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Once Upon A Time:
Why Johnny Can't GM

By Kai Tave


My first game kinda sucked. In fact, it really sucked. It sucked so much, it's responsible for me not ever attempting to GM another game since, lest I end up sucking even half as much.

I'll start at the beginning, like very VERY beginning. This is gonna be very long, and probably quite boring but it's late and I feel like typing.

My first introduction to funny-shaped dice was some boxed version of Dungeons & Dragons. Not ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons, just plain ol' D&D, and I DON'T mean 3rd Edition. It was some weird thing with a huge map and a bunch of cardstock miniatures and a big honkin' book with colored index tabs. It had some kind of story about you being hired to deliver a cockatrice to someone and getting tossed in a dungeon and then you could roll some dice with your fellow prisoner to see if he'd share his food. It was REALLY strange for a nine-year-old to try and hash out. This set quickly became an integral part of my closet's contents until we moved, at which point I no longer clearly remember what happened to it. I hope it's not worth anything these days, or I'd feel really stupid for having lost it. Hell, maybe we still have it. Damned if I know where.

Anyway, some years later, I read a strategy guide about some computer game for the Super Nintendo called Shadowrun that looked kind of neat. They also had this little article in the back about some company called FASA and how Shadowrun was really a roleplaying game first and foremost and some other stuff that wasn't really important because it's not like I knew where one might GET roleplaying games back then, and I hadn't even played the video game anyways.

I DID play the video game later, and liked it oddly enough, although the first time I got stuck in the caryards because I wasn't aware that you could go fight in the arena to get wads o' cash and bust your ass out quickly. I must have spent the better part of 14 hours fighting random enemies down in some little corner area for paltry sums of nuyen until I FINALLY had enough to get out. Then I found out I couldn't buy a shotgun without another 14 hours of killing and looting, so I said "fuck this" and forgot about it until several MORE years had passed and I discovered the error of my ways and blasted my way to victory as Seattle's only Dog Shaman/Decker/Street Samurai with an Assault Cannon ever.

Another several years pass. For some reason, I had a subscription to Disney Adventures magazine. I think I'd got it as a Christmas present from one of my Aunts. Anyway, believe it or not, it was actually not REALLY that bad at first. Now, of course, it sucks. Or maybe I was just stupider back then. So I get this issue, can't remember which one it was, and it had this article on a card game called Magic: The Gathering.

Yes, this is all going somewhere. Don't worry. Here, get up and stretch, go use the bathroom, grab something to eat. Don't worry, we'll get there soon.

This game looked...well, it looked neat. The art was real cool, the 4th Edition stuff rocked. It kinda had that fantasy vibe going on, and hey, no freaky dice. The fact that they mentioned that some of the cards were worth lots of money didn't hurt either. This simmered in my head for a while until one fateful trip to a bookstore brought me into contact with a box of booster packs. Being young and naive, I figured that the small packs were all that was necessary (there were no starters on display).

So I open it up and have no fucking clue what I'm supposed to do. By this point, I'm beginning to think that fantasy games all suck the big one. Looking back on it, it was a pretty good pack. I got a Spirit Link and a Sylvan Library (now worth about $15 and $5 respectively).

I forgot the cards until we moved, and I go to my new school. One day, I find a Magic card on the floor of the locker room. Amazing, I think. People here must PLAY this strange game. Now I can get someone to tell me what my cards are worth. So I ask and find out that Magic IS pretty popular at the school and that there's this weird place out on the highway that sells'em.

So I went that afternoon.

Skipping over much of my Magic-playing days, I became real good friends with the store-owner, Bill. I visited frequently, even to just talk about nothing in particular. Now, Bill's isn't really a GAME store, it was really more like a CARD store/junk store/assorted weird shit store. Bill carried card games, but no roleplaying games really...

...until one day I stumbled upon this weird glossy book called "Feng Shui". The cover looked really weird, so I decided to see what it looked like on the inside.

It was all kinda strange, and smelled different (yes, even today my Feng Shui book maintains a distinct odor above all my other books. I think it's all the glossy paper.), but it had some really neat-sounding stuff. Arcanowave devices? Beats me what they are, but DAMN if they don't sound cool. I can just buy it to read...

So Feng Shui was my first game. And a damn good game it was, although it took the hindsight of several systems to show me this. crap, it's one of those roleplaying games. More weird dice and bigass maps and...well, um...that's a cool-looking cyborg-demon thing anyway... And and, holy SHIT look at all those guns. Schticks? They have something called schticks?

Okay, maybe this won't be so bad.

It took me a month, a whole friggin' MONTH, to wrap my brain around Feng Shui's system. A month. I don't know WHY it seemed so alien to me then and like second nature now, but back then, this was like calculus. There weren't any weird dice or cockatrices or stuff, but it seemed just as bad. But get it I did. I was so damn proud of myself.

And then one day at Bill's, I found another book, this one really beat-up and tattered, but it was a name I knew familiarly; Shadowrun. I snapped it up quick. Hell, the first one wasn't so bad, and I liked the video game.

That was the day I learned that Shadowrun's orks and trolls aren't REALLY green, although I still tend to think of them as such. Thanks Nintendo.

The system messed me up to. Okay, wait, there's this skill tree and these points and some attributes, but then we have dice pools and initiative and, um, how the FUCK do you cast spells again? Under the bed with you.

It waited there for a while until I had to bring SOMETHING to read on a bus trip, so I decided to build some character and brought Shadowrun with me. I was careful not to let anybody see it in case they might stone me or, even worse, ask me how to play.

And...for some reason...I got it that day. Specializations, ballistic and impact armor, damage codes, it all made sense. And so has every game since, quickly and easily (except GURPS, but we don't like to talk about that). Feng Shui may have been my childhood sweetheart, but Shadowrun was my Rosetta Stone.

