Thursday, January 19, 2017

Avoiding Choice Paralysis in GURPS Campaign Planning

So clearly my goal of writing and posting regularly has failed. But there is good news! I’ve discovered that my iPad Pro with a Logitech CREATE hard shell case makes for a perfect writing tool while on the bus. This is going to give me nearly 2 extra hours per day to write stuff. So, without further ado, I present my latest Apocalyptic Analysis: How To Avoid Excessive Choice Paralysis in GURPS Campaign Planning.

Lions and Tigers and Bears…and Wolves and Orcs and Dragons and Demons and Aliens and Cyborgs and Vampires and Werewolves…

GURPS has a lot of options. Which is a lot like saying that the ocean is made up of a lot of atoms of water. In short, GURPS can be overwhelming. I’m not the first to mention this and I won’t be the last. The important thing is that the GM make decisions early and often about the type of game he wants to run. Mailankahas a great series on how to construct campaigns. He takes you through a ton of choices and a very detailed design for a complex setting.

I’m going to suggest that you actually need to repeat that type of exercise on a regular basis when GMing GURPS . Why? The temptation to bring in more complexity “because you can” will be ever present. Fighting that temptation is key to running a successful campaign and avoiding choice paralysis in GURPS.

Choose a Limited Number of Themes

One of the best methods I’ve found to avoid choice paralysis is to choose a limited number of themes for your game. For example, I’m running a GURPS campaign using the old TSR Dark*Matter campaign setting. This setting features a lot of stuff. You’ve got psionics, magic, aliens, demons, conspiracies, and advanced technology all existing on what is otherwise TL8 Earth. If you don’t focus quickly, the game will begin to feel like you just tossed everything and the kitchen sink together and waited to see what would happen. That’s not a recipe for campaign success.

Instead, consider choosing to focus on just one or two components of a setting–even if the setting has a lot of possible choices. For example, I might decide to run a magic/occult focused Dark*Matter campaign (I’m not). I would be better served ignoring most of the other possible campaign themes rather than trying to build in everything the setting can offer. My adventures will be crisper and–if you’ve talked to your players–the PCs will be more suited. Which brings me to…

Help Your Players Create Relevant PCs

Something I’ve heard over and over again both on the SJ Games forums and the Discord channel is some variation of the question, “How do you handle a monk, a cybernetic hacker, and an elven mystic in the same group??” That question indicates that a GM avoided choice paralysis by not making any choices. That (lack of) decision will inevitably come back to haunt him or her. In all RPGs–but GURPS in particular–the GM must be involved in character creation. The characters in any given campaign will go a long way to defining that campaign–probably moreso than the GM’s actual adventure plots and plans! Why? Because who the characters are in a story largely defines how that story can play out.

In a GURPS campaign that could suffer from choice paralysis, the GM isn’t the only one to experience it. Each player will also have to decide what kind of PC to make. That can be overwhelming. This is where the GM must step in and help. Do not be afraid to “limit” the PCs. Most players will thank you for it. If you dare to say “just make something you think will fit” you will end up with a disparate group that will have a hard time engaging in logical adventuring together. Instead, create campaign character guidelines and circulate those to your players.

One of the issues that has come back up is related to GURPS’s notoriously detailed skill list. We discovered that a PC had forgotten to include a point or two in Computer Operation. A strict reading of that skill indicates that someone with no points in it literally cannot use a computer. For any adult in TL8 Earth, that actually takes some doing (assuming the adult is FROM a TL8 area of Earth, of course). Even if you don’t use full templates, providing lists of required skills–or even just giving away a free “everyman template”–is super important for a successful GURPS campaign. Otherwise you may end up with players complaining about their PCs’ inability to perform basic tasks (like drive a car).

In the Final Analysis

The GM has to be the game master from an early stage of any campaign. In GURPS–a system known for its flexibility–if you don’t make decisions early and often, you will end up in a morass of indecision and confusion. Even if you want to include everything because it’s “cool,” doing so will only limit the chances of a campaign success. Remember, you can always run Season 2 of your campaign and include things the second time around.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Analysis: Back to GURPS at last...but why?


Back to GURPS! But why?

First, some background on the lack of GURPS

After almost 3 years of near-weekly GURPSing from 2012-2015, we stopped playing GURPS entirely for about a year. The reasons for that are personal and relate to dreaded Real Life, but suffice to say, it had been a while. I started a GURPS Dark*Matter game around January 2016. It...didn't go well. I tried to use Action templates and didn't fully understand why my players balked at the restrictions. I used Monster Hunters RPM without really understanding the rules. I let a very creative player use RPM for technomagic and maybe accidentally said he could manipulate anything related to matter and energy. Oops.

