2011 year end retrospective of ORC Edinburgh

ORC Edinburgh has had an “interesting” year – in the same vein as “May you live interesting times!”. This has been my second year as defacto ORC webmaster (and general heid yin) for ORC Edinburgh. I’m going to try to create these reviews on an annual basis.

The year started off in a neo-Ice Age with many us either negotiating the icy planes of Edinburgh or trapped in drifts of snow. However, we persevered, both players and GMs alike traipsing through the snow and ice to game! Then in February, disaster struck: the Meadow Bar suffered an extensive fire that gutted the function room where we played, depriving both us and the Edinburgh University boardgame Society (FAQ) of a venue. It’s happened before: Cafe Nero, The Royal Engineers Club, the Three Tuns…

ORC Edinburgh has a history of getting together and adapting, and its definitely one of our strengths – for a community of (essentially) volunteers we do quite well. Thankfully a member of ORC (Deleriad) noticed that board games and the like were being played in Illegal Jacks, a new bar and grill on Lothian Road. It turned out to be an astute choice of venue, with very nice food and a fine choice of music (I might be wrong, but most RPGers tend to be fans of rock music of some kind).

With Illegal Jacks as our new “base of operations,” we were able to run two or more games a week there. IJ made us very welcome there, even to the extent that we had our own table! It gave us the chance to welcome screenwriter and RPG designer George Strayton and playtest his game, the Secret Fire RPG (then called Legends & Labyrinths). Edinburgh’s own Drunken Badger games also provided ORC with the opportunity to playtest their RPG, Cliché: The Roleplaying Game of Predictable Horror as well.

We also said hello to a lot of new members and farewell to others – and also farewell to some  long-running campaigns. Both my Ashes of Freedom game and the New World were wound down, although it is likely that AoF will return later in the year. We’re also back in the refurbished Meadow Bar function room which has much nicer décor now as well, but still run games in Illegal Jacks and Cafe Renroc as well.

By far one of the most popular games to play at ORC was D&D. Love it or hate it, the granddaddy of them all was still going strong. Regardless of your feelings about the game it remains as popular as ever with many new people entering the hobby. Quite a lot of new players are looking to play D&D – some have been influenced by web comics like Penny Arcade or via computer games such as Neverwinter Nights. There appears to be a bit of a dearth of DMs running games though  – however Embracraig is running a consistent game at Cafe Renroc on a fortnightly basis. This new venue proves popular with those gamers who live nearby!

Another old favourite, Call of Cthulhu, returned in the form of the mini-campaign Cthulhu Brittanica: Shadows Over Scotland. This is currently hugely popular at ORC – I may also run some of these adventures next year myself, as well as finally getting my Arunstoun setting completed! In related news, my Cthulhutech campaign (The Damsacus Road) has finally got off the ground in the Through the Looking Glass setting. The wh40k games have all been popular too with the most recent, Black Crusade, starting a new campaign at ORC this December.

ORC also hosted a few pub meets this year: these proved to be hugely successful and gave us all a chance to socialize outside of a game for once. It looks like we’ll be running a few more of these over the coming year – it gave those new to ORC the chance to chat and get to know the other members, old and new.

I think its safe to say that ORC is going to be around for a while to come. We have a pretty substantial membership now, although attendance fluctuates wildly – however this seems to be one of those things that happens these days. If you’re running a game, I’d suggest you get at least six players. That way you’ll also cover any possible absences and still have a fun game!

Anyway: Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!

GM Burnout

“It’s better to burn out than fade away!” The Kurgan, Highlander

I think there comes a time when everyone “burns out”, creatively speaking – be it storytelling, writing or GMing. I feel it every few years when I’m running RPGs, and I reckon I’m not alone in experiencing it. Creativity isn’t like a tap – you can’t turn it on or off as needed. I’ve often found myself in the position where I’m completely stumped for an idea, only to have an epiphany later on – sometimes its better to take a step back from a problem or project and just rethink things – I’m not just talking about RPGs: sometimes in IT you can create additional problems by over-thinking something (a PC may not be connecting because of a dodgy cable not a TCP/IP stack)! I’ve also found that my mental state also has some bearing – unsurprisingly, if you’re under a great deal of stress or feeling down, your problem-solving and thinking processes tend to suffer as a result. At the moment, I’m thinking of just taking my time and not rushing things: I’ve a lot on at work and it can be difficult to concentrate on some of the other stuff I need to sort out at home, gaming or otherwise.

