RPT#90 – City Tips III
- 9 Basic Pointers
- Avoid Bartering With Large Groups
- A Neat Method For Planning Out A City
- Another Good City Planning Method
- Solutions To Several Problems With City Games
- Describing Cities
Readers’ Tips Summarized
- Door Slamming Sound Effect
- Sounds Effects Tips
- A Neat Tarot Cheating Trick
- Tarot Alternatives
- A Survey of Tarot Decks for Roleplaying Purposes
- What To Do When Your Players Aren’t Taking It Seriously
- Roleplaying NPCs Tips
- Use Coloring Books For NPCs
- Cheap Legos For Use As Miniatures
- Make The Monsters MONSTERS!
A Brief Word From Johnn
Milenix MyInfo 2.0 Update
MyInfo is a great GM utility (PCs only, I’m afraid) that I reviewed in #79 [ RPT#79 – Using Limericks To Spice Things Up ] and also requested your feedback on.
I received an email from Milenix this week and they thank you for your excellent ideas and suggestions. They have also posted a features update for the upcoming new version, if you’re curious: http://milenix.com/myinfo/ming/index.htm
Gaming Industry Disaster Fund Auction
Gary Thompson of Fiction-Fantasy.net is putting together a Gaming Industry Disaster Fund Auction to help assist the US in its relief efforts. Please check out http://www.game-information.com for auction details and how you can help.
If you check out the sponsors list, you’ll see an amazing show of support from the RPG industry. That’s awesome!
Longer Issue This Week
Though I live in Canada and was geographically far away, I too was greatly affected by the recent NY tragedy. The only way I can think of fighting back currently is to carry on with business as usual. To this end, this week’s tips issue is longer than normal with several additional Readers’ Tips of the Week. Thanks for your on-going tips submissions!
Johnn Four [email protected]
Roleplaying Games Articles & Reviews
Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site: http://www.roleplaygames.about.com
New This Week:
- 7 Golden Rules Of Character Design:
- D20 Game Review: Legions of Hell:
City Tips III
Here are links to parts I & II:
9 Basic Pointers
From: Shane H.
- Make it big. Describe how huge it is – how wide the streets are, how high the buildings are. Describe the amount of people on the streets, the traffic, the detritus.
- It’s a noisy place. Play some music or even a recording of the correct time period/environment.
- Bureaucracy is a killer. If the PCs want to do anything by the book they have to follow a trail of paper and data to do it.
- Everybody has a life. Make sure to reflect that.
- Crime. There’s plenty of that too. Encourage an underworld and organise it.
- Factions. People fight and have conflicts – sometimes without reason.
- Urban decay. Some parts of the city are falling to bits, and so are the citizens.
- Urban legends. Every city has one or two that are unique to the city. They don’t even need to be adventure hooks.
- Policing. Some police are good, some are bad, and some are misunderstood.
Avoid Bartering With Large Groups
From Django D.
In our games there were certain players who enjoyed bartering for goods in every village/town/city we passed through. This was fine when there were only a few characters, but with larger groups these bartering sessions were taking an hour or more – people rolling bargaining skill checks, shopping around, etc.Our GM put an end to that for the larger groups. The players would create a shopping list of the items they were looking for and include the ‘standard’ prices alongside each.
This list was handed to the GM with the results of the bargaining skill dice roll. The GM would then hand back the list with adjusted costs based on the bargaining rolls. If you couldn’t afford everything then you knocked items off at the list value until you were happy.It wouldn’t necessarily reflect the true “bargain finder’s” ability to get the lowest price but at least we could get going once again.[Johnn: I side with Django on this one when it looks like bartering is going to bore players.
In a similar vein, keep in mind that bartering is not used and/or accepted in all cultures. There might be some roleplaying opportunities for you here when the PCs manage to offend local merchants with their false assumptions and bartering tactics.]
A Neat Method For Planning Out A City
Here are some excellent advice and tips from Dave G.One of the best things I learned about running characters in a city is a synthesis of things I learned from your weekly tips information and my own observations as a GM.
- Don’t spend too much time working on all of the details that the characters are going to encounter in the city. There are some great tools already available to generate things like inn names and NPC names. The critical things to develop are the names and locations you plan for next session’s adventure.
