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.