Learning to be Kuhl: GM’ing “Campaign”
“…Kat Kuhl has to adapt to some of the craziest shenanigans I’ve ever heard, and she does so with grace, skill, and aplomb. Listen to One Shot: Campaign…and learn from a Game Master who knows what she’s doing, and doing it under fire.”
I am not a fan of Actual Play podcasts. Or at least I wasn’t until a few months ago. I’ve loved the idea of AP pods for years, but could never find one that grabbed me, even the ones that came highly recommended. Most were poorly (or never) edited, had a lot of dead air, page flipping, rules lawyering, or players who were more intoxicated than interested in playing. Then Shawn here at Tribality got me hooked on the Dungeon Master’s Block podcast and everything changed.
In May, I heard Michael Ross from the brilliant RPG Academy on a DMB episode. We’re both from the Commonwealth of Kentucky so we started a chat on Twitter. It was there he pointed me to James D’Amato and Kat Murphy (now, Kuhl) and the One Shot podcast; specifically the Legend of the Five Rings episodes. I was blown away. [You can read an interview with both here.] Then I heard rumors of a campaign AP podcast from the One Shot folks that used the Edge of the Empire rules I’d been introduced to at GenCon 2014. FFG’s entry into the Star Wars RPG universe is impressive, but learning an innovative new system is easier with a mentor and what I really wanted was a GM to learn from on a regular basis.
Half an episode into One Shot: Campaign my dreams had been answered. Finally, someone sounded like they cared about what they were presenting to an audience. I started ordering the core rulebooks and asking about the best supplements to buy, but this article isn’t about how intriguing the FFG Star Wars system is. In listening to an excellent GM and brilliant players telling hilarious stories I realized the true advantage of AP podcasts in the modern world: you can learn from them.
Back when RPGs were young, messing up the rules was just a part of the game. If we were lucky we had, maybe, one person who had played the game with their 3rd cousin, 1ce removed, over a summer vacation (or maybe a significantly older brother, as in my case), but many of us picked up something like the D&D Red Box and had to figure out the difference between “Monopoly” and this new thing. I even heard a story about a DM that bought the 1st ed Monster Manual and tried to reverse-engineer the game from that! Well, we live in the future now and the setbacks (and advantages) of that kind of learning are partying with the passenger pigeon. If you love to game but, like many people, don’t have anyone to use as an example, you can learn a ton from an AP pod (or YouTube/Twitch game), the problem is finding one that clicks with you.
Kat Kuhl of Campaign is brilliant, and if you are looking for an example of a skilled GM in an entertaining podcast no matter the system, do what I did and binge 33 episodes in 30 days.
With that out of the way, let’s talk specifics.
Kat Ruhle #1
Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Campaign is set in the Star Wars Universe, and anyone who has the ovaries to run a Star Wars game, record it, and post it for every Rebel (or Imperial) to pick apart is my hero.
Kat has to keep the story moving, even when the crew’s plans go to Hoth in a hand-basket. She clearly knows a ton about the universe from the films, novels, Clone Wars, and Rebels, but once in a 40-year-old Universe doesn’t know something. Instead of getting bogged down taking 10 minutes to look for the details of a planet, how the comm systems work, or even the intricacies of planet-bound and interplanetary holonet transmissions, she does one of two things:
1) She’ll make a call that sounds feasible, fair, and cool, then move on. The decision often becomes canon (or Kanan, as they say) irrespective of the “real” answer.
2) She’ll ask the PCs, “How do you think it works?”
I use Option 1 all the time, but Option 2 far less often. After hearing Kat use it so deftly, knowing exactly when to hand over creative power to her players and when to take control, I have no idea why I was keeping this in my back pocket. It takes a strong GM to hand over creative license to the Mynock crew and deal with the consequences (see #5 below).
Kat Ruhle #2
Don’t let the rules get in the way of a good story.
You will hear this piece of advice on any number of podcasts and printed in every Game Master Guide. Yes, it’s important to understand how the rules work in your system of choice, and yes, the FFG Star Wars system is heavily narrative and up to player interpretation. Having said that, running a roleplaying game is about far more than rules. Roleplaying games are about story, character development, action, intrigue, mystery, and things a board game can’t simulate, things that have nothing to do with math and statistics.
