Tag: RPG

The Responsibility of Running an RPG Campaign

As most of you must know about me is that I’ve consistently been involved in a RPG group since I was about ten years old. I find it an incredibly enriching and rewarding hobby and it’s a perfect place for me to channel my creative energy. The collaborative storytelling element is fantastic; it’s social, it’s creative and it caters to my desire for escapism.

Playing in a game is great fun, but I find that my desire to create campaigns for players to engage with often outweighs my desire to play. I take it seriously and put a lot of time and effort into it. For the past couple of years I have been getting back into D&D. For the current campaign I’ve created a world, several pantheons and religions, a history, a timeline, a central tension, a theme, a continent, twelve countries, dozens of cities, organisations, people, a story with events that evolve the setting, etc. etc. It’s taken me hundreds of hours to create all of that.

Each session takes me about four hours to prepare for. If we play weekly, that means that I spend about that amount of time to prepare every week. But even outside of that time, it’s often on my mind. When I watch films, when I read books, when I visit a museum, or go hiking; I draw inspiration from everywhere. I make maps for continents, and cities, which leads me to read up on geography and late medieval cities. I read up on early banks and guilds and feudal systems and nobility and how the invention of the loom and how it changed society. I read about folklore and superstitions, about the role of the clergy and how the church wielded power. About politics and how countries, kingdoms and city states engaged with one another…

The point is, I spent a lot of time on it.

One of the main reasons I spend a lot of time on it, is because I think that when a group of three or four people give me four hours of their time every week in order to play in a game that they expect me to have prepared I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want them to show up and I have nothing prepared, have nothing to say, or I am an unresponsive participant.

Some sessions run better than others. You can’t always guarantee that everyone will have as much fun from one week to the next. Our lives are complicated and sometimes someone can’t make it, or has to cancel last minute, or just doesn’t have the space to fully engage with the rest because their week has been exhausting. Sometimes everyone is having a great time and everything moves along nicely. Most of the time it’s a mix of both; some people are present and engaging, while others take a bit of a back seat. All good. I just don’t ever want to be so poorly prepared that it’s the reason that the session doesn’t run well. It would break my heart.

Feedback on Leading Our Game

For the past two years I’ve been leading a game of D&D. I had been toying around with returning to D&D for a while and had been low-key thinking about a campaign premise for years. When Edwin wanted to do a D&D campaign and took over from me running Shadowrun, a game that I had fallen out of love with and whose campaign just wasting panning out the way I had wanted to, Edwin’s campaign came as a breath of fresh air. I had missed D&D and Edwin had put a great campaign together. He had raised the bar in all the ways that appealed to me.

For about six months I worked on the campaign premise, the theme, the continent that the campaign would take place in; kingdoms, cities, cultures, organisations, people. I got really into the world building aspect of the preparations. I may have taken it a bit too far, but I was enjoying it so much that I couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to stop.

Six months of that lead to us starting the campaign and it started off relatively well. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and it seemed like the world I’d created and the things I was exposing to the players was really well received. I got some great engagement and feedback.

Two years down the line, we’re still playing, I moved countries, pandemic happened, lost a player, picked up a player, and all the while I’ve been working away at the story, the campaign as well as the world it’s set in. I must have spent five hundred hours into it altogether. I have so much material prepared on all kinds of places, people and things that the players are unlikely to ever engage with. (Or maybe they will. Who knows!)

But I started to notice that the momentum was being lost a bit, especially around the times where decisions needed to be made.

There was a bit of analysis paralysis happening. The players were sometimes hesitant to make mistakes because they felt like a bad outcome would have detrimental consequences. This is likely due to some events during sessions in the past where they were punished for making mistakes, perhaps their best laid plans weren’t honoured with enough return on investment, or something else that lead to this dysfunction. I assured the players that they wouldn’t have to worry too much and that they could trust me not to fuck them over, and if they were to fail, they would always be presented with a narrative parachute. They understood, and it got a little better, but there was something more.

