Gamemastering by Brian Jamison – A Behind the Screen Look

Behind the Screen of Gamemastering

A look behind Brian James' gamemastering screen

A few days ago, I was puttering around on RPG Geek, and I saw a front page forum conversation for Gamemastering.  Intrigued, I took a look, and immediately went to Gamemastering.info to download the free eBook Gamemastering by Brian Jamison.

Introduction

Brian Jamison states that the reason for writing the book was that by 2003 the gaming community did not have a comprehensive book for Gamemasters.  He rose to the challenge, and over the course of several years, wrote Gamemastering…and is giving the eBook away for free, though he does encourage you to donate or pick up a physical copy.

Inside this massive 300 page book is a formula for starting, preparing for, and running a long-term campaign.

One-Time Preparations

The crux of the first four chapters is Brian pointing towards a better way to start a campaign:

Traditional Way Better Way
GM chooses game system GM chooses players
GM buys/writes adventure Everyone agrees on setting
Characters are rolled up GM chooses game system
Start playing Characters are co-created
Adventure skeleton is written
Start playing

Brian Jamison strongly advocates for a sort of character questionnaire that the players work towards filling out. This involves filling out beliefs, goals, friends, foes, and defining your position regarding various vices and virtues.  It isn’t too hard to see parallels to Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard.

In the case of Diaspora: The Precious Few, we followed the Better Way, and had a fantastic time creating our setting and characters.  There was an interconnectedness to the characters that helped to naturally create the adventures.

In the case of Bloodstone, we are in the process of co-creating our characters. It may look as though I chose the adventure first, but my intent has been to use the Bloodstone series as a setting.  I fully intend to have the characters choosing the direction of the game.

As I’ve looked at other campaigns that have been memorable, they typically involve characters that were very interconnected, as well as a handful of memorable NPCs.

The general message of these first four chapters is take the time before hand to bring the characters together and place them in a dynamic environment full of relationships and cultures.  By spending time up front, the amount of time will pay dividends both in greatly reduced adventure preparation and in creating a verisimilitudinous world.

Prepping for the Game Session

Much like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, Gamemastering advocates playing to find out what happens. Before a game session, Gamemastering recommends reviewing the goals, beliefs, friends, foes, and cultures to loosely flesh out what could happen in the game session.

Gamemastering lays out the case for avoiding dungeon crawls and three act adventures, instead advocating to focus on conquering obstacles (i.e. conflict).  Overcoming obstacles involves three steps: discover, challenge, and celebrate; each step of which Brian Jamison provides expert advice.  Use existing NPCs, match skills, everyone must have something to do, challenge multiple characters, pace the difficulty, and have at least two ways out.

In short, know your player and characters and how they connect with the world.  By reviewing this information, and chewing on it, conflict will naturally emerge.

Running the Game Session

Brian Jamison advocates for having using a GM screen.  In doing so, you create a natural division between you and the players.  The division is not for propagating the GM vs. player mentality, but helps to “set up a tiny but important psychological barrier between the players and the Gamemaste.”  This division can instill a sense of mystery in the players.  They never know when they have “gone off the rails.”

Three roles of the GM are highlighted: Judge, Actor, and Camera.  There is advice on seamlessly transitioning from one role to another.  In particular with regards to highlighting important elements of a scene.

Conclusion

Gamemastering is an opinionated grimoire loaded with ideas and advice.  Given the price tag, all I can say is please download this wonderful work and give it a read.

Bloodstone Character Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits

Next Sunday we will begin the Bloodstone campaign.  Below are the 7 characters that have been created.  Two of them are relationships, fully fleshed out.  Not everyone has completed their characters.

Lady Gwen – Savannah

  • B1: I must ease the world’s suffering by helping the victims of this horrible war.
  • Traits: Frustrated, Your Ladyship, Tonsured, Faithful (Dt), Mark of Privilege (Dt), Healthy (C-O)

Remy Leduc – Joe

  • B1: I will do what it takes to not get pillage by orcs
  • B2: If I don’t keep my identity on the downlow, I will be swarmed by fans
  • B3: I will help out my friends like Brandon; I’ll be a wingman and share what I have.
  • I1: Be chivalrous to the ladies.
  • I2: Enjoy myself, smell the roses
  • I3: Cuddle when I sleep
  • Traits: Scapegoat, Rable Rouser, Tidy Aspect, Mark of Privilege (Dt), Rapier Wit (Dt), Vigor of Youth (Dt), The Story (C-O), Aura of Innocence (C-O), Charismatic (C-O)

