Wednesday, December 7, 2011

And now for something completely different

I wrote this... wow, more than 3 years ago. Posted it to EnWorld. Got a little feedback, even an offer to publish an expanded version as a PDF. But the feedback got too circular and the publishing offer vanished in a puff of smoke when I started asking questions. So here it is, absolutely free and middlin'-good:

***D&D 4.18***

I've been tinkering with ways to remove character classes from D&D - or at least to make them optional - without destroying the balance of the game. The mechanical precision of 4E makes it a more tempting target than previous editions. If anyone's interested, here's the character creation system I'm currently working on. You can use it to make characters very similar to the PHB classes, or characters that match your own concept.

Each class feature and mechanical detail is purchased with what, in a fit of genius, I'm calling "character points" or CP. Every character has 18 CP to spend at creation; unspent CP are lost. Every character also starts with the following:

  • Proficiency with cloth armor and all simple melee weapons
  • 2 points to add to Fort, Ref, and/or Will defenses as desired
  • 10 starting HP and +4 per level
  • 6 healing surges
  • 3 trained skills of their choice
Your 18 character points can be spent on options from the following list. Any unspent points are lost. Note that some options have prerequisites, or exclude you from making other choices. A character may only pick one option each from the Damage, Marking, and Healing categories.

A character with a Healing feature gets +1 healing surge. A character with a Marking feature gets +3 healing surges. These bonus surges stack.


  • +2.5 starting HP and +1 HP per level: 1 (may select twice; half-points round down)
  • 1 additional trained skill: 2 (may select three times)
  • Proficient w/all light armor: 1
  • Proficient w/all heavy armor: 1 (must be proficient w/all light armor)
  • Proficient w/all shields: 1
  • Proficient w/military melee weapons: 1
  • Proficient w/simple ranged weapons: 1
  • Proficient w/military ranged weapons: 1 (must be proficient w/simple ranged weapons)
  • Hunter's Quarry: 5 (Damage)
  • Sneak Attack: 5 (Damage)
  • Warlock's Curse: 5 (Damage)
  • Combat Challenge: 5 (Marking)
  • Divine Challenge: 5 (Marking)
  • Healing Word: 5 (Healing)
  • Lay On Hands: 2 (Healing)
  • Inspiring Word: 5 (Healing)
  • Arcane Implement Mastery: 3
  • Cantrips: 5
  • Channel Divinity: Divine Fortune: 1
  • Channel Divinity: Divine Mettle: 1
  • Channel Divinity: Divine Strength: 1
  • Channel Divinity: Turn Undead: 2
  • Combat Leader: 3
  • Combat Superiority: 2
  • First Strike: 1
  • Healer's Lore: 2
  • Prime Shot: 2
  • Ritual Casting: 2 (grants the Ritual Casting feat, plus two 1st-level rituals of choice and a ritual book - see also Spellbook)
  • Rogue Weapon Talent: 1
  • Shadow Walk: 3
  • Wizard Training: 1 (you must buy this option in order to use any wizard powers; it serves no other function)
  • Spellbook: 5 (Grants bonus daily and utility powers of your choice as described. If character has the Ritual Casting feat, the spellbook also serves as a ritual book. It has one 1st-level ritual of your choice, plus any bonus rituals from the Ritual Casting feature, and gains new rituals as described.)
  • Commanding Presence: 2 (only one option may be selected)
  • Eldritch Pact: 3 (only one pact may be selected)
  • Fighter Weapon Talent: 3 (only one bonus type may be selected)
  • Rogue Tactics: 2 (only one option may be selected)
  • Ranger Fighting Style: Archer: 1 (only one ranger fighting style may be selected)
  • Ranger Fighting Style: Two-Blade: 2 (only one ranger fighting style may be selected)
*whew* After all that, powers are much easier. Choose your character's powers from any class list. Mike Mearls thinks it's okay.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rules of the Road

A couple GMs are writing about how they run things -- how their sessions are physically set up. I first found it through Barking Alien's writeup of his style. This is what I do.

I sit on the floor. When I write about RPGs I always refer to what happens at "the table," but in reality I'd rather sprawl out. The floor has a lot more room for dice and books and, crucially, the long long legs that come from being 6'4". Players sit in a loose circle on the floor, the couch, the recliner, wherever. Keep it casual. In someone else's house, a decent recliner with a small side table does the trick.

The battlemat (hexes on one side, square grid on t'other) is standing nearby in case I need it. I probably won't, since I like to run a description-light game with few maps, but it can be handy if you want a tense tactical throwdown.

Character voices are gonna happen. People who don't like to deal with voices, or watch me do facial expressions as I lurch around the room, should go find a different hobby. I hear that the model train people are pretty docile.

I like a GM screen to hide my dice and my behind-the-scenes maps, but it's not essential.

My notebook, however, is crucial. That's where the notes are. I'm pretty good at making it up as I go -- better than most GMs, perhaps -- but you still need the notebook to write down what happened. A good group will surprise you a half-dozen times every hour; save those memories.

Plus someone will invariably want a map of Where Everyone Is, and it's a pain to get out the battlemat and the markers and do all the post-map cleaning just for a quick sketch. The notebook suffices.

I'll need liquids within arm's reach. All that voice-acting and lurching leaves me with a raw throat.

One downside of the floor-based GM style is that the dog will want to get involved. This requires a certain caution with the deployment of dice, pencils, and my well-loved Marvel Super Heroes cardboard minis. But if you all sit at the table, then the dog gets whiny about being ignored, and the whining is much worse than the occasional pencil theft.

Yes, we'll probably order pizza. No, we're not some stereotype. I just like pizza.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A bwessed awwangement

Congratulations to John and Randi on their recent wedding! I've never met either of them, but John is the close personal friend of Bully the Little Stuffed Bull, the finest comic-book blogger in any direction from the Pecos. Bully once commented on a blog post of mine, which was one of my happiest Internet moments.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quick Champions thought

On the heels of the news that things are going south at Hero Games... Champions is a big sprawling complicated mess. That's part of its problem (and a leading suspect for why the company's in trouble). It's also a joy. All the stats, skills, and powers in Champions serve the same purpose as all the gear and equipment in a D&D dungeon crawl. They're tools. It's just a matter of whether you buy them at the pretend-store with gold pieces or buy them in character creation with arbitrary points.

How I hack it

Depends on the edition.

D&D pre-2e
Haven't touched it since the 1980s. Probably wouldn't run it, since all that would remain is my hacks.

D&D 2e
Eliminate racial level caps. Change THACO/AC to the 3e system. Encourage specialty clerics. Mandate weapon/nonweapon proficiencies.

D&D 3e
Ignore "favored class" as a concept. If humans complain, toss them an extra Feat every now and then. Revise list of cross-class skills for concepts that don't fit existing character classes. Otherwise undermine the idea of character classes whenever possible. Estimate, don't calculate, the various fiddly bonus types. Improvise Grapple, Jump, and Attacks Of Opportunity as needed.

D&D 4e
Don't play it. If forced to, use the class-free 4.18 ruleset I patched together. Eliminate all powers that require a grid/battlemat; replace them with freeform powers. Add powers that work outside of combat.

Marvel Super Heroes
Remove the Kill result from Energy attacks and replace it with Stun. Reduce the Karma cost for doing a Power Stunt the first time.

Star Wars
Scrap their systems for initiative and damage. Replace the former with a simple everyone-takes-a-turn rotation. Replace the latter with an impressionistic system where damage rolls are compared to Strength rolls and the result means the target is stunned/wounded (if a PC) or wounded/KO'd (if an NPC), based on how entertaining the fight has been so far. To improve one of your stats, raise at least 5 of its Skills by one level. Pretend that the d20 version never happened. Pretend that anything written by Bill Slavicsek never happened.

