While the previous chapter, The Story, deals with the narrative, imaginative aspects of the Elysium game, this chapter deals with gamers and how to manage a gaming environment. Much of the information presented here is geared towards the GM, but can be helpful to players as well.
A GM can't run a game unless there are players who want to play. There are a few things worth remembering when it comes to the players. Firstly, keep your players happy and they will no doubt keep coming back again and again. Also, consider how many players you want. Lastly, determine what kind of players those folks are.
There are plenty of theories out there on how many players make the perfect gaming group. I think the reality of the situation is that each GM has his or her own preference when it comes to the size of a gaming group, but that there is no magic number. Many of us, when we first started running games, took as many players as we could get. Few of us were burdened with an overabundance of interested players. This worked out well for us, since beginning GMs should start with smaller groups and work their way up if they want more players. Remember that you have to find a place to play where your players will be comfortable. You will likely be responsible for contacting them and letting them know when and where you'll be playing next. On top of all that, you will have to keep all of the players interested in coming back session after session. You might also be delegated to order pizza.
I will say here that the larger the group, the more responsibility the GM has. Really, the style, mood, drama and action of the story work best with certain group dynamics. For small groups of 2–4 players, things like horror, mystery and dark fantasy work very well, in my opinion; when you don't have a sea of comrades at your side, the things that go bump in the night are a good deal scarier. For large groups of 8 or more, a long-running epic campaign works best, as you'll need plenty of time to get around to bringing each character to the fore for a bit of spotlight. Plus, with so many heroes, you'll need more villains and schemes than usual and it takes time to cultivate a truly dastardly nemesis.
For my part, since I enjoy creating dark moods and an atmosphere of intensity, I prefer 3–5 players. I'm often tempted to let more than that join the game, but if I do cave and allow more than 5 players I'll usually have them jump in only for a single adventure or a few sessions. If I really can't live without them in the game, or if they spread the guilt trip on thick enough, I'll cave. Eh, I'm a softie, what can I say? The name of the game is fun, and so the real answer for how many players is best is this: however many players is fun for you, and fun for them, that's how many you should have.
Each player, regardless of character elements, has a certain playing style. Some players have styles that fall into distinct categories. As a GM, it helps to be able to recognize the playing styles of your players and tailor the story and game to them. There have emerged, within the gaming community at large, terms for some of the more challenging playing styles, like the ones noted below.
- Rules Lawyer – These players make it a habit to know every rule inside and out and will read all the source material. More than that, rules lawyers feel it their duty to point out the rules, clarify rules, and complain when someone doesn't play by the rules. Sometimes it is challenging to remind such players that the GM has final say. Also, just because the rules lawyer knows about a piece of information, that doesn't mean their character knows about it. In a positive light, these players are very useful as walking encyclopedias. If you can't remember something about the rules, chances are the rules lawyer will.
- Purist – These players seek to embody an archetype or aspect of a genre staple and do not stray from it. Purists can be aloof when it comes to other PCs that don't fit the purist's notion of an ideal character. Also, purists are limited in their ability to build dynamic characters. The nice thing about purists is you more or less know what to expect from them.
- Existential Detective – These players are always plumbing the depths of the character's motivations, personality, and background, and seeking to come to a better understanding of the character. These players can sometimes get too caught up in picking a character's brain, but when it comes to getting a detailed background on a character for use in building the story, there is no better source than the existential detective. These players will provide you with all sorts of plot ideas.
- Combat Junkie – Rarrrrr! Eat my steel, evil ones! Combat junkies live for one thing and one thing only: to get their characters into combat as fast and as often as possible. Combat junkies will often use any excuse to start a combat. This can be tiresome when every encounter you place in front of the PCs is ruined by this player's combat frenzy. At the very least, the combat junkie keeps things interesting. Just be careful the combat junkie doesn't get the PCs into trouble too deep.
- Tagalong Tim – Some players just show up to hang out with their friends. They don't put much effort into fleshing out their characters and just go with the flow of the game events. You can't rely on a tagalong to lead the party or take much of an interest apart from what the rest of the PCs can agree on. What tagalongs do well is provide excellent backup for other players and characters. The tagalong will usually bond with one PC more than the rest. Players' significant others sometimes become tagalong players. Many tagalong players can be coaxed from this backseat role if a clever GM can appeal to their interests, but some folks were just never meant for the driver's seat.
- Micro-strategist – These players feel the need to plan out every little action to the smallest detail. Micro-strategists often are so focused on the details that they can't see the bigger picture. While the Micro-strategist is devising plans on how best to tackle the horde of monsters, his fellows have already run in and dispatched every last one. These players are put to good use in delves with lots of traps, or deciphering puzzles, or putting together complex plans of any sort.
