PLAYING THE GAME


WHO IS RIGHT?

    When GM’s and Player’s clash, who will emerge victorious.  The answer is no one, however, the common rule with most games gives power completely with the GM.  So is the GM always right?  Not exactly.  True, the GM does receive the power of God over his/her game; however, they do not receive the power of smite.  A common failing to all GM at least once in their career is pride.  There are ways to avoid being proved wrong.

THE GM’S VETO POWER APPLIES TO:
    Game storyline:  The GM creates it.  He/she has total power over history and backstory.
    NPC attitudes and personalities:  NPCs are just that.  Even if the NPC are friends of a PC, they are controlled by the GM and will always do what the GM says.  If they deviate from the profile given earlier, they should have a good reason.
    Character Creation:  The GM has full right to deny or bring down any attributers or skills the character wishes to tack on his/her character.  This also goes for Backstory, Personality, Perks and Stats.
    Rule Modifications:  The GM, at the beginning of a game, can choose to modify or remove ANY rules he/she see fits to improve the flow of his/her game.

THE GM MUST ADMIT DEFEAT TO:
    Common scientific laws the game chooses to endorse: Common laws, not disavowed by the GM must be followed if the situation comes up.
    The attitudes and motivations of Player Characters: The GM should never put words in the PC mouth the Player feels is not within their character.
    Plot Holes:  A weakness in the game, especially if the GM has been Improvising a lot.  The GM should try to work out the hole the best he can.  If not, the GM should just make a final word on the situation
    Information on institutions he/she is not informed about:  If the GM runs a game rooted in heavy Catholicism, then re-writes the bible, he will definitely annoy the devout in the group.  This applies to any group where the GM tries to include an organization another Player knows more about.  This is a GM weakness—the GM should have done the research.  Power falls to the common right.  If the Player knows more about the group than the GM and counters a decision the GM has made, the Player must back it up.  If proven right, the GM should rescind.

     I already mentioned the incident with the Marine Corps RPG.  In Pathfinder, everyone knew the game so well; there was never a conflict in the game Universe.  However, my biggest problem came with Craig.  He did nothing wrong.  Not at all.  It all became routed with the fact that Craig…was a genius.  I am not exactly sure where his IQ is.  I think we did a test once and his is about 10 or 15 more than me.  He also has boatloads of raw technical knowledge where my expertise was in the more abstract.  He admitted to me several times that he does not have the brain for imagination.  However, I admit defeat when it comes to intelligence.  I had to be extremely careful when it came to using techno babble since I knew if I was just guessing and I was wrong, Craig would speak up.  However, there was one moment where he nailed me on one very bad cliché.  My attempt for a standard ghost story lost all forms of tension right at a pivotal point.  One crew member announces like some great revelation, "Guys...I think its the Captain..." and then Craig blurts out, "Well of COURSE its the CAPTAIN!"  And all mood is flushed down the proverbial toilet.  At that point, the game was a crawl that was only saved by the overlying plot of the adventure around it.
    Ghosts never popped up again.  Thank goodness.
    I do remember Craig’s PC adding the remark, “Oh, come on, this is so clichéd!”

DICE ROLLS Vs. GAME FLOW

     Sorry players, but this MUST fall into the GM territory but there is a gray area open for argument.  If a character is struck without warning from behind by a very large bludgeon and is knocked out, unless the player offers a very good reason why he should turn and pop a cap in the ass of this bat wielding goof (“Shouldn’t the four other players behind me have noticed this chicklet brain before he cold-cocked me?”),  he is out cold.
     There are many moments in a game where to keep the flow of the game fast, the GM will avoid using die rolls, however, this rule really applies to the situations where the PCs feel there should be a roll when their shouldn’t.  Some players insist there should be a roll--a chance they have to change the outcome of a situation.  The obvious symptom is when a PC is listening to a speech a NPC is making and all the PC can think of is butting in.  It’s common that that a PC will always try to have the last word, no matter what.  Unless the conversation is over a radio or a phone and the NPC says something and hangs up, the PC will always try to get in the last word.
     With rolling, the Player always will try to justify rolling for something that the GM has decided already against the Player’s favor.  Sometimes, a failure is just a failure.  A GM may, in compromise, offer a difficulty so high, it would be impossible.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  It offers the player a slim chance of altering the future (leaving the room for an optional critical success) but it may also upset the Player by giving him a difficulty he/she has no hope of succeeding, making them think that their path is forced.  However, most experience role players with an experienced GM can encounter these fixed events and not worry that the adventure is linear.

     My biggest and probably only conflict in the years playing with Derrick came from a D&D adventure where Derrick played an Elf.  Now, the adventure was a published work, not an original (called The Egg of the Phoenix).  In a Dungeon crawl moment, the group comes across a strange artifact.  Simply put, the slug said that the object “places a charm that will effect everyone who touches it regardless of saving throw or race:” Derrick would not have this and promptly and rather pompously rolled his percentile dice.  Some might recall that elves are 90% immune to charm but this artifact was quite direct about its effectiveness.  Derrick became very upset and thought I was just picking on him.  However, the rule held and his elf was charmed.

