Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Following Up That First Session, or "Where Do I Go From Here?"

Congrats, you've just run your first Mage game and things didn't go horribly wrong! The next game session is planned, the group goes home, and... now what?

"Yay, we finished the first session and still like each other!"

First of all, before anything else, take notes on how the game session ended so you can pick up from where you left off at the start of the next session. Where the characters are, which NPCs are involved in the scene, and any other details that will be relevant to reference when you run the game again. Unless you have the world's best memory, jotting down a few notes will help you maintain continuity between sessions and helps to avoid disagreements, especially if you had to end in the middle of an encounter.

Not everything has to remain exactly the same between sessions, however. Learn from the first session to address areas that might need some work. If you're trying to go for a political plot, but your players are itching for a fight, it's time to revisit your game notes and adjust accordingly. Pay close attention to the things your players latched onto in the first session. If a player wants to learn more about a particular piece of lore, find a way to make that happen. Giving the players a path to achieve their goals will help keep them invested in the game. Be careful not to give them everything all at once, though. Don't overwhelm your players. Moderation is good for longevity.

Likewise, make sure your players are happy with the characters they want to play. If something need to be fixed on a character sheet, it's better to do that early on than it is after several sessions have passed. Let the players shift points around if they want so they can play the character they want to play. There's few things players hate more than feeling as though they're locked into a character that doesn't feel like it measures up to what they imagined.

Also, some quick tips regarding rules:
  • Are there certain rules bogging the session down as they're referenced again and again? Bookmark the ones you need to consult most often so you can skip straight to them instead of having to remember if they're on page 353 or 535.
  • Do your players ask for the book every few minutes to figure out how the magic system works? Print out a copy of the Mage Quickstart for them, specifically the rules bits so they can have their own quick reference.
  • Are there any rules that seem needlessly complicated to you? Change 'em, or ditch 'em completely. House rules are common fixes at any game table to tailor things more to your group's play style. Just make sure you stay consistent with them.
  • And always remember the Golden Rule: The rules are what you want them to be. No more, no less. They're a guideline to telling an awesome story with your players, but if they get in the way, change them or ignore them. You're the Storyteller. What you say, not some rulebook, is what matters.

Listen to Barbossa, folks, he knows what's what.

Now that we have the basics of game prep hammered out, it's time to step it up a notch and get into the details of Mage: The Ascension with the next entry. If you have specific questions about any elements of Mage's sprawling setting or rules system, drop them in the comments below or over at my chronicle thread on the Shadownessence forum!

Monday, October 9, 2017

The First Game Session, or "Herding Cats is Hard!"

OK, you've got your players, and they have their character sheets. You're all gathered 'round the gaming table (virtual or actual) and you're ready to start them on their grand adventure. You get their attention from behind your ST screen and the conversation quiets so the game can begin. All eyes are on you. No pressure.


You said it, Jen.

The first game session sets the tone for everything that follows. You're introducing the players to your style of running games, they're getting to field test how well the dots on their sheet translate into the character they want to play, everyone's getting a feel for the setting and the rules and maybe even each other if you've never gamed together before. That's a lot of first impressions to balance, and we haven't even factored in everyone's play style and player personalities, let alone character personalities and how all of this clashes in the moment.