Hero System
Ignore the various hard-coded environmental modifiers. Ignore the rules for accelerating, decelerating, and gaining altitude with Flight (unless someone who took Gliding really wants to feel special). Allow someone to have a Base with a Vehicle with a Follower, provided that they're Having Fun With The Rules instead of Being A Stupid Munchkin.

Call of Cthulhu
Can't think of a thing.

Eliminate the Roles. Let players pick the skills they want. Allow players to take a second Role-based skill, provided it doesn't start at more than half the level of the first Role skill. Skip the dumb parts of the Lifepath, where you can end up a barenaked corporate mogul living on a pirate raft... wait, that's awesome. But let people who don't see the awesomeness skip those parts of the Lifepath.

7th Sea
Discard 95% of the setting's politics, geography, and ongoing plots. Replace with actual 17th century Eurasiafrica, with an option on the Americas. Discourage players from taking Backgrounds if they're the kind of people who don't like having their character's history become the party's plotline. The Advantage called Faith does nothing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Random thought while waking up

I'm gonna put this down the way it came to mind.

Simple RPG combat/skill system. You try to punch someone? You roll 2d6, so do they. If you tie or win, you hit. And if you have some kind of person-punching skill, you get to roll 3d6 instead.

Then I wondered if you could expand this to other skills. Default is rolling 2d6 for doing stuff, against either a static target number or another 2d6 roll if there's active opposition. If you have some kind of relevant skill, you get +1d6. If you make clever use of your circumstances, you get +1d6. Possible 4d6 max, then. But if you have a handicap or some kind of incompetence, you get -1d6. And if  circumstances are against you, another -1d6. Minimum 1d6? 

You could meld this with a Castle Falkenstein chargen system, awarding you a certain number of +/- d6es.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Iron Chef postmortem

I don't want to influence the judges, but I gotta say I'm not very happy with my entry. In hindsight, I should have sketched out some kind of encounter web. A map of the non-mist-based temple would be handy. Graphic reference for the mistgoblins and/or more critter ideas would add a lot. Maybe some weird movement rules? Ideas on neat mist effects?

If nothing else, at least I should have worked with the format to make it more readable. Typing it up on a one-page-dungeon template would have helped a lot.

Whatever happened to the mihstu, anyway?

Friday, November 11, 2011


A fantasy adventure for [however many there are] PCs of [whatever] power level. An entry in the Iron Chef Adventure Challenge Thingy. It's longer than I planned, but it doesn't have a map taking up space, so maybe it all works out.

SYNOPSIS: Inside the temple called The Pearl Of Sea And Sky, an elemental rift has loosed mistgoblins on the solid world. Unless they are driven back, the temple and the town and all around will dissolve into mist, mist, endless mist...

STORY: The Azure Order has long controlled the Pearl. At its heart lies a great treasure -- an honest, straightforward oracle. When the heretical Verdant Order gained strength, the Azure dug deep for power to crush them. Too deep. Now the Azure are being consumed by what they worship, the Verdant are blundering into danger, and the oracle is lost in a maze of living fog.

SETTING: The Pearl is a sphere of white stone atop a spire of rock that overlooks the sea. At the base of the spire is a small fishing town. Stone steps twist toward the temple's arched entrance as the wind blows mournful chords from horns carved from giant shells. Today, a heavy purple mist writhes out of every door, window, and chimney of the sphere. Voices call out, perhaps for help, perhaps for victims.

SO?: The vapors have transformed the building into an ever-shifting labyrinth. It has no fixed map. The only easy entrance is the arched doorway atop the winding stairs. When the PCs enter the fog here, roll a random location from the chart below -- that's where they end up. Whenever someone leaves the room, they go to a new random location. It all ends when the PCs find a way to close the portal (or just go home).

1-10% Main Worship Hall -- Large circular room with a ritual pool in the center and a ceiling that opens to the sky. Tall iron candleabras surround the pool. Every time this room is entered, 1d4 mistgoblins will be here.
11-15% Small Chapel -- Small circular room with silver and platinum holy symbols on the walls. 1 mistgoblin is here every time. This is not a specific room.
16-20% A Priest's Cell -- Bare rectangle with a stone bed, uncomfortable pillow, and 25% chance of interesting/valuable personal items. Also a 25% chance of a Random NPC. This is not a specific room.
21-25% Scriptorum -- The books and scrolls in this long rectangular room are a ruined purple mess. 25% chance of a Random NPC.
26-30% Divination Room -- This oval room near the top of the sphere has a water-filled stone bowl and several round windows. Priests gazed into them, hoping for revelations. 50% chance of a Random NPC here.
31-35% Ritual Pool -- This oval room is a pool that drops from 3 feet to 8 feet in depth. 1d6 mistgoblins are always here; one Possessed Azure is here the first time. He has a small amount of sapphire jewelry.
36-40% Ritual Eyrie -- A narrow room at the top of the sphere. Its ceiling has a locked grate leading to the outside of the Pearl.
41-50% The Oracle's Seat -- Deep in the base of the Pearl is the oracle, a holy knight of sea and sky. As long as she remains in her stone seat, her elemental masters grant her true farsight. But she's old and tired and ready for another champion to replace her. The oracle will answer ONE yes/no question with 90% accuracy for each person who finds her . Her armor and sword are gifts from the elements, and make her a formidable combatant, although she'll die of old age shortly after leaving the stone seat.
51-60% Chamber Of Icons -- A sculpture gallery full of stylized, geometric representations of air and water. 1d3 Possessed Azure are here the first time, playfully destroying the icons.
61-65% Miscellaneous Storage -- Whatever random stuff priests might need, you'll find it here. 25% chance of 1 mistgoblin. 50% chance of a Random NPC. This is not a specific room.
66-70% Feasthall -- A small band of Azure are making a stand here. They'll aid friendly PCs, but refuse to leave unless under extreme duress. When first encountered there are 6 of them, but each subsequent time 1d3-1  will have perished. If saved and dried, the tapestries on the wall would be valuable.
71-75% Kitchen -- The cookfire has gone out, the roast is rapidly spoiling, and the floor is covered in knives and broken glass. 1d2 mistgoblins are here every time, along with a 50% chance of a Possessed Azure.
76-85% Chasm Of Fog -- Everyone here is falling slowly through semi-liquid fog. 2d6 mistgoblins are always here. After falling for 2d4 rounds, the PCs will land in another random area.
868-95% River Of Mist -- Everyone here sinks into a mist that's nearly as thick as water. Break out those drowning rules. 1d4 mistgoblins are always here. After sinking for 2d8 rounds, the PCs will emerge in another random area.
96-100% The Forgotten Portal -- A gap in the wall of an otherwise-normal storage room. The horrible purple mist spews out. Seal it somehow and the problem will dissipate in 3d6 minutes, at which point everything goes back to normal. 1d4 mistgoblins are always here until then, and a new one emerges from the gap every 2d6 rounds.
***If someone has already gone from one specific room to another specific room, or if they have gotten directions from an NPC like Pysander or Lecitalma, they can attempt to cut through the mist to find that specific location. The fog that fills halls and doorways can be momentarily dispersed by a powerful blow -- a warrior doing maximum damage with a two-handed weapon, for example.

Random NPCs
1-10% Rumeltocey -- Azure priest. Freaking out. She wants to fight the mist, the Verdant, and anything else handy.
11-20% Posaydal -- Azure priest. Trying to use magic to control the mist. Failing.
21-30% Hariostem -- Azure librarian. Believes the order has fallen, and all that remains is to record its passing.
31-50% Locke -- Former Azure priest. Now a Possessed Azure, and he retains his command of magic. Trying to escape the Pearl.
51-60% Thalessa -- Azure servant. She ran errands in town. Now she's ready to find a new job.
61-70% Pysander -- Verdant follower. Mediocre swordswoman. She's found the Forgotten Portal once already.
71-80% Kekond -- Verdant follower. Lover of Lecitalma. Gullible; she believes the whispers of the mist and is likely to be possessed soon.
81-90% Lightbringer -- Verdant leader. Seems to be a muscular elf wizard. Actually a fast-talking illusionist with a poor sense of self-preservation.
91-100%  Lecitalma -- Local fisherman. Lover of Kekond. Trying to save her. Their pledge-amulets can track each other.

