Friday, April 27, 2012

Organized Play People: Talking to the Admins about GMs

When I started this whole thinking process few weeks ago, I had an idea and I wanted to see whether my master plan could be applied to all products. However, as the conversation evolved and more input was added to it, what I came to realize was that with the variety of organized play campaigns out there, nearly every play style was catered to and the variety of systems and campaign goals was pretty wide.

Now, different campaigns mean different strokes for different folks, and the can only benefit the community in the end. By making a comparative presentation, it is my hope that you, my readers, can find and promote locally the OP campaign that you prefer. We talked about Organized Play in a manner that was system-less, focusing on game play and what GMs were allowed, not allowed and methods of empowering them to allow them to shine.

This conversation took place between the following people appearing in alphabetical order. Many of whom you will recognize from previous chats on this blog, and a few new faces. They are all known faces and names in the field of Organized Play campaigns.

Teos Abadia (Ashes of Athas) Interview

Jay Babcock (Living Divine) Interview Part 2

Kitty Curtis (Legends of Arcanis) Interview Part 2

Cory Mills (Legend of the Five Rings) Interview Part 2

Steven "Bull" Ratkovich (Shadowrun Missions)

Pieter Sleijpen (Living Forgotten Realms) Interview (with Dave Kay, former campaign admin)

James Stepanek (Serial Pulp) Interview

When I started this whole thinking process about two weeks ago, I had an idea and I wanted to see whether my masterplan could be applied to all products. However, As the conversation evolved and more input was added to it, what I came to realize was that with the variety of organized play campaigns out there, nearly every play style was catered to and the variety of systems and campaign goals was pretty wide.

Now, different campaigns mean different strokes for different folks, and the can only benefit the community in the end. By making a comparative presentation, it is my hope that you, my readers, can find and promote locally the OP campaign that you prefer. We talked about Organized Play in a manner that was system-less, focusing on game play and what GMs were allowed, not allowed and methods of empowering them to allow them to shine.

This conversation took place between the following people appearing in alphabetical order. Many of whom you will recognize from previous chats on this blog, and a few new faces. They are all known faces and names in the field of Organized Play campaigns.

Overall

Although in different ways, everyone agreed that the goal of this is to provide a fun experience for everyone involved. The how varies, but that is the obvious end goal. Talking with these guys really bring out their passion and really makes for a dynamic conversation to say the least.

Everyone strives to make their campaign unique and successful. This is where I see a lot of variety and really opens makes it so that we - the players - get to pick and choose campaigns we like best.

One thing that came up multiple times was the "GM who ignores whatever is written" and run his own version, completely ignoring the adventure. This subject was heavily debated without a solution that really satisfied everyone. Although this happens in every campaign, I believe that this is the minority, that most GMs do a good job or running and keeps changes to a minimum and keep closely to the written script.

The Two Parts

Two elements really popped that I think we should separate that in their own word, every campaign administrator separated.

First, the Fluff, or the story itself has almost everyone agreeing that all major story points should be kept unchanged, or altered as little as possible. These points, in campaigns that focus heavily on a bigger story (I'm thinking of Living Divine and Arcanis), can really hurt the campaign (and the player's involvement) if the PCs fail to learn or experience a critical event.

Second, the Crunch, the crunch or system-specific numbers (things like hit points, armor, number of monsters) see more versatility and GM freedom. Some campaigns prefer to keep it simple: run as is; others give GMs near total freedom while a third group provide the GM with guidelines on how to adjust (either in the adventure or in their campaign documentation).

But don't take my word for it. Here is what THEY had to say about it.

Steven "Bull" Ratkovich

The general position is: "In the Gamemaster we trust". We have to put our faith in our GMs to do what is best for the adventure and for the players sitting down at the table. And if that means changing things up to handle whatever the players bring to teh table, so be it. At the end of the day we want to provide a challenge to the players, but we also want them to have fun. And if it's not fun, then we (both the Gamemaster and the Missions development team) have failed.

Our guidelines are simple.

