Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Running the Game

I can remember the first moment I knew, absolutely, that I wanted to be a Dungeon Master. That wasn't the first moment that I'd had the desire, but it was a misty, half-formed thing, dating to a time when "Dungeons & Dragons" was something I suspected my best friend's father engaged in. (And a thing I was desperately curious about.) The general urge, towards the creation of worlds and the setting of scenes was why I spent a large part of my childhood wandering around alone, lost in my own imagination. It was always there, lurking.

But the moment that Dungeon Master, that hallowed calling, crystallized in my mind, that was something else, particular in its beauty. It wasn't quite when I first started gaming (though it did come close) because when I first started gaming I was a bit foggy on just what it was that a Dungeon Master did. Most of my group's early games were based on adventure modules -- no harm in it, that was just what our first DM did. We were learning. But somehow I'd gotten it into my head that this was the primary job of the referee, the running of other people's material.

When a friend of my dad, who had played the game himself back in college, disabused me of that notion -- the possibilities! Anything, any place, any problem, any race, any class, whatever crazy thing I could come up with, I could make, I could invest with the reality of play. I'd gotten a similar sense already from reading, and writing, but there was something special about Dungeons & Dragons, about gaming, some vitality that worlds purely of my own invention couldn't quite match. Or a different vitality, different enough to warrant its own effort.

With that sense of possibility came a drive, to craft and run my own games. The next time one of our odd, quixotic early adventures ran aground, I offered to run a game I'd been thinking about, based on a world I'd written a (hideously terrible, though I didn't know it at the time) novella about. I didn't have hardly anything planned, just a general idea of setting and a willingness to make up whatever I wanted as I went along.

And it was awesome. I screwed up pretty much constantly, didn't have a clue what I was doing, drove most of my friends up the wall at various times with my weird demands, but when I wasn't frustrated out of my mind it was wonderful. And I have a pretty good hunch that my friends enjoyed themselves, for the most part, seeing as that's one that we still talk about. (And not in the "wasn't that a hilarious failure" sense that's attached itself to my second campaign. The first one was good.)

Since then, I've been addicted. I'm not a player nearly as often as I should be, partly because I'm always the one saying "hey guys, let's game!" and partly because I tend to get grouchy when I do play. None of my old gaming friends quite understand my twisted devotion to the hobby. They enjoy it, and most of them even GM their own games at college, but they've got other hobbies. And I do have a couple other interests of my own, but I don't blog about them.

I don't know what it is, either. I have a couple of vague notions, something about that particular dynamism that comes from the back and forth of table play, the thrill of responding to the crazy antics of an unruly gang of players, but in large part running games is just something that I do. Because it's awesome. It doesn't need a whole lot more analysis than that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Eight Gaming New Year's Resolutions

Eight's not a very elegant number, but it'll do. With apologies to Amityville Mike for totally ripping off his own list of gaming resolutions.

8. Pick up a copy (or two) of Fight On!
I keep hearing about it, and what I hear sounds crazy-awesome. Might even cure me of my moment of Vampire-induced weakness.

7. Post a little more regularly
By which I mean "quit taking those weird, four month long breaks." It'd be really great if I could start making thirty posts a month, but I'm not starry-eyed enough to think that'll happen. I'll settle for a goal post of twenty, and even that is probably pushing it, given my well-established proclivities towards distraction.

6. Train a new GM
By "train" I mean "support/pester into giving the engagement a shot" but the point still stands. I've got a couple of prospects, folks who have expressed interest and would make decent GMs, and who might just need a little encouragement and logistical support to give it a try. It'd be a shame if someone missed out on the life of increased gaming opportunities and constant state of creative aggravation that GMing provides for lack of something I could provide, even if all it is being told "Hey, you should run a game some time."

5. Read a few Conan stories
And pulp fiction in general, but Conan is on my immediate radar. The local library has a copy of that collection of unedited Conan stories that came out a couple years ago, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

4. Write up a megadungeon through 3 levels
I've given this a shot once or twice, but I don't usually get much further than mapping out the first level. I want to write out enough of one to actually use -- and then run it!

3. Finish my Traveller Subsector
It's already got about half the planets rolled up, and it wouldn't take much work to get it into playable form. Just the other half (and all the crazy ideas that would spring out of that endeavor) and a little more detail on the handful around where the PCs start.