The game went fine for a while but I was horribly out of practice at GMing and it showed. The game suffered as a result. I simply wasn't ready to jump back in to a game as complex as this one tried to be. Plus we had adjusted or whole gaming schedule and many players were having babies. Not an ideal time. So it fizzled.

Nostalgia and Novelty

So we transitioned to playing the recently released Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition using the 2d20 System from Modiphius Entertainment. They have done a phenomenal job revitalizing the setting but they did start over with the rules. Unfortunately, the rules turned out not to be a good for for me as a GM. it also took me almost a year to figure this out.

So Why Back to GURPS?

Quite simply, I'm ready again. Actually, that's probably a half-truth at best. In fact I've been giving 2d20 a chance and now it's time is up. The remainder of this post will be about my experiment with a "new age" system and why GURPS just works so much better for me.

What is a "New Age" system?

We are all familiar with the GNS taxonomy (if you aren't, just Google it). For my purposes, a New Age system tries to combine narrativist design concepts with one or both of the remaining concepts described by GNS. In my experience, this leads to disjointed game design.

The 2d20 System

I don't want to make this post all about how I don't care for the 2d20 System. The more interesting discussion is how it's different from GURPS and why that makes such a difference to me.

First, 2d20 System uses something it calls the Threat Pool in each game. In MC3, it's called the Dark Symmetry Pool and it's filled with Dark Symmetry Points. The GM uses the DSPs to make his NPCs effective. Without spending DSPs, the opposition is often entirely ineffective. DSPs are generated when players purchase extra d20s for a DSP each or when a player rolls a natural 20 on any dice used to make a skill check. There are other ways too, but these two are the most common DSP generators for the GM.

How powerful are these DSPs for the GM? Well they can completely turn a fight against the players or turn a weak NPC into a very strong one. The main issue is that the DSP pool sets up a metagame pitting the players against the GM. This would be fine except the system is supposed to be a heroic narrative not a brutal brawl.

A quick example: a PC died because I don't some DSP on an attack. If I hadn't, the fight would have been extremely boring. Instead, a player lost his PC because this game is seriously tilted towards "quick" combat, which can be translated as "unforgiving." Unfortunately, the GM is put in a straitjacket that the system sets up. You can either ignore the DSP pool--which is nearly impossible because it is so integral to the game mechanics--or you can try to make do. I tried for quite a while and found I couldn't just make do.

Why is it a New Age system?

The 2d20 System has a decent core mechanic. Its character generation is strong and it's got serviceable combat rules (if you like highly abstract systems). What ultimately drove me away was the hypocrisy inherent in the DSP mechanic. The GM needs to somehow balance his duties as storyteller and game manager with being a player in his own right. That is really challenging. I'm not even sure it makes sense. The DSP mechanics remind me of board games like Fantasy Flight's Descent or the Mutant Chronicles game Siege of the Citadel But those types of games are meant to be adversarial. In a normal RPG, the players and GM are both acutely aware of the GM's power. Being a good GM is about using that power to craft a fun experience for everyone at the table. But in 2d20 System, the GM must "play" as well as manage. It's a design that doesn't work for me.

A Word on Complexity

A quick shout-out to a friend: GURPS may have a lot of rules, but it doesn't create complexity with needless abstraction. I am finding that many so-called fast-play systems use narrativist elements to "streamline" gameplay but only end up creating an additional layer of often unintuitive abstract gobbledygook. The 2d20 System is quite guilty of this. It uses abstract ammunition weights that break down under ten seconds of critical thought. Its abstract economic system had literally halted gameplay while w try to puzzle out why a PC can't just walk into a store and buy something. And the zone-based range mechanics still make no damn sense.

In the Final Analysis

I'd rather listen to my players tease GURPS for its unnecessarily long skill list than deal with a nonfunctional abstract economic system and variable sized combat measurements (seriously--short range depends on the size of zones not objective length measurements). But more importantly, I'd rather just GM how I've GMd for 20+ years rather than try to figure out an entirely new balance of storytelling, game managing, and playing my own little adverserial mini-game against the players.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Blogging is hard

I intend to get another serious blog post up as soon as possible, but I have discovered that making time for blogging is a lot harder than I would have imagined. But that's true of everything, so no excuses!

Look for a new blog post this weekend.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Analysis: What is RPGing all about?

For my first substantive post, I’m going to be looking at what we all want to achieve with RPGing as a hobby. Before we get there though, a word about how I plan to do this.

