Man, I need to tell you about my week. On Sunday, I committed to running 20 hours of RPGs for middle school and highschool kids. Boy howdy, did I learn a lot. And here is my attempt to capture my week’s activities, lessons, and reflections.There were a lot of other things I wanted to do this week, but as I’m one of our FLGS’s head GM’s, I figured I needed to be involved in this new style of convention we were hosting. We didn’t run it, just provide the space and asked our list of GMs to participate. I wanted the information for future such events, and, recently at liberty once again, i figured there’d be no harm in volunteering for all four days.
GameOn was set up to be Tuesday through Friday, from noon to five. I was leery about the time slot. I still am, really. Five hours is a looong time. My standard D&D sessions are normally around two hours long. Of course, those are weekly sessions during the week, not eagerly awaited once-in-a-blue-moon weekend sessions. Five hours might be regular to you. The key point, is that for me its not. I don’t have the endurance.
My basic rule of thumb is that it takes 2 hours of prep for every hour of game. Now, general experience helps. Preparation builds up like gunk around your sink. Years of running D&D means that my preparation for running games is reduced a little. If I’m running D&D, it’s reduced a lot. So of course, for this new experience, of marathon sessions, for an age group I don’t commonly run for, I’d run D&D, right?
No, apparently not.
Look, I love Renegade Games’s e20 System. I really want to see it grow, and I think its a great system. So I wanted to run it for the kiddos.
There’s four franchises currently under the e20 banner. In release order of their CRB
- Power Ranged: My weakest lore wise (so I thought). It’s neat because the kids would be playing someone near themselves, but I didn’t feel qualified to run it. Also, I didn’t want to have to start at higher level to bring in Zords. (This ended up being dumb for 2 reasons)
- GI Joe: My old faithful of the system. It’s the most natural for me to write for, and easy for new people approach. Essentially, if you want to play “D&D Modern,” GI Joe is my recommendation. And of course, I decided I didn’t want to use it. (Ended up using it a bit anyway)
- Transformers: I thought I had a handle on the lore, and I thought the idea of being giant robots would be easy enough to approach for kids. This is what I ended up running.
- My Little Pony: The finest game system. Seriously. As I get back in the swing of blogging, expect a list of why MLP impresses me. It’s almost criminal for a game this good to be behind a divisive franchise like MLP. As much as I yearned to, I didn’t want to run something that might turn people off, as I wasn’t sure who my players were. Of course, over the week, I saw kids light up when they heard MLP, and felt a pang of regret. I could have run MLP, and I wish I’d had. (I picked up the adventure In a Jam on Friday, after it was all over. Getting that earlier in the week would have changed my mind, but there but for the mysteries of the postal service go I)
So Transformers. Easy, right? And I have a few days to prepare. Sunday afternoon, and all of Monday, and even Tuesday morning. Plenty of prep time.
Which I wasted. In my defense, it was a stupid reason that got stuck in my head. My laptop charge cable was… somewhere. Probably under this next thing. So I spend time Sunday and Monday doing that hybrid searching for something slash cleaning a messy room, looking for my laptop cord. I didn’t find it until Wednesday, where it was in my Bag of Miracles. Where I thought it had been. And had looked 6 times. But that’s not important, what’s important is that my focus on Monday was spent on something other than Prep so I squandered a lot of my available prep time. But I got started, eventually, on what I thought would be the most important part of the game: building premade characters.
Future Matt Interjection! This may have been a poor move on my part. I like being able to get people right into the game. Saying “Come play! Here’s a character” is very different from saying “Come play! Now make a lot of decisions you don’t have context for, and do a boring activity with the promise of potential fun afterward.” I think its disingenuous and a poor reflection on our hobby for people to make characters before playing. Especially if you have a table that won’t let them remake characters once they know what’s going on. And I’ve been burned with character making sessions in the past.
However, there’s a lot of difference between characters in Transformers and D&D. Being a Boat or a Plane is bigger choice than being an Elf or a Dwarf. And with 5 hours of time, building characters would have used up some of that time. And preparing to let people make their own character would have been a better use of my time, maybe. Especially if I designed some sort of combinable playbook? idk. Might be worth thinking about.