Recently, I sent all of them an e-mail and straight up asked them for feedback and criticism. It was surprising how unified the answers were. All of them loved the setting, the campaign and which direction it was headed in. But the one thing they would want to see changed was the amount of choice they were offered. They liked to have a clear goal and clear initial steps to work towards that goal. While they appreciated all the different side quests that they could do, and that there were several options in larger quests that would move the main story forward, they’d rather have a bit less choice and a bit more direction.

I did not see that coming.

One of the things which I have been asking for when running a game — and this is was something I wanted even before this D&D campaign — is that people’s characters wanted something; were inherently self-motivated by something. Not by something simple and banal as “treasure” or “adventure”, but that they had an internal motivation to find something, to answer a question or achieve an ambition. If during a session I were to say; “So, after a good night’s rest, after having returned the royal sceptre of dominion, you find that the day is yours. What would you like to do?” that they could be guided by ambitions beyond the just finished story arc and decide where to go next and what to do.

Side quests that would raise their standing within a particular organisation. Investigation into the lost library of a dead wizard I once mentioned. Researching the ancient catacombs that they rescued an injured ranger from to find out who built them. Finding out the identity of a mysterious benefactor. Shit like that.

It would then give me a way to seamlessly weave from one story into the next and start the next session presenting them with the next story, driven from an external source. It would also allow me to tie the story into the player character’s interests and motivations and make it all a little more appealing.

What I realise is that my mistake has been to assume that the players spend as much time thinking about and preparing the game as I am. I have created so much of the world and spend so much time thinking about the ever evolving world around the player characters, all of the consequences of their actions, their inactions, the history and the possible futures, that I have all these ideas kicking around in my head that I think would be fun if I was playing one of the characters.

I should be more respectful of my players, the time they offer up to play in the game, and what they want to put in, and get out of the game. I need to slim things down and make the story structure decision tree simpler. Non-trivial decisions need to be dramatic and have clear impact and consequences in order to make decision making less nebulous. Hopefully that way we’ll get more fun out of our games. More collaborative storytelling. Less indecision.

One thing is for sure, I should ask them for feedback more often.

Role-playing Manifesto

We regularly come together to play this game in an attempt at fun, friendly and collaborative storytelling. A good story features a rich and fertile setting, the characters and their development, a central theme, a compelling conflict to overcome, and an interesting plot to uncover. We try to address each of those throughout the story.

The game master populates the world in which we play, sets up the story, guides the players and resolves player choices and character actions. The game master regularly discusses the individual characters with their respective players in order to understand their motivations and to help the player to achieve the goals they have set out for their character. The goal is the enjoyment of all players and the crafting of a compelling narrative.

The players blow life into their characters by fleshing out a fertile back story, understanding the rules of their chosen class, understanding the underlying motivations and ambitions of their characters and gifting them with an internally logical personality. They also agree to engage in collaborative play for mutual character benefit and player enjoyment.

While conflicts between the characters can add to a compelling narrative, we recognise that it should never take away from the overall enjoyment of the game. Conflicts like that can best be played out under the narrative supervision of the game master, instead of through ad hominems or passive aggressiveness between players. We are all friends at the gaming table, anything that is played out at the table is done so in friendship.

The goal is to create a story together which we will can still recall with a sense of nostalgia into our later years and that we will miss the characters we played and the npc’s they met with a sense of fondness that we usually reserve for a good book or a great film. If we can do that while still having fun, then we’re successfully engaging in a good game of role-playing.

Why would PMCs be in politically-unstable places, as opposed to waiting in comfort to be called?

Private Military Companies

When I’m running a campaign — Shadowrun, D&D or Call of Cthulhu — I’m constantly expanding the universe I put my players in. I like the setting to be internally realistic, and as a result I am constantly reading up on things. For my last Shadowrun campaign, I dove into vault lines, volcanos, radio activity, extreme weather conditions, etc.

I came across something on the World Building Stack Exchange that I thought was interesting, and I thought I’d share. Someone asked why private military companies would keep their troops stationed in unstable places. The first answer was a great insight into the world of PMCs, mercenaries, and it gave a good background information for Shadowrunners and how they must live their lives.

The original link can be found here, but I’ve also copied and pasted the relevant bits here, in case the link goes dead.

