zdiw tips

GM responsibility and extending the rules

In a post from last year, I offered this:

My GM solution to gaps in the rules (or a PC’s back story) is that this is where the GM has to step up and make it all reinforce the narrative. How can I strengthen the story? How can I speed up the game? How can I make the group thread together more strongly? How can I illustrate the wonder of the Grand Stair through these little details, and also make it more exciting for me to be part of the canvas shepherding this narrative along?

So when do you extend rules (as Player or GM) and when to you keep RAW (Rules As Written)?

[edits follow, thanks to comments by Kit Kindred]

Perhaps your philosophy of GMing is that there should be no GM story challenge, no overall narrative, that in fact, everything the Player Characters want to do is ALL that is driving the game. This role then is the GM as a living referee judge. In a case like this, you may seek to stay as close to RAW as possible. Don’t invent new powers, as they will have a bias of the GM’s invention. Don’t invent new civilizations, but grab them from the PCs vague descriptions of worlds they are seeking. Don’t invent villains, as you can make them purely from NPCs opposed to the goals the PCs have discussed or agreed to.

Certainly do not twist powers or abilities within the framework of the game rules to do new things or favor a single PC. And since no rule set is perfect, what do you do when the PCs discover a flaw or bust in the rules? Probably the thing to do is to sit down with the gaming group and talk it through.

The example is spurious, and not terribly serious:

“The experience rules are broken weird, because Ted can take his character to the Bwang Confederation, where he has Control of Time Flow, where he forces time to 36 times the rate in the Stair. He can set up battles, cause wars, and challenge monsters there, and when he comes back in a month to rejoin the group, his PC has gained an experience point per year that gives him 3 points the rest of the group does not have. What do you all think? How shall we address this issue?”

Hopefully this sort of rules jiggering is not normal in your group.

Don’t think as a GM you can solve a group dynamic, or mechanics issue without an out-of-game conversation. The reason for fun is a group experience. It’s a game shared, so share the solutions to the bumps and pitfalls.

 

Why would the GM create or tweak additions to published RAW? Why read the rules and decide to do things differently? A short list of reasons could be:

  • Many Players do not want to read the rules, and therefore have no interest or background to judge the mechanics. For this group, the GM is trusted to keep things working and fair. This will mean invention and tweaks from the GM.
  • Many rule sets have been play-tested for months, but games can last years, and go places that the designers never foresaw. Narrative or mechanic problems may arise.
  • Some Players will skim the rule set, note things that are objectionable to fun, and ask for tweaks. Ask me about my (insert politics here) agenda! As just one example of this, the canon Zelazny Amber material includes torture and patriarchal gender slams.
  • Sometimes a rule set misses the genre by a little or a lot. A Buffy game where the strength of women is -3? No way. A gods game where there is secretly a power the gods don’t know about? Well, that sounds odd. A game emulating a book where the main book protagonist turns out to be evil and must be stopped? Why did I buy this game?
  • Power levels are assumed in the rule set, but what if you’d like a smaller story, with PCs who have less power? Or what if the group wants to play the monsters but not the mortals?

A longer examination of reasons could be knowing your audience and/or having a big picture in mind, and the idea that a few tweaks will reinforce the world building in a way that is not clear in the original rule set. This gets off in the direction of mashup rules and perhaps is beyond the point.

And when the rule set tries to define an Infinite Stair, one might expect no single rule book is going to cover it all. That why supplements and extensions are fun.

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GM responsibility and constraints on PC backgrounds

Some various thoughts about GM constraints on world building vs Player Character backgrounds over at Facebook.LoGaS

Christopher LaHaise says:

The thing is, I prefer not having to extrapolate as a game master. If it isn’t explicitly said in the game book, then it doesn’t ‘exist’ officially. And I like things being tidy and official. I’ve noticed with LoG&S I’ve had to do a lot of extrapolating, and this kind of annoys me from time to time, because it means if I’m comparing notes between my view of how RAW with another GM, there’s going to be crossed wires. And that might become more problematic when we’re talking characters.

‘Well, my character did XYZ, because of these reasons’.
‘Err, that kind of physics doesn’t work in my setting, because of these other reasons’.
‘Huh’.

For example – how does a Gossamer L&L (Lord or Lady–ed.) take over a world and ‘claim it’? Is it a ritual? Is it just by being there long enough? Is it sheer force of will? Do they have to go someplace special? Does it involve use of power? All of these? None of these?

How does a L&L make artifacts? How do they make companions? Where do these come from? This is the kind of thing I often wonder as a game master, and what I REALLY want to know as a player.

