Rocket Science

Have Adventure, Will Travel

This is in spirit of “note to self”: portraying travel is a weak spot for me, so I keep trying to figure out how to do it better. This is what I think about it today.

My particular weaknesses:

  • Turning distances into mush.
  • Making travel something that doesn’t involve much player input at all once started — or worse yet, a monologue.

Things I might be able to do to fix this:

It’s Time, Not Distance. I should keep an eye on how long the trip takes, not how long it is on the map. I should really maintain a matrix of destinations so I can keep things consistent.

Keeping It Either Fast Or Playable. I should either keep travel something playable, or make it snappy. “Week later, weary from the road, you arrive.” at least has the advantage of being over fast. Making it playable can mean anything from a hexcrawl to simple roadside events that players can react to: strangers to meet on road, drinking games they teach the characters, bad food, broken gear, topics of conversation, etc. Those are all things you can engage with, unlike the weather or another bloody sunrise over the desert. An old-school hex crawl might not be to everyone’s taste, but at least it engages the players.

Normally I’m a decent improviser, but since travel is a weak spot I should probably prepare some lists of roadside events for my games beforehand. I should think about possibility of using hexcrawling for my Guild of Dungeoneers game — not just now yet, but should the game ever move its focus outside the Caverns of Thrachia

Have a Man Come Through the Door With a Gun in His Hand

Possibly the single most important lesson I’ve learned about running games — one of the big ones anyhow:

When the game starts stalling, get things moving. Immediately.

Just be careful in what you define as stalling:

  • Everyone is talking to each other, but not actually doing much: probably not stalling.
  • Everyone rolling dice to see if they survive is the wilderness: might be stalling.
  • Conversation petering out because everyone is out of ideas: almost certainly stalling.

How do you get things moving? There’s a brilliant Raymond Chandler quote that sums it up:

“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

As a less drastic option the phone can ring or a message may arrive: both are excellent ways to nudge the characters, or inject new energy to inter-PC conversations.

Don’t try for subtle unless you have a superb idea. I think it’s better to have almost anything happen than allow the stall to continue: the longer it lasts, the harder it is to recover. Drop a piano. Burn the building. Have a man enter with a gun. Anything.

’tis better to have played without cliffhangers than to not to have played at all…

Scheduling conflicts are the bane of games. Even if everybody is excited about the game, it can be sometimes hard to find a day that works for everyone.

But there are solutions!

Schedule well ahead. Make sure there is are always 1-4 dates fixed for the game. First thing every session, schedule a new one. Simple in theory, but it can be hard for some people to commit to a game a month or two ahead. Still, if it works it’s great.

Play with a short table. If you have five players, but are willing to play when just three of them can make it, the odds improve drastically. Assuming you’re not playing a sequence of one-shots, you will need to consider how to preserve continuity in the face of variable cast — but it can be done. In some games it’s surprisingly easy to explain away why NN isn’t available right now. In some you have to think about it a bit. Meta-rules help a lot: a common agreement to just ignore the any minor inconsistencies caused by variable cast, and a westmarchian rule about always ending the session in a stable* situation gets you pretty far. Sure, you’ll miss out on cliffhangers, but it’s a small price to pay.

[* Stable situation being eg. “You’ve arrived back in town and split up for some R&R”, or “Next week passes without excitement.” — adjust to fit the context of the game.]

Get a big cast. If you’re willing to play with a short table, you can make scheduling even easier by adding more people to the mix. If you have over 10 potential players, the odds that at least a few of them can make it on any given day are pretty good. Aside from continuity issues, you need to decide what to do when there are more comers than seats. I’ve used two methods:

  • Say how many seats there are, and give them out on first-come-first-serve basis. It’s simple and it works, but if someone who’d really like to play but has a tricky schedule keeps getting bumped out of the queue … you might want to make special arrangements. It’s not rocket science.
  • Keep track of how long it has been since they last played, and how many games they’ve been in. Give preference to those who’ve played less — or played the most but with the longest interval in between, or whatever you think best. This is much more like rocket science, and like rocket science takes some work. :)