Original Post

I’m writing a story, based off of the Stars Without Number system. Now, there’s one thing bugging me, and that’s that the military contractors and bounty hunters and the like are all congregating in the war-torn areas, waiting to be hired, instead of relaxing in luxury, waiting to be called.

There’s mostly reliable, long-distance superluminal communication, but only in the sense that you can put a message on a ship (or into the ship’s computers) and have that ship carry it, mostly reliably, between systems.

How can I explain why PMCs would do anything but stay at home, waiting to be hired to fight?

Top Rated Reply

Not sure quite what definition you want to give of “being a mercenary”, but I spent a few years as a contractor in Africa, Asia and the Middle East after leaving the Army, so I can tell you why I spent a bit of time wandering around the smellier parts of the world between contracts.

Connections

You get hired and find contracts by making sure people know you. I was in Special Forces for 6 years, and in a tiny community like that your reputation is everything. Once you get out it is the only way you get good contracts, too — not by applying for them, but by getting cold-called by someone you know and already worked with before.

But the longer you’ve been out of the military where assignments aren’t your decision and you meet new people as a matter of course, you wind up becoming slowly isolated. Whatever sort of work you have been doing is the only way you meet people if you’re only in the ugly parts of the world when you’re on contract. That means you only meet people who do the same kind of work as you, and pretty soon your old contacts change careers (nobody does this forever, not unless they get paid extremely well — but its actually feast-or-famine, and that begins to wear on you). Over time your contacts go stale, contracts become less frequent, wars end, new wars start in places you’ve never been, rules change, industry players change, empires come and go, languages you know becomes useless, etc.

We watch all this firsthand, which is why we know that we can’t count on being comfortable, ever, and absolutely none of us trust things like pension programs after watching entire governments implode overnight. That also means we don’t have much faith in getting a next call while we’re a world away sitting on our asses enjoying the good life. Yes, you do that a little, but only when you know you already have a contract lined up to go back to.

Location location location

So what does one do? Why do programmers looking for easy cash from VCs they can blindside with a storm of buzzwords migrate to San Francisco? Its one of the absolute worse places to run a company, but its one of the best for starting a company simply because the community is there. In the same way one might wonder why I would wander around a shithole like Baghdad or take a trip to Mali when job hunting? Because the community is there.

Its not just bases and checkpoints and whatnot. Those of us who have to stay there a lot begin doing more pleasant things with our time. Some start up private bars, open restaurants, hire stranded immigrant workers who were screwed over by their former employers and start a service shops that handle things people like us know are needed (vehicle repair, gear cleaning, safe parcel delivery, couriers, good alcohol smuggling, proper medical supply import, etc.). We tend to those things when you’re not on contract, meet local girls (“local” as in she’s there, and so are you for the moment), train with each other partly as play and partly to keep skills alive (and its fun), etc. and keep making contacts. It takes a little effort, but you can make life comfortable for yourself in the middle of the never-ending nightmare that is most of the world.

Most of us are, if not friends, at least cut from the same cloth. We’ve had similar experiences. We like to swap stories and lies with one another over a drink. We like to roll and box with each other for fun. We have beer shoots on the weekends sometimes (loser buys for everyone). Very few of us can train much back home. People at home sincerely do not understand a huge part of our lives. We come from the same dozen or so countries. We speak, if not the same language, the same 2 or 3 common pidgins. Its a comfortable place, even if its a rough one. And sure, maybe a few towns over people are getting their houses knocked over and roughed up by the local gangs or whatever, but nobody comes to mess with our little cobbled together neighborhood in that way. So yeah, its less safe than living in, say, Austin, but its a lot safer than the general violence statistics for the region would make it appear. And that’s just better for us — less competition.

We’re feeding off of the chaos

Most of the world is not very well planned out. When a crisis occurs and a bigshot needs to go somewhere bad in a big hurry there simply isn’t time to establish a strong guard force and mobilize it. Most countries don’t even have decent diplomatic security forces, so external contractors are a necessity.

