Thursday, December 31, 2009

State of the Game 2009

Fellow gamers, let us review the State of the Game here at These Dice Look Funny.

Actual (or Virtual) Dice Rolling:
In 2009, I ran only two games - a solo session for a couple friends in early January, and three games in the Necropolis universe for coworkers during the summer. I played in a Dungeons and Dragons game over webcam, and am currently involved in a PBP Gamma World game on Google Wave. Friends, this is a woeful state to be in - this hobby cannot exist in a vacuum. I need to play more shit, dammit.

Professional Writing:
In 2009, I wrote one full length adventure (currently in editing) and was contracted for a splatbook with adventure included, currently sitting around 12 pages (approximately 1/3 done). I also wrote two one-shot adventures. I gladly celebrate these opportunities - they mean my hobby is finally paying off, and I find the actual writing is a wonderful leisure activity.

Amateur Writing:
Short of a few new ideas (the Metagame) and some articles on this site, 2009 was not a good year for my non-professional writing. I chalk this up to the pressures of school and my rising stardom* in the professional world.

Computer Gaming:
With my machine a few years behind the times, most of the really captivating games are sadly denied me - my greatest feeling of loss is reserved for Dragon Age: Origins. I have, however, recently gotten into Half Life 2 (finally) which I am glad to say has withstood the test of time. I also got more involved with roguelikes, my new favorite being Triangle Wizard.

2009 was also a sad year for reading. I did not get the chance to read many books this year. I did read The World According To Garp and liked it very much.

Closing Thoughts:
I am happy to have had a chance to develop some professional cred this year and look forward to all the fortune and glory that entails. Though I wish dearly I could have done a lot more gaming, I'm happy for any opportunity at all, so I welcome Google Wave and its ability to bring people together.

In 2010, I should like to develop any one of my Five Good Ideas (Clock and Dagger, Eight Kingdoms, Zombies from Dimension X, Rig, and Bullets and Brimstone) at length. If nothing else, it would be a good year to move them from the "notebook" stage to the "actually written down in a Word document" stage.

Keep the dice rolling!

*I would not actually call myself a rising star...yet.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

side note

Found an interesting and well-researched article about the history of role-playing, available here. Eventually, I'd like to write a book on the subject if I can.

Sanity in the Metagame: Finally, some crunch

I've long been considering how Sanity is handled in the Metagame universe (or "Eight Kingdoms," as I'm starting to call it).

SURELY if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you, right?

Right, but...haven't we seen that before? A few times? Call of Cthulhu and the World of Darkness are focused very much on retaining your sanity/sense of self/humanity in a fight against the darkness. Rippers and Tour of Darkness (two Savage Worlds settings) both tried to incorporate a sanity element into the game, neither one being successful in my opinion.

I considered for a while that perhaps channeling too much of your character would lead to them wandering around the steam tunnels under their college. Then I thought no, let's allow them to "cash in" sanity to channel, but then I realized that's just trading out Sanity for Power Points. Then I said, how about every time they gain an ability, they go a little crazier.

Finally, I said no. The game is not about a fight with sanity, really. The sanest thing to do in the Metagame is to accept the fight against the monsters. The darkness is real; the characters have a chance to do something about it; the crazy thing would be to deny all of it.

Sanity mechanics will come into play through the Fear table, which I am considering modifying, and through a checklist the GM will follow. I will probably also make the NPC Reaction Table more granular. RIght now, let's say that every item on the checklist subtracts 1 from encounter table results - which is not the same as Charisma. Finally, I will say that levels of Fatigue also subtract from NPC reactions.

Let's say your coworker Howard is a gamer. At work, you swap a couple stories about tabletop experiences, you crack the same Evil Dead jokes, and you have made a couple efforts to set Howard up with a boyfriend (NPC reaction: 10 on the table, so just this side of Friendly).
One day, you pass by Howard's cubicle and notice he's surfing eBay for firearms (GM checklist: The PC purchases a gun, so we're at 9). No biggie; in fact, you tell him that your uncle has a Smith and Wesson that needs a good home.
A month later, Howard hasn't been sleeping too well (Checklist: the PC gains a level of Fatigue from his "hobby," so now we're at 8. The Fatigue itself also subtracts one, and we'll assume Howard fails his Vigor rolls a lot to resist exhaustion - down to 7 on the table). You offer to cover for him so he can go take a nap, but you're a little annoyed that you feel you should do that.
A week after that, you tell Howard you met a guy at the game store that you think would be perfect for him. Howard tells you to go fuck yourself (No checklist entry, but the GM decides Howard's not keeping his friends these days - another -1 to the Reactions, so down to 6).
Three weeks later, Howard is putting an Ace bandage and gauze on his leg at work (GM checklist: Obvious injury, 5 on Reactions). You are getting weirded out by this guy.
Finally, one day you arrive late to work and pass by Howard's car. One window is smashed, it looks like someone keyed the hell out of one side, and you see what is obviously a pair of shotgun shells on the seat (Checklist: Signs of conflict or struggle, -1 to reactions, we're at 4 now).

Now, the thing is, that coworker NPC represents the entire workplace. With an Unfriendly result on the NPC reaction table, Howard is going to find his job in jeopardy. Howard is still completely sane (if stressed), but people look at him askance.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Metagame thoughts

This is a continuation of the thought process that began with this post.

I thought of a framework to assemble PCs for Eight Kingdoms/The Metagame - a support group for gamers who have trouble determining the difference between what is real and fantastic. Except when they get there, the head of the support group tells them it's all real. As proof, he shows them the entrance to a goblin warren and says it's their responsibility to clear it out.

The man who runs the support group, who I'm calling Gary, acts as a mentor and contact for the group of PCs. I'd further thought about providing a questionnaire for people to fill out, assessing their condition and rounding out their characters a bit more.

Additional thoughts:
I'd love to publish this someday, of course, and Google Wave won't be required to play. It did inspire me a little.

There are eight character classes in the Eight Kingdoms, and each class represents the general outlook and history of a particular kingdom. The ruler of each kingdom is at the pinnacle of their character class progression - and yes, people in the Kingdoms themselves can comprehend things like one's level, hit points, and character stats.

The eight classes are:
Warrior - your barbarian, fighter, knight, and samurai classes are all Warriors. Warriors are a "tank" class.
Guardian - druids, paladins, rangers, and the like are all Guardians. Anyone who dedicates themselves to defending and advancing a cause or ideal is a Guardian. Guardians are a "pet" class with "tank" trappings.
Spellweaver - wizards, sorcerers, blood mages: anyone who uses arcane magic is a Spellweaver.
Blessed - Monks and clerics both count as Blessed...and so does the village shaman, the medicine woman, and the combat medic. Blessed dedicate their lives to a cause as Guardians do, but while a Guardian advances their cause through combat, the Blessed strive to lead by example.
Diplomat - advisors, tacticians, bards, and warlords are all considered Diplomats. They have command abilities and impressive knowledge about the world.
Artisan - Smiths, craftsmen, and Weird Science tinkerers are all Artisans. Within their world, Artisans are at the top of their craft. Within ours, they have the power to create magical devices, or to conjure useful tools from nowhere.
Conjurer - The pure "pet" class of EK, Conjurers are your necromancers, summoners, warlocks, and witches. They have access to magics taught them by their pets, and they can call creatures not of this world. Despite the dark trappings, conjuring is not evil in and of itself, but it is sometimes put to evil use. Then again, so are swords, spells, and words.
Shadow - Moving silently through the night, leaping amongst city towers, or concealing themselves amongst trees, Shadows are the thieves, rogues, assassins, and scouts of an EK group.

Like all things SW, it's all about trappings.

