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.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Stonecunning summary

It should be as easy to make a D&D dwarf who's a totem-channeling steppe-dwelling bear-riding spearman as it is to make a dwarf who falls into the easy, lazy, traditional axe-stone-gold-beer model.

You and me and 5e

We need to talk about the 5e playtest. We need to talk about...

  • Stonecunning
  • The Caves of Chaos
  • Which pieces of 4e we need to keep (hint: none)
  • The advantage/disadvantage system
  • Monster writeups
  • Endless Magic Missile
  • Stealth and Perception and Common Tasks
  • Always rounding down

That's plenty to consider. And that's before I've even run a session of it for the wife and kids; that may happen this weekend if we can fit it in between seeing The Avengers and playing Risk Legacy and watching Community from the beginning and... man, I live in the utopia imagined by my 12-year-old self. It's a good life.

But that still leaves us with stonecunning. It's not new to 5e; stonecunning is like a persistent ugly rash that manifests in every edition, and no amount of scratching or ointment can make it go away.

Why am I complaining about stonecunning?

Ya gotta grasp the inherent duality of existence. No matter how holistic you are, ya gotta grasp that the things you are is a list that doesn't totally overlap the things you learn. Nature is not the same as Nurture. You remember the Enlightenment, right? I'm not asking you to sign on to Locke's tabula rasa here, just to grok that what your body does is not the same as what your mind knows.

If a dwarf has wondrous abilities related to stones and earth and underground-ness, where did it come from? Is it some kind of Spidey-sense tingling, some odd biological/mystical thing that's inherent to being a dwarf, something that even an orphan dwarf raised on the high seas by dwarf-stealing pirates can do under the right circumstances? Or is it something that comes after being raised underground by miners and stonecutters, something that even an orphan centaur could learn if it was adopted by subterranean folk?

Stonecunning strikes me as #2, something you learn. That's how it works in the actual world. Sure, we can also posit some biomystico affinity for rockwork, but it's entirely possible to learn this kind of stuff through repeated exposure and practice, the same way that after 5 years of professional clerking I could cut a ream of papers to the exact page you wanted. Anyone raised by stereotypical dwarves could have stonecunning. It's cultural, not biological.

Why am I still complaining?

Because stonecunning has been something every dwarf gets. Balthazar the silk merchant, Applefeather the monk, Durgan the Axeblighter, Katada Demonbeard the wizard -- in a typical D&D game, all of them get some variation of this ability whether or not it fits. It's just what happens to dwarves. This means one of two things:

1) The designers believe that all dwarves have a fundamental affinity for stonework, something bred so deep into them that it's as dwarfy as shortness.

2) The designers just threw in a bunch of stereotypes that were swiped from Tolkien, possibly dressed up with a paper hat labeled "Traditions of D&D."

Neither of these is a compelling case for its presence.

Stonecunning is something that a character could have. No problem there, chief. We can bicker about the exact way the ability works -- letting stonecunning folk know "how to retrace their path" when underground is full of problems, especially in a game heavily influenced by the Dungeons Must Kill You crowd -- but it's legitimately something that could be fun. Stonecunning is NOT something that every dwarf and nobody else should have. That approach doesn't make sense the way that, say, a racial immunity to poison does make sense. It's just a lazy handwave in the direction of a pointless tradition.

In earlier versions, we fixed this by letting PCs swap abilities around until they got 'em right. Looks like that's what we'll have to do again. But a man can dream big dreams, dream of a game that takes things like stonecunning out of the "racial" category and puts them in a "background" or "training" category where they belong.

We'll talk about this again if we get to the playtest monster writeups. We may contemplate Justin Alexander's phrase "dissociated mechanics." The difference between simulation and emulation might even be considered at painful ponderous length. But the key thing is this:

Dwarf is something you simply are. Stonecunning is something you would learn. And if you'd learn it, it's not racially innate.

...unless, I guess, the intent has always been that stonecunning should be intrinsic to a particular race, and I'm just not reading the fine print closely enough to catch that. Which moves it from "wrong" to "stuff I think is kinda dumb." I guess we'll see.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not a 5e playtest post (yet)

Both Vornheim and Risk Legacy are on the Diana Jones Award shortlist. The secret committee behind the best award in game-stuff are doing a good job this year.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How to tell the difference between me and Monte Cook

Monte Cook has 'fessed up to not liking character creation. I love it. And, as a true apostle of my own preferences, I can explain where Mr. Cook is looking at the matter all wrong.

His very first point is a mistake, one that's pretty common: What if I make a character who can't work in the adventure and/or the campaign?

Then you and/or your GM are dumb.

Look, if there's a concept you really really really want to play, you need to tell your GM about it. Talk about what you want to do and how it fits within the GM's plans. And if there's an adventure and/or campaign that your GM really really really wants to run, they need to make that clear from the very beginning.


The GM's job is to help the players have fun. So if you want to play a diplomat, the GM's job is to let you be diplomatic -- or to warn you off before that diplomat gets made. And the former is better than the latter. A PC is somebody's way of saying "I want to play this kind of game." The GM needs to listen to that statement and adjust their game appropriately.

Yes, yes, sometimes you just want to run Call Of Cthulhu and have horrible blasphemous whatnots all wrapped up in investigation-heavy mysteries. That's fine. Make it clear to your players, and if they really really really want to play characters that don't fit your plans, run something else instead. When your ideas are so very precious that they outweigh everyone else's fun, it's time to write up your RPG scenario and self-publish it, rather than inflict it on people who didn't ask for it.

So that's step one to help Monte have fun. The other crucial thing is contained his very last point: What if I make a character and then get locked into a bunch of mechanics that don't do what I want to do?

Then you and/or your GM are dumb again.

Mechanics are just words and numbers on a piece of paper. If some of those words and numbers aren't providing you with the play experience you want, change them. This is not a difficult concept. When I'm running a new campaign or new system, I let players change their character mechanics through at least the first 3 sessions. They gotta do it with me and they don't get to ignore the rulebook, but if you made a character that doesn't work the way you wanted, it's easy to fix.

Honestly, I let players tinker with their mechanics pretty much whenever. As long as what they gain is balanced by what they lose, why should I mind? Look at the Champions mechanic/tradition of the "radiation accident." Apply this wisdom to your own games.

There's step two for Monte. And some of his other points are excellent. More games should include pregens, both for the convenience of lazy/inexperienced players and to give you some idea as to the designers' assumptions. And all games should include fast character generation options -- I like spending 2 hours refining every last iota of my PC, but not many other people do. I cheerfully admit that I'm insane.

Insane, but right.

C'mon, kids. You should be able to play Character X if that's what you really want. Maybe the GM needs to loosen up about their campaign idea, and maybe the rules need to be bent. Don't be a jerk, don't be selfish, remember that other people need to have fun -- otherwise, play what you damn well please.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Still Life: An Opera

And now for something completely different -- an entry for the English National Opera's mini-opera contest. They want the scripts posted to blogs, and this is the blog I've got handy, so here you go. One thing I've learned about writing a libretto is that singers don't do well with contractions, so this reads a little more stiffly than a play script would.


The Conductor (soprano)
Hillary, our protagonist (alto)
Benjamin (baritone)
The Minister, a part of the Chorus (tenor)

Hillary stands Down Center and the conductor is somewhat to her right. They remain stationary until the end. The rest of the cast will be in constant smooth motion crossing from Stage Left to Stage Right, returning to Stage Left backstage -- the metaphor here is train travel. Benjamin will drop out of this motion with his first line; the Minister will pause briefly to perform his lines.

