A collection of rambling posts about gaming, running, and politics. (and, in 2009, photography.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Secret to GMing fun games

Here is a secret to running a fun game.

Take the current situation that the players are in.

Try to imagine, from their perspective, "What is the coolest thing that could happen next?",

And make that happen. And repeat, until the session is over.

I just ran a long delayed second session of Shadowrun of Yesterday, and I feel like it was a smashing success.

To briefly recap - in previous sessions, the group had to infiltrate an offshore, secret, highly secure, corporate facility - and steal a new prototype cybernetic arm. They'd managed to get onto the island, and into the research building, when the ran into a couple of angry cyberzombies.

Thanks to the beauty of Shadowrun of Yesterday, this did not mean immediate player death, or hours and hours of combat resolution. No - instead it was the team being pursued by the cyberzombies.

We started this session - having left the last one on a cliffhanger. They'd tied up with the two cyberzombies, and ran, since they were WAY out of their league. As we opened, the cyberzombies were charging down the hall in pursuit of the team. The team had just made the elevator, and frantically pushed the "Close Door" button - as the cyberzombies, one with a reticulating mini-gun mount, poured bullets into the elevator. Just as the doors were sliding closed, the lead cyberzombie got its metal fingers into the door, and began prying them back open. Our team started exiting through the hatch in the ceiling of the elevator, as they tried to slow down the zombies, jamming their targeting computers. They thought they'd escaped when their street sam got grabbed by one of the cyberzombies. Our demolitions expert hopped back down into the elevator, undid the armor that the cyberzombie was holding our street sam by, and as the orc mage pulled him up through the hatch onto the top of the elevator, the demo expert ducked around the cyberzombies, tagging each with an explosive charge, and darting down the hall. The explosives went off behind her, knocking one zombie into the elevator, and the other through a wall in the hallway. The four shadowrunners on top of the elevator began to climb the ladder within the shaft, as the cyberzombie inside the elevator got back up and ripped the top off of the elevator. The zombie was nearly the maximum weight of this elevator, and with the additional explosions and gunfire, our street sam shot away one of the last tension cables, sending the zombie and the elevator plummeting down into the depths. Meanwhile, the demo expert found herself trapped in a hall, a cyberzombie behind her, and a six man security response team in front of her. She was wearing a uniform of the corp security guys, so she managed to convince the team that she was just one of them, and she skirted past them, leaving them to deal with the zombie. She caught back up with the rest of her team on the floor above. They ducked into a side room to take a breath and figure out where the prototype had gone. I forgot to mention, during the previous session, they made it to the room where the prototype was supposed to be, only to find it empty. Some guards nearby though were discussing how it was being moved. The discovered at this point that they had a little PDA device that happened to be a tracking device for the prototype. Handy!! They saw that the prototype was moving, above them, on the surface, into what seemed to be a helicopter! They quickly began to formulate a plan for getting up there and intercepting it, when they heard a bloodcurdling scream from the hallway outside, followed by a crunch. They became very quiet, and began looking for an alternative way of leaving the room, since their friend(s) the cyberzombie(s), were looking for them. They began crawling, one at a time into a ventilation shaft that ran horizontally from the room, and just as the last one was climbing into the shaft, the door to the room opened, and a cyberzombie peered into the room. It charged like a defensive tackle, as the demo expert leapt into the duct. The rest of the team, a little ahead, hit the verticle intersection and began climbing up. The demo expert scrambled through the duct, as the cyberzombie grasped the ductwork, and began pulling it out of the wall, like a hollow metal worm (with a shadowrunner inside it). The demo expert scrambled to get out the other end of the shaft before she was pulled out into the hands of the zombie. She threw a grenade down the duct toward the zombie, and used the confusion to get clear of the ductwork. Once the zombie pulleed it on through, she scrambled to the still-remaining vertical ductwork and climbed up to join her team.. as two grenades skittered into the shaft from the zombies, and she cleared the top just before they went off. The team found itself atop a single story building, overlooking part of the corporate facility. South of them was a small airfield and associated buildings, and to the east, a small armored vehicle motor park where a whole platoon of Security