Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My GMing Methodology for ToKiMo

Me: "Shortly after mid day, you hear some noise coming from behind a nearby shrub covered ridge.
Gibbous: "Doubtless more of those cowardly Kobolds we faced earlier!"
Rosco: "Probably. We should take a loo-"
Gibbous:"Ho there you cowardly lizards! Show yourselves, and let the might of St. Cuthbert judge thee!"
Me: *blink*
Me: "Um...the tribe of Kobolds is now alerted to your presence...
Gibbious: "Wait...what?"
Phoenix Dark: "I knew we shouldn't have brought the cleric."
Gibbous: "Nothing we can do about it now. Charge!"
*Gibbous charges over the ridge into the Kobold camp.*
*Roscoe and Phoenix look at one another.*
Me: "Don't worry. You two both have abilities which work from range.
Phoenix: "Phew!"

A little less than a month ago, I wrote about my GMing methodology for The Ascendant Crusade. In that post I mentioned that I run a few other games as well, including one other major campaign which I've dubbed ToKiMo for my notes. The title is a portmanteau of the players names: Todd, Kiersty, & Morrie. ToKiMo has developed very differently than The Ascendant Crusade did. When I started TAC, I had a great deal more time to devote to gaming than I do now, and in fact I still rely on many of the notes I made back in 2009. ToKiMo, by contrast, started during a very busy time in my life, with a very different group of players than TAC has.

In this post, I'd like to detail. the process I undergo in preparation of a ToKiMo game. Bear in mind that ToKiMo has only had a handful of sessions to grow and develop, so in many ways I'm still experimenting with each game. Bear also in mind that I got Batman: Arkham City yesterday, and I'm god damned shocked that I'm writing this post rather than playing it right now.

With the first session of ToKiMo, I pulled one of my favorite tricks to pull on new players. I call it the "Generic Fake Out." When I've got a group of mostly new players, I often present them with a task which is completely formulaic. The kind of task they're expecting to see: attack the goblin tribe, attack the kobold tribe, attack the orc tribe...essentially they attack a tribe of something, normally on behalf of a village which is too weak to defend itself from that tribe of something. For ToKiMo it was Kobolds, and the village was weak because an ancient red dragon had bathed it in flame on a lark.

The players were then able to buy equipment, explore the world around them, and eventually decided to hunt down the Kobold village. And, just like every other group before them, once they found said village, they charged it with swords out, arrows notched, and spells on lips. Here's the fake-out part: whatever kind of creature I pit my new players against in the Generic Fake Out, diplomacy is always an explicitly stated option. The quest giver always mentions that they'd accept a peaceful resolution, but players never go that rout. New players always have a predetermined notion of what adventure gaming is, and they stick to their script.

Once the deed is done, and the players are covered in the blood and gore of the fallen monsters, I step out of character for a moment to point out to them that diplomacy would have been an option. And that while attack the village was not necessarily wrong, it was a more "neutral" act than it was a "good" one. Most often the players are surprised, having ignored the hints about diplomacy because they assumed it was just flavor text. In the future they approach the game with more attention to detail, and a realization that they have more options than the first one which pops into their heads.

I employ the generic fake out tactic for three reasons. The first reason is to give players a taste of what they expect from adventure gaming. As a GM, it's important that I'm running games for my players which they will enjoy, but when someone has never played before, I have no idea what they'll like and what they won't. Giving them an adventure which (likely) fits their preconceived notions of what D&D / Pathfinder will be like is a good starting point for me to judge what works for the group, and what doesn't. The second, and primary reason for the generic fake out, is to help new players break bad habits before they start. Tactical Infinity--the ability to attempt anything you can conceive of--is the greatest part of RPGs, but many new players don't even realize it exists because they're applying the same logic to tabletop games that they apply to video games. And video games always have a very small, very specific set of tactical options for any given situation. By letting them go down the beaten path, then showing them that there was an easier & better option available to them, I help open their minds to the innumerable possibilities that await them. The third and final reason is that nobody expects the handful of Kobolds who escaped to show up in a later session. And they certainly wouldn't return with class levels, hungry for vengeance. (Spoiler: that's exactly what happens).

Since the first ToKiMo session, I've tried to give the players a completely different experience every time we gather around the table. With the second game, I wanted to give Roscoe, the party's hunter, some time in the limelight. I also wanted to introduce the party to the concepts of puzzles and traps, as well as give them another opportunity to creatively handle a village of hostile foes. So the mayor of the town they'd rescued in the first adventure came up with another task for them: seek out the wizard Mahudar Kosepske, and beg him for aid on the villages behalf.

The mayor was not certain of the wizard's precise location, but knew that a certain herd of wild horses would run non-stop to the wizard's location if they heard his name. This gave Roscoe an opportunity to make use of his tracking ability, first to find the herd, and then to follow it when it outpaced the party. Once arriving at the tower, Mahudar insisted on testing them before granting them an audience. The players were forced to make it through five puzzle rooms before they were able to proceed to the wizard's chambers. I must admit, I'm always worried when I make puzzles a requirement for forward motion. If the players get stuck, the GM is forced into the position of either giving them the answer (stealing their player agency, and their sense of accomplishment), or allowing them to beat their heads against the wall until they don't want to play anymore. Still, I decided to risk it, and the players easily made it through all 5 puzzles by coming up with some very satisfying solutions. Everyone seemed to enjoy the change of pace, so I'll probably be including more puzzles in the future.

Finally, once Mahudar was reached, he revealed that the spell the players needed would require a specific reagent. One which would be difficult to obtain: the branch of a tree which was struck by lightning, but did not burn. He directed the towards one, and even teleported them near its location, but warned them that the goblin tribe which surrounded it viewed it and it's fire-immune wood as a gift from their god. And also that said goblin tribe had been at war with a neighboring human settlement for generations. To their credit, my players did attempt diplomacy. They just didn't do a good enough job of it to convince the extremely prejudiced goblins to help them. And with stealth being out the window, the players opted to simply run into the village, grab a branch of the tree, and flee like the dickens.

Shockingly, through some of the most hilarious antics I've ever seen at the game table, the players managed to survive.

In our upcoming game, I'm continuing the trend of giving the players different experiences with each session. While I'll not go into specifics, the upcoming adventure includes some hex crawling, small scale combat, a mystery, a few role playing encounters, and the largest dungeon I've ever made for level 2 characters.

Should be good times!

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