IMC (in my campaign), the GM is very involved with approval of PC creation and background. This is not always the case with other GMs I’ve played with. Sometimes, a GM asks if you have questions, and if you don’t, the GM says ‘ok we start next weekend’ and you are off and running.

Christopher’s question above, touches on a reason why I consistently want to know more about your PC, and generally ‘sign off’ on what you have written into the PC’s backstory. Because every Player in my game is authoring legends and possibilities to the universe just by creating a Player Character. If I cannot wrap my head around the idea of your PC, or the legends that brought them into the game, then I’m not going to be as supportive of your intent as Player.

And that’s not good for the game, the GM, or the group going forward. That is a misunderstanding waiting to happen.

Case in point:

I write and run many convention games. I review the PC creations (weeks before the game is run) even though we are only likely to play that game for 4 to 6 hours. In recent memory, I ended up with a complete disconnect in the game as run between the Player intent and the GM narrative, even though I had exchanged a half dozen lengthy emails with the Player about the PC background to hone the creation process and wrap my head around what the Player wanted.

The Player made clear that the PC was very fond of outwitting Royals of Amber, and sticking it to them in their areas of expertise. But the PC was always willing to help ‘fix up’ the pranks and conflicts that resulted from showing up the Royal. The PC was supposed to be a ‘shake hands and all’s fair’ sort, within the Family Game.

But in actual play, behind the scenes of this PC legend, there were forces set into motion to take down this PC because of the string of successes and public pranks inflicted on the powerful. Payback was brewing.

End result, things blew up, and yet the Player was sideswiped by a storyline he did not see coming. The Player did not have fun, and I had to apologize for a rough finish to the game over the disconnect between us.

The importance of the anecdote is not just GM fallibility, but the idea that helping clarify the PC concept gives both sides better idea of the narrative and ‘fences’ of the story to come. Without some idea of PC backstory ‘why?’ and legend, you don’t have fuel for immersive narrative collaboration.

Now the other part of Christopher’s question is about what is ‘official’ and what isn’t between the rules, the game, and other GMs. What does the rule set say about creating things the rules have not specifically included?

Well. Um.

Actually, while Lords of Gossamer and Shadow is a step up in clear communication from the predecessor Amber Diceless Role Playing Game, the power of a diceless game and the collaborative space between a GM and Player is the actual fuel for expanding and making the game your own. So specifically, if the Player doesn’t write it into their background, it does not exist in the Player’s half of the collaborative space.

That does not mean it doesn’t exist in the GM’s half of that collaboration. It has to.

So the answer to Christopher’s question is, extrapolate the missing info, or invent something, or ask more questions of the Player, and/or provide a placemark in your GM notes for the Universe to have some mechanism for answering that missing info. So like some twisted version of the old Champions game, you do have to pick your ‘special effects’ with your PC story.

Did your PC legend come from scifi or magic? Well then, your dominion of a Gossamer world probably involves that same source. The hitech gal learns the ultimate hack codes. The sorcerer supreme fella finally takes over from the Ancient One.

Does your companion have special powers in a mundane package? Again you really should get the Player to tie this into their back story. How did you meet the shapeshifter horse you ride through the Grand Stair? Where did you acquire the golden belt that becomes a 30 foot tall beast?

My GM solution to gaps in the rules (or a PC’s back story) is that this is where the GM has to step up and make it all reinforce the narrative. How can I strengthen the story? How can I speed up the game? How can I make the group thread together more strongly? How can I illustrate the wonder of the Grand Stair through these little details, and also make it more exciting for me to be part of the canvas shepherding this narrative along?

For the Player or GM that finds this kind of sudden improvisation rather challenging or producing anxiety, it may be good to have a cheat sheet list of mysteries/narratives that can source your answer.

This list might be a genre list, or something from the Tropes wiki so you can avoid cliche. Perhaps showing this to the Player prompts them to give the GM the missing bit of info, or a promise to write up a little paragraph about the Artifact or Extra Power.

And then you can decide how it fits into the Greater Puzzles the Player does not know about yet.

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Crossing the Forbidden, and not Breaking the Universe, and GM responsibility

Some various thoughts about Shapeshifting in the LoGaS discussion group.LoGaS

The short answer is, yes, I’ve used these (shapeshifting) rule tweaks in my campaign and in convention play. I try not to use convention play for any examples, because I feel Players in a 4 to 8 hour game that only happens once (or maybe continues) will do madcap things and make choices that are certainly NOT long-term immortal mindset.