Usually an office that is already in position will get a call at the 11th hour with a desperate need for diplomatic security. Not ten minutes later a few of us are running up and down the street knocking on doors, calling each other “Do you have any solid guys and a few locals you can bring on a run to X in two days?” and “Hey, do you still have that bigass armored bus? How about the bricked-out Mercedes and the Rhino, are they out of the shop yet?” and so on.

The next day we’re all out, not officially on contract yet, but we’re already rehearsing, making sure everybody knows what to do. One major advantage of working in a group like this is that you generally only need to rehearse actions-on, get guys new to a particular technique or scenario up to speed, and cover a few contingent actions. That’s a lot different from having to rigidly train core skills because most of the trigger-pullers are privates who just left home for the first time. (The general age range of the guys I prefer to work with is 30~60 — and don’t let 60 throw you off, there is this freakish phenomenon we call “old man strength” and its totally real.)

A few days later we’ve swapped out our patches and hats for whatever logos the prime contractor has and are standing all clean and pretty at the airfield waiting to meet the guy who is paying for the party.

From the outside I suppose it looks like Xe (or Blackwater, or whatever they are now), or Triple Canopy or Aegis or whoever appear to be some full-time private military force you can just hire on short notice — but that doesn’t mean they have a barracks in Florida or Cape Town and are just waiting for the green light. Its expensive to have us around, just eating through corporate profits. They assemble their forces from people they already know right then and roll. (The really huge contracts that cover a whole warzone may wind up being slightly different in effect, because those contracts may be ongoing for 5 years at a time, but even those stories must eventually end.) The only people with some level of job security are the country/region managers and up. The polite girl who used to call me from Virginia to tell me my travel routes, for example, had much better job security than any contract lead ever would.

That’s just diplomatic security. There are plenty of other contracts like training foreign militaries, providing direct QRF support, high-value recovery (sort of borderline legally), K&R response, countersurveillance, and some other stuff for example, but the way you get to know each other and find your next job tends to be the same: by being out there, being well known, being likable, making friends, working lower-paying contracts that involve a ton of people to have a chance to meet some other guys, and remembering who the dirtbags were so you can avoid them in the future.

It sounds bad to say “we feed off the chaos”, but that’s true. But its also true that the chaos is never-ending, people suck, nothing is stable, and nobody gives a crap about your problems but you and maybe your family. Its not going to get any better, and it hasn’t been any different throughout history — we’re just this season’s leaves, soon to be swept away whether we spend them shivering in our beds trying to stay safe or out there sweating, trying to get some cash together so we can get out of the crappy places of the world and start a family somewhere less screwed up.

So in the end…

Why do gravitate to the eye of the storm? Because in a world with no job security you have to make your own luck.

What about the organizations?

The above discussion was all about the people involved, explaining some of the reasons why I would occasionally hang around nasty places while off contract or at least spend my off-days while on contract making sure I had a good shot at having another contract one later on (or finding a better one right away if the current one paid peanuts but was super dangerous for no reason). That’s all about us guys who are on-off contract every few months (or whenever the phone rings) and have no job security. The companies that are actually getting the contract awards have slightly different, but related, reasons to always have a presence in a disturbed region.

Contracting companies don’t really have any job security, either. Any given conflict will eventually end, and — contrary to the hilariously off-base conspiracy theories that PMCs “cause conflict to profit off them” — peace could break out at any time. But this is Earth. We can rest easy in the knowledge thatwar is a natural state of mankind. The trick is, just like owning a chain of grocery stores or selling fire insurance, you have to diversify your presence and product offerings to make sure you’ve got market coverage if you want your company to survive beyond a sing huge conflict. (A lot of PMCs have come and gone just around the Iraq conflict. Others will come and go elsewhere. A few have a semi-permanent presence on the eternally screwed up continents.)