Running a Mage game can feel like herding cats sometimes. So, here's some tips on how to bring your gaming catnip to the table:
  • Have a "cheat sheet" of minor story ideas (AKA subplots in the writing parlance) to throw at your players. Not everything in Mage has to be world-shaking horror. Smaller, street-level problems and moral quandries are especially good for the first few games, building up to the bigger stuff later on. My very first game with this new Mage group started with helping a kid who was being chased by two suited thugs, and escalated from there.
  • Encourage your players to form their own bonds of friendship. If your mages are in the same chantry like mine are, odds are good they've seen each other at least once, and may at least know each other as acquaintances prior to game start. Who knows who, and for how long? They don't need to be the best of friends right at the start, but they don't have to be perfect strangers, either.
  • Set the atmosphere. Don't forget to throw in a little something for all 5 senses. What does the night air smell like? What sounds fill the air, both near and afar? Perception and Alertness checks aren't just for what the characters see. Important clues can come in any form, from the coppery taste of blood to the squish of something under their shoes. For Awareness checks, describe that feeling of hair standing up on the back of their neck, or the power emanating from something or someone.
  • Don't have your players roll for every little thing. The rules are there to help move the story along, not to get in the way of a good time. Simple or obvious tasks don't need a roll unless there's some circumstance that would cause them to otherwise fail. For example, unlocking a car door normally doesn't need a roll, unless that player is unlocking their car door in a hurry before a Nephandi descends on them with death and terror.
  • When the rules get in the way of telling the best story possible, fudge 'em. That's why there's a screen for those running games - all your players need to know is that you're rolling dice. That doesn't mean you have to stick to that result. If you just rolled all successes on a damage roll, and that result would kill that character, scale it back to just incapacitating them.
  • And while we're on the subject of killing characters, this should never be your goal. Put the characters through hell, absolutely, but character death just because of a bad roll is anticlimactic and punishes the player for something beyond their control. Fudge those rules, or at the very least, check in with the player to see if they're OK with the character dying. Offer to have them go out in a blaze of glory, or make one last proclamation (or death curse!) before their character passes into the Great Beyond. Character death should have impact, either in-game or, even better, emotionally with the players. I still tear up thinking about the "last will" I wrote and read aloud to the group my character sacrificed himself to save.
Last but certainly not least, don't forget to have fun! Games should be fun, whether you're playing or running. Mage is a storytelling game, so as long as you and your players are enjoying the story and having a blast, that's a win!

Now you, too, can herd your own cats - er, players!

Next up: How do you follow that first session? Where do you go from there? If you have specific questions, and I mean any kind of questions about running a Mage game, drop them in the comments below or over at my chronicle thread on the Shadownessence forum!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Consent and Gaming: A "How to Run Mage" Interlude

Before the first game session, before any dice are rolled, it's important to establish a place of safety and trust for your players. That means establishing boundaries.

Back when I first started playing tabletop games, consent was not ever discussed. We were young teens playing Vampire: The Masquerade, a World of Darkness game by White Wolf Publishing. We were playing monsters in a setting that's supposed to be dark and deadly. This character is draining blood from this hapless mortal! That character just frenzied and ripped that NPC's limbs off! Rawr, edgy and dark and what monsters we are, rawr! No boundaries, this is totally a mature game setting, grow a pair and get to being a tortured soul in an evil and dangerous world!

And that's not even getting into the Sabbat vampires like this one.

As we grew older and matured, however, we understood that there are some topics that are off-limits to some people. Everyone's threshold for tolerating adult subject matters is different, and this should be taken into account by everyone around the table, especially the person running the game.

One of the first questions I asked my gaming group before we even started the first Mage session was, "Are there things I should know to steer clear of in this game, things that might make you super uncomfortable or pull you out of the enjoyment of the moment?" It's a simple but important question. What are the "hard pass" topics among your group? What would they like to avoid confronting even in a safe, controlled fictional environment? Which messed up scenarios are OK, and which are off the table? Knowing the answer and respecting your group's boundaries goes a long way toward making game night a safe and trusted place to relax and really get into each session.

If the discussion of consent isn't initiated by anyone else, speak up. Lead the charge. Make sure that your voice is heard and that your limits are respected. Failing to respect your fellow gamers in that regard can derail a game session real fast, and could cost you a player (or a friend) in the process.

Your game does not need to be Care-A-Lot, but it does need consent.

GMs, if you find that someone is starting to feel very uncomfortable with something happening in-game, it costs nothing to call for a quick break to check in with them. If someone is deliberately making someone else uncomfortable, call for a break and take them aside to ask them to knock it off. If they persist in making others uncomfortable, it's time to ask them to leave.

Players, you have no obligation to stick it out if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable in a gaming group. That goes double for your GM. What do you do if the GM is forcing you to confront something in the game that is a hard pass for you? Remove yourself from that situation and find a gaming group that is more respectful of your comfort zone.

In the end, running tabletop RPGs isn't a job, it's a hobby. A game. And shouldn't the gaming table be a place where everyone can come together and have fun?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mage Character Creation, or "What cast of characters am I working with?"

So you've got players, and you've got an idea of what kind of game you're going to run for them. Grab those character sheets and pencils, it's time to crack open the rulebook and get to character creation!

