Monday, May 25, 2015

Come What May

This post, and the two before it, are linked in a number of ways.

They were all inspired by conversations with fellow gamers. They all follow, or are connected to, a similar train of thought (though they are periodically derailed by other ideas - it is me after all). Finally, all the post titles are lines from Shakespeare.


OK, maybe not freaky. Neat though.


I was discussing Plumbers in my last post, a type of player that focuses wholeheartedly on their own PC, for better, or for worse. Probably a bit of both.

The Plumber creates a character of great scope, nuance, and depth, but tends to ignore, or at the very least deemphasizes, everything else in the campaign. They can be the source of fantastic stories, subplots, and some top shelf drama and angst (often self-inflicted). They can also be scene stealing, moment hogging, self-absorbed pains in keister.

Now, as awesome, and difficult, as it can be to have a Plumber, having two competing for center stage can make even the most flexible, and resilient Gamemaster want to throw their hands up, and the players out a window.

If my own experience is any indication, the two stars will battle for top billing, and eventually turn on each other. While the nature of this conflict will vary, inadvertently it will be 'great television', but bad for the campaign as a whole. A game can certainly survive this kind of confrontation, but not without a few scars.


Knowing that I have these personalities among my group's number, what do I do now? How do I defend the next game against the issues that threatened to damage, or helped to wreck past ones?

To begin with, I have to note, both to my readership out there, and to myself, that Plumbers are far from my only obstacle. There are a number issues that must be overcome to create a great gaming experience for my mainstay group, though not so many as to be insurmountable. Were the obstacles to far outweigh the potential for enjoyment, I wouldn't bother to try, and fix them. Better to cut my loses in that scenario, and find a new group.

No, that's not what is happening here. What is happening is that there are some wires crossed, and I need to unplug everything, then make sure it's all plugged back in the right way.

Now, as to what to do with Plumbers:

If no one is having an issue with the scene-stealing,, um...dedicated, method actor (or actors), don't worry about it too much. They may frustrate  you (the GM) on occasion, but their activities are less problematic to a campaign's structure than they are to the group's interpersonal dynamic (usually).

Only the other hand, if the Plumber is getting on the nerves of the rest of the group (players, GM, or both), you need to do something about it.

First things first. If you have a player who displays the negative aspects of the Plumber, or any behavior detrimental to the rest of the group's enjoyment of the game, address it with them. Address it with the player in question, address with the group separately, but don't let it sit, and fester. Sometimes making people aware of a thing is all it takes to fix it.

Sometimes not.

Often (at least in my experience) the Plumber is only vaguely aware that they are being the Plumber.

They notice, for example, that they are very interested in their own character's personality, and motivations, but don't realize they are ignoring the game world around them. They know they're excited about following through with their particular character's story, and background, but don't see that their immediate, and/or constant pursuit of it takes the spotlight away from other PCs.

A little reminder now, and then can't hurt. This can range from politely pointing it out, to straight up saying, "You had your moment, and your scene. Let this person have theirs. It's not only about your PC". The approach you take should be based on how severe the Plumber's self-absorbance is, how well you know the player, what's worked in the past, and what hasn't, and of course, what you the GM feel comfortable with.

If you have more than one Plumber, you may have to work doubly hard to keep things from spiraling out of control. Of course, if one Plumber is manageable, while the other isn't, get rid of the troublemaker. I want to make it clear that I view this as a last resort, but a resort nonetheless.

Anyone else have any thoughts on the subject? I'd love to hear them.

Happy Memorial Day Everyone, and a great, big, Barking Alien Thank You to our men, and woman of the armed forces. Also to the canines serving this country, who hold a very special place in my heart.

Barking Alien

PS: A number of notable, recent passings I'd like to acknowledge on this day.

Anne Meara, actress, comedian, playwright, wife of Jerry Stiller, mother of Ben Stiller, passed away on Saturday, May 23rd, at the age of 85.

John Forbes Nash, Jr., the Nobel Prize winning American Mathematician who was the subject of the film, A Beautiful Mind, was killed in a traffic collision on the 23rd, along with his wife Alicia. He was 86.

PSS: To offset the sadness of these passing even a bit, I would like to wish a Happy Birthday today to actor, director, puppeteer, and all around amazing fellow Frank Oz. Frank is well known to Barking Alien fans for his work with the Muppets, and as the voice, and performer for Yoda, in the original Star Wars trilogy. Have a great one Frank, and many more!

Oh, and I had a date today. No foolin'.

See you soon!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

More Matter for a May Morning

Man oh man! Am I behind on my May posts or what?

