Monthly Archives: September 2017

To Be a Better GM, Play This Game

10 node diagram with connecting lines

Adapted from the HipBone games board.

So, there’s an idea from Herman Hesse’s Magister Lundi of “The Glass Bead Game” which is sort of a game played out in the similarities between different and complicated things. I was introduced to the idea of it back in the the days of the mostly text World Wide Web by Hipbone Games (whose website still exists!). It was an interesting evolution of other association games I’d played, and I’d really stuck with me. I’ve written before about the glass bead game itself and some tricks for using it when GMing, but today I want to talk about its advantages in a more abstract fashion.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tactical GMing. Game books are full of great general advice, and there’s a lot of wisdom to learn from out there, but when I think about how that advice connects to the moment-to-moment decisions I make at the table, it can sometimes be hard to really explain how it works. So I started thinking about some of the games I’ve run most recently in really granular terms, and I hit upon a particular pattern.

For me, the single most useful skill for GMing flexibly and responsibly is the ability to look at a thing and immediately see the number of other things it might be.

Now, I’m sure that for some of you that sentence made sense, and you can probably skip the next little bit. But if that sounded like gibberish, let me unpack a little bit.

As an example, let’s use Superman. He’s pretty well known, so he’s a pretty easy touchpoint. Let’s say I want to use Superman in my game or story or whatever. I can do that, sure, but what if I take a moment to think about all the things Superman is:

  • An alien
  • An icon of Truth, Justice and the American Way
  • Power incarnate
  • Mild mannered reported Clark Kent
  • Nemesis of Lex Luthor
  • Impossible – no one can be that good
  • Inspiring – example of how power can be used
  • The creation of Jewish Artists

I could go on for quite some time – Superman is an incredibly rich subject, enough so that I’m confident that I missed some of your favorites.

Now, this is an interesting curiosity, and is maybe a slightly useful exercise in helping me think about how I use Superman in my game, but in isolation, this is not that helpful. But now here’s a thought exercise: Do the same thing for Batman. It should be easy, he’s just as iconic. You don’t even need to write them down, just hold a couple of truths about Batman in your head while you look at that Superman list again – do any of the items on your Batman list resonate1 with anything on the Superman list? Maybe with some combinations? One classic examples, of course, is that Batman has no powers, so any the he conflicts with Superman (Power Incarnate), that difference is cast into sharp relief. Other possible resonances might be between their beliefs, or perhaps even between their respective civilian guises!

This is, I admit, a slightly mechanical exercise. For a GM or writer who already knows Batman or Superman well, there’s no need to articulate the list because they have already internalized it, and as soon as you say “Batman and Superman”, they’re mentally looking for those points of connection. In a perfect world, we’d all have a similar level of understanding of every idea we consider, but it’s not a perfect world.

And that is where the glass bead game comes in. As a game, it is a means to exercise that muscle of seeing all the versions of a thing and how those connect to the versions of other things. As a GM, that is a muscle that you want to exercise and get strong because in actual play you are bombarded with a constant series of things that make up the game you are running. As with Batman and Superman, if you can see the constellation of ideas that make those things rich, then you can use that to connect to other things and you will discover that you are no longer reliant on ideas, because you have an excess of conclusions.

That probably sounds like hyperbole, but I’m 100% sincere. Once you get used to seeing the connections between elements, you stop feeling like you need to create ideas, and instead they become something that you discover. That is a distinction that matters a lot when mental energy is at a premium – it takes a lot more juice to go “Ok, I need a good plot for lord Pembleton, let’s think of something” than “Of course, Lord Pembleton is working with the Blood Crows!”. That “of course” has a feeling that you will come to appreciate, because it usually is accompanied by a crowd of “Oh, and also!”s because it’s all so logical.

This is probably a less magical view of creativity than is often put forward for GMs. Saying that there’s a mechanical exercise (playing the glass bead game) which can improve a technical skill (drawing connections and inferences between disconnected nodes) and that leads to better creativity in play is antithetical to some views of the universe, and if that’s you, then it’s also an easy exercise not to do.