- Concept Thief – These players see a character they like somewhere else. Maybe it's in a movie, another game, a book, whatever. The point is, these players rip the character off and use it as their own. Remember our talk about archetype? The downside to this is the character might not exactly fit with the setting or it might be extremely obvious who the PC is modeled after. The upside to this is that this tactic has been used before to great results, usually in comic books or satire, where characters are pulled straight from classic literature and given a new purpose. Concept thieves have a hard time coming up with original material and may require a little prodding and guiding to try something new, which you should encourage them to do if easily-recognizable, recycled characters don't fit with your story.
- Power Gamer – These players seek to outdo everyone else in the gaming group by building characters which are superior to their fellows. The power gamer becomes very involved with maxing out stats, gaining powerful items, and amassing large amounts of gold. Power gamers can instill in the game a friendly competition between players, or they can destroy morale and interest. Keep a short leash on power gamers and they will likely remain eager members of your gaming group who play well with others.
- Agent of Chaos – The Agent likes to create chaos and disorder. These are usually players which are new to the game or campaign and have little invested in what is currently going on, or they are players who have become bored. If you ignore what your players want from the game, they are all likely to become agents of chaos, and not in a fun way. The nice thing about agents is that they can breathe new life into stale campaigns, often in un-looked-for ways. However, if you've done a good job as a GM, and followed the advice in this chapter and the previous one, you shouldn't need the help.
- Mad Scientist – These players are the ones responsible for some of the strangest concept combinations to date, and often take great joy in playing characters of the opposite sex or something taboo. Have you ever played as a half-elven vampiric were-crocodile high priest of the moon goddess? Who doesn't want to play that? Pay attention to mad scientists: they are full of fresh ideas. Just remind them to turn it down a notch if their ideas are a little too radical.
- The Face – The Face loves speaking in character, interacting with the GM and various NPCs, and getting emotionally and mentally involved in the story. In a great gaming group, everyone is a Face, contributing equally in character to social interaction, but most of the time there is one player who directs most of the diplomatic efforts of the group. If the Face player creates a character with low mental and social attributes, it may be difficult for them to avoid taking up their old mantle as the ambassador and speaking eloquently and persuasively with NPCs. A good GM will remind the Face that they should play their character appropriately, try not to hog the spotlight, and encourage all players to interact with NPCs instead of always relying on a Face to do it for them. However, the Face is great when it comes to showing other players how NPC interaction is done. They can lead by example and encourage everyone to participate by inviting other players into conversations with NPCs.
These caricatures of players aren't included here to be mean. The morale here is that there are many different kinds of players, and they have wants and motivations just like dynamic characters do, especially when it comes to how they game. Tapping into those wants as a GM is crucial to running a good gaming group, and recognizing what you want as a player can help that along.
While there can be many players, and sometimes players might have more than one character, there is only ever one GM. Game-masters, this means that you need to do your job well, since no one else is going to do it for you. Don't fret: being a GM isn't as hard as it might sound. Here are some helpful and motivational snippets…
Be an Authority
The GM is the final arbiter on which rules apply in the game, and which ones don't. Whine you may, quote the rulebook you can, complain to us in writing you are free to try, but the GM has the final ruling, period.
The GM is the referee, the umpire, the storyteller, and the tech support. Don't be afraid to flex your GM muscles and keep order in the game. If the players are getting off-track, gently and firmly guide them back to the action. If they still refuse to pay attention, threatening to squash their characters with a pipe-organ or flaming whale often brings their attention back to the game. My players used to call this tactic "GM's Blue Lightning." Nobody's character ever got struck by lightning (at least not because of paying attention poorly), but the thunderclouds definitely gathered on a few occasions thickly enough to get their attention back where it should have been.
When there arises a dispute between two or more players, it will fall to you to solve the dispute if they cannot. In the case of any problem like this, there are two ways to deal with it: out-of-game or in-game. For instance, if Brian and Jon have a disagreement because Jon had his character Akare steal a cherished item from Brian's character Phineas, the GM has two options. Settling the matter out-of-game involves taking both players aside and talking it out to make sure there are no hard feelings. The GM might explain to Brian that stealing is part of Akare's motivation, and part of the game is helping your comrades overcome their shortcomings. The GM should also remind Jon that it's pretty uncool to steal stuff from your buddy's character. Jon might relent to the GM's advice and have Akare return the item or its cost to Phineas, or confess and seek to atone for his moment of weakness.