There are no playable races besides Human in the Eight Kingdoms, though I have it in mind that the backstory of the EK involves the misadventures of elves, dwarves, halflings, et al.

...and that's all he wrote? I have trouble ending blog posts.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Generation Gap: Savage Worlds

A friend of mine has started a series of articles on random character generation with running commentary so I felt I'd follow suit. I'm therefore inspired to dig out my old Fantasy Character Generator PDF, which has just arrived in my Wayback Machine from 2004.

The rules are simple:
Let the dice fall where they may.
Where there is the option to roll on a chart, do it.
Where there is a choice to make, make it for purely mechanical reasons.

Shall we begin?

We start strong. A roll of 100 means I'm playing a Half-Folk. Great, nice Spirit bonus, the Benny comes in handy. Low Toughness, no biggie. The Half-Folk Fortune table tells me I'm unusually light on my feet for some extra Stealth dice - nice - and a couple rolls later, we learn I'm playing a woman with black hair and deep blue eyes. Great! I'm an Unusually Quiet Roman Half-Folk lady.

Next up, I can roll up to twice on the Features table. For the lulz, I do...okay, two Minor Flaws, no biggie...I'm missing my middle finger on the left hand and I have a stick out belly button. Interesting, and she'll never be a top archer with that defect. One more more roll lets me know that Llana (as I'm calling her) is extremely obese. Okay. At least it offsets that Toughness penalty. Now that we've completed the circumstances of her birth, we can determine how the rest of her life went.

Llana is a young adult, which makes her something like 15 in Half-Folk years. I make note of this for later.

Looks like Llana was born in wedlock to farrier parents. Did you know "farriers" make horseshoes? I didn't. I'm just going to call that Knowledge (blacksmithing), plus 2 steps. I'll let my GM know that I should get a bonus to The horseshoe trade must be important in the area, because Llana's related to the founders of the community. Unfortunately, while her father is alive and well, Mom has taken ill recently. Worse still, her mother is fond of her, while her father treats her an embarrassment to all the family stands for - Dad evidently wanted a son to take over the farriering business, because Llana's an only child.

Mom and Pop live in a smallish town near some farmland, so Llana's not the most streetsmart of children, nor is she totally ignorant. We've picked up a d4 in Streetwise, which is sure to wow the menfolk.

Now we get to some childhood events. Here's where we'll pick up those skills. Llana apparently liked to pick things apart and put them together as a child (d4 Repair), and sometime in her childhood, a mysterious old man promised her that she would have a glorious future...perhaps driving her to success, and perhaps a blessing. Llana's parents were friendly with a Dwarven clan in the area, and a few more rolls tell me they still remember Llana, they treat her as family, and they have more or less friendly relatives (GM, take note, I sense adventure hooks).

Llana did well in school growing up (+1 Smarts), but had bad luck for one of the Half-Folk and wasn't terribly motivated (maybe due to her father's constant criticism, and almost definitely the reason for her weight issues).

Finally, Llana set off on her own (but likely not too far from home - unmotivated, remember) and took up a series of odd medium-term jobs. Her starting package gives her +1 of each Attribute except Smarts and a smattering of skills (which include a craft skill - I'll say Blacksmithing, mechanically). For a time, she worked as a woodcutter (+1 Strength), where he strength and spirit attracted the attention of a passing mercenary unit, whose captain convinced her to sign on for a while (+1 Fighting and Guts). Unfortunately, when she left, she was forced to work as a laborer, where she formed a frienship with another former mercenary, a half-orc named Grum; the two supported each other and shared everything. The foreman for their job never paid either of them (leaving here with a Major Vengeful Hindrance - Llana's tired of being screwed over by now); they decided to escape and eventually parted ways amicably, but occasionally call upon each other for aid. Llana returned to her roots and honed her skills at smithing (+2 die types in a craft skill...).

If you're keeping track, Llana has a d12 in blacksmithing by this point. She is actually one of the greatest smiths in the world, but doesn't know it. I am guessing Llana wound up adventuring as a way to make ends meet, and probably feeling directionless after her friendship (romance?) with Grum broke up.


Ag d6
Sm d6
Sp d8
St d8
Vg d6

Fighting d6
Gambling d4
Guts d6
Knowledge (blacksmithing) d12
Notice d4
Persuasion d4
Stealth d6
Streetwise d6

Lucky, Spirited

Bad Luck
Vengeful (major)

Well, we've got a fat 15 year old halfling with a bad attitude and a good right hook. Girl can also swing a hammer. Let's get her some armor and a maul to round her out, and there we have it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Introducing: The Metagame

I've been gaming on Google Wave, recently, and having a fairly good time. I have also thought about gaming as a social activity more than an escapist exercise; Google Wave is good for telling a story but not so good for having fun with your buddies.

But is there a way to turn that to your advantage? I can conceive of a world where face-to-face communication within the party is impossible, intimidating, or (better yet) dangerous. Games like Hunter: The Reckoning spring to mind, where party members might be unwilling or unable to connect to each other due to physical, moral, and emotional difficulties.

But I have an even better idea: The Metagame.

RPG historians seem to agree that Eight Kingdoms was penned sometime in the late 70s. Some are of the opinion that with better business sense, it might have quickly replaced Dungeons and Dragons, but nobody actually knows who the author was - when copies show up, their covers are missing and any mention of an author is illegible or just gone. No existing publisher claims the book, no author has stepped forward, and only an uninteresting series of legal loopholes prevent the work from simply entering the public domain. Eight Kingdoms has become a legend in the tabletop RPG community in the way of all urban legends - nobody's played, but everyone claims an uncle who went to DragonCon in 1989 and played EK in a hotel room after a bar crawl with a vendor whose name he can't remember.

Eight Kingdoms does exist. Unfortunately, Eight Kingdoms is much more than a game. Eight Kingdoms wasn't even written by anyone in this world. Eight Kingdoms is the bridge linking our real world to the world of Eight Kingdoms. Characters in Metagame are PCs who have played EK. Maybe it was a copy they picked up at a garage sale when they were twelve, or maybe they had an older brother who came home one weekend, ran a game, and then then lost interest.

The problem is, the fantasy world of Eight Kingdoms started to spill into our reality 30 years ago, and vice versa. Our world can't contain concepts like goblins and witchcraft any more than the world of the Kingdoms can contain firearms or democracy. The two worlds will tear each other apart if nobody does anything about it.

PCs will create the character of a gamer who is part of a gaming group that communicates (at least a little) via Google Wave. They will also determine who their Eight Kingdoms character is. Characters in Metagame can channel abilities from their Eight Kingdoms character to help them fight the darkness spilling into the real world. An IT technician playing a Spellweaver can use magic to his advantage, while a college student playing a Troubadour may find he can make himself irresistible to those of his gender preference.

That's the basic idea - it's pretty much World of Darkness but built around a gaming framework. It'll be more "white collar" than WOD, but who knows, it might send gamers to a darker place.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Roleplaying Games and Story Structure: Putting It Together

And now, putting some of this together.

We've looked over some of the vocabulary and structure of a good story. Now, how to put it all together. I'm going to discuss character focused campaigns.

Let's pretend I'm running a DnD 4e game for two and maybe three of my friends. They're all casual gamers. Two of them have characters: an elephant-man Paladin and a human Necromancer.

Sidestepping the rules discussion about how to implement those two characters, let's instead examine how I might shape a story that involves them.

Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number One: A good story comes from the characters. See also Firefly.

So we've got an obvious issue to hammer out: Why are the paladin and the necromancer hanging out, besides the obvious need for a guardian and striker?