- I take a map of my city and photocopy it down to a regular size sheet of paper, then I divide the place into fourths and decide certain things about each quadrant. I usually name the quadrants ‘wards’ and their name is tied to something specific about that area (i.e. Castle Ward, Dock Ward, Slavers Ward, etc.) The name gives me a good idea about the type of neighborhood that’s going to generally be in each area.Example: The Castle Ward is higher class than the rest of the city. Government offices (including the new Tax Bureau that the characters must find) are located here. The homes of much of the nobility and ruling class can be found here, along with some temples of the popular deities in the region.
- Then I put my smaller city map in a sheet protector and use water based erasable markers to note down a code for my location key (My code is simple, I number my quadrants and I use a letter for each type of building I am detailing (i.e. G is government, T is temple, and I is an inn, etc.). I number each building in sequence. The Tax Bureau is in Quadrant 1 and it is the first government building I detailed so in the appropriate spot on the map I mark 1G1.
- At the end of each session, I update my larger map with the code from my key. Depending upon how much time characters spend in the city, more and more details are fleshed out.
- For sites that don’t get planned out in advance I use name generators to come up with a store name or proprietor’s name and place that info on a card for entry into my map key later. Then when the players want to go get a drink at that place with the one-eyed dwarf, it’s already got information. I usually try to come up with a name for any colorful characters, (alekeep, wenches, or bouncers in a tavern for instance) so I don’t have to do that work more than once.Note: sometimes the supporting cast of NPCs bring adventure hooks. One time I had the regular waitress at a tavern the PCs frequented not be working one day. It affected the whole atmosphere, because the alekeep and the bouncer had to help serve patrons. It made for a funny role-playing opportunity, and when one of the players asked about the waitress, it unveiled a mystery the players decided to solve. (Some thugs were starting a protection gambit and had kidnapped the waitress to get the alekeep to pay up!)
Another Good City Planning Method
Victor F. has a different way of planning cities:Running city campaigns aren’t easy, but I break it down into three basic sections:
- The poor sector of the city
- The middle class sectors with market places
- The rich sector with large buildings and rich architecture
That’s often the way they work anyway in both modern and ancient cities. The poorest sectors are filled with dark alleys, beggars pleading for money, and thieves looking to make a quick buck. The middle sectors aren’t as disgusting but still filled with people trying to make a quick buck. The richest sectors are filled with snotty rich folk that look down upon the poor.
As for architecture, the poorest sectors are usually built with cheaply manufactured materials (cardboard, sheet metal, etc.), while the middle sectors are made with either brick, stone, or shoddy masonry, and the richest sectors are constructed of fine materials (ivory, marble, cobble stone, etc.).
One thing that helps me with architecture and basic layout of cities is to research the time period in which my campaign is set in.
For basic layout, usually I separate it into a circle with three smaller circles inside of it separating the three basic classes. The inner smaller circle is the rich, seeing as it is in the center of all the action, the 2nd circle is the middle class sector, and the outer largest circle is the poor sector. This is just a general rule of thumb and is reflective of the way society is made in large cities. Small cities can be divided however accordingly though.
Solutions To Several Problems With City Games
Here, Gareth H. gives us several city campaign problems and some possible solutions:
- Availability of services. One of the problems in a city- based game is that, if the city is large enough, the PCs should reasonably be able to acquire most of the things they need. This can make a game that requires a lot of resources possibly too easy, as the group can just visit their local hardware store if they run out of rope, nail-guns, chains, crowbars, etc. Place some other barrier in the way: lack of finances, a time-limit, etc. to make them plan their equipment more effectively.
- Too many NPCs. In a city game, there are more potential NPCs than any GM could easily describe. Groups have a habit of saying “We go and visit the park/restaurant/mall/library”, and expect to interact with a range of NPCs you may not have planned. It helps to have a list of NPC names and simple personality traits ready, in this case, to support the imagery of a bustling metropolis.
- Ease of transport. Part of the fun of some games is just in getting to the destination. In a city, however, everything is relatively closely spaced, and for a few coins you can get taken wherever you want to go by taxi, rickshaw, carriage, walking, etc. This also applies to moving large objects. If the group uncovers a gold statue they can just hire a taxi-truck or ox-drawn wagon to get it home.If you want to delay the group, use traffic jams, riots, breakdowns, bad weather or inaccurate directions to keep them from just arriving on the Villain’s doorstep, or escaping afterwards.