YMMV

IMC (in my campaign), the GM is very forthcoming with OOC warnings, and impartial to Players going across forbidden lines where they might/shall lose control of some aspect of their PC. Sometimes that becomes a story about ‘getting back’ to normal once the crisis is over. Sometimes it becomes a learning experience where the PC discovers something new about themselves.

Generally, I find Players do NOT want their PC changed by the GM and so they take these warnings seriously. In conventions, I see a more mixed reaction, where the Player may see more ‘spotlight time’ if they take the chance and dance across the Forbidden. There are certainly some Players who are OK torturing their PC concept and grabbing more face time with the GM.

As I say above, I’m pretty open and informative as a GM. I consider my advice to Players as not only their own Expertise (Attribute wise and/plus immortal experience) but also I definitely want it to be more than clear that if you go into a Forbidden Art, you may find you lose something of your original PC concept. Or you may find something new and wondrous about your PC, or perhaps you’ll just be trapped in a story line about how much your PC regrets having pulled that trigger. As seems obvious in the rulebook, owning a power sometimes means living with a certain forced perception.

As the GM, I’m your partner in perception. Just like Stuff changes how you interact with the Universe, and how people tend to see your PC, I think bigger pools of power, Exalted, or Primal, or Terrifying, etc, will tend to warp your PC’s perceptions to align with the power.

In other words, is Dworkin mad, or does he just see the Universe in a way no one else does?

GM responsibility here is not to steal authority from the Player or deprotagonize him/her, but to act as the altered perception filter. This is certainly dangerous territory for the Game Master. A bit too much, and the Player thinks you’ve ruined the PC. A bit too little, and it appears the Universe rewards crazy risks with insane amounts of unearned power.

What is the guide? Most rules do not actually address crossing the line into Forbidden Arts.

I think the guide is actually story tension. The GM and the Player both want the story to have tension. It isn’t going to be fun if the choices are gone. It’s not going to be fun if the tension is gone, or if the GM keeps saying, ‘No, your new bloodlust means you attack your friends on sight’. At the same time, it cannot be ALL FUN because there are costs to breaking the Forbidden. And the PC cannot be unchanged because they DID choose to touch/claim/swallow the Forbidden.

It’s also not bad if the other PCs are now looking at the changed PC as if they are a train wreck. Story tension, in effect, for everyone.

Doors and doors, LoGaS

From the kickstarter page for Lords of Gossamer and Shadow

LoGaS

Jason Durall pointed out.

Bridging Doors. While Wardens are limited to Doors that lead to-and-from the Grand Stair, Masters know how to connect two doors in a single Gossamer world together so that they are directly linked, opening from one to another. To do this, the Master must be physically present at one of the doors to be linked (which must be closed) and concentrates on the other door to be linked. This can take a few minutes, less so with a strong mental impression of the other door, and even less with a direct psychic or magic link to the other place. These doors only open from one door within a Gossamer world to another place on the same Gossamer world. They can never bridge worlds.

Bridged doors lack the invulnerability of Doors on the Grand Stair, and they can be accessed and affected by any Warden or Master. These bridged doors are rarely permanent, and the duration will last only so long as the Master desires, usually a matter of days. Making a permanent bridge between two mundane doors takes considerably longer, a process measured in days rather than minutes.

This ability needs some thought, it can be powerful enough to break a lot of scenarios a GM might normally organize.

More later

Threats; thoughts on the LoGaS universe

LoGaSOne of the very first questions you get from GMs and Players when presented with a diceless game that uses an infinite universe as a background is, “what the hell do the Player Characters do with all this?”

You can go anywhere. You can be a legend among mortal adventurers.

What are the threats to the status quo? What do the PCs care about and why do they work together? Why would they oppose each other or another universe faction?

Masters of the Grand Stair are not harmonious…and yet they gather if the Stair is under threat. And a thousand years ago, they were united to fight off the conquering ambitions of the Dwimmerlaik.

The Lords of Gossamer and Shadow have several canon threats already revealed in products for the line. Typhonians. Dwimmerlaik.

(like Amber Diceless, the implication is that getting such powerful characters to work together requires that there is a universe scaled threat that may destroy the ‘universe as we like it’.)

Having done a first read of the two threat assessment books, Typhonians and Dwimmerlaik, I judge these are not ‘starter elements’. They are interesting and they are scalable threats, but I don’t think I’d introduce them early to a campaign. I’d pick something a bit closer to home and hold the Big Bads for later.

So what’s a good Villainous Opposition for LoGaS game start?

  • enemies of your mentor/ally
  • groups that want to restrict access to the Stair
  • groups that worship Masters/Wardens of the Stair
  • groups that want to destroy the Stair
  • worlds that are using the Stair to create empires

Again, the above list because: change is never pretty. Your PCs have power. What will such changes bring?