I ended up making 6 characters. I skipped making a ModeMaster, as I didn’t have time to wrap my head around it enough to teach someone. It might be easy, I just haven’t looked at it enough. I sure made a Cutter, though. Nothing like being a boat in the desert. I ought to have spent my time reading through the adventure, but instead, Tuesday morning, I headed to the gamestore with my stack of premade characters, my CRB, and the Adventure path “The Time Is Now.”
Day 1 – Tuesday
When I volunteered, I pictured… something. I was expecting to sit, observe, and not really have a table. Maybe have some time to work on some other things. I’ve had poor luck with my RPG showcase attracting people, so that’s what I figured. But enough kids came that a few were set on my table. 4 of them, and they would be my table for the week. Nothing official said that, btw. The kids could move around if they desired, but what I’m noticing and terming the Gamestore-22 reared its head once again.
Gamestore-22: The best thing for a gamestore is for players to be interchangeable, freely moving from table to table, trying different DMs, meeting everyone, and being part of a larger community. However, the easiest content for DMs is for them to run gamesystems they know, for players they know, and continuing a story. The best experience for players is to play a gamesystem they know, with a DM they know, and a table they know. So what is best for a gamestore is literally the worst thing for the people involved, and vice versa.
I love being able to iterate on the introduction session. I’ve run my intro to D&D session 50 times. I know what choices I want to offer, where things are, a few of the crazy player choices have already been figured out and worked in. But I didn’t get that this time.
The adventure I ended up running was the TF adventure “The Time is Now.” And I went into it cold. So, so, stupidly cold. I thought it would open like a lot of adventures, with a straightforward plot/scenario. That is NOT what I had. I really really regret not having checked the adventure before hand. It was complicated and I had to muddle my way through it.
On Wednesday, I learned that there were apparently some TF episodes that sound like they’re what this adventure was based around? Directly inspired? Allows you to emulate? Not sure, as I haven’t seen those episodes.
I ended up running for around 4 and a half hours. There was a bit of boss battle, a bit of exploration, and a bit of detective work. It was a good learning experience for me, and at the end of the day, I was beat. My D&D game that evening ended up being cancelled without me having to bail, and I was really grateful to just have time to recover, as opposed to jumping straight into preparing and running a D&D session. But, luckily, I had a bit of time to recover, and then run that same adventure, refined, for a new group of kids.
Which, if you were paying attention, you would already know this was false.
Day 2 – Wednesday
I started my morning with redesigning my premade character sheets. I cleaned them up a little, made them more able to convey information a bit clearer. I made some tweaks to the characters of my previous players, in case they showed again, but had others in the wings. I cut the Cutter from my repertoire. Locking a new player into being forced to be a boat feels wrong to me. Had that on Day 1. “So, you’re a boat, and you have to be in boat for all of this scene to keep your disguise up.” Yeah. If a player is choosing to be a boat, going into it with both eyes open, fine, but not for new players.
3/4ths of my Day 1 group returned for day 2. So I gave them the new characters sheets, and we went further into “The Time is Now.” This part was a bit more dungeon crawl, a bit more straight forward. So that was nice.
Towards the end, I was running into an issue. Two issues, really. First, I was flagging. I didn’t realize until Thursday night that food was a priority that I was not properly taking care of. And maybe that was trickling down into my presentation? Not sure.
My big problems were ones that are resolved from build trust between players and the DM. That, or the DM explicitly laying out story reasons to cover them. Let’s look at the two issues separately.
First “Shh, they’ll hear us.” Sneaking is rough, sneaking when firing guns is rougher. And its magnified when you have kids who are instigators in the same party as those who are concerned with objective focused players. Instigators just want to do the cool things. Objective focused want to win, and in a stealth operation, that means “be quiet.” And as you can see, these don’t really overlap.
In a realistic simulation, guns should be audible. I had forgotten that one player had taken an upgrade to have their weapon make no noise. Maybe they did it after this? idr. Remembered that just now.
Anyway, of course gunshots in a cave would bring in all the guards. But as a DM, my job isn’t always to be realistic. The players are heroes, saving the day, and sometimes, that means compartmentalizing reality and not letting the base go on red alert from a single gunshot.