     So in this case, I always go for game flow unless, as said before, there is a good reason for a die roll.  Like someone pulls a knife and lunges in towards the PC in plane view, the PC should be able to make a roll to avoid.  Every GM can weave tales of Players engaging in action no other human would attempt only because they know they may critical success.  This is common with Slashers—they commonly shoot first, shoot second, shoot some more, and then maybe ask a question.  A villain holds a bystander hostage with gun, ordering the PCs to drop their firearms.  In movies and most likely, real life, the PCs would lower their weapons knowing they are not that good a shot or that human life is too precious for such a risk…not so in many a game.  Blam… “Oh, I hit the hostage…oh well.”
     Another example, this time with the PC/s surrounded by insurmountable odds (like 10:1).  Anyone would surrender…seldom do PCs…. hardly ever actually.  PCs feel indestructible and knowing that they, for some reason, can withstand fifteen shots to the scrotum or a broadsword through the abdomen, they will take their chances, safe in the knowledge that most injuries that would send the normal human to the morgue, merely glances off the toughness.  The GM should not even give the Player/s the option.  Just say to them, “the odds our insurmountable.  Pulling your gun is a death sentence…guaranteed.”  Make it clear to the PCs that no on rolling will be done.  They will not survive.  Something aspects of the game will be out of the players hands…just as long as the GM does not control the PCs directly, there shouldn’t be problem.  Just don’t do it all the time, less the players think they are stuck in some Sierra game (King’s Quest anyone?)

     I already mentioned the incident with Bill and Derrick and the mech game where he we were surrounded 10 to 1, fought, and still won.  Derrick was renowned for never backing down from a fight.  He usually assumes overwhelming odds meant an exceptionally long fight.  Even in Conestoga, he would go up against amazing odds and I WOULD expect a fight from him.  PCs with guns think they are indestructible.  PCs with mechs think they are god.  However, one moment in Conestoga, I wanted him to surrender.  It would lead to him finally coming face to face with his arch-nemesis—his equal, Jagheel Adaigo.  However…he would have to surrender.  Let me tell you.  When you have no weapons, and a 30-foot tall robots bears a weapon on you…you surrender.  If I recall…that was the ONLY time Derrick ever surrendered.  Subtle, wasn’t it?

THE GAME ROOM – DO’s & DON’Ts

     The room can sometimes make or break a game.  Don’t believe me?  Trust me, cramping six players in bedroom with no chair and inadequate air circulation will piss off many and result in a group of uncomfortable and very smelly players.  You would be surprised how much heat five or six people in a closed generates

BIGGER IS BETTER:
     Classrooms have often been the greatest place for role-playing.  They include desks, chairs, and even blackboards!  They are also large, often secluded, and offer great ventilation.  However their greatest asset is that they’re neutral.  They don’t belong to anybody.  The group isn’t imposing on anyone.

MEMBER LOCATION:
 If the game is played at a player’s location, the game can suddenly come to a screeching halt if that player suddenly skips a session or worse, quits.  If anyone volunteers his or her house, best it is the GM.  It’s his/her game.  Either the case, the house location maybe appropriate but elements can add chaos.  This includes kids, parents, siblings, and animals.  Often enough there is time curfew or a volume restriction.  The group surrounds a Dinner table often enough, as people move in and out commonly, throwing off the moment of the game.  If it’s a basement, a room that can be cut off, even better.  However, try to keep the ventilation high.  It can get real hot, real fast.  And make sure everyone has adequate playing space.

MUSIC LOCATION:
 As I said, keep the speakers behind the Players via extension cords or perhaps behind the GM, but never in front of the GM, facing players.  Avoid having the radio playing.  It’s just a plan bad idea.
 
Weston:  "What was it like over there?" 
Brown:  "I have developed a permanent pyschogical quirk.  I'm not exactly calling it Disneyland."

DISTRACTIONS:
     There should be as little distraction as possible.  Open windows, but close doors.  Parents can be the most annoying.  Honestly, though, they don’t hang around long to be a large annoyance.  My biggest annoyance is from siblings and boyfriends/girlfriends.  Many want to talk, often as questions, and usually say very stupid things to ruin the moment.

