“Don’t kill my stalker… I think he’s my husband!”

Exalted didn’t happen this last weekend due to a last minute cancellation. Werewolf isn’t for another week. But I did have the first session of the new “kids’ game”. I’m not sure that it should still be called the “kids’game” now that most of them are 18, but there’s still a 15+ year age gap between us, so perhaps the term still applies for now.

Overall it was overwhelming. We had 8 kids show up. I really only thought we’d have 6, but 8 actually showed up. It was loud and a little overwhelming, especially when I had two players who were new and two players who were anything but new but were not prepared to play when they showed up. I tried some new stuff this game, so here’s my thoughts on how it went behind the cut.

The Grid Mat

As part of getting them more familiar with the rules (and by “the rules” I mean “combat,” really) I busted out my canvas grid mat, wet erase markers and some counters for the opening combat. I’d gotten an assortment of glass beads to mostly represent random people, and had the kids pick counters from a nifty PDF I turned up. (Mini review: Entirely awesome product, doesn’t print out so well in black and white.)

The set-up for the opening of the game was that all of the PCs had received an invitation to a winter masquerade hosted by the vampire seneschal. Some had solid reasons to be there, others were just fiated in. There was a rough corelation between, “How much I knew about their characters in advance” and “How much of a plot hook I had come up with.”

As an amusing aside, as soon as it was announced that the opening event would be a masquerade ball, a couple of the girls used their laptops and my wifi connection to begin shopping for dresses for their characters. And this is why I love GMing for tech savvy young women.

So we drew out the ballroom on the grid matt, used different colored beads for different classes of NPCs, used some cheap plastic poker chips to represent tables. And then after a light garnish of opening plot I had 20 heavily armed hunters burst in, launch tear gas grenades into the room and begin capping vampires in the head with their shot guns.

The combat was huge. All told it probably only lasted 4 or 5 rounds before the agents experienced enough resistance that they felt they should withdraw. They were geared up for fighting vampires. Not werewolves and prometheans.

The combat was a little illustrative of why I tend not to run a lot of combat in my games and why I don’t generally use grid mats and minis. The meta-game reason I had for having the hunters withdraw involved the simple fact that the combat took over three hours and I didn’t want to spend the entire session on this one combat. This was kind of an extreme example, since this involved all 8 PCs, 20 antagonists, a few allied NPCs and a herd of mook vampires that were mainly there for ablative armor for the PCs. This may have been the largest combat I’ve ever run. The later combat where they dealt with a bunch of leg breakers went much smoother. But overall I want to avoid the sort of game where it consists of a bit of framing plot on either end of some massive three hour combat.

Aside from it taking a long time, the kids seemed to enjoy it. It was easier for everyone to keep track of who was where and how many enemies there still were. And they loved doodling on the mat to illustrate things that happened. The second combat ran much smoother, since it was much, much smaller. So this will probably be a continuing tool in the game. If we have a day when 6 or fewer players show up, we might even be able to use it on a table. Zowwie!

Kids Tracking Details

Another new thing for this session was tasking the kids with tracking a bit more of the details. In the past I’ve usually tried to shoulder the load of knowing the rules a bit more than I maybe should. I have little patience with teaching people rules for games (a character flaw, I know) and I’ve long given the kids passes where I wouldn’t give an adult a pass. But now they’re 18, I’m trying to run a game for them that uses 5 different subsets of specialized rules… I figured it was time to get them to pull some of their own weight.

I tried a few mechanisms depending on the situation. These included:

  1. Blanket threats. I made vague threats about bad things happening to their characters and/or asking them to leave the game. I don’t know if they believed me, but most of the kids took the time to learn the rules. A couple players didn’t come at all prepared, wanted extra hand holding and were stunned when I barked at them for not being prepared and made them my lowest priority.
  2. Having a couple players track damage for everyone else. This had mixed results since the two players who’d volunteered ended up having the anti-social characters who fled combat and/or plot. They got a little bored with tracking damage for big fights they weren’t involved in. But I sweetened the pot by counting it as a “contribution” and they got XPs for it. Hopefully they will be more inclined to keep this up.
  3. Rewarding rage snitches. I sent out in advance a list of common triggers for vampires, werewolves and prometheans for what triggers their raging. Players got XP if they pointed out something that would trigger rage. They got more XP if they pointed out something that would get someone else to rage. This could have long term negative effects if people start resenting the snitching on one another. I’d like to use this for mage Paradox and Disbelief, as well as morality rolls. This will require another handout.
  4. Using tokens to represent Willpower. This was kind of a minor one, but the kids have always forgotten they had Willpower to use. It was just this sort of resource that only came up on the rare occasions when they used an ability related to it. But they were happy to have the reminder that they could get 3 more dice on a roll if they needed them.

Time vs. Story

One of the quirks of the World of Darkness setting, and this really isn’t a new quirk, is the challenge of keeping track of time related resources. I’ve almost never run a straight game of just one setting for this, so I don’t know if it’s easier when you just have one going. But when you have 5 different World of Darkness settings rolling at the same time, this can become a little burdensome. Especially when juggling it against narrative flow. So vampires lose a Vitae every night when they wake up, vampires also can’t function effectively during the day, prometheans gain a Pyros every time the sun rises, werewolves get Essence the first time they see their Auspice moon in the evening, some of the morality tracks require some degree of specific social interaction on a reliable timeline, Loci and Hallows pool Essence and Mana daily… It can be a lot of bookkeeping and to make the resource management valuable you kinda need to have something of a schedule. (I am quite familiar at this point with looking up phases of the moon online as needed.)