As a DM, I can directly indicate that there isn’t a problem with a bit of noise. The adventure mentions mining equipment and so on, ambience, that makes it hard to notice things. I didn’t play up those elements like I probably should have.
A good rapport between players and DM is essential for this reason. The more I know the players, the more I can tell when I have to explicitly say something. The more they know me, they know when I’m likely to “punish” a mistake or let something slide. That familiarity is crucial to having good games.
The second problem is the question of “Why are we Level 2 people doing this?” And that’s always an interesting question. In a world with Optimus Prime, or Superman, or the US Army, or whoever, better, stronger, more qualified people, why are we the ones doing this?
And, sometimes, quite often, in fact, the answer to that is “Because this is a Role Playing Game and if you want to have a session this week, you’ll bite the quest hook.” It’s not a realistic answer. Far from it. That night, I managed to play up the immediate danger aspect and stumbled to a good resolution.
This might be fixable with a session zero? maybe? I once was preparing for a game of family D&D and I asked them to bite quest hooks. And, dutifully, all hooks were bitten on. Even ones I was tossing out as red herrings or optional. All the hooks.
So I don’t really know the solution, other than “Know your players.” Some people follow rabbit holes, some people don’t immediately engage in a fight between a T-Rex and a Triceratops, to keep them from fighting the city. But that’s day 3.
After Day 2, I had D&D. So went right into that. I ran an idea I had foreshadowed for months, even if no one knew about it, started a filler combat, and a player turned it into a massive boss fight I have to deal with next week. Fun times, I was not on my A game, and I was feeling weak as I headed home after spending 9 hours at the gamestore.
Side note: this is when I talked to Joe and got details about the official content that the adventure was based on. A clever person would have gone home and tried to find it, but I didn’t. I was mentally exhausted. So exhausted, as a matter of fact, that when I saw that I had been attacked once again on a mobile game I’d been playing with consecutive logins for 82 days, I deleted it from my phone. A bit of random trivial, but there you go. It meant a lot at the time.
Caffeine. Lots of caffeine. Caffeine that wasn’t helping. I woke up not feeling great, and started looking through the rest of the adventure. From my glance at it, there would be travel to Cybertron and there would be social interactions with aliens, maybe? That’s just looking at the art, mostly. ANd I knew that I couldn’t do it justice, and it wouldn’t really resonate with my players. So I scrapped the idea of running more of the adventure, and tried to do my own thing.
And one of the things I tried was using the chase rules from renegade’s Field Guide to Adventure. I had bought the book for the chase rules, really. I bought it for more than that, but the Free RPG Day’s adventure mentioned that it was using its chase rules from the FGA, and they really intrigued me. So I preordered the book to get those.
They didn’t work as well live as I was hoping. I have suspicions that this was completely on me. Well, muchly on me. I don’t think I grok the rules well enough to make them really work. Then I had to think about fliers, who’s involved in a chase, what are the villians doing, I could have done that scene a lot better, had I realized something before the game, instead of after. Getting ahead of myself. I was not on form, which resulted in probably my biggest takeaway from all of GameOn
After the chase, my goal was to have a bit of a dinosaur fight in the middle of the city. But the goal oriented player said “Let’s go around, and radio this in to HQ for them to deal with.” And I said fine.
Actually, they split the party a bit, and I tired to do two combats simultaneously, but the party wasn’t buying the hook, so I just let it end early.
Day 3 was probably only 2 hours of actual TF. I ran some Chaotica, which long time friends will remember as being an insane game where players can make rules up. I came up with some new wrinkles I like, some I didn’t. But it got me through the day.
On the drive home, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten well the night before, nor the morning of. In fact, my eating was all over the place across the whole week. And as I was driving home from Little Caesers, shoving pizza in my mouth, my brain began to function again. I began analyzing what had happened, and I begain to draw connections.
One of which was that younger players get tunnel vision about what they can do, and what a plan does. This was a BIG take away for me.
