Archive for November 22nd, 2009



NerdNYC had its annual Thanksnerding event:

  1. Our team – me, Lisa, Chris, Javi and Tavis (along with two non-Red Boxers, David and Cindy) won the Nerd Trivia Match.  Pedants will note that, technically, three other teams had higher scores than we did, and claimed prizes when we did not.  But that was a trick. Prizes are vulgar, and only the numerate care about points.  Instead, we were the only ones in the crowd who got what was, in the eyes of the Quizmasters, the hardest question of the night: “Who was the last of the Petty Dwarves?”  Honestly, this is what they consider hard.  The Quizmasters gave us little pins to commemorate our hard-won undergraduate virginity-spent-reading-The-Silmarilion.  (For Chris, who is 15, this is a prospective award, like the Nobel Peace Prize.)
  2. (We did flub the question about the cover of the very first Monster Manual.  Don’t tell anybody.  I blame Tavis and Javi, who had to disappear in our moment of crisis.)
  3. People like our lasagna.  Seriously.  I suspect it helps most of the other food people brought was vegan.
  4. We saw Doug’s band Cosmonaut.  Doug, if you are looking for new song titles, I think “I’m a Cleric, Not a Fighter” fits with your yearning but steadfast lyrics, and “I Stole the Wizard’s Baby” could work as sort of a Primus-meets-Flaming-Lips style instrumental.
  5. Lots of games!  Mike ran some early-edition Call of Cthulhu when someone had to cancel at the last minute.  I ran two sessions of Mouse Guard, without having read all the rules.

So, while I will hopefully blog about Mouse Guard in more detail later, there are two things about the game which generalize to RPG’s more broadly.

First, Mouse Guard is a brilliantly designed game, but it reads like ass.  Perhaps sensitive to complaints that his other brilliantly designed game, Burning Wheel, is too dense and opaque, Luke Crane decided to make Mouse Guard hyper-accessible and over-explained, to the point that I can’t read more than three pages at a time before I get so bored I put the book down.

It is insufficiently appreciated that role-playing game books are teaching texts (and reference books).  There has been a lot of academic and corporate study of how to write teaching texts well.  There are a lot of people who work very hard as technical writers, skilled at presenting complicated information to general audiences.  Role-playing publishers should learn from these people.

Theory: Frank Mentzer’s edit of the D&D Basic Rules is the best version of Dungeons & Dragons ever, because it was written well.  A child could understand the game.  (Gary Gygax was an unforgettable but terrible writer.)

Second thing about Mouse Guard:

In our session of Mouse Guard, Godzilla destroyed the city and ate half the mice therein.  Players were lucky to escape with their lives.  The shelters the players built for the evacuees got destroyed when the team leader got drunk rather than discipline his apprentice, who had embezzled money from the treasury. So the players knitted together some crappy blankets for the refugees and said, “Here are some blankets.  We’re sorry we destroyed your town with Godzilla and all, but this way you won’t catch pneumonia and die immediately.  We’d love to accept blame and help you rebuild, but, y’know, we’re player-characters…  Buh-bye!”  It was a good time!

The reason why this generalizes is that in certain quarters there’s this idea that all new-fangled games are about player entitlement, and “nobody ever loses” etc. etc.   (Just going to show that even if everyone wins, there will still be people who complain.)  But in my experience this is simply not so.  People playing new-fangled games, just like people playing old-fangled games, love it when their characters fail and get stomped and the situation goes from being dangerous to outright disastrous.


Running a Con Game pt. 2: Titles

Let’s pretend that, having read the first post in this series, you know that you want to run a RPG at a gaming convention and what you hope to get out of the experience. What’s next? Deciding what to call your event(s).

Titles are important because, as the last post implied, attracting players is essential to being a con GM. The name of your event is likely to be the first thing potential players see when they pre-register for games or scan the program book at the con. If your title is unappealing, you might have no one show up for your game, which sucks. (If your title is misleading you might get disappointed players because they were expecting something else, which can also suck. But you can help avoid that when you write the blurb for your event, which is the subject of the next post. More people will read the name of the game than its description, so it’s better to have a catchy title and a dull blurb that says “ignore the title, here’s what this game will actually be about” than the other way around.)