- Location, Location, Location! In the wilds, one bit of forest can look much like another for many days travel. In a city, however, just turning a corner puts you in a different world. Being prepared for the vast array of different ‘sets’ the group may visit can be a challenge. The Abandoned Warehouse is very different in atmosphere, content and structure from City Hall just down the road. Have a few short prepared descriptions ready for the sort of locations your characters may visit in the city: Stables/Parking lot, Market/Mall, Guardhouse/Police Station, Seaport/Starport, Tavern/Nightclub, Dark Alleyway (common to any genre!) etc.
- Getting there is half the fun. Outside of a city, the build up can be the journey to a place. In a city, the build up can be in *finding* the place.
Gareth also has some great tips about describing cities:
- Give each city a theme. If your group is involved in a lot of travel, and visits many different cities, then it helps to focus on what makes each city different. For example, focus on lighting and darkness in a city where you want clear distinctions between two elements of the game. Give another city a carnival feel by focusing on street parades or parties, and in another highlight the vegetation and parks to give it an organic feel. They could all be the same city, but the theme provides a different flavour.
- Relate the city to its purpose in the game. If the PCs are visiting a city to trade, concentrate on the markets and guilds and make them the most significant element. In a game based on thieves and skullduggery, highlight the class distinction and the differences between ‘have’ and ‘have not’. If the city is under siege, focus on the ways the citizens are reacting in small ways: barricaded windows, normally peaceful barkeeps with swords at their belt, etc.
- Describe height differences. The major difference between cities and the wilderness is its dimensions — cities tend to go *up*. Describe things above eye level such as balconies, flags on rooftops, washing lines across alleys, police and news helicopters, etc.
- Limit line of sight. The difference between encounters in cities and the country is in how far you can see. Ambushes can be around every corner, and making a few quick turns can lose the pursuing mob. It can also help to give a sense of claustrophobia to encounters. Use words that give a sense of closeness.
- Use character perspective. If the PCs are from a rural setting, play up the dirt, squalor, close-packed humanity and lack of recognition from passers-by, homeless people, etc. If they are city people born and bred, they may not notice, so instead describe clean and shiny buildings towering above the streets. If they are wealthy, they’ll see the wealth. If they are poor, they’ll see the poverty.
RPGShop.com — The Dice and D20 Superstore
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[P.S. This is not a paid advertisement. Though James put some promo stuff about this ezine on his sites for me, I personally vouch for him and for RPG Shop.]
Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
Door Slamming Sound Effect
I have found that slamming one’s open hand, palm down onto a hardback rule book, makes a good simulation of sound for something trying to break down a door. Especially if you talk quietly about the party settling down to rest in a room when they have spiked the doors……….everybody is restful…….the halfling has just got a stew on the boil…….the mage settles down with his spell book……WHAMMMM! Something slams against the door from the outside. It gets a good reaction, believe me.
Sounds Effects Tips
I’m a theatre teacher and we use sound effects in our plays, and we even do an OTR unit (Old Time Radio). Here are a few SFX ideas that can be used…
- Rain – rice on paper or wax paper
- Bubbling cauldron – blow through a straw into water
- Fire – crumple paper or cellophane
- Horse – coconut shells (of course)
- Walking thru snow – well taped box of cornstarch
- Falling/crashing – old empty carmel corn tin with glass, wood, metal bits (just roll it around)
But for diversity and ease of use nothing beats SFX CDs. I find them pretty cheap at HalfPrice Books. I don’t know if you have them where you live, but it’s worth checking out. Theatre supply catalogs and websites will have some, but more expensive. Here are some websites…
Hope these ideas help.
A Neat Tarot Cheating Trick
From: John B.
I’m new to your site and really enjoyed the article on using Tarot cards in games.
This is something that I started doing a couple of years ago and thought I’d drop you a line about how I’ve used the cards.
It starts with cheating at cards. I select the cards that I want in the fortune and separate them from the deck while keeping them in the proper order.
Before telling the fortune, I usually kill the room lights and light candles to create a proper atmosphere for fortune telling. Then I hand the deck over to the PC and have them shuffle the deck and hand it back to me.