To be honest, RPGs are a good way to relieve stress. In the past I’ve had what one of my friends calls “Black Moods”, where I feel pretty rotten, and depressed. That’s depression with a small D: clinical Depression is no joke – however I think it is too often abused as an excuse (often misdiagnosed and drugs are over-prescribed by GPs who can’t be bothered). I’m not denying that at some point I may have been Clinically Depressed, but that was a long time ago. Sometimes these moods hit me (not for a few years though) but I’ve learned to ride them out – if you look back through my blog entries you’ll spot some of the times when they hit me! RPGs and the creative process help considerably with these moods  I’m not one of these people who post their mental status on social networking sites (at least I hope I’m not!), seeking validation through cryptic comments; or playing for sympathy, so that everyone is compelled to ask what’s wrong.

Enough of my psychobabble! The main focus of this RPG article is the phenomenon known as GM Burnout. I’ve been an occasional victim of this, as mentioned above.

Recognising GM (and player!) burnout

Once you reach a certain age, or level of experience as a GM, it becomes difficult to find the time to either create new adventures or settings. Certain game systems become too advanced, or too simplistic. You just go through the motions sometimes.This is what happened with me and D&D: I don’t like 4th edition as it’s just somewhat basic and seems geared towards using a battle map and miniatures. 3.5 is too munchkin now: there’s very little “role” involved in what is essentially a paper version of a PC game (feats, etc.).

As a GM, you’ll spot the signs of burn-out in yourself by these:

  • You’re having trouble coming up with new ideas.
  • You regard the game as a chore rather than a leisure activity.
  • You’ve lost your enthusiasm for the game.
  • You become annoyed at the slightest thing during your games.
  • Player/PC antics no longer amuse you.
  • You find yourself cancelling games as you have other things to do.
  • You want to run another game but don’t know which one.
  • You have to regularly cancel games because players can’t make it.
  • You’re running multiple games and are finding it difficult to concentrate.
  • The game just doesn’t work for you.

You can usually notice it in players too, with much of the same “symptoms”, for want of a better word. Often they’re committed to two or more games – possibly as a GM  too.

“Case Studies”

Here are some of my own cases of burnout, or other failures (and what went wrong!).

Against the Odds: I used D&D 4e for this. Looking back upon it this was a mistake – I didn’t think about how the game would pan out using a system that focuses heavily on combat, rather than investigation or intrigue. Consequently I got frustrated and ditched it.

Ashes of Freedom: again D&D, but 3.5&4e  this time. However, the first time I ran AoF (when 4e came out), I got a bit sick of the system (and one of the players threw a bit of a hissy fit too when he couldn’t get his own way), plus I had two groups and one lot changed nearly every week. However a little later I returned to AoF using D&D3.5. I did overcommit myself to creating a 3.6 version as well, but it WAS a popular game. It reached a natural end, with some pretty good action sequences, and I was needing  a break anyway – I realised I was getting close to burnout.

Babylon 5: great idea, crap implementation, rotten PR. The d20 edition of the Babylon 5 RPG doesn’t work as it stands. Unfortunately, I thought I could craft this great campaign, with a story arc that could match JMS. Unfortunately it was not to be: other popular games were on that day; the setting required too much metagame knowledge/series background; and the system was pretty poor and didn’t really run well. Looking back, I could have done something with it I guess, but I was feeling a little restless: wanting to run an RPG, something other than D&D. I think I was definitely burned out as a GM at this point.