1. GMs should hit all the major plot points in the adventure, even if they go "off book" a bit. Seasonal Missions are designed to be complete adventures by themselves, but they serve as part of a larger storyarc as well. So we encourage GMs to play out all the major events, so that players don't miss out on anything.

2. Players get a Debriefing Log at the end of each adventure that the Gamemaster should sign. on this Log the GM should note anything major that happens "off book", so that later GMs can see it and incorporate it (or at least know that the GM really DID let them steal an attack helicopter).

Teos Abadia

We ask DMs to stick to the adventure's plot and to not rewrite the adventure (don't put in new encounters, don't change the monsters, etc.) but you can play with how many monsters you use, etc. In AOA the text of the adventures really allows for whatever is fun - that's the real goal. If it isn't pleasing your table, don't do it. We expect home play DMs, for example, to often hack up the adventure and do different things, and that's ok. We see pretty wide improvisation at cons, which is cool. Because in AOA rewards are specifically tied to the adventures and chapters (you level every chapter, you only earn what is specifically granted) anything else they do is just for fun.

With Ashes of Athas we took DME a bit further (than LFR) by more formally writing it into the player and DM guidance documents, plus making it clear in each encounter that the DM can make alterations for fun. We do this by first stating the intended challenge level of the encounter, then suggesting various things DMs can do, including several suggestions to scale the difficulty. It becomes really clear that it is up to the DM to create fun play. We're very happy with how it has gone and continually increase this aspect. We have recently had adventures where there is mapless combat and the DM is encouraged to play around with the particulars, for example. So yes, our DME policy has absolutely been something that influences our design and that of our authors.

Kitty Curtis

Arcanis has judge empowerment and common sense. Stat-wise, do whatever is going to be the most fun for the players. If the players are going to completely wipe out an encounter which is clearly supposed to be a challenge, and the group really enjoys combat, the judge should ramp it up. If it was supposed to be a routine encounter, but due to mustering they are having a hard time with it, the judge should bring it down. This is stated explicitly in the core rulebook, the Bestiary, and our Campaign Guide.

Plot is where we are sticklers, especially in our core story line. The core story line has a *lot* of foreshadowing, but some of it is pretty subtle, so a judge who hasn't read the entire story arc isn't necessarily able to tell what can be swapped out.

Jay Babcock

Living Divine is particularly niche, and all of our content is heavily vetted to make it uniform with where we want to be. When a player sits down at one of our tables, they have a reasonable expectation of what they are getting. I find it makes our crowd of 'customers' smaller, but happier overall.

A judge at any given table doesn't know all of our intentions, our symbolism, the history and content of every scenario. It's just not possible. If they start improvising a whole new scenario, they're likely to break some of that. To this end, our Gamemaster Guide lays out what we expect: If it's in the scenario, play it as is. However, there are section of the scenario that are left intentionally skeletal (for instance, you're at point A... get to point B, then point C). Those are for you to improvise. Just don't mention mimes and clowns, or energy drinks, as their appearance is tied tightly into our symbolism.

One of the big things with LD is color. Color *never* appears in an LD scenario, unless it is meaningful, and only in the context of living immortals. If the text mentions two NPCs having a staredown, one dressed in all white and the other in all black, there is special significance there. Now, traditionally, that would be a good guy and a bad guy squaring off... but, in our world, white signifies control, and black the unknown... so, that's more likely the current ruler being challenged by an unfamiliar opponent.

Now, if a judge starts adlibbing, and adds in all sorts of color references, that breaks down. It implies meaning that isn't supposed to be there.

Combats: the biggest problem is again, a lack of knowledge about our intent. A judge may see a combat against a squad of stormtroopers as life-threatening, and may softball it, so the PCs don't risk death. But what if the point of that combat was to convince them to run when they later run into a larger group of them?

