Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hounds of Tindalos

Updating on Tuesdays got away from me somewhat.

Without further ado, here's a couple of the notes I jotted down for what was supposed to be a holiday game except I got too tired to run it. The full adventure may be available soon.

Hounds of Tindalos
"All the evil in the universe was concentrated in their lean, hungry bodies. Or had they bodies? I saw them only for a moment, I cannot be certain."
Attributes: Ag d8, Str d8, Sm d6, Sp d6, Vg d6
Skills: Fighting d8; Notice d8; Stealth d8
Pace 8; Parry 6; Toughness 7 (2)
Edges: Berserk, Combat Reflexes, Dodge
Special Abilities:
Armor: Incorporeal, +2 Armor
Bite, Claws: d8+d6, AP 2
Fleet Footed: +2 Pace, d10 Running die
Go For The Throat: Hounds of Tindalos seek out their opponent’s weak spots. On a Raise on the attack roll, they hit their opponent’s least-armored location.
Teleport: Hounds do not provoke free attacks when withdrawing. They ignore height modifiers and simply appear up to 8 game inches away from their prior location. Hounds may take a full action and “run” just like anyone else.

Attributes: Ag d6, Sm d6, Sp d8, St d6, Vg d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Notice d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d6
Pace 6; Parry 6; Toughness 5
Edges: Block, Level Headed, Musketeer, Quick Draw
Musket (2d8, AP 1, 10/20/40, Reload 2)
Bayonet (Str+d4, Reach 1)
1 in 6 will have the Tracking skill at d6; if Redcoats need any other skill, there is a 10% chance that one of their number has it at d6.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tech Trees and Research

I have been playing a lot of Civilization, Alpha Centauri, UFO: AI, and other assorted turn based strategy games lately. I've also been thinking of the old game Syndicate.

I was wondering if anyone has ideas on how to incorporate weapons research into their games. And I know the obvious answer is "just give them the stuff you want them to have!" but that's not going to cut it this time.

Here's a system off the top of my head:

Use the Showdown! point values to determine the cost of weapons/ammunition. Say the PCs want to research some fancy powered armor. A Battle Suit is 12 points, +2 for the Pace, +2 for the Strength bonus, +3 for the +1 Shooting bonus, +3 for the jumping stuff, so 22 points. That's the amount of research points they need to accrue in order to start building Battle Suits. We can assume that at least one prototype is built when research is finished, and to simplify things, the prototypes are reasonably functional (no crippling design flaws).

Research points are acquired via a research team. Each researcher has a d6 in Knowledge (R&D). At a basic level, you're rolling a single d6 for a single researcher; the second researcher adds a Wild Die. A third researcher adds a +1 bonus, and so on up to +4 for 6 researchers. Two more researchers up the R&D die by one type, while another two up the die type by another step. A research team may not exceed 10 members. If two teams of 10 members work on the same project, their Wild Die is upped to a d10.

A project gains consistent research points every session equal to the average number of XP handed out to the group. This is merely an attempt on the designer's part to speed up this process. At the beginning of every session, the research team(s) roll their R&D die; the amount of raises and successes are allocated towards the project each team is assigned to. A failure indicates no progress; a Critical failure subtracts d6 points from the project. A single researcher is assumed to have rolled a Critical Failure if he rolls a 1 on his Skill Die.

Every time a team successfully completes a project, roll a die; on a 5 or 6, the team has advanced their die type by one step, up to a d12. For clarity, this means a team that has advanced to a d12 in R&D with a full complement of 10 members has an effective die type of d12+2, with a +4 bonus and Wild Die.

