RPG Gaming Tip: If you throw it, know it.

Here’s a quick tip for Game Masters and Players alike. First, let’s look in on an all too familiar gaming scenario…

Gathered around the table for a night of Star Wars D20, the heroes find themselves cornered by advanced assassin droids. The combat has been quick and intense, it may be it for the heroes. But wait! One of the heroes has been saving something for just this occasion! Eagerly waiting until his turn, the Scoundrel proclaims, “I leap out from behind the crates and throw my EMP grenade!” The heroes cheer, the GM gives him a thumbs up…and then…silence.

Our Scoundrel quickly loses confidence, looks to the GM and asks, “umm…what’s the effect of an EMP grenade?” The GM shrugs, “I don’t know. Is it in one of the new sourcebooks?” The scoundrel isn’t sure, he’s been hanging on to that expensive grenade for two levels now. The GM does some page flipping. It’s not in the Core Book. They start checking out all the source books from Scum and Villainy to the Force Unleashed. Finally half the players are searching through books, and the other half are talking on cell phones or rummaging in the fridge. By the time they discover that EMP grenades are found in the Clone Wars Campaign Guide, the tension of the moment is far gone.

This is by no means only a Player problem. GMs are just as, if not more guilty of having to page flip in the middle of a battle (though their burden tends to be heavier). One solution, though not a very good one in my opinion, is to write the book and page number next to the item or ability on your character sheet. A far better solution is to write the basics down on a 3×5 card.

For GMs, this can be a bit trickier, since they have so many NPCs to manage. What I find works best with my own GMing, is to not overload a single encounter with different weapons and abilities. Perhaps only choose one or two unique things to throw at the heroes. If they’ve been fighting Stormtroopers with blaster rifles, next encounter throw in a Stormtrooper with a flamethrower. This one single change has a profound effect on how the PCs will approach the situation. If the PCs have been doing a lot of hiding behind boxes every encounter, it’s easy to toss in a mercenary with some grenades and the Angled Throw Feat to shake things up and get them moving! Simple changes to your game will keep things easier to keep track of, and so smoother and more fun for everyone.

The basic gist of this tip is to be personally responsible for the rules that your character(s) will use during the game.

Here’s hoping for fast-paced encounters.

The Episodic Gaming Session

Here’s an article I did a few years ago for a local Star Wars Gaming Group. I like to think it has some timeless advice that fits into any kind of RPG.

Episodic:

a word that here means something that is a self-contained part of a larger whole. In role-playing, Episodic Gaming is a style of play that revolves around fast-paced adventures that begin and end in a single session.

There are many advantages to gaming in this way, particularly for the group that can only get together occasionally.  While the suggestions here are aimed mainly at the GM, players can also learn about how they can help keep the game interesting and fun for all involved.

We’ll use several examples from the Star Wars Movies to illustrate how any gaming group can enjoy Star Wars D20 in a more cinematic way.

For our purposes here, the typical Star Wars Episode is a little too long…..actually, a lot too long. In game terms, Episodes I, II, and III are probably one campaign and Episodes IV, V, and VI another. When I write “Episode” here, think more like an episode of The Clone Wars, or any TV show that has nothing to do with people trapped on an island. We’ll actually break some of the movies into smaller “Episodes” within the film’s plot.

There are a few key elements that make an adventure into an Episode in the D20 sense. The most distinctive of which is a self-contained story. For an adventure to be an Episode, you need to have an exposition, rising action, a climax and a resolution; all within one sitting. However, since you want your campaign to keep moving after an adventure, don’t think too much about the traditional sense of a resolution. An example from Attack of the Clones:

Exposition: The GM explains that the PCs (Obi-Wan and Anakin) have been assigned to protect a Senator. They travel to Coruscant and roleplay setting up guard outside the Senator’s room until they make a Use the Force Check to notice the poisonous, centipede -like Kouhuns.

Rising Action: During this part of the adventure, the PCs have two encounters. The first is with the Kouhuns and the ASN Assassin Droid. The Second is their chase scene with Zam Wessel

Climax: The heroes have to locate and defeat a shapechanger in a crowded nightclub.

Resolution: Having defeated the bounty hunter, the PCs begin to interrogate her. Just as she’s about to reveal crucial information, she’s hit with a deadly saberdart. The PCs have been victorious in chasing down and eliminating one threat and they’ve moved a little closer to unraveling the entire mystery. With the saberdart clue, they’ve got a ready-made hook into another adventure.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that every time you game the PCs need to “meet bad guy, chase bad guy, defeat bad guy.” The point here is that they had a short-term goal that moved them closer to their long term goal.  Now that we’ve got an idea of just what an Episodic Adventure is, lets take a look at how you craft one to fit into your campaign.