(This is your captain speaking. We've nearly arrived at our destination. Please return all trays to the upright position and observe the no smoking signs. Thank you for flying Me Airlines.)

I was formally introduced to roleplaying as a PC by one of my friends' brothers, who ran us through what was basically several pickup games using a homebrew system that was kind of like Storyteller except we were faking about 90% of it. These games, looking back on it, were really not that great, but I was so damn excited about it that I got no sleep all night and rambled about it to my poor, beleaguered mother. The espresso with chocolate probably had something to do with it too.

I played a couple other games with Dan...Vampire: the Masquerade. They weren't very good either. We had a kooky Malk, a Toreador that wasn't very sophisticated, and I think I was a Brujah. I think we all got killed by Mages. I never even got to kill anything. But still, they inspired me. If he can do it, then by god so can I.

I started out with Shadowrun in mind. I went and made photocopies of the world background to give to everyone, then tried to sit down with everyone to make characters. We did make the characters, but nobody would read the backstory. Well shit. I can't just start it up with no backstory...there are orks with machine guns and people with cyberware and magic and dragons and all sorts of stuff. I am NOT explaining all of this in-game. Uh-uh, no way.

End of Plan A, time for Plan B. Time to return to my roots. Time for Feng Shui.

So I plotted. I planned. I printed off the ENTIRE CONTENTS of Bryant Durell's Feng Shui website (which I still have in a three-ring binder. House rules ahoy.). I FINALLY sat down, gave people the scoop, and walked them through character creation. We were actually going to do this.

I had three people, as I recall, which is why I'm trying to figure out why I remember five PC's. Anyway, I'll throw two out and pick the ones I remember best. One was a Transformed Eagle (off Bryant's site), another was a displaced Netherworld inhabitant who'd escaped through a portal while being chased by an unruly mob of other displaced beings (again, from Bryant's site), and a con man who owed Big Brother Tsien a LOT of money (also off of Bryant's site. We never touched the main rulebook for character creation, I believe).

I waited for a bit, hemmed and hawed, went back and forth...and I finally screwed up the courage, stiffened my upper lip, and went through with it.

Boy did it suck.

It sucked BAD.


I started it out with a fight scene. Typical, especially for Feng Shui. If the party has no reason to stick together, have 'em get in a big fight and they'll straighten things out by the end. Okay.

Each one had people after them for some reason. The Transformed Animal had Pledged hitmen after him for helping a sorceress escape an assassination attempt, the Netherworld wanderer had some displaced folks on his heels still, and the con man had Tsien's legbreakers after him. They all ended up in some sort of cul-de-sac when a FOURTH person entered, being chased by his OWN group of mooks. It was some Guiding Hand Monk trying to get a package to a senior member and he was being chased by members of the Thorns of the Lotus. Fight scene.

It was a BORING fight scene. I wasn't doing a very good job of describing things in an exciting fashion, and my friends weren't helping by not trying things in an exciting fashion. And this being Feng Shui and all, that just doesn't work very well. Also, all of them seemed to be having a VERY bad spate of poor dice rolls, and this was LONG before I was given the fateful advice of "if you don't like it, wing it". Combat DRAGGED. I FINALLY ended it abruptly, with the monk dying and entrusting the PC's with the delivery of the package before expiring.

And I never even MEANT to use clichés. Funny how that all works out.

So they get to a houseboat in Kowloon to deliver the package, and they're attacked by a Lotus sorcerer on the boat. Another BORING fight scene followed by the sorcerer inadvertently setting the boat ablaze, being knocked out, and burning up with the boat. The PC's meet the senior monk, deliver the package, and find out that the he needs their help (duh). The package contained information concerning a newly created feng shui site of some power...a construction site that was only partially finished. If it was built upon any further, it would lose its specific properties, but for right now, it was powerful enough for the Lotus to use it as a summoning focus. The PC's had to stop this somehow, preferably without damaging the structure (yeah, right).

So they get there and find that the Lotus have ALREADY attuned to the site and have just finished summoning some four-armed Underworld monstrosity which the controlling sorcerer orders to destroy the PC's.

Boring fight scene. You see the pattern here, don't you? This one ended with the monster being toppled, somehow, into the main portion of the building in construction. It smashed through the site and caused some sort of chi "backlash" which opened up a brief gateway to the Netherworld which sucked in the players, monster, and a good many steel girders, then promptly closed.

And so did my game at that point because, Jesus H. Christ on toast, that was fucking AWFUL. EVERYTHING was bad. The dialogue was bad, the clichés were inexcusable even for Feng Shui, there was no pacing to speak of, the dice weren't letting anybody get any good shots in, nobody was trying anything creative... God, what had I become?

And so to this day I've basically forbidden myself from GMing, even though I still go through all the motions. I learn systems, I read GM's sections in rulebooks, I read up on advice for running games, I sample soundtracks for appropriate mood music, I buy new material...everything but that one important step of actually doing anything like running a game. Hell, I'd like to think that after many years I've learned a thing or two and could actually do a better job, but every time I start thinking about it, I always remember that one Feng Shui game and that pretty much kills any ideas I have regarding THAT subject.

So here I am, several years later, with an impressive collection of material, many systems memorized, and the wisdom of several generations of GM's at my fingertips, and no self-confidence at all.

Ah, pathos.

Kai Tave lives in Coos Bay, Oregon surrounded by his ever-growing and under-utilized collection of roleplaying books and several hundred penguins, none of them, unfortunately, real. When he isn’t staying up late to write long, rambling essays about his abortive attempts at running games, he can be found working towards his Music major, an undertaking which speaks volumes about his sanity. Assuming he found a group to play with, Kai would enjoy Adventure!, Deadlands, and Feng Shui.

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