Friday, May 15, 2015

Story Seed - You Can't Go Home Again

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I haven't been back in nearly twenty years. I'd been lucky; I'd made a score, a big score, and had enough credits to buy my way off world. I left Earth behind and didn't look back. I spent four years using an atom beam to dissect rocks the size of houses in the belt.

From there I'd move on to Europa. The domed city of Tyre was my home for eight years. The best years of my life. I'd gotten into the Syndicate there. I spent plenty of time off world, running synthetics through black routes to the blet miners and the even as far as Mars. Always back to those deep blue domes though. I'd like to think I stayed because some deep part of my being, something in my genes, knew that the sky above was supposed to be blue like the Earth of old. Not now though, not since before I was born.

Eventually the Syndicate had spun me in-system to the flying cities of Venus. Hades was, pun very much intended, hell. Nobody should ever have to spend time on Venus. I suppose if I were a law abiding citizen I might understand the thematic value of putting penal colonies on the least hospitable solid body in the system. As somebody gainfully employed in the trade and sale of illicit goods I shuddered to think I could end up here someday. To put it bluntly my year on Venus made me the most careful and cautious criminal I could be.

It also made me very successful and obnoxiously wealthy. Of course my ill-gotten gains were the filthiest kind of credits and so I needed to cycle them through the Syndicate's currency specialists. I could have paid less elsewhere, but it seemed unwise to do this outside of my family, and the Syndicate's men were the safest cleaners you could find; like I said I was careful and cautious.

By the time I bought my way up another rung of the organization I also had a ship of my own and a desire to see the system for a while. I became a specialist. I could come and go to the small colonies with ease, the ship and all my edocs were clean as bleached porcelain. I could move freely where even the corps weren't trusted. Jovia, the Cronan moons, even the deep colonies out in the Oort. I even made a trip to Inferno, but after melting half my hull plating off I vowed not to do that again.

Never Earth though.

It wasn't a conscious choice. The Syndicate never asked and I never thought of it. Not for nineteen years. Yet, like that old spacers saying, "All nav routes lead to Terra." It couldn't be helped. I know that to be fact because once I saw that a bad deal and an out of date transfer edoc were pointing me toward that brown and gunmetal ball of human filth I did everything I could to avoid it.

And so here I am. The old neighborhood looks so different. Buildings had been razed and replaced, streets and air-lanes were moved, and the people living in what had been the scummiest slum I could imagine were now rather more gentry than I had expected. So much change over those long years.

And yet the old Moon Dance was still there. Like some kind of immovable object, no force, not even an unstoppable one, could touch her. It made me smile a bit. Only a bit though, because the Moon Dance was where that score from so long ago had come from. It was the place where my old family had been stripped from me in a rain of lead and photons. I could still hear the wet sounds of flesh being perforated and bone breaking, and I remembered the cooking smell of laser burnt hair and skin. The Moon Dance squated on weathered permacrete and glowered at me like some malevolent memory. It accused me, and I blamed it.

Welcome home, when can I leave?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #32 - Gamemastering like an Underpants Gnome

Last week in my GM's Roundtable of Doom post I revealed that I feel my worst skill as GM is long term planning/plotting of campaigns. That's true, I'm always hesitant to GM in general; it's a fairly massive undertaking at the best of times, and a whole lot rides on your shoulders. It's also rewarding as heck so I keep doing it. Long term campaigns are tough though. I'm usually good for half a dozen sessions before things start to implode, but I've been getting better, and here's how.

The first place I started was to look at how I run individual sessions. I've been fairly successful with single session games and even smaller mini-campaigns (IMO anyways, my players never complain). So I'm probably doing something right, and I can scale up from there. I've found that generally when I run a session that isn't from a product (e.g. something pre-written and pre-plotted) I really only have a plan in place for the start and the end. Players encounter strange thing X to kick things off. This is something have fairly firmly planned beforehand. They then do "stuff". I've learned over my many years you can never predict what that "stuff" will be with very good accuracy, maybe 50% at best, and so I generally don't plan much for the middle. That "stuff" in the middle is generally left pretty bare bones, I try to have an idea or two in case the players stall out, but otherwise I basically leave things open for the players to tell me how they want their story to progress. Eventually the characters arrive at the end location Y (or fighting enemy Z, or whatever).

It's the Underpants Gnomes method of GMing I suppose. I know what Phase 1 and Phase 3 are, but I have no idea what Phase 2 will look like until we sit down to play. This isn't going to work for everybody; I know this. You need to be fairly good at running games on the fly and improvising. Being able to quickly throw new NPCs or creatures together is also key. This is part of why I like the Cypher System so much, it takes almost no time to whip up a new NPC or monster and so game play can keep moving forward with little, or no, interruption.