I know there's a lot of flaws in here but I'm eager to hear what all y'all got. I'd also like the players to have some kind of input on the success of the project, whether that means field tests of prototype equipment, bringing in items to reverse engineer, or rolling the bones in between sessions.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Some houserules

Here are some Savage Worlds houserules I commonly employ:

Guns in Melee: I always rule that someone with a gun counts as an Unarmed Defender.
Using Guns as Weapons: Guns deal Str+d4 damage when used as clubs. If the attacker rolls a 1 on his Skill die (regardless of Wild Die), while using a gun as a melee weapon it breaks.
Bennies: Players may spend a Benny to suddenly produce a piece of common, mundane gear.
And They Fight: If a player character inflicts 4 or more Wounds on an Extra, his nearby companions have to make a Guts roll against Fear as he is utterly obliterated by a wound that would kill a god, let alone some mook.
P-p-p-p-p-poker Chips: I like the Deadlands Reloaded poker chip system so much that I use it in all of my games.
Guts: I don't use Guts unless horror is a significant factor in the game.
The Burden of Proof: After about three sessions, I no longer remind people of their Edges and Skills and such; the burden is on the players after that. By that same token, if I mess up and someone calls me out, they get a Benny and I try harder.

I consider this an obsolete houserule, but y'all may find use for it:

Fate is a Harsh Mistress: A Critical Failure cannot be rerolled with a Benny. However, spending a Benny does change it into a regular Failure.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Inspirations

So I'm moving 400 miles on Sunday, which means I'm packing all my things up. As I've been putting my books and DVDs into boxes, I'm constantly reminded of the things that inspired me. But why does this matter?

They say "write what you know," and I couldn't disagree more. I know some scenic carpentry tricks, I can use MS Excel okay, I know about roleplaying games, I like dissecting comedy and story structure. I don't actually know very much. I think we should write based on what inspires us.

Below is a list of some of the highlights. I'll do about five (+/- 1) from a few different mediums. In no particular order:

  1. Ghostbusters
  2. Kill Bill Volume 1
  3. Night of the Living Dead
  4. The Third Man
  5. Pontypool
  1. Marble Hornets
  2. Doctor Horrible's Singalong Blog
  3. 30 Rock
  4. Slings and Arrows
  5. The Venture Brothers
  1. Fahrenheit 451
  2. The Grand Admiral Thrawn Trilogy
  3. Tomorrow When The War Began
  4. Watchmen
  5. World War Z
  6. The Zombie Survival Guide
Video Games:
  1. Planescape: Torment
  2. Deus Ex
  3. Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim
  4. The Fallout series
  5. X-Com and the derivative UFO: Alien Invasion
  6. Doom
  1. They Might Be Giants
  2. Neutral Milk Hotel
  3. Ratatat
  4. Beirut
  5. Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  1. Orson Welles
  2. Bruce Campbell
  3. John August
  4. Gabe and Tycho of Penny-Arcade
  5. My friends and siblings
  1. Macbeth
  2. Book of Days
  3. The Mound Builders
  4. Lysistrata
  5. Three and five act story structure
Roleplaying Games:
  1. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
  2. Deadlands: Hell on Earth
  3. 50 Fathoms
  4. Necropolis 2350
  5. All Flesh Must Be Eaten
  6. Alternity
  1. Seeing The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 2006
  2. Red Theater
  3. Doing improv
  4. All those times I stayed up until six in the morning
  5. Summer camp
Food and Drink:
  1. Harp lager
  2. Sushi (Philadelphia rolls especially)
  3. Burritos
  4. Barbeque
  5. Egg in a Basket
  6. Potatoes
Why is any of this important? I think it's good to know things, as a writer, that elicit an emotional response in oneself. How are you supposed to make an audience care about something if you don't, whether that audience is the four buddies you game with every week or 200 people in a dark theater or four million people in cinemas nationwide?

Take a moment, sometime this week, and think about what drives you to create. I'm not saying use all these things in your games, I'm saying take a minute and think about the reasons you do what you do. My games tend to feature some kind of mystery element, overwhelming odds, and an awful lot of violence; it's easy to see why once you look at what attracts me.

The wonderful thing about examining your influences is, you can get back in touch with them. And you can find things similar to those, and so learn more about the aesthetic that inspires you.