For everyone else, please just try playing the game. Don’t just think about it. Do it. Especially with other people. Even if you are brilliant and creative and can see tons of connections, you will still have your eyes opened by what other people see. This is one of the great powers of the glass bead game – the connections it calls for are the ones that make sense to the player. Your incredible knowledge of the tapestry of classical literature is on equal footing with another players love of puns.

Anyway, beyond a certain threshold, I can only explain so much. Beyond that, it’s on you to try it or not.

  1. Ok, that is not a super technical word, and I cop to that. In the physical world, resonance is something that we can measure, but when we talk about ideas resonating, it’s pretty subjective, so to unpack it a little, ideas resonate when the idea of combining them is more interesting than any random ideas. One might reveal nuances of another, or cast another into sharp contrast. There’s a little bit of “You’ll know it when you see it”, but one of the subtle benefits of doing more glass beading is that it will help you get more sensitive to resonance, so if the idea is still kind of fuzzy now, it will get clearer with practice. ↩︎

Blackheels and Blackfingers

Another double dose!

As is traditional with the Blackheels, I had no idea what was going on, but since it’s a weekday night, I like to push a little – if the players want to go in another direction, then awesome, but I wan to make sure there’s at least one clear path of opportunity. Looking for this, I did a quick reading with my Everway deck and spun up a quick plot thread.

The Blackheels were approached for a job outside of town – a man of military bearing approached Noose (the spider) with an offer. His patron needed information from a ghost, and the Blackheels had a reputation in that space. Intrigued, the crew agreed to meet with his patron, a portly young man who – judging by how free he was with the food – had more money than sense. He was also kind of an asshole, but he was willing to pay a substantial amount (8 Coin) for the crew’s assistance. Plus, everyone was pretty sure he had not poisoned them.

The trip to the Lost District was by boat and uneventful until docking. Interestingly, I realized as we were discussing that this was technically a transport score, so I quickly sketched out a map, added a few details that made it clear each route that risks, and let the players go nuts.

They avoided the smugglers and looters, but came dangerous close to the cultists – fleeing those lead them into the bloodbugs, and then into the haunted storefronts, which ended a bit explosively as a body-hopping storekeeper ended up on the receiving end of the Cutter’s ghost-punching.

But they got to the old bank, and proceeded to look for the ghost, which is when things went wrong. A voice offered double the money they had been promised if the Lurk would remove a necklace from their employer. At first, it just whispered to the Spider and Slide, but eventually approached the Lurk directly, who decided this sounded like a great idea. The dice, however, were not with her. She succeeded, but their employer’s armsman saw it, and the violence began. The Lurk’s life was mostly saved by some retroactive sabotage on the Spider’s part, and the Cutter got hurt before the Slide & Spider bought a moment of distraction that let the hound get off a clean shot.

Meanwhile, the client had been flopping around, floating off the ground and generally having a low budget mystical FX moment. He pulled himself together, and in a rather different manner, thanked the crew, lead them down to the safe deposit room, pointed out three vaults, and encouraged them to take as much gold from them as they could. The crew had concluded that he had been possessed, and had been freed by removing the necklace, and their employer did not contradict this conclusion, and was in fact an absolutely sterling client all the way back to nearly his place, where he apologetically parted ways because, he noted, the former resident had orders that the crew be killed if they were with him (at this point the crew realized that this was young Lord Reilly, heir to the Reilly canning fortune and the breadbasket of Duskvol).

So the crew took their money and happily went home. They had been well paid (and were grateful they already had the vault upgrade), had accrued minimal heat and had picked up significant rep for “Robbing a bank in the Lost District”. And the entanglement roll was, as it had been last time, “Unquiet Dead”, so I put that in my pocket, because things are very clearly going in a direction.

Now on to the Blackfingers!

Having stolen Slane’s payroll last episode, he’d taken a loan from Lord Coleburn to fund his next shipment of plating to the fleet, so the crew’s plan was to sabotage it. We had exactly the chemical’s we needed thanks to the Jack’s downtime efforts last session, so we launched immediately into the plan.

