Tuesday, February 1, 2011

GMing Large Groups and Star Wars Gaming Basics

I left my comfort zone; set out to run a Star Wars SAGA game for people other than those in my home game. I packed a suitcase full of books and minis and announced a three-week run for the original adventure Corellian Diet Breakers. On the meetup website I  said I’d allow six players. Many people new to that meetup group took an immediate interest in my game. They didn’t fully understand the importance of RSVPing, while I was too excited to have eager players to even consider turning away those without reservations.
So, there I was, running a new module for a brand new group, most who’d never played the game before. Nine players held character sheets. Several more people sat at desks in the back. Yup, I had a viewing gallery.
The problem: How do I keep the fast pace and excitement of Star Wars while being sure to involve twice as many players as the game recommends. I think this is an extreme version of the classic GM issue—effectively running a game so everyone is involved and vital, and so all the gamemastering tasks necessary don’t detract from the experience.  Remember, in Star Wars, there are no small parts, only small actors… and they get crammed into a droid suit or dressed as a Jawa, Ewok or Ugnaught.
I learned a lesson from the summer meetup sessions. By paying attention to two key laws of Star Wars, giving them priority over everything else including the rules, everyone had a fun time, returning weekly for more.
1. Star Wars is fast-paced.
Don’t let social distractions take away from that. Keep moving through the initiative, even if players are talking. Be loud. Be enthusiastic. Keep threats coming at the PCs. By establishing an intense tone and pace, the game will sweep everyone away… and shut down the Chatty Kathys before they become a detriment.
Be organized and know your story. Have NPC breakdowns that list what each NPC’s feats and talents do. Have maps ready and dialogue scripted. I have a trifold presentation board, picked up at Office Max for two bucks. I pin the character sheets for each encounter’s NPCs to it, so I don’t have to flip through papers. You want the game to flow seamlessly. While PCs are rolling initiative, just tack up the pages and pull the breakdowns out of a folder. You’re ready to go before the PCs are.
By the way, I have my players keep track of initiative. It’s one more thing that gives them a sense of ownership and co-Gming, not to mention the way it makes them chomp at the bit, alert & ready for their next action… and it’s one less task I have to worry about.
Use the Star Wars Saga Index and Classes Excel files found here. It provides a summary of every power, talent and feat. It has an index for every NPC and piece of equipment. It tells you what book and page number you’ll find the information at. If a player has a question about a power, then I look at the Excel file open on my laptop and tell them what book and page to consult. Again, don’t do it for them. Make them responsible and part of the process; not just recipients of the GM’s song and dance, but equal partners in the storytelling.
If you do these little things, your game will flow quicker and maintain its momentum. Delegate responsibilities.  Do your homework.  It’s tedious for you beforehand, yes, but the end results are all that matter.
2. In Star Wars, every hero makes a difference.
From a lowly slave on Tatooine to a Wookiee scout, to a rambunctious astromech droid, every hero’s actions affect the fate of the Galaxy. In that vein, no PC should be left on the sidelines. What could a little slave boy do during a battle against a droid army inside a palace hangar? Hide in the cockpit of an N-1 starfighter? Not horribly exciting for the player… but if the GM tells the PC about the weapons controls just begging to be activated, it’s a whole new ballgame. He can start blasting droidekas into junk heaps. C3PO wasn’t a fighter, but he played key roles in battles by making deceptions that lured the enemy exactly where his allies wanted them. R2 always found a computer port to plug into. He gathered information, locked doors or jammed security systems. When he was away from a computer port, R2 used his sensor dishes to take sentry duty.
As the GM, you need to provide these tools for your PCs. If the astromech’s player isn’t asking about nearby computer ports, you need to ask him to roll a DC 5 Perception check and tell him there’s a port behind some barrels. Voila! Hopefully, the player will find some interesting things to do with the computer. If the player’s ideas have a snowball’s chance and will make the game more interesting, then choose a reasonable DC (lower if it will be extremely interesting), and give him a chance to be a vital part of the encounter. You have an ace pilot in the party? During the shootout on the dilapidated town’s main street, ask him for a DC 10 Perception check. If he makes it, he finds a rotting speeder bike. Put it three steps down the condition track and give it a quirk or two… but it still gives the pilot a chance to use his vehicular combat abilities instead of acting like a turtle behind cover. Plus, it makes the action more exhilarating. That’s what Star Wars is all about.
Pukunui asked me several questions about handling a larger group. He has seven in his Dawn of Defiance Campaign party. I forwarded his questions to Smuggler’s Paradise of the d20radio forums. He is an accomplished GM who plays in my Dawn of Defiance group. Since it’s difficult to effectively evaluate yourself or be aware of all your techniques, I asked Smuggler’s Paradise to answer these questions, telling what he’s seen me do as well as provide his own advice. His answers are prefaced with SP, and my responses are prefaced with BFTG.
1) How do you split your attention between so many people? Despite being a fulltime parent to two kids, I'm not all that good at multitasking and I tend to get a bit scatterbrained at times, especially with the pressure to perform on game night.
BFTG: I'm paranoid about this issue. I live in fear of neglecting players so they feel like it isn't worth their time, and they stop attending. I have a character crib sheet on my laptop that has each player's name, his character's name, his class, bullet points to his backstory and goals and a couple misc notes about enemies or allies he's recently attained. So, if they're talking to a droid, I'll ask the mechanic PC to make a perception check. If it's at least a 5, I'll tell him things he notices about the droid, like it has grinding servos that must be causing it pain. The PC might volunteer to fix the droid, gaining improved circumstances. In combat, I use minis and custom maps. Everyone sees their peril and acts. If players are silent because they’re tired or lost for ideas, I'll have them roll a DC 5 Perception check or just tell them things they notice that are up their alley, to provide them ideas for actions. When NPCs interact with the PCs, I divide their PC targets among the PCs, so the noble isn't always Mr. Social. I also have a free obsidianportal.com account for the group. I award 100 bonus xp for every journal entry. They can discuss their character's impressions on game events or provide backstory flashbacks. I pay particular attention to these, because they are PC ways to ask for plot hooks to their characters. For instance, I have a PC searching for his father's space transport. I need to work clues and hooks into upcoming adventures for this.
SP:  Keeping things flowing can always be tough with larger groups since you never want anybody to feel left out or bored. One of the best things that I've seen Garrett do and that I try to do myself is to make sure that everybody has something to do in any given encounter or situation. You obviously know their character sheets from what you've said in question two, so when you make an encounter always try to keep in mind what skills people have so that you can add those to the encounter. This can often be subtle, like pointing out that there is a computer terminal in a room. While not overtly telling people that this is something they need to interact with, it should be a clue to a computer user that they might want to check it out and if they do, reward them for it by making it do something that aids in the situation. Not every situation has to fit every single skill or ability but more often than not there should be a variety of things available to the players. One of the best ways that I've found to keep track of this is to keep a small flash card or copy of a player's character sheet so I know what they are capable of. This way it is easier to tailor situations to certain abilities as well as beef up enemies or other things. For instance if one of your players is a melee monster that cuts through anything, consider giving a couple enemies better armor or DR (damage reduction) to counter act it. Going back to my previous statement, having another character make use of a skill check to take away the armor or ability can keep everyone involved and keep the game cinematic.