Let me know your results.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of NPCs and Likableness, and also Star Wars

So while searching for something to blog about, my brother recommended "How do I get my PCs to feel things for the NPCs?"

I've put some thought into that and I have a pretty simple answer: You can't!

We will never know what the player characters feel about anyone. What we can do, however, is manipulate the players and how they think.

I've reviewed my past campaigns, and players tended to like NPCs who displayed one or more of these qualities:
  • Were funny
  • Had skills that complemented the party
  • Gave them stuff
  • Were fun to interact with
  • Did them favors
  • Fight alongside them
  • Easy to remember
Looking at that list now, it sounds pretty selfish, but I could say the same things about my close friends - we pay for each other's drinks, owe each other favors, talk about things, and come from a wide variety of complementary backgrounds.

Players tend to dislike NPCs who display these qualities:
  • Have killed a PC in the past
  • Want favors for no reward
  • Are trying to kill the PCs
  • Are in any way connected to the PC's backstory
Interestingly, I was also able to gather enough information to compile a short list of traits they merely distrust:
  • Have ever tried in the past to kill the PCs
  • Act utterly altruistic
  • Have lengthy, complex backstories
  • Have goals which are not immediately discernable
  • Adventure with the party for some time without proving themselves to be an enemy or ally
Interesting! I think we can safely define these archetypes based on a few handy Star Wars characters:
  • Players tend to like the "Han Solo," a loveable rogue with a reliable skillbase
  • Players tend to dislike the "Jabba," who wants something for nothing and is an unpleasant reminder of who they once were
  • Players tend to distrust the "Lando, but the Lando from Empire, not General Lando," which is interesting because traditional writing dictates this is the most realistic type of character
I'm thinking about other characters from Nerd Mythos and how they might be treated by a typical roleplaying party...

  • C3PO: Dislike; annoying and worrisome, but occasionally useful. Best used as a mostly-invisible NPC
  • Obi-Wan: Distrust; his motives are hard to determine and I don't like that he always volunteers for solo missions
  • Princess Leia: Like; it was really funny when she made fun of Luke and she's a pretty good shot, let's not dump her at the next town
  • Gandalf: Distrust; so he says he wants to save the world but I don't get his stake in it
  • Mal Reynolds: Dislike; I hate that he tries to negotiate with us every time he fucks up a job.
  • Jayne Cobb: Like; he's funny and dumb and I'd rather fight with him than against him.
  • River Tam: Distrust; she's nuts and kind of creepy.
So, to recap, you shouldn't worry about what kind of people the PCs like; worry about making the players like them.* A trick on this subject is, the players only have the information you give them - if you really, really need the players to trust someone, then it's easy to tell them "your character trusts them."

*If you play in a group that's really super deep into roleplaying, this really isn't the blog for you, but I hope you stick around.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lessons Learned

So I just beat Knights of the Old Republic. I mean seriously, something like 20 minutes ago as of the time I started typing, I finished Knights of the Old Republic. Yep, I just beat an eight year old game, which is about 25 years in Computer Time.

Anyway, the point is, it's a very, very well done game. It was never boring, many of the characters were actually interesting, and it makes some impressive efforts investigating the good/evil dichotomy. I've written down a number of the things that made the story so compelling and the game so fun to play, which I will share with you now, and descriptions on how to adapt these things for tabletoppin':

