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Category: Writeups

BitD: One-Shot

I ran a Blades in the Dark one-shot for some old gaming pals, S., and one person I hadn’t gamed with. Totally fun, unsurprisingly. Ginger wrote up the session here.

There are seven playbooks in Blades, and each of them has five potential friends/rivals. So that’s, what, a 45% chance that someone will choose Slide in a four player game, and then if the distribution is truly random, that someone has a 20% chance of picking Bazso Baz as their rival? So maybe around 10% of the time you kick off a Blades campaign using the book’s starting situation, you’ll get the fun of the crew already hating Bazso Baz? I was an English major, be kind.

But man, it was so great that Michael said Bazso Baz was his brother! That’s a lot rarer.

Also fun: both Michael and S. said that Nyryx was their friend. Except the Slide has Nyryx as a prostitute, and the Whisper has them as a possessor ghost. That is the best plot point right there. If this was a campaign, Nyryx would have pulled all the strings to get the crew together.

Politics, Gaming, Modern Times

In a recent Monster of the Week mystery, I made the Big Bad an incel. I thought about it a bit before making the decision to go for it. I was careful to humanize him; he had family who loved him, and I explicitly didn’t make him a killer. But I didn’t mask his motivations and I gave him a couple of alt-right tropes.

The players were definitely a touch taken aback. Nobody objected, and while they were careful not to kill him, that’s generally how they deal with human threats. I think the momentary uncertainty was more because it’s a pulpy game that got a touch serious all of a sudden — it was the reality of the Big Bad, not the specific fact that he was an Intel.

I also have a Delta Green campaign percolating, set in the PNW, that revolves around white nationalist movements. That feels safer, since most Delta Green players are expecting some dark material.

I think all this is appropriate gaming fodder. I mean, you’re not obligated to stuff political extremism front and center in your games. However, I also think that a lot of these slimeballs get a lot of milage out of secrecy. I’ve had so many fruitless online arguments with people who just aren’t convinced white nationalism is a problem. Gaming is a way to tell stories to each other, and some stories are worth telling.

Conversely, in the same Monster of the Week game, COVID-19 doesn’t exist. That was an explicit decision at the start of the game; we don’t need to be reminded of it and we wanted to escape that aspect of reality. I can easily imagine a modern game in which it does exist, but it doesn’t feel dangerous to avoid it.

Which is interesting, since there are certainly people who deny how serious it is. But I’m not gaming with any of them, and that’s a matter of denial rather than lack of awareness.

Parenthetically, while I was writing this, the back of my brain spit out a campaign frame for Monster of the Week in which the group is an anarchist mutual aid group, and I really want to play in that. So if someone could run it for me that’d be great.

New Gamers in the Apocalypse

Editing note: added our experience with Gauntlet-style character keepers.

A few months ago, some friends of mine who hadn’t done much/any tabletop gaming said they wanted to try D&D. I had plenty of free time and felt like it’s somewhat mean to make non-gamers learn D&D in a virtual setting, so I volunteered to run Monster of the Week for them. It’s gone great — we wind up playing about once per month, and everyone seems to be having fun.

I haven’t GMed for new gamers since I was 17 and trying to show my hippie father what those weird books were about. That time I went for Monsters, Monsters. It went terribly, albeit in party because I was only 17. “You want to… just… talk to the human whose threatening you? I don’t know what happens now. Um… let’s have dinner, I guess.” Looking back on it, if I’d been smarter I could have beaten Golden Sky Stories to the non-violent tabletop punch by decades. Alas.

Logistics: we’re using Telegram for persistent text chat, because everyone’s familiar with it. Alas, it doesn’t have video chat for groups, so we’re using Zoom for video and voice. Telegram supports bots and Roll ’em Bot is perfectly good for basic 2d6 + whatever dice rolls. My goal was to keep the logistics as simple as possible; I didn’t want to ask my newbies to wrap their heads around collaborative fictional games and a more complex virtual tabletop at the same time.

A couple of sessions in, I grabbed the character keeper from the collection of Gauntlet play aids. This was the first time I’d used one of those. It’s been mostly useful, although since everyone can see everyone’s sheet, we have a tendency to drop into “who would be best at this thing?”

Simplicity is also why I chose Monster of the Week. (Plus I’d been yearning to try it out.) If you say “it’s like Buffy, X-Files, or Supernatural” almost everyone in the US will understand at least one of those references. The playbooks are stupid simple to pick up and use. Again, the principle was minimal friction and maximum familiarity. And no need for a battle map! I can just drop pictures of Tucson into the Telegram chat.