Dealing with the issue in-game, the GM might have a rival thief steal the item from Akare and attempt to sell it back to Phineas. Or perhaps a powerful agent of justice sees Akare's larceny and forces him to return the item. Dealing with problems out-of-game breaks up the action and involves working with the players, and dealing with hurdles in-game is something GMs take upon themselves to work out.
Game balance is important since without it, characters die left and right, the story goes nowhere, the villains move into the suburbs with your parents, cats begin shooting lasers from their eyeballs, and everything goes topsy-turvy. Maintaining game balance means that...
- No player character dominates the action of the game
- No player character can possess an item, spell, or power which makes him or her invulnerable, omnipotent, or overpowered, or in any other way ensures they are not of a relatively equal standing with the other player characters
- The party doesn't always lose (This sucks)
- The party doesn't automatically win (Can you say boring?)
- No player receives preferential treatment (see below)
Whenever something comes along to disrupt the balance of the game, the issue must be dealt with, either in-game or out-of-game. If Skorna finds a magic axe and ends up becoming over-powered because of it, the GM can have a talk with Skorna's player Michelle about ways to fix this, or in-game find a way to deprive Skorna of the troublesome axe. If the GM notices that Tim's character Drinnin is hopelessly underpowered, the GM can either give Drinnin access to a new power or item that levels the playing field, or have a chat with Tim about either beefing Drinnin up a bit, somehow, or creating a new character if he tires of chasing the other characters' heels.
Correcting the other instances of imbalance hinge mostly on the players letting the GM know the game is lacking and alerting him or her to the cause. This is impossible if there isn't free dialogue between the players and the GM about how the game is going. Players, feel free to talk to your GM about what you want out of the game.
The players have to trust the GM. If the players can see that your main goal is for everyone to have fun and to weave a good yarn, well, they will likely trust you. Giving the players and their characters rewards for a job well done not only helps to establish your fairness, but promotes a good vibe. Be sure that when the PCs do something right, and do it well, they know it on both counts.
Personally, I scoff at the notion that monsters always keep huge piles of loot and magic/special items laying around in their lairs. This makes no sense for several reasons. First, if the bad guy in question has any intelligence at all, he would be using those special weapons against the intruders who have so rudely barged into his home. Secondly, who keeps huge piles of money in places where other people can easily find it? I know if it were me I'd either put it in a bank or spend it, and by that I mean that I'd definitely just spend it. Thirdly, if we assume the monster is not very intelligent, how would it know to hoard gold, precious jewels, and priceless artifacts?
I encourage GMs to make creative and clever use of rewards and not to rely solely on the old standby of leaving inordinate piles of money under the monster's bed or gleaming, magical weapons hanging around in hallways. A tact I often use is the concept of milestones: when the PCs reach and overcome a challenge which has great importance to the story, I reward each PC with a Fate point along with their Expoints. Sometimes a little extra oomph helps a character stay alive more than big bags of cash. Big bags of cash just draw muggers and thieves.
Being fair means being consistent, especially in your handling of disputes or rules interpretations. If you make a ruling on a vague rule or make a house rule, be sure to stick with it. Players don't like having their understanding of the game, world or story amount to nothing.
Personal relationships also shouldn't affect fairness. If the GM's girlfriend is in the player group, and she ends up with all the best equipment, an endless supply of money, and an invulnerability to damage of any kind, well that's not terribly fair, is it? Also, excessive snogging during the game is discouraged.
GMs should be like Boy Scouts. No, you don't have to wear a neckerchief. You have to always be prepared.
- Know the rules. Whether you are running a game for veterans of Elysium or new recruits, you'll find yourself teaching aspects of the game to your players. You'll have to know the rules before you can teach them. Also, the better you know the established rules, the more flexibility you have with creating house rules and running long campaigns.
- Know your own material. Know your NPCs inside and out, particularly their motivations, personalities and possible reactions to the PCs' actions. Know how your cities and dungeons are laid out. Heck, draw up some maps. This will allow you to help the PCs navigate the streets. Knowing your own material helps keep things fluid; when the PCs take a course of action you hadn't planned for, you will be ready to adapt to the situation if you have a broad understanding of the world you have created.
- Know your players. Each player is different. Some players crave combat and action, while others revel in well-constructed plot twists and intrigue. The greatest tool at your disposal in this regard is built into character creation: motivation and personality. By asking your players to flesh out their characters using these tools, you are helping yourself. It is spelled out for you: if Dusty's character Nox seeks to earn a warrior's death in combat with a worthy adversary, you know that he likes combat. If Deidre's character Cyrilla seeks to find her estranged father, you might surmise she is more interested in a colorful story. Also be aware of some of the stranger player types (see above) and how to work with them.