Brandon – Joe

  • B1: I can only trust Remy
  • B2: I need to make enough money for food.
  • B3: Prove I can still fight
  • I1: Always grab some loot!
  • I2: My sword is ready when I need it.
  • I3: If Remy is in trouble, get in the way.
  • Sad Eye, Mark of Privilege (Dt), Sworn Homage (Dt), Cold Blooded (Dt), Tongueless (Dt), Missing Eye (Dt)

Menas – Aidan

  • B1: I will open the halls of Ironheim by fighting Vaasa until my last breath
  • B2: I will show Matt I am not a coward
  • B3: I swear that I shall avenge King Viridin’s death and shall kill Felix
  • I1: Never show mercy to traitors
  • I2: Never turn down a mug of Nog
  • Traits: Humility in the face of my betters, Proud, Bearded, Chuffing, Muttering, Oddly Likeable, Dvergar (Dt), Accustomed to the Dark (Dt), Greed (Dt), Oathsworn (Dt), SHapped from Earth and Stone (Dt), Stout (Dt), Tough (Dt), Stoic (Dt), Sentorious Voice (Dt/C-O)

Holden Reynolds – Jaron

  • B1: Someone betrayed the College, I must find out who
  • B2: I don’t want to use destructive magic, but I’m starting to feel helpless without it.
  • B3: I don’t know who else survived from the College, if they are alive I must help them.
  • I1: Never pass up an opportunity for a good practical joke
  • I2: I will do anything to protect those I’m responsible for.
  • Traits: Base Humility, Inscrutable, Versatile (Dt), Misunderstood (Dt), Council of Mages (Dt), Stoic (Dt), Sixth Sense (Dt), Second Sight (Dt), Domineering Presence (Dt), Thick Skinned (Dt), Imperious Demeanor (Dt)

Dragan Cordell – Jaron

  • B1: I owe my headmaster Holden my life, I must protect him.
  • I1: I trust Holden implicitly
  • I2: I must speak up when I see an injustics.
  • I3: I have to get back up
  • Traits: Base Humility, Always in the Way, Shows No Fear, Trusting, Hazed (Dt), Mark of Privilege (Dt)

Kruder – Matt

  • B1 – I must find a new home as I am no longer welcome in Ironheim (not widely known).
  • B2 – Menas abandoned 300 Dwarves at the Battle of the Stonetears. I must determine if he is still fit to lead.
  • B3 – Katie hasn’t allowed herself to grieve for Obon. I need to help her move on.
  • Oath – I swore to Obon that I would protect Lady Gwen until… (need help from you on this one)
  • I1 – Never leave a companion behind.
  • I2 – Always have my arbalest loaded.
  • I3 – Keep my tools well oiled.
  • Traits: Bearded, Complaining, Folksy Wisdom, Accustomed to the Dark (Dt), Greed (Dt), Oathsworn (Dt), SHapped from Earth and Stone (Dt), Stout (Dt), Tough (Dt), Adventurer (Dt), Deep Sense (Dt), Oathswearer (Dt), Virtuous (Dt)

Bloodstone Character Questionnaire

Last night I downloaded the free e-Book Gamemastering by Brian Jamison from gamemastering.info. It is 300 pages of all kinds of awesome!  As I was reading it, I drew all kinds of inspiration for my Bloodstone game.  I also noted that Burning Wheel has procedures in place that mirror Brian’s advice.

So I’m asking the players to work through a questionnaire.  The player’s need not fill this out, but should be prepared to discuss these things and we’ll take notes concerning the questionnaire.

Questionnaire

Character

Lifepaths

  • List your lifepaths.
  • For each of your lifepaths, tell me about a defining moment during that lifepath.
  • For each lifepath transition, tell me why/how you changed lifepaths.

Background

  • Where were you when Vaasa attacked Damara, and declared war (13 years ago)?
  • Where were you when you heard that King Viridin had died (3 years ago)?
  • How is it that were you spared on the Night of the Long Knives (2 years ago)?
  • Tell me about someone whom you lost on the Night of the Long Knives?
  • Tell me about someone that thankfully survived the Night of the Long Knives?
  • What have you lost with the collapse of Damara?
  • Why did you flee to Valls?
  • Tell me about one of your foes…A feud? A person of authority? A superior? A rival/peer?  You need not spend starting resource points on this character.