OTHER NOTES: Everything within the temple is permeated by a thick, writhing purple mist. Any unprotected flame has a 2 in 6 chance of being extinguished every minute; protected flames like lanterns have a 1 in 6 chance. The mist does glow faintly. Characters can see approximately 15 feet in this dim light.

Mistgoblins are squat humanoids made of living fog. They attack solid beings on sight. Their boneless arms combine the dangers of axes and whips. Any successful attack has a 10% chance of hitting the opponent's face, causing the target's lungs to fill with the purple mist (unless the target is holding their breath, with all the complications that entails). After 4 rounds of breathing the mist, the target becomes Possessed. Mistgoblins are relatively easy to hit, but shrug off most damage from solid attacks.

If you tire of mistgoblins, mephits or air/water elementals would be appropriate critters too.

Possessed beings are solid bodies being animated by mistgoblin vapors. They can use weapons and tools, but under normal circumstances they have no access to their memories or spells. If the vapors can be drawn out of the victim's lungs, they will return to normal.

In addition to any treasure that PCs steal from the temple or its inhabitants, the purple mist itself has some value. If bottled in an airtight or watertight container, it can be carried away from the Pearl. The mist provides faint illumination and could serve as an exotic spell component. If enough of it is heated with magical fire, it will boil away to leave behind a random assortment of blue and green gems.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

This is what I get for going on and on about how I love characters and characters are the best thing and you should make characters the center of your roleplaying and blah blah blah. Now I'm stuck with these characters...

...and those are actually the best options. Because what's left over after this motley collection is these characters...

...who are just a sorry lot. Except maybe Doree and Boy Howdee up there. You could maybe strike a couple sparks with that. One or two of the others have potential. But these folks include easily a dozen of the sorriest sad sacks I've seen in more than 20 years of roleplaying. What am I gonna do with them?

The deal is that I signed on to do the Iron Chef Adventure Challenge Contest Thingy over at Swords & Dorkery. He sends each competitor an unopened pack of TSR collector cards from 1992, we each write a short adventure/encounter/whatever that uses at least 8 cards from the pack. It's a great idea. But I kinda expected to get some monsters or some items or SOMETHING OTHER THAN VERY ODD-LOOKING CHARACTERS WITH RANDOMLY GENERATED NAMES. That would be the "challenge" part, I guess. My entry is due tomorrow. Better write it up.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My passion for the d12 once again leads me into perilous domains

Here's a simple initiative system. Simple enough that someone else probably uses it -- but I haven't seen it yet, so I call dibs on the naming rights.

1) The GM rolls a die and the PCs collectively roll a die.
2) High number picks one individual from their side to act first. The action then alternates until everyone has gone. Ties go to the PCs, just because that's more fun for them.
3) But you know how pretty much all roleplayers have a complete set of polyhedrals?
4) Right. The GM and the PCs each have one set of polyhedrals to roll initiative with. Pick your die in secret, roll 'em simultaneously, they don't respawn until all 6 dice have been used once.

So initiative becomes a tactical metagamey thing. But a small enough one that it's entertaining instead of ponderous.

Letters! We get letters!

So some folks have questions. Answers...
  • Book binding. (I can't be the only person who bemoans the way new rulebooks tend to fall apart like a sheaf of dry leaves after about 5 seconds of use).
Welcome to low-profit-margin hobby publishing. A print/copy shop will rebind it for you. A three-hole punch and a cheap binder will hold it together. Ignoring the problem also works.
  • "Doing a voice". How many people "do voices"? Should they? How do you get better at "doing a voice" if that's your thing?
Do the voice if you're good at it. Don't if you're not. Regular NPCs should have distinctive voices and/or speech patterns. Most PCs should talk with their player's voice, because it turns out most people aren't good at voices.
  • Breaks. How often do you have breaks within sessions?
How much fun are we having? How hungry are we? How much fun are we having? Does anyone need to call their kids/parents? How much fun are we having? When I'm running a game, I call a break every couple of hours, more often if people are glazing over,  less if people are leaning forward with eyes all a-glitter. When I'm playing, GMs don't call breaks often enough.
  • Description. Exactly how florid are your descriptions?
Not very. The fewer words I give you, the more your head makes it up. And since I don't do the Dungeons Must Kill You style of game where tiny environmental details can wreck your PC, the subtle nuances of meaning in my descriptions aren't essential.
  • Where do you strike the balance between "doing what your character would do" and "acting like a dickhead"? 
If what you're doing causes other players to have less fun, knock the hell off. You need to either grow up or go find a different group, depending on whether you're a jackass or just clueless about human dynamics.
  • PC-on-PC violence. Do your players tend to avoid it, or do you ban it? Or does anything go?
We're here to have fun together. Will the PC-on-PC violence be fun for all parties involved? Then go for it. If not, see answer above.
  • How do you explain what a role playing game is to a stranger who is also a non-player?
Why would I?
  • Alcohol at the table? 
It's been known to happen. I don't encourage it.
  • What's acceptable to do to a PC whose player is absent from the session? Is whatever happens their fault for not being there, or are there some limits?
I don't have a regularly scheduled game, so it doesn't come up much. I assume that the missing person likes playing their PC, so I don't do anything that would fundamentally change either the character or their goals. A GM who'd punish absent players by screwing with their PCs is, as noted elsewhere, either jackass or ignoramus. The whole question presumes both a regular play session and that attendance at said session is a Big Important Priority; neither of those sounds like much fun, does it?

That said, the carousing tables and lost-in-fairyland tables I've seen floating around are pretty interesting. I'd use those, if my players agreed beforehand.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Seriously. Let's just do Cyberpunk or something instead.

So that's my RPG philosophy. Do I practice what I preach? Not at all.

The whole idea is that everyone in the game should have fun. And a lot of the people I play with don't like the same things I do. If I'm running the game -- and I probably am -- it needs to be a game that they'll like too. F'rinstance, my wife has no interest at all in acting like a character, developing a persona, or exploring her PC's personal goals. She wants to solve puzzles and interact with her environment in clever ways. As a GM (or as a fellow player) I need to make sure that she gets to do some of that. If each person has some fun, every person has more fun.

Or if my friend Mateo is in playing, he'll go so far into the method-actor style that he'll forget his own name. That's farther than I want to go, but it's what he enjoys. There should be some space for him to do that whether or not it's my cup of tea. With some experience, you learn that Mateo will crash the entire game on the shoals of his character concept, so he takes some handling. But it's worth the effort. He's fun.

I read an article in Dragon magazine years ago that explains play styles better than any theory or model or whatever. It broke players down into three basic groups. At one end of this spectrum was the powergamer, which we used to call a "munchkin" before Steve Jackson took that word back. The powergamer wants to Win The Game -- have the best character possible in terms of mechanics and abilities, regardless of impact on the rest of the game. At the other end was the method actor, who wants to Be Somebody Else to the fullest extent possible, also without regard to the impact on the rest of the game.

But in the middle you find the vicarious participator, someone who's playing a game and being a character and having fun, but is fundamentally being themselves.* Whatever the details of their character, it looks a lot like who they are in real life, or maybe a reflection of who they'd like to be. Whatever the details of the game, they aren't something the player is driven to master. This is how my wife plays -- her characters are very much like herself, only with daggers. And it's how I play -- my characters are the fast-talking con men that I don't get to be.

The point, if I still have one, is that while I think there is One Best Way To Play, it's not what's going to be the most fun for everyone. And maximizing the fun is the most important thing. Would I have more fun if everyone played the way I do? Perhaps. But it's more important to play with the people I like, and they enjoy all kinds of styles. If Kevin doesn't want to share any background or history for his character, that's how it's gonna be, even though I love working with that stuff.