Also, if I want to run good games, I need to to properly fuel. A 5 hour session needs endurance and while I’m certainly not a runner, I know of it. And having fuel is crucial. Good fuel is better, of course, but not having fuel at all is worse only a moron would do that.
So my plan for the next day started with Pizza
I felt… okay about my prep. I didn’t have it all figured out, but I knew I wasn’t going to make any hand outs, new character sheets, or whatever. I had things from the day before, my players had characters they seemed to enjoy, and I was leaving early to make sure I had a pizza.
On the way to the gamestore, I started coming up with a plan to just see what happens with a good old fashioned dungeon crawl. I used the Redbrand hideout from the Lost Mines of Phandelver as my basic map, tweaked a little to make it work for the story. I gave reasons why there wouldn’t be reinforcements, and I filled it with Cobra agents.
The dungeon went better than I expected. I need to figure how best to do saving throws, but I think FGA has a section on traps I haven’t read. I thought there might be trouble with everyone having guns, as long range gets weird in dungeons, but it ended up okay. They rescued Optimus Prime and saved the day, only leaving behind a few servers of information.
The adventure took maybe 3 hours. I then spent an hour talking RPGs, and basically dispensing some bearded wisdom. And then it was essentially over.
So, okay, calling it 20 hours was pushing it. I ran probably 14 hours of actual TF, 2 hours of something else, and then there was yeah, 4ish hours of stating late, ending early, and a bit of faffing time.
1. Franchise. When I chose to do TF out of all the franchises, I thought the topic was easy to pick up for kids. Giant transforming robots. Sure. But I missed out on some subtleties. Like the being in disguise. Like the being in hiding. Like the being low on resources and personnel. Those did not easily convey across. And thinking it wasn’t my weakest choice, lore wise, was said out of ignorance. I know so little about the series, really. Even if I have watched some original cartoons, I haven’t seen any for 20 years? And out of the…. *googles* SEVEN modern Transformers movies, I only saw the first 3. So my knowledge there is 12 years out of date.
This is something that Session Zeroes and ongoing dialogue with players fixes, something I didn’t have. I didn’t know my setting, the players didn’t know the setting, and that’s on me.
2. Fuel. I cannot overstate how much of a change running a game on a belly full of pizza was from running one on fumes.
3. Read your adventure before hand. Man, seems simple, but I sure regret not doing it. Take notes while you’re at it. Imagine stupid scenario. In fact, I wonder if I could make a helpful DM practice tool of player questions that could stump you in a scene. That could be handy
4. Have easy monster numbers. It’s part of the Lazy DM style, but part of being able to improvise for D&D is that I know the game like the back of my hand. I could probably write out a goblin’s statblock, if not word for word, then at least all of the essential bits and bobs. I’m not there for Renegade. And D&D has some digital tools that I use (and pay for) and I don’t have that for Renegade. I might have to make something. I have the technology.
I at least want to make an easier monster maker. I’ve had to do a lot of annoying math when making things, and a calculator would be a real treat to keep it from being super annoying all the time.
5. Give players some choice. Not something I would normally, say, but I think e20 has a much simpler number of options than other games. I regret not doing character building. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between players not screwing themselves over with a lack of information. Need to ponder that a bit. I might make some easy intro options, see what I can come up with to make it painless for new players.
6. Prepare earlier. I knew about the event a month or two ahead. I decided on TF a week ahead. My prep started the night before. Shame on me. I should dedicate some time to prepping Power Rangers and MLP, even if I don’t have games of those on the horizon. I shouldn’t be waiting for the panic monster. (Unless that’s what I make for the Power Rangers session.)
7. Prepare more. On a similar vein, on of the reasons I’m not scared of improv in D&D is that players have to pivot VERY far to do something I haven’t seen at least once. It was a lot easier for me to get out of my comfort zone with TF, and if I made a few extra encounters, gamed them out, tried to figure out the melody underneath the mechanics, really let myself drink it in, I could make this my comfort zone too.
So I had a lot I learned. It was a good, if stressful experience. I’ve wondered before what it would be like to run a 24 hour session. And this really helped me understand that insane project in a way nothing else has. I don’t have the energy, nor am I prepared for that.
But who knows, that might not always be the case.