimportant would now add something interesting. Once again, this is about adjusting your pacing to the development of the game, adapting your plans to the real situation.

Take a big breath before the finale. Allow a brief lull. This corresponds to Martin's fourth point, and allows a bit of a drumroll before the narrative climax. The players should probably be aware that the finale is coming, though they might not know exactly what form it will take. Include a scene of either the night before the battle, them riding the train before the outlaws attack, looking over the blueprints of the bank vault, whatever. Again, listen to your players. Then go for it. Here is a checklist, as you've probably already planned out your final scene better than any other.
Are the other points in the plot resolved?
You may have to jetisson bits of your plot, remember.
Are the players properly prepared?
Decide for yourself what "properly" means. It may mean armed to the teeth and well-rested, or it may mean exhausted and on the edge of collapse, or anything in between. It depends what mood is needed for the last big scene to be effective. Remember, a sudden find or a boobie trap can shape the party faster than a bunch of long and drawn-out encounters. Let them do any planning they need to at this stage, assuming it's appropriate.
Has everyone had enough?
Not as in fed-up, but if the party still wants to interrogate one more witness, let them. If everyone's having a great time, you can add some more minor encounters that you wanted to, but once all the loose ends are wrapped up any more will reek of stalling.

After the final fight, take some time to wrap up the adventure. Use this section THROUGHOUT the adventure to remind yourself what should be addressed to wind down the game, recap progress, and give significance to events.
Minor victories:
If the party helps out a minor NPC, it might be worth having them named in the cheering mob at the end that greats the victorious conquerors. Or if they made a minor enemy, maybe that enemy can send them a nasty letter, reminding them they have unfinished business. As you go through the game, note down little victories so you can remind the party of everything they've accomplished.
Loose ends:
If you're forced to cut off a sub-plot for the sake of the session, remind the players that they never DID find Farmer MacGreggor's chickens, and that The Green Ghost is still at large. Note these down as the party turns away from minor threads. Of course, they may be utterly important by the end. In that case don't bother, or else risk a "so what."
Campaign framing:
In the course of one adventure, the party may change allegiances, influence the course of an ongoing conflict, or in some other way change the status of the campaign. Take note of how the party is altering the game in the long-term, to lend significance to their actions.

Your group may or may not have a post-game ritual. Maybe everyone goes over high points and low points in a formal way; maybe people just make some odd comments as they pack up their things; or maybe you just think about it on the ride home. Whatever you do, jot down some notes for future development. This is essentially the "PMI" (plus, minus, interesting) model for reflection and criticism.
Things that fared well (and why):
Things that fared poorly (and why):
Things that surprised me during the game:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fudge, with bells on it

I've started outlining my new Fudge campaign. If it gets off the ground, I'll let you know how it goes. At this point, though, I want to write about two tools I've used at this stage in the design theory: Long Knives and Island Design Theory. I encourage you to check them both out, as well as the sites that host them. Amagi Games, which I've only just discovered, has a ton of little plug-ins and tools for planning and running RPG sessions. They're all extremely simple to implement, system-neutral, and clever. Gnome Stew, home to Island Design Theory, is a GM's blog, run by a bunch of wonderful fellows, gives general advice for running your games. It's worth your time trawling around the archives, and checking it when you get up with a cup of coffee (or whatever your morning ritual is).

I'm trying to create a campaign set in a city-state with numerous internal factions vying for control. Long Knives is absolutely perfect for designing this. At first I thought it was a bit extraneous, but forcing yourself to map out all of the relationships between factions, design a few plot hooks, and considering interests is worth the effort. On the one hand, it suggested relationships I hadn't thought of before. As I filled out the chart, I saw that some factions were diametrically opposed, whereas some had possible common interests. I know now that my campaign could take several directions. A, B, and C could ally against D and E, or A D and C, or whatever. This unstable state of affairs makes the actions of a few motivated individuals a lot more important, so the party will have a real role to play. It also helped me when I went onto the second phase of planning.