     You name it, I have played there:  Bedrooms, Living rooms, Basements, and Pool Halls.  My computer room was a popular venue for smaller groups.  However, the heat buildup was extraordinary.  Even with fans, unless the window was opened, eventually no one could breath.  I have noticed basements work better than almost every location except for one…schools.  Schools offer an unbiased location for all to meet.  There were two basements that did stand out.  Both Derrick’s three couches on cement with massive wood tables and Charles' massive living room with couches, a loveseat, a recliner and a futon was great for large groups.  The local college was best.  It allowed great side moments when I would GM with just one player.  We would walk away down the hallway and just talk secretly.  The group played every Saturday at 7:00, and we were often enough, the only people in that section of the school.  We often got secluded rooms in the corner.  The only distraction came from a security guard that would arrive once every three hours.  We sometimes wouldn’t have the door unlocked for us and we would have to hunt for him.  One time, a new guard wouldn’t unlock the door for us even though we had the time booked and blocked.  So…we just sat there, in the hallways and played right there.  We were in the top corner or the school and no one came by.  It was an odd session.  The only down point came when I was late for a session.  I tripped on the rug and broke a rib.  I still have trouble sleeping on my left-hand side.

THAT BLASTED AWARENESS CHECK
     Call it what you will, there is always that famous out of the blue roll to notice something.  INT check, Combat Sense, Awareness roll, all the games have them in one form or another…it also give a player a complete lack of surprise when he/she discovers something.  But GMs still insist on using them because they believe it offers the Player some form of victory if you hadn’t just told them, “You notice a reflection in the bottom of that pond.”  Most of these rolls are automatic successes.  Unless you critical fail a roll, chances are, the GM will tell you anyway, especially if it’s critical to the plot somehow.  If the player fails, guess what, the GM will eventually ask you again soon.  This is especially true for large group games—It assures SOMEONE will succeed.  Combat Sense is another annoying skill.  It basically sucks the fun of a “Surprise attack.”  For smaller groups, try these ideas out.
     RANDOM ROLLS:
     Just lob a couple out here and there.  They have no importance and it sucks the fun of knowing “you’re about to discover something.”  However, this still sucks out the surprise.  I prefer the latter option
    PRE-ROLLS:
    Very successful in smaller groups, at the beginning of the session, have everyone pre-roll the respective “at the moment” skill, and then randomly or in order, refer to them when need be.  This is successful because A) it offers the player the use of the skill but still gives the surprise when the event happens.  And B), it gives the GM the opportunity to “fib” it.  You want a surprise attack on your group, go ahead and use that failure… A player complains that he should not have been knocked out because his combat sense would have warned him…simply shrug and say, “You did roll…you failed.”
     IGNORE THEM ALLTOGETHER:
     More successful than you might think.  When a Player plays a PC technically smarter and wise them themselves, sometimes the GM must interject some obvious knowledge.  You will be surprised how happy a Player is when the GM simply looks at the Player and says, “No need to roll, you know this area like the back of your hand.” Or something similar like. “You character knows this nefarious type, the guy’s hiding something.” Etc.
    Of course, combining all three techniques is totally valid.

THE RICHES CANBE PLENTIFUL…
    A common failing in many games is when the GM gives too much.  What’s even worse is when he takes it all away soon after?  It can be extremely frustrating for a player to be temped by something he/she can never possess.  I have noticed PCs care less about hard money than cool items they could use.  Most players are not rich, using the money soon to buy them…Cool items they could use.  Little eccentric items with seemingly a very unique purpose can often be greater treasures than the GM had imagined.  The problem comes wit the GM giving too much.  Suddenly the small victories are less important and the players get bored of their rewards.  However, its still fun to award miniscule unimportant items that many players take to heart.  Its best to avoid rewarding PCs with planes or battleships unless it is vital to the plot.  However, a new car is a viable option.  A pair of PCs I GM once came across a pair of superbikes once.  In Pathfinder, the PCs ran across a boat…of all things…but using a technology foreign to them.
     The most common reward is weapons.  Fighters like swords, Wizards like wands, etc.  However, avoid dishing out +5 weapons unless you are aware of the impact.  With modern games, guns are common treasures, especially for cyberpunk.  PCs love wielding odd and unique firearms, especially if they wander into some rare gun shop or find some advanced gun in a vault four miles below the Ptolmic River.  However, it is too easy to dish out weapons that radically unbalance the game.  The cool secret with cool guns, limit their ammunition.  Make the bullets very hard to come by or make bullets REALLY expensive.

     While in a weapons shop in some far off space colony in Pathfinder, Charles asked if the clerk had any really rare weapons.  Charles has been known to do this often at every outskirt colony shop.  He bought rare powerful guns.  But upon running out of ammunition, he would simply toss the weapon.  For the longest while, I never sold him a gun he had any desire to keep.  Only an old flachette 14mm seemed to hang around.  But this day was different.  The clerk pulled what was known as a Z1-Deckard.  This was an advanced pistol that fired self-propelled rocket shells.  But not only that but it would also auto-aim on vital organs or exposed vulnerabilities.  The first time Charles fired it, it took off the rear axle off a futuristic hummer.  “You’re a keeper!” Charles said and pocketed the weapon.  He never threw that gun away.  He even, at one point, walked back into an enemy base to confront a main bady just to get his gun back.  However the downside was ammunition.  They cost more than $1000 per bullet and were available in only half the places he checked out.