Quincie Douglas Library, Tucson AZ

A few notes from the experience so far:

I ruthlessly pruned the Monstrous and the Spell-Slinger playbooks from the initial playbook selection for the sake of a) easier group cohesion and b) less complexity. In retrospect I coulda left the Monstrous in there, my players get that they’re responsible for figuring out why the group is a group. Instead of handing out a bunch of playbooks to read, I just listed the character types with a line or so of explanation, to cut down on decision paralysis. I wanted to force someone to play the Luchadore, but I restrained myself.

I started out the first session with the lines and veils safety conversation, followed by an explanation of the X card. Absolutely do this. Always do it, but do it especially with new players, because they are trying something new that has emotional weight and you need to make their experience safe. I checked in on tone after the first session, and I try to keep checking in from time to time.

Be ready for people to want to play themselves, especially in a modern game. A couple of my players did this. Initially I was all “nooo, be someone different,” but that was my gatekeeper speaking. It’s totally fine. Some people may want to branch out later, but who cares if they don’t? Self-inserts are a perfectly good tradition.

I’ve read some claims that new tabletop gamers will immediately understand and leap into the concept of shared ownership over the fiction. This is not true. Some of my players dig the idea that I’m telling the story as a GM. Again, it’s fine; people need to ease into new stuff. Just make sure the choice is there. I say stuff like “Do you think there could be a baseball bat there?” a lot, and that’s working fine.

Going cinematic with descriptions is excellent. I’ve been leaning into the opening sequence / closing credits bit from time to time, and it really sets the stage nicely.

Be aware that new players may be trying to read your face to figure out what you think their characters should do. Tabletop gaming can be nerve-wrackingly open ended and right now there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world! It took a session or two for people to buy into the idea that I was, as the book says, a fan of their characters regardless of their choices. I’ve also developed a technique for giving two possible options when they really want me to suggest something, and over time I think that’s helped everyone realize there’s no bad choice from the perspective of the players.

MotW has more support available than you might assume; I can always be lazy and yoink something out of Tome of Mysteries or the subreddit. Also, shoutout to Zombiefest Double Features which my players loved.

I expect to run a couple more mysteries and wrap the arc. I did not use the full on arc structure described, in part because I wasn’t sure how long we’d wind up going and in part because I’m lazy. I am pretty sure I could retrofit an arc onto the play we’ve done, though.

It’s been a great experience. I’d recommend MotW for new players, and I think probably also for new GMs. As with any good Powered by the Apocalypse game, you just follow the GM principles and make the moves as they come.

Hexhounds Ephemera: Index

The point of all this isn’t that I did amazing prep. I wanted to push myself towards sandbox style improvised play and using index cards (total: 115) was an excellent way to keep myself from getting too wordy. I offer my illegible handwriting in hopes that other GMs with crappy handwriting will find the example useful.

Here’s the list of posts:

Hexhounds: Letter from Griggs

Almost forgot! I handed the players this letter towards the beginning of the last session. “The individual of whom we spoke” was Etty’s demon-possessed mom. Before Setarra possessed her and before she got engaged to Lord Scurlock (the aged child), she was stuck in Ironhook Prison as a result of the fall of their noble house.

Hexhounds: Plots & Setup

And our final chunk of index cards! For some reason I shuffled progress clocks drawn for heists in with the plots and setup stack; no harm done but I’d keep them with the session notes next time.

Most of the cards from the stack of plots I actually used are in fact clocks. Among the others are examples of my favorite prep technique; I used the random score generator table to generate three or four scores, which fit tidily on one card, and then mostly let actual play determine which one was interesting.

Amusingly enough, the more detailed notes I drew up almost never got used. Ulf Ironborn’s lair notes were the only ones that turned out to be relevant, and that was a total GM force — Ulf beat up their bartender pal Rigney for being a racist jerk. It’s not like I didn’t know how the Hexhounds would react to that.

Hexhounds: Factions

Let’s do the factions tonight as well, I’m on a roll.

These are split into two chunks for ease of reading: the Doskvol factions and the Skovland factions. For some reason I didn’t make a card for the Imperials. Those last couple of faction clocks both would have lived on the Imperials card, though.

I was not as diligent at establishing proper faction clocks as I might have been, and I mostly slacked on putting together new ones when the old ones were completed. They were still insanely handy. I mentioned this a few posts ago, but literally any game with NPC factions would benefit from faction clocks and the mechanic would graft cleanly onto just about anything.

The Skovland factions are a bit cleaner since I had a better idea of what I was doing. Still pretty simple, though! Here’s the faction, here’s some background, a couple of key NPCs, and evocative adjectives to remind me what the factions and NPCs are like.

Hexhounds: Long-Term Projects

All the stuff the player characters wanted to get done between sessions. Make Owl-Human was probably the worst project they ever embarked upon, but it turned out useful in the end. Here’re the ones they completed:

And here’s the projects they didn’t quite wrap up. Figuring out Strangford’s plans and creating the Order of the Feather were both started in our very final downtime at the end of the last session. I admire their perseverance.