2. Play in a campaign
I haven't been a player in a tabletop game that last more than two sessions in at least two and a half years. I've played a couple of one-shots and been involved in a few attempts at a longer sort of game (and of course I've been doing some online play in noisms's excellent Yesteryear game, to which I really need to get a little less shy about posting) but a combination of circumstance, disinterest in continuing a bad game, and my own preference for the other side of the screen have kept a really satisfying player experience from materializing. Three years would be a little too long to go without getting a good look at what goes on in a player's crazy world, so I'm going to see if I can get someone else to run a game for once. This is the evil part of my new GM scheme, but I might also be able to get one of the old gang to run our summer game.

1. Run a campaign
It doesn't need to be long, but it should be a proper campaign. None of this "published adventure" nonsense that I spent the summer indulging. I should knock this one out next semester, but if I manage to pass up that opportunity I've still got the summer, and fall semester after that. No real idea of system. Swords & Wizardry, Traveller, and various World of Darkness nonsense are all top contenders, but it's not quite close enough to the action for me to make a final decision.

(Two days early for the January RPG Blog Carnival. Oops.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Six Half-Baked Vampire Chronicles

Vampire Rockstar
The PC coterie is based on mutual membership in a local band. Maybe they hooked up after their embrace, more likely their band is important to local politics (or their music has mystical significance) and their sires took an interest in them on that account. Perks include groupies to feed on, music and dance based devotions/disciplines, and the quest for the Ultimate Groove. On the other hand, they have to contend with that werewolf band that's beating them to all the best gigs, "creative differences" within the band, guys trying to steal their artifact instruments, and The Man.

Lawyers, Guns & Money
Three words: Vampire lobbying firm. Designed to both advance vampire political interests directly, and rack up favors from members of the business community who have heard of their almost unnatural ability to seal the deal. The PCs start out at the bottom, kept busy mostly scaring punks away from their K Street property and shaking down "the competition." As they earn a little more trust from upper management, they start getting tapped to "entertain" clients. And there are always the jobs they do on the side, either for groups they belong to or for their own self interest.

Vampire Surfers
Elysium is the best local beaches, and the Prince rules the waves. In addition to all the usual things vampires have to do to maintain rank, the PCs have to show their stuff on the water. Alternatively, they're a bunch of surf punks, with more than just good surfing to defend in their "territory."

World of Darkness 2020
Cyberpunk + Vampires = Awesome. This one would take a little rejiggering of the rules, some adjustments to the skill set and a new equipment list at the very least, but it could work. The moods, particularly, mesh pretty well, the whole "our world, but darker, controlled by forces beyond our control" thing being a feature of both genres.

City of the Damned
Set in a real fantasy world -- none of this "our world, but darker" nonsense. Most of the world is overrun by monsters and cultists and generally unpleasant critters. The vampire rulers of the city defend it from those menaces, but at a terrible price. The players are new to the "city defense force," drafted to replace a few veterans who died under very mysterious circumstances. Should they, as they've been instructed, ignore that mystery and get on with their monster hunting duties? The attendant life of luxury they live during their off hours argues most persuasively in favor of looking the other way, but then there's the question of where exactly all those monsters are coming from, and just how benevolent the elders in charge of the city really are.

Vampires in Spaaaaace!
They are probably also pirates. Vampire space pirates. Yeah, that's the ticket. Pretty much just steal the system generation and space travel rules from Traveller, then let the PCs figure out how to feed while stuck in warp. On the bright side, there's no sun in deep space. No, I don't have any excuse for this.

Someone Will Put A Stop To This Eventually

D'ya think I should read anything into Wizards of the Coast replacing its once ever-shifting tag line some boring corporate motto? I only just noticed this, but I don't check their website often so it might have happened a while ago.

Luckily, there's a complete list of the WotC taglines on John's RPG Journal, so all is not lost. Still, it's quite mysterious, and a little sad. I always thought that was the best part of the site.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Year in Gaming

This was sort of the year of the one shot, for me. I didn't as much gaming done as I would have liked, but what I did do was pretty fun. Pretty much all new systems, too; besides three sessions of a tragically doomed D&D 3.5 game, I don't think I played any of my old standbys. Here's the break down:

The Aforementioned Tragically Doomed D&D 3.5 Game: Four brand new players, one of whom never showed up after the first session and another who I'd kind of dragged into it and spent most of his time playing mah jong. Theoretically wilderness exploration, except for some reason I'd dumbed most of the hex map I worked up in September and replaced it with a really terrible random encounter chart. The play environment wasn't great either; we used a college provided study room, and the white board was handy, but the big glass window, terrible fluorescent lighting, and total lack of snacks just didn't set the right tone. Despite some really great play from the two players who wanted to be there, I just couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the thing, and stopped scheduling the games after a couple of weeks.