I have so much planned, so much I want to talk about this month, and new ideas for posts are coming at me all the time. That said, it's already the 20th, and I am no where near where I wanted to be in my self-proposed, poorly executed blogging schedule.

Damn. That's right, I said damn.

OK, these post aren't going to write themselves. I better get cracking.
First, let's continue where we left off yesterday...

My good pal WQRobb over at Graphs, Papers, and Games, and I had a great conversation one night where he mentioned The Plumber, a player type described in Aaron Allston's brilliant Strike Force supplement.

Did someone call for a plumber?

No! Not those kind of plumbers.

No! Not that kind either.

A Plumber in this case is a type of player whose gaming enjoyment comes from exploring the depths of their own PC's character. This means, essentially, that the part of the RPG gaming experience they like the most is the part where they get to role play their character, explore their character's motivations, goals, backgrounds, and anything else that forms that which is their PC.

Plumbers are great for developing in-depth backstories, and being proactive in pursuit of plots, and subplots that involve their characters.

The drawback is that they often have very little interest in, or interaction with, the other PCs, the NPCs, and the world/setting, unless such individuals, or things pertain to their PC, its interests, plans, etc.

Now many groups have a least one Plumber among them. Not every group, but a decent number I'd wager. Enough that Aaron Allston put it in his Strike Force book, and both WQRobb, and I were able to say, "Oh yeah. I've seen that."

One can be tricky. Two in a small group can be a problem, although in a large group not so much.

Two very prominent ones in a group of 5 or 6 players, and yeah, it's an issue.

Welcome to my world.

Among the biggest problems with the Plumbers is that they hog the spotlight. I have seen situations where they don't let the other players have their own moments with their own PCs, or they constantly butt into those moments when the Plumbers own PC is no where nearby. In modern, and futuristic settings they often claim a convenient omnipresence, usually via some form of communicator, or perhaps a telepathic power.

Generally, I think bringing it to the Plumbers attentions is sufficient to begin moving things in the right direction. Most Plumbers don't realize they're hogging the spotlight. They are just really excited to play their characters. Unfortunately, to the GM, and their fellow players, what it begins to look like is that the Plumber is not interested in the other characters, PCs and NPCs alike, and that they don't care for/about the world the GM has created for them.

When you have two Plumbers, you have classing spotlights. It becomes a very 'Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck' kind of situation. Each vying to be the star of the show, eventually one starts to do more, and more outlandish stunts to grab the groups attention. This usually backfires, causing the group to look to the other Plumber for stability, and a sense of what to do next.

While this is going on, all the other characters will seem secondary, unless the GM is acutely aware of what is going on. It's up to the Gamemaster to make sure he, or she gives ample opportunities to the other players to have their PCs do, and be something awesome.

Competing Plumbers can potentially kill a campaign. They can also make it really exciting. It all depends on the players' level of maturity, the people wrangling skills of the GM, and the other players acceptance, or defiance of their roles as supporting cast.

Now, picture if one of these Plumbers also...bugger, out of time. I'm off to work.

Until later then,

Barking Alien

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rough Winds Do Shake The Darling Buds of May

Portions of this post come from a text conversation I had with my friend Marcus, a phone conversation with my friend Rob, and an email conversation I am having with another friend, Dan. I have tried to use as much of the wording verbatim as possible, but some of it has been paraphrased, extrapolated, and of course added to.

Barkley always dresses up when I use
a Shakespeare quote for a post title.

I've been a bit discouraged, and even bitter of late in regards to the games I've been a part of, with a few exceptions. I want to apologize to the GMs who work hard to make for an entertaining evening of dice slinging, and story-telling.

My frustration comes from my feelings toward my own gaming group, our difficulties in executing a long term campaign beyond our current one, and the RPG campaign I intend to run with them once Traveller - Operation: PALADIN concludes.
Let me be perfectly clear about what I mean.

I love these guys. They're a great bunch of friends, and good, honest, solid Human beings.
Our Traveller game has been fantastic. Seriously one of my best campaigns ever, especially with regard to the depth of character, and personality shown in the PCs. 100% Pure Awesome Sauce.
Anything else we try crashes, and burns.

Now, I'm sure a lot of it is me. I'm the Gamemaster after all, and it's my responsibility to make sure it all works. Not without player assistance mind you, but in the end, a campaign's failure weighs heavily on my brow because I see it as my fault it didn't take. Sometimes the players think it has taken, but I don't like it, or where I can see it going, and I kill it. Again that's on me.

Bottom line is I'm the one who figures out how to make the magic happen, and the one who wonders what I missed, what I could've done better, when the magic doesn't show, or goes away.