officers were changing shift. From the airfield, a heavy armored helicopter was taking off, which according to their little tracking device, was where the prototype was. They couldn't shoot down the chopper, as it could damage the prototype. Also on the airfield was another heavy armored helo, and two smaller helicopters, and a fuel truck. Just about then, they heard a bang from beneath them, and observed that a door to the building that they were on top of had burst open, and a team of security troops were running out of the building, firing back into the building, from where they'd just come. Creating a distraction, our combat mage let fly a massive Mana Ball, taking out half of the security platoon to the east, and sending the rest scattering. The street sam also shot the fellow who was turning up the parked heavy armored helo. The pilot took one through the head and collapsed forward onto the controls, sending the helo rolling forward toward the fuel truck. They leapt from the building, to run to the airstrip, about 100 yards away from them. The mage threw up a bullet barrier, which was timely, since the two cyberzombies were throwing hundreds and hundreds of rounds their way, from their assault rifles and minigun. They ran across the pavement, making a fast hole through the fence, and got to the grounded coptor before it hit the fuel truck. Bear in mind that the other heavy armored coptor - with the prototype - was now a hundred feet into the air and on its way East. The zombie that was closest to them charged toward their newly hijacked helicopter, but our rigger tilted the main rotor axis, letting them dip toward the zombie and cutting it in half. The top half continued to fire its assault rifle at them, nonetheless, but would no longer pursue them. They made it into the air, but the second cyberzombie, now pulling a chain-link fence behind it, leapt up and grabbed onto the helicopter. The demo expert leaned out and stuck a charge to it, blowing it to pieces, and nearly destroying their getaway helicopter. They turned in the direction of their escaping quarry, dodged a few surface to air missiles, and continued the pursuit over puget sound, toward Seattle. They threw a magical confusion spell onto the pilot of the enemy chopper, and were able to catch up, exchanging minigun and sniper fire with it - then using deceit to convince them that they were a response team, *not* the shadowrun team. They told them that they were to swap cargo in order to confuse the shadowrun team, and so both choppers landed at an unused corp facility near Seattle. They managed to continue the facade, deceiving them into believing that they were Ares employees. They got the prototype, and were loading onto their chopper, when they overheard a radio call coming in, blowing their cover "crackle, the shadowrun team is on the second armored chopper!crackle", The Ares chopper opened up with its minigun, as our shadowrun team opened right back up on them in turn. Still confused, the enemy pilot began to steer away from our team's chopper, but another cyberzombie in the helicopter leaned out, and fired a freaking lance, like a grappling hook, at the chopper. It thunked into the tail section, and the zombie jumped out of the enemy chopper, and proceeded to zip up the line toward our team's helicopter. The demo expert jumped onto the wing, and used the handholds to walk along the outside of the chopper as it flew toward seattle - she reached the lance and planted a small charge on it, blowing it apart with only a few seconds to spare, before the cyberzombie reached her and the helo.
They made it the rest of the way into seattle, setting down on a helipad on top of a hospital, right as a couple of Ares attack helicopters showed up, and started spraying the top of the hospital and the helipad with chaingun fire. Dodging a security team in the hospital, the team tried their best to blend with the hospital staff and patients, even as they became aware of Ares security vehicles pulling up outside the hospital. They discovered that there was a subway stop in the 2nd basement level of the hospital, that they made a b-line for. The hospital's security rigger shut everything down though, and Ares and Knight Errant began a security sweet through the building. Our rigger overrode the elevator controls and continued down, making it to the 2nd basement level before getting shut down by the enemy security rigger. However, another security team was there waiting for them. Our demo expert marched out front, and declared that she had a dead-man's switch and was loaded with explosives, and would level the entire block if they tested her. They bought it, and backed off. After a tense standoff, they cut off the security team's communications, and then convinced them of the benefit to letting them escape. They got onto the subway, and were away to their destination.

Okay - that wasn't as brief a recap as I'd intended. But that's cool too.

Couple of observations

Shadow of Yesterday rocks, as does Shadowrun of Yesterday. Seems to me that you get to use the stakes to create situations that you could never get in more typical role playing games.