IMPROVISING
     Some GMs are natural at this…some can never figure it out.  Some GMs can weave adventures out of a whim.  A GM that cannot improvise should never be put into a position to do so.  To keep that from happening in an open-ended adventure, a GM should create several side adventures always on hand that can activate in a moment’s notice.  They may seem improvised, but in reality, the GM thought ahead.  In the case of an unpredictable group moving in a direction unexpected to the GM…the GM should just wing it.  If the game universe is very colorful, there should be no problem.  There is little advice to be added here.  Some GMs just have it…some don’t.  It improves with skill, and as the GM gets more comfortable with the group.  As the group plays longer and longer, the need for improvising reduces as the GM learns to predict a head of time where he believes his group would be going and plots encounters down that road.  The hardest moment for a GM is the first few sessions…they are make or break.

     During Pathfinder, I attempted an experiment in the first season.  As like a dungeon crawl, I incorporated random events in the life of the group like Raider attacks to ship malfunctions to unexpected windfalls to name a few.  Some specific instances of note included the crew finding drugs smuggled on their ship to a stowaway kid, and the life support shutting down.  The rarest type of encounter I rolled for was a new story.  I rolled such an instance during another adventure.  Halfway through a very edgy episode dealing with Joe’s PC’s loyalty and a race to locate this rare vessel equipped with nuclear weapons, the crew suddenly came across another vessel equipped with an automated computer system that had gained sentience.  Joe made an improper conclusion that this was connected to his adventure somehow and started lying to the group.  This didn’t help his cause…
 
Rio:   “I can’t believe you are shooting me with that piece of  Mail-Order @#$%!!”

CUE CARDS & BASE SKILLS

     Here is an idea for the GM…keep it simple.  You never need to write down every single statistic of your NPC or even the players.  So for every thug and villain, create a cue card.  On this card, place the following applicable numbers:  Hit Points, Armor, primary weapon stats, and all-important Base skills.  Base skills are derived from the old THACO of early AD&D and only apply to certain games.  Figure out all the skills the Character uses the most and add them to the applicable statistic.  As said, this only applies to games that deal with skills where you add the skill to a stat and roll a die to either beat it or add to it.  These Base Skills should include:  Awareness, Hand to hand, and all ranged weapons separated with their applicable weapon accuracies.  For games that don’t use skills that way, just write down all base numbers used most frequently.  PCs should do this as well to streamline combat.  For me, whenever I play in a game, I write these numbers in the often never-used “character sketch” space on a character sheet.
 

EG:  Cyberpunk 2020
Dorran Scallia HTH:  12 SP:  12  Rifle:  14
Gause Rifle:  4D6 Awareness:  13 Sniper:  16
Sniper Rifle:  3D6 Dodge:  14

     And yes, the GM should have Cue cards of all the PCs as well.  When combat occurs, the GM can just lay out the enemy cards in front and refer to them when needed.  Also it could be helpful for the thugs to have several duplicates or perhaps their cue card to have boxes to keep track of several NPC of the same stats at once.

STREAMLINING COMBAT:

     A NPC fires at a Bill.  Bill dodges the blast and returns fire.  The shot grazes the opponent who tumbles over a table.  The NPC bears his weapon on another PC, Jack.  The NPC fires…Oops…one sec.  The group waits as Jack check his dodge skill.  Now what was that again?  He checks his dexterity…then checks his dodge.  Okay.  What was his armor again?  What was the capacity of that armor?  He’s going to check…and the game grinds to a halt.  Nothing cheeses a group more in a combat scene when the battle slows to a snail’s crawl.  It shows a lack of professionalism in the player for not knowing their stats.  Cue cards are a great way to quickening the pace but some Players just insist on checking number and pages in books.  First of all, in large groups, the player should be getting ready for his/her turn before it comes up.  When they are called upon, they should be ready.
     The same goes even if it’s not a combat move.  If the scene is time critical, the GM is within power to give the Player a time limit.  Snap a finger and say, “you got five seconds.”  No answer or not fast enough—SNAP—move to the next player.  For combat, if a player does not have their numbers ready on hand for rolling, put on pressure.  Tell them they have ten seconds to give the GM a number.  Combat resolves in less than a fraction of the time it occurs in game time, so why should the players have the luxury of that time.  Smaller groups should be given a little more leniencies…but not much.  The GM, of course, must set the example and should also be as quick.  Tolerance should be offered to inexperienced players but make sure before the game begins, their cue card is ready and they understand what is asked of them.
     Combat can also be grinded down by introducing lots of opponents.  The GM should keep these numerous enemies simple.  Don’t have full stats for them.  Just keep their important numbers on hand.  Also, don’t make things more complicated than they have to be.  Keep the thugs virtually the same.  Keep some variety but don’t make them all different.  Mech games are notorious for this.  Some GMs like giving them lots of weapons and make them all different.  Do yourself a favor, and don’t.  Give them one weapon (maybe two) and have all the stats on hand.  Combat does not have to take the whole game session.  You can keep the choreography and keep the pace fast.  The Players should be on their feet; their characters are in danger by the way.
 