There was some discussion of different approaches, but the crew settled on deception – Jack, Luca and Rudy would take over one of the regular deliveries to the factory, slip in that way and put the chemicals into the iron. The engagement roll came up risky, so play began with a more-intelligent-than-average person manning the gate, looking at Jack, squinting, and remarking “I don’t know you.”

Flashback to Achilles getting the gate rotation and giving Jack a full briefing on who to expect, what to say and so on (also providing an assist), revealing that this is Grace, and she’s got union sympathies. Jack spins some lies, rolls well, and the cart gets inside.

Faced with the question of how to deliver the chemicals without being noticed, we cut over to Izzy, who has blended in with the workers and takes this opportunity to begin a rousing speech about the terrible labor conditions1. She succeeds wildly, and provides a distraction (a setup) for Jack to do the sabotage. Rudy also seizes the opportunity of the distracted Slane to rob his office and pick his pocket because Rudy has 1) very little sense of self preservation and 2) The devil’s own luck with the dice (He got Slane’s paperwork and his keys). The sabotage succeeds and now comes the question of how people will get out.

The real danger at this point is to Izzy, who has drawn the attention of Slane’s legbreakers. Luca got a good read on the potential violence and made a beeline towards Izzy, attempting to shout her down. She succeeds in giving Izzy an opportunity to be ushered out, but also ends up in the midst of a violent riot that she needs to fight her way out of. Jack provides distraction by releasing the exploding goat (flashback to Achilles lecturing on the subtleties of goat detonation) as a distraction, and Luca manages to fight her way out, resisting injury, but with a devil’s bargain that resulted in a fatality.

Outside the factory, Grace confronted Izzy because she had not seen Izzy at any of the meetings, but Izzy bullshitted well, and made her escape.

In the aftermath, the crew got a little rep, some coin (they sold papers about the riot) and SO MUCH HEAT. 7 Heat. Thankfully we had started at zero due to some excellent lawyering on Izzy’s part last session, so it could have been worse. Entanglement roll resulted in Luca getting beat to crap by the Bluecoats, and that’s where our luck ran out – She resisted the harm with 4 dice, but only one stress left, and she failed to roll a 5 or 6. Luca picked up the first trauma (Reckless). Downtime was mostly training and clearing heat.

Next job was an attempt to improve situation while waiting for the iron sabotage to pay off. After some discussion, we decided to pursue the Cover Operation improvement to upgrade the Night Market Dispatch to the Duskvol Dispatch, and after some discussion of how to approach that, the score ends up being a social score to get on good terms with the Railjacks – it gives us good material for the big issue and another avenue for distribution. Achilles has connections via Lynch & Sons, and the engagement roll was a crit, so we jump past the first challenge and we’re swapping stories with the Railjacks. This leads to an unexpected realization that if we can send one of Jack’s Camera’s with with Railjacks to get photos of the Deathlands, and that smells like OPPORTUNITY! So the crew took a picture (of a railjack throwing a bottle, with the intent of showing the result to the railjack’s tomorrow.

However, while leaving the railjack bar, Jack, Izzy and Achilles we greeted by gentlemen in Imperial regalia. Izzy lied brilliantly and got Jack of the hook, but Izzy & Achilles were invited into a carriage with the a lady from the ministry of preservation, A Lady Slane (elder sister of THAT Slane) who is concerned about unionization among the Railjacks. Achilles made the case that the Dispatch’s business interests with the Railjacks would diminish union pressures. He also agreed to report on any interesting news from the Railjacks.

The photo was well received, and the crew also worked overnight to make a little penny dreadful pamphlet of one of the Railjack’s stories (and a copy sent to the ministry making a note that the coda of the actual story reflects poorly on the railroads, but that made for a boring story. The camera was sent off with a Railjack and all was good. (3 rep, 1 heat, 6 Coin)

Kristoff Edwrap, rep for the Ink Rakes, showed up as a result of the engagement roll, and the shakedown began. The Crew has agreed to roll with that for now.

Downtime was quiet. Jack built his camera, everyone else trained, and we called it a night.

  1. As a table we kind of wanted this to be a musical number, but no such luck. ↩︎