Beliefs and Instincts

I would like each character to have a belief that relates to one of the other characters.  I would also like each character to have a goal-based belief.  Think in terms of your character’s long-term goals, then determine what the first step towards achieving that goal will be…That first step should be codified into a belief.

Skills

One of the recommendations from Gamemastering is that I should write down all of the character skills.  This is to ensure that each character has a chance to shine.  There are a lot of skills in Burning Wheel, so help me understand what skills you want to use.  I’m planning on writing down all of your skills, so I have a frame of reference for working on adventures.

Bloodstone Party Composition

The players are busy fleshing out their characters, but the group is beginning to form.  Thus far I’m working without character names, and will instead use player names.

Matt – Dwarf Miner

Matt has already played through the entire Bloodstone adventure series about 20 years ago.  As such, he expressed a desire to play a more secondary character.  Matt has opted to play a Dwarven delver turned adventure.  He served under Aidan’s character during the early days of the war with Vaasa.

Tentatively, Matt’s character was part of a unit who was cut off from the remainder of the dwarven host, and had to do his best to survive for a few years.  Interestingly he is a Graybeard and an Adventurer. He has the power to brand another Dwarf a coward! Yet he himself is an outcast.

Aidan – DwarF High Captain

Aidan is playing a dwarven high captain who has fought the long battle against Vaasa and lost.  He has retreated to Valls after his dwarven clan was decimated in the Battle of Goliad.  Aidan’s character will likely be the toughest character in the group, decked out in Dwarven Mail.

Aidan’s character has numerous ranks in command, strategy, and logistics, as well as field dressing and surgery.  He will always have something to do.

Savannah – Dr. Quinn Faith Healer

Savannah has yet to burn a character, but she said she wants to play a Cleric.  I figure the best route for her is to create a Religious Acolyte -> Young Lady -> Doctor.  She won’t be able to handle herself in a fight, and will likely need a valiant knight to protect her.  This could be very interesting as Bloodstone, as written, pushes a romantic angle between the “paladin” of the group, and the NPC heir to the baronial throne.

Jaron – Sorcerer Headmaster

Jaron is tentatively playing the recently deposed headmaster of the School of Magic.  He will most assuredly be a powerful sorcerer, and likely will be capable of enchanting items.

It is likely that he will be making a retainer to work as a guardian; Though sorcerers are hard pressed to spend their precious resources on anything other than spells.

Joe – Deposed Court Advisor

Joe is likely going to play a deposed advisor to the court who now resorts to begging.  He will be a dangerous Duel of Wits adversary, but will almost certainly run screaming from every combat.

Joe is also tentatively thinking of creating a freebooter retainer to offer some physical protection.

Mike – ???

It looks like Mike is going to be an off-again on again player, so he’s proposing an Elven ranger so his character can come and go as needed.

Other players?

It is possible we will have another player at the table.  At this point, I don’t know who that would be.  But I’m leaving the options open.

Characters

With two players likely creating retainers, I believe we’ll have a very interesting group composition, where some of the players may opt at certain points to “don the mantle of one of the retainers.”

Interesting, Albeit Pointless Stats for My Blog

I decided to take all of the search data for my blog and tally the instances of a given word.  Below are all the words that were used in a search to get to my site.  If someone comes to my site with the search term “bulldog rpg” then that would count as one instance for “bulldog” and one for “rpg”.

I have removed the prepositions and conjunctions to keep the ifs ands and ors out of the results. I also converted words ending in s to their likely singular tense.

Search Tearm Instances
rpg 191
bulldog 167
rule 67
world 64
burning 60
diaspora 58
tichu 56
wheel 55
fate 39
dungeon 38
game 32
gold 30
star 28
frontier 28
apocalypse 26
review 24
mah 23
cluster 22
jong 21
play 20
python 17
pdf 17
grail 16
monty 16
holy 14
card 14
dragon 12
open 12
point 12
speed 12
jungle 11
guard 11
license 11
creation 11
rolemaster 11
hollowpoint 11
gaming 10
mouse 10
blackbird 10

The next table collects pairs of search terms.