At some point after this, I slip the prepped cards back on top of the deck. Usually by finding some excuse to pull the shuffled deck back behind my GM screen beforehand.
When the cards start to fall in the pre-selected pattern it usually serves to weird out the PC who is pretty sure that they mixed this deck thoroughly before the fortune started. Thanks again for the great resource!
From: Scott S.
I just thought I would drop a note in response to your recent newsletter with all the Tarot tips.
First off, I loved the tips. There are some excellent suggestions in there for those of us with Tarot cards. The problem is that there are a lot of people who don’t have any Tarot cards, and either don’t have the money or simply don’t want to buy them. Some religions look on Tarot cards and other divination tools (such as Ouija boards and rune stones) as works of the devil. At the very least, they may make people uncomfortable using them, even for something as innocent as coming up with story ideas.
An alternative may be to use a collectible card game (CCG). It seems to me that CCG’s like Magic are fairly widespread and the art and structure of the cards makes them a very viable alternative when trying to come up with ideas. For example, using a set of the new Warlord cards, I came up with this:
- Charge: An evil force is preparing to attack a local city/town.
- Follow Through: This force is just the leading edge of a vast evil army.
- Long Sword: They are attacking because they think a legendary magical weapon is in this area, and they want it.
- Rage: The locals (dwarves) are ready to die to defend their town.
- Claw: The local leader is a druid with the ability to transform into a cave bear.
Warlord isn’t even very well suited for this, but I was still able to come up with several ideas using the graphics and text on each card. It helps that each card includes a sample bit of prose. For example, Charge has “‘Onward! For Hate, and for glory!’ The Nothrog charged down the Four Hills of Baraxton, and fire roared through the heavens from their siege machines.” They main thing is that I got my Warlord starter set for free in an issue of Dragon magazine.
Of course, there are many different types of CCGs, just as there are many different types of roleplaying games. Using CCGs could be an interesting alternative to Tarot, or it could be used as a supplement to it. Really, ideas can come from anywhere.
A Survey of Tarot Decks for Roleplaying Purposes
From: Heather Grove
Your readers might find this link interesting:
It’s a survey of various popular and odd tarot decks that discusses a bit of what makes a tarot deck useful for different purposes, and the value of picking a deck that suits your game.
What To Do When Your Players Aren’t Taking It Seriously
From: Mirko B.[Johnn: see the related issue here: 5 Things To Do When Your Players Aren’t Taking It Seriously RPT#48 – 5 Things To Do When Your Players Aren’t Taking It Seriously ]
I’ve found another way to “educate” players that are always silly, joking around too much, and disturbing any atmosphere you’re just starting to create.
First, try to be patient – don’t overreact. I think that most of the problem-players are very young and/or unexperienced. They may be very excited and express this excitement by making jokes.
So the answer to this problem is to let them experience by themselves what it means to be a gamemaster. I’ve had a fabulous campaign running, but one player always acted like a child, so I said to him that the next time he disturbed the atmosphere or acted like a silly child, he would NOT be punished, he would NOT be thrown out of the party, but instead he would gain the HONOR of being the gamemaster for the next adventure.
This prospect kept him at bay for the next 3 gaming sessions, but then again he started to disturb. So, I told him that I wouldn’t start the next adventure until he was gamemaster for at least one session. He had no other choice! So, we started an adventure under his tutelage and it was a disaster – for him! So we forgot the whole session and this player was never again a problem.
Roleplaying NPCs Tips
From: Kelly P.
I just started a new 3E campaign and after an initial character creation session where we fleshed out backgrounds and player relations, we waited another week to actually begin play. During that week I tediously typed up all the player character’s histories and character sheets and put them on my website [ http://www.astrofantasy.com ] under a new link called the Hemlock Campaign (that’s their base city).
In the histories there were many references to NPCs that helped shape their backgrounds. A lot of them came right off the tables in the new 3E Hero Builder’s Guidebook.
Before our first session, I decided to have all the characters at the Shimmering Moon Tavern (yes the Tavern Scene!) but with a twist. It was the halfling sorcerer’s birthday and they were actually celebrating it on the same night as the Midsummer Festival.