- Know your limits. As stated above, there is no magic number of players/characters which works best in a gaming group. Experienced GMs might allow players to play more than one character at a time. Beginning GMs or GMs running large groups of players should not allow this, unless they know they can handle it, or unless their game is structured to accommodate that kind of chaos. Also, figure out how much time you have each week to prepare for your game night. Don't bite off more than you can chew, and prioritize your gaming preparations.
Expect the Unexpected
Murphy's Law applies: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong, and there are plenty of things which could go wrong in a session. Keep extra dice, paper, pencils and sodas on hand.
Bad things happen to good people, and frequently when it rains, it pours. I have seen entire parties wiped out by bad luck, poor planning, or poor choices. While there should always be consequences to the PCs' decisions, sometimes the best thing to do when disaster strikes is to keep the story going. The show must go on, after all. If you have to fudge some of your own rolls or bend a rule here or there to keep the game fun, by all means do so.
If there does not exist even the possibility of defeat the game becomes boring. So, it is only natural to assume that sooner or later, the PCs will suffer defeat. They may suffer crippling, bitter defeat which sends them home with caskets and crutches, or they may suffer the bittersweet taste of a compromised victory, a task only half done, or not done well at all. Regardless, count on defeat happening eventually, and don't let the adventure sag because of it. Keep things rolling.
You may find that one player doesn't get along well with some of the other players. If this player makes the game uncomfortable or un-enjoyable for the other players, it is best to tell the player what they are doing wrong. If the player proves unhelpful with their behavior, you may be left with no other choice but to ask that player to temporarily leave the game, maybe for a few minutes, maybe for a night, maybe for the entirety of the campaign, but definitely until they can get themselves under control.
Introducing a player who is new to the current campaign can be difficult, as they may need to be brought up to speed on some of the important points of the story. However, if the character wouldn't know what was going on, maybe the player shouldn't either: this might help them better play "in-character." If they are brought up to speed, have the other players inform them in-game, in-character. Bringing someone to the group who has never played before is more of a challenge, since they probably won't know any of the rules. Don't let this ruin the action for the other players. While the game is in session, teach only the parts of the story or rules to the new player that are necessary, and help them learn the rest after the session. Encourage your players to help you out with this too. Rules Lawyers are always up to the task.
There is nothing wrong with players who are only up for playing in the campaign for a session or two. There are plenty of story reasons for this, and you shouldn't discourage interested players from joining your game simply because they can't commit to playing every week until the cows come home.
When a player doesn't show up for a session, you have a few options of dealing with their character. You can…
- Have another player control the character for that session.
- Run the character yourself, just as you would an NPC.
- Disease/poison is a great in-game reason for a character to stay out of the action for a session.
- Have someone call the character away on short errand.
Be an Example
Stay focused. There is bound to be a certain amount of off-topic, out-of-character discussion and joking around. But if you keep the distractions you pose to a minimum, the characters will follow your lead and stay focused.
Put some effort into your material. When the players see how you've really thought about the setting, and NPCs and antagonists, they will seek to put thought into their own characters.
Treat others the way you would like to be treated. In just about every gaming group I have been a part of, everyone took a turn at running a campaign as a GM at some point. This meant that we all had a good idea of what it was like to be GM and what it was like to be a player. It really did help. You realize that sooner or later your head will be on the chopping block, so you aren't as eager to watch heads roll, so to speak.
Be a Storyteller
Do you and the players describe the action using first person or third person narration? First person: Jon: I swing out of the saddle. "Name's Akare. The crew here's been ridin' all night to get this bag o' sin to you in one piece. Hell, we been ridin' for days. I believe there was a rather hefty reward mentioned?" Third person. Jon: Akare swings out of his saddle. He tells the sheriff that we've been riding non-stop to get the prisoner here safely. He asks him where the reward is.
It doesn't matter too much which style you use. In fact, most players and GMs will use a combination of both.
- Use illustrative descriptions. While a picture is worth a thousand words, you don't usually have pictures for everything you are describing. Besides, the game is about engaging the players' imaginations.
- Be consistent in your descriptions and speak with a purpose. Don't tell the PCs a lot of information that doesn't help paint a picture in their minds of the scene at hand or clue them in to something important going on. The devil is in the details.
- Remember the Elements of Story. Whenever you read a book, regardless of what kind of story it is, try and pick it apart a bit and recognize the elements of story in it.
