Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I am the Great Class Apostate. I don't like character classes -- I think they make RPGs demonstrably worse. I have a couple decades of play/GM experience backing me up, along with a track record of successful D&D class design, so I speak with some knowledge. And I'm badly outnumbered.

The upcoming D&D 5e will have character classes. That's one of the few things we know for sure. Nobody but me (and a handful of Google+ strangers) seems to mind. So be it. Rather than fight about it right now, I thought I'd try to do something useful. Here's a handy taxomony that answers the question: What do we talk about when we talk about "character classes"?

We're talking about the mechanical way(s) that a player is allowed to build a character, and the mechanical way(s) that a character is allowed to evolve over time. This sometimes overlaps with "race," especially in D&D and its immediate cousins. The difference is that race is generally a one-time set of modifiers applied during creation, while classes continue to direct the character's mechanical development. We're talking about this:

1) Class Systems: These lock a character into a set of game-specific mechanics that direct their interaction with their environments. D&D is the classic example, especially the earliest versions and 4e. You get a little flexibility with 3e's easy multiclassing and numerous prestige classes. Another once-popular game with a class system was Vampire: The Masquerade. Its clans look like races at first, but your clan choice dictates a great deal of your mechanical development.

2) Freeform Systems: These are the opposite of class systems; they allow characters to advance mechanically in whatever direction the player wishes. Freeform systems are often point-based, at least for character advancement. The most freeform system I can think of is Champions. Another excellent example (and my other favorite superhero game) is the FASERIP system for the old Marvel Super Heroes game.

3) Career Systems: Common to skill-based games, the career system encourages characters to follow paths by rewarding them for successful attempts at Doing Stuff or having them emphasize particular kinds of Stuff-Doing. A great example is Call of Cthulhu. Another one is the Fallout RPG series, with its Tag Skills (a mechanic that I'm surprised more games don't use). Yet a third is the original form of Paranoia.

4) Template Systems: They look like class systems on the surface, but they're freeform underneath. In a template system, you're offered several 'sample' characters with easy paths to follow. However, if you want to veer off the beaten track and manipulate the mechanics to your liking, the game won't stop you. West End's Star Wars does it just like that, with its ~15 model characters built on a super-easy system. Another system such game is 7th Sea. And Cyberpunk almost gets there. If you follow my lead on how I hack it, you can easily turn the game into a Role-free template-based experience.

Of them all, I think template systems are the way to go. They allow people like me to make whatever the heck we want, and people like [whatever you people are like] to stay within the security of predetermined roles. Did I miss anything?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Trauma, with footnotes

Back to 1997, and forward to the technoir future.

I'm a big fan of Cyberpunk 2020.* Someday we should talk about Why Johnny Ace Can't Read. Right now, check out this 14-year-old webpage. Marvel at how it's still around. Enjoy the amazing level of detail that someone poured into this. Think about what a group of enterprising PCs could do if they had access to a fully-equipped Trauma Team AV-4 for just one evening...

They could get hired to extract Achmed Goldman (former intelligence agent for both Mossad and an unspecified Arab nation**). He could have accepted a 6-month contract to work inside a totally locked-down arcology, and that contract could have expired several months ago. The PCs could know a sketchy fixer offering them $10,000 each COD, plus whatever they walk out with, if they brought Goldman out alive. Could be that there's a catch -- the only way in is a false flag operation, disguised as a Trauma Team team, and it has to happen at 9 PM tomorrow.***

It could also be that the PCs barely know how to fly an AV-4, that Goldman has been moved to a different location, that someone else will flag the team down for emergency first aid, and that REO Meatwagon**** will bushwhack them in midair to try and steal their "patient."

Could even be that 2/3 of the PC party***** will develop a crush on a random NPC and generate a whole new set of adventures.

But I don't need to tell you all of this. You can look at this jewel of a page and figure something out for yourself.

*This game alone guarantees designer Mike Pondsmith a place in the RPG Hall Of Fame, to say nothing of the fact that he also created Castle Falkenstein and Mekton. Dude has chops.

**One player was the kind of guy who'd think this detail meant that either Goldman was a total badass or that he was a total con man. I watched him decide where he came down on that question and had Goldman match it. Turns out to be a pretty good trick for wrangling NPCs.

***The arbitrary deadline helped a lot. Players will plan everything to death, and then plan the funeral, unless there's a clock ticking.

****Best stupid organization name ever.

*****Including my wife.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Time to visit Gary Gygax's home turf

I won a copy of the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE (a result of some stuff I made up, courtesy of Swords & Dorkery). Is the redoubtable Jeff Gameblog Rients right when he calls it "one of the great texts of the hobby?"

...I think the answer depends on whether you grew up reading it. I didn't. The most formative text for my GMing style is the first edition of West End's Star Wars RPG. I never owned a DMG before 3e came out. Maybe I'll tell the story of how I got my first DMG, or how I ran a 2e campaign for many years without one, but not just yet. I'm a historian by training, and Jeff's right that this book had a huge influence on everything that followed, so let's see what we find inside. This may take a while.