As this is a compressed journey through a person's entire life, costuming and props can be minimal. As Hillary and Benjamin "age," members of the Chorus can give them appropriate new accessories. Such changes should be evenly paced, like one year flowing into the next. The Conductor does not change.

CONDUCTOR: All aboard!

HILLARY: So bright! Too fast! He hit me!

C: Tickets please.

H: I'm already bored. Are we there yet?

C: Do not disturb the other passengers.

BENJAMIN: (to Hillary) You are bossy.

H: You have cooties.

B: You are so weird!

H: And you are mean!

CHORUS: You two are driving us crazy!!!

CONDUCTOR: Next stop.

H: The journey scares me. I don't know where I'm bound. Everything I had is lost just as it is found.

B: Very deep.

H: What a creep.

B: And you are a clever one. What is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

H: Waiting for a man with a better opening line.

C: Kindly secure your baggage.

H: I look and I look and I think it will be you.

B: Me?

H: Could be.


H and B together: We do! (to each other) I will never leave you...

C: Make room! Make room!

CHORUS: Juice! Sweets! Tell me a story! Toys! Games! Tell me you love me! (continues in background until the Conductor's next line, becoming quieter but more cacaphonous as H and B sing)

H: What were we thinking?

B: As I recall, it was not "thinking" at all.

H: At least we will never be lonely.

B: Or bored.

H: Or have any money.

B: I will always have you.

H: This is true.

CONDUCTOR: We will now be accelerating.

H: So strange to just be us. We have done so much.

B: We have many things yet to do.

H: True.

B: Work.

H: Travel.

B: The grandchildren. (B leaves stage, not to return)

H: And plenty of time with you...

C: Be prepared for sudden stops.

H: No. No! Nooooo...

MINISTER: Ashes to ashes.

CHORUS: Dust to dust. (Minister and chorus leave stage, not to return)

H: We only just met. You called me bossy, I called you mean. And then it was wonderful. Now I am lost. Alone. Cold.

C: Prepare for your final stop.

H: The trip just started. I am not ready. My bones ache, my mind fills with fog -- but I cannot believe the ride will end.

C: You have reached the end of the line.

H: Is this a one-way ticket?

C: One-way is the only kind. No refunds. (Both exit Stage Left. Curtain.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Calling All Anklebiters

According to the irrepressible Zak Smith, we're coming up on International Anklebiter Illustration Day. You should go read the original post, of course, but here's a quick summary:

1) Find a young person.
2) Offer them $2 to draw two RPG-related pictures.
2a) The first one can be whatever you want.
2b) The second MUST be a displacer beast.
3) Put the results online on May 29.

Seems like a great idea. Make it happen.

Friday, May 4, 2012



The joy of recapping was leeched (leached?) away by the mundanities of life.

My latest foray into the old DMG underwhelmed me, plus the excellent Hill Cantons blog has been covering the exact same territory with a great deal of verve.

I'd rather read Glen Cook's Garrett novels that think about RPGs right now.

...I work at a college. I'm a grad student. My wife's in college. My older kid's in college. My younger kid's in high school. Things are always pretty meh around here at the end of the semester.

Maybe we'll go see The Avengers and cheer up.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Recap Continues

I can think of 3 basic ways to handle a roleplaying session.

1) Star Trek Style: The PCs are in a location that Has Some Problem. They deal with the problem because they're in the location. The problem is the star.

2) Dungeons Must Kill You: The PCs are traveling through a location that Tries To Kill Them. They put up with it because they want something that's there. The location is the star.

3) The Matt Method: The PCs want something. I help them get it. I hinder them from getting it. The PCs and their goals are the star.

I like #3 best. But you can't use the same bag of tricks every time, unless you want bored players. So for the big Zal Duster throwdown -- a classic #3, selected by the players at the previous session as The Thing We Should Do Next -- I put in some Dungeons Must Kill Them for variety. Any time you can include a menagerie of menacing moon-monsters, you should.

The PCs, of course, never visited the menagerie.

Also, 30 seconds after we started playing, they said "What if we don't try to take Zal Duster down after all? What if we just go do something else?" Mischevious grins.

I'm not perturbed. "I'm prepared for that. I've got a backup encounter ready to go." Not totally true -- it was a mishmash of vague ideas rolled up in a #1 -- but it calmed them down. All they had to do was figure out how to actually go after Zal Duster, which I'll pick up next time.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What I Did This Weekend: Groundwork

This post is dedicated to Mateo, whose love of Star Wars is already infecting a new generation.

Rumor has it that people don't like reading session recaps. I like writing them, though.

My intermittent Star Wars group finally dealt with their rival, nemesis, and backstory-driving crime boss Zal Duster. Seven hours, two boxes of Little Debbies, and 23 corpses later, the PCs were in charge of a semi-functional Crime Moon.

Dash Zzohren: A wily Smuggler with a heart of iron pyrite. Owes a massive debt to Zal Duster. Played by Steve.
Hawke Zzohren: Minor Jedi and brother to Dash. Occasionally has a conscience. Played by Scott.
Victarian: Tactically-minded Merc who hangs out with them. No known last name or backstory. Played by Mark.

I've run a lot of Star Wars groups over the years. Almost all of them fall into this mold -- criminal PC with starship and debt, Force-using PC, lots-of-guns PC, and if there's a fourth player they'll be a Wookiee or Ewok or some other goofball alien. These boys, in fact, had Wookiee for a brief time (Ktrellaak, played by Chad). He parted ways with us amicably over, I believe, my stance that pretty much every Star Wars novel and comic and prequel movie is filth that will not be allowed to sully my game. I think history supports me on this one.

At first, Zal Duster was a necessary evil. He loaned Dash enough credits to buy the ship Starsplitter, which serves as the PCs' home base. Dash and the boys would periodically make payments on the debt. All was well.

Then Zal started asking Dash to do jobs for him directly -- mostly arms smuggling. Dash worked some deals on the side with Zal's inventory, often to the Rebel Alliance, neglecting to share the profits.

Then Zal started telling Dash to smuggle more dangerous things, like activated assassin droids. And Zal would send along "bodyguards" to make sure that the missions went smoothly. One of those bodyguards never did come back.

Then Zal set Dash and the boys up on a salvage operation that was actually an Imperial trap, as part of Zal's cozy-up-to-the-Empire initiative. The PCs fought and bluffed their way out, then completed the salvage job and delivered the planetary ion cannon to the Rebellion for use on some ice planet.

Enough was enough. Something had to be done about Zal Duster. Plus the boys were entranced with the idea of taking over his infamous Crime Moon. They did a little homework -- and I did a lot -- to figure out how to hit his weak spots before our next session. But in time-honored PC fashion, they didn't actually come up with a plan until 90 minutes into the game...

This is running long. I'll break for now. Join us soon for Zal Duster II: The Dustening, in which a lawyer is yelled at! Many shots are fired! And I actually deploy a pre-drawn map with numbered locations corresponding to an encounter key!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Scratching an itch

Quite a while ago, I filled out a questionnaire proposed by Zak Smith. My answer to question #4 has bothered me ever since, but I lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate my intentions clearly. So I watched TV until I got better.

My one-sentence adventure pitch: It's like Burn Notice, except you're apprentice-level spies stranded in hostile demon-haunted Hwamgaarl, the City of Screaming Statues (the capital of wicked sorcerous Pan Tang from the Elric stories).

Friday, April 13, 2012

In which I disagree with the RPGPundit, then agree with him

Over there on your right, unless you hang upside-down while reading, is the list of RPG blogs I actively follow. There are a few more I dip into from time to time when I'm hungry for the particular flavor they offer. If I'm jonesing for someone to be angry about something, it's time for RPGPundit. He'll deliver.