My intent here isn't to rehash what the rulebook says about creating a character. Point allocation is covered pretty well within those pages. No, my goal here is to dip into the deeper meaning behind all those dots, to get to the core of what character creation really is, especially in regards to Mage: The Ascension.

In D&D, you don't really have to get deep into who a character is, beyond picking a race and class and rolling up stats. Your elven ranger doesn't need to have an epic motivation to go dungeon-delving, and if all you want to do is roll dice and kill monsters, more power to you. But the heart of Mage is the idea that their magic powers are borne from belief and the strength of will to turn an idea into reality, and that kind of information lives in a character's concept and backstory.

Now, that isn't to say that you need an essay from each player on who their character is (although the rulebook does provide several questions for the players to answer if they want to deep dive into what makes their characters tick). It does help if they can give you a brief character concept as a basis for what they want to play. They don't necessarily need to know exactly which Tradition they want to play right at the start, so long as they know what kind of character they want to play. Does one want to play a mad scientist type? Does someone want to play a Harry Potter type mage? Does another want to play a shaman, or a neo-pagan, or a martial arts master? Once they figure out what they want to play, you can help each player figure out the details of what allows them to use magic in the game.

Once concept is in place, point allocation becomes less of grabbing stuff that looks cool and more of what supports the vision of that character idea. Not that grabbing cool stuff should be denied! By all means, permit your Hollow One player to have a raven familiar and let your Etherite adventurer have his ray gun weapon. But don't allow your Dreamspeaker player to get Requisitions or Alternate Identity just because. There should be a reason behind every dot on that sheet, even if that answer is "My DJ Ecstatic has 2 dots in Firearms because her father owned guns and made sure his teenage daughter knew how to use them."

I was lucky - even though my Mage game is online, I was able to help half of my players with character creation in person. The other two who couldn't complete this step in person created their characters over voice chat with the book on hand. This took a little longer to do, what with scheduling and all, but it all worked out and each player was able to email me a PDF copy of their character sheet for reference, along with a brief history of their character. In the end, we ended up with (below, from left to right) Vhara, an Akashayana yoga instructor; Nathan, a Chakravanti photographer; Kai, a neo-pagan Verbenae; and Alina, an ex-military Virtual Adept.

And just like that, the characters assemble and we're ready to game! If you have any questions about specific parts of the character creation system, post them below or over at my chronicle's Shadownessence thread! Next up, the first game session!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

My Thoughts on the Comic Book Adaptations of the 21st Century

In the wake of the flood of superhero TV we're getting from ABC, the CW, Netflix and soon more, I've come to a decision - I'm not going to watch anything and everything comic book related anymore.

There once was a time when I absolutely would. Gleefully. Hungrily. I'd devour comic book movies and TV show to support what used to be a very niche market, and the better of them I'd rewatch to help support putting better comic book fare in multimedia. In my teens, I watched the crappy Judge Dredd movie, then watched the far superior Dredd of a few years back several times. I've watched every Marvel movie for years, even before the MCU was an idea. I've watched every Batman and Superman movie for years, even when they were utter crap.

Now, here we are. For the most part, comic book movies are far better than they've ever been. They're not an afterthought to appease a rabid fanbase that just wants to see Spider-Man swing across a New York skyline, or mutants waging war with crazy superpowers. There's still some bad ones out there, but now they're the exception, not the rule. Video game movies still need to get there, but at least comic book movies have arrived. They're mainstream. They're everywhere, in movie theaters, on TV shows, and there's only going to be more.

So, yeah, given the glut of comic book adaptations making their way to screens big and small, I don't feel like I have to watch them all. I can choose which ones I want to put my money and time toward, to show support for the best of them as opposed to all of them. No more dragging myself through stories like Iron Fist just because I feel like I have to, a sentiment I've felt with the upcoming Inhumans show. I can watch The Flash without having to follow along with Arrow and not feel bad about it.

We'll see if others follow suit, and how comic book adaptations fare from that.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Mage Game Planning, or "I should probably figure out what my game is about, huh?"

Running a game isn't just a matter of having a rulebook, some players, and lots of dice. A good GM screen helps, too, amirite?

But seriously, it helps to know what sort of game you want to run, and what your players are interested in playing, before you start your first session.

