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Would You Like to Phone a Friend?

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On June 13, 2012 @ 12:00 am In Tools for GMs | 4 Comments

Or, The Saga of UFO Joe

Situation

Skipping as much of the stereotypical “in my campaign” braggadocio as possible, I had an unusual NPC in my 1980s monster hunter campaign. He would regularly call in to Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast AM” radio show under different names, but always had a frighteningly accurate synopsis of what the party had just done, and then veer off into crazy UFO conspiracy theories. The party came to call him ‘UFO Joe’.

woprUFO Joe was actually the subconscious conscience of the BBEG, an army general who had been converted to a brain-in-a-jar connected to a Cray-1 supercomputer and the world’s telecommunications network (including telephones, teletype, FAX, and ARPANET). Since the party would be going up against a paranoid genius with near-limitless resources, they could use an ‘inside man’.

Mission

The day before the climactic assault on the BBEG’s complex (an offshoot of the Cheyenne Mountain site), I had a brainstorm: Have someone call one of the players on their personal cell phone, and play UFO Joe.

A few complications would need to be cleaned up, but this looked entirely possible. A bit of tweaking and asking for favors led to the somewhat revised approach of having fellow Gnome Patrick Benson call my home phone, and hand it to the players.

Execution

The party infiltrated the compound gracefully, but when they went to KO their guard, the dice gods failed them miserably (three attacks failed to knock out a mook). It was go-time, and I needed UFO Joe to get in touch with the party.

We were using Google Talk to communicate in a chat session, but we weren’t aware that we were suffering from serious lag (I was on a cell phone, which may have contributed to it). Patrick was going to use Google Voice to make the call, but apparently Google Voice can’t be used to call numbers while you’re in Google Talk. Patrick switched to his cell number and got through, but the timing was a little off, and lag delayed my last-minute update.

My home phone rang. I handed it to the player whose character held the cell phone, and said “It’s for you.” He gave me a look that pretty much said “What, right here in the middle of a combat?” but when Patrick came on the line and told him to get to the elevators, his jaw dropped. I had him put it on speaker, and Patrick repeated himself. As I looked around the table, every player had that open-mouthed “That was awesome!” grin.

Patrick and I switched to text messages for communication, which was a great decision. We used the phone call again, and it worked well the second time, although it didn’t have the impact of the first.

The game ran extremely late, and I ran to the far end of the house and made one last panicked call myself, screaming that I’d been found out, and that they needed to kill us, before cutting the call short. I returned to a table full of grins.

After Action Report

Despite numerous kinks, this was an extremely effective technique. Getting out of the GM-player rut, and having someone else communicate with the party had an impact.

But those kinks… **wince**

If you are going to use this technique (and you really should, because the view from the GM’s chair is just too damned good to pass up), here are some pointers.

  • Run a full test of the system, from the sideline communication to the actual phone call. Try to write a quick command to the caller, and see how fast the turn-around time is.
  • Have a backup plan in place. Test it, if you have time.
  • The ‘caller’ should have some voice-acting ability. We’re not looking for drama jocks, just a bit of inflection.
  • Have a basic script, but be ready to change on the fly.
  • If the caller’s phone number is on the player’s phone, they’ll know who it is. (The player has met Patrick, and possibly has his cell number.) Find a back-up phone.
  • Put the caller on speakerphone, if you want to share the experience.
  • Don’t throw it together at the last minute. Winking smile

Obviously, this kind of technique could work with any similar communications system, from walkie-talkies to military field radio to sub-space communications. You could even send text messages or chats to your players, but the effect of another human voice over the phone is hard to beat.

Have you had someone ‘call in’ to a game? Got any thoughts or feedback? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

(Image courtesy of the Internet and MS Paint.)

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Would You Like to Phone a Friend?"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 13, 2012 @ 6:18 am

All I can say is that this was a lot of fun! Thanks for letting me be part of your game, Kurt!

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 13, 2012 @ 8:50 am

This reminds me over the Evil Overlord idea from back in the Treasure Tables days — running a side game with outsiders playing villains via email, from 10,000 feet up. I tried this as one of the villains, and it was a lot of fun; the GM, Tom Bisbee (who may still read this blog) said his players enjoyed it as well.

Your idea sounds a lot more visceral and immediate, and like it’d be a complete blast.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On June 13, 2012 @ 9:33 am

Awesome idea (and I don’t use that phrase much).

My best GM “gotcha” to date has been in an ongoing Delta Green/D20 campaign (which I call “my” for convenience but is in every meaningful sense “our”, since the player buy-in and commitment are phenomenal).

One of my players had to drop out, and was replaced by another, bringing the table up to eight again, which is the maximum allowed by my LFGS in which the campaign is housed. There was all the usual stuff for Delta green: Paranoia, recurring villains, Mythos Things That Should Not Be and every so often a partial flip that turned all the black-and-white issues a nice shade of gray. In short, this is the ideal game for all concerned.

The former player had expressed a desire and the ability to attend a single session on a given date, and as a result I had a gift from the Great old Ones land in my lap.

The team was holed up in a motel in Seligman Ar. after having presided over the almost-nuclear destruction of a small American town a tad South (don’t bother looking on Google: The small town has been erased by Government fiat from all maps). The former player walks into the store just as I say “there’s a knock on the door”. The players greeted the former player, who sat at the table (I had special permission for a one-off 9-seat game from the LFGS owner). One of them “opens” the door, and confusion reigns as they take a good five seconds to understand that yes, their former colleague and fellow FBI agent is indeed at the door in person, not just sitting at the table.

The spit takes were a thing of beauty, as was the back story I gave him that had him chasing the recurring baddie into the laps of the otherwise occupied FBI team.

Don’t bother looking for Seligman either. It’s on the maps but if you try and drive there you’ll be diverted owing to an outbreak of, well, it changes from time to time but no-one is admitting a Chthonian broke surface there and ravaged the town because, you know, that can’t happen in real life.

What was your name and address again?

#4 Comment By lomythica On June 19, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

This sounds like a lot of fun. Later this year I plan to run a serial killer ARG type game that will finalize with a one shot. I will absolutely be using the phone a friend idea.


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