Today the Pundit is talking about people who remove mechanics from D&D, then get unhappy that things work differently, then put other mechanics in to fix the situation. I guess that's annoying... maybe it's homebrewing? Maybe it's Rule Zero? In general it's not a bee in my bonnet, but the two specific examples that the esteemed Pundit grabs are both worth considering.

First is Raise Dead. Once we had a Resurrection Survival roll that characters made when raised. Then it was removed. Now apparently there's hue and cry about how we can possibly control the flood of ex-corpses blatantly living all over the fantasy landscape. I'd agree that something needs to be done about this in the D&D context. But it's not reverting to an old mechanic, as the Pundit advocates.

Get rid of Raise Dead.

Solves the problem very neatly. A character died? They're gone forever. No spell, simple or complex, can return them. It encourages the kind of poke-all-objects-with-a-pole play that many old-schoolers enjoy. It opens up chances for big, funky, mythological quests that would appeal to people like me. It's avant enough for the new-school crowd. By cutting the knot this way, you solve the immediate problem (controlling the flow of people returning from the afterlife) and you help clarify how important PC death will be in your game. Whether a game is incredibly lethal like the DCC RPG, or more like 7th Sea where you'll only die on purpose, eliminating Raise Dead makes death more serious. And thereby it becomes cooler. It's a better solution than raising a clunky old mechanic from the dead.

I might allow an exception for the older Resurrection spell. Letting your PC come back as a swarm of bees or a ficus tree is pretty entertaining.

So then the Pundit addresses the questions surrounding minions. How do we handle a bunch of little enemies in a fight? He disdains complex minion rules. I agree. He says we should return to the old days of Morale rules for NPCs. He's right. Encounters are a lot more fun if you don't know how they'll turn out. Maybe it starts as combat, but maybe not. Once combat starts, maybe the minions will fight to the bitter end, or maybe they'll break and run, or maybe they'll throw down their swords and beg for mercy... and nobody knows until the dice stop rolling.

As a GM, I like that uncertainty. As a player, it's fun when you have to use more skills than just the fightin' ones on a crowd of NPCs. I started using these again after seeing the redoubtable Jeff Rients post about them a few times.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Scarface is dated, but worth watching anyway

What you should probably do is go to Keith Baker's blog and answer his Question Of The Week. But, since you're here, ponder this. Legendary film director Howard Hawks is supposed to have said that a good movie was one with "three good scenes and no bad ones." He directed the original Scarface, the excellent The Big Sleep, the classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the genre-defining Rio Bravo... he knew what he was talking about.

That's a good rule for a game session. If you're spending a couple hours or more together, aim for three good scenes and no bad ones. We don't have to use "scene" in the pretentious artsy way -- any encounter, any combat, any problem-solving will do. If you have three exchanges that are fun for everyone, and none that are anti-fun, you're doing it right. Maybe not the way I'd do it, but you did it right.

This is kinda how I design adventures these days (and it's one of the reasons I'm a substandard module designer). Figure out where they probably start, figure out an interesting place that they could end, and then come up with around 3 fun-sounding encounters that the PCs could have along the way. Of course, they're not locked into anything other than maybe "here's where you start." If they don't follow the leads to my encounters, I have every confidence that they'll make their own fun.

But as a GM, I do think part of my job -- part of what I enjoy about running games -- is helping set up those 3 good scenes. And trying to thwart bad ones. The goal isn't for the characters to succeed at everything; the goal is for everyone in the game to think it was an awesome way to spend their time.

Another interesting Hawks quote to consider before you go answer the QOTW: "As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture -- it doesn't matter if it isn't much of a story." I don't agree, but that's for another day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mind Shrike Part Deux

A couple months ago, I made a few versions of a random supervillain named Mind Shrike. My plan was to run Mind Shrike through the superhero games I have on hand to see how they differed from each other. The first report was, perhaps not surprisingly, that Marvel Super Heroes is fast and fun while DC Heroes is ponderous and lacking flavor. This is pretty much how I feel about their respective comic books; read into that what you will. We have a few more Mind Shrikes lined up, so let's take a look at the next one. He was created with Champions (technically the 4th edition of the Hero System), granddaddy of the point-based RPG non-craze.

Credit for Mind Shrike and his kin, by the by, goes to Lee's (Useless) Super-Hero Generator, which is actually very useful.

Typing up a Champions character takes forever and a day, so let's do the conclusions first. Given how often I've said I love Champions, it shouldn't surprise you to discover that I still love Champions. So many options. So much control. So what if it takes an hour to make a really good character? That's part of the game. Champions is the best high-detail generic system I've ever found -- a high priority for me, since I like switching genres and styles and power levels, without the fuss of having to learn a whole new set of rules every time.

Best low-detail generic system? Today I'd pick the simplified version of Over The Edge. You know, the one without any of that Al Amarja crap. Fun system, irritating setting. I don't want a game that tries to nail me down to a particular place and particular NPCs, especially if they sound more like William S. Burroughs than Edgar Rice Burroughs... anyhoo. Mind Shrike.

Making MSIII reinforced a few points for me. First, one of the great strengths of Champions is its Disadvantages system. You get a certain number of points to build a character for free, but you can get more points -- sometimes double your initial amounts, sometimes more -- by voluntarily taking on Disads that will come out in play. Vulnerable to sunlight? Hunted by the Illuminati? Stuck taking care of the illegitimate son you kidnapped from his highborn mother? Have some points to make your character stronger! And also have some complications that will provide grist for the GM's mill, and help you flesh out your character concept to boot! MSIII was built as a standard Champs 4e character, with 100 base points and 150 from Disads. When I'm running games these days, I usually reverse the ratio. It still works pretty well.

Second, it can be hard to spend all those points. I ended up giving MSIII several more abilities than his predecessors. We'll see this problem recur when we get to Mind Shrike V.

Third, I know Champions too well. This version of Mind Shrike has innate "psychic mind-numbing" powers that he used to steal a Mysterious Device that lets him fly. So I gave him two separate multipowers. Would I let a PC do that? Dunno. The fact that I spent the last 10 minutes thinking about it, though, tells me that I've got more invested in Champions than is perhaps necessary...

Anyway, on to Mind Shrike III.

STR 15
DEX 20
CON 20
INT 13
EGO 18
PRE 13
COM 10
PD 15
ED 15
END 50

Psychic Mind-Numbing: 60 point Multipower
  • 4d6 EGO Attack; Normal Range (-1/2) w/Linked 1d6 INT Drain, Ranged
  • 3d6 EGO Attack; AE Cone, No Range
Mysterious Device: 60 point Multipower; OIF Device
  • 15" Flight, x8 NCM; O END
  • 20 STR Telekinesis; O END
Conversation (12-)
Electronics (11-)
High Society (12-)
Basic French

Secret ID
Hunted by PSIBAN (More Powerful, 8-)
Hunted by Device's creator (As Pow, 11-)
Greedy (Cmn, Str)
Thrillseeker (VC, Str)
Liar (VC, Mod)
Berserk if Device is taken away (Unc, 14-, 11-)
DNPC: Taxi driver brother (Normal , 8-)
Vuln: 1.5x STUN from Killing Attacks (VC)
2d6 Unluck

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fun fact: Zal Duster is an old PC of mine

(I emailed this to the 3 players in my occasional Star Wars game, who want to go after intergalactic underworld boss Zal Duster and his infamous Crime Moon. I don't expect you to be interested, but I wanted to post it for easy reference later...)


I made some skill rolls for your characters to determine...


Layout of the Crime Moon: Hawke got a Streetwise roll of 22, so a rough map will be provided. Dash's Streetwise roll of 7 (!) might have brought some attention to you boys.

