Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Shadow of the Past

It's been a couple years since I did any real roleplaying. A couple of pick-up games for the teenagers, one Star Wars adventure that I'll remember to my grave, but other things needed to get done.

Now they're done.

I turn 40 this summer. What I really wanted for my birthday was a reunion of my old college roleplaying group. Long story short, it's happening. They're coming from hundreds and thousands of miles away to visit our old Fantasy Hero setting one more time, to see how 20 years have changed it. And changed us, of course, although that will probably just be "we're thicker and balder and have pictures of our kids."*

We played a lot of games in a lot of settings, but for three years this campaign was The Main Event. I ran it, so that's nice for my ego, but I can't take credit for its success. The world of Gorbadin is a pretty generic place. I literally threw it together one afternoon because a couple of my players said "We made these Fantasy Hero characters -- can we do something with them?" Sure, I developed the setting over time. I'm a world-builder. Not a world-innovator, though; my skills lie elsewhere. Gorbadin became the favorite because of the group's PCs. If you want to invent some critical jargon with me, think of the setting as an "OOTS world" -- like the background to Order Of The Stick, the world of Gorbadin is designed to be set dressing. The PCs were our focus. Joys, sorrows, goals, all that actor stuff (even though most of the players weren't actors). Gorbadin lasted for years because the guys wanted to keep being their characters, whether it was one PC the whole time or an improbable 37 of them.

So, having pulled this whole deal together, what do I do now?

*Typing that sentence reminded me that the college gang is one of only two all-male roleplaying groups I've been in. Huh.

Friday, October 19, 2012

His analysis is quite cogent

It's Chris Sims talking about D&D monsters. What more do you need?

Good to be back. Somebody did something to the firewall at my day job that makes it impossible to update ye olde roleplayinge blogge. But this was worth noting.

Been doing some stuff with the 5e playtest, and I'm still fooling around with a stripped-down Champions hack, and the idea of a superhero hexcrawl is in my brain, and now that XCom has rebooted I might dust off my XCom/Cyberpunk combination to see if it's any good. That's what I've been doing on the RPG front lately. Thinking about adventure ideas for a friend who's been approached to write for the DCCRPG and is stuck, but I don't know if that counts since I don't know the system very well.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Take my wife -- please!

I dunno what else we've learned from the 5e playtest, but it's exposing a fault line in my marriage.

Deidre and I played our first game together in 1989 or so. It was probably Marvel Super Heroes. A pretty good foundation for a relationship, but even the strongest foundation will settle a little over the years. And so it was that, during a postgame critique, we defined the sharp line that's separated our play styles for the last 23 years. As a GM and as a player, I think it's up to the players to drive the action and come up with the goals. She thinks it's the GM's job. CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED???

Yes, but we're going to annoy each other whenever I'm running a game that she's playing in, because my wife loves the Star Trek model of roleplaying. She has no interest in creating a character backstory or advancing a PC's goals -- she wants to be told where she is and what she's supposed to do, because that stuff isn't fun for her. I, by contrast, want the PCs to have backstories and goals and hopes and dreams and plans and etc etc etc. Not only is that my kind of fun, but I'm a very lazy GM who doesn't like to plan and I prefer it when my players are doing the heavy lifting for me.

I feel a taxonomy coming on.

My wife is what I'd call a Driver. Her PC is, very simply, herself with different abilities. It might have a history tacked on, but it's not something she wants to explore -- and she'll get mad if the GM starts mining it for material. The character exists so she can maneuver it through obstacles and use it to solve puzzles. She enjoys playing with it, but she doesn't identify with it just like you don't think of yourself as your car.

One of the other guys who's helped with our playtesting is Matt F. He's what you'd call an Actor. His main joy is creating a distinct persona, different from his own, and then getting that persona into conflicts. For example, the 5e playtest has two dwarf characters. Matt played the mountain dwarf and Deidre was the hill dwarf. The playtest doesn't give you any idea as to how the two kinds of dwarves differ, if indeed they do; their mechanics seem identical. But Matt was still trying to start some subrace rivalry with Deidre, sniffing and snorting about how We do things and how backward They are. That's what Actors enjoy.