A dwarf merchant who was friends with the halfling’s family (the halfling’s father was a merchant before he died in a freak warehouse accident) came to the party to celebrate and also to ask the halfling and all his first level companions if they would guard his caravan going south for just two days because he’d heard rumors of nightly attacks on what was normally the safest road in all of Krindor.
He was to meet the rest of his caravan guard at a small village, and that village was where I was trying to get my players to go for their real first adventure.
The night before the session I sat down and wrote out the whole tavern scene with a bard’s storytelling, the birthday cake (You ever get your group singing happy birthday?), secret notes for each player with their presents for the halfling, and the dwarf’s request. I started writing it in screenplay format and it just flowed from there with:
Interior–Shimmering Moon Tavern–Night
The players are all sitting around celebrating…blah, blah, blah.
I even rehearsed the whole thing by myself the night before and I was cracking up!
Well, the tavern scene got a group of newbies off to a roaring start, roleplaying a very funny scene, and the dwarf hired them. I took the time to write out some “gemfully” funny lines and added bits of humour and all. And after overeating as he was prone to do, the dwarf had major diarrhea the first day out on caravan!
The players loved his “humaness”. He was such a real character and totally 3D due to the fact that he was well thought out, he meshed in with a character’s history, he was funny but without trying to be, and can you imagine a greedy, boisterous caravan master with the runs?!
Anyway, get into your NPCs and really be them before you roleplay them. That first scene set the game and the campaign in motion and we played from 7PM til 5 AM! Talk about sensitive dependence on initial conditions! After that the player’s really got into some chaotic role-playing. So NPCs, and immersing yourself in them, are the key to breaking the ice and getting players’ out of their heads!
And remember, if ain’t any fun, why are we doing it?
Use Coloring Books For NPCs
From: Ben K.
I think a good way to look at giving your NPCs a fleshed out personality is by looking at a children’s coloring books. The pictures are obvious and you can tell the story by looking through it. With a box of crayons you can make a very colorful and creative expression of yourself. You can color the pictures any tones that you want. You can make others want to look at your books.[Johnn: using colouring books is a great tip as the pictures in them are usually bold and full of character. Does anyone have any additional colouring book tips? Seems like a neat topic…]
Cheap Legos For Use As Miniatures
Cheap Miniatures tip:
Another tip along the “old toy” line is to use Lego mini- figs. I use them in my campaign, with great success. They are about the same size as pewter minis, they are customizable, there are LOTS of different weapons and accessories, and with all the different sets available (pirate, castle, ninja, space, rock raiders, town, etc.) they can fit easily into any other campaign.
Many people have some old ones, and they are available cheaply on Ebay, and also at http://www.brickbay.com . If you are careful on Ebay, you can get them for less than the cost of a comparable mini, and best of all – you don’t have to paint them! I also plan on using green plastic army men as opponents![Johnn: here’s a related tip from Daniel E:]
I am currently running D&D3E for a group of players where among one is a hard core LEGO fanatic. Since she has tons of the stuff, it seemed natural to start using it to run fights and encounters, which has worked wonderfully. Most LEGO stuff fits pretty well in the recommended 1×1 inch squares. You should check out some of the pictures at her site: Brickshelf
Make The Monsters MONSTERS!
How many times have you seen an encounter go like this:
“As you are walking through the woods you come across some goblins. There are about a dozen of them and they are charging you. What do you do?”
The players of course attack, and in a few rounds or less, the goblins are gone. The players don’t think twice about it and the GM obviously planned the goblins as cannon fodder. The question should be, why?
If the sole purpose of goblins is to provide cannon fodder for the PCs, why does the species even exist? Shouldn’t they all be wiped out by now? Let’s look at skeletons. In most game systems that have them they are considered weak easy kills for the PCs. The question again is why? Too many GMs use helpless cannon fodder encounters to liven up a dull or empty section of the session. Would it not be better if we could give our players encounters that challenged them to think about their options?
Let’s look at that goblin encounter again. We have twelve goblins. These goblins are survivors in a culture that eats the weak among itself. Why would they just blindly line up to be killed? They wouldn’t of course. Let’s try something a little different…….. Let’s give about six of those goblins spears. We will give four more short bows and short swords as back-up weapons. And we will give the remaining two a combination of a javelin and a battle axe.