One of the things that stops players from becoming Game Masters is that they think they need to know the rules in far more detail than is actually needed. Unless you’re in the rare situation where you are teaching other people, someone at the table likely knows the rule you’re looking for, and if you are in that situation, they won’t know the difference anyway. Either way, make the call on a rule (or just make it up), be consistent with that rule for everyone (including the antagonists) until the encounter, or even the entire session, is over, then look up the rule for next time. Running a game isn’t intended to be a 4 hour long pop-quiz, it’s supposed to be fun. And as The RPG Academy says, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right.”
Kat and the Mynock crew are doing it right.
Kat Ruhle #3
When a PC is down, give them an NPC.
This is one of the most helpful “rules” that few of us use. Giving an individual NPC, group of goblins, or other supporting cast characters to your players requires a skilled GM and a Daunting Discipline check. In the hands of the right player, that NPC can become a party favorite and that unit of goblins honed into skilled and terrifying antagonists. In the hands of the wrong player, rolling (or role’ing?) with the consequences can push the limits of any GM’s ad-lib skills.
The immediate advantages of giving a player (or players) an NPC is obvious, but there are subtler advantages as well. Of course it prevents the player from getting bored and distracting other players, but it also lets different types of players indulge in the things they love best (see DMB Episode 30, “The Players’ Block” for more)
- Storytellers and actors will love playing what will likely become a recurring NPC (simply because the players are more invested).
- Explorers will love making up details about an NPC’s home country, customs, accents, or crazy background.
- Optimizers and Problem Solvers will love making the best tactical decisions for an large group and push their party into being better combatants.
If this idea is intimidating, you are a human being. Ease into it with an NPC or group that has little effect on the storyline and see how it goes. When done well, this Kat Ruhle will keep your players invested and take a huge amount of work off your plate.
For more examples of how to give NPCs to PCs, including groups of allied soldiers, check out “Splitting the Party“.
Kat Ruhle #4
“Don’t even roll. You do that. It’s awesome.”
Erring on the side of awesome is always a good rule, no matter the system. But to do it right takes skill and awareness.
In the past 3 editions of D&D, they’ve introduced time-saving rules like “Taking 10” and “Passive Perception”. No matter the skill, if you know the PC is exceedingly good at something and you need to keep the action moving, assume they succeed if the Difficulty Class (DC) or Target Number (TN) is less than an average roll (speaking in D&D terms). In a game like Edge of the Empire, think about the character’s background and if the Difficulty is Easy (1) or less, assume they succeed with 1 Success. If the player wants to chance a Triumph or Advantages, go ahead and let them roll.
Alternately, forget all this rationalization, ignore every roll involved and, as Kat says, “You do that. It’s awesome.” If it doesn’t matter much that they succeed, why punish players for bad rolls?
“I jump to the chandelier and swing over the bar fight to the opposite landing.” You could have them roll an Acrobatics check, or, if it doesn’t really matter that they get to the other side a round or two quicker and it falls within their PC’s theme, let them be awesome. Now if it’s a barbarian with a penalty to Acrobatics checks trying to imitate the flashy bard’s typical maneuver, then roll away. Either hilarious failure or shocking success will occur. Either way, a story the party will talk about for a long time is waiting to happen.
Kat Ruhle #5
Vornskyrs Will Be Vornskyrs.
The players in One Shot: Campaign are incredible and I could write a whole other post on what they do right every game (huh…now that I’ve written that…), but for now I’ll say this. As brilliant as Johnny, James, and JPC are, their party is a pack of wild vornskyrs (one of them literally).
In short, let go of the illusion of control. I’m a prep-GM; I love maps, player handouts, Campaign Coins, item cards, actual puzzles, ancient languages to translate, and more. But I do all that knowing that if the PCs decide to go left instead of right, I will need to alter my plans.
There are entire episodes of Campaign where the PCs shop for goods instead of get into the combat Kat planned for. I’ve heard them use up their Destiny Points to do everything except upgrade their dice rolls or help them in combat. You cannot predict the behavior of any group of PCs, but Bacta, Leenik, and Tryst are more unpredictable than most. Let your players do what they think is fun, as long as they are helping to move some kind of story along (even if it’s not yours) and not just doing it to draw all the attention to themselves.
To sum up, Kat Kuhl has to adapt to some of the craziest shenanigans I’ve ever heard, and she does so with grace, skill, and aplomb. Listen to One Shot: Campaign (and/or any of the other One Shot episodes that click with you) and learn from a Game Master who knows what she’s doing, and doing it under fire.
On a personal note, thanks, Kat, for doing what you do and sharing it with the rest of us. Your skill and everyone’s humor has saved me from some difficult days and made my great days even better.