Right off the bat, we have a Jeff Easley cover showing some hooded guy opening double doors from inside while a horde of sketchy little demonoids swarm behind him. So we're dealing with a reprint. The earliest versions of this book had a different image by a different artist -- some adventurers, an efreet which is easily mistaken for a demon, the fabled City Of Brass. People have all kinds of opinions about the visual arts, and the moody/expressionistic/amateurish/whatever-you-call-it style of very old D&D has strong adherents. I prefer Easley's technique and composition, although thematically the original cover comes out ahead.

Enough about that. Here are some words...

P. 8 -- Gary Gygax thanks a bunch of people in his foreword. Most of them are names you'd recognize if you know the wayback history of D&D, but one is Jack Vance. Did he actually play D&D? That would be the best thing ever in all possible worlds, except in Vance's own The Dragon Masters.

P. 9 -- "...at adventure's end you will secretly note any player character movement on the alignment graph." No I won't.

"The fun of the game is action and drama. The challenge of problem solving is secondary. Long and drawn out operations by the referee irritate the players." Uncle Gary is right on the money here. A great deal of GMing advice boils down to these 3 sentences. I'd reprint them in bold 150-point type on the first page.

P. 11 -- Lookee here: it's different methods of generating ability scores. Even back in 1979, people wanted to roll 4d6, keep the best 3, and assign them as desired.

Just below that is a section on using wishes to increase ability scores. Apparently if the stat in question is 16 or higher, each wish will only increase it by one-tenth of a point. Gygax's players got a lot more wishes than I ever did.

P. 12 -- Our first random chart, and far from our last. I've held every opinion it's possible to hold on random charts. These days, I love them. I could get a lot of use out of the Secondary Skills Table.

P. 13 -- But we can take it much too far. The chart for random chances of contracting disease is definitely more detailed than most games would need. And the subsequent chart -- chances of random parasitic infestation -- makes me wonder exactly what the folks in Lake Geneva thought of as "fun." And, my God, the whole next page is for determining which part of the body has a disease/parasite, and the subsequent effects thereof. Didn't we just get a whole speech about how D&D is Yes To Game And No To Realism back on page 9?

P. 16 -- Here's another gem that gets left behind in most modern RPGs: rules for (and lists of) followers that high-level characters will acquire. I'd forgotten about the whole high-level-PC-gets-stronghold system in early versions of D&D. That appeals to me much more than excursions to the Astral Plane or wherever.

P. 21 -- Monster PCs, and why you don't get to have them. I think this rationale is weak. Although it's true that much of the fantasy and folklore D&D draws from is human-centric, that's a correlation rather than a causation. And saying "nonhumans aren't as good because they have level limits" skips right over the burning question of why those limits exist (hint: to make sure the game is human-centric). I can see going with a mostly-human game as a matter of style and tone, or just to keep the mechanics simpler. Did that myself with my longtime Gorbadin setting.

But I don't think that's what went on here. Quoth Gary Gygax: "This [request for a monster PC] is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign." We'll see this theme again.

P. 24 -- Alignment languages. One of the oddest quirks of the game. I'm no fan of alignment; maybe you are. We can argue about it another day. What we can't do is find a way that alignment languages make sense or make things fun. If anyone knows why these were conceived and created... I don't know whether you should share that insight or bury it deep where the sun will never touch it.

...whew. That's a lot of writing for only 10% of the book. And today's plan was actually a Cyberpunk post. But I can't find the out-of-date webpage I need for the Cyberpunk thing, and this took shape, so who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

99 Chambers

I have this idea. It's probably meant to be a video game, but I'm not in much danger of being recruited back into that career, so if this happens it's gonna be an RPG thing.

It could also be a kung fu movie.

Rooms. A 10x10 grid of them. Each has two doors -- the one you came through and the one you have to get through. Each has something to stop you. The thing is totally linear, on purpose. The point is that to reach the cool thing in the final room (audience with the Emperor? the Holy Grail? just finding a way out?) you have to conquer all 99 challenges. No shortcuts, no secret doors, no workarounds, no resting, no going back to town and returning to try another day. It's a linear labyrinth.

Low-tech setting, could be some magic but not world-shattering stuff.

I might stat these out later on. For now I just want to get the list-so-far written down. It's not nearly to 99, but this way it's at least not on 4 pages of 2 different notebooks.