The obvious answer I came up with is that the characters have known each other for a long time. I find I'm often able to forgive the moral shortcomings or self-righteousness of my friends, so while I can't decide that the characters grew up together, they must have been part of a community. The easiest way to do that is isolate the campaign starting area.

I've been thinking about Fallout a lot lately, so I steal a cue from it: I decide the campaign starts in an underground civilization, sealed off from a terrible catastrophe 500 years ago.

Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Two: A little backstory goes a long way. Too much backstory gets in the way. See also Star Wars Ep. 4-6 and compare to Ep. 1-3.

I decided that over the last 500 years, necromancy became a big part of life underground. When resources are at a premium, it's good to have an unskilled labor base you don't need to feed. This helps explain the character I had trouble with, and gave me an interesting little idea for creating tension once the characters reached the surface world (get to that later).

Now I have characters and a very basic setting idea. Then what?

Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Three: You must be able to answer this question: "What will characters in this world do?" See also Hunter: The Reckoning.

I started to envision their first dungeon crawl. Internal conflict didn't seem right, as I figured the community had to be reasonably stable for paladins and necromancers to exist side by side, working together for the betterment of all. Sending them deeper into the caves didn't do it for me either, nor did the idea that a bunch of goblins and other level 1 monsters somehow breach this fortress that survived untold forces.

My first solution was to involve a "proving grounds" within the community itself. I liked the idea that the community leaders would have cobbled together a dungeon in order to test the mettle of potential adventurers.

That led me to another idea: Maybe the elders didn't create the Proving Grounds (it's time to start capitalizing that for emphasis, I decide). Maybe whoever built the underground fortress did. I also happened upon an idea that the identity of the architects of this civilization has been lost. I decide to call them "The Architects" and file that away for later.

Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Four: It's never too late to add in a mysteriously named power group. See also The Flood.

So the Architects built a special training ground, and it will only open when whatever sensors exist determine that the outside world is safe to be explored. The Proving Grounds helps guard the exit with constructs, undead, and clever traps from one direction; from the other direction, it's a nice warmup dungeon.

Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Five: What is the purpose of a dungeon? See also Tomb of Terrors for an example gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Then I need an inciting incident.

TBFG, Number Six: Why these guys? Your heroes must be the only ones capable of overcoming the obstacles.

I decide to thrust the PCs into the harsh, cruel Overworld and lay the seeds for a plot by deciding the Proving Grounds have been somehow compromised. Since I'm toying with the idea that it's a postapocalyptic world, I added something akin to radiation to it. I called it "the Glow," which isn't too imaginative but I do not think my players will care. The Glow is dangerous, though nobody knows this yet, as the Underworlders don't know it exists. I decide the Glow also prevents zombies from being controlled, and may have an effect of driving golems mad. Probably it will become a roadblock to the PCs more than anything else, or at least a neat way to incorporate some magical traps, puzzles, and creatures (like a gibbering mouther).

But that hasn't answered the question yet: Why these guys? I decide to highlight the danger of the Glow by giving the players a couple allies. Maybe a zombie or two, a handful of assistants also trained for this kind of thing. However, the zombies go nuts when they're exposed to the Glow, and the assistants will serve as red shirts, dying in increasingly gory ways.

So, we've gotten our heroes into the world, warmed them up to the system, overcome some obstacles both surprising and otherwise, and killed off the nonessential characters. Now what?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

CITIZENS: Bigby's Crushing Thirst Destroyer

That will be all.

Self Savaging

Me, the Savage Worlds Character

I may have exaggerated some of my skillset and underplayed other parts of it (for instance, my Notice die should be a lot lower and my Repair skill should be higher). I'm going for a playable Novice character, not an accurate representation of my abilities.

Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Climbing d6, Driving d6, Fighting d6, Notice d4, Persuasion d6, Repair d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d6
Pace 6, Parry 5, Toughness 5, Charisma -1
Hindrances: Curious, Loyal, Habit (anxiety)
Edges: Ambidextrous, Command
Gear (which I would carry if I were a professional adventurer): Multitool, flashlight, steel toed boots, laptop computer, toolkit, Bowie knife, Sig Saeur 9mm pistol

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Happy birthday, Howard Phillips Lovecraft!

Today is the 119th birthday of Howard Philips Lovecraft, one of the most influential writers of the last century (depending, of course, on who you ask).

Lovecraft's work inspired artists like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, and HR Geiger. In the Land of Nerds, where I frolic, his writings are considered one of the foundations of our shared cultural context, much like quotes from Star Wars or Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Now, his writing itself isn't what we remember: It's the mythology he created, where immense alien intelligences strive to accomplish unknowable goals in a cold, uncaring universe where the only beings who matter are gods whose very form would force mortals into stark madness. Lovecraft wanted to craft a universe that would frighten even atheists like himself, and this concept - there were things Man Was Not Meant To Know - has stood the test of time.

Some of his writing may be found here, with my favorite story (Herbert West: Reanimator) located here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Part 3, additional

Talking to a playwright friend of mine, she put forth the following:

"A plot twist takes the story in a new direction, while a reveal answers a question."

Applying this to RPGs: Plot twists make good act breaks and raise the stakes. Plot twists can go at the end of sessions. However, since they change the direction the drama moves in, they really don't fit into 4-6 hour sessions.

Additionally, a reveal can be a plot twist - new information can raise new questions.

Complicating things further, a plot twist can not be a reveal. Taking the story away from the original conflicts can't, in itself, answer questions.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Roleplaying Games and Story Structure, Part 3

Back from Colorado, I am now ready to continue this discussion.

I had a thought while I was out in the mountains, that it would be a good idea to use an entry to introduce everyone to some of the vocabulary I'll be using in this series.

As previously mentioned, I have a theater and literature background. A huge portion of my experience in those fields informs my hobby, so many of the terms I use will be taken from that as well. The following list are words I may employ to help you understand what I'm talking about, already digested for use in roleplaying games.

Drama: I use this in the sense of "good drama," as in "a struggle between two or more sides with irreconcilable goals that must be resolved."

Example: A group of kobolds steals a lucky charm that has been in the family for generations; the man wants it back and the kobolds want to keep it for the luck it brings them. This simple fetch quest is dramatic.

Conflict: What do the two sides wish to accomplish? Oddly enough, it's often a good idea to leave the PCs out of the initial conflict. Most games serve the PCs as forces reacting to the conflict, rather than serving as a catalyst. Think about it - in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is simply trying to find an old colleague and the stakes keep rising. Indy is a small part of the greater conflict, but is key to the resolution.

In our example above, the kobolds want to hang onto the artifact that the quest-giver wants returned. Though the PCs may have a personal stake of some kind in the conflict - a sister to the man in question, or a debt-riddled rogue out to make some coin - the conflict is not theirs.

: How will the drama be resolved? Both sides of the conflict need a defined and easily-grasped goal.

Now, let's talk down the road here: I always vote for keeping things very, very simple. Just get the game to the table with its easy to understand goals; we all know the players will provide plenty of complexity, conspiracy theories, and hypotheses that will both slow the game down and provide you with interesting ideas for the future.

It's also very important that PCs be the only people who can resolve the drama! If a visiting sheriff or paladin can go squash the bad guys on his own, then why are the PCs doing it?

The goals of our example quest are very simple: The PCs will resolve the drama by obtaining the lucky charm. The man can't do it by himself, and he can't approach the town watch with this problem because the kobolds lair is outside the zone they are willing to patrol.

Stakes: What is at risk? You may have heard the term "raising the stakes" before; over the course of a good story, what is at risk often becomes more personal and more important. Again using Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example, the Nazis fake the death of Marion Ravenwood, which creates a desire for vengeance within Indy - he realizes the Nazis will stop at nothing to obtain the Ark, so he decides he must do the same. Raising the stakes happens over time; if you recall most CRPGs, a simple task undertaken at the beginning of the game has more sinister underpinnings and is often the opening salvo of a larger conspiracy.