Drivers don't. Deidre ignored it every time.

The other guy who's been involved is Mateo.* As a roleplayer he has a lot of the same tendencies that Matt F does -- the love of interpersonal tension, the desire to explore some other identity -- except that Mateo is, well, squirrely. While the Driver is solving puzzles and the Actor is interacting, Mateo is just making things happen. Often complicated, unorthodox, eventually-helpful-but-how-the-hell-did-we-get-here things. I'd call him an Imp. He likes to play.

It's hard to say what I am when I play; the subject is too close for me to examine it clearly. Of these three types, I'm closest to the Actor. My great joy is all that persona-stuff, but I'm not interested in being someone notably different from me, which is part of what an Actor is doing. I'm more interested in rooting myself in the setting and history and culture... I'll cop out and call myself a Historian. My approach, both playing and running games, is pretty close to what the excellent Lowell Francis described a few weeks ago.

Of the four, my play style is my favorite -- and Driver is the one I like least. It has the coolest name, though.

*Yes, we have two Matts and a Mateo. Everyone turns their head when you call.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Diceman Cometh

I like rolling dice. I like making my players roll dice. Part of it is that I'm easily bored and rolling dice means that Something Is Going On both in the game and in the mundane world. Another part is that I like a character-centric game, which includes regular use of characters' mechanics to help resolve game situations.

And we brought all these dice with us anyway. Might as well use them!

So one of my favorite things about the 5e playtest is the advantage/disadvantage system. Getting to roll 2d20 and take the better one when you have an advantage, or having to roll 2d20 and take the worst one when you're at a disadvantage, is simple and neat and fun. It's like a house rule that made it to the big leagues -- a more entertaining option than the interminable bonus-stacking of some previous D&D editions, and more dramatic than the no-modifier-but-the-GM's-judgment of even earlier editions.

Have other games done this already? It's so simple than I can't believe nobody's done it yet, especially with the proliferation of systems that use a single die roll to get results. But I haven't run across it before.

Advantage/disadvantage also makes things more random... or are they less random? Mechanically, this will swing your chances in a predictable non-random way. But the execution of the mechanic will vary in a meta-random way. Some GMs will stick to offering it when the rules say so, i.e. The Boring Method. I'll offer it when characters and environments make it seem plausible and sometimes when table dynamics are such that we'll be more entertained, i.e. The Awesome Method. The key is that randomness helps the underdog. Most GMs like underdog PCs -- will we deploy this mechanic in a way that reinforces this? Will our PCs be able to use ad/dis to challenge ridiculous odds?

I hope so.

On the other hand, most PC parties are actually the overdog, capable of steamrolling the individual rooms and encounters and traps and everything else they stumble into. Event by event, they're the ones most likely to be hindered by randomness. Could be a fun dynamic.

It's a spiffy little mechanic. One thing does bug me. This is a Matt-specific complaint, I think, rather than a broad existential problem: I don't like mechanics that carry over. If something grants advantage/disadvantage, I want it to happen RIGHT NOW. Mechanics that you have to remember through X actions or keep track of for X rounds annoy the bejesus out of me. Having written a couple of (poorly-received) modules for Iron Heroes, I know that Mike Mearls is a huge fan of carryover mechanics, so I'm sure that this is just the way it is.

I can live with that. Maybe it'll grow on me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Caves Of Chaos

Drunken dwarvish architecture.
Maw Of The Beastmen.
Mimeographing your setup.
Not-sense is not nonsense.

Sentence fragments bounce around my head when I look at the Caves of Chaos. Classic module, repurposed for the 5e playtest, I've never seen it before, no idea if it resembles the original, wouldn't run it as-is. I like the notes on Why PCs Are Here, and also the encouragement to play through it however you're inclined. That never hurts.