Size of the grounds: None of you even managed to roll a 10 on Planetary Systems, so you don't know.

Locations of specific facilities: Dash got a Con of 21, partially redeeming himself, augmented by Victarian's 10 in Command and Hawke's 10 in Bargain. You worked your contacts to get locations nailed down for the docking facilities, armory, main power plant, and barracks. They'll be noted on the map.

Size of organization: Both of the Zzohren boys rolled a 15 for Streetwise. You learned that the Duster syndicate probably has around 3000 total members scattered across the galaxy, but the core group (the equivalent of "made men" in the Mafia) is probably 400. Zal's inner circle is thought to consist of less than a dozen people.

Details on key lieutenants: By losing a Gambling roll (16 vs 22) and thereby getting a bonus to his Bargain roll (20), Dash got a Thravian flitter-pilot to tell him that Zal's logistics/operations guy is named Rondo Allaturrk. Blue skin, cybernetic demi-halo attached to his skull to augment memory, thought to be from the galactic rim. A cool and unflappable guy, Rondo has been centralizing his sub-organization to eliminate possible rivals. Any of his people who want to talk to Zal go through him first (and sometimes go out an open airlock shortly thereafter...).

Following a hunch, Hawke followed up on Guss'r, the 'bodyguard' that Zal sent with you on that ill-fated insane R2 mission. Guss'r was a Trandoshan, the strong scaly lizard people (like Bossk from Empire Strikes Back). Hawke located one of Guss'r's hatch-mates and, with a Language roll of 15, overheard that the hatch-mate has taken over as Zal's chief bodyguard. His name is Sooc, he has a short temper, he carries a blaster carbine with a long bayonet that can double as a vibrospear, and he's very fond of eating the mildly hallucinogenic vreedle-worm.

Checking some grey-area galactic databases, Victarian rolled an 11 on Computer Programming, which was enough to find several references to someone named Fayne Ikkish who has handled legal matters between Zal and the Empire. A visit to her office on the world of Coruscant, coupled with a Search roll of 15, turned up some archived holovids that could ruin her legitimate career. However, security chased Victarian off before he could steal or copy any of them.

Known rivals: Maalaam Torot, a big player in illegal gambling rings; competes with Zal for control of many. Rumored to also handle some contract killings. Has an enforcer named Raccagh, a Wookie.

Dobro Estabi, the guy to see if you're interested in smuggling. Or maybe the girl -- nobody's actually *seen* Dobro and reported back. He/she conducts business through droid messengers. Zal wants Dobro's pilots and hyperspace coordinate maps; Dobro wants Zal dead.

Known relatives: Only one, a sister named Zenna Duster. She's an Imperial lieutenant serving on the bridge staff of a Star Destroyer called Vengeance. Hawke and Victarian each rolled a 13 for Bureaucracy, which was enough to confirm that she exists and find that the Vengeance is currently posted in the rebellious Gallormu system; Dash rolled a 7, which was enough to get you guys thrown out of the records office for malingering and general no-good-nik-ness.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Quick thoughts on a weird world

Last time I surfaced, I was clutching a big list of monsters from a bestiary, threatening to combine them into a new campaign setting. I kinda did that.

I think I might have re-invented Jorune. Especially if Samuel R. Delaney was brought in to ghostwrite it. Not because I have that kind of talent, mind you. These ideas just go in that direction. I'm not too proud to steal.

I'd certainly love some Miles Teeves illustrations for this.

Njuzu: Human consciousness implanted into a liquid form. When the rest of the humans left for fresher worlds, this was one choice for those left behind.

Itnala: Human consciousness implanted in a super-solid form, by which I mean "more solid than regular solids." Another choice for those who remain.

Shethala: Human consciousness removed from an "evolved" form and put back into a replicated human form. Old-school, uptight, aristocratic.

Hive Spiders: An alternate, deviant form of posthumanism. Implant your consciousness into a drone body and have fun until it mutates horribly and drives you insane. Or extra-sane.

Makara: Lonely, the late-era humans augmented the intelligence of certain species. The Makara, intended to help manage the waters, can project human-style images to avoid discomfiting their (departed) masters.

War Dragons: Sometimes, reviving extinct prehistoric races and endowing them with near-human intelligence is a fine idea. Big friendly dinosaurs.

Celenians: Created to be hunters and enforcers. They escaped to the wild long ago. Not quite exterminated by vengeful/bored humans before the Leavetaking.

Kr'awn: These twisted amphibianoids resulted from millenia of pollution/byproducts/weird background energies. Largely sentient and often mutated; their biology is in a state of flux.

Chupacabra: They sidestepped onto the planet from Somewhere Else. Predators, bogeymen, parasites -- or just misunderstood.

Poukai: Sometimes, reviving extinct prehistoric races and endowing them with near-human intelligence is a bad idea. Nobody wants a smart terrorbird.

Ice Lion: An early result of the efforts that would someday lead to the Njuzu-form. Not numerous. Which means every PC party will have at least one.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hola! Es el chupacabra!

A few days ago, the excellent Noisms posted an interesting challenge on his blog. Take 2d6 randomly-selected creatures from a bestiary of your choice (randomized with real randomy randomness), assume they're intelligent, and build a campaign world where they're the dominant races. Let's do just that.

I get 10 creatures. Whoo.

My chosen bestiary? The Penumbra Fantasy Bestiary, published in 2003 by Atlas Games. This is a solid and worthwhile choice for several reasons: it's got a robust array of inhabitants; it's one of only two bestiaries I own; most importantly, I wrote a little of it. (One of Noisms's commenters used Borges, which is an awesome idea.)

The lucky contestants:
Njuzu: "A particularly intelligent and territorial race of aquatic elemental creatures." Shapeshifters and critter-controllers.

Kr'awn: "A race of horrible beings resembling a patchwork of humanoid and salamander... all are twisted and deformed." Many have a mutation of dubious value; a few subraces w/powers exist.

Poukai: "An enormous man-eating bird resembling a toucan." Ten feet tall and possessed of a bloodcurdling screech.

Ice Lion: "Fearsome elemental predators... the embodiment of the killing cold of the winter tundra." Big mean kitty with cold powers.

Makara: "Both types of makara [crocodile and shark] have the ability to transform their upper bodies into illusions of other creatures, in hopes of luring victims into the water where they can attack." A water theme is shaping up here...

Dryad: Two new subraces, one for wicked earth dryads (itnala) and another for hardened warriors who outlived their trees (shethala)
Chupacabra: "The elusive 'goat suckers'... they resemble large, long-snouted dogs with big eyes, needle-like claws, and large bat wings." I could not be happier.

Hive Spider, Juvenile: "Once the hive spider has entered the body, it devours the brain matter and creates a nest. It then takes control of the body..." which later becomes a grotesque spider-headed monstrosity. Makes me think of Dax from DS9 gone horribly wrong (or horribly right?).

War Dragon: Moderately intelligent dragons used as servants or partners by warlike humans. My favorite part is the breath weapon -- a war dragon just vomits the rocky contents of its gizzard at you.

Celenian: "A race that looks much like a werewolf in its hybrid form... celenians often are to be found stalking and killing members of evil races." Kind of a blah creature to end on, although some of the moon mythology in the entry is interesting.

My only regret is that my race, the victim-flaying skin-wearing xipitotec, didn't get rolled up. Now to see if I can make some kind of a campaign out of this mess.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pretend, damn you!

In case you're interested, a couple folks have written short essays about RPGs and pretending. They're worth checking out.