It isn't all me either though. I've run many a great campaign over the last 37+ years. I've only had major difficulties in the last five years or so.

So what happened?

A major factor is that there are expectations, opinions, and ideas that each of us have that are so intrinsic to our natures, so ingrained, they can't be explained to others. If they can, perhaps they can not be easily understood. Very often, we aren't even aware that we think the way we do, as we've never had to look at it before.

Superheroes is this for me. I've been reading Superhero comic books since before I could read, watched innumerable cartoons, live-action TV shows, and movies, and tried to use D&D to run an X-Men game before I knew there were Superhero RPGs. I went to art school hoping to become a comic book artist.

I can recommend a list of comics you should read to play in one of my Superhero games, tell you which Superhero RPGs I prefer (I've played practically every one ever made), and I can give my players a 20 page handout on what our campaign will be like...but none of that matters if you don't get Superheroes that way I do.
The conclusion I've come to after pondering this profusely, and looking back on being a popular GM for so many of my friends for so many years is not going to be a popular one. It's one that any sane, creative person (an oxymoron?) will tell you to avoid like the plague.

Cater to your audience.
Fandom entertainment should, in my humble opinion, buck the tradition of giving the audience what the studio execs think the public wants, and instead try giving the audience what it actually wants to see.

I fear, in violation of my own instincts, and long years of experience, I have been playing the part of Hollywood, and DC Comics. Emboldened by previous successes, and focused on perceived potential rather than practicality, I have forgone listening to my own advice, and someone has thankfully called me on it.

I came to this mad epiphany this past Friday while texting with my friend, and player Marcus. I can't believe it, but sometimes this dude has amazing insights.

He wrote:

"If you make the game about the game, not the PCs, but about the story, they [the group] are not going to like it."

Our [RPG group's] Traveller campaign works, not because they (the players) made characters for my game, or my story, but rather because I made a story based on their characters.

Every other game we've tried has failed because I am trying to get them to make characters for this game idea I have.

I realized today - No! No, no, no! That's all wrong. That doesn't work for this group. It doesn't work best for a lot of groups. I need to create a story I like based on the characters they make. It's the approach I've taken so many times in the past, but thought that I could get a little more experimental. A little more, dare I say, 'New Jersey Group'.

Now, it must still be a story I like. It must be a genre I enjoy. But as GM, I'm the host, the MC, the person there to entertain them. After all, don't we as GMs feel a rush when our players say what a great game we ran? On the other hand, if we have a ball, but they hated it, and never want to game with us as GM ever again, who suffers? Who wins?

Marcus warned me that, although this may be the key to creating another game as great as the Traveller one, it comes with a price...

"If you do it the other way...if you focus on the PCs first, and everything else might have to deal with self-absorbed PCs."

Marcus is right again, but I feel like I'm going to have to deal with that anyway. It's the nature of many of the players in the group. I might as well get a good game out of it, right?

You see, I've got a few Plumbers in the group.

But that's a bit of business to be told on the 'morrow.

Barking Alien


Monday, May 18, 2015

May Monday Muppet Madness

This past week, and weekend, were quite hectic. I have three, or four posts in draft form waiting to be finished, and posted. While working on these posts, preparing for future games, and attending to my Real Life TM, I came to notice that the 16th of May had passed without a proper Barking Alien mention.

I can't let that be the case, so although belated, I want to commemorate the passing of perhaps my biggest inspiration, my greatest hero - Jim Henson.

I usually prefer to honor his birthday on this site each year in September rather than note his day of passing in May. I should make it clear that this year is no different. However, it's been a long time since he left us, 25 years now, and it seemed appropriate somehow to remind us all of his outstanding contribution to our collective culture, and our imaginations.

Jim Henson, as much, or more  than anyone else in the history of entertainment, and learning (through Sesame Street), has bestowed upon the world an unending supply of the gift that will never tarnish, never fade, and never go out of style.

Laughter. The third greatest gift you can give someone.

Rest in peace Jim.

Oh, silly me, I had some good news to deliver as well...


I'm a touch excited.
Coming this fall season on ABC, the new series, simply titled 'the muppets.', will take my already viewing heavy Tuesday, and truly put it over the edge. I hardly watch television, but for some reason the three or four shows I do watch are all on Tuesday. What the heck is that about?
The series will be done in a mockumentary style, with cuts to one-on-one interviews, and other elements that will give you a behind the scenes look into the character personal lives. It is a more adult take on the Muppets, but not in a risqué way. Instead, it seems like it's more set for primetime, as opposed to being aimed at kids.
Personally, I think this is a great idea, although they'll have to watch that fine line between mature, and too mature for those hoping to see an all ages Muppet show. In my opinion, this will work if they periodically do movies that are more accessible to everyone (like The Muppets, and Muppets Most Wanted).