Lansall:  "The next time I use a car door for cover, don't drive the car away!"

FLEXIBLE RULES

     Rules are not set in stone but once they are changed, they are.  The GM is free to, at the beginning of the game, to change ANY rules in the game as he or she sees fit.  Write them down, to make sure they don’t come back to bite them in the ass.  As for in game rules, don’t change rules that previously favored against a player.  That’s just bad form.  Only change a rule during the game that has not previously come up OR if the rule change benefits the Players.  There is the golden rule.  Rule changes before the game can benefit anybody but rules changes during game play should always favor the players.  Changing a rule during the game that cripples a player will just annoy the group and make them believe the GM is picking on them.  There is the rare case when the rule benefits no one.  This is when changing a rule just makes the game easier, not better.

SPECIAL NOTE--RANGE:
    If I asked what the most forgotten rule in combat was, “Range” tops the list.  Why?  Honestly, in the heat of combat, Most forget to check.  Luckily science back the omission.  With the exception of arrows and blow darts, most ranged weapons easily can hit any target in the battlefield.  The only factor the GM needs to worry about it accuracy at those ranges.  Unless the combat involves a sniper, chances are, everyone shoots in range.  Of course, unless you ride in a mecha, then range really does matter.  In mecha games, the range of the weapons are intentionally retracted to keep the combat close and allow the opportunity of melee weapons top shine.  In firearm combat, just forget ranges and the GM should just force difficulties based on situations at hand (firing across a crowded street, etc).

SPECIFIC GAME TYPES

HORROR GAMES:
    Horror games are often the biggest experiments a group attempts in role-playing.  The first idea is to bathe the room in almost or total darkness.  Obviously, stat rolls are unimportant at this point.  Sometimes, dim red lights can be substituted.  The music has to be carefully chosen here.  Ambient music is best but chose wisely and don’t always have the same music playing over and over.  Hold back until you need it.  Keep their players on their toes.  If they can’t see it, throw a dice to the wall behind them.  Its cruel but it works.

    The lights were off, bathing the room in total darkness.  I was conducting some private gaming with Ivan.  He was outside the massive spacecraft “Maelstrom” as it closed in its ultimate destination, the sentient star known as Millennium Moraes.  Monsters started appearing on board the ship.  Ivan tried to shortcut around them to reach Derrick on the bridge.  Derrick was pinned.  I role-played privately with Ivan.  Derrick donned headphones and quietly sat out for a moment.  It got fairly warm after a while, even with the lights turned off.  We were all in the mood of the session.  Dave found the roaming fan somewhat annoying so he turned it off.  However, it got hot real fast.  While Derrick was out of tune, headphones on, I asked Ivan to turn the fan back on.  The Fan spun to life and started sweeping across the room.  At full blast, the breeze crept up Derrick’s legs without warning.  Derrick JUMPED and screamed.  It scared the hell out of him.

DUNGEON CRAWLS:
    Oh the horror, the horror.  Dungeon crawls are the bane of many experienced players. Usually a good sign of a weak GM.  However, this is not exactly the case.  Some experienced GMs still utilize Dungeon crawls.  Of course, the futuristic “Spaceship crawls” falls into this category as well.  The biggest problem with these easily is their predictability.  You know treasures come with monsters.  Traps lay around every corner, and the group will always get lost.  Suffice to what a GM wishes, a group getting lost in a maze is NEVER a good idea.  It only leads to stress to the group.  Crawls are usually devoid of plot and are often including lengthening a game session, or to give the players some much needed fighting and victories.  Here are some suggestions to ease the swallow of crawls:

    Have the map make sense:  Even some mazes baffle the intelligence.  But some maps double around, seemingly overlapping themselves.  They are there just to confuse and to frustrate the players.  Maps should make sense.  Place locations in proper areas.  On ship maps, don’t go overboard on repetitive locations.  The first mistake GMs make in ship maps in making the ships like a dungeon.  Ships rooms and hallways have to interlock, with little to no spacing between unless there is a reason for it.  Dungeons don’t have to work that way and can be a bit more erratic.

    Draw the map for the players:  When players start drawing maps based on the explanations of the GM, something will be lost in the translation.  Even if the GM sees the map being drawn, his judgment on how close the Players got it may be a bit off.  Its best to go right to the source.  It is a good idea then for the GM to draw the map for the players.  If in a classroom, draw it on a black board, or just hand the PCs an updated map, or just grab theirs and fill in the new areas.