So if someone searches for “burning wheel gold” this would count as one instance for “burning wheel”, one for “gold wheel” and one for “burning gold”. (Note I sorted each of the search words)

Search Tearm Instances
bulldog rpg 136
burning wheel 56
burning gold 30
apocalypse world 30
gold wheel 29
dungeon world 29
frontier star 25
bulldog fate 25
diaspora rpg 24
cluster diaspora 20
jong mah 20
fate rpg 19
mah tichu 19
jong tichu 16
monty python 15
grail python 15
bulldog pdf 14
rule tichu 14
grail monty 14
grail holy 14
bulldog review 13
holy python 13
pdf rpg 13
holy monty 12
review rpg 12
cluster rpg 12
not that 11
jungle speed 11
rule speed 10
guard mouse 10

And for posterity, here is a list of search terms with at least 3 words.

Search Tearm Instances
burning gold wheel 22
bulldog fate rpg 13
jong mah tichu 12
grail monty python 11
bulldog review rpg 11
grail holy python 11
bulldog pdf rpg 11

Weird Fantasy – Lamentations of the Flame Princess

I had read Grognardia‘s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 review of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but passed on buying it at GenCon. However, after reading more of James Edward Raggi IV, and posts on the LotFP forum, and most importantly, the FREE no-art PDF rules of the game, I decided to order the Grindhouse Edition.

Why Did I Order the Game When the Rules are Already Free?

Ultimately, it was Grognardia’s review of the Referee book and other, sadly now forgotten, mentions of the Referee book that tipped the scale.  Not to mention a ridiculously good deal at Troll and Toad. In many ways, it sounded like the Referee book is to Old School Gaming what the Adventure Burner is to Burning Wheel.  And I’m all kinds of I’m ga-ga for the Adventure Burner.

Then It Arrived…And It IS Beautiful

Since I’d already read most of the Rules and Magic book, I began reading the Referee book.  And I love it.  James Raggi, in a very conversational tone, convincingly explains his understanding of Fantasy Role-Playing.

It is a veritable treasure trove of information regarding old school gaming and distilled into the very simple advice of keep things magical and mysterious and keep asking the players what they do.  Orcs and +1 swords don’t exist in weird fantasy.  They are the anathema to weird fantasy, as once something is named, it looses its mystery.

Another key piece of advice is that the Referee should set most combats to be easy.  This serves two purposes. First to make sure that players aren’t blowing all of their resources in each combat, and thus requiring lots of 5-minute work days. Second, make sure those “boss fights” are terrifyingly difficult, in fact perhaps so difficult that retreat may very well be the best option.

I would say that the underlying design philosophy of Lamentations is that success and failure should both be possible and probable.  Spun another way, without failure as an option, success is hollow.

Cheap Shot at the Once 800 Pound Gorilla

This design ethos of success and failure is found not only in Lamentations but also other old school simulacra and runs in stark contrast to the feel of 4th Edition.  In 4th Edition, characters are mighty and nigh indestructible, success is only a matter of enough intestinal fortitude to grind out another round of combat against a statistically neutered enemy.

Cribbing Ideas from Apocalypse World and Dungeon World for Bloodstone

Apocalypse World, the indy-game darling, is a wonderful ruleset that breaks down what it means to be the master of ceremonies (e.g. the Game Master).  Dungeon World, a hack of the Apocalypse World rules, takes the post-apocalyptic system and rewires it for old school dungeon crawls.

Like it’s predecessor, Dungeon World provides a list of the Game Master’s agenda, principles, and moves.  The agenda defines the goals of Game Mastering.  The agenda informs the principles which in turn lead to the moves.

I’ve already broken down the Dungeon World moves into scenes of the Empire Strikes Back.  So I’m going to step back and highlight the agenda, so I can talk about the principles.

In short, the Agenda of Dungeon World is as follows:

  • Make the world fantastic
  • Fill the character’s lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

From this agenda, come the principles:

  • Draw maps, leave blanks
  • Address the characters, not the players
  • Embrace the fantastic
  • Make a move that follows
  • Never speak the name of your move
  • Give every monster life
  • Name every person
  • Ask questions and use the answers
  • Be a fan of the characters
  • Think dangerous
  • Begin and end with the fiction
  • Think offscreen, too

In both Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, there are lots of lists of possible names to use.  This helps with the principle of Name every person.  So in that vain, I’m going to

Name Every Person

Below is a list of names that I intend to draw from, both as suggested names for characters as well as names for the various NPCs that will inevitably exist in a village.