But then you run into the situations where a time jump is needed for narrative flow, or the vampires are shut out of play because it’s daytime or whatever. The story-driven side of me wants to play fast and loose with time in order to tell a better story. But that then negates the value that they’ve put on some of the resources. A vampire isn’t as much of a vampire if it doesn’t need to worry about where it’s blood supply is coming from. Without the phases of the moon being present, the werewolves lose that emphasis on their connection to the moon. Without that pool of resources, you don’t have players making the morally dubious choices that might come up like “I didn’t take the Locus Merit, I’m strapped for Essence and my phase of the moon isn’t for another month. I guess I’m going to start eating people for Essence. Wait, what? Harmony rolls?” While it introduces a certain level of gaming into the roleplay, it also makes you sort of agonize over those moral decisions.

There’s gotta be a middle ground for this, but I don’t know what it is. Perhaps a better way to abstract the ebb and flow of the resource pool during time jumps? WtF lightly talks about this when discussing Essence, but I don’t remember seeing it in any of the other fat splats.

Making Sammiches

A problem I ran into a few times in this game (and this isn’t the first time I’ve run afoul of it and it isn’t just something the kids do) is the situation where some of the players are involved in this really fun action going on, you turn to one of the other players and say, “So what’s your character doing?” “Um, my character’s just going to go home and take a nap.”

Now, I’ve come to learn that some players enjoy what evilandi calls “sandwich making.” They LOOOVE the day-to-day details. When their character gets food, they don’t just get food. No, they don’t even just get a sandwich. They want to really put thought into whether their character is going to use pumpernickel or rye bread, how much mustard they put on, etc.

I’m lousy as a GM when it comes to sandwich making. I can respect that talent in other GMs. GMs who can bring that level of detail to their worlds through narration can really make a setting more textured and immersive. You feel like you’re there. Not me. Nope. When players try to do some day-to-day detail because, well, that’s what their characters would do… I flail. When I look back at these situations, I can think of situations that I could have done. When someone wants to get ice cream, I can try and roleplay out the encounter with the cashier at the ice cream place, maybe introduce a mundane problem that the player could get enmeshed in. When they want to take a nap, interactive dream sequence! When they want to hide on their ships, I could have some drama come up on their ships. (“Rats, sir, the size of monkeys!”)

But in reality when those situations come up I just freeze, unable to grasp why they would want to just go off into left field and do nothing. These situations never generate roleplay or story or tension. It just generates “your character is off doing nothing while other people get story share.”

The other aspect that may have tied into this is that the players who ended up isolated had made characters that were loner types. In theory this is something I can provide pushback regarding during character creation but in reality I’m not great at spotting these problems in advance. Tie into this a tendency on the part of at least one character to avoid plot like the plague, and it was a frustrating experience.

One of the great concepts that comes up in some of indie games is scene framing, especially with an eye towards potential conflict. Some players do that of their own volition, but mostly you seem to either get players who just want to exploit the open sandbox format of roleplaying games to just wander around aimlessly and maybe do some sandwich making or you get the players (like me) who mostly just try and follow cookie crumbs of plot and aren’t very good at proactive developing of their own storylines. I’d like to have more of a scene framing approach, but I don’t want to lose that “open sandbox” dimension either. Ah, the fickle realm of the happy medium. Toss in the challenge of making the resource management aspect still viable, and I think I may have too big of a dream.

And, more than anything, I need to work on my ability to whip up relevant and engaging plot threads on the fly. Ergh.

Encountering the Random

This session I also tried to work in a tarot deck into the play. I opened the session with each player drawing a card from the deck. Despite my dabbling in new age stuff once upon a time, I didn’t immediately know the meanings of the cards. So I just noted what they drew for later reference. I only ended up drawing a card for inspiration once during the game, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. I ended up using it as being a basis for a Chandler-esque “someone comes in through the door with a gun,” and plot elements were unveiled pretty quickly. It ended up spurring me with some ideas about where to take the larger story arc in the long run, but I think if I really want to use the card draws as a source of ongoing inspiration, I may want to find ways to become more comfortable with drawing interpretations from them. Maybe spending some time on a regular basis doing tarot readings? Something to ponder.

I also need to figure out what to do with the cards the kids drew. Again with my problems prepping for games.

My Reputation as a GM for Them

As a GM for them, I’ve developed something of a reputation of cunning and evil that I don’t get when I GM for other people. I can’t decide if I’m proud of that or not. Some of this I think revolves around their continual surprise when I draw in elements from their background into the plot. They don’t have… (oh, god) 18 years worth of roleplaying cynicism under their belts. It’s still shocking for them when they write a husband that died in WW2 into their background and I work it into the plot. (Short version: His ghost is still around and his body was turned into a promethean. They have sort of a surreal buddy movie thing going on. Bwah-ha!)

On the one hand I always feel kinda lame going for the easy shots. I want plot threats to be poignant and have unexpected takes on their problems. In reality I don’t think I’m that clever. I lack that emotional IQ that makes my wife’s games really emotionally engaging. (Though I’m looking forward to the player’s reaction when it clicks for her that she can’t actually touch her husband. His body yes, him not so much. Talk about a sordid love triangle.) My games invariably end up feeling more like a Sam Raimi film than Ang Lee. Grr.

Anyway, that’s about it. No gaming for me this weekend since the wife was in town. I’ll have maybe Exalted and definitely Werewolf next Saturday. Weekend after that I’ll be schilling T-shirts and candles at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival.

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