    Don’t randomize the enemies:  There is such a term of  “too many monsters.”  When the PCs fight something new at every turn, it can get uninteresting really fast.  The problem is that the GM starts thinking of cool monsters for the PCs to fight but does not think if that monster should EVEN be there.  Throwing in cool monsters because they are cool showcases the lack of an unique image for this crawl.  The morale drops substantially.  Fit the encounters to fit the setting.  A GM will be surprised how enjoyment a dungeon crawl can be even if it lacks thirty battles.  Keep the fights important to the theme of the crawl.  Don’t randomize.  A battle out of the blue won’t spark up a crawl…it will make it drag.

    Give the location a purpose:  The word “random” is actually the bane of many players.  A maze crawl with no purpose other than to suck up game time can be very irritating.  Even if the GM is throwing it in to break up monotony or give the players some fighting time and some rewards, make it mean something.  Throw in a story.  I don’t care how, just make a destination.  Have a purpose.  Make the players motivated other than the sense of adventure.

     “Iron Helix” was an attempt at a science fiction dungeon crawl.  The Pathfinder crew came across an old space bomber.  It was not a huge vessel but it was a very detailed and logical five-decked spaceship.  Every deck had a purpose with plans that made sense.  It also contained a trio of defender robots almost impossible to defeat and very persistent.  By the time the first one showed up, the crew had already explored most of the ship.  I drew the maps of the various decks for them and soon, by the time the robots made their appearances, the group already knew their way around, but still could get lost and again.  It was one of the best episodes we ever had.  They were not aware of three robots that are launched only in single patrols—they first explored the ship to uncover why it never completed its mission.  The group split up of course.  Charles, Doug, and Carron explore the engine room and hear the elevator door in the hallway open.  But they hear the other group on the radio on the bottom deck.  The three hide deep in the service conduit deep in the reactor (a blind spot for the droid which cannot scan the tunnel because of the shielding).    The other group spots the first droid on the bridge deck.  It chases the groups that eventually find each other on the top deck.  The first droid is disposed off in the garbage incinerator.  There are two ways in, a service hatch and the main door.  The group led the droid in through the hatch but Doug had to hide in a service space to close the hatch behind it so the incinerator can work…lotsa tension there.  The second droid arrive in a standoff with Charles.  The exchanged firepower across an outside hallway, emptying every clip.  He destroyed it but there was still one left.  It was ejected out of an airlock.  This adventure was chopped full of great examples of choreographed music and detailed action scenes with interesting twists and character development…but its still basically a dungeon crawl.

MECH GAMES:
     You can quickly discover in a mech game which players are experienced and which aren’t.  Count how many weapons the mech carries…eight?  That one is an amateur.  Beginning players, when given the opportunity to design a mech of their own, usually go overboard.  They create a six limbed, transformable; techno-organic…that gets destroyed in the first session.  Clearly, the Mekton Construction System by R. Talsorian Games stands far and wide as the best Robot builder on the market, with more freedom than any other constructor around.  The GM firsts task is to assign the budget the players will have to build their machines.  This can be very tricky since it will form the basis for the rest of the game.  Too much and the mechs becomes almost parodies, almost impossible to destroy and the players start to flaunt egos and the game turns into the really flamboyant Anime like Dangaio and Detonator Orgun.  Too little, and the fragile mechs explode too easily, forcing replacement and new designs every month, turning the game into Gundam.  If the GM is proposing this, then march on and good luck.  However, the GM must determine ahead of time where he wants the PCs to sit in the spectrum of giant robot combat and stay there.  Keep the freaky modifications like Transformations and Techno-Organics away unless there is some reason to have them.
    As for the designs themselves, effective mech designs should master two of the three strengths of robots:  Maneuverability, Strength, and Toughness.  No one should ever attempt to conquer all three.  The super light fast mechs should also not be carrying the biggest gun.  Save that for the 80-tone monstrosity taking up the rear.  Remember how these rule systems work.  The smaller it is chances are the more expensive it is.  Keep the flamboyance to the look of the mech rather than stupid modifications it does not require.  Making weapons unique is fine, but designing six is pointless.  Study your fights.  Honestly…do you use more than two in a given fight?  I know the logic:  We need one for long range, one really powerful short-range weapon—oh, oh, need a melee weapon.  Can’t forget the melee weapons…or missiles…lotsa missiles.  Better get another long-range weapon case the primary one is taken out.  Suddenly, you have your budget spent on weapons, half of which you don’t even use.  These are points you could have spent on armor, weight reduction.  The GM should place a theme on the designs.  This is hard since every Player usually has a favorite anime mech show they want to emulate.  However, if the GM places some ground rules at the beginning of the design process, everyone is happy to work within the rules.  If this game is a military style, then mechs should be camouflaged and chances are energy weapons is nowhere to be found.  Suddenly the roles are reversed if the game is a medieval theme.  Now the mechs showcase huge shields with crests and everyone sports a melee weapon of some sort.  I say keep the weapons to a maximum of two or three.  Don’t slap wings on unless you really want to fly.  Bigger mechs should have more armor and carry the biggest weapons.  The GM should identity the pitch of each PC mech and make sure no one else steals his or her thunder.  If one PC is hell bent on being the fastest, then let him.  If someone else contests it, then the GM should stop one of the players…bring him or her down.  Let one player be the fastest.  Make sure the other player has something to be proud of.  One good way is to flag important and unique modifications to one mech.  Really cool modifications like energy shields or mega beams can be exclusive to one player only, prohibiting other PCs from duplicating the design.
     No one will know for sure how a mech will play until it enters combat for the first time. It may be dynamite on paper, but under practical application, even the greatest idea could fall faster than the Shuttle Challenger.  And just to note, these design alterations and knowing how to maximize your points, only refers to players.  The great aspect of being a GM in a mech game is that they don’t have to look at the budget when they design a mech.

