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Tim Rodriguez writes…

Ten years ago, I played in my friend Kym’s Legend of the Five Rings game that blew my mind. It was the first long-form RPG I’ve ever experienced and the first time I grasped what character depth might look like. It was also the first and only game I’ve been asked to leave — simply for not giving my all to the game. I can look back and trace all my roots as a game master to that game. Which is still going on, with my characters still kicking as NPCs. I wish like hell I could go back.

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We’re nearing the climax of an awesome game of Night’s Black Agents run by Kevin Kulp. Our spies have chased an arms dealer suspected of stealing suitcase nukes across the crowded streets of Krakow, sneaked our way into a secret meeting of drug lords in Colombia, and found the guy we’re pretty sure is behind at all. He’s able to do some kind of weird mental stuff to one member of our party, but we all think that guy is insane anyway. After all, he’s only three days from retirement.

So, we corner the big bad on the helipad as he’s getting ready to leave town with a nuke chained to his wrist, and he starts to grow wings. And his skin changes. And he’s really tough. And with a HUGE shit-eating grin, Kevin says “Oh, did I mention that Night’s Black Agents is a game of super-spies versus vampires?”  

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Dave Chalker is running the second playtest of his 4e hack for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (it’s delicious!) late Saturday night at PAX East 2012. Everything is off-the-cuff, tongue-in-cheek, but still mostly sincere fantasy adventure. Dave runs a tight improv ship, despite his protestations countering it. 

Our party is in the heart of the dungeon.  A beholder emerges.  He’s going to enslave us all and make us work for the BBEG.  Because cowards live longer, I guess, my halfling cleric pipes up:

"You know, we could just work for you.  But we are going to need proper healthcare benefits first!"

So, there are a couple of ways to deal with this. We can get our chuckles on and then fight or we could fight over enslavement vs employment.

Or, we could turn the conflict into a parallel fight/healthcare battle. Eyebeam intimidation and laissez faire politics opposing a divine power and a desire for positive social change.

The dice were not on my side.  Not only did we not get healthcare benefits, the beholder took the notion of work-for-hire completely off the table and went with the enslavement plan altogether.

But I appreciate that Dave not only let my silliness take form, he engaged it and made the scene even funnier.

Hell yeah.

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David Rogers writes…

Love the idea for the tumblr, I’ve got one to share:

I played in a game of Andre Kruppa’s called “Incident of Owl Lake” at OGC, a con in Nashua, NH. It was a horror game, based on FUDGE that began with a strange vehicle crash-landing on the island where we were camping, and ended with us in a fight for our lives against the dark forces that had been controlling our lives since childhood. This was my first gaming con and I’d had some cool times and met some nice people, but generally had not been blown away by the experience. The gaming floor was loud and chaotic, the games were great but tended to move slowly and get side-tracked by table talk or outside distractions. I was really excited for Andre’s game, my last of the night and the con, because of the billed “theatrical elements.”

My friend Melissa was also slated to play. We couldn’t find the game at first — it wasn’t anywhere on the floor. Instead we got steered upstairs, to a part of the hotel we hadn’t been aware was part of the con. Inkjet-printed signs pointed toward a pair of double-doors. We went in and were greeted by a dark room, with a few mounted theatrical lights casting circles of illumination on a conference table in the center. The room was secluded, and quiet, and moreover, Andre had rigged it with a pretty extensive lighting and sound set-up.

The room was kept dark during the entire game, with lighting cues adjusting to the scene: a low red as we gathered around the camp fire, a sudden flash when a gun fired, glowing green or a sudden bright white as our situation proceeded to get stranger and stranger. Flashlights were provided for us to read our character sheets by when the lights were low or went out, and Andre wasn’t afraid to leave us in the dark. Then there was the music: Andre had a soundboard, some nice speakers, and a full range of musical cues. The sense of atmosphere — in sharp contrast to the other games I’d been playing — was incredible.

The theatricality went beyond the tech: we had props too, in the form of our flashlights but also in the neatly organized play aids Andre provided, from character sheets to rules references to setting materials, all neatly laid out and laminated. I’d never played FUDGE before, and neither had Melissa, but we were very seldom uncertain about a rule.

Andre also made use of long blocks of prepared text that were triggered at several points through out the game — specifically, when characters suddenly flashed back to certain suppressed memories. Several of these were repeated time and again as different characters hit upon the same triggers, but they didn’t get old: Andre’s spirited delivery (and accompanying music and light cues) kept them fresh each time, and the repetition underscored the eerie sameness of our experiences. By chance, my character was the last one to trigger a particular memory, but even though I’d heard the associated text three times before at that point I was still psyched. Andre still treated the material as fresh, too, throwing in an ad lib tailoring the speech to my character.

The game itself went great and we did pretty well. There were some really fun moments of pure dramatic role-playing, and a lot of exploration and problem-solving. Andre did a good job giving everyone a chance to have fun while still keeping the tension ratcheted up. Melissa and I were a little more into exploring interpersonal drama than the other characters at the table, and we had a few minutes to do that, but things generally kept moving at a good clip.