Also, it's not in any particular order beyond "this is when I thought of it." I use he/him throughout because it's what I did. Some ideas repeat themselves.
  1. The door does not open.
  2. A spearman. He's very good.
  3. Room full of nets
  4. Fire (but it isn't)
  5. You need the thing from 4 rooms ago.
  6. Foe's blood is poisonous.
  7. Any weapon that strikes foe is destroyed.
  8. He's skilled at disarming.
  9. His arms are dragons.
  10. He's on a narrow bridge, and ranged attacks don't work.
  11. He can run up the walls and ceiling.
  12. He will strike you as you struck him.
  13. When defeated, his body blocks the exit.
  14. Every injury doubles his strength.
  15. Fights mantis-style!
  16. Must fight in rhymes. His rhymes affect the room.
  17. When you defeat him, another one appears.
  18. He only strikes those who strike him.
  19. Lots of them. When one dies, the rest grow stronger.
  20. He has a shieldman who does a great job.
  21. The room is filling with sand.
  22. He teleports you to an earlier room.
  23. The room is full of shrieking heads.
  24. Must hop from tiny platform to tiny platform.
  25. Walking out the door just leads back into the room.
  26. Floor spins while he shoots you.
  27. Completely dark. The floor is not completely there.
  28. Has four arms.
  29. Spears stab out of the walls/ceiling/floor in a complicated pattern.
  30. Full of crisscrossed metal bars
  31. The door out is much too tiny.
  32. He can knock you out of the room.
  33. He's made of living fire.
  34. He sucks the breath from your body.
  35. In death, he becomes your parent.
  36. His eyes are fire and his breath lightning.
  37. His hands fly around on their own
  38. His face is the wall, his mouth the door.
  39. Every step, the door moves 2 steps away
  40. The battle is fought with music
  41. To exit, you must sacrifice one day of your life.
  42. He holds glass orbs that contain your loved ones.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Zak asks, we answer

Quick questionnaire from Zak Smith:

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
The single RPG thing I'm proudest of, at least this morning, is the Yogi class I wrote for Goodman Games. It ended up in Monte Cook's Year's Best d20 the one year he did that. It's a good class -- but never got played in my game, so I dunno if it answers the question.

2. When was the last time you GMed?
September. I only run semi-regularly these days.

3. When was the last time you played?
A DCCRPG playtest last spring. This is what I thought about it.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
You're stranded in a hostile foreign city because your boss, the diplomat, was just murdered there.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
Think of more things for them to do. Think of ways to interrupt what they're doing now. Roll some dice for possible use later. Play with the dog.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
What, if anything, did the players bring? What, if anything, did we order for lunch?

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?
Mostly no, but it's murder on my throat. I do a lot of voices.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
Eh. The most interesting thing I remember was my unrelenting quest to form a breakaway unsanctioned thieves' guild in a D&D game whose GM was unrelentingly dedicated to wilderness exploration and dungeons. Our attempts to maneuver each other in the desired direction were actually a lot of fun for everyone.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
My players will make everything less serious than I planned. That's how I play too, so I roll with it.

10. What do you do with goblins?
[insert lame joke about eating/trading/painting them]
Not much. My go-to monsters for typical fantasy games are kobolds and hobgoblins; goblins sometimes get slotted into the space traditionally held by dwarves. My nontypical fantasy monsters aren't typical.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
The time Jay's shapeshifting character (aka Form) tried to seduce Sue Storm back in the 1960s, but then Ben Grimm came up the stairs, so Form dove under the bed, and he tried to turn into the Thing himself, but he screwed up the power roll, so after some catastrophic failures he became a clear orange rocky rat, which destroyed the bed, and the mission was all screwed up, and Jay was literally rolling on the floor laughing, and then the Living Tribunal sent them somewhere else to stop the Mandarin, but instead they just teleported Mandarin's hands to Mars without the rest of this body, and then the Living Tribunal showed up and shouted "I'm tired of you!!!" and clapped the PCs out of existence...

For all its flaws, Marvel Super Heroes might be the platonic ideal of RPGs.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
The AD&D DMG. I just won it in a contest, I'd never read it before, and now I'm going to blog about how Uncle Gary and I were occasionally playing very different games.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
I mostly look at the words. Larry Elmore and the Marvel Bullpen illustrated the games I grew up on.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?
If I'm running Call of Cthulhu. And occasionally beyond that.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)
There was a session of Castle Ravenloft that I was glad to be done with, I guess. And a particularly disastrous attempt at Rebel Breakout (in the old West End Star Wars game) that still brings a smile to my face for all the wrong reasons. I don't run a lot of modules.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
Some kind of... room? With electric lights?

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
Champions and Castle Falkenstein. Didn't have to think about it.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
Stan Lee. The aforementioned Jay. Watership Down. Tolkien, of course. Jack Vance, of course. The memory of my sister burrowing under a blanket to get away from a particularly rude shopkeeper NPC. Larry Elmore's picture of a bunch of low-level dudes posing with the tiny dragon they just killed. Ben Edlund. Half of what Greg Costikyan said. A secret desire to be nominated for a Diana Jones award someday. William Goldman. The soundtrack to the first Conan movie. Humphrey Bogart, especially in The Maltese Falcon, and also everything else from The Maltese Falcon. Keith Baker.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
Someone who enjoys being their character more than they enjoy solving puzzles. But who enjoys having fun with their friends most of all, Scarecrow.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
See question 11. All the grist goes in the same mill.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
A version of Champions that opts for fewer rules, not more, and has some random character generation options. I'd also like a big book of Random Plot Generators and Random Adventure Complicators and Random Neat NPCs -- I'm sure these things already exist, but not in a form I want at a price I'd pay.

If someone looked at how I hack it and made a game to cover it all, well, there you go.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
Not really. Some of them haven't played in years, but they still know the hobby. I've talked to a few of my kids' friends about RPGs when they had questions, I guess. They've all ended up playing RPGs, sometimes running them.