In our kobold story, perhaps the PCs discover that stealing the artifact has caused monsters in the area to respect the kobold tribe, who are now beginning to unite the ogres and goblins in the vicinity to march against the town.

Challenge: If you read an acting textbook (which may not be a bad idea, and I can recommend several), the writer would talk about "obstacles." For an actor, an obstacle is anything that stands in the way of the character accomplishing her goals.

For RPGs, the appropriate term is a "challenge," but the idea is the same. A challenge requires the PCs (and sometimes the players themselves) to employ their various skills and talents to receive a reward. Rewards are sometimes loot, sometimes experience, and sometimes moving the story forward.

Unlike acting, where you must follow a script and blocking, many challenges in RPGs are optional. Your character spies a gem set into a tall statue's eye; the challenge is how the character gets it into his pockets. Strictly speaking, this is not a challenge they have to accept, but it is soluble and will result in a reward.

In the kobold adventure, challenges may take the form of traps the kobolds have set, monsters they have intimidated to stand in the party's way, and of course the kobolds themselves. Optional challenges may be random encounters, treasure the kobolds have trapped, or alternate ways to reach the lair of the kobolds.

Protagonist: In strictest terms, the principal character of a story is the protagonist. In RPGs, there is no protagonist; the entire story is told from the point of view of the player characters - even though there may be more important people in the world of the game.

Antagonist: Whoever marshals the opposing forces to the protagonist is the antagonist. The antagonist exists to place challenges in the way of the progtagonist.

Scenes: A small unit of dramatic action in support of the main story is a scene. In RPGs, a scene invariably contains a challenge, and part of the reward is advancement of the story.

With the kobolds (again), sneaking past sentries and into the kobold lair is a scene, solving the puzzle of their mechanical locks is a scene, and defeating the chief's dire wolf guardians once he throws the PCs into an arena is a scene. Unlocking a treasure chest, luring patrols into an ambush, and defeating a random encounter in the woods are not scenes.

Reveal: The PCs have reached the end of the kobolds' lair and find not only a kobold chieftan but the younger brother of the man who gave them the quest!

A reveal is not simply a plot twist. Plot twists are the result of insufficient storytelling. Reveals are just what they say they are - something is revealed, which implies it was knowable beforehand. Players need a fighting chance at working out the reveals ahead of time so they can plan for it and congratulate themselves on their cleverness.

Reveals are very obvious in hidsight. A reveal for the example above might go like this: "Oh, the missing farmer from the quest last week, he's related to the blacksmith, we just never asked! And he was the one who robbed the rich widow, like we heard about from Sergeant Grimes! He bought off the kobolds, and now he's got what he thinks was his birthright - but it looks like they took him hostage in return! I was right, though, there was someone more intelligent behind this, and Kyle was correct when he said it wasn't the Thieve's Guild."

Act: Every time the PCs accomplish a major victory in support of their goal, we have reached an act break. At an act break, the stakes must rise. There does not necessarily have to be a reveal to close out an act, but it can help.

If the kobold chieftan captures the PCs, then that's a good act break; the tables have turned and they must now somehow escape his clutches.

Climax: When the story has gone as far as it can and can go no further without resolution, you have reached the climax. In RPGs, a climax is usually a gigantic, bare-knuckled, knock-down, drag-out fight.

In our example, the PCs must defeat the kobold chieftan to retrieve the lucky charm, the missing brother, and prevent him from unifying the threats to society in the area. They do not have to necessarily batter him into a pulp, but they may have to defeat his champions so he may get away, or convince the younger brother to retrieve the lucky charm.

Leave comments and questions below, of course. Next up: The campaign format...with special guests!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Roleplaying Games and Story Structure, Part 2

Let's talk about story structure first.

Roleplaying games are best defined as "episodic." Episodic structure is the same kind of story structure most TV shows use (remember, they're called episodes?) to do their thing. Of all forms of art and entertainment, I find RPGs best fit in this format more than any other, so let's investigate what episodic format is first.

Stories with an episodic structure tend to have the following traits:
  • The same characters developing over the course of many stories
  • Many small recurring characters, both enemies and allies
  • Each episode contains a main plot and one or more subplots, resolved within a natural period of time.
  • Smaller episode contributing to a larger plot developed over a season
  • Over several seasons, the main plots of previous seasons may resolve an even larger story
Some shows that make good use of these principles are Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and 24. Most sitcoms do not fall into this category: Sitcoms function only if the characters do not grow. For instance, Seinfeld's writers were wizards at tying together multiple plotlines over the course of an episode, but the characters did not mature over the course of the show's run (which of course led naturally to the humor).

So, let's look at these individually:
  • The same characters developing over the course of many stories
Okay, that one's easy. That's what we do. The PCs develop both in terms of skill set and in terms of the player understanding them, seeing their world.
  • Many small recurring characters, both enemies and allies
In a good game, we know of the importance of recurring NPCs. They're useful love interests, villains, henchmen, comic relief, and allies in the good fight. This one's easy, though just take a look at it and see how it fits in with the other aspects of an episodic campaign.
  • Each episode contains a main plot and one or more subplots, resolved within a natural period of time.
Here's where things get real, and here's where I turn into the lecturer. Each session of an RPG campaign should have a main plot or story. In writing terms, this is called the A plot. The A plot is the major thing that must be resolved before the characters can continue on with their lives. There are usually two subplots called (creatively) the B plot and C plot. Often, a C plot involves character growth or backstory development (and so sometimes we see a minor resolution in character growth), and usually a B plot is connected to the A plot - either as a solution to the otherwise insoluble A plot or as a problem springing from it.
  • Individual episodes contributing to a larger plot developed over a season
Now things get tougher: Potentially, any one of the plot lines in an individual episode present a "piece of the puzzle" for an entire "season." Even the lowly C plot can occasionally provide an important clue for later. Essentially, a season has an A plot, B plot, and C plot all of its own. Just as mentioned above, a B plot it usually the solution to or cause resulting from a B plot and a C plot is typically character driven.
  • Over several seasons, the main plots of previous seasons may resolve an even larger story
It's the same three-tiered structure as before. One big story, fed by two little stories.

That's a quick rundown of episodic structure. Read well, for next up: How to apply this to RPGs!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Roleplaying Games and Story Structure, Part 1

I'd like to begin a series of essays in which I will examine how story structure works and how to apply that to RPGs.

I'll begin by answering the question "why are you writing these essays, and what makes you qualified to write them?" I'll actually answer that in reverse order. I am a student of theater, so I tend to see the world in terms of how theatrical/spectacular things are. Roleplaying is, in many ways, linked to theater and group improv; each has a scenarios with rules, characters, and a willing suspension of disbelief in order to create a world. In my time as a student and professional I have been a carpenter, actor, sound designer, set designer, dramaturg, playwright, and director: these are the skills one uses to create a world.

Why am I writing these? It started with a DnD adventure. An official DnD adventure, no less. After we were finished, I could tell what the adventure was supposed to be, a cool little "play one evil against a greater evil" type of thing, but it wound up being a mess. My group was contracted to kill a sea monster, so we did - and somehow that turned out not to be enough, there was a lich involved as well as some kind of creature from the elemental plane of chaos, I don't know. It was, as you may gather, sort of a mess.

So what was the problem? Were we just too silly to notice the clues? Did the DM skip over sections? Did we fail to make Search rolls every ten feet?