Mage: The Ascension is a multi-layered Black Forest Cake of story possibilities, with several playable factions, diverse character concepts, and a multiverse of settings and time periods to use as the backdrop of a game. From gangs to gods, back alleys to alien worlds, and whatever else your imagination can conjure, Mage has you covered. Add to that the flood of rules, both standard and optional, provided in the 20th Anniversary Edition and you have everything you need to run any sort of game you could imagine. So, where does an enterprising Storyteller begin?

First, you should have some idea of what you're comfortable running. If all your players want to play Technocratic Union agents when you're more comfortable keeping the focus on the Nine Mystick Traditions, your game is going to have problems. Which factions are off-limits? Are you keeping things street-level, or going for more of an epic scope? Starting level characters, or more powerful characters? Are there any areas/powers that you would mark off-limits? Are there any game ideas that your players would prefer over others, or places they don't want to go in their games?

For my Mage game, I knew I wanted to run a chronicle firmly within the rules and setting established in the Mage 20th Anniversary rulebook. I also knew I wanted to use the wealth of Mage material I had collected over the years, and to introduce my players to both rules and game world gradually so as not to overwhelm the new players with everything at once. The ultimate goal, to give the game an ever-widening epic scope that the players could fall into easily, with each session pushing their characters deeper into events that would determine the fate of reality itself.

I was flexible as to faction - traditionally (heh), I've run games using the Traditions and the Disparates, but I've always wanted to run a Technocracy chronicle. I left that decision up to my players, some of whom were new to the idea of Mage, with these two options:

* M:tA - Traditions Ascendant: Mage is a game of urban fantasy, where magic is real and changes the fabric of reality itself. In Traditions Ascendant, you would play a mage of the Nine Mystick Traditions, sworn to keep the fire of ancient magic alive in a world growing increasingly tech-centric. Be careful how you work your will in public, though, lest you attract all the wrong sort of attention!
* M:tA - Technocracy Ascendant: As above, but instead of playing a Tradition mage, you would play a newly recruited agent of the Technocratic Union. The Technocracy has sworn to protect humanity from supernatural threats, and it'll take every ounce of your considerable will - not to mention advanced scientific Procedures - to get the job done. Just don't call what you do magic or you might end up on their list of Reality Deviants, too!

My players unanimously voted for the Traditions option, which helped to shape the direction of my epic game narrative. I opted for basic character creation rules, no merits or flaws to complicate things, and from there, it was just a matter of settling on a date for game.

I had my players, I had the general gist of the game I wanted to run, now it was time to flesh out more of those details with player characters! We'll delve into that in the next installment. Post any questions you might have below, or over at my chronicle thread on Shadownessence, and I'll be happy to address them all!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mage Pre-Planning, or "OK, I want to run a game, how do I do that?"

If you're a player of tabletop roleplaying games, chances are you've already got a head start on running a Mage: The Ascension game. You've got dice and pencils and character sheets and rulebooks, or at the very least access to them. You know what your ST, or Storyteller (AKA: GM, Game Master, DM, Dungeon Master, person running the game, etc.) does that you like, and you have some idea of what you might change if you were running the show.

Now, if you're totally new to TTRPGs, you have a bit more work ahead of you. Unless you're running your game over an app or service that offers digital tools to run a game - and there are several out there that offer things like a digital tabletop, voice and text chat, file sharing, die-rolling and more - you're going to want to stock up on dice and pencils and... yeah, the stuff I listed above, including the rulebook of the game you want to run. Your friendly local gaming store is just a Google search away, and those stores always welcome the business. Sure, you can find a lot of that stuff online, but I'm a big fan of supporting small businesses, and game stores are firmly in that category. Amazon isn't going to miss your dollars, I assure you.

As a side note, Mage will save you money in one area: Miniatures. Unlike D&D and its close cousins, buying and painting miniatures isn't a requirement, and neither is a battlemap for them. I know some people like that part of gaming, and I certainly have miniatures of my own that I use for my other gaming group, but Mage and its sister games are part of a ruleset that encourages more free-form gaming and doesn't want to bog players down in such rigid details as how many squares away is the bad guy and if you'll provoke an attack of opportunity from the minions around him. Having some indication of environment and clear descriptions of people and places does come in handy, though, and we'll get into that later.