The New World: despite this setting being incredibly popular since, the first outing proved to be an unmitigated failure. In its first incarnation, it was designed to be an ORC shared campaign. A group of DMs worked over several months to hammer out a setting and plot line, and on D&D day we had three different DMs running a game. Then the other GMs lost interest (or couldn’t be bothered), and I was left carrying the game – I got pretty sick of that so the New World was put on ice for a few years – it’s still used frequently by other DMs at ORC and elsewhere (including some of my ideas 🙂 so its not a total loss. After this event I didn’t run anything for a while, as I was pretty hacked off. I felt vastly disappointed. It was a game where there were plenty of folk wanting to play, but few willing to run.

PBM games: I definitely suffered GM burnout with these. Shadows Lengthen took so much of my time that despite the fact that it made some small amount of money that I just got tired of running it. Ties of Blood looked really good on paper, but failed to garner enough interest. I just gave up on it as a result.

What to do

The best thing to do is take a break – the time involved depends upon the individual. If you’re running an existing game, tell your players that you want to take a break for a while. Maybe let someone else run, and you can relax and actually be a player for a while.

Try running a different game and keep it to a short series i.e. a mini campaign. If you’re short of ideas, it can be a good idea to carry a small A5 or smaller notebook everywhere. You’d be surprised when (and where) you can find inspiration!

If the game itself isn’t working, that’s more difficult: it’s best to give some serious thought to if you can see it continuing in its current form. If you can’t, give your players an ending to remember! If there’s no way you can see the game going on, be as dramatic as possible in the game’s conclusion – all the gloves are off: PCs die, NPCs change loyalty, the villain(s) die(s), the world ends, etc. Aim for a whammy!

NOTE: I know this is kinda written like a medical crib sheet, but I thought it might be fun to write it like that. Obviously RPGs are a leisure hobby – treat it that way!

Games & Settings

I play and run a large variety of games. I’ve also created several settings over the years. I’m trying to list them all here!

Ruminations & Realisations

As you might have heard, my life has taken an interesting turn recently. As a result of me becoming involved in the The Secret Fire Beta test I blogged about previously, I’ve also become involved in helping to develop the game in some small part. Without breaking an NDA, I’m actually enjoying the creative process, and have already passed on a few good ideas (see The Secret Fire’s website). For me, its quite an interesting challenge and something I’ve always liked to do.

Whilst I would love to develop RPGs or games full-time, I don’t think I’d be able to keep focussed upon it as a day job. Some of the fun would then go out of it for me, I think. With L&L, I’m dealing with small aspects of the game at a time and I’m finding it very rewarding as a result.

I’ve never actually considered submitting adventures or supplements for publication, but maybe I should. It is a notoriously difficult market to break into and the whole D&D 3.5 OGL affair has lead to a lot of rubbish being produced. A lot of the stuff isn’t even spell-checked or proofread (often with really awful grammar as well). The production values are often a joke and the artwork is usually infantile or poor: even the New World Explorers Guide I put together was better than some PDFs I’ve seen for sale.

So if anyone is looking for a collaborator on a commercially viable RPG, supplement, adventure, let me know!

However there is definitely one product that I’m looking forward to seeing: from Wildfire (the folk who did Cthulhutech) is a game called The Void. Again it’s Cthulhu Mythos related but this time it is set in space, based on the Chthonian Stars product they released for Mongoose’s Traveller RPG (think Event Horizon meets Outland, with Deep Ones in space!).

An ORC Horde

As I recently posted on the ORC Edinburgh site and Facebook page, ORC has a lot of players and the site is the busiest I’ve seen it in a while. I find it a little ironic really that D&D is the most popular game, yet so few want to run it. With that in mind, I’m planning to raise ORCs profile a little – I’ve already had a few nibbles at Edinburgh Gamers Journal on Livejournal. Hopefully a few more GMs will stick their heads above the parapet! it wouldn’t even have to be 4th edition either – AD&D, 3.5 or whatever would be as popular as the next. Every day, there’s someone new on the site and there’s a lot of activity.  I feel quite proud of what ORC has become over the last year; the site ticks along nicely now: occasionally there’s the odd hiccup (like the fire at the Meadow Bar, Cafe Nero closing, etc.), but like it says: we’re going to be around for a while.