Planning

GMing an adventure on the fly can be fun, but also difficult. Trying to have an Episodic Adventure on the fly can be even more so, because the most crucial element of an Episode is the short-term goal. You must to have a goal or you’ve got no adventure in the first place. It’s also awfully hard to be fast-paced when you don’t know where you’re going. The goal doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact it’s probably better if it’s not. You just need to decide what you want the heroes to accomplish by the time everybody packs up to leave. Here are some examples of short-term PC goals for an Episode:

-Rescue the princess

-Escape the base being overrun by Stormtroopers

-Defeat the Sith Lord

-Download the secret plans

-Convince the Chieftain to lend aid in the war

These goals will probably be realized during the climax or resolution of the adventure, so you’ll need to plan some other exciting encounters to lead up to it. Encounters can be basically broken into three types: Combat, Skill, or Role-playing.

Combat is the most obvious, meaning that there’s shooting, swinging, punching, and generally lots of running around and hurt feelings. As general rule, plan about 1 hour of game time per challenging combat encounter.

A skill encounter is usually the quickest, involving one to several rolls of various Skills to complete a task. It can easily involve more than one skill and more than one player. For instance, one PC distracts an Imperial Officer with Persuasion while another pickpockets his keycard with Stealth.

Role-playing encounters are the hardest to judge how long they’ll take. Though they most often involve talking to an NPC, what differentiates a role-playing encounter from a skill encounter is a choice. Sometimes an entire RP encounter is just confronting the PCs with two paths and seeing which one they take and why. Until the PCs have to make choices about how their character acts or reacts to a situation, they aren’t really role-playing. Role-playing doesn’t even have to include a Skill Check, it can simply be a decision about how they will go about their goals. Admittedly, a heavy part of the burden lies on the Players to do the role-playing. Luke Skywalker could have snuck into Jabba’s Palace and tried to commando his way through the adventure, or he could have charged the gates, lightsaber swinging. Instead, he made the Role-playing choice to walk in and try to Persuade and/or Mind Trick Jabba into letting he and his friends go. The first three words that come to my mind with Luke’s decision are this: Not. Tactically. Sound. It was, however, a bold choice to role-play a fledgling Jedi trying to change the way the galaxy does things.

One of the most fun parts of RPGs is the Stuff. Call it what you will; treasure, equipment, credits, gold, cash, gear, whatever. A sure-fire way to bog down an adventure is for the GM to stumble through books looking for neat (but not overpowered) gadgets that the PCs find lying around. With some planning ahead, you can have an easy list of what the PCs will pickup this adventure and during what encounters you’d like to hand it out. An even better idea is to have all of the stats and rules for the Stuff written on cards that you can hand out, so that the PCs don’t have to spend time nosing in books.

Fast Pace

Another key element of the Episodic Adventure is that it keeps moving. The most common enemy of a game’s pace is Rule Disputes. The bane of Gamers since Gaming began, it’s ridiculously easy to fall into rule disputes and page-flipping that will have the rest of the party rolling their eyes and pulling out their Gameboys. GMs, may I make a not so humble suggestion: once the sessions starts, YOU are the Rules. When a question comes up, its not a problem to get a quick reference from a book or a trusted player, but if it starts to hold things up, make a call. The show must go on. A good rule of thumb when making a call is to split the advantage about 60/40 in favor of the player in question. This tends to keep your players happy and your game moving. Keep in mind that this kind of power is dangerous when used to often so know the rules enough that you know how and when to break them appropriately.

One way to set your game up for a fast-paced session is to jump right in to the adventure. Think of how A New Hope begins: with shooting on the Tantive IV. With a text crawl exposition, they were ready to start the adventure with a bang. As long as the session before this one ended with some resolution, the PCs don’t always need to know exactly how they ended up weaponless in the Jungles of Rodia. They only need to know that they’re there now and that they had better get off-planet with the Crown Prince of Tof intact or there’s going to be a war.

An good way to keep your game swift and exciting is the use of enemies that are sometimes called “glass cannons.” An Ewok behind an E-Web, if you will. Have the heroes face enemies that present real danger if they hit, but aren’t too hard to knock out. This technique has many benefits. The first of which is that when the PCs take down enemies (especially a lot in one round), they feel heroic. That’s one of the main points of the game. Another is that the PCs may start acting a little different if a lucky enemy shot can cut a quarter off of their HP. Now it calls for real heroism to stand in front of your friends and take a hit. This doesn’t mean you always want your PCs hiding under tables, rather encourage them that the faster they take out the baddies, the less they get shot at. A certain amount of experimentation with your group will show you how best to use this technique.