  • Upgrades, upgrades, upgrades: Through the use of workbenches, the main character can upgrade certain special items. This means that instead of going out on quests to replace your Lightsaber +1 with a Lightsaber +2, you can use items gained from quests (scopes, armor reinforcement) to improve some of the unique items you already have. In my Deadlands game, I've used this idea once already to give the posse a telescopic scope for one of their rifles. It could be used for special ammunition, gems to place in a sword's pommel, or "trauma plates" on wears under armor. The whole point of this upgrade system is that the items are interchangeable between the gear most of the party carries.
  • Quests give you items, not gold: I appreciated that you mostly undertook quests for unique items or favors instead of gold/credits.
  • Frenemies: Even people who oppose you want things from you. Only the villains want only to stand in your way.
  • The Sith are all dicks: This is an important note that I hadn't thought about. Many times, there's a push to make villains sympathetic or identifiable somehow. For instance, in Inglourious Basterds, the Nazi soldiers usually come across as a lot more likable than the heroes. Not so with KOTOR, where all of the Sith, from their despicable leader Darth Malek to the lowest footsoldier are all just fucking awful people who kick babies and kittens and never show any remorse for their actions. The Republic and even the Jedi Council are portrayed as fallible and human, which makes them all the more interesting to work for.
  • Most of the PCs have cool sidequests based on their backstories: This is, of course, a staple of roleplaying games, and I think it's well-executed here. Almost every time you level up, your comrades reveal something about themselves, and if you talk to them often enough you eventually unlock their side quests. It's a great way to take advantage of their disparate personalities and skills.
Inspiration can be found everywhere - if you ever have an emotional reaction to a video game, piece of music, novel, comic book, or any other piece of art, take a moment to think about why that is and then use your findings to better your game.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A too little too late 4e revelation

I was very, very drunk several months ago and read the whole Dark Sun book for 4e, and finally I realized what had been nagging me about 4th edition.

As some of my long time readers may recall, I have been more than willing to give 4e the benefit of the doubt. I was not terribly attached to 3.5 once one ventured outside the core books and Complete Guides, as I thought a lot of the OGL settings, supplements, and even 3rd party licencee material was pretty crappy - so I guess you could say that the fandom ruined the pretty decent rule set.

Just as there are artists who are not "actor's directors," there are games that aren't really "GM friendly." 3.5 was a blast to play and a Goddamn nightmare to gamemaster. Even with pregenerated monsters and traps, creating a quick adventure was a fucking ordeal. And forget creating your own monsters, unless you've got a lot of time on your hands and a really solid grasp on the rules.

4e is much easier to gamemaster and a little easier to create bad guys for, since there's finally some clear guidelines on what is appropriate per character level. The "it's too videogamey" complaints never resonated with me, since hey we all enjoy playing video games.

The problem, though, is that with OGL and 3rd party licensees all but shut down by 4th edition, it's become more clear that all creative decisions with 4e were business choices and not hobby choices. There's an important distinction there.

Tabletop roleplaying games are decidedly a hobby market much like model railroads, craft projects, and baseball card collecting. But those other fields have never willingly done anything that would alienate their fan base - they find out what their small but devoted group of followers wants, then they deliver improvements on their products to stay ahead of their competitors. Roleplaying games are an odd beast because purportedly, all the aspiring gamer needs is the core rules and some imagination. A product you only need to buy once is bad for business, of course.

Here's where my being drunk and reading Dark Sun while I sober up comes in. I realized that in order to play Dark Sun, I needed several other products besides the core books. I also realized that Dark Sun was released to play to the cherished memories of older gamers, the very people WOTC should avoid alienating. The product you are really selling is nostalgia, which doesn't require innovation; Dark Sun sells itself. However, in order to recapture your memories of playing Dark Sun with 4e, you need a bunch of other books, and that is where the brilliance lies. Same with Eberron, same with anything they release. Settings no longer contain everything you need to play the setting, and who besides a pair writer has time to develop a deep, innovative, and interesting setting on their own these days?

And then I read the creature guide where giant floating manta rays can teleport because they can, and then since I was still drunk I read most of the PHB and then it all finally fell into place, and after that it's a little fuzzy.

RPGs have done a very good job of adjusting to their now-more-mature target audience that no longer has twelve hour marathon sessions and probably has kids and bills (and, of course, disposable income). The disturbing new trend is not that things are easier, or that games are more user-friendly, or we've switched to a "rules versus rulings" point of view*. The disturbing trend, as far as I can track it, is that games are being run more responsibly and more like businesses, which now means that for us hobbyists, the business people have reclaimed what it means to innovate. Not to sound too Marxist here, but the major player in this fight has tried to seize the "means of production" (in this case, innovation) from of the "workers" (gamers). But there is a problem with that, and that problem is the truth all of us base our love for this hobby on: Everyone has an imagination.