     Just to reiterate, I know mech designs.  Many of my friends do as well.  I have had my share of dumb designs.  I discovered fast that in the heat of battle, you forget the little eccentricities of your mecha and just want to shoot with the biggest gun.  My best design was the Warhawk for Doug’s game.  It was the best because how it maximized its points.  I went for total efficiency.  No transformable.  A decent sized mech but not too small.  My mech ended up not only being one of the fastest  (only a transformable jet was faster) but I was also the toughest.  I had the second toughest armor on the second most maneuverable mech…and I had the best gun.   It was a rapid-fire energy cannon that dealt more than TWICE the force of any other weapon.  It had unlimited ammunition and extremely long range.  I had another weapon for emergencies, a point-blank range energy weapon that dealt even more damage.  By making it short ranged, I was able to keep the cost down.  I also made it fragile with a bad accuracy since point blank shots were easier and no one would think of taking my secondary weapon out before my main one.  Suffice to say, I ranked up more than double the kills of anyone else the group.
     I made errors too of course.  When Derrick and I created our meks for Bill’s game, we included a mod where we could combine and form an even bigger mech.  Well, it was a great idea…but we never used it.  We were better separate.  The only advantage was that we were faster when merged.  It was a waste of points.  Like I said, though, a GM has lots up fun designing meks because has no budget.  Jagheel Adagio’s mech for Conestoga brandished seven weapons, was faster than Derrick and could even achieve light speed.  It cost more than twice than Derrick…not including the light speed mod.  The best way to achieve skill in designing is to just trying out ideas…over and over again.  I designed more than twenty meks for Conestoga alone.
     Terminals was a great concept.  Everyone flagged two modifications available in the Mekton Technical System and this prohibited anyone else from using them.  Since the game dealt with people from different realities, each mech was completely unique.  One flagged Techno-Organic, One flagged Esper.  Another flagged Energy Shield and Gravitic Propulsion.  This allowed each design to be total unique.  And with each player having a pool of 2500 points to work with (that’s a lot), the meks were powerful to.
 
Max:  "I don't know what it is but it was shiny, small, and  probably pissed off."

THOSE CAMEO PLAYERS

     The final hurdle with larger groups brought together from a regular call in arises when certain players make sporadic appearances.  Some join, create a character, sit in one session, and soon vanish thereafter.  Some simply only show up when convenient or when a work schedule doesn’t conflict.  They arrive once every third or fourth session.  Suffice to say, this can really disrupt game play.  These events will occur so the player should not be punished for not showing up.  How the game responds depends on the situation.

ONE SHOT WONDERS:
     They create them, they play them, and then vanish.  Sometimes only one session, sometimes maybe two or three, but eventually, a player either looses interest or leaves because of one or several of the conflicts listed above.  No matter what situation makes them leave, the GM should never just let them vanish if more than one session.  One session wonders CAN simply “never exist.”  One of those guest stars on episodes of Xena or Star Trek that arrive and magically vanish, never to return, even if, technically, they are still around.  Several session players that vanish should be removed “in game.”  If they are never to return, kill them off.  If there is a chance, have them leave the group with a chance of a return.  The important thing to know is that the GM should NOT take the absence personally.  A GM shows weakness  if the GM takes the opportunity to settle a grudge.

     Joe left the Pathfinder group is controversy.  He was kicked out and I thought of killing his NPC off but at the last minute, I decided to just have his PC walk away.  He left the ship and vanished.  The other PCs assumed Joe’s character would join up with the organization that he spied for.  Joe (as mentioned above) tried with another PC but the character was denied entrance and the Player left, obvious never to return.  A year and a half of gaming later, Doug, the resident fighter pilot, encounters a nemesis pilot controlling an advanced craft as high-tech as his.  They tussle once above planet and the PCs main craft, the Vanderov, crashes during the fight.  Doug encounters the pilot later in a café in an intentional meeting, big surprise, I brought back Joe’s character as an NPC, still working for the bad guys.  Doug never played with Joe and only came on AFTER Joe left.  The talked.  Doug suspected his identity but wasn’t sure until the end, where the NPC revealed himself.
     In the climactic scene of the last session played (at the end of the last season played), Joe’s PC (now NPC), ambushes Doug’s PC’s in the cyberpunk world of Stasco.  They fought for twenty minutes.  In the end, Doug struck a fatal blow and the NPC crashed into a building, ending the life of Joe’s PC, two years after the player left the group.

