Gaming Music, Redux

So I’m currently gearing up to GM two games in early 2011. One is a Serenity campaign with some of my school buddies, most of whom are new to gaming, and the other is a Godlike campaign with some of the Jank Casters and our friends.

I decided to do something I had never done before when playing a game and make mix CDs for all the players with songs that thematically fit the campaign.

Likewise, Megan (who is playing in the Godlike campaign) told us she’s going to burn us all a CD of 1940s music to get us in the WWII mood.

After giving the Godlike CD to the group, Timo sent me an e-mail saying he liked the mix but didn’t really get WWII from it. After bouncing e-mails back and forth we realized that we were thinking of the music in two different ways. He was thinking of music that, in effect, sonically creates the mood you’re looking to create (he mentioned particularly evocative classical music). I was thinking songs that had a lyrics about war, from different cheap cialis no prescription points of view.

It was interesting because, if we add in Megan’s mix CD, there’s three ways to think about music getting you in the mindset to game:

1) Mood music,
2) Thematic music, and
3) Setting music.

Mood music would be music that, aesthetically, evokes the kind of feelings, or whatever, you would associate with what you’re doing in the fiction. So, for example, for a WWII game you may listen to some particularly dramatic or intense classical music, like Timo said. This is what I tend to listen to during gaming.

Thematic music has lyrics which suggest the kind of thing you’re getting at in the game. So, for example, for a WWII game you may listen to songs about war or violence, as I intended with the mix. This is what I tend to listen to prior to gaming.

Finally, setting music would be music that evokes the actual setting. So, for example, if you were playing a WWII game, you may listen to music from the 1940s, as Megan is intending with her mix. I haven’t thought about this much until Megan mentioned it, although I have used it within game to create mood (playing 1920s jazz when we played Spirit of the Century, for example).

Any thoughts on this? Do you veer towards one of these or the other with music you listen to prior to or during gaming?

For the record…

Serenity Mix:
1) Firefly- Main Theme
2) Tiger! Tiger! by Slough Feg
3) Rebel Side of Heaven by Langhorn Slim
4) Rotten to the Core by The Builders and the Butchers
5) Ain’t No Grave by Johnny Cash
6) Never Gonna Change by Drive By Truckers
7) Down the Line by Jose Gonzalez
8 ) Big Iron by Marty Robbins
9) Ocean (Burn the Highways) by Lazarus
10) Lawless Lands by The Sword
11) Deadman’s Gun by Ashtar Command
12) Ringo Rides Again by Ennio Morricone
13) Rainmaker, Floodreaper by Across Tundras
14) Cottonseed by Drive By Truckers
15) Rum Brave by Murder By Death
16) The Rider Song by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
17) High Passage/Low Passage by Slough Feg
18) Alone We’ll Always Be by David Galas
19) Wayfaring Stranger by Johnny Cash
20) L’uomo dell’armonica by Ennio Morricone

Godlike Mix:
1) War Pigs by Black Sabbath
2) The Butcher’s Tale by The Zombies
3) At Mail Call Today by Gene Autry
4) Johnny Come Lately by Steve Earle
5) Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth
6) Miss Pavlichenko by Woody Guthrie
7) The Sands of Iwo Jima by Drive By Truckers
8 ) The Longest Day by Iron Maiden
9) Flags of Freedom by Neil Young
10) The Ballad of Ira Hayes by Johnny Cash
11) The Desert Fox by Instanzia
12) One Tin Soldier by Coven
13) When the Tigers Break Free by Pink Floyd
14) One by Metallica
15) I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs


Yeah. That’s right. We went there. So the episode we record on the 28th will be a Turkey-day feast for the ears called Janksgiving (okay, I’ll stop now). We’re going to talk about why we’re thankful (get it? Wink, wink!) that we’re gamers.

To make this the kind of life-affirming, tear-jerking schlock that awards committees eat up (Oscar, here we come!) we want YOU (yes, YOU!) the listeners of the Jank Cast to send us an e-mail and let us know what you’re thankful for with regard to gaming. This could be funny, heartfelt, fanboy/girlish, whatever. Interpret it how you want. We’ll then read some of them during the cast, and maybe post some others on the site.

Sound good? So e-mail us at with what y’all is thankful fer and we’ll read it over the interwebs.

Playing Multiple Characters

So in our Apocalypse World game last night, Charles officially started playing two characters. This is part of the game’s mechanics- after you improve your character enough you have the option of creating a second character to play. Vincent Baker, in the book, suggests that it’s kind of strange we don’t do this sort of thing more often as the GM plays tons of characters and it gives people more to do. He does seem to recognize some of the problems with it, though, and puts rule limitations on how any one player’s multiple characters can interact with each other.

