Sushu (summercomfort) wrote,

PTA: Dark Fragrance

So after our last PTA role-playing game about Star Wars with me and Jono kicking Jedi butt and Chris GM-ing (Jono's account of the game found here, and Chris's account starts here, continued here, here, and here), we decided to run 5 episode PTA with me as the GM. The setting was a Shanghai nightclub in the 1920s/30s called Night Fragrance.

Thus far we've had two sessions/episodes

林柏 (Chris) [2-1-3-1-2]
A martial arts teacher from the countryside, who is the security guy for Dark Fragrance
- Issue: Dead End Life / Feels like a loser. (previous student is killed, vowed not to teach any new students)
- Edge: 5 Animal form martial arts (simplistic, looked-down upon by city folk)
- Connection: 张清平, the Triad boss, rivals
- Connection: 林梅, Sister who owns nightclub, slightly older
- Personal Set: nightclub rooftop
- Nemesis:

韩正 (Jono) [1-2-1-3-2]
A young rich college student who is fighting the idealistic revolution
- Issue: Naïveté/Privilege. Not as in touch with the world as he thinks. (in love with ideals of revolution, not in touch with reality. Learned martial arts from a book written by 林柏)
- Edge: Book-learning, scholar
- Edge: Rich (money-haver)
- Connection: 安拙让 (student foment leader)
- Personal Set: Western style mansion in city
- Nemesis:
- Pursuing a mystery lady

Episode 1:
- Boss Li of the Grand Shanghai Nightclub sends Wang Sheng to intimidate Night Fragrance into changing their evening show. Lin Bai is unmoved.
- Han Zheng manages to embarrass himself in front of Zhang Qingping, the triad boss, by losing to a bunch of beggars.
- Nightclub shut-down by police for “inspections”
- Lin Bai challenges and bests Wang Sheng, the crony of Boss Li
- Han Zheng tries to give the police chief a good impression of Dark Fragrance, but the police chief turns out to be a lecherous man. Han Zheng stops the police chief from molesting Tian Mimi, but the police chief left with a poor impression of Dark Fragrance.
- Han Zheng and An Zhuorang plan and start a demonstration against police corruption at the police station, but were easily dispersed by the police chief.
- Meanwhile, Lin Bai meets old nemesis and current Small Shanks Triad leader Zhang Qingping. Zhang Qingping agrees to settle things with the police chief in return for a shipping job and some future favor.
- Coming across the student demonstration, Zhang Qingping asks Lin Bai to rough up the core group of demonstrators a bit. Startled by Han Zheng’s presence, Lin Bai is turned back by Han Zheng, making Han Zheng think that he was the reason that the police have backed off of the night club. Lin Mei is overjoyed.
- Boss Li bought the debt of $10,000 owed by Lin Mei’s dead husband and demands payment within a day. Zhang Qingping refuses to help.
- Han Zheng and An Zhuorang try to get revolution funding from Zhang Qingping, but Zhang Qingping suggests that Han Zheng actually learn about what he’s fighting for and against.
- Lin Bai goes off to face Boss Li alone. After some banter, Boss Li offers a gamble: If Lin Bai is able to defeat Vlad, the Russian wrestler, then he will reduce the debt by half and leave the nightclub alone. If Lin fails, then the nightclub will need to give up one of their songgirls. Lin fails.

Previews Episode 2:
- Han Zheng: “I need a real teacher”, pick self up from ground with mud
- Lin Bai: Walking down street with walking stick, blocked by Wang Sheng + cronies who are coming back from night of revelry.
- Boss Li: “Let’s have another wager”

Episode 2:
- Han Zheng helps defend against Wang Sheng while Lin Bai is down in the mud. Wang Sheng is too drunk to care and leaves after beating Han a bit. Lin recognizes Han’s potential and owes him one.
- Han has a flashback to meeting refined aristocratic mystery girl in a park, but missing the chance to talk to her. Then seeing her at Night Fragrance but is distracted by An Zhuorang talking about revolution. He then sees her binding Lin Bai’s wounds, but once again missed opportunity when he is sent to fetch water.
- Brother/Sister talk between Lin Bai and Lin Mei, Lin Mei expresses frustation at Lin Bai running off, getting hurt, being secretive, not sure if she can trust him. Man shows up to summon wounded Lin Bai to Zhang.
- Zhang sends Lin on a job where he discovers human trafficking of young girls.
- Han Zheng finds Liu Li (mystery girl) interning at the hospital and is invited to help at the free clinic
- Rooftop, Lin Bai makes Han Zheng do chores, strengthens Han’s stance, makes soup to send to Tian Mimi, who now works for Big Shanghai
- Han Zheng tries to deliver the soup, but is beaten up by Wang Sheng. However, Han is able to evoke the sympathy of bystanders and Tian Mimi. Decides he needs a real teacher.
- A beaten-up Han Zheng goes to find Liu Li at the clinic, and accidentally implies that he’s pursuing Tian Mimi, but Lin Bai corrects the assumption later when he stops by for some bandaging.
- Montage of Han Zheng trying to find a martial arts teacher with classifieds.
- Boss Li sends letter for meeting at Big Shanghai. Lin Mei insists on going. Tian Mimi is missing. Lin Bai remembers earlier human trafficking deal and thinks he might have idea of where to find her. Boss Li wagers: find Tian Mimi in 3 days and decrease debt, or turn over another song girl.
- Han and Lin go out, chase scene through night market. Han finds Tian Mimi in hands of Small Shanks, with fellow college fomenter
- Han Zheng returns home, confronted by father who has discovered his martial arts fixation, revolutionary desires, and failing grades. Han Zheng mumbles something about donating money to free clinic and helping night club, angering father more. Father refuses to pay for such frivolities. Father ultimatum: follow in father’s footsteps or leave. Han Zheng leaves.