Musings, Thoughts, Pontifications, Not Publishable Prose

So as most in the GURPS community know, I’m a lawyer in real life. This means I write for a living. I have no plans to ensure perfection in my blog posts. Typos, less-than-perfect grammar, and (I’m sure) confusing sentences and impenetrable paragraphs are a near-certainty. I beg your forgiveness–I plan to have fun with this blog and…oh shit, I started with a disclaimer didn’t I?

Why Do We Do This?

So, why do we play games? Why do we spend so many hours on the make-believe? What are we getting out of this hobby? Curiously, I’ve had cause to ask these questions over the past two years. The answers sometimes surprised me. Here are a few:
  • It’s a habit.
  • It’s a way to spend time with friend.
  • It’s our “creative outlet.”
  • It’s “fun.”

The Habitual Gamer

I think some gamers are habitual. This is often more evident with video games where the habit becomes an addiction. But I think RPGing can be just as habit-forming. This is bad. I’m also sure I’ve fallen into this camp at various points over the last two decades. Though we haven’t gotten there yet, habitual gaming has deleterious effects on Fun. It’s worth asking yourself if you become irate when you can’t get a gaming fix in. Do you find yourself questioning the point of it all? Losing interest in the game or in preparing for it? If so, you may have become a habitual Gamer. I suggest taking a break. Be mindful. Ultimately you will be able to come back more interested than before.

Friendship Factor

Maybe you don’t care about the game rules, the campaign, or your character. You go every week or month because you want to hang out with the guys. The friendship factor is a perfectly valid reason to engage in a roleplaying game. But beware–some people get annoyed by this if it means you would rather drink and shoot the breeze than get down to business and actually play. I would bet most games have done this from time to time. Again, just be mindful. There are other ways to spend time with friend than using up game time!

The Creative Outlet

Ah ha! Here we go. This is starting to sound more like it. I strongly believe that many GMs are in it because they love to create. They want to write, act, illustrate, and think tactically, sometimes all at once! World building–particularly without an active group is, I think, quite common in the online world. And what a great outlet it is, writing material for a game as rich as GURPS. We get to exercise writing skills, math skills, lawyering skills (yes, trust me on this one), AND enjoy the occasions power trip at the same time. Why do you build worlds without an active group? Why do it with an active group when so many professional settings exist in the market? My, what a convenient segue…

For the Fun

But honestly, except for a lucky few who get paid, we all do this for fun. Fun, an ephemeral concept to start with, is sometimes very hard to nail down in the gaming context. Why? For starters, why people game at all can and does vary. And let’s not neglect the obvious: people define fun differently, even within the same group. Hell, the same person can have different definitions of fun at various points in one night!

Fun is defined by my Terminology app as:
  1. activities that are enjoyable or amusing; “I do it for the fun of it”; “he is fun to have around”.
That seems to fit as well as any other reasonable definition. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that this definition is still incredibly subjective. But that is unavoidable and not a serious problem at all. We’ve all dealt with it before. How do you make everyone have fun? Well that’s probably a whole ’nother blog post, but the short version is that you better know your players. Know the players you have and their preferences. Don’t pretend you have players you don’t or that you don’t have players you do.

Ask for feedback often and make sure you get it. Listen to concerns. But most of all, make sure you, the GM, are fully engaged with the game system and the campaign. An enthusiastic GM will maximize the chance that the whole group will have fun.

The Final Analysis

Here is where I copy Doug Cole’s Parting Shot concept with my own concluding remarks in The Final Analysis.

The basic point of today’s post isn’t to discuss player types or examine GM styles. The point is that you should always be mindful with what ever you are doing with your gaming hobby. Examine your motivations. Question yourself. Listen to your players. You will all have more fun if you do!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Welcome to Apocalyptic Analysis -- a Blog About Gaming

Yet Another Gaming Blog

Ultimately, you have to blame the GURPS Discord server. That's all there is to say. Everyone else is doing it, and we clearly need more GURPS-specific blogs. I will use this blog to discuss other gaming interests as well, buuut...mostly GURPS. 

I will also need to learn about formatting and HTML and other boring stuff that I don't have time for. 

Because every blog needs a reasonable topic to focus on, this blog really looks at gaming-related analysis. Analysis of what? ANYTHING. Some ideas for future blog posts:

  • Amusement Analysis: What makes for a "fun" gaming session? A "fun" campaign? 
  • Systemic Analysis: How does a game's system interact with the campaign setting to create a unique experience for the players? 
  • Kitchen Sink Syndrome: How do you know when you are putting too much into a campaign? 
  • Meta-analysis: Let's analyze some gaming terminology and get our terminology straight. Without clear definitions, things just get confusing fast.
So there you go. We'll see if I can get one post per week up and go from there. Given the decrease in my real-life gaming time, this seems like a reasonable and fun way to exercise my GMing creativity.