All that said, I still don't wanna play through your dungeon crawl.

*Or possibly "being themself." It reads badly both ways.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The short summary

You're telling a story about last night's RPG session...

If you keep talking about what your character did, you're doing it right.
If you keep talking about what you did, you're doing it wrong.
If you keep talking about what your GM did, you're in a cult.

The long summary

You use a telephone to do one thing, and a radio to do another. Seems like a simple idea.

Different mediums of communication/interaction (let's call them media) are suited to different things, thanks to the laws of spacetime. The telephone is excellent for transmitting sounds between two specific users who are in different locations. The radio is excellent for transmitting sounds from one broadcaster to any number of receivers in other locations.

That doesn't mean you have to use them that way, of course. I could hold up my cell phone to a CD player, allowing the person on the other end to listen to music. Or I could broadcast specific messages to my wife over the radio, letting her know that I'll be home late from work. However, these aren't the optimal ways to use telephones and radio. People use the phone when they want to talk to someone specific, and they use the radio to listen to music or generalized talking. It's a matter of using a medium for its strengths - figure out what it does best, and do that with it.

And sometimes different media replace each other. For example, telegraphs used to be very common. If you wanted to get a message to someone and you couldn't wait for the mail, you sent a telegram. With the advent of phones, though, telegraphy went into decline, and the internet has finished them off as a practical option. Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006. Radio is also an example of this evolution. It was the first medium to allow simultaneous one-way transmission from a central point to many receivers; in other words, lots of people could listen to the same thing at the same time. So radio became the home of music, storytelling, advertising, conversation, etc. That is, until television came along.

Since TV could actually show pictures, it rapidly took away several things that radio had previously done, especially storytelling. People who used to gather around the ol' Philco, listening to all-audio tales of cops and robbers, switched to actually seeing the stories acted out by live people on screens as large as a few inches across! So television displaced radio for certain things, particularly those things that were best served by having visuals. Radio hung on, though, by doing things that lent themselves to an all-audio-no-visual format. If people want to hear music, radio is suited to the task.

And so I circle back to roleplaying. A while ago, I was blogging about GNS Theory. Although not a perfect model, GNS Theory provides us with a useful set of concepts for discussing RPGs. Some people, it says, are Gamists who primarily enjoy the challenge and competition of playing a game. Some people are Narrativists who want to expose themselves to difficult emotional conflicts. And some people are Simulationists who want to emulate things outside the present world, like being a specific character or experiencing a particular location. While discussing this, I said I was working on a robust and philosophical defense of Simulationism. It took a lot of "Matt-likes-this-and-dislikes-that" blogging to sort it out in my head, but here it is.

Roleplaying games are a medium, just like telephones and radio. They're a set of methods and rules for human interaction, for the transmission of ideas. Like other media, RPGs are better at some things than they are at others. So it makes sense to use them in ways that play to their strengths. And what are those strengths? What do RPGs do better than their peers? Pretending. Roleplaying games are superb at fostering the suspension of disbelief, at creating a certain detachment from the rules and constraints of material life in the here-and-now. In short, RPGs excel at simulation. So let's use them for that.

It's not that they can't do other things, of course. They are games, after all, and you can use them to manipulate rulesets and engage in abstract competition with other people. But you can also do that with Monopoly or Axis & Allies or chess, and frankly those games do it better than RPGs do. If you want to compete, play go. Or take up racquetball. Or join a fantasy football league. Those are all better-designed for your competitive urge than RPGs. The rules in an RPG are there to help you resolve uncertain situations, not as a metric for beating other people at the table.

The same holds for people wanting emotional drama. RPGs can and do deliver that. But novels and movies do it better. If you want to focus on wrenching internal conflicts and difficult decisions, try reading Sophie's Choice or watching... I don't know what you'd watch. I'm not a fan of wrenching internal conflicts. But I know they're out there in other media, media that are stronger at providing them and that are weaker in engaging the participants' personal imaginations. For that matter, there's plenty of emotional drama in real life. It's a reflection of my preferences, yes, but I don't grasp why people would want to pretend to make hard choices when so much day-to-day existence involves really doing so.

Simulation is the one component of an RPG that you can't strip away from it. If there isn't pretending, if someone isn't imagining their personal version of a not-here-and-now, it's not a roleplaying game. It may still be a game. It may still have elements of improv acting. But it's missing the core of what makes this medium, this hobby, different from anything else. Roleplaying games offer an unparalleled chance to be someone you're not, in somewhere that doesn't exist, doing things you can't really do. All the other elements are useful, yes - but simulating stuff is what it's all about. It's a powerful theraputic tool. It's a useful creativity exercise. And it's pretty damn enjoyable.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There's actually one more of these en route...

What do I like? What do I dislike? The answer to both questions might be "limits on my characters." In this, our final installment of Matt Talks About Roleplaying At Greater Length Than Anyone Really Wanted, we examine one of my greatest Likes and quite probably my single biggest Dislike...

Two years ago I was running a D&D game for some teenagers. Most of them had little or no roleplaying experience, so I gave them some props to help with character creation. One was a notecard with around 9 different language options on it. The official D&D language options are boring, so it was a list of languages I made up along with notes like "The language of a rival nation" or "Obscure click-language known only to scholars." Nothing special there - except that they got sooo into it. Forget the decisions about race and class; these new players' imaginations were fired by the choice between speaking Rivan or Jajanya. And of course, most of them took the obscure click-language.

Languages are a fast, entertaining way to customize a character. They provide an interesting choice -- should you be practical or quirky? They also cause you to ask: where has your character gone and who have they known? When I make a 350-point Champions character, those 2 points I invest in Spanish or Arabic have as much to do with defining him as the 60 points I put into Energy Blast.

Languages also let the GM define a world very quickly. How many cultures are there? Are they related in some way? How prominent or obscure are they? Take 5 languages and come up with a sentence for each, explaining who speaks it and why. You've got the foundation of a world right there. Language lists are one of the best setting-generation tools out there.

Don't tell me how to play my character.

Don't tell me that there are only 8 ways to be, and that I have to pick one for all time. Don't tell me that characters are interchangeable units. Don't tell me that your game defines people by how well they fit an arbitratry role. Don't slap me with limits on how I can play.

Character classes are a barrier to fun and a prison for imagination. I have never seen a game that was improved by them.  Aside from hanging out with my friends, I think PCs are the very best thing about roleplaying. My character is an expression of my interests; it tells the GM what kinds of things I want to do. Give me options. Don't give me classes - they're a straightjacket. Classes are a way of saying There Is One Right Way To Play. And there isn't. So get rid of them.

I've practiced what I preach here. My various abortive Cyberpunk games have been class-free. I created a pretty effective class-free version of D&D 4E. I didn't do the same with my 3.5 stuff, but I did create new classes with great abandon, so that players would have more freedom to play what they wanted to play. For what it's worth, I created a new core class that Monte Cook put in his "Year's Best d20." It's called the yogi, it's rooted in Hindu mythology (and my desire for a Constitution-based character), and it's pretty good. I think I know a few things about how to make classes work.

But it's better to not have classes at all.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Hark, it's the penultimate entry in what one person has dubbed the Mattifesto. Nothing too dramatic here -- the symmetry-loving part of me wishes that these somehow aligned, but really they're just the second-to-last entries on the piece of paper I'm looking at.

I like pretending, I like exploring, I like world-building. But that's not why I roleplay. I do it because I like hanging out with my friends. The social aspect of roleplaying is the most important thing to me. Spending time together, laughing at the same old inside jokes, trying to separate Jason from the popcorn bowl - that's what it's all about. Some people watch football together or go to bars together. When my friends are gathered, I like to roleplay. As a GM, I run a pretty loose table. Out-of-character conversation and interaction isn't a problem to me, unless it's actually drowning out the events at hand.

