Cutting corners, not quality

One thing that has become clear in my vast month long experience of RPG blogging, is that every other GM who blogs does about twenty times the work I do in planning and running a game. That’s not to say that my games suck, I have an awful lot of people who would say otherwise. But I manage to do it without the buckets of effort that others put in. This will probably be the first of many blogs where I talk about short cuts and GMing tips that could, if you’re confident enough, take a lot of the hassle out of running your own game. To start with I’m going to talk about populating a small settlement in a way that takes less time but still looks well rounded.

I start with NPCs that players will meet. People in shops, mostly, or someone plot related who introduces themselves. These NPCs are statted in the simplest way possible, and this is a method I use with every system for any NPC that doesn’t deserve its own character sheet. The system I was using last time, so the one I will be drawing examples from, was Unhallowed Metropolis. I love this system and setting and have run games using it that have lasted years.

Before we get into their stats though, lets think about names. I like having fun with this, and do take a bit of  time to prep before each game coming up with a list of name. Last time I compiled a decent list of Lovecraftian names, and whittled out the most recognisable ones to leave me with a few sides of A4 of random men’s and women’s names. Leave a line between each name, and pick out a few at first for the NPCs that you know you’re going to need and quickly jot down a few things that will flesh them out enough to be recognizable to your players, and you, when you need to play them again. Any stat that’s different from the average, just make a quick note of it and the difference, throw in a specialty skill and you’re almost done. Next pick a quirk, either physical or social that means they’ll stand out and make a note of that too. After that, anything else you need to remember just make quick notes of, you don’t want too much to read if you’re playing the character as it slows down the flow of a game.

That leaves a bunch of other names on your list, but don’t worry they’ll get used soon enough. The village will have a bunch of other people in it, farmers, workers, kids and the elderly. 90% of them will never be needed as the players will have no reason to talk to them, so don’t worry about them until the players feel the need to find anything out about them. This works very well with imaginative players who will think of solutions you may not. Do they need someone in town who used to be in the army? You never thought of that, but twenty of the farmers are just one dimensional shadows at the moment. So go to your list, find an appropriate name, give them a stat boost and extra skill that makes sense, a quirk that would be fun to roleplay, and respond to your creative player, “yup, the barman tells you about a good old boy who comes in of an evening telling stories about his time in the Deathwatch”, and away you go.

When it come to stats, UnMet has a pretty basic set and the usual skills. Choose your human average, in this case 2 across the board, and a set of skills most people would have a level in, then one per NPC that they’re trained in and can have at level 2. Then pick a stat or two that differ from the mean, usually one up, one down, but play around with as much as you want; they’re your characters and don’t have to fit the mean if you don’t think they would. This applies to everyone in your little settlement, and takes a matter of second to make the notes next to name you’ve not used yet.

A lot of people use random tables and feel free to go for it if the idea of picking quirks out the hat during a game is a bit daunting. But my best advice would be to prep a list – or steal it from a much better prepared blogger out there – and familiarise yourself with it a little before you run the game. That way you should have in your short term memory a few ideas that you can quickly take down without it looking to our players like you’re doing it all off the roll of a dice and are instead putting a lot of thought into each decision.

I hope some of that was useful, and as soon as I think of some other ways to speed up your GMing prep, I’ll share them with everyone.

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The Witcher 2, as reviewed by a table top gamer.

This review is based on roughly ten hours of game play, and will therefore have very little in the way of spoilers, but I will spoil something right from the get go; this is not a glowing review. If you have played the game to its conclusion and feel that my opinions are less valid due to only playing the start of the game, I’m going to have to side with Charlie Brooker on this one. If a TV show (in his case Dollhouse) doesn’t grab you in the first three episode, it’s failed. Saying that you should stick with it because it gets better later is so much poo; why would a TV show punish us by making us watch three hours of tripe before getting to the gooey center of loveliness?

This was very much how i felt about this game. A little background on it first I think. It’s based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, as was the first PC only installment, and I have heard some very positive reviews of both books, and they have made it onto my pile of stuff to be read. Said pile is in fact an entire book case full of stuff, but it’s on there nonetheless.