Role-playing games can become heated, where some players get into character and speak or act as that character in a way that ruffles feathers. Not all players will agree on every course of action. Characters are sometimes created which are opposed to one another. Sometimes bad things happen and someone gets blamed. In the excitement of the game, sometimes tempers run hot and patience frays at the edges. Your job in these times is simple: be cool. It's just a game, after all, and it should be fun. Once it ceases being fun, there is little use in playing it. There will doubtless be times when the players get heated, so you'll need to stay cool and try to cool things down for them. If things get a little too heavy, the best thing to do is step back from the game for a bit. Take a break, get a bite to eat or a drink, walk outside and get some fresh air for ten minutes, then come back in and keep playing. Or not, depending on what else you feel like doing.
The other aspect of being cool is attracting players to your game. Personally, I greatly prefer to play Elysium with my friends, rather than people I don't know at all, but I'm certainly not against the latter. I've made some good friends as a result of being thrown together as a player or GM with players I didn't know. The best scenario, I think, is a gaming group of friends which brings the occasional fresh blood to the table. We all had to start gaming with one group or another, and I can tell you that getting a group together, whether made up of old friends or new, is a lot easier if you are a nice person. Coolness has little to do in this context with what kind of clothes you wear or who you hang out with or what you do on the weekends. Coolness has to do with an easygoing confidence and ability to let the little things slide. Coolness is about being able to connect with people. I've gamed with GMs and players who weren't cool; they were stuffy, aloof, insecure, defensive, and tried to tell me how to play my character or run my game. I never gamed with them for long.
Now that we've talked a bit about player types and traits of a good GM, it's only right that we spend some time on the playing of the game, and playing it well. The following points are pieces of advice for when it comes to getting your group together.
Most gaming groups meet once a week for a three or four hour session. More than that is fine, if you are up to the task, but playing less than that means you won't get much done and eventually, your story will likely fall apart.
Simply put, the more you play, the better player or GM you will become. It doesn't matter if you don't understand all the rules right off the bat. Chances are, you are playing with someone who does know them, and that person will help you along.
Dealing with players who don't show up can be problematic, especially if that player doesn't call to let you know they aren't coming. Waiting for someone to show up delays the game, and is inconsiderate to your fellow players. So if you have to bail, let someone know, preferably the GM, so you don't hold up the game. You might be bummed that you can't be there, or maybe you really don't want the group to leave you behind. Don't worry about this: we all miss sessions. This applies to Game Masters too. Don't run a weekly game and then forget to call your players to let them know your parents are coming over for dinner next week on game night and that you can't play. You'll have a bunch of angry players throwing dice at your window and demanding you make them lasagna too.
Where does one host a gaming group? Often, the GM hosts the gaming group in his or her home. This makes it easy on GMs, who have a lot to prepare for each session and don't relish the thought of lugging all of their stuff around each session. If the group decides to play somewhere else, it is usually to accommodate one of the players or because that person has an area which is better suited to hosting the group. Wherever you play, be sure each of the players can get there on time. Be sure also that there is someplace comfortable for the GM and each player to sit, where the GM can be seen and heard clearly. Very important as well is that the gaming area features a level surface(s) close to the GM and each player on which they can roll their dice. If the gaming group is gathered around a table, that's fine, but coffee tables and side tables work otherwise. Common sense dictates you play somewhere with access to a bathroom. I hope I don't need to spell out why.
Good places to game:
- Someone's home. Typically it has all the essentials: a table, chairs, a refrigerator, heating and cooling, and a bathroom.
- A game shop. Many stores which specialize in gaming merchandise make table space available for customers. Some even have vending machines.
- At a convention. Conventions or conferences dealing with gaming are usually rife with playing surfaces and many eager players.
- Club space. Often schools and other institutions make space available for private clubs, and gaming is a noted hobby.
- Community centers. Youth clubs and places of worship are great places to hold a game with friends when available.
- Rented space. If everyone pitches in, meeting space can be quite reasonably priced. Sometimes it comes with perks such as complimentary coffee, dry-erase boards, or projectors.
Bad places to game:
- Nuclear Testing Grounds. The good news here is that you are not likely to be bothered, unless it is by a race of bloodthirsty radioactive mutants, which is the bad news.
- Loud places. "The barbarian swings his what at who, now?"
- A bathroom. I don't care how much you like rolling dice in the bathtub, it's just weird.
- Outside. While I have run many successful outdoor sessions, usually on someone's back patio with a big picnic table, plenty of other well-intended ideas for playing outside fell flat. Conditions such as rain, wind, ferocious bees, obnoxious kids, curious neighbors, and paranoid players make playing in an outdoor environment tricky. Just remember that wherever you play, you want to keep distractions to a minimum.