Not really. It was just a poorly put together story. The idea behind it, as mentioned, works. I'll be spending some time over the next several days examining episodic structure, act structure, and how both of those apply to RPGs. I'll also look a little into improvisation.

Sound good?

Monday, May 25, 2009

A one act Zax met a five act Zax

I teleroleplayed tonight. DnD 3.5, my friend set up a webcam, I turned mine on, I hooked up my old monitor to my laptop so I could have one monitor for character sheets and the SRD website and another monitor just for the webcam. I don't know how well my friends took it but it was nice hearing the old inside jokes, I didn't get to see them when I was in town two weeks ago.

Tim's girlfriend plays, which is great, and there was some guy Kurt I didn't really know, but he drew all the battlemaps beautifully and knew who Cthulhu is so he's okay in my book. Nice to see the group growing.

The real problem here was the story was shitty. There were like three plots going on which were supposed to be inconsistent but didn't really make sense. Clues we were supposed to get were actually made out of little metagame bullshit that was supposed to defy our expectations. What the fuck ever, Wizards of the Coast, I don't need your attitude, I need an entertaining night with my friends 500 miles away. It is like the Saw movies: Witholding information the audience can't access isn't clever, it's bad storytelling.

I don't think any offenders read this blog, but I was thinking about putting something up about story structure.

Actually, yeah. I will do that in the next couple days. Wizards of the Coast, take note. They are some of the worst ones.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A query for those inclined

Mental exercise:

Necropolis 2350. Your unit has been assigned to capture and interrogate a vampire.

Vampires in this setting:
-are not destroyed by sunlight
-do not feel pain
-tend to have between d12 and d12+2 Strength
-are not affected by garlic or holy items (except those of unusual power - the Spear of Destiny or Holy Gail might do something, while your garden variety holy water does not; let us assume the group does not have access to a powerful relic)
-are sentient, free-willed creatures

How do you go about getting information from that thing?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Necropolis 2355: Garrison Lance

Fritz, Chaplain of the Ordo Lazari Sancti
The Hippocratic Oath is more of a Hippocratic Suggestion.
Ag d8, Sm d8, Sp d8, St d6, Vg d6
Faith d8, Fighting d6, Guts d10, Healing d10, Notice d8, Shooting d6, Stealth d4
Pace 6, Parry 5, Toughness 9(4)
Arcane Background (miracles), Command, Healer, Medic!
Gear: Flechette SMG, molecular dagger, medkit, light armor
AB: 10 PP; bolt, healing, smite

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Remember what I was saying about Old School?

I defined Old School, you may remember, as an adversarial relationship between the GM and players.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

10 Monsters I Love to Use

This meme is floating around the gaming community, so I thought I'd do it here.

10 Monsters I Love Using, and Why (In No Particular Order)

1. Elves: I like using regular ol' high elves a lot. They make good enemies, at least the way I run them - aloof, convinced of their superiority, and often extremely well-intentioned.
2. Dogs: I like the idea that, in a land of adventure and mystery, there are still people who train big ol' attack dogs. Dogs are a threat that the players can identify with more easily than anything else on this list.
3. Zombies: Who doesn't like zombies? They're great generic bad guys.
4. Oozes: Creepy, inhuman, hungry, tough. Oozes.
5. Mummies: Undead warrior-priests with a vulnerability to fire are a good fit in many campaigns. Very dangerous to an unprepared party, but they have a vulnerability that many players can latch on to. They also often hang out with nos. 3 and 4.
6. Cultists: Sometimes I don't feel like making a villain with emotional underpinnings and human vulnerability. That's what zealots are good for.
7. Tree-people: All kinds. Ents, shambling mounds, animated christmas trees. They're fantastic allies and powerful enemies and they represent the raw fury of nature many times.
8. Gatormen: Alligator guys are slightly scarier than the more generic "lizardmen," merely because they paint a better picture.
9. Drakes: All the power of a dragon, none of the negotiation. Excellent when paired with cultists.
10. Ghouls: They're like a Zombie +1, and they have a creepy paralyzing ability. Additionally, they retain enough mad intelligence to lay traps, lie in wait, and even capture party members to use as bait.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Necropolis 2355: Garrison Lance

Garrison Lance is lucky to have Joe on the team. Joe is a pioneer in sentrygun technology, nearly as effective as three soldiers when it comes to defending an area.

Joe, Knight Combat Engineer of the Ordo Praetorio
How am I gonna stop some mean Mother Hubbard from tearing me a structurally superfluous new behind? The answer is a gun. And if that don't work...use more gun.
Ag d6, Sm d10, Sp d6, St d6, Vg d6
Driving d8, Fighting d8, Guts d6, Knowledge (artillery) d6, Knowledge (engineering) d10, Notice d8, Repair d8, Shooting d6
Pace 6, Parry 6, Toughness 9(4)
MacGuyver, Technically Inclined
Quirk (given to philosophical musings), Outsider (good ol' boy)
Gear: Levant field mortar, flechette MG (with tripod, hopper, and movement sensor), MG control case, flechette SMG
Special ability: Joe is adept at picking the most efficient field of fire when he sets up FMGs in sentry mode. They gain an effective die type of d10 in Shooting when Joe deploys them.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Necropolis 2355: Garrison Lance

Mick, Knight Scout of the Ordo Hastae Sanctae
Be polite. Be efficient. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
Ag d8, Sm d6, Sp d6, St d6, Vg d6
Climbing d6, Driving d6, Fighting d4, Guts d6, Notice d6, Shooting d10, Stealth d10, Survival d6, Tracking d6
Pace 6, Parry 4, Toughness 9(4)
Marksman, Woodsman
Gear: Flechette sniper rifle, molecular sword, improved light body armor, common gear
The Onion finally asks some questions I want answered: Are video games preparing our children for the post-apocalyptic future?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Necropolis 2355: Garrison Lance

In 2355, a double strength Lance of Knights from all orders was assembled with the express purpose of defending secure points against Corporate espionage. With no Senior Knight, this Lance was to act autonomously, using resources and the Lance's unique structure to its best advantage. These nine Knights became Garrison Lance.

Mikhael, Knight Infantry Support of the Ordo Praetorio
Some people think they can outsmart me. Maybe...maybe. I have yet to meet one who can outsmart bullet.
Ag d6, Sm d4, Sp d6, St d10, Vg d10
Fighting d6, Guts d8, Notice d6, Shooting d8, Taunt d6
Pace 6, Parry 5, Toughness 14(6)
Assault, Brawny, Rock and Roll
Habit (tucks sandwiches away for consumption), Quirk (laughs maniacally in battle), Quirk (prefers to use cestus rather than sword)
Gear: Flechette MG, molecular sword, improved medium body armor, common gear, 2 sandwiches

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The perfect zombie game

There is a serious lack of really good zombie games (or as Kyle calls them, "future simulators," a moniker I prefer). Good existing games include Resident Evil 4, Dead Rising, and Left 4 Dead.