Now we know that goblins have some superior senses compared to humans. So, they should be able to stalk the players a little. Now we look at tactics. Goblins are listed as cunning, and they are not totally stupid. We have the goblins with the bows open on the party first. As the party is turning to deal with them, the javelin-armed goblins launch next from a flank.
Now confused and vulnerable, the PCs are attacked from the rear with the spear-armed goblins. As the players deal with them, the archers are off on a flank continuing to shoot and the axe-armed ones are moving up on a flank or rear of the party.
Yes, a well experienced party will still be able to deal with it, but it is also an encounter that they will remember.
The tricks to making encounters more dangerous are as follows:
- Keep the players guessing as to the number of opponents they are facing (“sand people always travel single file to hide their numbers” from Obi Wan Kenobi).
- Try to keep the party guessing as to what they are facing. The original archers in the above encounter could have been dark elves for all the party knew.
- Don’t give away too much information. I know of few people who, in the middle of being fired upon, will stand there trying to count opponents and guess at what they are.
- Have a backup plan. Have the above axe-armed goblins only attack for one round and then start to run. If the spear- armed ones are already in retreat, the party may divide to chase them all. This is even better because then the PCs’ strength is divided. And no matter how strong, the individual strength of the players is always less than the combined whole.
The goblins could lead the party into pit traps and other nasty surprises. This encounter could be used as the foundation of a whole new campaign. Imagine the party having to escape from a whole tribe of goblins, minus some of their magical goodies. This encounter style also helps if your group has managed to accumulate too much treasure and you need to trim some of it away. Better yet, how did the goblins learn these tactics anyway?
Now back to those skeletons. Let’s look at what a skeleton really is….. When you think of it, the undead are really pretty nasty. They are a reminder of our own mortality and a promise that even death won’t always allow you to rest in peace. It is a form of slavery that goes way beyond mere physical freedom. To quote from Games Workshop’s Vampire Counts book, one vampire lord was listed as saying to a town he was attacking, “You can serve me in life or you can serve me in death.
How you choose is immaterial to me.” An undead master doesn’t care if you are unhappy as an undead, only that you obey. The undead tend to attack in waves. Horrible unending waves. It doesn’t matter how many you kill, or how badly you hurt them, they keep coming.
To simulate this to your players, try being more descriptive when giving combat results. Shultz the Strong hits a zombie with his sword, but it’s not enough damage to drop it in one round. Instead of giving him the “OK, you hurt it”, try “your blow opens a great gaping wound in its torso. This would have dropped any mortal opponent, but obviously this rotting corpse is possessed of supernatural stamina.” The player is now guessing if he can stop these things. And if he does drop one in one hit, don’t ignore it.
Give your players the following “Gorin’s blow shears the rotting carcass in half, but even down, the corpse still seems to have unnatural vitality as it still twitches and thrashes about.” The players begin to panic, can we stop these things? And suddenly the quest to go bash Kronk the evil necromancer is a little less certain.
Another trick I once tried on a party was the second chance skeletons. They were normal skeletons well within the norm for the game I was running, except for one thing. If they were killed, on the round following their first death, they got back up at half their starting hit points. When killed the second time, they were gone for good.
In the first round, my players dropped five of them. Everyone was saying things like “ho hum, another batch of skeletons, let’s get this over with.” Then at the beginning of the second round, those five started to get back up. It takes a full round for them to reform during which they cannot attack and the players received a bonus to hit them. My players never tried, they broke from the encounter terrified that they had just stumbled onto some really powerful necromancer’s lair with regenerating skeletons.
They immediately reorganized their group, hired two additional NPC warriors at an extravagant amount to assist them and went back a lot more carefully. Of course, the final encounter was a lot more fun for everyone as they were expecting an all-powerful lich and got a wizard barely able to cast a fireball, with a magic item that allowed him to raise the skeletons at a rate of four per day.
However, because they had attacked the first time when he only had about a dozen of them, and then left for ten days to get help, he had had time to really get ready for the PCs. And my players found out that an opponent doesn’t have to be really powerful to be a challenge.
I really hope that this helps those GMs out there that are having trouble with their players getting bored. It is not the power of the encounter but how it’s played. And next time the party sees what they think are only a couple of minotaurs, they may think twice before rushing them. And isn’t that what all of us GM’s hope for?