One odd side effect of this is that I don't particularly enjoy conventions. Playing games with strangers isn't a lot of fun for me, since there isn't much of a basis for interaction. You're all just trapped at the table together, manipulating a ruleset until the time slot expires. Yawn.

If I wanted a tactical minis game, I'd play Warhammer 40K. I don't and I'm not. Don't slow combat down to a crawl so that everyone can consider all the ramifications of every possible +2 modifier. DO STUFF AND MOVE ON.

This doesn't entirely square with my longstanding passionate affair with the Hero System. However, most of my other favorite RPGs (Star Wars, Castle Falkenstein, Cyberpunk, 7th Sea) have very quick combat systems. Real combat moves fast. So should roleplaying combat. Otherwise, you've got a recurrence of the split-the-party problem, where one person's doing stuff and everyone else is sitting around, waiting for a chance for their character to do cool things.

...if I were to tie this all together, I could point out that the Social Aspect can be used to fill the holes caused by Slow Combat. But I'm not that compulsive.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

According to Chris Sims, Iron Man once fought Frankenstein

After reading these, it shouldn't be a surprise that my current project is making a superhero setting that works like a hexcrawl/sandbox. If I get really ambitious (I won't), the plan is to design it for a version of Champions that's been boiled down to a Castle Falkenstein-like level of detail. Ah, grafting unlike things together... DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN HAD THE RIGHT IDEA.

I have the most fun when the players, not the GM, are deciding what the session will be about. The best games I've ever been in are the ones where players seized control of the action and the GM's job was just to keep things rolling.

When I'm roleplaying, I want the game to be about my character. This is my big chance to be some cool fictional person and have cool fictional adventures. I enjoy the acting/pretending part of RPGs more than anything. So I want that to be the center of the action - my characters Want To Do Certain Things. I'm probably more interested in these Certain Things than I am in the GM's plans. If I want to form my own breakaway thieves' guild, let me work on that. I'll be happier as a player, and you'll have more material to work with.

Same goes for the other side of the screen. As a GM, I consider it my players' job to figure out what happens next. I'm mostly there to provide background and throw in complications. The best campaigns I've run have been ones where the players were pushing to reach certain goals - my task wasn't to set those goals, but to make the pursuit interesting. Perhaps the PCs are sword-and-sorcery rogues who find that the dead monarch's missing daughter has secretly joined their carnival. They get to decide what to do about it - it's not my job as GM. And if they decide to restore her to the throne despite the long odds, all I have to do is keep tossing out challenges and opportunities. Adventures are more fun when the players are in control of the overall narrative direction.

Roleplaying is more fun when the players want to do certain things, and when the GM's main priority is advancing (or complicating) their ability to do those things.

On Star Trek, the stories follow a pattern. The spaceship is directed to enter a new area by offstage bosses. This new area has a weird environment, culture, or inhabitant. Said weirdness causes problems for the crew. The crew figures out a way to resolve the weirdness. Status quo is restored, the spaceship moves on, little or no long-term change occurs to characters or setting.

Man, that's boring.

The Star Trek model is little more than a series of mobile puzzle-solvings. The characters don't really grow or change. The setting isn't consistent, and it's not explored in any depth. It's just a series of short stories told by the GM. I can get that from, y'know, a short story collection. I prefer games where the characters are based in a defined area, with recurring NPCs and ongoing subplots, offering chances for them to change who/what they are as the players see fit. I like change. I like consequences. I don't like going from one arbitrary location to the next with a cast of stereotypes and broad caricatures.

My favorite Trek was Deep Space 9, which puts me outside the mainstream of that particular fandom. And I liked Babylon 5 even better. Make of that what you will.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Today we metagame it

For me, three players is the sweet spot. With three players, everyone will get a large share of spotlight time. They'll get to play the game their way. They'll get to tell more of their story.

Also, in a three-player game, everyone is important. Each character will have a lot to do (assuming 1 character/player), since there aren't a lot of other people they can turn to for support. At the same time, it's not hard to challenge a three-player group, since they probably can't cover all the necessary bases every session. They'll have to improvise, generalize, and/or turn to NPCs for assistance. Everyone gets to be a lot more resourceful in a three-player game. I enjoy that from both sides of the screen.

This one puts me pretty solidly outside the mainstream, I know. But as they say in Lake Wobegon, sumus quod sumus - we are who we are. And I'm someone who doesn't enjoy it when my roleplaying is an appointment. As a GM, I can't guarantee that I'll have a good idea every week. More likely, I'll just get burned out by the pressure of prepping that much material. As a player, I can't guarantee that I'll show up that often. This isn't a new development - even before I was an old person with job and spouse and kids, I rarely committed to a recurring game.

Scheduling your roleplaying that rigorously, to me, takes some of the fun out of it. Now it's not something we do because we're in the mood - we do it because it's an obligation. We have to play, whether we feel like it or not. I'd rather only play when I feel like it. And it's rare that I'll want to play once a week.

I did run a weekly game for about a year. It was a good time, too. That was entirely because of the people I played with - close friends all, and we knew that this was a limited opportunity because of jobs and weddings and stuff. If we tried to make it a permanent thing, I think we'd have driven each other crazy.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Never take your eyes off the Aztecs

It's been a while since my last Like/Dislike repost. There are only a few left in the series, so we might as well collect 'em all...

Give me some charts to roll on, and I'm happy for hours. Or, in the internet age, give me a way to generate weird modern-Cthulhu items or maybe some old-school fantasy henchmen and I'll make my own fun.

It's not that I lack for ideas. However, the beauty of randomly generated stuff is that it forces you to consider things that you otherwise wouldn't. Integrating your own tastes/biases with those of an impersonal list can lead to really cool things that you would, by definition, never have thought of on your own. For instance, I don't much like time travel (see below). But when this nifty random Champions character generator gave me a supervillain with Summon - a power I would never, ever use on my own - it sparked all kinds of ideas. So now I have not just a superintelligent apeman from the far future, but I have his time-traveling court and a the outline of a future history and even some thoughts on how medicine will evolve in this setting.

Seriously - randomly generated game elements are awesome. They force you to work with things that you probably wouldn't even have thought of, much less tried. I can't go so someplace like Chaotic Shiny without making a couple of cultures or artifacts. I love fooling around with Hexographer's free map generator. Using random elements is like having access to other GMs' brains. And who wouldn't want a big pile of GM brains around the house?

My superintelligent apeman nothwitstanding, time travel and dimension travel are usually excuses for cheap, lazy storytelling. They're a way to say "what if?" followed quickly by "just kidding!" When used in roleplaying games, in my experience, they're usually used for one of two things, neither of them being very interesting.

First, as an excuse to fight something cool, like dinosaurs or robotic Schwarzeneggers. I'm not opposed to cool fights. It's just that there are other, more creative ways to get them into your game. Saying that a rift opened in time and X stepped out is just weak. You can do better.

Second, as a halfhearted way of exploring what happens if Things Go Wrong. Time/dimension travel plots often boil down to "here's an alternate version of your world, but the bad guys are in charge." You go there, fight some bad guys, maybe fix some stuff - but it's not your world. It doesn't really matter. Even if you screw up, the reality you know isn't in any danger. These plots rob roleplaying of one of its best elements - the ability to show how PC actions have consequences on their surroundings. Not on "some other time's" surroundings, not on "alternate dimension where the Aztecs won our Civil War" surroundings.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Does anyone make a d23?

I'm writing a live-action game for a Hallowe'en party. While working on character ideas, I made a short list of motivations that people could have. It might work for fleshing out some random NPCs. Or for your own PC, if that's how you like to work.