When everything goes to crap and the local embassy or company office needs to source something locally, it is a very good thing if you’ve already got a point of contact in country. Nothing fancy, just renting a one-room office or keeping a local on hire to answer the phone. If operations are fairly regular, though, like when a larger trend of conflicts is ongoing, it is absolutely impossible to keep up with regulatory requirements. Your job is, after all, to wield lethal force. In reality you do this every time you move a chair, pick up a rock, throw a baseball, grab any kind of farm tool you can imagine, or get the cutting board from under the sink… but that’s not how regulators see things. (And before you say “but you don’t wage wars with rocks and knives and stuff” — that is precisely what insurgents do.) Sourcing the best weapons money can buy in a country like the US, UK or France is not terribly difficult — but shipping them out sure is. The other side is even harder: getting authorization to ship weapons into a warzone. Now that last bit is highly ironic given the typical glut of weaponry just laying around and the fact that there is usually a vibrant black market in action — but it is absolutely insane the layers of paperwork, ass-kissing, bribing, cousin marriages, and personal relationships you have to maintain to ship a container of 30 rifles from Arizona to Pakistan.

Given that doing things the 100% legal way involves insurmountable regulatory hurdles, and to even be allowed to do things legally one must do the illegal stuff anyway to grease the skids on the operation (the bribes, cousin jiggering and relationships part) the path of least resistance is usually to source and maintain weapons locally and then make that legal by way of the bribes and whatnot. The end result is that you have mountains of paperwork to do (once your cache is made legal it will have to be registered and maintained by an armorer), but its done quickly and you have access to what you need now (money and arms) instead of never getting the operation off the ground because someone else can beat your price and timeline by sourcing locally. Its a race to market! But maybe not the sort of race to market everyone is aware occurs.

The tradeoff is money (flexible) and time (inflexible) in exchange for a much lower availability of the weapons you want to use. In a big theater like Iraq or Afghanistan its not so hard to get real M-4’s and things, but they will often be Bushmasters instead of Colts, for example (and when the the teeth on the bolt break while you’re firing… you really hope the rest of them hold until you can maybe find a new one and a new barrel, which is anything but certain). In a smaller theater you are rarely that lucky and will have to settle for unreliable remakes (that look good, but don’t sound so good), crappy magazines (failure to feed == failure to fire), ill-maintained former stockpile gear (that works, but requires some rehabilitation work), former Soviet stock (contrary to the popular image, the AK-47 and PKM are not the first choice of most discerning infantrymen…), or a big fat pile of “frankenguns”. And that’s just guns! The situation with ammunition is absolutely laughable most of the time (protip: practice stoppage drills).

[Frankengun: A firearm, usually of Soviet design, that is assembled from the not-yet-totally-broken parts of a collection of other guns that used to work. This is particularly common with PKMs, which are already bad enough when they are in factory condition compared to an M-240B* or an MG-3**.]

*  or MAG-58, or M-60, or...
** or MG-42, or MG-11, or MG-53, or...
See, guns have lineages, too! The PKM's line had a lot of inbreeding...

Where individuals trying to find contract work hang around to be known and put themselves in the right places at the right times, companies hoping to score prime contracts have to have an early logistical presence and maintain it in order to be confident they can service any contracts at all.

EDIT

In the spirit of this answer I’m preserving a thread that occurred in comments below that will certainly be lost to moderation eventually.

tl;dr: A tech contractor who worked for a PMC some of the same places I have asked some details about where the tactical contractors hang out and we had some back and forth. Ultimately, I want to keep in touch with the guy. This is partly out of habit, partly to reminisce, partly because I sense a kindred spirit, and partly because who knows when it might be a good thing to know another guy who does PMC work that is into tech?

http://zxq9.com/archives/1223

This is what I am talking about in terms of contractors sticking together like a tangle of Christmas-light-string shaped magnetic fishhooks.

Writing for a Table-Top Role Playing Game

When preparing for a table-top role playing game session, you end up writing a lot. Whether in detail or just in basic outlines, there’s a lot of stuff that comes pouring out of you. You try to write for several possible scenarios, leaving enough options to improvise and adjust to the many varied ways in which your players can approach things, but inevitably they manage to find to hit upon something you didn’t see coming. This is nothing but fun, but sometimes you stumble upon such a cool story concept while you’re meandering through the different options, that you can’t help but fall in love with a particular story you’ve come up with. Now, 80% of what you write you’ll never need, and that’s fine, but when you find that one story that you find superhard to let go of, you have to be extra careful not to start railroading your players. Guess what? I just stumbled upon such a storyline. I’ll be really, really, really disappointed if they don’t come across this.