- Any place someone is likely to get hurt. "Let's play Elysium near the road! Let's play Elysium in an abandoned coal mine! Let's play Elysium in a bare-knuckle boxing ring! Let's play Elysium on a bed of broken glass!"
- Any place currently in use by other people. No one wants a d10 in their mashed potatoes.
- Anywhere you are likely to be recurrently disturbed by others.
|Telling your players when they can and cannot eat may sound a little draconian, but I had a player attempt to eat a steak and baked potato during a game once. Don't ask me. We stopped the game for a dinner break and he came back to the house a half-hour later with a huge meal in hand. Everyone else was ready to go back to the game and he had just returned with his food. I decided to start the game and told him to go ahead and eat while we all got started again. Sadly, the player missed out on some stuff in the game because he was so intent on his steak. Plus, it was really inconsiderate not to ask us if we wanted a steak or something. I love steak. So players, be courteous, especially to your GM. If I had it my way, the GM would never pay for dinner… (hint hint).|
A rant about snacks at the table: Some GMs don't mind when players brings snacks and drinks to the gaming area to enjoy during the game. Other GMs can't stand the crunching sound of chips and dip exploding from every corner of the room. The ugly truth is this: everyone gets hungry. Sometimes the players won't want to stop the action of the game to take a dinner break. My advice to you is to take a dinner break. It keeps the constant snacking to a minimum. My personal rule is to allow whatever beverages the players want to enjoy, and to set out some snacks which don't make a lot of mess or noise. I stop the game at an appropriate point to break for food, but ask the players to finish whatever they are eating before coming back to the game.
When it comes to figuring out how often to play, consult your players and find a time each week which works best. Some groups prefer to decide which time and day to play each week as it comes along. Other groups have a set day and time to rely on. Either way works fine and usually depends on whether the players' schedules are ever-changing or more or less set in stone. Some groups meet on a bi-weekly basis, but it is harder to maintain interest when the group meets that rarely. Anything less than that and you are going to have a real hard time keeping a story rolling. Hey, even bowling leagues meet at least once a week.
Teamwork. It is a proven fact that people who work together to achieve their individual goals, and are willing to compromise for the good of the group, will find more success than a group of people who call themselves a team, but who actually compete among their own ranks to achieve the same thing.
- Ask Questions. If you don't understand something, ask. If you don't, how can you ever expect to understand it?
- Goof around a bit. Tell some jokes here or there. In my groups, we give away an extra Fate Point for "Quote of the Night." At the end of each session, we decide who had the best in-character quote for that session. Most of the time these quotes are just hilarious things a PC said in the course of the game. It's just my way of saying "thank you for making me laugh."
Play Something Else
While this might amount to shooting myself in the foot, I've always believed that since inspiration comes from many sources, one has to open themselves up to those sources before inspiration strikes.
To that end, play lots of different games.
Elysium is a fairly adaptable system, and we designed it that way because we realized that other game systems we used limited our options and made some of the things we wanted for our characters impossible. Even between different editions of the same game, converting a character from one game to another can be a frustrating process.
Playing other games leads to fresh ideas, perspective on just how good a particular game is really, new friends, or inspiration for your own campaign or game. We started this Elysium endeavor because we were tired of the game we were playing and the limitations it imposed. We branched out to other games and game systems which still couldn't fill that void, and so finally we decided that if we wanted it done right, we had to do it ourselves.
The rules included in this book are more like guidelines than rules. While the GM should feel free to impose whatever rulings he thinks are fair and necessary during a game, he should also be able to amend or ignore rules which don't seem to contribute to his campaign. Important to remember, though, is that the rules included here aren't included without reason. Every gaming group I have ever had the pleasure to jump into a game with has had house rules which they had designed for their campaign. You'll see many of our own house rules called out in the book here, but surely you'll eventually stumble onto some of your own.
With original material comes original rules and approaches. The Elysium RPG does not have a class system. Characters do not "level-up." If you want to include these elements in your game, no one here is telling you that you can't. If you want to allow for a greater variance of chance, use a twenty-sided die for rolls instead of a ten-sided die (as long as you don't use a twelve-sided die… just… just trust me).
Most traditional high fantasy features the triumph of the "good guys" over the "evil guys." Elysium allows for that sort of game, sure, but really we wanted to open gaming up to the moral ambiguity and difference of opinion present in real life situations as well. Sometimes things aren't so black and white, other times they are. It can be hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. You can run either kind of campaign with Elysium. This isn't a rules issue, per se, but a style choice.