  1. Loves X
  2. Hates X
  3. Wants to impress X
  4. Wants to humiliate X
  5. Needs money
  6. Wants to know X's secret
  7. Wants an Item
  8. Get rid of Item
  9. Protect X
  10. Avoid X
  11. See that justice is done
  12. Escape justice
  13. Frame X
  14. Exonerate X
  15. Be acknowledged
  16. Avoid blame
  17. Find/discover something
  18. Conceal/destroy something
  19. Persuade everyone of X
  20. Fool everyone about X
  21. Just do things!
  22. Just meet people!
  23. Behave like X
It's all basic stuff, but maybe it'll help.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Playing dumb

Speaking of the DCCRPG playtest, I mentioned that I played a wizard. What I didn't mention was that, because the game uses oldest-skool character generation, my wizard had an INT score of 5. So I had the opportunity to be a dumb guy.

The trick is to be memorably stupid without being someone who ruins the fun for everyone else. As always, the most important thing about an RPG is that everyone involved has a good time. So I knew that even though Katada Demonbeard was going to be a man not overburdened with brains, he had to be someone that other people would find entertaining. Stomping loudly into the wrong decisions was just going to be annoying in a one-shot game. Instead, I stomped loudly into the right decisions, but for all the wrong reasons.

Why would we go into the dungeon? Not for the fabled hoard of gems -- what a ridiculous story! But the rumors of an underground lake of molten chocolate, created on the fly and expounded upon with some gusto, kept me going in the same direction as everyone else. Several times, I cast a spell for some ridiculous and ill-conceived reason, but it was (almost) always a spell that helped the party in some way. I had a lot of fun with it, and so did the other folks.

There's a difference between a dumb character and a dumb player. If you're making good decisions as a player, they can be dressed up as bad decisions made by the character.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Another way of looking at it

Taking another stab at the theme I addressed in yesterday's post. This time, let's use a real-life example.

A few months ago, I got to playtest the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. As part of the playtest, our GM had us all create characters from scratch and then 'age' them to 5th level. So I rolled up my stats, rolled up my random background, rolled up my random fate, bought a little equipment, and was ready to go.

This next bit is How I Work. On a basic level, it's my assumption about how RPGs should be.

Within 5 minutes of randomly generating this random character for a one-shot playtest, he had a name. He had an appearance. He had sketched out a history. He had a couple of personal goals. He had defined a relationship with his amazingly-expendable henchman. He knew that, even though he was a wizard, he was going to wear hide armor for the what-the-hell value. And that the armor was covered in tattoos.

Understand, I didn't set out to do this. The only choice I deliberately made was the character's name. Everything else just fell into place after that. I had a dude, and that dude was Somebody, and I wanted to be that Somebody for a while.

And letting the PCs be Somebody is everything. It's the reason I play RPGs, and the reason I run them. Other approaches may be as valid from a philosophical let's-all-agree-to-disgree stance; we can all do our own thing, and even enjoy trying someone else's thing. But if I'm in your game, my guy's going to be Somebody, and I want to Somebody it up all over the place. If the only place you've got is some subterranean deathtrap, I'm going to Somebody on out of there and go start some trouble in the nearest town.

Adventures should be about the PCs. Otherwise, why bother making them?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tell me I'm right about the Romanian thing

Long gap in posting here. For the price you're paying, what do you expect?

I read another thing on Grognardia that struck me: "I had hoped that, as in the earliest days of the hobby, individual characters wouldn't become the focus of the campaign, that role being taken by Dwimmermount itself."

Lots of things on that blog strike me. It's a labor of love, and obviously the work of a talented man, and he routinely says things (like the quote above) which seem to be in some language foreign to me -- perhaps related, as Portugese is related to Romanian, but not something I really understand. When I read that sentence, my body reacted. I squinted and leaned in to the screen, entirely unconsciously, as if to puzzle out the hidden meaning in that combination of arbitrary shapes.

What is a roleplaying game, if it's not about the individual characters? I admire the OSR, and I'm happy to read their blogs and steal their stuff, but I don't belong to it. Couldn't -- roleplaying is all about the individual characters. I have trouble recognizing my hobby in the quote above. Which is nobody's problem but mine, and I don't think it's a problem, so there you go.

I like the idea (from Robin Laws, maybe?) that a player's character is their way of telling you what kind of game they want to play. So I like a game that gives you a broad range of acceptable characters, whether it's through extensive Champions-style mechanics or very loose Star Warsy ones. It's all about characters. The environment, however lovingly detailed or cunningly treacherous, is window dressing. Not because the PCs' story is so very fascinating, but because it's theirs.

(I seem to enjoy writing about this top-level "how should you play?" stuff more than the posting of mechanics and the discussing of rules. Dunno why.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Again - do you like environments or characters most?

I just read an interesting review of the old D&D module "White Plume Mountain" over at Grognardia. He had a lot of good things to say about the module, and I enjoyed reading it.

I especially enjoyed reading it because I hate that adventure.

Nothing in the review changed my mind - I still hate White Plume Mountain. It's a story-free puzzle-filled mound of unconnected environments. Some of the individual encounters are neat; I don't object to kayaking through midair rivers or fighting giant crawfish inside a plastic bubble that's holding back a boiling ocean. But it doesn't have anyone to talk to, and the neat individual encounters don't lead to anything more than some magic weapons. The module has no personality, and it doesn't hold anything for PCs with personalities of their own. So I see it as a waste of paper.

But I liked the Grognardia review, because it thoughtfully laid out why the author enjoyed playing through it. Didn't change my mind one bit, but I like knowing why people hold different opinions. Now I kinda wish I hadn't thrown out or given away my copy of the module, since apparently someone would have paid good money to take it off my hands. Live and learn. Hopefully my old copy ended up with someone who enjoys what White Plume Mountain has to offer. Me, I have a stack of old Champions supplements that need to be read.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The DCCRPG playtest review

I had a chance to play the new Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG last week. I had fun playing it - but with that particular group of people, I'd have fun playing anything.* The question now: Is the DCCRPG a good game?

To answer, let's start with something that the excellent old-school blogger Jeff Rients wrote. When trying to explain D&D to someone, he said he describes it as "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula." That sounds like fun. No - it sounds like crazy-mad awesome fun. High-octane over-the-top extra-hyphenated fun, and I'd absolutely play that game. If you go read the marketing text for the DCCRPG itself, that Conan vibe is all over it.


The actual play experience is more like "You play Wentworth the Squashy, I play Buglug the Easily Bruised. We team up and get killed by a pit trap after about 20 minutes."

Some people will enjoy that. The relatively low power level and the high mortality rate are very important to the old-school experience, and you gotta assume that a game with "dungeon crawl" in its name is a deliberate throwback to the distant RPG past. Trouble is, we've had more than 30 years of game-design evolution since then. The DCCRPG takes some of that evolution into account - character generation is a hoot, the different character classes have sharply defined Neat Things they can each do.** However, it fails to account for the biggest change over that time. A lot of people like their characters now, and want to play them without constantly cringing about the many possible ways to die because you weren't thinking like the game designer was.

I hate that cringing thing.

Still, not everyone does. And there are several good things about the DCCRPG as a system. Again, character generation itself was great - very fast, but with several touches that customized each individual. The game itself is low on magic items, which I like, relying instead on player/character skill. Magic spells are light-years ahead of how most fantasy games treat them - probably my favorite thing about the whole game. The overall mechanics are very swingy, which can be good; I'd like that more if not for the lethality. And our admittedly higher-level PCs definitely had abilities that put us outside the ken of mere mortals. I'd consider buying this for the character generation and spell tables alone.

I'd be saddled with a bunch of stuff I didn't want, though. The game's fundamental assumptions are waaay too far from mine - too casually lethal, too stereotypical an idea of "adventure." That's something you could work around, of course. Those assumptions aren't hard-coded into the mechanics, and an average GM could easily adjust lethality or take adventures into the wilderness or have adventures that actually involve talking to other sentient creatures... but I'd still be stuck with a game that thinks everyone should have one immutable character class, and that "dwarf" is a character class, and that uses all kinds of weird specialty dice like d7s, and that's really designed to do this One. Very. Specific. Thing.