If you think the hobby is stagnating, you're right, and the unfortunate truth here is that starts with you, the gamer. We have allowed ourselves to be provided for, to have whole worlds and books written for us to use, and then all of us complain about it. Well, let's knock it off, huh? Start simple: Buy a pocket notebook, use it only for gaming stuff. Write down thoughts and inspirational materials and movies people talk about and books people read and where you are when you think "hey this would be a cool place for a fight scene." Start there, then find a real human being you know in actual life to be your "bounce board" to share ideas with. Pretty soon, you'll find yourself creating a character class or a story arc or a setting. If everyone gets on board this, maybe we can recapture some of the magic that the hobby has lost, and maybe - just maybe - the people who are paid to do just that every day can be reminded that if they want our money then they have to once again be the best and brightest that nerddom has to offer.

*Rules vs Rulings: I am a "rulings" guy, I improvise a lot in my games and I'm very proud of that. All of my new players get upset when I deviate from the rules whenever it's not in their favor. Since this has happened with every one of my play groups, I have to believe the hobby has always been this way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Okay fine

After a nice mention from Tyson over at the Apathy Games blog, which I read daily (or close to), I am resolved to start making weekly Wednesday updates.

Today's post won't be terribly game related, but just something like a summary of my goals in writing for this blog. Though at the time of this writing, I just had a mental exercise idea, so actually I'll write that below.
1. Troubleshooting: My Deadlands group meets on Tuesdays, so while I would like to avoid play reports (which are often dry and boring to read), I may make mention of difficulties I encountered and how I solved them. The corollary is how I should have solved these difficulties.
2. Brainstorming: I often have talks with my brother, who is running an "Age of Mythology" style game; the two of us use each other as a sounding board about every week. I may post some of the ideas we toss around.
3. Lazy journaling: At present, I'm part of a sketch comedy troupe. I really should be doing the "daily journaling" thing to improve my writing, so I'll count these posts as "Wednesday" and my Deadlands notes as "Tuesday." There, I am learning to creatively shirk my duties. My duties to myself.
4. Escape: Without getting into details, my life is pretty awful at the moment; as almost all of us in this hobby recognize the need we share as nerds to escape reality early and often. Setting aside a few minutes to write a blog entry every week, not to mention the few minutes I spend collecting notes every day or so, should help.

And now, the mental exercise: There's a meme going around that says "look to your left, the first item you see is now your superhero identity." Okay, well, I am now going to turn the first item to the left of my computer into a player character race for Savage Worlds. Feel free to do the same for Pathfinder, 4th Edition, FUDGE, or the system of your choice.

Inspired by: a box of party toothpicks.
The Children are tree-like creatures possessed of a tall, slender, surprisingly heavy frame. Among the treepeople of the Northwestern forests, they have the only real reputation for friendliness and joviality, often acting as liaisons between the Ancient Trees and the Great Civilized Nations. The Children's society is unique in that it is largely centered around groups of friends rather than a traditional family structure; since the Children grow in groves from seeds that could have sprung from one of thousands of parents, perhaps there is some logic to this. It's not uncommon in the Northwest to find Children who have decided to spread their friendship to mixed-race adventuring parties.

Long Limbs: The Children have Reach +1 due to their long limbs. Their base Pace is 8.
Bark: The Children have +2 Armor due to their thick skin.
Caution, Flammable: Fire attacks add +1 to their chance of lighting one of the Children on fire.
Loyal (minor): Children of Jarden raised in the Northwest woods have the Loyal Hindrance. Exceptions exist, but must pick another Hindrance to compensate.
Unique Biology: The Children do not need to eat or breath, but being without oxygen or water causes them to suffer as if they were starving.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Yes, And: Using improv tips to improve your game

Well, friends, I'm trying to get a gaming group together here in Wisconsin, made largely (entirel) of friends from the improv troupe I joined; I look forward to some fast and furious roleplaying action.