Likewise, some of us have bene playing Remember Tomorrow by Gregor Hutton, which is another game with mechanics for you to play multiple characters. Once again, however, there are some rules based things which keep you from having two characters that only you are allowed to play at any one time, for example. You can only have one “held PC” (i.e. a PC that only you can play) at a time- all other PCs are collective.

This has struck me as interesting. We barely touched on Charles’ original character Raf at all last night, concentrating almost entirely on his new character Ruby. Part of this was because Raf just wasn’t near the epicenter of the action, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Raf drifted a little further from the action from here on out as Ruby is, frankly, a bit meatier of a character for Charles to play, and has been immediately more able to ingratiate herself into what’s going on.

So is playing more than one character advisable, or will it inevitably end up with one character outshining the other? Likewise, can you only do it in storytelling type games? Baker’s interaction rules (which I think are spot-on) seem to suggest that having a player have two characters who either help each other out a great deal or interact a great deal is problematic. Mechanically, it makes them too able to cheat, in effect, and RP-wise it means we all have to sit around and watch you role play out an interaction with yourself.

I think that if it’s going to work, the story has to have multiple plot lines and sites at any given time for player characters to be split between. Our APOWO game has three main locations, and Charles’ characters are in two different ones and have little chance of interacting a great deal. However, if we were playing, say, D&D and there was someone playing two people in the same party, I feel like it would shake out in a weird way, where either it would just mean that person got an extra turn in combat, or something, or they were constantly having to interact with themselves, which, see above, no one really wants to see.

Any thoughts? I almost feel like there’s a whole game here. Like Fringe the RPG where people play multiple characters in alternate dimensions who affect each other but don’t have a lot of face time with each other.

Off the cuff GMing advice

So a friend of mine asked for some basic GMing advice. He’s going to be running his first game soon. I thought about it, and then wrote the following up. Please note that I don’t think I’m an expert, just someone who’s GMed a few games. This isn’t meant to be authoritative nor exhaustive of all possible advice in any way shape or form. The real reason I’m even posting it is because I’m interested in what people like and don’t like from it, as well as because I spent an hour on it, so I kind of feel like I want to get more milage out of it than just an e-mail to a friend. So here’s my basic GMing advice to a noob. Feel free to post your advice to people, or anything you might disagree with on this, in the comments. I’d love to get a discussion going.

The number one most important thing to remember when GMing is that you’re not telling a story, per se, but enabling a group of people to tell a story together. It’s a crucial difference. This means that you have to think about the following:

a) Let the players play their characters (i.e. don’t tell them how they feel, what they should do, etc. Let them decide that stuff).

b) Following this, let the players do what they want, even if you didn’t expect it and it breaks what you thought was going to happen (gamers often call it “railroading” when you just push the players through a pre-determined story without letting them “get off the tracks” so to speak).

c) The players, speaking of, are dropping you MASSIVE hints about what they want to see in the game with their characters. A character is a mental projection into a fictional world by the player, right? So if they say “I have a huge sword, and a machine gun, and nightvision goggles,” what they’re really saying is “I would like to use a huge sword, and a machine gun, and nightvision goggles, so drop me in situations where I can use them!” More on this below.

d) Don’t have an ending in mind. I’ve seen Vincent Baker, who I think is a good game designer/theorist, call this “playing to see what happens.” It’s a simple idea, but it’s actually hard and counterintuitive. Intuitively, we have a story we want to tell. We want to be in control. We want to know what’s going to happen. Everyone has more fun (including the GM), however, when you play to find out what happens.

Some examples of these ideas in action:

1) My friend Rob just GMed a short, but intense campaign of Unhallowed Metropolis that I really enjoyed. It was his first time GMing (I’m pretty sure, at least). The first sitting was kind of rocky Not bad, just rocky. He was doing good, but he had a tendency to tell us what we were feeling or doing. This is a very common mistake (I do it all the time). For example, my character, who we had established was somewhat sleazy but also had a stable relationship, was hit on by woman while walking at night who wanted them to go back to his place for some gettin-it-on. My gut reaction was that Enzo (my character) would be a bit suspicious of this and conflicted given his relationship. Rob, however, kind of forced me to go with her. He basically said “she grabs you and you follow her back to her place because she’s so beautiful.” I felt a bit robbed of agency and frustrated by this.

HOWEVER, by the very next session, he totally turned it around- he let me and the other players have a fairly long time (about 20 minutes) to just free role play with each other and develop our characters pretty early on in the session. He got a lot better at asking us how we wanted to do things, what we thought of things, etc. The game became instantly more interesting and fun, and remained that way.