Damaran Men:  Garlen, Garvin, Curtis, Olaf, Baird, Jamison, Felix, Stephan, Harad, Harald, Geoff, Caden, Wally, Kelsey, Sandford, Grover, Rayner, Reynolds, Lachlan, Shel, Sumner, Barrett, Elwyn, Power, Audley, Sigmund, Stroud, Lemoine, Maxwell, Patton, Quin, Horace, Samuel, Braeden, Ricki, Pearson, Errol, Eldon, Norris, Gallagher, Rylan, Underwood, Rube, Randall, Trask, Barclay, Jolyon, Sappington, Carson, Barry, Green, Ariel, Brenton, Rier, Laurence, Adrian, Knaggs

Damaran Women: Winifred, Raquel, Charlotta, Anna, Katrine, Delia, Becky, Hailee, Bristow, Justice, Kaylie, Garrard, JoBeth, Joetta, Thomson, Ione, Lizzy, Rowbottom, Yolonda, Skyler, Taylor, Pam, Maureen, Cropper, Izabelle, Abby, Tatham, Joi, Dulcie, Neville, Georgie, Danni, Ware, Lucia, Flannery, Samson, Tarah, Faithe, Gilliam, Roslyn, Davinia, Tipton, Estelle, Jemima, Shepard, Maxene, Queen, Freeman, Clemency, Esme, Irving

Vaasan Men: Marko, Toivo, Valto, Karppinen, Edvard, Mauri, Tähtinen, Pietari, Tuomo, Harmaajärvi, Jalo, Niilo, Partanen, Aki, Juuso, Jarvi, Jalo, Matias, Ruoho, Lauri, Reko, Lehtonen, Ilari, Arvo, Virtanen, Anselmi, Valtteri, Ruotsalainen, Maunu, Hannu, Seppä, Juhana, Tero, Laukkanen, Pertti, Ilari, Pajari, Kaapro, Jaska, Ruotsalainen, Valto, Ale, Ruoho, Oliver, Joni, Seppä

Vaasan Women: Annika, Siiri, Eerika, Kulmala, Maarika, Marika, Nurmi, Anne, Satu, Saari, Ansa, Riitta, Partanen, Mirja, Annukka, Takala, Fanni, Lydia, Lehtonen, Arja, Lyyti, Jokinen, Lilja, Suoma, Pentti, Brita, Piritta, Linna, Erika, Ilma, Rautio, Kirsti, Johanna, Jokela, Kata, Senja, Ruotsalainen, Eleonoora, Raakel, Lahti, Inka, Pinja, Wuopio, Tiia, Kielo, Pajari

Dwarf Names: Nelin, Goimli, Hasil, Dimli, Boifur, Kinus, Roirin, Segan, Sirin, Glagan, Molir, Menus, Nolir, Hoisil, Kabur, Gognus, Boran, Bonar, Lolir, Gelir, Nelir, Hignar, Labur, Koili, Misil, Morin, Telir, Kilir, Folir, Rimli

Wild Elf Male Names: Banefox, Banewolf, Bladebuck, Cairnbull, Coldsword, Doomwise, Earthhare, Earthweasel, Emberdog, Embereye, Firehare, Firestar, Grandmouse, Hotboar, Lightsmile, Pathshot, Rootbane, Sadwind, Smiledrum, Songsting, Songwise, Stormpanther, Stronglance, Waterwhip, Zephyrroot

High Elf Male Names: Aniorion, Thril-Galas, Elvararil, Elvithraril, Nilmang, Thril-Gandil, Galólith, Glilmandel, Pil-Gan, Delung, Elóndel, Golith, Galumir, Celithralith, Belorfind, Elárion, Cólas, Fáriand, Tándir, Elil-Gal,Thráriand, Anuldor, Tinól, Hériand

High Elf Female Names: Unelia, Calil-Gania, Elrebridien, Elvioviel, Glithradia, Elvédith, Celil-Galia, Calówen, Cithrawien, Legaviel, Caléviel, Febriviel, Delinia, Galalia, Belong, Isaniel, Cadrielindë, Galaniel, Uradriedien, Uraradien