This is what Monte Cook says about pretending. He's one of the Big Dudes in RPG design -- co-wrote 3e D&D, lead designer on 5e -- so his thoughts could shape the hobby for years to come. The takeaway quote:

"It's honestly one of the biggest barriers to more people playing the game, but it's something we seem to talk about only occasionally. We talk about making the rules simpler, the game more fun, or the books more accessible, but we probably don't spend a lot of time talking about how most people (again, over the age of about 12) don't know how to pretend."

This is what the AV Club says about pretending. The writer, Todd VanDerWerff, is apparently doing a series on exposing himself to "nerd culture," a label that fails to fill me with joy. Making a set of goofy hobbies into a shared culture/lifestyle has consequences... that's for another day. Here's the takeaway quote about his paladin Lenore considering giving up her alignment to receive her freedom from a lich:

"It’s possible, I realize, to put myself in two different places. Todd thinks it would be cool to see what happened if she turns evil. Lenore knows she’d never take that deal. And in that instant, I can see what this whole role-playing thing is about, why it holds so many in its expensive thrall: For an instant, you aren’t seeing with your eyes. You’re seeing with someone else’s eyes. And it’s intoxicating."

Both essays skew toward pretending-as-playing-a-character, which happens to be exactly what I like. But there are other common kinds of pretend: exploring imaginary environments, making stuff up and watching it instantly become narrative canon, etc. I've argued before that this is what sets RPGs apart from other pastimes. There, I called it "simulation" since I was using GNS theory as a reference point. A better term, perhaps, would be "emulation." Roleplaying excels at letting you Feel Like X for almost any value of X.

I've roleplayed with a handful of people who didn't like to pretend. Not just that they were uncomfortable or inexperienced; they honestly didn't enjoy doing it. They were, without exception, the dullest players I've ever known. Dunno why they even got into the hobby if they were just going to treat it as a boardgame.

Maybe that's the audience for the new Battleship movie.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Escape From White Plume Mountain

For absolutely no reason, I was thinking about White Plume Mountain this morning. Alert readers will recall that I'm not a fan of this D&D module. It scratches an itch that I don't have. Perhaps you love it. That's cool.

What I was thinking about this morning was one of the fundamental flaws in this type of adventure. It's something that doesn't seem to be discussed by The Great RPG Thinkers, but it's a crucial omission that's common to funhouse dungeons like White Plume Mountain. What do all these critters eat?

"But Matt," you may say, "a wizard did it! The place is sustained by magic! Please suspend your disbelief at the door as you descend into a labyrinth of subconscious terror and..." by now I'm already rapping on the table to interrupt you.

We can debate the relative merits of "a wizard did it" another day. That ain't the problem here. Ditto for the fatal blow that this kind of dungeon strikes against one's sense of verisimilitude. The problem is that if the monsters don't have a food source, I can't exploit it. By detaching White Plume Mountain's inhabitants from such day-to-day concerns as what they eat and where they sleep and how they spend their time when they aren't waiting for some moron to wander into the mountain, the module deprives me of several promising lines of attack.

Anyone who's played Cyberpunk or Shadowrun knows that, in order to get into The Secure Location, you dress as a delivery guy. Who's the delivery guy for White Plume Mountain? Beating him up and taking his place would be an awesome adventure. I'm sure a competent GM could work that out on the fly. But a competent module-writer could also have included a few sentences about it, saving us some trouble when our players have a brilliant idea like that, and also getting paid more on a per-word basis. Exploiting the real-world-ish behaviors of fantastic critters is a promising line of thought.

EDIT: I know some people who worked with White Plume Mountain's author, Lawrence Schick. He is, in fact, a very competent designer and writer. But I still think the module needs some background logistical stuff. Maybe 250 words of it; at 2 cents/word, that's another $5 for Lawrence right there.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Return of the DMG

We continue our quest to see what common ground, and what grounds for divorce, can be found between me and the esteemed Gary Gygax. I think we're up to...

P. 75 -- Out of nowhere, a herd of combat-matrix charts thunders across the middle of the book! In its midst are a couple that deal with psionics. I don't have a lot to say about the specifics of AD&D's take on psychic powers. I do say, when running a D&D game, that psychics aren't allowed. Unless you're my friend Kevin, who really likes psionic characters, and also happens to be my wife's brother, so I have a vested interest in Kevin's ongoing happiness. Yours? Not so much.

It's not that the system is bad per se, or that it lacks balance or anything like that.* The problem is that psionics feel wrong when stacked up against Vancian wizards and fightin' clerics. You can find some thematic and mechanical overlap with the latter two's spells-per-day, the need for rest, the idea of bargains with powerful inhuman entities... and then along comes this weird sci-fi-ish point-based system that, when next to those guys, is screaming "I'M AN OPTIONAL GAME MECHANIC! LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!"

What would be cool? A D&D game that only uses psionics for magic. No arcane, no divine. I think you'd get a bloodier version of the Deryni Chronicles. Someone should do that.

P. 80 -- Around 1979, there was enough debate about saving throws that Gary spent 7 paragraphs justifying and defending them. I wonder how much of this was necessary, and how much was an excuse to say "personae" a few times?

P. 81 -- Certain tubby lycanthropes have all the luck.You'll have to wonder how.

P. 82 -- Another extended defense of hit points. I grasp -- and even like -- the idea that characters have some resistance to damage beyond a small pool of points based on Constitution or its equivalent, whether it be luck or divine favor or the reflexes won by hard experience. This particular mechanic isn't how I'd do it, but people of goodwill can differ. What strikes me today is this sentence about an example 10th-level fighter: "It will require a long period of rest and recuperation to regain the physical and metaphysical peak of 95 hit points."

When's the last time you saw a high-level D&D character have a long period of rest and recuperation? You never have. That's not how the game has evolved. A pity. I think hit points, character mortality, healing magic, and several other things would work better and be more fun if we viewed hit points as a privilege rather than a right.

P. 83 -- I'm trying to skim for a sample every few pages, but this has been a rich vein. Now we've got a 20-item list of different insanities that can affect your character. It's almost devoid of game-specific mechanics and it's not using a current version of the DSM-IV -- so it's perfect for that Call of Cthulhu game you've been wanting to run.

P. 84 -- People who whined and moaned about how complicated CR was in 3e had clearly never read Unca Gary's advice on calculating XP.

P. 90 -- "The 'reality' AD&D seeks to create through role playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric, and their ilk."

Kothar? I know most of the biggies. I collect many of these writers. Who the devil is Kothar?

Also, good luck trying to play Conan or the Mouser or Elric in old D&D.**

P. 92 -- "Another nadir of Dungeon Mastering is the 'killer-dungeon' concept. These campaigns are a travesty of the role-playing adventure game, for there is no development and identification with carefully nurtured player personae." Historically, I suspect this advice has been honored more in the breach than anywhere else. Also, if you're playing the Gygax-said-personae drinking game, do another shot now.

P. 94 -- A brief section on peasants, serfs, and slaves is followed immediately by a sample dungeon. The lack of transitions, whether text or layout, is like drifting onto a rumble strip. I'm awake now.

Sample map with 38 chambers, in the traditional D&D style that my wife describes as "drunken dwarvish architecture." Map key. Very detailed writeups of 3 chambers followed by an (Etc.). Quick rules on movement, detecting stuff, doors, concealed doors, secret doors -- there's a door fetish here -- and then we launch into an archetypal extended play example. I've seen this one elsewhere, I think; it's some kind of abandoned sunken monastery. In this version, the bulk of the dialogue is between the DM and a "Lead Character." Odd, to the modern reader, who is perhaps accustomed to allowing everyone to address the GM as desired.