Loved using the cyberzombies. Used stakes to quickly make it apparent that the most that they could do was to make the zombies more pissed off, as they were nigh-indestructible. They were an excellent plot device in the adventure, letting me lightly push the players around.

I used alot of action movie railroading. Different than normal RPG railroading - in normal RPG railroading you just refuse to let the players do anything other than what you want them to do. In action movie railroading - all roads lead to rome. Or to the mcguffin. Or whatever. When the sewers led to the facility led to the elevators led to the stairs led to the air vents... it all led to the thing that they were after. Oh and the little PDA tracking device? One of my favorites of the evening. I made it up on the spot, intentionally to keep them hot on the heels of what they'd come for, instead of sitting around wondering where to go next. The helicopter chase? I all but begged them to hijack one of the helicopters. Helicopter chase scenes are alot of fun. Especially when they involve miniguns and combat mages.

Pleased that I was able to use my Key of the Team Player to reward Andrew, our young player, and gun junkie, to pass on a wildly chaotic and selfish action that would have created more problems in the game and more tension among the players. By passing on the opportunity to do something that was beneficial to him - in this case, shoot someone - he got XP. And kept the rest of the players happy. And perhaps got more XP for Team Player than he would have for the other key. :)

Shadowrun of Yesterday is different than Shadowrun. Shadowrun was incredibly gritty, and dangerous. I've tuned SroY to be gritty, but I'm willingly going with - or I have been for this mission anyway - the over the top action that you'd associate with John Woo and Mission Impossible. And I loved it. Seriously, like I love most all of my gaming, but few game sessions are as much raw fun as this. I don't think we had any real breaks in the action. I didn't linger painfully over anything - it was action, then intro to more action. As I'm able to play more SroY, I'll strive to do some gritty stuff. This was an excellent exercise and intro to the game and the system. As I discussed with Jason, one of the most easily definable differences is that there's not so much risk of death. In Shadowrun, you have to play it smart, just to stay alive. Which is cool, and is kinda part of what Shadowrun is, but easily leads to frustration when the dice don't fall right, or the plan doesn't work out quite right. In SroY though, I can use stakes to create consequences, but usually its leverage for more tense and exciting action. Its a whole different mechanic. In Shadowrun the anti-negative reinforcement is trying to keep your hit points, so you don't.. well.. die. In SroY, well, I dunno, I guess they're just trying to succeed and to get to the next scene. Alright - I have not defined this as well as I'd like, so I'll give it a shot again some other time.

Two favorite stakes in conflicts:
1> When the third cyberzombie lanced their chopper, and was zipping up toward it, Jax, the Demo Expert, announced that she was going out onto the body of the helicopter to affix explosives to the lance, to get rid of the zombie before it reached the chopper. We went to dice (keeps it dynamic, yo!), and initially I said that stakes were if she won, she'd blown the charge, the line fell away, but the zombie vanished beneath the chopper, and had grabbed onto one of the wheels.. if she lost, then as she was priming her explosive charge, and about to set it, she looked over and right into the face of the cyberzombie, which had just completed its zip-up to the chopper. She didn't like that either way the cyberzombie was still a threat, so we renegotiated the stakes - if she won, the line fell away, as did the cyberzombie, if she lost, then Jax lost her grip on the helo, and began to fall, but caught on to what was available - the zip line, and slid down 10 feet, but stopped sliding when she met the cyberzombie coming up the line. Now picture them both suspended from a cable 10 feet beneath the flying chopper. We liked these stakes and rolled 'em. She won.
2> The 'runners found themselves perched on the roof of a building overlooking the facility, airfield, motor pool, platoon of guards. Our combat mage wanted to create a distraction, and then settled on doing so, while at the same time, trying to reduce or eliminate the threat posed by the large group of armed security guys. He wanted to pump up a spell that would take like 25 of the guards. I've developed a strategy that I try to avoid having the players *fail*, if the dice come up not in their favor, their effort often succeeded, just with a different outcome than they'd expected. In this situation, we setup stakes that if the mage was successful, 25 of the security guys hit the ground, and the rest scattered, running for cover, firing blindly and without direction at everything around them, totally disorganized. While if the mage failed, 25 of the security guys hit the ground, the commander barked out "MAGE! Roof, 9 o'clock!" and the other 25 trained their assault rifles on the corner of the building where I team was crouched, and began unloading on them. It woulda gotten hairy. He succeeded though.