2) What do the players want to see? A while ago, I GMed BASH, a super-hero game. We played the first session the same day we created characters (which is common, obviously). Because of that, I had a lot of stuff planned out before I could sit down and think about the characters. There was nothing wrong with the first session, but I don’t think I played well to their strengths. The group really wanted to do secret-agenty, subterfuge kind of stuff. This was indicated by the powers they took, the personalities they developed, the items they had, etc. Almost no one created a character like The Hulk or Superman, or something. They were all more like Rorschach, The Punisher, and Wolverine- more outside the law, more about sneaking, backstabbing, etc. The first session, I threw enemies at them in a head on encounter right away. They did okay, but it wasn’t too exciting. The second session, I took this into account and let them decide what they wanted to do at the beginning. They wanted to sneak somewhere and break someone out of a mental hospital. The third session began the same way. They had WAY more fun doing that, and only got to do it because I paid attention to what they were telling me they wanted to do with their characters by thinking about what their character sheets said.

A character is a tool- you want to give the players ways to use it that are fun to them. There’s nothing more frustrating than designing a character who’s real good at sneaking around and picking locks, then having the GM drop you in a big field and say “okay, fight this dragon.” You have a screwdriver and someone is telling you to pound in nails with it.

3) With the “playing to see what happens” thing, the best way to approach it is to imagine that you’re not writing a “story” or a “plot” but that you’re writing a setting and characters, so to speak. The plot happens through play. I did this poorly when I ran a game of Starblazer Adventures. I definitely had a lot “plotted out,” which often meant that the characters were just sort of running through my story. At that point, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a good story or a bad story- it tends to become routinized and boring. I could feel some of the players not getting to use their character in the ways they had wanted because they weren’t being put in situations where what they could do was useful. They were too much on the rails. It wasn’t a disaster, by any stretch of the imagination. We definitely had fun, but it didn’t pop like other games I’ve played. Everyone’s favorite scenes in that game were when they just got to free role play a bit. I did this much better in BASH, the superhero game, and the Dust Devils game I just ran, where the characters had a lot more freedom to interact with the world and with NPCs.

Here’s how to do all this, from my vantage point:

1) Know the player’s characters. Take some notes on them. Have those notes ready to refer to. Think about how you can work their talents, personalities, items, etc. in.

2) Ask a lot of questions. Ask the characters “what do you do?” “How do you feel?” “What do you think?” “Where are you going?”

3) Work with your players, not against them. You’re all trying to create something together. There’s no “win” or “lose.” The GM will always “win,” if you think about it like that- The GM can always just say “a million spaceships appear and attack you” or “a building crumbles onto you and you die” or just “fuck it. Game over.” Because of this, there’s no reason to think about it as a competition. This doesn’t mean let the players do whatever they want or not challenging them, but it does mean working with them to create something interesting.

A lot of gamers call this “consider yes” playing. Rather than saying no to your players, “consider yes.” BUT make them face consequences. If someone wants to do something that you think goes outside of what makes sense to you, rather than just saying no, think about what you can do with it. Make them make a choice: “of course you can kill the Big Bad right now, but you’ll have to get closer to him, and you’ll leave your injured friend defenseless.” The aforementioned Vincent Baker says “say yes or roll dice” in Dogs in the Vineyard, as in you should be saying “yes” to everything, unless your ready to go to the game mechanics to find out what happens.

This is also a great way to deal with players being unreasonable or unserious. If someone wants to do some kind of macho action-movie shit that just doesn’t make any sense outside of “check out my character being a hilarious bad-ass,” rather than saying “no,” say yes, then use the mechanics of the game to make them make hard choices. “Yes, you can surf down a crumbling building on a piece of debris. Roll to see if you stay on. You don’t? Okay… you’re going to take a lot of damage, and, on top of that, now you’re pinned under a bunch of rocks and the villain is approaching you. Roll to see if you can wriggle free before he get there.” That sort of thing means that each roll has consequences which force interesting choices to be made. Therefore, if you’re not ready to make those choices and face those consequences, don’t take the actions that require those rolls.

4) Speaking of mechanics… know the rules, but don’t be tied to them. Being quick and fair is better than being accurate. Your players want you to be authoritative on the rules, but no one wants to watch you sit there and flip through books for ten minutes to find some esoteric rule. Make something up if you don’t know, just make it feel right. The important thing with the rules is that you make them count- when the players roll it should mean something and change something. It should give them an accomplishment or give them something new to deal with,

5) On the “don’t write a plot or a story, write a setting” thing: I pulled this off well in my BASH game, not so much in my Starblazers game. In BASH, I came up with a bunch of interesting characters, a few major events, and a bunch of places, then let my players run with it. Instead of knowing “what happens” try to know “what will happen if…”. See the difference? Knowing “what happens” is “this happens, then this happens, then this happens…”, whereas knowing “what will happen if…” is “if they talk to this guy like this, he’ll do this, but if they go here, this will happen, but if they don’t do anything, this person will die…”. That kind of thing. Your players will feel more in control, and it allows for a cooler story. A good way to do this is to have rich NPCs. I like the seven sentence NPCs formula.

