(NB: I am drinking at the keyboard again, so this post contains a little language)
CanCon 2014. I signed up to play PFS, this year.
Saturday, played the intro game with my new character, Zack Jackson. In the evening, DMmmed it at a table at which a couple of guys (at least) were themselves DMs. No pressure.
Sunday, played an afternoon session, but the noise was so bad I left the table. Could not, could not hear the DM. I’m a bit deaf, or something, but it wasn’t just me – he was reduced to playing D&D with the player sitting next to him, who would play chinese whispers to get the info around the table.
No fun, especially when PFS modules feature slabs of colour text which a DM is supposed to sit there and read out. I’ll tell you – when I ran games, I would print copies of that shit beforehand and just had it around the table.
Actually – I’ll go off an have a mini-rant about it. Here’s a typical example:
The Pathfinder Society has turned its attention to the Ruby Phoenix Tournament—a world-renowned fighting competition, held once every ten years in the city of Goka on the eastern continent of Tian Xia. More specifically, the Decemvirate is interested in the incredible prizes available to the tournament’s winner—a choice of treasure from the legendary vaults of Hao Jin, the Ruby Phoenix herself. As part of the preparations for the tournament, Pathfinder Society agents have been deployed across the Inner Sea and beyond to seek out forgotten lore, allies, and magical items to be used by the Society’s tournament representatives.
Venture-Captain Amara Li, leader of the Lantern Lodge and Goka native, has uncovered information about one such item hidden amid the reaches of the Wall of Heaven—an Iroran relic known as the Braid of a Hundred Masters. Organizing the search from her base in the Dragon Empires, she intends to send a group of Pathfinders to the high mountain range in search of the braid’s ancient home: the Clouded Path Monastery. The two-week-long journey to the mountains began in the cosmopolitan city of Goka, passed through the surrounding villages and farmlands, and led thousands of feet up into the tallest mountain range on Golarion; all that remains is the final day’s journey up from the base camp.
This is box text. You are supposed to sit there and read it out to the players, like it’s fucking story-time for kids at the local library.
I mean, let’s take this bit:
Organizing the search from her base in the Dragon Empires, she intends to send a group of Pathfinders to the high mountain range in search of the braid’s ancient home.
This is so wrong. How are characters supposed to know this? They just by magic know what Amara-Li’s long-term intentions are? This is DM background – absolutely should not be box text that you sit down and read out to the players.
And frankly, you sound like a dick reading it out. Nobody actually talks that way “Organizing the search from her base in the Dragon Empires, she intends …”. Try it now. Look around, to see that no-one is watching, and read it aloud. You feel like a fool, right?
It’s a classic violation of the basic rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. Box text should be limited to what players see and hear and know. If it must have background info, it needs to be in dot point form.
So module writers, you don’t make the DM read out “Organizing the search from her base in the Dragon Empires, she intends …”. The right way to do this is to have as one of Amara Li’s possible answers to the characters’s questions: “Oh, I’ve been organising it from my base here for years!” You don’t say “As part of the preparations for the tournament, Pathfinder Society agents have been deployed across the Inner Sea and beyond to seek out forgotten lore, allies, and magical items to be used by the Society’s tournament representatives.” as box text to be read out – you let Amara Li say “We have pathfinders looking all over for something to give us an edge – lore, allies, magic items. All the other competitors have been doing the same, naturally.”
Fucking dreadful. As I said – I would copy that shit into a document, print out a couple of copies and hand it around the table. The intro stuff I would leave on the table before game for payers to look at while I was housekeeping.
Oh – off on another tangent – PFS modules have a nice way they use knowledge skills for background info. Here’s an example:
Diplomacy or Knowledge (local)
10+ Nobody has seen the monks of the Clouded Path Monastery in years. In the past, the monastery often sent a small group of them to the mountain’s base camp to trade for the goods the monks could not produce for themselves in the harsh mountain environment.
15+ A demon of ice and snow made flesh, called Shang Xu by locals, prowls the mountains. Since the monks disappeared, it has come down to raid the farms and villages on several occasions.
20+ The “demon” is not a demon at all, but rather a raving yeti that has established its territory well below the icy altitudes in which its kind normally hunt. With increasing regularity, the beast has attacked travelers in the low mountains and even settlements high in the foothills of Clouded Path Monastery’s peak.
I would print off a few copies on this on strips of paper. My attitude is that if you know something, you know it, and during briefing of course you are working with your knowledge. Making players guess that the specific K to use is K(Arcane) is bullshit – like the character has different DVDs in their head and just overlooked referencing the right one. Instead, I’d just tell the players to roll “K(local) or diplomacy”, “K(Arcane)”, or whatever the module specifies. If anyone got 20+, hand them a strip of paper. 15-19, I would just fold the paper under to hide the 20+ info and hand that out. Etc. Then the players can RP their characters pooling what they know about the situation. And I don’t have to sit there and read out box text which, I hope I have made clear, I despise doing.
So, getting back to CanCon 2014, we have a DM with a cold (conventions are disease vectors) attempting to read out torturous, narrative colour text in an environment which, from an auditory standpoint, I can safely compare to being inside a jet engine. I’m reduced to shouting at the player next to me “Purple? Did he say something about something being purple?”
Worst of all, the module was all about exploring a tomb and solving riddles written on the walls in ancient Orisani. You have to be very clear about the text of those motherfuckers, or you wind up decapitated.
When I noticed myself getting frustrated and pissy, about to stand up at the table and yell at the top of my voice at the DM “I’m sorry – did you say something as purple?” (as if the entire con is supposed to STFU because I’m trying to play Pathfinder), I cut my losses, packed up and walked out in the middle of session. Made sure to apologize after. I behaved badly. I feel bad about it. I wish I were a better human being.
I believe Venture-Captain Ben will be having words with the CanCon organisers next year. Not that it’s thier fault either: CanCon is a bit of a victim of its own success. The tables were too close together, but they were all full. Next year, they should grab one of the other Buildings at epic, too. Moving the roleplay groups (PFS and DWO) into the building with a bar would be utterly, utterly awesome.
And, that was it. That was CanCon 2014.
Shout out to Andrew, who permits me to exercise my amateur rigger skills most years (you want to tie down a load, speak to a truckie or a motorcyclist).