A good zombie game would have the following elements:

  1. Turn based: I'd really love this perfect game to be a turn based tactical RPG. Intelligence (and firearms) give humanity an edge over the living dead; it would be great to have a moment to make decisions.
  2. Teamwork: You should be able to recruit or rescue survivors with different attributes who bring things to the team. It would be okay if you didn't have direct control over your teammates; perhaps they would have a "loyalty" stat that affected how likely they were to follow your orders. That said, the game should be playable by a lone character.
  3. Gore: Yeah. We need jets of blood, spattering brain matter, and dismemberment. It comes with the genre.
  4. Replayability: The game should focus on small human elements, perhaps with goals created along with your character. "Find a secure shelter," "go down in a blaze of glory," "rescue survivors," "get laid," "burn 50% of the city down," "find a place to deliver my girlfriend's child" could all be goals your character might be created to achieve. Each campaign should take roughly the same amount of time to achieve, and each campaign should be randomly generated around your character.
  5. No overarcing plot: Zombies, doomsday, I think we're good. Left 4 Dead never explains the origin of its apocalypse, and I think it's doing pretty well.
  6. Online play, DLC, and achievements: Yeah, I do want to be the guy with the "killed 40,000 zombies in a nuclear explosion" badge. I want to play a skirmish with my friends, acting in concert as the US Army's First Anti-Undead Corps, AKA the Big Dead One, as we shoot our way across town. And I want new goals, new weapons, new skins, and new obstacles available for download from time to time. Possibly "bought" with achievements.
  7. Variety of tones and genres: In other words, the game should be able to accurately recreate the mood of each individual Evil Dead franchise movie throughout multiple plays. One character swims in ammo and cracks one liners. Another hallucinates after shooting his infected girlfriend. Yet another is one of a group of scared people trying to cope with a situation beyond their heads.
I think those are some good guidelines.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Are there girls there? If there's girl there I want to do them!

d7 posted this article at his blog. As someone who has run a lot of first time groups and a couple exclusively female groups, I found it interesting reading:

Saving Throw for Half Cooties

Monday, February 2, 2009

McSlaughter Industries: Reach Out and Touch Someone...With a Sword...In the Spine

McSlaughter Industries is proud to announce the return of their internship program, on hiatus for the last four years. New to the lineup, meet Ted the Financially Irresponsible!

Ted has paid the McSlaughter Brothers enormous amounts of student loan money he took from the slightly more reputable Wizard's Academy. The brothers keep him around to improve their floundering public image with evil masterminds who only see Those Two Bad Guys when they see the McSlaughter Industries logo. The Brothers are careful not to recruit a wizard who could actually challenge Vassilos' power, but it's handy to have someone around to "test-fire" traps and deal with monsters while the Brothers deal with, say, hordes of treasure.

Ted the Financially Irresponsible (WC)
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Knowledge (arcana) d4, Knowledge (history) d6, Notice d8, Persuasion d4, Shooting d4, Spellcasting d6, Stealth d4
Pace: 6; Parry: 6; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Bad Luck, Loyal, Poverty
Edges: Arcane Background (apprentice wizard), Hard to Kill
Gear: Staff, Crossbow, 6 torches, 6 mana potions (which he is forbidden to use), 1 healing potion for personal use, 12 healing potions for the company
Powers: Bolt, Elemental Manipulation (fire), Light

Monday, January 26, 2009

McSlaughter Industries: We Hire Creepy Guys So You Don't Have To

The McSlaughter Brothers have found it very useful, on occasion, to hire a Really Creepy Guy. In addition to the skills they tend to bring to the table (torture, mostly), Really Creepy Guys tend to wind up the target of attacks before the relatively-normal-looking Brothers do because seriously, he is creeping me out.

The McSlaughters hit pay dirt with their current RCG, the Dungeon Master, a leatherclad sadomasochist who accepted employment as a way to pay off a rather large bill at a rather exclusive brothel.

The Dungeon Master (Wild Card)
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d12
Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d8, Healing d6, Intimidation d10, Knowledge (leatherworking) d6, Notice d8, Shooting d12, Stealth d8, Streetwise d4, Taunt d8
Pace 6, Parry 6, Toughness 10(2)
Hindrances: Delusion (sadomasochist), Quirk (really creepy), Poverty
Edges: Combat Reflexes, Dodge, Hard to Kill, Improved Nerves of Steel, Marksman, Strong Willed, Quick Draw, Very Hard to Kill
Gear: Leather Armor +1, torture implements, whip, crossbow and 20 bolts, knife, 3 fire bolts (act as 3d6 damage Bolt power), 1 healing potion

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Old School, New School

For a long time, I have believed that Old/New School in roleplaying isn't a problem with the rules, it's a matter of approach. I've been through several iterations of this theory and finally pared it down to a simple statement.

Old School is an adversarial relationship between the player characters and GM - the GM is an active obstacle to the (inevitable) success of the player characters. New School is focused on a collaborative story between players and GM.

That's my belief. The only difference is how the story is created. It is possible, and even likely, that in each scenario a party of ragtag misfits save the world, destroy the evil wizard, and rescue the fair maiden. The difference is in how that scenario is crafted: Old School will involve a list of notes or a published adventure including a list of things the PCs must accomplish before their final goal (defeat monsters, solve puzzles, overcome traps, talk past guards), while New School will change and alter the world around the actions of the PCs (if they check for traps, there will be traps; if they rush through a dungeon throwing caution to the wind, there will also be traps).

Rules have nothing to do with it. Some settings and rules lend themselves more towards one school of thought than another; Don't Rest Your Head's dice-lite system lends itself more towards the New School, as it doesn't rely on a hero's skills and abilities so much as tendencies, while All Flesh Must Be Eaten gleefully concedes that there's no way a party could prepare for every eventuality.

I think every group falls close to the middle of Old/New, and we're only aware a disparity because every system that comes out is, in its own way, an attempt to improve the way we tell stories, and they accomplish that in different ways. 4e is an Old School system because it has a lot of ways to hurt the PCs, while Fate is New School because it does not try to come up with everything.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sun and Shadow: Dragonfriend Professional Edge

In Sun and Shadow, dragons are held in the highest regard as sacred protectors of religious sites, powerful artifacts, and sometimes even small villages. Experienced dragons are ancient wyrms of incredible power and prestige; they may play an active role in the politics of entire regions and, in religion, often have a vote in electing a new high priest (or equivalent).

Unsurprisingly, it has become a religious duty of some temples to appoint a young hero to raise a dragon hatchling so they may experience the world. The dragon and dragonfriend receive special training, learning to rely on each other and act as part of a team; the dragonfriend is entrusted to safeguard the dragon at the expense of their own life. Eventually, a dragonfriend ascends to the rank of Dragonlord, and it becomes their lifelong duty to ensure the safety and comfort of their dragon companion as well as acting as their advisor in political matters.

Requires: Novice, may only me taken at character creation, Beast Bond, member of appropriate religion
The character gains a dragon hatchling companion and becomes responsible for its care, feeding, instruction, and safety.

The dragon levels up every time the character does and is considered to be of the same Rank as the character. Each new Rank increases its Size and Pace (both on the ground and flying) by 1 and, if it has learned enough, allows it to remove one Hindrance for free. At Veteran level, the hatchling becomes a Wild Card. The dragon's breath weapon also becomes more powerful, dealing 2d6 damage at Seasoned, affecting a cone template at Veteran, dealing 2d8 damage at Heroic, and 2d10 at Legendary.

Characters must take a vow to undertake the responsibilities above. This is a Major Vow Hindrance. Unique to this Edge, characters may take this Vow in addition to their maximum amount of Hindrances.

If the Hatchling is killed, the Dragonfriend becomes responsible for exacting vengeance on the offending party and is expelled from his church until he does. During this period, the Dragonfriend receives one less Benny per session.

Dragon Hatchling
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d4, Notice d6, Persuasion d4, Shooting d6, Stealth d6, Survival d4, Taunt d6
Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6(2)
Hindrances: All Thumbs, Clueless, Curious, Young
Edges: Charismatic, Dodge
  • Armor +2: Scaly hide
  • Brave: +2 to Guts checks
  • Breath Weapon: The hatchling's breath has not developed the legendary power of a typical dragon. It has a range of 2/4/8, affects a single target, and deals 2d4 fire damage. It can, however, set opponents on fire.
  • Claws/Bite: Str+d4
  • Flight: Pace 10
  • Size -1: Dragon Hatchlings are about the size of a dog.
  • Tenacious: Dragon Hatchlings have 3 Wounds and roll on the Critical Injury Table, just like a Wild Card. They do not, however, have a Wild Die or bennies apart of the one granted by the Young Hindrance.