As for keeping track of everything yourself, one word: organization. If you find it hard to keep track of a lot of things, use notes. Plot points, enemy stats, encounter obstacles, and everything in between can be sorted for easier use. You don't have to completely rely on them but glancing at them every so often can keep you, and your game, on track. This is one of the things that I think Garrett has done very well. He has a lot of notes on the story and characters in it that I feel help prevent the game from slowing down.

Also, if you feel that some of your players are stealing the show, don't be afraid to turn to another person and say "what does your character think of that?" This keeps people going steadily.

2) Do you enforce time limits or anything like that? I've always asked my players to learn the rules for their characters at least, but they always tend to be a bit half-assed about it - none of them want to spend any time outside of game night thinking about the game, so no one ever bothers to do this. I've ended up doing everyone's character sheets for them and including all sorts of info on the sheet, as well as doing up quick reference sheets for each PC that has the full text for various abilities which they might want to reference during play ... but even that doesn't always help, so I'm considering enforcing my "time limit" rule (which I've never actually enforced for this campaign).
BFTG: I'm fortunate with my group on this. I don't touch their character sheets unless in play it seems like something is wrong. They level up themselves. I have the SAGA library available for them to look up ideas for feats and talents and character direction. They look up answers to their questions themselves. I take a 5 minute break or two during the game, mostly for me to use the restroom or get a rootbeer. This is social time, and it's well-used for that. If the group is in a gabby mood, I keep the game going through the chatter. Tense situations and combat wait for no man. This is Star Wars. There is almost constant action. As GM I believe it's my job to convey the Star Wars feeling. If I sit back and let the players lollygag, I'm not living up to my end of the bargain.
SP:  This is one of the major problems that can crop up in campaigns: player interest. I think that the only way to really combat this is to do whatever you can to get your players to have some sort of invested interest in their characters. One of the things that I have absolutely loved about Garrett's game is his use of the Obsidian Portal site outside of the game. Garrett posts a summary of each adventure and encourages players to post their character's thoughts about what has happened last session. The most important part of this however is that he REWARDS people for this sort of roleplaying. I think that this is crucial to getting players to participate in any sort of out of game activities. Make it worth their while to come up with some unique thoughts. Garrett gives out 100XP for a post each session and that encourages me as a player to get those thoughts out there. Plus it can help players develop their characters and their relationships with the other characters that can even lead to more things in game.

As for getting people involved more at the table, have each person create a story for their character. While this doesn't have to be extensive, a short description of where they have been and where they plan to go can help a lot in making a player care more about a character and their abilities. Also, by encouraging players to make their characters part of another player’s background as well, they can make each character more meaningful to the story. Reward them for actions that play to their character and punish them (slightly) for actions that don't. If you have a player who is playing a Jedi and seeks to be on the Jedi Council and he is going around killing people relentlessly, then there should be consequences. But if he avoids confrontation then there should be bonuses as this would reflect his characters ideals. Dark Side Points and Destiny bonuses and penalties are a great way to handle this in Star Wars games and I've seen Garrett use both effectively.

As for time limits, I think this depends on the type of game you want to play. Some people have a hard time thinking of a reaction in a short time and I personally do not always like to curb them because of it. However, if you are trying to play an extremely fast paced game that is meant to be pure character, then a time limit can be very useful for getting gut reactions to situations. Be careful though as some players can get easily upset with this and can feel cheated out of thinking up a good action. I think a better way to get your players to know their sheets might be to present them with a situation that could be solved with one of said abilities. Then, if they don't react to it, ask them: "Don't you have an ability that could help you with that?" and when they see it ask them "ok, and what does that let you do?" This gets the players looking at their sheets and will get them used to the abilities that are on it.

Overall, encouragement is the name of the game. If a player tries to use ability improperly, don't shoot them down but rather give them an example of something that they can do at that time to the same ends. Be patient and keep things fun. If they want to do something ridiculous, let them. Don't let it break the game but definitely encourage them to be daring. I've seen Garrett use this several times and it has always gotten everyone more into what was happening at the moment. This will excite them about what they're doing and keep everyone having a good time and the game moving along, even in larger groups.

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