Episode 3 Preview:
- Han Zheng: “A room for the night costs how much?” Raining, standing under awning. “So that’s what it costs without connections.”
- Lin Bai: Shocked, looking at own hand. Other voice: “You just never understood the power of your fist before”
- Zhang Qingping, “I told you you shouldn’t have gotten involved.”

tl;dr: Chris' character got beat up lots, the night club has lost one of their two singers, and Jono's character remains innocent, but is learning more about the world.

But really, this post is about my experiences and thoughts as a novice GM.
Before this, I've played: a DnD2 campaign as a female dwarf fighter, 1 online session of DnD3, a PTA one-shot ("LaGrange Point"), a con session of Mountain Witch, two sessions of TrollBabe, 3 playtests of Jianghu, 1 playtest of Space Patrol and Emperor's Heart, 1 session of In a Wicked Age, half a session of Dogs in the Vineyard, 1 session of Universalis, and the Star Wars PTA mentioned above. And I've only just GM-ed that Trollbabe session with Jono.
As you can see, I have very limited experience, and most of my experience is with experienced people who made it look very easy, so going into it, I wasn't sure what to expect.

Now that I've done two sessions, I feel like I'm ready to start thinking about this.

First, What is my job?
I seem to have jobs at different levels:
- I need to play any NPCs that Han or Lin encounter. So when Jono said, "hey, Han wants to talk to the police chief," I was like, "oh shoot, I need to think of a police chief character." These characters need to connect with the Player Characters in interesting ways, and are basically the most immediate interface to the PCs for channeling plot, pushing issues, etc. Although I'm not good at coming up with names on the fly, I like pretending to be lots of different people, so I like this part of my job. Usually in the first scene that the NPC appears, they're pretty archetypal characters, but if they get more screen time, I get more of a chance to give them a life story and some complexity, which is lots of fun.

- With these NPCs, I need to give Han and Lin challenges to overcome. This part is harder, because I'm not so good at thinking of reasonable yet interesting plot elements on the fly. When someone says "I am in the park and I want to meet up with Zhang Qingping," I ... freeze up a little bit: I may know what Zhang Qingping likes to have for breakfast, but I wouldn't know what he's doing there, story-wise. Sometimes I ask the player, "what do you want to happen here?" But really, this part is my responsibility. Their answer should be either "I want plot to happen" or "I want to develop my character", and my job is to challenge them accordingly. Chris is really good at this -- he always comes up with the most cracktastic things. I want to do that, too!

- Of course, taking a further step back, I need to keep the plot moving in a functional blob: tie loose plot-threads back in, build in potential plot hooks to give Jono and Chris good jumping-off points, make sure that the plot gives Han and Lin enough action and agency, maintain consistent themes and moods for the TV series, etc.

Second, How do I do my job?
This is something that I'd like to figure out so that I can get better at it. I think it basically breaks down into two categories: What sorts of things do I prepare ahead of time, and what types of skills should I practice to have better reactions during the session? In other words, planning content vs. playing skillz.

- Planning content:
Wow, I didn't know how little of planned background stuff ever get used. Thus far for me, it's about 30-20-50: 30% gets used that session, 20% can be salvaged for later possibilities, and 50% is completely scrapped. That's ... not very efficient use of planned material.

So what sorts of material has been useful? What sorts of material has not?