Island design theory uses individual events or encounters as its building-blocks. These are loosely linked into a story, but players can skip between them or go back and forth. The order isn't set in stone (even though actual ISLANDS are, in fact, set in stone). This allows the GM to react a lot better to player initiative, while still retaining some narrative control, and some ability to plan ahead. After filling out the Long Knives chart, I found it very easy to write out 25 possible events (one for every interrelationship on the chart) on scraps of paper. I sorted these events into three piles. Because I had been brainstorming, I found that my largest pile was events that could in and of themselves form the basis of a gaming session. A few events were totally earth-shattering (coups and assassinations and things like that), and really couldn't take place without the players first becoming immersed in the campaign and having a hand in events. And a fairly large stack were somewhat interesting, but contained no possible plot hooks for the pcs, and really didn't stand up on their own as adventures.

I knew I wanted my first adventure to be interesting, to get the party involved immediately, and to set the tone for the campaign. So I randomly picked one event from the first pile (reasonable adventures) and two from the third (slightly interesting events). I looked at the three I had selected and saw that because of the interrelationships set up with Long Knives, these events were all far more interesting in relation to each other than they would be individually. I sorted them out into a logical order (one order out of several possible orders). These will form the central events of my first adventure. I have a lot of detail to fill in, but it's obvious at this stage which characters I should prepare, what settings I should put together, and some of the encounters, combat or otherwise, I should be ready to run.

I'll probably run an island process again for this adventure, writing out linking events that lead from A to B to C, and roughly arrange them. This will give some narrative structure to my adventure, while still allowing a fair bit of player control. Rather than setting up a flowchart, I'll instead make a timeline. The timeline will be structured as such:

Event A --- Linking group A --- Event B --- Linking group B --- Event C

I'll know roughly that after event A, the players will head in one of several likely directions, and I'll be ready to engage them. Come event B, they'll have explored the world a bit, be more committed to events, and start to understand a few of the ramifications of what's happening. Similarly, the linking group B events will allow players to start situating themselves in the world (I work with These Guys, Those Guys are my enemies) so C will be able to wrap the adventure up nicely with a decent cliffhanger, leaving them wanting to know more.

I have been using these tools partly because I haven't GMd in a while, and in the interim have read a lot of ideas about it. I've been eager to try out some new tricks. Please share any experiences you have with any of these.

Regarding Education

From an educational standpoint, both of these tools would also be useful. Long Knives would make a good worksheet for students trying to understand complex political events (like the French Revolution, for instance). The first section would allow them to jot down some initial impressions about the actors, the second would allow them to decide what events leading up to the crisis seemed most important, and the third would let them explore the interrelationships in a tense situation, and see why a crisis had to occur, but also that it could have gone several ways. Comparing results between students would make for fruitful discussion.

Island Design Theory would make a perfect planning tool for teachers. Have a good look at the curriculum and figure out what the main concepts you want to explore are. Give each of these a colour code and use coloured post-its or index cards. For medieval history, you might make pink cards about society and culture, blue cards about historical change, and green cards about historiography and history skills building. Write out every lesson and activity you have on one of these cards. Sort them roughly into units of work, of 2-4 weeks. This is your semester plan. You can always grab a later lesson and move it up. You can add cards if students show a particular interest in a given topic. If you have more possible lessons and activities than you have teaching time, you can ask students to pick which ones they would most like to explore. Inform them that they need a few from every colour, and let them collaborate with you on curriculum development. Cards could carry reminders about lesson timing, resources you will need (dice, videos, construction paper, etc), and links to other topics. These cards are also re-usable from year to year, assuming you make them sturdy enough.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Fudge Campaign

I'm looking over my Fairy's Tale game, and it's very railroad-y. I might give it a shot as a one-off, and if the system turns out to be oodles of fun try a mini-campaign, but I'm starting to find my thoughts turning back to Fudge, aka the Freeform Universal Do-It-Yourself Gaming Engine. Go read the rules if you've never heard of it, I guarantee you'll be intrigued. I am. The DIY aspect in particular.