It's a pretty good play example. Not my kind of gameplay, I can tell, but it lays out the writer's expectations very clearly. I've always hated it. The content and structure are fine, but then we have the bit on page 100. Our sample gnome is above everyone else when he discovers a secret opening. As it opens, he fails a surprise roll, gets bushwhacked by a quartet of ghouls, is paralyzed, and then by GM fiat, he's just eaten. End of the game, gnomey! Hope you weren't having fun!

This always takes me back to age 9 and my first roleplaying experience. It was some form of D&D, maybe even this one. What I remember most is how excited I was when I got home, rattling on and on to my bemused mother about how great my character was and all the things I was going to do and all the things I was going to make and all the wonderful plans I had now. Why kill that? Why take away the character? All our gnome did was have a clever idea about how to open a secret door. It seems kinda shameful to just throw a pack of ghouls at him and turn him into gnome-kebab because he failed one unexpected saving throw.

...well, I can see several pages of charts about NPC character traits coming up. Good time for a breather.

* I haven't played/run with enough D&D psionicists to be sure, but my spider-sense tells me that this system is unbalanced in every version of the game I've encountered.
** On the one hand, yeah, you can house-rule that stuff in. On the other hand, if I have to house-rule the cool stuff, why buy someone else's game in the first place?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ballad of Johnny Ace

Today I tell you the story of Johnny Ace. It's a cautionary tale going waaaay back to the early 1990s and the second-ever Cyberpunk 2020 game run by yours truly. Every new Cyberpunk player at my table hears this story their first session, so that they understand what kind of game they're playing.

In my first-ever game, the three PCs were an unstoppable wrecking crew. I wanted to challenge them. So the Viking-themed drugrunners they were fighting brought in an ace -- Johnny Ace. He was an NPC Solo (the game's best combat class) built with regular PC rules. And I rolled him up with the best Cyberpunk rolls I've ever made in my life. He was an Olympic athlete, a genius, a man whose core humanity was so deep that he could have ridiculous amounts of cyberware without any risk of cyberpsychosis. No cheating on my part; he was just that good. And during the climactic firefight (there was always a climactic firefight in those days) he was going to round a corner and teach the PCs the meaning of fear...

The firefight starts. Our PCs are pushing back the Viking gang. Some kind of signal is given, and around the corner comes the infamous hired gun Johnny Ace, bristling with weapons and moving at top speed to plow through the surprised PCs. Initiative is rolled. One PC beats Johnny. A gun is aimed, fired, the bullet hits Johnny in the head, plows through his top-quality armor, drops him dead on the spot. No way to escape it. The best Cyberpunk character I ever committed to paper, and he didn't survive long enough to take a single action.

"That," I tell my new Cyberpunk players, "is what can happen to you in this game. You have been warned."

Some sentences just show up, demanding to be written. Sentences like my first response to Untimately's question #2:

"2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely. If your character dies, either you wanted it or you're an idiot. Trust me; you'll have plenty of other losses along the way."

My second question #11 gets at the same thing. There are some contexts where the specter of sudden death is part of the fun, like Cyberpunk or Call Of Cthulhu. It creates certain expectations that player and GM alike can do neat stuff with. But I think it's a bad default for RPGs in general. My Mattifesto series got into this at some length. Apparently I also shoot from the hip on it. For most games, I think, instant unearned death is not-fun, that mysterious substance that reduces the amount of fun available. Other bad things are fine, but your PC is someone you presumably wanted to play. The GM, who controls all other things in the game world, should let you have that PC until you're tired of it.

Sadly for Johnny Ace, I don't extend that security blanket to Cyberpunk. And he was an NPC anyway. Rest in pieces, Johnny.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lists are fun

Courtesy of the oft-delightful Jeff's Gameblog, I found this list of 20 questions from Brendan at Untimately (proper name? place name? enigmatic blog name? I dunno). I'm still chiseling away at the shape of Mind Shrike and I'm not in the right frame of mind for another DMG trawl, so let's answer some questions.

You're even getting bonus answers. Now how much would you pay?

1. Ability scores generation method? -- 4d6, drop lowest, any order
2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely. If your character dies, either you wanted it or you're an idiot. Trust me; you'll have plenty of other losses along the way.
3. What about raising the dead? -- Nope. Dead is dead. To do otherwise cheapens it.
4. How are replacement PCs handled? -- Worked into the story or character backgrounds if possible.
5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else? -- Varies from day to day. Individual most of the time.
6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? -- Double damage on a natural 20, or maybe double max damage. On a natural 1, I reserve the right to do anything I damn well please; the exercise of that right is capricious.
7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? -- Now you're stylish. Otherwise, no.
8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? -- Yep.
9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? -- I, like the God of an endless stream of needlepoints and puffy sweaters, will not burden you with more than you can handle. And I assume you can handle anything I can think of.
10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no? -- Yes, but rare for the same reason death is.
11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? -- Almost never.
12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? -- Not. Unless the point of a given session is resource management. It's not a sub-game that intrigues me very often. I will make an exception for arrows, as ranged fighters can dominate battlefields too easily.
13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? -- End of the adventure. Happens automatically. Don't waste game time with leveling-up questions, but we can hang around afterward for as long as it takes to fine-tune your PC. I dig it when you dig your character.
14. What do I get experience for? -- Showing up. Amusing me. A proportional share of the approximate rulebook XP value of the obstacles you overcame; I'll count "bluffing the duke" and suchlike as obstacles.
15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? -- Dice rolling. Traps = Ugh. Unless you're one of those players who ABSOLUTELY LOVES the fiddly bits of realistic trapfinding. Then I'll accommodate you once or twice every session or two.
16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? -- Mildly encouraged. Morale's an arbitrary dice roll when I remember that they might get scared, or a reflection of the personality we've established for them, depending on what seems fun at that moment.
17. How do I identify magic items? -- With magic spells or bardic knowledge. Not by testing and fiddling around and all that crap from a roguelike computer game. Life's too short.
18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? -- Yeah, you can buy generic ones and low-level doodads. From someone who makes them, and who you persuade to do business with you. There's not a Wal-Mart Of Magic handy. You're gonna have to roleplay this one, pardner.
19. Can I create magic items? When and how? -- You can. Find an NPC who knows how, and persuade them to tell you what they know.
20. What about splitting the party? -- Don't make a habit of it. You're boring everyone else.

Many of those questions presume a D&Dish experience, which is fine if that's all you play. My bookshelf, however, groans beneath the weight of other systems. So here are a few answers that apply to any system I'm running...

1. Ability scores generation method? -- Whatever it says in the rulebook. I'll err on the side of generosity up front; I can find plenty of ways to whittle your advantage away later on if I need to.
2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely, as above. Other losses abound, as above.
4. How are replacement PCs handled? -- Case by case. I encourage players to connect their PC to the Story So Far, but it's not required. If you like your new PC, we'll work it in within the next 20 minutes somehow.
6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? -- Not unless the rules call for it. And that, now that I think about it, is a shame. I'll have to fix that..
9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? -- You're much more clever, collectively, than I can ever be. I won't put anything that's guaranteed lethal in your path, but even if I do, you'll probably beat it in 1d4 rounds.
11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? -- Nope. If we're gonna do that, why not just set our rulebooks on fire right now and go find a new pastime?
14. What do I get experience for? -- Being fun. Having fun. Making me laugh. Shocking me into silence with your cunning. I'll reward "we had a better time because of you" more than "you effectively used your numbered piece of paper to overcome my numbered pieces of paper.".
16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? -- If you can put up with one or two GM NPCs hanging around, it'll make me happy. If not, they'll leave.
20. What about splitting the party? -- That's a terrible idea. Now everyone's texting or playing Magic or something while you're doing your own thing. If you want a solo adventure, we can set one up later.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Gentlemen -- BEHOLD!