By knowing an NPCs values, motivation, interaction style, etc., you’ll be able to react with them as a tool in the world, meaning that you’ll have a character driven story which will be interesting. In the Starblazers game, I had some cool characters, but it was mostly plot driven (this happens, then this happens) so the players often didn’t get to interact with the world as much as I would have liked. When they did, however, those parts of the game were often the best parts. It should feel sort of like structured improv, almost, as you play.

6) Following this, story and play should be emergent. It should come out of the interaction of the people at the table. To use an example, I designed my character in Unhallowed Metropolis to be a self-righteous political type. In play, however, he wound up taking the role of someone who was comically self-agrandizing despite being somewhat naive and useless. This led to interesting interactions with the other characters and, ultimately, a cool ending for him and his sister, one of the other player characters. This comes out of the actual interaction between the players, which means you have to give people time to free role play and allow them to develop over the course of a campaign.

Making the fiction emotional as opposed to the metagame

So Dave who was on our Fiasco/Zombie Cinema review cast just posted this to his facebook page. I thought it was a good read.

I think the best thing about it, though, as I responded to Dave’s post, was just the idea of thinking about the characters vs. the players. The best thing you can remember as a GM is that, in most games of this style, you’re enabling the players to tell their story as much as you’re telling your own story.

Here’s the chart of it:

GM -(enables)> Players -(to Create)> Fiction -(using)> Characters -(with the)> GM

In words: the GM enables the players to create a fiction using their characters with the GM. The GM’s tools are the world, the NPCs, and the mechanics. The players’ tools are their characters, their character’s backstories and connections, their character’s stuff, and the mechanics. These tools, however, are all tools that everyone has access to, but that’s the way their generally broken down.

To me, the big question here, with regard to villains, is whether or not the actions of the villains advance the player’s fun/desires/story as well as or above the GM’s fun/desires/story. That doesn’t mean making it super easy on the players or letting them do whatever they want, etc., but it does mean letting them get what they want out of the characters and letting them have interesting relationships with the villains.

For example, in the “taking their stuff” comment, I think Rob makes a good point: when a villain “takes something” from a character, does it advance the story that the GM and the players are creating together? If so, then the player will probably be psyched to go get it back. I know I would. Conversely, does it take something cool about the character away?

Example- Player: “My character has this awesome sword which her father forged for her out of a dragons claw.” GM: “Now she doesn’t. Now Smidely McEvilwizard, the Big Bad, has it, and he’s using it against you.”

The problem with this is that the hypothetical player obviously felt that this sword was important to her character and now she doesn’t have it, and not in a cool “I must quest to retrieve it” kind of way, but in an arbitrary way. It’s kind of the whole thing about how what the players put on their character sheets is a way of telling you what they want to see in the game, right?

The “outshine” example Rob gives has some of this too. It seems a lot of this boils down to remembering that your players want to craft a cool fiction where, most likely, they do interesting, exciting, meaningful, important, or emotional things. They are usually dropping you huge hints on how they want to do this by how they create their characters. Your players will love to hate your villains if you work with them to create the fiction as opposed to against them. If you work against them, they’ll see the villains as Mary Sue manifestations of yourself in the game, and they’ll probably be right, and they’ll hate them in all the wrong ways for it.

Works Cited

When I GM’d BASH, I decided to give my players a sort of “works cited” page, that included the movies and comic books I was drawing on for inspiration (The Dark Knight, Ex Machina, Watchmen, and the new Batwoman run being prime examples).

As I run Dust Devils right now, it’s occurring to me that I probably should have done the same thing.

I think the main inspirations are Once Upon a Time in the West, from which I got the whole fight over a farm thing; Unforgiven, from which I got the gunfighters at the end of their career thing; Death Rides a Horse, from which I’m pulling some of the relationships from; and Keoma, from which I’m getting the whole big man quietly rules a town thing.

Visually, I’m drawing on the western ptotographs of Ansel Adams and Craig Varjabedian. If the game can feel how those photos look, then I’ve done my job.

Musically, we’re rocking Earth, the soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption, and a bunch of Ennio Morricone stuff while we play. I think it’s helping to keep everyone in the right frame of mind.

Either way, the point is that I kind of like this whole “works cited” thing, and I think I’ll keep using it for future games. I’m obviously drawing stuff from SOMEWHERE, so I might as well let the players in on it so we can all be on the same page.

Dragonlance Cartoon

Holy crap is this insane. It’s like the entire A-List cast involved owed someone some kind of crazy favor.

Edit: I’m still watching it. It just gets worse. Everything about it is embarrassing. They combine CGI and regular animation in the most hamfisted way possible. It might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

I mean, look at this garbage.

Edit: HOLY CRAP! At the wedding scene at the end, it shows people making merry and all, and right at the front of the camera is a seriously old man making out with a seriously young girl. Then they cut back to it again. Thanks jerks. I needed that image.