Again, the game does say "dungeon crawl" right in the name. Nobody's hiding that. It played pretty much the way I had anticipated, and I really enjoyed some parts of it. With a different design focus, this could be a great next-gen system, one that provides a shot in the arm to fantasy RPGs and that competes well against D&D and Pathfinder. It's just too bad that the game's wearing blinders. For everyone who looks back with nostalgia at the playstyle of the 1970s, there are 1d6+6 who don't. That's why so few games look like old D&D nowadays. The DCCRPG is a good game that, of its own volition, is stopping itself from being great. It's too bad - I wish I liked this game more. I'd love to play Conan, but this is a game that forces you to act like Buglug the Easily Bruised.

*Except for whatever horrible game you're about to suggest in the comments. YOU WIN, CLEVER INTERNET PERSON.

**Really? Character classes, in the year 2011? As you'll read in a few days, I think classes are bad design. These were pretty fun, but I'd still prefer a game with modular rules for making your own kind of dude. Cugel or the Grey Mouser, for example, would be impossible to create in this game from what I've seen.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I like what I write, I guess

I'm still entertained by this. It's easier for me to write about my Dislikes than my Likes, which is something I'm pondering.

I enjoy building a world - that's a huge part of the fun for me as a GM. As a player, too. I like coming up with little social, cultural, and political details. It's fun when they have some implied connections to each other. You can use them to suggest possibilities for future adventures. Several times in Gorbadin, players discovered small stone carvings of odd elongated heads - who created the urgol-faces, and why? We never found out, but we could have...

That kind of freedom comes when you create the setting. Things can go in whatever direction you want. They'll reflect the creators. My Gorbadin campaign was easily the best one I've been involved with, not because I created it, but because everybody created it. We all added stuff that we thought was cool, and you know what? That made it cool.

And I have yet to discover a pre-written setting that was satisfying. I feel constrained by the original designers' intent, which is often different than my own. Deadlands is a neat idea, but I can't get past their handwave about slavery. My fondness for 7th Sea is well-known, but the established history is sketchy and has a tone I don't enjoy. Even my perennial favorite Castle Falkenstein needs some revamping before it's something I want to run. I just like stuff better when it's my stuff, or my group's stuff.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. I don't like dealing with the physical environment, I don't like maps, I don't like solving puzzles. I had a chance to write for the fairly-successful Dungeon Crawl Classics line, and I blew it - it's the only time I've punted something, but I just could not get myself to write dungeon crawls. They're sterile and boring. They waste all the social and interactive potential of the RPG form. They're arbitrary. And they have terrible stories, when they have stories at all. Dungeons hem you in and take away your choices; RPGs should expand your options and give you freedom.

Judge for yourself. Here's a D&D 3.5ish rewrite of the Gygax classic "Tomb of Horrors," as done by Jason Alexander. There are some clever traps here, all right. Yep. Clever. Trappish. Gonna kill you right dead, they are. Whee. Remind me why my character is doing this again?

Overall, I liked D&D 3.0 and 3.5. But when I ran across the DMG sidebar about "Why we're returning to the dungeon," I swore out loud at my book.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Merry Marvel Marching Society needs you!

I wanted some Stan Lee hype, but this early in the day I got nothin'. Excelsior!

Well, let me direct you to Zak S talking about how Old School Roleplaying = DC and New School Roleplaying = Marvel. It's an excellent analysis of both comics and RPGs, looking at the different things they focus on. Here's the thesis statement, for those of you who remember your composition classes:

DC Comics--like Old School D&D--are more about the world being interesting, whereas Marvel Comics--like new D&D--are more about the characters being interesting.

Zak is definitely a DC, while I'm Marvel all the way. As should be obvious from today's subjects...

Give me something to care about, and I won't miss a session.

Give me something to hate, so I can hunt it down. Give me something to fear, and I'll fight like hell to escape it. Give me something to love, so it's all worthwhile. Give me something to become.

Or let me create it myself. I'm not picky. I want to invest myself in some aspect of the game - my character, of course, but also in the broader world around them and the narrative they're building. This is an area where I think both the old-school Dungeons Must Kill You and the new-school Narrative Matters More Than Characters have gone off the rails. A big part of the fun, to me, is getting wrapped up in what happens. Not just paying attention to events, but caring about how they turn out - being happy when things work and disappointed when they don't. I'm not here to solve puzzles, or to endure a predetermined storyline. I'm here to get excited about what happens to my character (or to the PCs' characters, depending on which side of the screen I ended up on).

Mind-bogglingly dumb.

I know, I know, mind-bogglingly dumb "to me." But seriously - I'm supposed to get excited because someone rigged up a scythe-blade to swing out of a wall if I stepped on one of the black tiles? That's fun?

Wait, wait, wait. I'm supposed to get excited because I spent 20 minutes of my time - not game time, real time - describing how I prodded things with a wooden pole and tossed rocks at stuff and maybe herded a goat down this hallway, all for the purpose of seeing if a scythe-like blade would swing at anyone stepping on a black tile? That's fun?

Wait, wait, wait. I'm supposed to get excited because after naming my character and designing their stats and thinking of their history, the character died because they stepped wrong? HOW IS THIS FUN?

In the ~20 years I've been running RPG sessions, I can think of two times I've used traps. Once was in 7th Sea, once was in Champions, and the latter was a deathtrap rather than a straight-up trap. The classic dungeon-crawl-style trap is a perfect example of "player vs. environment" RPG thinking. Well, I don't want to wrestle with the environment. And I definitely don't want my character to be killed by it just because I'm not looking at things the way my GM expected me to. Mind-bogglingly dumb.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bagginsday comes but once a year

A couple of things that make me think of Lord Of The Rings, originally posted in honor of the Baggins boys' birthday...

Maybe it's a pack of dwarves on your doorstep. Maybe it's a family heirloom with a sinister past. Whatever it is, it's a lot more fun than just walking into a dungeon because your GM told you that's where you were going.

This is especially important to me when I'm the one running the game. It's important to me that the PCs have good reasons to do whatever they're about to do - revenge, curiosity, obligation, etc. It's best when these things come from the characters themselves; my favorite adventures are the ones that come from the characters' ambitions. Failing that, I like having a framing device - an organization that the PCs belong to (such as a superteam), or perhaps a collection of nine brave souls who are walking from here to the big volcano.

As is often the case, this is about immersion. I find it much easier to suspend my disbelief if the adventure grows organically from things that have come before. Shadows from the past, if you will.

Seriously, people. Don't split up. Stick together.

My "a-ha" moment with this came a couple years ago, after I'd taught my friend Scott to roleplay. Scott made it into his late 30s without ever having tried RPGs, but the news that there was a Star Wars game tipped him into our camp. So we played a few sessions, and then I asked him what he thought about the various tropes and expectations of roleplaying. Turns out he really hated it when the party split up. "It's so boring," he said.

And he's right. It's boring. So when I run games now, I ask the players to not split up unless they really need to. In return, I create adventures that don't require so much splitting up - I design my encounters with the assumption that everyone will be involved. What we lose in reality-simulation, we more than make up for in fun-having. This isn't a novel, after all. We aren't being entertained by Gandalf and Pippin in one place, then Merry in another, then Frodo and Sam in yet another. This is a group activity - so don't sideline each other without a good reason. Don't split up unless you have to - and expect that we'll resolve your solo activities very quickly. Because while one or two players are having fun, everyone else will be bored.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Quirky is an overused word, but it fits here

Running a campaign is much easier when the PCs are in the same place from one session to the next. Even if they travel, it's nice to have a "home" that they return to. It can be a house, a city, a geographic region - I like having a fixed base that serves as the starting/ending point of the action. It provides an anchor for the action, a recurring set of backgrounds/experiences, which help with the suspension of disbelief for both players and GM.