One of the coolest things I ever saw a GM do with regards to the style of campaign she wanted to run was this: Lisa, our GM at the time, had us create some heroes for a campaign. She told us the campaign was going to be the typical good vs. evil kind, so we should concentrate on making our characters champions of light and goodness and sunshine and farts, or what have you. We had done it a hundred times. The pretty boys march in, kill the orcs, depose the bad guy, save the girl. When we were done making our good guys Lisa took the character sheets and said "These characters look good. They'll do just fine as antagonists. Now make some bad guys. You guys are going to be playing villains.
I'm pretty sure there was a stunned silence at the table followed by a heartfelt and tearful "Thank You." As I remember, that campaign was a lot of fun, and opened up a lot of debate on the nature of right and wrong and heroes and villains. Lisa made the "good guys" really big jerks who did terrible things in the name of righteousness, and we were the misunderstood miscreants under the heel of a propaganda machine. Maybe our characters did deserve the notoriety we suffered, but by the end of the campaign, we had set the world somewhat to rights, and fulfilled our own personal motives. Most importantly, those "villainous" characters had changed dramatically.
There are two settings which will be made available to gaming groups playing the Elysium game. These are called "Burning Destiny," a traditional high-fantasy realm complete with elves, dwarves and dragons, and "Otherworld," a setting which has been dubbed "mage-punk", which focuses on more alien races and a world caught up in the conflict between father industry and mother nature. And yet, for all of our hard work and seemingly good ideas on these two settings, you may find yourself saying "What garbage! Where do they come up with this stuff?" If you determine, for whatever reason, that you want to build your own planet, world, plane of existence, whatever, for use with the Elysium game, I have only one thing to say to you…
Elysium was designed to facilitate a wide array of genres, styles, settings, characters, and rules. The old adage holds true: if you want something done right, do it yourself.
While it may be tempting to create an entire world right off the bat, complete with characters from the loftiest ruler to the lowliest thug, I can tell you from experience that this is a laborious and time-consuming endeavor. The Elysium game has taken us years to pull together and the settings involved, for as rich as they are, were the result of a slow and careful evolution. For our part, we likely started too big.
What you find is that you really only need one town, one city, one dungeon, one band of characters to start with. From there, the player characters and the game tend to help you work outwards and develop the lay of the land. If you start small, and put your effort into thinking about fleshing out your small coterie of people, places and things, you'll have a rich game setting. Meanwhile, if you put all your energy into trying to create an entire planet of people, places and things, the fine detail will suffer neglect and your ideas will be harder to make palpable. Cities and towns will begin to feel superfluous to the players and the NPCs will seem flat and unrealized. The point is, don't spread yourself too thin, don't bite off more than you can chew. As a GM, you have a full plate as it is. Start small, and if you find that this works well enough for you, start tackling a larger chunk of the world on your plate.
The Large Chunks
When it comes to fleshing out the centers of civilization in your setting, there are some things you might want to consider. They are listed here because it would be mean not to.
- Government/Power – Who is really in charge? Is the place ruled by a monarch, a council, or an outside force? Who really pulls the strings?
- Racial Demographic – What races are present in the place? What does each think of the other? What are their roles within the community?
- Currency – What do the people here use as currency? What sort of things are valuable here? What kind of equipment is available? Why is some unavailable? Is coinage universal or is there a barter system in place? What items can only be found on the black market?
- Laws – In most places, things like robbery and murder are considered illegal and carry deadly consequences. What of other laws? Is adultery punishable by death? What if picking lilies got you thrown in jail? Does wearing white after labor day earn you a hefty fine?
- Customs – Very simple traditions are called folkways and include things like never lying to your parents or going to confession after a shopping spree. Wearing jeans on casual Fridays at work is a folkway. Mores are more serious beliefs which are sometimes linked to laws. Always mowing the lawn on Thursdays or never telling lies are mores.
- Beliefs/Religion – Do the people believe in primordial spirits which haunt the countryside? Do they worship the stars and planets? Do they have a pantheon of gods they follow? This ties closely with customs, and usually gives rise to many.
- Physics/Science – How many moons/suns are present in the solar system? Are there other planets which bear life? Is the sky red? Is blue fruit poisonous?
- Technology and Magic – How technologically advanced are these people? Is magic present here? Do the people believe in it?
The campaign setting in which your games take place are — like other rules in Elysium — rewritable. The world in which your stories live doesn't have to be a rigid framework. You should feel free to tailor it to your needs. Take an existing campaign setting world and remove the cities or add new ones, change countries and the people who live there, and make the world in which you play feel like your own.