I've been hesitant about starting a Fudge campaign, though, for several reasons. First, the sheer amount of effort. I can be a perfectionist, so making a game from scratch invites disaster. My last attempt spun out of control and into nowhere. Second, I've got no experience with the system, so it's tempting to fall back on something I know how to use. Third, connected to the second, and perhaps the most important, Fudge could be any setting I want. It could be any game I want. The burden of coming up with a setting, and at the same time limiting myself to one, is a bit intense.

Still, I'd like to see if I could write something up by the time I get back from holidays, and run it by my local gang. I've got a week and some change, so let's see if I can commit to a reasonable project. I think I would like some sort of back-stabbing cloak-and-dagger game, with light magic and brutal violence, but with plenty of room for good characterisation. I'm leaning towards a Renaissance feel. This suggests the magic would be somewhat occult, curses and seances or something, more than fireworks. I'll figure that out later, though. The most difficult thing for me will be pacing: having enough long-term action to keep the story on track, as well as enough short-term action to keep players motivated before the story comes together. A friend of mine did a good job on one campaign in this regard, slowly revealing clues to build up a big picture. I'm bad at it, as the big picture is usually what I'm most excited to share with my players.

So, a few commitments:
1. I will map out a few main rivalries to happen at an "upper" level, that the players will begin to discover after 3-5 sessions, and have influence on in the late campaign.
2. All of the main actors will have minor bullies and thugs for the players to grapple with as they work out who's working for whom.
3. There will be a murder in the first session. It will remain unexplained for at least one adventure. That should set the tone, get the players on their toes, and keep them there.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Recent gaming action

I've got two things going right now. The first is an adventure I'm designing, the second is a computer game I'm playing.

Fairy's Tale
It's a cute game, I must say. I explain the nuts and bolts a bit more in this post. I started writing an adventure based on a Russian folk tale. Since I don't think any of my prospective players read this blog, I'll summarize my efforts.

The story
The story starts with a brother and sister, prince and princess of now-deceased monarchs, wandering through the wilderness. They pass a series of water sources, each with a herd of animals (pigs at a lake, cows at a river, and finally goats at a well). Each time the sister warns the brother not to drink, and in true fairy-tale repetition he does not, until he finally drinks from a well in extreme thirst, and turns into a goat.

The pair travel through the land, and word of her beauty spreads through the usual rumour mill. A king sends his emissaries to fetch her, and they are promptly married. All is well for some time, until the king goes on a hunting trip. Now it gets good.

While the king is out hunting, the princess is visited by a witch, who puts a spell on her that makes her ill. The king is concerned when he returns, but naturally goes hunting the next day. The witch returns to the castle, and promises to cure the princess. The princess follows her to the sea shore, where the witch ties a stone around her neck and throws her into the water. She promptly sinks. The witch makes herself look like the princess, and goes back to the castle to take her place.

The king is pleased that his wife has not only recovered, but seems more jovial than ever, though strangely she now has an extreme aversion to her brother, and refuses to spend time with him as in the past. In time, she encourages the king to prepare a feast. She lets him know that she would like nothing more to eat than... the goat that is her brother (awesome). The king is slightly shocked, but agrees.

The feast is to be in the evening. In the morning, the goat asks leave to go out for a walk. The king feels sorry for him, so he allows it. The goat goes to the seaside and says "Oh my sister!" The sister calls out from the water that the witch has trapped her. In the afternoon, the goat again asks to go for a walk. The king agrees, and again the goat calls out to his sister, who again informs him of her predicament. In the evening, shortly before it is time to be slaughtered, the goat persuades the king to come out with him for a final walk. They go down to the water and the goat calls "Oh my sister!" The princess again relates her story. The king dives in and releases her. They chase the evil sorceress away and life happily ever after.