A fixed base is also a good place to plant subplots. If the PCs are going to see the fixer Black-Eyed Molli every couple of sessions, well, now we can weave her in and out of our larger action. When it turns out that her bodyguard Gus is the son of the tailor just down the street from the PCs' office, and that the tailor is the only eyewitness to a gangland crime, we can quickly sketch out a sequence of events that provide the PCs with a bigger emotional or material payoff. You save the tailor's life, and now Molli owes you a favor (or you don't and she makes your life harder). I'm a big fan of consequences in an RPG, and it's easier to see the consequences if you're connected to one place.

I'm also a world-builder. I like taking a location and fleshing it out. It's really satisfying to make a detailed and quirky place, and then reveal those quirks over time.

This is purely personal, rather than some broad philosophical point. I don't like solving puzzles. Don't ask my character to do it. Don't make the adventure contingent on my doing it. If there's some cunning tapestry with clues hidden in its description, fine, let me make some kind of skill check to figure the damn thing out so that I can get on with doing the fun stuff. When I'm roleplaying, I want things to happen. Sitting around trying to outguess the GM is the opposite of happen. I think it's boring. This is one of my least favorite things about old-school roleplaying. I don't want to figure out the cunning riddle-box, and I don't want to hear all about the trap's mechanisms. Let me just roll some dice and get past the damn thing so I can get back to doing things.

The same goes for mysteries, Not in the sense of "something is happening and you have to figure out what" mysteries, but the "some clues are scattered around so go assemble and solve them" mysteries. When I read a detective story, I'm reading for the story part and not the detective part. I'm not trying to beat Hercule Poirot to the solution. I'm much more interested in watching the action unfold. If a GM has a brilliant mystery that they want me to experience, great - tell me about your idea over lunch. When I'm roleplaying, I want the focus to be on the actions of the PCs, not on the ideas of the GM.

EDIT: I would be remiss if I didn't point to this excellent piece by Jason Alexander. His "Three Clue Rule" alleviates a lot of my problems with puzzles.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Star Wars, is there anything you can't do?

Adventures should MOVE. Something should always be happening to (or because of) the PCs. If 20 minutes have passed without some kind of conflict or confrontation, throw something in there. You have the entire human imagination at your disposal - don't waste time on unproductive dead ends!

I absorbed this idea in its entirety from the first (and best) edition of the Star Wars RPG published by West End Games. Greg Costikyan is a genius.

This is a limited dislike, but a strong one. If I'm running a game, I don't want to use tactical maps. They slow down play, they pull the players' attention away from their own imaginations, and they make it harder for me to improvise some cunning last-minute thing. Tactical maps (and building/dungeon/structure maps) limit your options, which undercuts one of the great advantages of RPGs - the ability to expand your options with a thought. When possible, I avoid using tactical maps. When not possible, I try to use them purely for positional reference instead of for accurate simulation.

Except when I'm running Marvel or Champions. I do love simulating superhero combat.

And I'm a huge fan of world maps. They're great idea-generation machines.

This one probably traces back to Star Wars also. I like their abstract method of handling starship combat; it's much more exciting than actually figuring out the positions and trajectories and stuff. I'm all for simulation - but only if we're simulating fun things. Let's not simulate physics, people.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mind you, I'm not some pompous Theatre Person

You're in for a couple weeks' worth of these. But if you want a quick summary of me as a GM or player, this is probably it.

The most fun in a roleplaying game comes from playing a role. I like pretending. I like getting to do cool imaginary stuff when I'm playing. When I'm GMing, I like to let my players do cool imaginary stuff. In both cases, I like it when characters are trying to achieve goals and then experience surprising events. I like making characters just as a pastime. Characters should both drive a game's action and be the focus of that action. Not the environment, not the story, not the GM's plans - the characters.

Characters should also drive story design. I agree with Robin Laws, who has said that a person's character is their expression of what kind of game they wish to play. A good GM looks at what the PCs are like, then creates/tailors sessions to fit what those characters do. A fantasy party of Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Thief should be involved in much different situations than Bard, Mage-Thief, Monk, Fighter Who Specializes In Ranged Weapons. Those two sets of characters represent different sets of expectations, individually and collectively, and that should drive everything else that happens in the game.

I love characters.

This is one of my biggest weak points as a GM. I don't much care what the environment looks like, what's in it, etc. After I toss off a quick description to set the scene, I'm done. The environment is a backdrop to me - it provides a little flavor, but it's not designed to be an integral part of the action. I don't want to tell you how many tables are at the inn, or what you find hanging on the wall of the smithy, or the contents of the ship's hold. I just don't care.

Same goes for when I'm playing. I don't really want to interact with the environment in lots of nifty, thoughtful ways. The space around me isn't what's interesting, be it a room or a cavern or a giant singing tree - it's just a physical boundary inside of which interesting things can happen. Perhaps it's because I don't visualize well. I really don't - I'm almost completely unable to picture things in my head. So I don't want to do it, regardless of which side of the GM screen I'm on, and I don't enjoy adventures that require it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The bad formatting of the Don't list is driving me crazy

If you know me, you've probably already seen these lists. What do I like and what don't I like in RPGs?
LIKE                                         DON'T
The characters                           Describing environments
Velocity                                     Using maps
A fixed base                               Solving puzzles/mysteries
Emotional involvement                Splitting up the party
Homemade setting                      Traps
Random elements                       Dungeon crawls
Player-driven plots                     The Star Trek model
The social aspect                        Slow combat
Languages                                 Character classes
A Reason To Go                       Time/dimension travel
Three-player groups                   The weekly game

I hadn't intended any sort of correspondence between the two lists, although I did try to keep them to the same length. In many cases, if something's on one list, its opposite is probably on the other list. And there are a couple of opposed pairings that happened to emerge - "Player-driven plots" is the opposite of "The Star Trek model," and "Velocity" implies something different than "Slow combat" does. I'll examine these pairs over the next few days.

Also, do you read Mike Mearls's blog? Did you read the one where he says that the placement of minis on a battlemat, and not the GM's judgement, should determine whether someone has cover from ranged attacks? Has he always been this wrong about everything, and I just now noticed?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Oh yeah...

One other thing on the list was the Lifepath, as used by Cyberpunk 2020 and/or Twilight 2000. Some folks object to lifepathing (I married one), but I like having random background elements that shift my character design. It works pretty well when it's an optional thing, rather than a requirement, if only so my wife doesn't complain at me because her character now has a crippling injury. Not everyone enjoys those little touches.

And there was a second thing. I recently ran across the PDF quickstart version of a fantasy game called Riddle Of Steel. It's gone one of those priority-balancing systems of character creation, where if you want more points for stats you have less for skills, etc. I enjoy those. This one specifically included the character's social status as one of its categories, which was very cool. If you're a Noble, you have more money and more freedoms than an Outlaw, who starts with no money or stuff and is being actively hunted. It would be tricky to extrapolate this to a generic system, but that's part of the fun.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In which I grow old

The thing about being a full-fledged adult is that I don't have time to roleplay very often. Games happen maybe once every two months.

The thing about being me is that I don't like scheduled games. Want me to avoid you? Invite me to your weekly game.

So I don't have a lot of current stuff to discuss, and dredging up my memories sounds as boring to me as it does to you. The two things I semi-run aren't at a point where I want to bounce ideas around, and I'm not playing in anything. But there is one project I'm thinking about - my scavenger game.

Although I've got some design credits, my system-design chops are weak. I don't care about rules - I care about what you can do with them - so I'm not good at creating games from whole cloth. I steal really well, though. This is stuff I'd like to cobble together into a frankengame:

1) Tag Skills (from the Fallout games)
2) Omni-Gadgets (from the original DC Heroes)
3) Fate Points (from early Warhammer, and maybe current Warhammer)
4) Character Templates (from the original Star Wars RPG)
5) Complicated Annoying Point-Based Character Creation With Lots Of Fiddly Bits (Champions)

...and there was something else on the list.

Dealing with point 5 is the hard part. As much as I like complicated annoying point-based character creation, Champions has gone nuts in the last decade. So my starting point is to turn that core system into something that humans can use.

Hey, you asked.