People change, and those changes can be very personal or they can apply to the adjustments whole races of people make in order to adapt to new surroundings or lifestyle. Maybe the Sidhe don't fit into your vision of a dystopian cyber-punk future-society. Leave them out. Maybe instead of Dark Elves you want Dark Dwarves. Go for it. What kind of world would it be if Sobaki stood fifteen feet tall and had eight-arms? You tell me. Could Halflings all be evil, malevolent beings? You betcha. What if elves all had blue hair? What if, indeed?
Sometimes an event in the history of a campaign setting just doesn't fit with your idea for a session. Be our guest and retell the past as you see fit. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of modifying a story that's already been laid out, just look at a major comic book publisher — they do it all the time. Maybe it's not the history of the world itself you want to modify, perhaps you want to set your game thousands of years into the future where space travel is commonplace.
Modifying World Elements
What happens when magic decides to stop working? Curious to find out? Or perhaps in a magically-starved world, you want to make all kinds of things powered by sorcery. Maybe you want to add firearms to a medieval-like time period or take them out of a more modern one. Changing the features of a campaign setting in this way is a great way to establish fun and interesting games.
Personality of Place
Characters aren't the only things that have personality. Your locales should also be three-dimensional. Knowing what the personality or mood of a certain location is will help in your descriptions. Most players will know from reading books and watching movies that the graveyard is generally a bad place to be at night, and that summer camps with creepy lakes are to be avoided at all costs. There's no need to tell the PCs that the abandoned mines are dark and eerie, or that the palace of the king is stately and clean. But what if that graveyard possessed statues of the goddess of light and love, and a feeling of tranquility and rest resonated there? Maybe some of the characters' family members are buried there. Suddenly the cemetery has gone from a place where zombies are likely to emerge from their graves, and turned into a safe place to rest, regroup and meditate. What if the palace of the king is beautiful, but unclean, suggesting the kingdom is falling into neglect or disarray? What if the evil minions who have taken over the mines are actually benevolent subterranean creatures who need the characters' help in making friends with the nearby surface towns?
These are all ways to turn a trite, overused locale into a three-dimensional location. There are uses for the tried and true staple locations like the dungeon, the warehouse, the cave, the bad guy's fortress, the creepy forest, and the ruined church, but if that is all you have to offer, your world will lack a feeling of originality.
The One Night Stand
From smallest to largest, here are the chronological building blocks of an entertaining game: action, round, session, adventure, campaign, epic. Many actions happen in a round, many rounds fill a night's session, several sessions make up an adventure, two or more adventures start a campaign, and a very long campaign is an epic.
Some adventures, some stories, are just too small to be spun into a long-running campaign. Their scope is limited to be very concise. Often, these brief adventures are referred to as "one-nighters" or "one night stands." Sometimes the people in your gaming group are just too busy to commit to anything besides a one or two session story. Other times your group just wants to try something new for a night, maybe a new setting or a new type of story. Perhaps there are some house rules the group wants to try out before incorporating them into a long-standing game. Often, GMs offer to run one nighters for interested players who have never played Elysium before as a way of showing them the ropes. In this way, the new players aren't intimidated with all the complexities of the game and the GM doesn't invest a whole lot of time writing an intricate storyline until the players voice an interest in coming back for more.
Building Short-story Characters
One nighters are like short stories in literature. The storyteller has to get to the meat of the thing very quickly. There isn't much time for long exposition or for exhaustive investigation into countless characters. Thus, there isn't much use in creating characters with very complex backgrounds or motivations for use in one nighters. You won't get around to all of that in one session. Personality is always important, however.
Also, some Trumps and Faults aren't the most useful in one nighters. Faults like Nemesis, Loved One, Nightmares, Vengeful, Dirty Little Secret, Bleak Destiny, and Beyond Good and Evil beg the question of what happened to the character to get to that condition, and what is going to happen in the future? There won't be enough time in one night to really get into the ramifications of those Faults. Likewise, Trumps like Driven, Nine Lives, and most Social Trumps aren't going to give characters the most bang for the buck.
Players should feel free to create characters with complex backgrounds and motivations, and use whichever Trumps and Faults are appropriate, so long as they understand that these things don't always get a lot of spotlight in one-night stories.
Keep It Nailed Down Tight
The term "one nighter" isn't literal. It is the nature of this game that a story the GM estimates the PCs will breeze through in a session will actually take longer. One nighters often turn into three nighters and in many of the games I have run, I give the players the option to jump into a campaign with the same characters if they so choose. In light of this tendency, GMs should try to keep their one nighters concise and the players on track.