I’ve never considered myself an overly creative person – given the amount of stuff on this site that may surprise some people – but I do have a certain knack for getting something right as it were. I think about things. That’s how I got the ORC site to the level it is now. Most of my settings are somewhat derivative, yes, but on the other hand, they work as a setting! Or they usually do: unfortunately I’ve decided to halt my Against the Odds D&D campaign for now. I think it needs more work and a fresh perspective upon it, as well as a better plot. I may return to it sometime in the future, but it is shelved for now.

I should be getting the first playtest pack any day now for the Legends & Labyrinths game in May. This is going to be quite cool, and its one of these things that I can go and do without a] having to over-think things as I’m wont to do, and b] don’t have to provide a follow-up. As of this posting we’ve still got a few spaces left at ORC.

I cringe every time I read the Urban Predator story I wrote years ago. For me it exemplifies the arrogance of youth as it were – and my writing technique makes it look like I wrote it with a chainsaw. I’m glad to say I’ve improved somewhat over the years – hopefully the fiction I wrote for my Cthulhutech: Through the Looking Glass adventures so far (Under a Heavy Rain, Corporate Ties, and Vanguard Vengeance) show a marked improvement in my writing skills.

I’m looking at completing the story arc in the Ashes of Freedom campaign. I still have a few sessions to run, but I’m winding it down: running it as a set of “seasons” has proven quite rewarding and I will likely return to it one day in the future. The seasons give me a chance to create a decent story arc, as well as an occasional breather! Now that I’ve had time to polish the setting a little, I feel it has actually come out pretty well for a setting I invented in a morning!

Although Against the Odds, Ashes of Freedom, and the New World are winding up (or have ended), I’m still going to try and get something lined up. I’d intended running Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhutech – but ORC members are definitely in favour of me running Cthulhutech. I’m going to use my Through the Looking Glass setting again, and it’ll be more of a “war in the shadows” style game where soldiers, Mechs and Tagers will be very much on the periphery – and the game will concentrate more on mortal “mundane” characters from agencies like the GIA or OIS. While Tagers are cool, they are a nightmare to run a game for. I plan to run some one-shot games too for those unfamiliar with C-Tech – and they may well include Mechs, soldiers and Tagers! It will also feature the Arunstoun setting once I’ve got it ready.

I’ve actually come up with a decent concept for my Edinburgh of the future: Dark Edinburgh. Its a nice simple concept, and one that I can use to link together my concepts of Arunstoun and Edinburgh in the future. I’ve actually use it before: Urban Predator had the first aft as it were, and I ran a White Wolf game where my friends were all twenty years older and working for Fenris Caine, the detective I describe in Urban Predator. It used the mortal rules for Vampire: the Masquerade as a ruleset and the group hunted down a vampire in Gilmerton. I guess that was the beginning of it really – Arunstoun is going to be a very weird setting for me: it came to me in a dream – no kidding, it did! One of these days I could approach someone at Embraced or Isles of Darkness (the Edinburgh Vampire LARPs) to see if they’d be interested in a game in that setting: who knows?

I’ve also decided to retire from the New World D&D game: playing Rafael de Fabrizi was great fun – especially considering the luck I had with dice rolls – I’ve lost count of the number of natural 20’s I rolled while playing him, especially when he picked up that magic +3 sword. However, time has now become something of a premium: I can’t play and run two campaigns as well! As I’m also committed to a Shadowrun game on Wednesdays, and Rogue Trader on Thursdays, my calendar is pretty full – I need some time to do other things!

I’m going to try and write another article when I’ve got a moment (and will add it to the GMtoolkit)- this time I’m planning to deal with combat and how to make it faster. Obviously this will be as time permits: stay tuned!