Pieter Sleijpen

For me, the biggest argument not to meddle too much with actual fights is that sometimes players like to brag a bit/feel rewarded for their choices (especially when they are niche choices) and modifying fights on the fly to get the proper challenge does invalidate the choice of players somewhat. Hence I pay close attention to why something is making something particular easy or hard and how much influence players have over those factors. It is one thing to keep things as is when the players lack burst attacks with a home group that always play together, but another when you are running that same adventure during a convention for a last minute table where two people joined so that 3 people with a ticket can actually play. Making such judgment calls at a convention is hard though, and in that regards, I seldom make them since chances are that indeed the designers/developers did a good job at their intended challenge level ;) Still, each time I hear a DM tell he dazed the same PC over and over because he kept rolling that 5 or 6 on the recharge dice and that PC was known to be the most effective to the monsters I cringe.

Now that I gave my personal opinion. The official opinion for LFR is not too different, but there are rules in regards to what can and cannot be changed (you can find those on-line btw). You can add/remove existing monsters, you can definitely play around with tactics. You cannot redesign monsters, or add new monsters (whether as an addition or replacement).

It should be noted that even though GMs abusing DME are relatively rare, it is apparently common and extreme enough for two major organized campaigns (LFR and Pathfinder) to change their rules and take a stricter stance. In LFR the reason was definitely that a few people did some very extreme things at large public conventions that forced us to change the rules.

Cory Mills

I know that basically every GM runs their adventures/modules/encounters/everything differently from every other GM, and while the official modules for the campaign are written fairly specifically in terms of mechanics and interaction, I honestly think that it only matters in the context of the campaign as a whole. Essentially, if a GM completely changes an NPC in a module to fit their table better (or because they have a creative idea, or they don’t get the intention of the NPC, or for whatever reason), it only really matters in as much as that NPC may appear in future modules. It is highly recommended that the GMs make clear to the players after the module any changes that they made, so that the players understand what the rest of the campaign is dealing with, but I don’t think it’s possible to police every single table. And, as much as I would love to, I cannot run every single table personally, so it is absolutely imperative that I trust the GMs to run the mods for their groups.

Ultimately, if the players have fun, the game is a success.

James Stepanek

Serial Pulp, being rather small has some luxuries that other campaigns don’t have. Our pool of GMs is selected by me, and I know them well. They are all very good, and are capable of dealing with things on the fly. Also the fact that it is a focused RP campaign, with a general sentiment that killing PCs is highly discouraged sets a different tone. All of this means I trust my GMs to ramp things up if necessary but still keep it in line. The modules are generally written with this assumption in mind. Combats are generally written in such a way as to be adapted to party size and composition. Encounters do not have hard scripting.

Given how people build characters (often almost completely combat ineffective), it’s necessary to grant that kind of flexibility to the GMs to adapt on the spot. Were the campaign to be a lot larger, and with a pool of GMs that I would not all know, I can’t imagine it would work. In some ways it’s pretty hard on GMs, but we’re lucky enough to have the people to pull it off. I think part of that luxury comes from how Doyce set the tone when he started the campaign, and as long as someone is familiar with the campaign, they will likely be capable of running it and keeping that tone (given as certain level of GM quality).

A conclusion?

When I started this I thought that we could wrap something up, all agree on something, but the more the conversation went on, the less I believed this could happen. That what works for one campaign may not work for all of them. There is not even big vs small cohesion, D&D vs. Non-D&D settings.

And thinking back on it, that's a good thing!

It means that when you play one campaign, you submit in to a certain paradigm that may or may not apply in another. It gives options. It gives variety. It makes it so new ideas always come into the pool. Organized play campaigns are not one-size-fits all, they are tailored to the personality, likes and goals of their administrators - and their players. While you may or not like something about one campaign, you may find something else to your taste. For example I've been bitching about Arcanis' D12 initiative on which I am starting to come around (but don't tell the PCI people). Similarly I'd like to see Pathfinder Society have a more involved storyline, like Arcanis. But at the same time, it makes me miss those elements and bring me back to them when I play other things.

And that really gives our hobby - and its organized play culture in particular - a unique vitality, a dynamism that is unique in its uniqueness.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion, let's keep the lines of communication open. I found the discussion extremely interesting.

I am very grateful that everyone in these campaign works so hard to bring ME a lot of options to play and participate.

You really didn't think I was that altruistic, did you?

JP

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