At Ambercon 2014, I introduced several familiar names as possible villains to the above (not recommending you do this at home):

  • Amber, the Eternal City would destroy the Stair to break alliances between shadows that might rival the Gold Circle
  • the Courts of Chaos would destroy the Stair to trap the powerful Dwimmerlaik in their various shadows

And you can get lots more cosmic with threats than those revealed so far above. Like in the famous Strange Bedfellows Amber Campaign, you could invade the universe from another universe entirely.

Villains generate story conflict that does not have to come from your PCs.

Villains

  • threaten values
  • provide common story
  • challenge PC niches
  • challenge PC choices
  • engage PC emotions
  • challenge PC creativity
  • lead to rewards/consequences

 

100 Landings of the Grand Stair

The Dripping Landings

Upon the Dripping Landings you will experience cold airs and condensation falling throughout the corridors and region.

The Doors here are surly and become time locked if a clumsy attempt to open them is made. If the novice fails to remember the latch sequence, then only a Warden may attempt the Door again in a day cycle. If the Warden should fail to open the Door with grace, only a Master may coerce the mechanism at that point.

The embedded grain of the metal doors here resemble the Rhen markings in other regions of the Grand Stair. Is there some older pattern that the Rhen copied and used? Or is this just the manufacture of these Doors?

There are no lights in the Dripping Landings. Neither do torches do well due to the cold winds and water falling. Recommend solar gems or shrouded magical lights be carried. However, if you are in the region for days, you may find the constant tones of water dripping on the stone veneers is musical.

— Black Raven rutter of the Grand Stair, early version, handwritten, metal cover.

Lords of Gossamer and Shadow (LoGaS) and canon ‘sticky’ across games

Rite Publishing is producing background material for LoGaS that includes stories, NPC descriptions and possible stats, history, tricks, tips, and etc.

This is excellent and very needed when you don’t have award winning literature to base the tone and texture of your game upon (as in Nine Princes in Amber.)  Even with the Amber material available, gaming with various GMs will get you many interpretations of the canon material. A shift of emphasis here; a tweak of cosmology hinted over there; some organizations that seem significant in one campaign that never appear in another.

This all falls into what I’ve called ‘zero dice—infinite worlds’ and is a feature, not a bug.

In Amber play, the philosophical weird of being able to find a brother, or a cousin, and yet not be entirely sure that you are talking to the Real Person is a feature of the canon.  It may or may not apply to LoGaS play for NPCs, etc., but I’ve decided that the confusion it adds is not nearly as important as the stunning immersive quality it gives the Players for the infinite worlds aspect.

Things and people on the Grand Stair are more likely real if they do and act on the things you expect of VIP NPCs.  On various shadow worlds? Maybe not so much. Shadow produces doppelgangers of famous folks. This is a subjective element for a GM to interpret.

Likewise, the actual elements of the Grand Stair are going to get descriptions from various GMs.  And this aspect, well, maybe it should not be so flexible in concept. Logistically and in presentation, it would be nice if most descriptions of the Grand Stair were similar.  However, I’m not sure — short of a small video — or sketchbook — or terrific professional prose, that we are going have such visuals to hang things upon.

So once again, Rite Publishing is providing some of this for us. Go read the reviews. The things I’ve seen are good.  Even if we had more graphical stuffs, you’d get the ‘Visual Guide to Castle Amber’ syndrome, where 75% of the audience doesn’t like the reference.

So here are things I used when playing the LoGaS game at Ambercon 2014:

  • regions of the stair have variant architecture and Doors, the regions can be small as a corridor or large as a territory of levels
  • some Doors are marked with the Rhen wayfinding codes, but not most of them (see Lucien’s Guide to the Stair)
  • most Doors have puzzle latching mechanisms
  • some Doors respond to mismanaged operation with security that makes them harder to open or locked
  • some regions do not have lighting, some do
  • the Agora, is huge and confusing, being a hub of several different regions, depending on where you are arriving from, there are surprises in the merged styles. The Agora does not seem to be as ‘themed or organized’ as the Grand Stair leading to it
  • the Grand Stair performs constant slow repairs on itself, you cannot expect marks or damage to be there long
  • trade routes inside the Grand Stair are more often used by regular shadow folk with purchased rutters for navigation, ie, folks do not ‘wander’ or explore the Grand Stair. Get in, get going, get out!

I think the project on the Rite Publishing forum where 100 Landings of the Grand Stair is listed could be a sweet resource for the community.