In the game itself, you play the eponymous Witcher – named Geralt of Rivia – who is basically this big scary dude with scars, who has a couple of close combat weapons, some spells, some bombs, can cast runes and lay traps, throw knives at dudes, mixes potions to drink or rub on things and also exists in world where the NPCs have never seen a Hong-Kong action movie. because of this they don’t have the ‘run up and attack once at a time’ mentality most RPG gamers are used to (I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed).  For this reason they all to decide to attack on mass, which is much more effective and a bit more scary. So far so awesome, and I have to say I loved all the cool stuff you could do in combat to tip the odds in your favour, especially because if you don’t do them, the odds are stacked so high against you, death is inevitable.

Plot wise, from what I saw, is nothing too inspiring when considered from outside the game, but when playing it, makes for some damned fine writing. Kings and bastards, with traitors all around, and only the Witcher – whom no one seems to like in the slightest – being one of the few guys trying to right the wrongs of the world. As I say, doesn’t seem like much, but the details are in there and once you get into it, the rewards are some killer writing hooks.

I can hear my readers scratching their heads in puzzlement right now, since this seems like a much more positive review than they were led to expect. ‘There must have been something that made him take the disc out and go back to playing Skyrim‘, I imagine you all saying, a quizzical look making you all appear even more attractive than you already are, if such a thing is possible. The best way for me to get across my dislike of this game is to imagine it as an old fashioned pen and paper RPG (‘old fashioned‘? the kind of gaming I still do on a weekly basis).

This game is run by a GM with a near legendary reputation for running games. The world he has woven for you is beautiful, every tree he describes is fixed in your senses as a sight to behold. His NPCs are better rounded than some of the actual player characters, each with their own personality and full of insightful things to talk about, just as you walk past them! When he runs combat, it’s a joy. A challenge every time, with so many options, but all of them used so intuitively, they seem like the most natural things in the world. Added to that a genuine feeling of consequences if the combat doesn’t go your way. It’s quick, but immersive, and even the NPCs act like they’re playing to the same system as you, not just going through predefined moves set out in a GM’s handbook. As mentioned above the plot is wonderful, such a simple idea made wonderful through subtle twists and turns of characterization and larger social ideas. Why then, did I not stick with it?

Because the GM is a dick. harsh, I know, but by giving an example re-imagined as an interaction between the player essaying the character of Geralt and his douch-tastic GM, as the trail of some bandits leads them to a sinister hideout;

GM: You’re told that they hangout at a graveyard to the east of the village.

Player: Cool, is there a graveyard on my map?

GM: No.

Player: Oh. Well I guess I just walk out the village heading east then.

GM: You have no compass.

Player: Oh, but I think I can figure out looking at the few landmark son the map, and just head out until I find out.

GM: Good thinking. You follow the path you think is the right one, and keep walking for half an hour, eventually ending up in a swamp.

(there was about twenty random encounters on the way to this point)

Player: OK, is there a swamp on my map?

GM: No.

Player: I guess I’ll head back and try a different path then, they did say the graveyard was only just outside the village.

GM: It takes about forty minutes to get back to the village. You get lost twice and twenty bandits attack you.

Player: For fuc… OK, can I just ask someone for directions?

GM: Of course you can, they tell you it’s to the east.

Now, imagine over two hours of this kind of thing, and I eventually give up and go online, finding dozens of people who had the same problem, but that you can actually see the gate of the graveyard from inside the village, but have no way of telling that it is actually a graveyard.

There were a dozen such problems like this I encountered playing through the second quest I found (something about  a troll), far too many to bore you with here, but all of them left me feeling like the game was run by the douchiest of GMs in the world. I know that games shouldn’t pander to players too much, but it should go without saying that the character will know things that the players doesn’t, and a half decent GM will take this into account when running a game.

So yes, I stopped playing. I have since shared this concept of GMing dickery with people who loved the game, and stuck with it through the opening tripe. Every one of them has not only agreed with me – they were also pen and paper gamers too, to be fair- but have given me other examples of this kind of dickishness running throughout the game.

If you disagree (and I bet there’s a lot of you who will), please post underneath that I’m wrong, and why – you may even change my mind, but you’re going to have to try hard). On the other hand, if you have had the same reaction to me, please share your crappy GMing stories, they’re great fun to hear.