DRUNKEN DWARVISH ARCHITECTURE: Phrase coined by my wife to describe floorplans like this -- bad flowcharts of random boxes connected by random lines. Spaces nobody would live in; spaces that don't take life into account.

MAW OF THE BEASTMEN: I'm reskinning most of the inhabitants to manimalist hybrids -- ratmen, boarmen, etc. Not especially original either, but more exciting than yet another warren of orcgoblinhobgoblingnollblaaaarrgh. Plus assigning them to familiar animals will make it easier to improvise details about their lives, lifestyles, living quarters, preferred food, and all the other stuff that my players will want to know. Please let's not keep moving PCs through arbitrary underground deathtraps populated by the same old same old. Sucks the sense of wonder right out of the room.

MIMEOGRAPHING YOUR SETUP: This place is Levittown for humanoids. Entrance, guardroom, another guardroom, maybe storage, chief's quarters, big warren for everyone else. One race might live that way, maybe. Six wouldn't.

NOT-SENSE IS NOT NONSENSE: There's a difference between "dungeons are different and weeeird and reflect our unconscious surreal fears" and bad layout. This is bad layout. It just doesn't make sense, and it's not interesting enough to be nonsense.

I'll still run it for the wife and kids. We'll test-drive the proto5e mechanics. I hope that the next playtest phase moves out of the dungeon -- an updated Isle Of Dread would be pretty sweet.

What would also be sweet is the inclusion of the Keep On The Borderlands that was originally near the caves.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Here's why giant centipedes need a Strength stat

The older kid, home from college for the summer, says to me "I feel like making a D&D character." There's not an active game right now; she just likes making characters sometimes. I do too. So we sit down with our supplies.

First thing she reaches for? The  3.5 Monster Manual. We have a lot of D&D 3.0/3.5 stuff around the house, courtesy of my freelancing. It's a good system for people who enjoy making characters. She flips and flips and flips through the pages. Options are scrutinized. The relative playability of the carrion crawler is discussed. Eventually the shortlist falls into place: centaur, gnoll, mummy. I'm a bit surprised by the mummy. For a few minutes, we look for an easy way to make a gnoll mummy. It's not easy.

The kid settles on a gnoll. Then, and only then, does she reach for the PHB to consider classes.

It's one thing to say "I want to play a gnoll!" It's another thing to have some mechanical skeleton on which our gnoll can be draped. With the latter approach, the gnoll feels different when you play it. You get some of this, you lose some of that, and you end up not being identical to the elf or the hobgoblin or the human. Race, with some mechanical definition, sends you spinning on a particular trajectory. The character sheet looks different, and the imaginary experience feels different.

I still draw a line between biophysical abilities like Darkvision and envirocultural abilities like Stonecunning; races are applied biology, so the former works while the latter should instead be part of the character class or background or something.

But that's a tangent. Our throughline is that the kid, looking for an interesting D&D experience, wanted to start with a non-standard race. This task was easier for us because we had some fun numbers alongside the implied cultural notes. If she really wanted to make that carrion crawler into a PC, it would have been fine, and the numbers make it possible. Anything sentient is a potential PC -- and in a high magic game, possible sentience is all over the landscape. That's how the kid and I like it.

She picked a cleric, by the way. A gnoll cleric of Vecna. Her family was destroyed by mysterious beasties, so she wanders the landscape seeking knowledge of these beasties. By "seeking" she means "killing various people and then eating them to gain their knowledge." Because that kind of thing is also how the kid and I like it.

While all that was going on, I finally made that minotaur rogue I've been talking about for years. He does his best to fulfill the usual thieflike functions. Not so good at hiding, but really, who's going to call attention to a minotaur that looks like he doesn't want to be noticed? Couldn't afford thief's tools for him -- I doubled all my equipment costs on the assumption that it needed to be custom-made -- so instead he bought a portable ram that he calls "Lockpick." I might run a game just so that we can play these characters.

I like having stats for my monsters. Pretty often, they aren't monsters at all. They're the other PCs.