Please leave feedback below!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

McSlaughter Industries: Brawn, brains, and bolts!

This was mentioned in a comment, and I should clear it up: McSI fits into a "modern fantasy setting;" by that, I mean a fantasy setting written recently and with a modern voice. They would be out of place in an Old School setting unless it's very self-aware; they'd be at home in Eberron or Hackmaster but not Shaintar or the Forgotten Realms.

I also forgot to mention that the McSlaughters are both Wild Cards. I will edit their entry accordingly.

That being said:

The McSlaughter Brothers are keen to hire barbarians who are the last remaining members of their tribe, seeking revenge (you'd be surprised at how many of those are running around). They usually work for cheap, fight like demons, and are easily manipulated. Their most recent hire is Grark, the Last Son of the U'hurr Clan. Though dumber than a box of dumb rocks, Grark is the human equivalent of a tac-nuke; the McSlaughters usually try to rile him up about the most dangerous target and send him on his way. Grark is also possessed of a sort of animal magnetism that many women find irresistible, so the McSlaughters occasionally direct him to infiltrate adventuring groups and distract gullible females.

Grark (Wild Card)
Agility d8, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d10, Vigor d10
Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d12, Intimidation d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Stealth d6, Survival d6, Throwing d8, Tracking d6
Pace: 6; Parry: 8; Toughness: 10(2)
Hindrances: Clueless, Quirk (easily tricked: -1 to resist Tricks), Vengeful (minor)
Edges: Attractive, Berserk, Brawny, Combat Reflexes, Frenzy, Trademark Weapon (Ribspreader)
Gear: "Ribspreader," Magic Greataxe (2d10+1, +1 Fighting, no Parry penalty, AP 2), Chainmail, Metal Pot Helm, 1 healing potion, 1 strength potion (+1 die type for 3 rounds when drunk), 1 blast potion (deals 3d6 damage in MBT when thrown; he is strictly forbidden from using it when the Brothers are in its area of effect), 2 spears

Friday, January 16, 2009

McSlaughter Industries: Ready-made henchmen for your game

"McSlaughter Industries is dedicated to providing efficient, cost-effective, and above all reliable customer service to the modern fantasy villain. By utilizing our unique, unfriendly personnel and implementing a variety of murder- and plunder-related initiatives, McSlaugher Industries is able to provide you, the client, with solutions to any conceivable operational problem.

McSlaugher Industries: Because any problem that can't be solved with an axe to the head isn't worth solving."

-McSI mission statement, first draft

McSlaughter Industries was started by Vassilos McSlaughter and brother Thraxos in order to make them very, very rich doing exactly what they love: Burning things and stabbing people. Each of the scheming McSlaughter Brothers is a force in their own right and their little band of "anti-adventurer specialists" is as much a service as it is a way for each brother to have another sword hand by their side in case the other turns on him.

In a campaign, the McSlaughters are best used as recurring villains, working for the main adversary. Though they are constantly fighting, in combat each brother becomes protective of the other (otherwise they risk losing their worthiest opponent). The McSlaughters are incredibly greedy and each may switch alliegences for the right price, though they prefer not to do this in combat. Finally, they are also darkly comic figures; Vassilos doesn't care too much about catching his brother in an errant blast nor does Thraxos mind if he "accidentally" stabs Vassilos with a poisoned dagger. Their squabbling may allow the PCs an opportunity to escape, renew the fight, or even just walk past them if it's bad enough.

Vassilos McSlaughter, former Guildmaster of the Wizard's Guild (Wild Card)
Agility d6, Smarts d12, Spirit d8, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidate d8, Knowledge (arcana) d8, Notice d8, Spellcasting d12, Stealth d6, Taunt d6
Pace: 6; Parry: 6; Toughness: 7(1)
Hindrances: Bloodthirsty, Greedy (major), Quirk (fights with Thraxos)
Edges: Arcane Background (Mage), Command, Common Bond, New Power, Power Points, Wizard
Gear: Quarterstaff, leather armor, 2 healing potions and 3 mana potions, Shield Ring (+1 Toughness)
AB: 15 PP, Blast, Bolt, Deflection, Fear

Thraxos McSlaughter, Cunning* Rogue (Wild Card)
Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d8, Vigor d8
Skills: Climbing d8, Fighting d10, Lockpicking d8, Notice d6, Stealth d10, Taunt d6, Throwing d8, Streetwise d6
Pace: 6; Parry: 8; Toughness: 7(1)
Hindrances: Delusional (minor; believes he's quite smart), Greedy (major), Quirk (fights with Vassilos)
Acrobat, Ambidextrous, Dodge, Florentine, Thief, Two Fisted
Gear: 4x handaxe, leather armor, 3 healing potions, Shadow Cloak (grants Low Light Vision, +1 to Stealth)

*Thraxos is actually deficient in the cunning department.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Dread Gazebo

The Dread Gazebo (WC)
Dread Gazebos are actually a form of the Gargoyle, an ornamental guardian dedicated to protecting a given area - in this instance, gardens and parks. Like its lesser cousin, a Gazebo lies in wait until someone attempts to destroy it or desecrate its territory, at which point it awakens and quickly devours the responsible party. Usually, in this case, the entire party.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8 (A), Spirit d8, Strength d12+4, Vigor d10
Skills: Fighting d10, Notice d6, Tracking d10
Pace: 14; Parry: 7; Toughness: 15(4)
  • Armor +4: Gazebos are solid wooden constructions.
  • Bite: Gazebos may bite any adjacent opponent they have grappled with their tentacles (see below) for 2d12+4 damage.
  • Berserk: As per the Edge.
  • Construct
  • Fear (-2): An angry Gazebo may chill the blood of even stalwart adventurers.
  • Fearless
  • Gardener: Gazebos leave no trace of their steps.
  • Immunity: Gazebos are immune to piercing and blunt weapons.
  • Infravision
  • Large: Anyone attacking a Gazebo receives a +2 bonus. However, unlike most Large creatures, Gazebos do not receive a penalty when attacking targets Size 0 or larger.
  • Size +4: Gazebos are large creatures.
  • Tentacles: When angered, the floorboards of a Dread Gazebo splinter and a hellish dimension is unearthed, from which issue forth a dozen or more tentacles. They have Toughness 6, one Wound, and are immune to piercing and blunt weapons. Tentacles may grapple an opponent and drag them 2" per round towards the Gazebo until they escape. They have a Reach of 6", Fighting d8, and Strength d10. The tentacles may attack as many as three opponents per round.
  • Weakness (fire): Gazebos catch on fire on a 4-6 on the d6. Fire attacks deal +2 damage to the Gazebo, and they must roll Spirit in order to any target with a visible source of flame.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

If you can't take the heat, go back to the kitchen and play 3.5: A Very Long Post

Let's start here:


It's funny! I laughed the first time I read it, then I got to thinking. And with everyone else on the Internet posting their thoughts on 3e vs 4e, I guess I'll jump on the wagon. I'll be discussing some of the major gripes I am hearing, my thoughts on those, and then finally my personal thoughts on the system - its pros and cons.

First, I haven't been playing for 20+ years like a lot of the serious gamers out there, but I have been playing for 11 and GMing for 9. I'm not exactly johnny-come-lately, let's get that established.