More out of game action:
The game seemed to flow incredibly well. All of my players seemed to be on top of their game, and I felt like I was on top of my game. Everyone was just on it. Stakes negotiation went well nearly 100% of the time. Once or twice I recall spending more than a couple of seconds, trying to come up with fun and interesting stakes, but most of them seemed to roll right off of my tongue. The players pitched in as well, suggesting stakes, or suggesting ways to renegotiate stakes a few times. Everyone was involved in the action, actively listening and participating.

The Gift Dice flowed. Davery handed his last gift dice out at the close of the game. I'm not sure how many the other folks had, but I know players were willingly offering, and at times soliciting the gift dice. As GM, I rarely give out gift dice. I often use only one or two a session. I make it very clear to the players that gift dice are meant to be given out when someone does something REALLY cool, or that you really really want them to succeed. I hand them out when someone seems to be in a bit of a bind, or when I do want them to succeed, but honestly, in this game, I kinda wanted to see them lose the stakes a few times, so intentionally withheld gift dice that might have otherwise given out for doing cool stuff. I wanted to see them lose, because the stakes that we'd setup were just so freaking cool. Like falling and sliding down the zip line to the cyberzombie? I wanted to see her get out of that one. :) I did use a gift dice as a bribe. The group was trying to figure out how to bring down the helicopter with the prototype in it. They weighed two or three options, and hijacking one of the other choppers was mentioned, at which point I held up a dice, and told the player that I'd give him a gift dice toward any action that he took that involved hijacking the other chopper. I wasn't going to force it on them, but I felt no shame in encouraging it.

XP flowed as well. I think that for the first half of the session (we played a full 4 and a half hours), very little XP was grabbed. At one point, either I noticed this, or someone commented on XP, I paused the game and asked everyone to study their Keys, and make sure that they knew what their keys were and how to hit them, and to PLEASE TAKE XP. They got right on board with it. Everyone hit keys. At the end of the session, we still had some questions about XP, for instance the Key of the First Person, a Meta-game key. We discussed how the 1xp bits of the Keys were practically "gimme's", that there were few or no reasons not to max the 3 hit limit for your 1xp bits, for each of your Keys. We briefly discussed the concept behind keys, to help reinforce how it should work - how you get 1 xp for just doing something associated with "Your Thing" (meaning: your Key), and you should get the 3 or 2/5 hit when you're doing "Your Thing" under some kind of duress or inconvenience. I think everyone got 10 or more XP during the game, and some may have gotten 15 .

Buy-in to the game world continued to go well. It is Shadowrun, a cyberpunk future/magic game with guns that have wireless network cards, technomancers, elementals, and freaking laser guns. I am not enough of a nerd to have 100% understanding of how everything works/is supposed to work, and so I frequently make shit up. "The cyberzombie's targetting computer for its minigun? Can you hack it? Um... Sure!". Fuck checking the rules.

Oh - missed two more things:

Would you believe that we did not once Bring Down the Pain? I was a little surprised. I'm not complaining though. I kinda feel like some BdtP would have messed up the pace and action of the game.. The players mostly rolled well, and I generously let ties go to them. They lost stakes a few times, but were willing to live with the results.

Going to dice: I found that I was constantly saying "You wanna go to dice?" or "Lets go to the dice". A number of times, I was more than willing to just say Yes, but even when they're successful, it seems like the chance of win/loss ups the stakes and buy-in for the player. Our street sam wanted to snipe the pilot of one helo while it was on the ground. I almost said, "Okay, you snipe the pilot. What next?" but instead, I offered to make it more interesting and go to dice. Win or lose the pilot was dead, but we'd find out if the guards near it went for the heavy machine gun or not. None of the players were ever displeased with the prospect of going to dice. Often, they would pick up the dice and warm them, as the action drove toward a conflict, which I took as my signal to grab my own dice.

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