Different from a Minis Game

One of the dangers of having an adventure begin and end in one sitting is that it could start feeling like a glorified Star Wars Miniatures scenario. Here are some tips on how to avoid having anyone compare your Episodic Adventure to a game of minis:

Switch Maps: When the PCs accomplish a goal or goals in a location, feel free to have them ride the red line to another. This really helps everyone feel like the story is moving.

Role-playing opportunities: let’s face it, other than a few of Darth Vader’s inept-follower-killing-Commander Effects, role-playing doesn’t make much of an appearance in the world of Star Wars Miniatures gaming. Make sure you give the PCs opportunities to make choices and resolve conflicts without always resorting to “aggressive negotiations.”

Emphasizing Escape: Daring escapes are a huge part of the Star Wars experience. It’s great to have conquering heroes, but those victories are even more satisfying if they occasionally have to run away and live to fight another day.

Non-zealot enemies: unless the PCs are fighting Stormtroopers, Droids, or the Yuuzhan Vong, chances are they aren’t going to fight to the last breath. Thugs run when they’re out numbered and beasts run when they’re seriously wounded. Any Bounty Hunter with a modicum of experience certainly knows when discretion is the better part of valor. It also certainly opens up role-playing opportunities when enemies surrender.

Non-combat encounters: Throw in objectives that have nothing to do with blasting, slashing or blowing something up. (Though those things should still make a regular appearance) More below.

Non-Combat Objectives

A great way for a PC to use their character in a satisfying way is to have them accomplish tasks that only a hero could. A danger to be aware of with Skill Encounters is that they usually don’t involve the entire party at once, so they should probably be done pretty quickly, or while the other PCs have something else to do (like keep hoards of SBDs off of the Scoundrel’s back while he slices the computer). Things that give a lot of flavor to your adventure without slowing it down could be:

-Fix the hyperdrive while the other PCs fly the ship or blast the TIEs in the quad-cannons.

-Distract a guard while others sneak in, or convince him that you’re a team of reactor inspectors.

-Deactivate the tractor beam while your friends rescue the princess.

-Unlock or break down a door

-Inspect a room for clues to give to Corsec

Cinematic Action

Luke Skywalker falls into the pit with the Rancor. He’s weaponless. What can he do? Run around, try to hide, smack it with a bone; so far, not very effective rancor-slaying techniques. But wait! An idea! If he can dodge past it and into the cage it came from and close the door on its head he may just have a chance. He’s in position! Throw the skull and hit the switch (probably using a Force Point, this is an important roll.) The door comes crashing down and ends the sad life of a rampaging rancor.

In game terms, a typical rancor has about 138 Hit Points. Let’s be generous and say that the door is of Colossal size and does 10d6 points of damage. Even assuming that Luke managed to do about 1d6+5 damage to the rancor with his less-than-effective bone weapon, he would need to drop the door on the rancor’s head about 5 times to defeat it. Not including the rancor’s fast healing 5. Without a cinematic resolution to the combat, Luke is in serious poodoo.

If the heroes come up with an out-of-the-box strategy, try to go with it. If the idea is credible and the rolls work out, let’em have a victory. This will encourage more creativity on the part of the PCs when they see it rewarded.

Experience and Leveling Up

One of the most frustrating things about a gaming group that can’t get together very often, is that the PCs usually end up stuck on levels for months at a time. An easy way to reward the players (and ease the burden on the GM) is to simply have the PCs gain a level after every adventure. Perhaps you might award levels 2-10 after a single adventure and levels 11-20 after two adventures. It’s up to you. Because the players know that they’ll gain a level after each session (or every other)this also has the added bonus of having the PCs ready to go for the next gaming session.

Happy Adventuring.

Dragon*Con Panelist!

This year at Dragon*Con I’ll be appearing on two panels.

Star Wars: Intro to the Expanded Universe, Friday, Sept 2, at 1:00pm in the Marriott, Room A706 (Atrium Level)

and

Mormonism and Sci-Fi, Monday, Sept 5, at 10:00am in the Marriott, Room A706 (Atrium Level)

How did I get invited to be on these panels? I was an insufferable heckler at the Dragon*Con 2010 Science of Star Wars panel. Among many other things, I had to point out the distinct differences between an E-11 blaster carbine carried by Stormtroopers and the DC-17 carried by Clone Commandos. Not to mention I had to teach one of the panelists how a lightsaber worked, explain it was nothing like a flashlight, and basically ask him to stop insulting our intelligence.

My brother-in-law’s boss from SpaceWorks Engineering was on the panel (I studiously avoided heckling him personally, for obvious reasons). Afterward, the Track Director asked for feedback from my brother-in-law and I slipped in more than a few comments of my own. The result was the Director asking if I’d like to be on some of the panels this year.

I chose these two and I hope to see you there. If I get heckled, it’s only what I deserve.