I hear a lot of flak about 4e being too combat oriented. I'd like to talk about that first. Dungeons and Dragons, as we all know, was developed out of the Chainmail skirmish game by, among others, Gary Gygax in the 70s. Its very origins are combat simulation. Later on, it grew and attracted imitators and eventually other games were developed - but all tabletop RPG systems have one thing at their core: They are, to a one, built around the simulation of conflict. Two or more sides want something and their goals are usually irreconciliable, that's good drama. Building a system starts with combat because it's the one thing you can't simulate at the table (even if your friends are forgiving, there's just not room in the average kitchen), and combat can be twisted by adjusting those rules into a simulation for any conflict.

With that understanding, let's even look at other iterations of DnD. Remember ADnD? We all seem to, and fondly. Remember all the skills?


They weren't in there. There were weapon proficiencies and nonweapon proficiencies. That included everything from languages to rope use. They didn't really get much better - you had them or you didn't. Occasional checks were made, but that wasn't the focus of most adventures. Hell, the Rogue was the only one making constant skill checks, but that was just for his thieving abilities, rolled on a percentile.

Then we had 3e and 3.5, with their approximately 4000 skills. A good step in terms of layering some complexity onto a combat engine, but an overall poor design choice. The d20 system eventually gave way to the Star Wars Saga Edition, with its much smaller list of skills - Move Silently and Hide become Stealth; Spot, Search, and Listen become Perception. This is a positive step forward, because I no longer have to agonize about where to put a handful of skill points to keep the party balanced. DnD 4e carries this to its logical conclusion: Everyone can make checks, but certain classes have aptitudes others don't. That's pretty logical to me - someone who makes a living commanding soldiers has probably picked up a bit of military history, and a chevalier who acts as his local parish's liaison to the government is more likely to know a thing about acting polite.

Basically, I fail to see how a lack of skills makes a game more combat oriented. Look at all the class abilities in 3.5 - most character class abilities are about inflicting lasting harm on another character, or avoiding bodily harm yourself. In 4e, class abilities are about inflicting lasting harm on another, avoiding bodily harm, or preventing the same to your comrades. I do not note the overall difference in the function of classes.

Yes, all the abilities are about bringing the hurt to the enemy. So? The game has always been about that. And don't tell me all the Powers prevent roleplaying - shit, guys. Every game comes down to "I attack that guy *roll* no, I missed" by 11 PM and you know it. Don't pretend you describe every single sword stroke, slice, parry, and the clanging of armor. Just don't. I roleplay with actors, designers, and playwrights - if a roomful of those guys don't feel up to that task over an entire evening, neither do you. It's foolish to say that because Wizards felt like injecting a little flavor into what's basically your normal attack, but better, you can't describe every action anymore. I call BS on that, The Internet Fandom.

The other big thing I hear is that it's "too videogamey." First, what the hell does that even mean, and two, I guess I will take a stab at debunking what I think that is. "Too videogamey" means that combatants move around a lot, you need a visual representation of the battle for it to make sense, everyone has special attacks and skills, and again things depend on action and combat. I've already discussed that last one, and I believe everyone has always had special attacks - just because you don't need to press a hotkey to use Sneak Attack or Cleave doesn't mean they've gone away. It's the same game you've been playing. A lot of groups do complain about the necessity of battlemats and miniatures, but let me share a secret: I have a whiteboard, a tape measure, and old HeroClix and HeroScape figures. Some groups use Lego figurines, which is even better. With these elements and a little imagination (remember, that thing you claim the new edition sidelines?) you can have a full and varied set of PCs, monsters, and terrain for $100. The most expensive thing I mentioned was a tape measure, and let's face it, every home should have one.

A battlemap/whiteboard/piece of plexiglass with a grid taped to the bottom and a handful of minis does some fantastic things for player imagination, in my experience. I have always found that playing with some kind of visual representation of the battlefield makes players more prone to using the environment to their advantage, envisioning combat, and (more to the point) resolving arguments. Does it restrict creativity to draw a room without a chandelier? Fuck no. The player asks "Is there a chandelier?" I say "Yes!" First rule of improv. Unless they're in an environment where a chandelier is extremely improbable, of course. By the way, improvisation rules are something all GMs should know. And a quick side note, every GM book includes rules for handling problem players; I wonder why nobody's put out a guide to handling problem GMs yet.

The other thing about DnD 4e being too much like a video game is that that's just the way our society's moving in terms of interactive entertainment. WOW, more than anything else, really made videogames accessible and cool to someone besides nerds and frat boys. I can walk across campus and hear a pair of dating English majors talk about the raid they're planning together. Can you blame serious gamers and writers for noticing that trend and dissecting the format to see what makes it work? DnD is now easier than ever to learn. It's not quite to the level of hitting a button and right clicking, but it's getting close. People want games to run fast; they can tell more involved stories that way.

So there you go. Those are my thoughts on the two major gripes I hear. I really got on a roll here, so I think I'll save my personal thoughts for another post. I know everyone wants to comment now, so I'll let you do that.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Last night's game: Some observations

I played with five girls last night. Two of them were costume design students, two were fashion design students, and one was a film student. All were first-time gamers. Three of them really seemed to enjoy the game, and two of them could give a shit.

  • It was more helpful to walk people through the character creation process without the book. That let me "grow" their character with them, and they could simply tell me what the character was good at. Basically, I half created two of them organically. Two others, I basically handed the book and tried to hold their hands. I think that they found all the terms and options paralyzing and that may have affected how they enjoyed the game.
  • I run a violent game. Thing is, I don't even think it's particularly violent by game standards - there's guaranteed to be a couple fights every session, usually including a "boss monster" of some sort. However, it would be better to start future games with new players with a couple skill challenges or traps in order to gradually introduce people to the rules.
  • Following up on that last one, maybe I should make a stronger point about the skillsets characters have. I should make it clearer that they need one way to directly injure opponents or they might get frustrated. One of the players had a gnome witch; while a cool concept, I didn't really spend a lot of time with her developing the character and I should have allowed her to pick another Power or given her some kind of magic herbs or something. Her powers were all support oriented - Fly, Armor, and Healing.
  • I got very sick after three hours of play and the game kind of ended when I developed an incapacitating headache. I think the very rich seafood alfredo that the host prepared, the godawful waking hours I've been on (4 PM - 4 AM, lately), and the fact that one of the girls is someone I'd like to date may have contriuted to the tension and self-consciousness that could have caused that.
  • Positive things: I've been learning to really work with character concepts. One of the players wanted to be an elephant-man, so I whipped up a race and she made an Eastern inspired "olifauntus paladin."
  • One of the girls actually startled me with her enthusiasm. She got there late and I didn't even know she was coming, so I handed her a pregen I'd made for another game. Not only did she pick up on the rules quickly, she took glee in describing her actions, giggled when her character felled a foe, and always looked at the board for options.
  • Both the costume grads really got into their characters. One of them was the paladin, the other a morally-ambiguous necromancer. The conflict those two in particular had was fun to observe. They were also keen to ask question about the rules, their options, and possibilities.
  • My bad: I should have allowed for more noncombat solutions to things. However, I had planned for another two or so hours of play where the group would be able to use their interpersonal skills and engage in a little bit of trickery - I just wish I'd opened with it.
  • My bad: A cold opening was a poor choice.
So. I hope some of you find this helpful. Leave comments below.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Thank Pelor

"Are you off to play Funny Dice?"

That's my friend Peter's mom asking if we're going to be off playing Savage Worlds. I find my hobby difficult to discuss with just anyone, so I'm posting snippets of insights and ideas here on the interweblogopheratron.

Tonight: Playing SW with people who are not only first-time gamers, but girls. Characters created so far are a morally-ambiguous necromancer and an honorable elephant-person paladin who worships a god of battle.