I've also learned to take my story beats from the characters and their players. The best story will engage the person consuming it. So I try to find out what the players want from the game, and I try and find out what their character's want from their adventures. One of the ways I have started to do this is with the One Unique Thing mechanic stolen from 13th Age. By asking the players to tell me something unique about their character I am also subtly requesting that they tell me something that they would like to see in the game.

If a player says that their OUT is "I am the last remaining Ork in the world" that will tell me something significant, not only about the character but also the game world. It tells me that for some reason the Orks have all but died out (or have fled into hiding), and that as far as anybody knows this PC is the last of them. It tells me that the player probably wants to explore this facet of their character and the game world. I'd probably ask some follow up questions; Does the character know what happened to the other Orks? Was she raised by Orks or was she found as a baby? These questions will help me home in on what the player wants and give me hooks to use during play.

I try to build my longer term plots around those hooks. It gives me a place to start so I'm not creating a plot in the dark, and it also helps to ensure that the long term plot is one that will engage the players. Using the above example, I might plan to drop some information about the Orks into the second or third session and see how the players want to follow up on that information. Since I am not running games for single players I can also do the same for the other players' "personalized plots" over time. This allows me to draw things out which allows me more time to think about the next step in that given plot. It also gives me the ability to weave disparate plots threads into a single plot if appropriate. Perhaps the Elf wizard's OUT was that he was caught in a mana storm and survived it somehow, something that no other person had managed prior. Is the mana storm connected to the disappearance of the Orks? If so why was that one Ork spared?

Another thing to do when you come up with these connections between characters and the questions they raise is to not answer them right away. If the characters find these connections in game they will probably ask the questions without you needing to prompt them too much, and you can often get a handful of free ideas just by listening to the speculation of the players. Maybe you use their ideas, maybe you don't, or maybe you use parts of them to build some new answer to the question that you would not have thought of.

If experience has taught me anything about GMing its that the players will always find the option you didn't think of. As a result, I leave the middle events of my session very sparsely laid. I have a good solid starting point, because you need to (IMO), and I try to have a good idea of what I want my ending to be. Not what it will be, mind you, but a planned idea. If I need to change that idea, I can and will.

By keeping the "middle" of my game sessions and campaign plans as loose as possible, it allows me to ditch ideas that I learn would not work with the group while also allowing me the freedom to add in new ideas based on the sessions that come before. If a character's personal plot hook turns out extra interesting it can become more integral to the story, and if something doesn't click with the players I can kill it early as well.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Story Seed - Black Market

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"If you can't find it there, you can't find it anywhere," his contact had told him. Puvik hoped that the weasly little bastard wasn't cheating him; thirty thousand credits for coordinates to this market was a truly absurd sum. Whoever owned this rock was making a pretty penny. Entrance had cost him ten thousand more and Puvik knew that the vendors typically owed their host ten to fifteen percent of their sales.

Standing in a hollowed out cavern that may once have been part of some manufactory, or possibly a refinery, he lost count of the stalls and vendors. He estimated that there were over a thousand humans and aliens in here, buying, selling, and trading in all manner of illicit and flat-out illegal goods. He sighed and started walking, sliding between and through the gaps in the crowd. He let the crowd itself dictate his course, drifting among the seedy flotsam and jetsam of the galaxy, his eyes peeled for anybody dealing in Venthic tech.

It took an hour to get a hit, and three more to find one why had anything more than broken Planck rifles and discharged Hawking batteries. He was deep in the bowels of the asteroid now. Far farther below the surface than he had expected this place to extend. The alien, a member of a species he'd never seen previously, kept a shop in a fully formed building; Puvik hoped that meant the proprietor was successful. "I'm looking for a quark computational cell. A functioning one, I don't need some broken souvenir."

The alien's head bobbed in what Puvik hoped was a nod. Its reply filtered direct into Puvik's mind, an image, clear and precise of a Venthic quarkic computer. It was followed by the image of two creatures exchanging some sort of goods, and then another where one gave a parcel in return for a currency tube.

"I can pay," Puvik said, understanding the interrogative. He reached into his jacket and produced a tube of glass capped on either end with magnetic couplers. Inside a shimmering substance that seemed unsure if it was liquid or gas. A mental image entered his mind and he stepped back, shocked at the proposed amount. "I don't have that much," he said. "I only have six hundred thousand."

The creature appeared to study him for a moment before more images came to him. The alien wanted to know what use Puvik had for a quark computational cell. "I'm going to break into the Sagittarius A Dyson object," the spacer replied. More images, carrying a sense of astonished and baffled curiosity. The creature wanted to know how Puvik intended to interface the device; Venthic technology was centuries past the capabilities of any of the civilizations of the galaxy. "What is it worth to you to know?" he asked, leaning toward the creature.