Many years ago I collaborated with Keith "Eberron" Baker and Neal "He's good, but unfortunately you probably haven't heard of him" Gamache on a book called The Complete Guide to Beholders. This was before Eberron, when we just called him Keith "Daddy Smackdown The Hammer" Baker. Ask him sometime.

Anyway, I was thumbing through one of my comp copies last night. Keith wrote most of it and Neal wrote most of the rest; perhaps my longest single contribution was Chapter 7: Beholder Architecture.

I don't like maps and I don't much use battlemats and I don't like 4e D&D because of the emphasis on Specific Physical Locations. But I can write 9 straight pages of descriptive text about different kinds of beholder lairs -- how they're laid out, how they're used, what they mean. That says something about the kind of roleplayer I am. Dunno what, but something.

Luckily, someone who can do cartography made some nice maps based on my descriptions. I'l credit them by name next time I have the book handy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Time to dust off the NES

Way back in the day I played a lot of Legend Of Zelda. I mean a lot, and I mean the first one. Found some swords, set some trees on fire, cursed that damned Wizzrobe time and time again. One of my prized possessions is a hand-drawn map my brother made of Zelda's second world, done to a scale of 1 screen = 1 page of loose-leaf notebook paper, with every tree and rock drawn and colored by hand.

That makes me the target audience for this essay by Tevis Thompson, which looks at how the Zelda series has changed and how he'd like it to change back. The main thrust of his piece -- and the part that might interest roleplayers -- is that Zelda used to be about exploration and now it's about story. In terms that resonate right now, Tevis says the old games were a sandbox and the newer ones are a railroad.

I think he's right. I'm not an expert on modern Zelda, but as much as I enjoyed Ocarina of Time, it did fence me out of much of the world until I passed some predetermined thresholds. In original Z, I could wander all over the place to tangle with monsters way outside my weight class. I could explore dungeons out of order. The only narrative drive was "there's a Bad Thing and you have to get some stuff from these places to stop it."

His thoughts on the relative merits of exploration vs. story are worth checking out. I don't know whether they'll change any minds, but they do cast these different types of gameplay into sharp relief, and Tevis's points mirror some of the things I've seen in the old-school-D&D community. I don't entirely agree with his preferences; sometimes I want freeform exploration, but other times I really enjoy experiencing a directed story. Either way, though, it's a good read -- thoughtful and detailed and dancing on the edge of academic without quite falling in.

But there is one major difference between Zelda games and RPGs, and this gets to the heart of my problem with a total exploration model. If Link dies, he pops back into play with his gear and his history intact; his story continues. The player is mildly set back, but they still get to be Link. In a typical RPG, if my character dies, I have to discard everything I enjoyed about him (or her) and start from scratch. I don't get to keep being the dude I wanted to be. Maybe it wouldn't matter if I was someone who just played himself-with-a-funny-hat every time. I'm not. Some of my favorite roleplayers do that -- I even married one -- but I like being a character. Total freeform sandbox exploration would be more satisfying to me if it had a Zelda-style character reset. I enjoy that a lot more than a character meatgrinder. Can it be done? Has it been done already?

(I should credit Penny Arcade for pointing me to the essay. PA is an essential read.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I always wanted to ride a griffin. Or a gryphon.

Let's continue DMG-crawling.

P. 49 -- The rules for aerial combat take 3 pages, including a creature-by-creature breakdown of how different monsters fight when airborne. You can see D&D's wargame roots showing. It might be fun to combine these with my old copy of Dawn Patrol.

P. 55 -- I appreciate the attention that underwater adventures get here. Back in the day, I was designing an all-underwater 3e game, and this material would have been handy. It doesn't grapple with the problems of fire or metalwork, but there probably weren't many AD&D characters trying to build strongholds at the bottom of the ocean. On page 56 there's a reference to "the great air-filled domes of Atlantis." I'd love to know if that ever got written up.

P. 59 -- Probably my favorite illustration in the book. Nice work, Darlene.

It's a Viking ship, but he's no Bergman character.

P. 61 -- Now we're talking combat. This, as Tolkien said, needs a week's answer or none.

It's clear that the sense of time was very different in the early days of RPGs. Each combat round here lasts for 1 minute, instead of the standard 5-6 seconds in most of the games I know. When we combine this with the rules and rationale for hit points at higher character levels, it means that a brutal throwdown could take hours in the game world. That's an interesting stylistic choice, and one with some precedent in literature; I think of some of the minor Arthurian knights, like Bors and Ban, who were always bumping into each other and then battling for days at a time without landing any grievous blows. Still, I like fast combat rounds, since that's how most fights seem to go in real life. And also on Spike TV's Deadliest Warrior.

Also, we don't have the Weapon Speed table here (I've never owned a pre-2e PHB). I've seen it, and I think David Morgan-Mar captured it correctly here:

If you want weapon size to affect initiative in your roll-a-d6 system, why not just say that a hand-and-a-half weapon, or a weapon-and-heavy-shield combo, gives your character a -1 penalty while a two-handed weapon is a -2? Much cleaner.

P. 63 -- "It is common for player characters to attack first, parley afterwards. It is recommended that you devise encounters which penalize such action so as to encourage parleying attempts -- which will usually be fruitless, of course!" Aha ha ha! Excuse me as I wipe away a tear of helpless laughter. Or wait, are you serious here? Neither answer is encouraging.

P. 71 -- We have an extended example of melee combat here. It's middlin' as examples go, but it does contain a couple of the best character names in sword-n-sorcery history: Gutboy Barrelhouse and Aggro The Axe. Those names tell you everything you need to know about the characters attached.

P. 72 -- Pummeling and grappling have apparently been a bane to the hobby since the early days. Some things don't need to be realistically modeled.

Some good stuff, some bad stuff, some weird stuff. About par for the course so far -- and about par for the course in any RPG book. Coming soon -- psionics.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mind Shrike mania

A few days ago I dug through my Blue Folder Of Miscellany and found a list of randomly-generated supervillains. I thought I'd take one and run it through a few different superhero RPGs to see what happened. Here's how the first couple turned out.

This is one of my very favorite RPGs, and the first one I played regularly. You can trace a lot of my preferences back to his game if you're the kind of person who enjoys doing that. So what happens when we create a character to match one of the names from that list?

First, we almost got Cyberbarbarian. Marvel has a random character generator with a surprising amount of flexibility, and the first guy I rolled up could easily have had magnetic powers and a throwing knife... but having spent years playing Marvel, I remember that one of their sample characters had that exact power set. Boring. Plus this character had an Endurance stat of Feeble -- he fought and jumped around like Spider-Man, but he moved like Aunt May. That's Marvel for you.

Attempt #2 was more successful. With very little work, I put together a passable Mind Shrike (with flight and psychic mind-numbing):

F - Good
A - Good
S - Good
E - Good
R - Remarkable
I - Remarkable
P - Typical

Flight - Remarkable (around 120 mph)
Lightning Speed - Excellent (applied to Flight; that's a rule I never used before)
Paralyzing Touch - Typical

Talents - Martial Arts B; Engineering; Law
Contacts - NeuroTech Incorporated (tech company); Daggerbeard (nu-metal band)

This version of Mind Shrike came together in around 5 minutes. He's a lightweight -- weak physical stats, no offensive power worth noting, but a decent flyer with some good skills. As a lawyer with nonlethal powers, I'd  probably use him as a comic relief character. He could probably skirt the edge of "crime," since all he does is use his gauntlets to momentarily shut down people's gross motor functions. The band contact was free-associated from Mind Shrike - Operation MindCrime - Queensryche. I think this Mind Shrike is a good illustration of MSH as a system. I made him fast, had to stretch logic to connect him together, and he's more interesting than he is useful. I could drop him into any Marvel game I've ever played and he'd fit. I can already see a comic subplot where he competes with the lethal-yet-generic Killer Shrike to see who gets to use the Shrike name.