On a practical level, the first step in setting yourself up as a convention GM is to get in touch with the con’s gaming organizers.  Cons need people to run games, so they’re eager to hear that you want to volunteer. The con website will usually have an obvious link to their instructions & contact info for GMs. It’s OK to start talking to the folks in charge of the con’s gaming track to help you decide what you want to run, but as soon as you figure that out you’ll need to give them the titles of your events so they can put you into the system.

Here’s an example of that process. I visited the Anonycon website and found the contact info for Max Saltonstall, its hard-working organizer. (I think I followed a link that’s not there now that the game schedule is established). I emailed him and we went back and forth:

ME: I’m interested in DMing some 1974-edition D&D games, and/or new- or old-system Metamorphosis Alpha, at Anonycon. Is it too late to submit events? What should I do if not?

MAX: If you can GM 4 slots we can set you up with a free badge. Have you DMed any of these at conventions before? Would you like to send me some titles and blurbs for a few module proposals?

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether Max was offering to give me some example titles and blurbs that I could use as a model for my own, or whether he had some existing modules that he needed GMs for. Either way it’s worth pointing out that, although I’m assuming that you’re going into this wanting to run an adventure of your own design, the con will often have ones that you could run (for example, Living Forgotten Realms mods) if you don’t want to go to the hassle of making your own. This can be a great way to get experience with just the GMing aspect of running a con game if you’re not interested in or ready for the adventure design part.

Anyway, I wrote back:

ME: Do you have a preference for fantasy (original D&D) or science fiction (Metamorphosis Alpha)?

MAX: I think I have a slight preference for scifi right now, but I like a mix, especially when it comes to game types and systems we do not already have featured.

ME: Cool, I might do a linked series of fantasy and sci-fi games culminating in a mash-up of D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha characters. (I think there are conversion guidelines in the AD&D DMG!)

MAX: I like the idea of a series of games that could also be played independently. How many would you like to do?

ME: I think I’d run four games – nice round number, free badge – which would suggest that they’d be:

Ancient Secrets of Tamoachan, an AD&D game riffing off the ‘easter egg’ reference to the Starship Warden in the classic module

Swords and Starmen, an original-edition MA game culminating in the PCs getting control of a landing craft & leaving the Warden

Battlefield Oerth, a 4E D&D game in which new-school conversions of the previous AD&D pregens fight robots and mutants from the Warden’s other lander

Starman’s Landfall, a MA perspective on the above (ideally using the 4E MA playtest rules)

Writing the blurbs to hint at those connections w/o giving them away will be fun!

Here’s the titles I finally settled on, and an analysis of how well they work.

Hidden Secrets of Tamoachan. The change from my original idea more closely references the original AD&D module, which works well because a) it’s not misleading (the adventure really will romp through the poison-gas-filled pyramid), b) it’s familiar to the target audience of AD&D players while signifying to them that there will be  new revelations even if they’ve been through the module before, and c) the phrase is evocative even to gamers who don’t instantly think “Ah, C1, I know thee well.”

Swords and Star-tribes. The original “Starmen” was meant to reference Andre Norton’s classic Daybreak 2250 AD, but a) it’s misleading because that book was an inspiration for Gamma World, not Metamophosis Alpha, and not all the pregen PCs will be men (some will be women, animals, plants, androids, etc.); b) even I wouldn’t get the reference if I hadn’t just been on a GW-inspiration reading spree; and c) I think the idea of warring tribes is more evocative than the dated-sounding “starmen”. Overall I think this title works pretty well because it takes a phrase that gamers know and love, “swords and sorcery”, and puts an intriguing twist on it that promises a gaming experience that’s relatively rare.

Battlefield Oerth. This is a terrible title. You have to be a Greyhawk nerd to get the twist, but everyone is likely to get the “worst movie of the century” vibe. (I like to think that’s this century he’s talking about, so everything else that happens to me in a movie theater for the next 91 years will be cake by comparison.) You should perhaps ignore all my advice on titles given that this is one that I stuck with.

War for the Starship Warden. The original “Starman’s Landfall” depended on starman, and locked me into doing something with shuttles landing on earth that I wasn’t sure was going to fit the adventure I’d want to run. I kind of like this one – there’s euphony (or something) between “war” and “warden”, and it promises high-concept action.

If I hadn’t put off doing my titles and blurbs until the last minute, it would have been a good idea for me to read these titles to someone else and see whether they’d sign up for a game by that name and what they’d expect it to be. If you are in fact planning to run a con game, post your titles in the comments and I’ll give you that feedback!

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009
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