SPORADIC PLAYERS :
 Things come up—school, work, spouses and children demand greater attention.  Suddenly a Player starts showing up less and less.  Missing a session is not a problem.  Its when the player only shows up every second session or third…then once a month.  What is to be done.  Well, first talk to the Player.  Does he or she really want to play or not.  If they still want to commit, there are two options:

    Semi-Regular Cast-Member:  Like TV shows, PCs can be semi-regular.  If that the case, give the PC an outing to leave game and return and have it believable in the story more than just suddenly “beaming in” in the middle of a scene.  Make a scene where the PC can re-join the group.  And have a scene where the PC leaves again.  The problem here is that if a session end prematurely in a spot the PC cannot re-join, he or she might have to wait in the new session for a moment where they can enter believably.

     Doug once missed the first session of a two-part episode of Pathfinder called “Mouth”.  The episode dealt with the group driving across a bridge on a planet and arriving a 1000 years in the future and the city has been taken over by a maniacal evil AI that has turned the metropolis into a Biomechanical nightmare.  It sounds cheesy but the creepy music and artwork by HR Giger really helped.  The episode was disturbing and scary.  The second session started with them still in the future but Doug didn’t join them across the bridge.  Unfortunately, he waited for two hours into the next session when the others returned from across the bridge and he missed all the fun.  Of course, they related what happened and Doug related that perhaps it was best that he not have been there.  One PC that did go across developed a permanent aversion to blood.

    Auto-Pilot Players:  Of course, if its just one session they missed or it’s a session where the PC cannot just walk away to go shopping, then the GM must take control.  They GM cannot make grand decisions on the PCs part.  All the GM can do is donate the useable skills, participate in combat, and offer commentary in the most Spartan degree showing character traits that are the most obvious.  And the most important part is this, when under control of the GM, the PC CANNOT permanently change.  The PC would only be killed under the control of the Player and never the GM.  Then the Player is away, they should be content with the knowledge that their character will not loose any weapons, armor, limbs, and especially not their lives.  This stems from the Players anger for GMs controlling their characters.  They hate it when they are there or not, but they have got to live with the fact that the GM will be playing them if they are away…but at least the Player will not return with the sudden shock that their character is suddenly a quadriplegic

     Derrick arrived at almost every session of Terminals until his schooling became a higher priority.  Then he started showing up less and less.  His PC was not popular with the group and something happened which upset me to this day.  While he was away, one PC became angry with what  Doug had done in the previous session.  Unable to really speak on his behalf, I tamed the arrogant character a bit and kept him in the BG.  However, it still did not work and the group decided that for the time being, his character (and his clone from another dimension…long story, see above) should be placed in a cell until they figure out what to do with both of them.  I tried to avoid this but hand to relent to PC demands.  When Dave returned two sessions later, I could not find a away for the PCs to let Doug out of the cell and he ended up sitting there for a full session.  He stopped showing up after that.  I didn’t blame him.
 
Rio:  "I am just having dinner with Aunt Sapporo and Uncle Ichiban."

RESPECT THE PLAYER, RESPECT THE GAME

     Don’t strip them.  Don’t confiscate player’s valuable possessions unless there is a good reason in the plot to do so.  Also, don’t destroy those players’ possessions that they paid for with their good money, unless, of course, it serves a plot point.  Just stripping a player or group’s possessions, especially those prided weapons, can cause real problems.  It can upset the Player as he just lost a something he/she spent hard earned money on.  Mecha are the biggest example.  The only way to destroy a player’s mech is at the hand of an opponent in battle.  Never just blow it up maliciously.  At the very best, take it away or give them the opportunity to get it back or another design later.  The more personalized the item, the bigger the risk the GM takes removing the item from the player.  The same goes for NPCs as stated above.  Don’t mutate NPCs the Player has taken to heart.

     Doug was a friend and a good player…but a bad GM.  He lacked good improvisational skills and felt no compunction of thinking that save for killing the PC, everything was up for grabs.  The game in question was Robotech.  Those who played know of the Beta fighter from the Invid Invasion.  Well, I loved this mecha.  Don’t ask me why but its my favorite from the whole game.  During the course of the two sessions Doug refereed myself and Ivan, I went through two of them, and neither were destroyed I combat.  I lost on from sabotage (blew up right in front of me).  The second was simply stolen.  That last one upset me.  You would think I would lock the stupid thing…
 
Berlin:  "Thanks...I'll remember that the next time I'm driving on  the surface of Jupiter.”