In the end, we all survived and escaped from a real nightmare into relative safety — thanks almost entirely to the good decisions of one of our savvier players. The game was both frightening and enthralling, and ended with a great moment of catharsis of closure followed by a great twist. Afterwards we were all visibly jazzed, wired even though it was well after midnight, and Andre stayed to talk to us about the setting he’d designed and the choices we’d made. He even solicited feedback about specific game elements and design choices.

All in all it was undoubtedly the best game I’ve ever played in. Andre has a website (http://www.gamesoapbox.com/) talking a little about the different scenarios he’s made and the different events where he GMs — I’d recommend checking it out, and if you ever have a chance to play with this really superlative GM, go for it.

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Josh Zingg is a good friend, inventive writer, and absolutely, ridiculously dedicated DM. When running a 4e D&D Iron Kingdoms game via Skype for a group of now-graduated college buddies, he constantly wrestled cantankerous tech into submission to keep things running smoothly. Between router port forwarding, shaky Skype connections and an unstable MapTools server, everything that could go wrong did. But Zingg soldiered on, dedicating what I suspect was more hours to game prep and server testing than to the sessions themselves. While we eventually moved on to another game and another platform, Zingg’s valor in the face of the gremlin horde won’t soon be forgotten. He may have been bested in the end, but he fell as a true son of Khador.

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It’s been a year. You must have built up some new game and game-master-related wonderment by now, right? Submissions slowed to nothing, but let’s take another stab at it. Tell us about a GM you dig right now or dug long ago. What did you play? Show us the GM in action in, using a conversational tone. Don’t worry about wit or wonderment—just tell us a quick tale or give us an example of what makes your GM rad.

We’ll start posting again if we can get as many as five submissions to this address (note that it’s new!): hellyeahgm (at) gmail (dot) com

Alternately, click the Submission button here on the Tumblr and submit that way.

Ready? Go!

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Matthew wrote:

I’m blessed with a wealth of great gamemasters but I’d like to give a special shout out to Christian Griffen.  Christian is a fine game designer (Beast Hunters, Anima Prime)  but he is also a damn good GM and player.

I play in a group with him that’s been together for over three years now and my admiration for him and what he brings to the gaming table is a comment not just on his capabilities but also those of the other members of the group who sometimes run the games, David H and Colin C.  Over the last three years we’ve all gotten better at learning those things that make the game fun for each of us.  As trust and familiarity have increased we’ve all gotten better at communicating those things. But Christian is especially intuitive, both as a player and GM, at moving play and narration towards those things that a particular player enjoys. He exels at “making others awesome.”  Given our gaming preferences, sometimes that takes the form of a “face-stab,” a gut-wrenching outcome delivered as a GM response to a failed roll or as a “bon mot” that highlights a particular character’s Achilles’ heel.

Each of the wonderful players in my primary gaming group usually create characters with flags that wave, “hurt me here,” and Christian is especially adept at delivering those blows.  Similarly, if a character is kick-ass at words, weapons, or Wyrd, Christian is careful to provide spotlights/opportuniites for those capabilities.

Whatever the game, as a GM he rolls like someone who sold their soul to the gods of the polyhedron.  In some groups this might be a problem, but our group enjoys the challenge and it works out great.  Hell yeah!

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Lillian Cohen-Moore writes…

My darling other half, Matt Heller, is one of the GMs I fear the most. Some people fear bad GMs. I fear the ones who set things up so you and your fellow players get down in the moment—the heist, the rescue mission, the investigation—and are suddenly hit with the terrible realization that you are all simultaneously beyond the realm of merely fucked. For a perfect, sterling example, I point to a recent Shadowrun game he started for six players, yours truly included. By the end of the first session, the ‘Face’ was under criminal investigation, the rigger’s sister had been kidnapped, and my poor, sweet hacker was on the run for her life. By the end of the second session, the rest of the players were joining us in our very uncomfortable spot between hell and a hard place. I have never cheered so hard inside and cried so hysterically in character than when our Runner’s lives were greatly imperiled by that simple, 5K per person run go so horribly fucking wrong. Across genre and chronicle, Matt has done it to us all again and again—our lives, with the Devils we know, are traded out for Devils we don’t, and the knowledge that one wrong move will get earn us all a fate worse than any death we can think of.

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Zack Walters writes:

Sara Johnson and Zach North are good friends, Zach is a great game master and both are unbelievable hosts. I played in a 4e D&D game Zach ran for over a year. He and Sara welcomed the group into their house and cooked dinner for us for over a year before Zach burned out and asked me to take over running a game. I was happy to take up the hosting and game running responsibilities, but I only got the latter. Sara and Zach have continued to host our group every week, welcoming us into their home with hot meals and cold beer for nearly another year. I may be statting up monsters and running sessions every week, but it’s Zach and Sara who still do the most important work.