UsefulNot Useful
NPCs that have a direct relationship with one of the PCs
(giving the sister, the rival, etc, personalities and motives has been very helpful)
NPCs that are mostly background
(peppering the nightclub with random intrigue background that doesn't directly involve the PCs has been a dud)
plot complications that forces the PC to react in interesting ways.
(I made Jono have a confrontation with his dad -- I didn't know how it was going to end, but it was pushing all the right buttons.)
plot results that is dependent on player choice
(The "if they choose to do this, then I'll do that..." sort of thinking hasn't paid off AT ALL.  Decision trees are too much planning for too little reward)
 Portable and incomplete plot bits.  "Plot legos" that I can slot in wherever necessary to tie pieces together, finish a scene started by a player, etc.
(The incomplete ones have been most helpful, tidbits like, "potential objects for smuggling", or "bad stuff that can happen to the nightclub" or "reasons for fights" or "possible wagers")
 Big complete plot lines.
(Planning out a confrontation between Boss Li and the main characters is *not* going to work if I have a very specific result in mind.  Especially if it stretches across many scenes)
Coming up with things that can enrich any conflict.
(More of a corollary to the Plot Legos, but using portable little tidbits to directly target a PC's Issue)
Trying to anticipate conflict stakes
(very rarely is it, "winning the fight")

Those are the ones that have helped me or screwed me in one way or another, but I know there are others. For example, with Trollbabe, planning out a basic village with issues was very helpful. In this game thus far, I've been lucky because it takes place in a setting that I'm pretty familiar with (at least through crappy soap operas), so I can wing setting descriptions, etc.

- Practicing Playing Skillz
So this is the aspect of GM-ing that is a lot like improv-- where I can't control the content, but I can still practice skills to make me react to situations better. This aspect feels very familiar, because it's like what I do every day when I teach: I never know what the students would come up with, but I have a general goal I want to lead them towards, so I'm always asking questions, taking their responses, and asking more questions, drawing connections between different points that they bring up, etc etc. When they get confused about a point, I make up a story or draw an analogy to something they're more familiar with. So looking at the 3 things that I'm supposed to do as a GM: play NPCs, challenge the PCs, and Maintain the Plot Blob, my teaching skills can apply to a lot of it, although in somewhat different ways. Instead of drawing explicit connections, I need to channel them through various NPCs. Instead of telling one-off stories, I need to maintain consistency in plot and characters. Instead of leading an entire class towards a general pre-conceived goal of understanding, I need to push the PCs in specific individual directions that aren't pre-defined.

That last one is the hardest for me to do, perhaps because it's the one farthest from what I do as a teacher. Being antagonistic and generating tension is not a good thing in the classroom, so when Jono or Chris wants to do something, my first instinct is to say, "okay, sounds good, you accomplish your task," all the while trying to figure out how to get them to go towards Some General Plan That's Good For Them, because teaching is all about Getting Somewhere Good. In fact, I need to practice doing the opposite, which is to say, "okay, but what would make this more interesting is if..." and be okay with not knowing where this might lead. That it, in fact, might Lead Somewhere Bad. But Somewhere Bad is all right as long as it's Somewhere Interesting. So this is a big skill that I need to practice.

Thirdly, How do I play PTA the game?
After 2 sessions, I still have a few things I'm not too sure about.

- Narration Rights.
Okay, I've been told by Jono that one of the must fundamental rules in role-playing is that Nobody Messes with Your Character -- your character is yours, you get the last and final say on your character. Other people may make suggestions, but in the end it is your decision how you want to play your character. Likewise, there's a somewhat looser rule that the GM is in charge of NPCs and plot. Again, you can make suggestions and requests, but in the end it is the GM's territory (or, I suppose, the game dice roll's decision.)

But then PTA has this thing where for every conflict you can win the conflict, and you can win the narration rights. Winning narration rights means you get to narrate how the conflict resolves. Most of the time it works out all right, but there has been a few cases where I kinda manhandled a player character, or where a player character was faced with a plot decision or an NPC reaction.

For example, Jono won the conflict about whether Han Zheng wins back the sympathy of Tian Mimi, but I won the narration rights, so I described Han Zheng make a speech that moved Tian Mimi. (Jono was fine with my portrayal of Han Zheng, but what if he wasn't? How do I narrate when the result of the conflict requires major action on the part of a PC?) Or in another scene, Jono won the conflict of whether Han Zheng finds out who kidnapped Tian Mimi, and he also got narration rights, so he narrates getting to the warehouse and seeing the culprits (whereupon I came back in to describe the culprits, but it was a somewhat awkward moment.)

- Managing the budget
I haven't quite figured out how to manage the budget yet. Right now, I'm just deciding on a conflict-by-conflict basis: how much I want to win a particular conflict. But that means that the episode is just kind of strung along from one minor conflict to another. That doesn't make good TV. Good TV usually has some kind of tension build-up that culminates in some sort of big dramatic climax and resolution. How do I do that? Part of it probably comes from more effective planning and Plot Blob Maintanence, but I think another part is figuring out when to blow my budget, and setting up situations where I can blow my budget.
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