Friday, October 2, 2015

What Hell on Wheels Taught Me About Being a GM


I blame my mom for this one. We had gone over to my parents' house for vacation and had a blast. Having family around to take Micah when Maria and I were tired was a godsend, particularly after that grueling 22 hour trip where we discovered that Micah doesn't sleep in cars, not voluntarily at any rate. So we were tired and I was feeling only slightly homicidal after having a screaming offspring in the car for that amount of time. So I asked my mom if she had seen any good TV recently and she immediately started talking about Hell on Wheels.

Now, part of her love of the show is undoubtedly cause she's a Southerner at heart. I mean, she was a bayou rat for criminy's sake, you don't just get that out of someone! And there's the music, of course: good Western, not that crappy stuff y'all call Country. But the take away was that the characters were really well developed. It was a character drama, through and through. I like character dramas a lot, so I decided to give it a shot. And I'm really enjoying it! We're in the middle of the second season as of writing this blog post (which you probably won't see for another month) and Hell on Wheels has a lot going for it. Watching the show has made me start taking mental notes on how to incorporate some of it's techniques into my own Burning Wheel game. Here's what I've seen so far.

A Slow Burn is Just Fine. I'm a very impatient man by nature. If something's going to happen I want it NOW. Hell on Wheels has managed to keep the narrative going by being patient and building the groundwork. The Swede isn't a major villain in season one so much as he's an annoyance. Well, one major thing happens and then guess what? He changed his outlook and all of a sudden he's a big problem. Let the people in the background develop, because eventually it's all going to bleed together and someone's gonna get hurt. And that's good for story.

In Oasis, my current Burning Wheel campaign I decided I was going to introduce the Children of Lilith, an all-male race of Lilith's children, into the campaign before the players had adequately defeated the werewolf threat that had been bubbling up for about ten sessions.  And before they solved the mystery of the Red Death, a plague that's been decimating the Iron Kingdoms. Now I have to tie the three threats together and make them one super threat. That's going to be a headache. Yay me.

When in Doubt, Conserve. It's pretty simple, actually: make your player's plans your plans. Want to introduce a death cult? Make sure at least one or two of the players' relationships are in the cult. Yes, I said in the cult. They might be fooled, they might not be, but that's not the point. You want people to have something at stake that's personal. It's always a better idea to use something that the players already know and have invested in than not, unless you're intentionally expanding the players' field of vision. Just make sure you actually need to introduce new elements, cause if you throw in too much you can get swamped very easily....

In Oasis this happened entirely by accident. The game had started with a riot. The lord of the city, Watcher Constantine, was a relationship of Vincent Durant, a slimy PC. A few sessions into the game and Vincent decided he was going to poison Watcher Constantine and take over the city. He decided he was going to do this with red zombie flesh. He wanted it done immediately so he did it himself and... Watcher Constantine became a blood lich. Instead of hating Vincent for poisoning him Constantine thanked Vincent for making him superior and opening up to Rahbarl, the archdemon beneath the city. Constantine then went on to further the riot that had been going on by murdering his way through the city, infecting people at a high rate. It took Joel with the Sword of Uriel to stop Constantine. I had a completely different idea in mind but, when Vincent's player handed me this low hanging branch, how could I not grab?

A Well Fleshed Out Setting Makes All the Difference. This doesn't really mean if you know the grand history of the setting, although that might help. The following things seem to be the most important, going by Hell on Wheels: what's happened in the last five years, the sensate aspects of your immediate setting, and what the common class looks like. Because, if you have all three of those things down, you know what everyone around you has experienced recently, how it's impacted their immediate surroundings, and what they think about it. That alone will make the place feel real.

Yeah, I'm terrible at this aspect. More on that as I develop it more.

Most of being a GM seems to involve sitting back, taking what your players want, combining it with what you want, and allowing the dice to make it unpredictable. I definitely recommend gathering as much of your stuff from your players as possible and only adding things when you need to get stuff moving. Players provide really good raw material, it's up to you to kick them in the balls and make them choose a direction. You don't choose what they do for them, you just give them a good enough sting in the rear to make them jump. But the better you conserve, the more patient (but not sluggish!) you are, and the better you flesh out the immediate setting the easier it'll get for players to make a decision.