I think this is the second edition that Mayfair Games published. It got played for a while, back in the day, but it never lasted. Could be wrong, but I think it's the only notable RPG that was based on logarithms. Point-based where Marvel is random, detailed where Marvel is sketchy. DC is a game with a universal measurement system that tries to tie strength, duration, power level, distance, citrus flavor, and everything else into the same numeric scale. Not a bad game, and it has a few neat rules, but I'm not likely to dust it off for much. Here's how Mind Shrike turned out in DC.

Dex 7   Str 3   Bod 4
Int 8   Will 3   Mind 6
Infl 4   Aura 5   Sprit 4

Flight 8 (around 225 mph)
Sensory Block 6 (w/the Area Effect advantage)

Skills - Occultist 5
Wealth 5
Hero Pts 25

I built him on 450 Hero Points, the suggested starting total for a new PC hero. It took a long time, with a lot of page flipping and occasional consulting of other books, since this version of DC has character generation rules in a different book than rules on its unified measurement chart and a few other things I wanted to see. This Mind Shrike is... eh. Some kind of person with some kind of magic-derived powers that let him fly and black out all of your senses. I'm not nearly as interested in this one as in the first one. He doesn't have enough hooks to hang a character on. I suppose I could have given him some drawbacks or something, but after 45 minutes of chart consultation, I was done with him. that's two Mind Shrikes down. A few more are waiting in the wings.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Since I know...

...that literally half of my current followers like Cyberpunk, I should draw your attention to this here post at Monsters And Manuals. The proprieter thereof is breaking down how he organizes his Cyberpunk sandbox. Looks like it'll be a good read.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Note: Contains similies

In my experience -- a dangerous way to begin, but safer than feigning someone else's experience -- a group of players want to do one thing: everything.

It could be that each group has a fixed number of ideas, regardless of size, so no matter how many mouths are moving 12 ideas come out in response to every situation. A GM has to wrangle these ideas and these players. Like butterflies, they light on every surface and then flitter away. Poetry, but with battleaxes and cybernetic arms. To encounter an in-game situation with any reasonably conscious group of players is to drink from the firehose of inspiration.

Someone called Daztur has written a long, cogent, useful analysis of two different ways that roleplayers handle combat. Using concepts drawn from MMO players, Daztur posits "combat as sport" vs. "combat as war." Go read it if you need those defined. Useful concepts, these. They explain a lot about different perspectives on The Right Way To Play and also What Fun Really Is. And they fall short of the mark.

Players have ideas. Lots and lots and lots of them. Players think different things are fun, lots and lots of things. Often a group of players will be gnawing on both the Sports approach and the War approach to deal with a challenge. Often a single player will argue in favor of both during the same sentence. All it takes is the flap of a butterfly's wings to tip the decision in one direction or the other -- or both, or something else, as players are an infinitely creative lot.

That's the problem with Daztur's analysis, cogency aside, and with a lot of the discussion surrounding it. A group of people who automatically default to one approach or t'other sounds like a group that's, well, kinda boring. If you're always turning your environment into a weapon, you're neglecting your character. If you're only using your character's abilities, you're missing out on the world. Or so I'd guess. In my experience, players don't settle on one approach for long, and GMs shouldn't assume otherwise.

Friday, February 3, 2012

You continue to ask...

...we continue to answer. Barking Alien wonders:

1) What is the most common type of environment or terrain encountered thus far in your current or most recent campaign?

The grim, craggy wilderness of an alternate 17th-century New England.

2) What is the most exotic or unusual environment or terrain encountered thus far in your current or most recent campaign?

The long-forgotten tunnels carved beneath alternate New England to serve as a subterranean funeral pyramid/abomination breeding ground by the not-as-extinct-as-you'd-hope Neanterthals. Who are, themselves, fleeing in the face of attacks by eerily sentient Jurassic Park-style raptors. I'm not much of an "environment" guy -- I'm more interested in "antagonists."

3) What environment or terrain type have you never used but always wanted to? Why haven't you?

Hmmm. See above. I usually struggle to think of any interesting environments/terrains to include; my mind doesn't naturally bend that way.

4) Do you have a combat rule or mechanic from another game system you are using in the game system you currently play, played recently or generally play?

For many years, and in many systems, I've awarded Extra Credit Points. If you amuse me, or you do something improbable but brilliant, or if you do something fascinating in character, I'll give you Extra Credit. You can randomly redeem these for various small benefits (combat modifiers, skill bonuses, equipment you "just remembered," etc.)

5) In your opinion, what genre has received too little attention in regards to RPGs based on that subject?

Paramilitary spy heroics. A good game about GI Joe could make a pile of money and draw a heap of fans.

6) If a quality RPG on the aforementioned neglected genre came out tomorrow, what would make you buy it? What would prevent you from buying it?

Not much would make me buy it. I have kids and an uncompleted master's thesis to support, so paying to acquire new RPG stuff is low low low on my priority list. I'd rather just design parts of it in my spare time, then give up and do something else.

7) Do you find it easier to learn the rules of a game by reading the rule book or by sitting down and just playing it?

I can't do one without the other. I learn best by reading while doing, especially if someone's also explaining.

8) Name a currently available artist not normally associated with RPGs who you'd love to see do some RPG work.

My brother-in-law. You probably haven't heard of him, and I don't know that he's available. His stuff is usually what I picture when I'm writing RPG content.

9) What one book, movie, video, etc. that is not an RPG that you think should be.

I already said GI Joe, so that doesn't count. Someone already did Thundarr, someone made a tabletop Fallout conversion... got it. Dune.

10) Can you think of an RPG you've run or played in which the GM (be it you or someone else) used/referenced non-game related books to run the campaign more often then game related books?

Oh, yeah. My old group dipped into MERP sometimes, and the two of us who GM'd were the two biggest Tolkien geeks you were ever likely to meet. If we included movies, I'd say the same thing about Star Wars.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

From the blue folder

Huh. Looks like a list of random supervillains from some long-forgotten online random character generator. Who do we have here?

Stone Apocalypse -- super strength, body duplication, carries an Air Axe
Cyberbarbarian -- magnetism, time travel, and an Adamantium Knife
Blood Flame, wielder of the sinister Mind Whip
Mind Shrike -- psychic mind-numbing, flight -- is this really random?
Future Devil, with his (her?) Seventh Sense and a bunch of Gadgets
General Sorcerer -- body transformation, immortality, and a sideline in Ancient Lore
Fly Inferno, a weapon master with a Trick Staff and the power of meditation
Princessmeister -- animal control, hypnosis, willpower. I bet she's 7 years old.
Killer Reaper -- another weapon master, but he wields the Psychohammer
Emerald Blitzkrieg doesn't do anything interesting, but I enjoy the name
Living Imp -- someone else with Gadgets, plus body duplication
Patchwork Pharaoh is another fun name
Nightblood has gotta be a mutant, probably from the mid-90s, covered in pouches and bandoliers.
Z-Gladiator -- psychic, superhuman hand-eye coordination, superhuman throwing
The grim Green Jackal -- intuition, technology powers, and Gas Armor

It wouldn't take much to clean up Cyberbarbarian, Blood Flame, Mind Shrike, Future Devil, Fly Inferno, Living Imp, or Z-Gladiator for company. And I'm having fun figuring out how the Psychohammer works, or what the Gas Armor does.