So, you've got your dice, your pencils (only noobs use pen), your sheets, your books, what else do we need?

Oh, right, players!

If you're part of a gaming group, chances are good you'll be able to recruit them into your game. It's how I got my first players, by recruiting straight from my gaming group. I also recruited from friends who wanted to check out what this RPG thing was all about. Between fellow gamers and my own circle of friends, I had the beginnings of my very own gaming group. If you're OK with casting a wide net, you can usually put up a notice in your local gaming store informing other gamers that you're looking for players. Most gaming stores even have table space for running your session at the store, if you're not comfortable inviting strangers into your living room, and I've run game sessions in cafes before.

So, how does this translate to my own Mage game prep? Well, I've been at this gaming hobby for a while, so I already had dice and books aplenty, dating all the way back to Mage: The Ascension 1st Edition (and you can get just about every Mage book as a digital or print-on-demand copy from Drive Thru RPG). I wanted to game with people I already knew, so I tapped my gaming partners, as well as friends who I'd gamed with before and their significant others. Out of the 7 people I approached, 4 of them said yes. Not half bad! Since my players are scattered all over SoCal, I set up a Facebook group and Google calendar for coordination, and opted for Discord as our gaming medium.

Next we'll discuss deciding on what kind of game to run for your players, but if you have questions regarding the pre-planning stuff above, post them below or over at my chronicle thread on Shadownessence. I'll answer every question that comes my way!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Introduction to Running Mage: The Ascension, or "I've got a GREAT idea!"

"Hey, it's been a while since I've run Mage: The Ascension, maybe I'll get a group together and run my favorite game!"

The above words are how it always starts. It begins with the idea of running a tabletop roleplaying game, and ideally ends with a great story told by friends who sat around that tabletop and shaped the narrative with their own characters. But how do you get from the idea to successfully running a game?

When you figure that secret out, let me know, I'd love to hear what it is.

Kidding, just kidding.

Truthfully, I started running TTRPGs shortly after discovering them. I started out, as many do, as a player in someone else's game. I sat there as a moody teenager with my bag of dice and pencil-marked character sheet and thought "You know what? I bet I could do what that person behind the cardboard gaming screen does. How hard can it be?"

Incidentally, anyone who asks that question, ironically or not, has absolutely no idea how hard it can actually be.

Like any skill, the more you run a game, the easier it gets. I started running Mage: The Ascension games in 1997, and wow, that was 2 decades ago and I wasn't prepared for that glimpse into my own age. Ahem. In that time, I've run games for groups of various sizes, from one-on-one adventures to a table of six. I've run for players who were completely new to TTRPGs as well as veteran roleplayers. I've also played in more RPGs than I can recall (good gods, I'm feeling my age tonight) so I know how it works on both sides of that cardboard screen.

Tabletop RPGs have seen a resurgence of late in popular media. A great many Kickstarter fundraisers have centered around games, even the Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition by Onyx Path Publishing. TTRPGs can be found streaming live on Twitch channels, not the least of which is Geek and Sundry's own Critical Role and the Star Trek-inspired Shield of Tomorrow. (Incidentally, the GM who runs SoT was one of my Mage players in L.A. for several years, and he makes an excellent Akashayana character.) With their uptick in popularity, folks may want to know how they can set up their own cardboard screen and start their own roleplay sessions, and I'm always happy to share what I know.

Since I recently started a new Mage game with new players (a brief overview of which can be found in this link to the Shadownessence forums), I'll use that as the primary focus for my advice. While most of what I've learned can be applied to any tabletop game, this will specifically address complications that arise in the course of running the Mage rules, of which there are so many that a new Mage Storyteller might feel overwhelmed. I'll give insight into the pre-planning of the game, making characters, starting the first session, and more. Expect some prose to give insight into the game itself, and maybe even a few "what if" scenarios to explore options that didn't happen, but could have. There might even be some crunchy house rules that you can use as-is or for inspiration to make your own house rules.

So, get comfy! We're about to explore one of the most complex but rewarding tabletop games out there - Mage: The Ascension!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Oh Hi There...

*knocks the dust off the blog*

'Bout time I posted in here again, eh? New blog series coming soon, and here's a teaser:

It's good to be back.