This puts me in mind of the Rules of Improvisation, which I think might be of some use to gamemasters worldwide. Here, now, are the Rules of Improv, which we should all keep close to our hearts:

1. Yes, And: "Yes, and..." is a magical phrase, full of potential and discovery. It acknowledges the offer you have just been given, then builds on it. "Yes, and" is the foundation of improv. It says to your scene partners (or players, as the case may be) "I trust you, and I accept the wrench you just threw at me;" it acknowledges that you and the players are building the world together, and it may give you things to think about.

In the game: "I cast detect arcana on the sword the Prince was using!" "I make a Notice roll" "I knock down the mayor!" may all seem like tiresome phrases; to first acknowledge and then build on these actions may enrich your game. "You detect faint strains of magic on the sword; the wizard knows this may simply mean it's very old and has been used to slay magical beasts in the past" is a great way to handle the first; yes there is magic and it's not a +5 Holy Avenger, but it's got a little history. "You quickly scan the room; there's a fireplace over there, lit, there's a table in the middle, and the orcs are all seated on solid-looking chairs" may lead to more questions about the environment, which leads to more interesting combat. "The mayor picks himself up and lowers the reward" acknowledges that player actions have consequences.

2. Don't play drunk or crazy: Onstage, this is a real problem; in RPGs, this is a little different (since it's fun to play drunk or crazy characters). Let's look at the reasons this rule exists: At the core of this rule is the concept of denial, that is, your scene partner rejecting the reality you've set up. Imagine we're in a scene where we're on the moon; if your scene partner then says you're having a hallucinogenic episode, then we've taken a step back - we're no longer on the moon, we've lost the characters and conflicts we established when we were on the moon. How's this work in roleplaying? Easy: The players only know what you tell them. If you give them unreliable information, expect them to act on it and get mad at you later.

3. Remember the Big Three: In improvisational theatre, you have about sixty seconds to establish the three things you fall back on: Relation, Location, and Motivation, or Who, Where, Why. It's impossible for the PCs to have any sense of purpose without all three of these coexisting.
  • Relation: How do the characters know each other? Not just the PCs, but the NPCs: How do they know the player characters? Do the NPCs know each other?
  • Location: Simply put, where are we? This is bigger than "Tarth" or "The Ten Towns." Location also informs the rules of the universe - is there magic? Are there feudal kingdoms? Is it the 30s? Are we balloons?
  • Motivation: In RPGs, this is split into two umbrellas, "conflict" and "drive." Conflict is supplied by villains first and the party's machinations second; drive is fueled by allies first and the party second. Conflict represents what's at stake - a PC with a childhood foe may find her family in danger and move the party to act; drive represents the rewards and prestige the PCs receive for resolving conflicts.
4. Don't ask questions: Okay, so, I brought this up because it's one of the Rules of Improv. For roleplaying games, ignore it; it's totally cool to ask open-ended questions like "what the hell are you doing" because honestly the players should be answering this. Don't worry about this one.

5. You will look good if you make your partner look good: In improv, it's easy to look good and funny and charming. Hell, at least two of the people in the company got dates from audience members just from being awesome improvisers. The secret is to give your partner your trust, and to give them lots of offers.

Let me break this down a little: Your players take an interest in a the mysterious lake you intended to be a mere piece of scenery; now it's your job to tie this to whatever plot you had in mind. In the end, this makes you look much smarter than you are and gives the players something to talk about - because it turns out everything they did at said lake revealed pieces of the puzzle! In reality, it was just you, panicking, adjusting your adventure notes and encounters to the thing the players were interested in. You made the players look suave and intelligent; in turn, you look like you had everything under control.