Making a game of it
The first changes are cosmetic. The king's court becomes a fairy court. The king becomes a supernatural being himself. This much was obvious to me.

Beyond that, I needed to insert the players. Obviously, they can't be any of the main characters. Main characters have to follow too structured a path for gaming, and the players should have choice (within reason). So I'll make them servants of the king. This has three advantages. First, I get to assign them tasks to carry the tale forward quite easily. Second, I get to show a side of the story not represented in the version I read in my book of fairy tales: that of the servants. They are vaguely referred to: they bring word to the king of the princess' beauty, they fetch her for him, and they must be helping him with his wedding, feast, and hunts. I think I will make their lives suitably miserable. Think of Puck compared to Titania and Oberon. Every telling of a fairy tale ought to be a re-telling... Third, their position sets up a nice reward structure. As mentioned in my earlier glance at the game, it has very little detail about magic weapons, gold, and other trinkets, but lots of detail about getting rewarded with rank, prestige, and other social gains. Thus the early phases of the campaign can be about the rise of menial servants to prominence in the court.

With the players' roles settled, I now have to modify the structure of the fairy tale somewhat. I need to make the main cast of such calibre that they carry out their parts faithfully, with nudges from the party. I have made the king a drunken partying idiot. This fits well with a man being taken in by a rather stupid ruse. To expand on it, I have made him a satyr: instead of hunting, he goes out partying in the glades, and does not take his mortal wife with him, lest she escape. This means that the players will have to uncover the witches' schemes, and convince the king to see what is going on.

I have made the princess a reluctant bride of the fat, ugly king, meaning the players will have to use their magic to convince her to marry him. Fairy magics are pretty powerful in this game (only a tiny in-game sacrifice is needed for major effects) so this is a nice warm-up task for the party. I've scrapped the bit about the brother turning into a goat, though that can be backstory that the players can reveal in their investigations.

The sorceress has changed little. She's an awful hag with the power to beguile others and transform her appearance. Most of the considerations about her are tactical. Her banishment of the goat becomes an effort to keep the king in the dark, giving the players a chance to talk to him in secret. I've also made her the ruler of an evil realm, so sporadic attacks by goblins and trolls as she draws closer to taking over her rival will tip the players off that something isn't right (because, after all, the queen recovering from an illness doesn't seem like a bad thing at first). I'll make her disguise somewhat imperfect as well. Perhaps the princess had brown eyes, the glamoured sorceress has green ones... She's using her magic to keep the king fooled (he's drunk, so it's easy), but again the lowly servants notice what's going on.

The goat/prince/brother is the hardest one. I have to make him a little bit pathetic, so he doesn't just assert himself and say it's a trick. But if he's too subtle, the players may not figure out that anything's amiss until he's turned into stew. If they don't seek him out, I suspect I will:
1. Have them overhear some goblins talking about the queen's plan.
2. Emphasise at first how the new queen was good to the servants, but after her recovery she's cruel (an incentive to depose her!)
3. If all else fails, arrange a meeting and have the goat beg for help.

Of course, if they're really switched on, I'll throw up obstacles. The queen will try to prevent them from meeting with the king, goblins will waylay them, the king won't believe their story when they reveal the truth...

The hardest parts will be individual encounters and pacing. But there are enough events in the story (the king fetches the princess, marries her, she gets sick, she gets well, she banishes the goat, she decides to eat the goat, the goat makes his escape, the sorceress is driven away) for decent encounters. Early ones will focus on menial servile tasks (collect food for the feast, run errands) of various danger levels, the latter ones will lead to an outright confrontation. I'll give them a shot at killing the sorceress. If they succeed, her second-in-command will become a campaign villain. If not, she's perfectly established to do so.

A game
I've been playing Dominions 3. It reminds me of Warhammer, in that you spend most of the game crafting your own army, deciding on your strategy, deploying your troops, then watching the fights play out. It also has a wealth of races to play, which is great. I spent a Christmas gift certificate for it, and it was well worth it.