I am really looking forward to this, and hope it'll give me some new insight, and material for my Muppets RPG, which I am also eager to get back to working on.

Jim, you done good. Your legacy continues as strong as ever.

Have a Muppet Monday everybody!

Barking Alien

Friday, May 15, 2015

May The Wind Be On Our Backs

Posting has been nigh impossible lately as I've been busy with, well, so many things I don't even know where to begin.

Luckily, I have had the time to get some gaming in, including a Star Trek campaign with my alternate group here in NY.

While the gaming schedule for this particular group can be best described as 'haphazard', I am very pleased to say that Star Trek: Prosperity, once merely a hopeful series of one-shots, has indeed blossomed into a true, full-on, Star Trek RPG campaign.

Ventura Class Starship
Design and Illustration By John Byrne.

Furthermore, as we approach the end of the initial story-arch I put together, I let the group know that 'Season One' would close with our next session. I gave them the option of ending the campaign there, and I could run something else, or continuing with these characters, and this campaign for a 'Season Two'.

I am happy to say that the group unanimously voted to continue with the adventures of the USS Prosperity and its crew.

While we had some bumps in the road early on, attributed to differences in playstyles, and expectations, the group and I (as Gamemaster) have gelled well overall, resulting in a game that works, and is fun for everyone.

Now I'm sure that's almost like my saying, "Good gaming group with good game is good", to a lot of people. If the players and GM are on the same page, the game has a likely chance of being enjoyable, and successful. If they aren't, it won't. Duh.

Well, there is a bit more to it than that...

Ship and Planet By John Byrne
Background from NASA

Compromise has been path to success, and in meeting everyone halfway, we discovered something new lying where our journeys met.

Some feel (and with very good reason) that compromise is a dirty word. Campaign design by committee may sound too hippy-dippy for you conservative, OSR types, but I've found it produces some really positive results. In fact, as was the case here, it created a whole new kind of playstyle for a game, and a setting, I've run dozens upon dozens of times before.

I declared at the very beginning of the campaign that the game would be set in the Original Series era of Star Trek, around the end of the first TV show's second season, but before the third (and final) season. The reason for this choice was that the group mostly consisted of older players who, like myself, preferred and were more familiar with TOS, or so I thought.

In addition to giving everyone a pretty clear idea of what kind of technology the PCs would have access to, what uniforms they'd be wearing, the look of the starships, and other spacecraft, etc., the choice of era helped define the overall themes, and pacing of the sessions.

In comparison to The Next Generation, which features a lot more technobabble and problem-solving via staff meetings, the Original Series is more action packed, and deals with 'cowboy diplomacy' in many cases.

What I found (actually what we as a group found) was that many of the players were more familiar with The Next Generation, and post-TNG than expected. In addition, most of them liked the TNG approach, or rather the TNG/DS9 approach, to problem solving.

With the exception of the fellow playing the captain, the group is less inclined to get into battles, whether it be fisticuffs, or phaser fights. While they liked the look, and rough and tumble nature of the Original Series' version of the Star Trek universe, they largely preferred to handle obstacles after thorough investigation, and through the clever use of technology.

The end result has been a campaign with an overall feeling that it's a true hybrid of the sensibilities of both TOS and TNG. The series itself is largely episodic like the Original Series, but each adventure has had a component that connects it to the next. In addition, from the first session to the most recent, the PC's vessel has been carrying representatives of an alien species back to their homeworld.

The aliens in question, representatives of the Dramian people, are not hostile to the Federation, but nor are they allies. They have been suffering through outbursts of a plague on the colony world of Dramia II, and the captain and crew of the Prosperity have offered to help them combat it. In addition to saving lives, it is the captain's hope that our efforts will improve relations between the UFP and Dramia I (aka Dramia, or Dramen Prime).

With the next session, I hope to get to the bottom of the mystery that's been running through the game so far, and deal with the Dramian situation to some sort of conclusion (even if temporary).

After that, well as I stated near the beginning of this post, I guess I get to work planning Season 2.

Ahead Helm, Warp Factor 4,

Barking Alien

Sadly, this post took much longer to write, and post then I intended. I am late in noting the passing of yet another Star Trek alum.

Grace Lee Whitney, who portrayed Yeoman Janice Rand in the original Star Trek series, and several related movies, passed away of natural causes on May 1st, 2015. Ms. Whitney was 85 years of age.