Feng Shui: In a trend that will continue, I got very excited about this on the train home from New York, played a single session that had a satisfyingly level of Nazi punching and general ludicrosity, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Despite the fun we had with it, I haven't had the urge to play it again since.

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons: Obsessed over it for, oh, a good eight months before it came out, ran a mostly successful short campaign using Keep on the Shadowfell over the summer, and decided it wasn't for me. Fun, yes, but a little too slick, and a little too streamlined.

Traveller: Mongoose Traveller gave me an excuse to get the book and see what all the fuss was about. Very impressed, spent a month or two rolling up a subsector. Never got around to playing it, though a couple members of my home group have expressed interest in it, and it's still top contender for games next semester and over the summer.

Swords & Wizardry: Finally started paying attention when the PDF version came out (especially since it's available for free at the official website) and proceeded to get very excited and spend a month and a half working on a crazy sandbox setting, which I still haven't run, and might not ever. I had fun putting it together, but it's still an irritating pattern.

Paranoia: A game my home group has been talking about for years, we picked it up on a whim and went home to play a crazy late night session. We managed to get in another game, and have some vague plans for a session next year, so this one may end up being a regular part of our college diaspora gaming landscape. It's been fun, and nice to be a player for once.

Vampire: the Requiem: Developed a bizarre fixation on the line, then got the book and became thoroughly confused. That's one to sort out in the New Year.

So I kind of got distracted every five freaking minutes, but I had fun doing it all so I'm not too unhappy with it. Hopefully I'll be able to run an actual campaign next year, but I'll tackle that when I blatantly rip off Amityville Mike's Gaming New Year's Resolutions.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

So What Does a Vampire Game Look Like, Anyway?

So I got my hands on a copy of Vampire. It's, um, well, it's a pretty decent read. It takes 86 pages to get to anything resembling a game, but I can forgive. The system looks kind of spiffy, and I need to get a hold of the core book so I can take a closer look at that. And it's got some amusing stuff about the usual behavior of young vampires. They pretty much all act like PCs -- questioning the government, treating Disciplines as superpowers, "getting off on being a dark creature of the night," and breaking stuff for no good reason -- which, of course, they are.

But I just can't seem to wrap my head around how I'd actually run the dang thing. I don't have a good sense of what a typical session would look like, or what a really good session would look like. The book tends to go on about "moral choices" and "themes" and "Man vs. Beast" but I can't imagine running a game that gets too seriously into that stuff. Most of my games, though they're not necessarily combat heavy, tend to err on the adventure-y side of things. Crashing weddings, jumping out of helicopters, questing for lost swords, setting off volcanoes, that kind of thing.

Which should, theoretically, be doable with Vampire--people are always complaining about it being used for "dark superheroes" which sounds like it would work, but I can't really get a good sense for what that would look like. The game has a pretty obvious starting point, the whole "you've just been turned, now what do you do?" thing, but I'm not completely solid on where I would go after that.

And I have absolutely no clue what to do with a "standard" game, which otherwise I'd think might be interesting to try. What is it that Vampire PCs spend most of their time doing? Clawing their way up the power structure? Messing with other vampires? Trying to connect with mortals?

My suspicion is that my problems will be solved once I can just get a hold of some players. Get some characters, some actual goals, a couple extra sources of ideas, and I should be able to get a better handle on what exactly this Vampire thing is supposed to look like. Or I could just run some Traveller or something. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Campaign "Planning" Process

My campaigns seem to have a tendency to undergo fairly significant changes in between first concept and final execution. Not all, certainly. My first campaign, with pre-campaign prep of less than two weeks, stayed more or less the same all the way through. The game I ran last summer was similarly constant, but since the whole of the concept was "run Keep on the Shadowfell" that wasn't really surprising.

But then there was Is This Fair, which was originally going to be elementally themed fantasy superheroes. Then I got Stormwrack (and a player on a pirate kick) and jettisoned the earlier idea in favor of island hopping adventure. By the time it actually hit the table I was running a murder mystery, and the campaign as a whole ended up as a loose retelling of the main plot of Oblivion and a vehicle for Captain Blank's antics.

The Desert Game got it even worse. It didn't go through quite as many iterations, and not much changed during the (quite short) planning phase of the game. But once I got to it, I decided that the "adventurers academy" idea I'd had just wasn't interesting, and the PCs soon found themselves teleported (in spectacular, climactic battle fashion) to a mysterious desert land. Which they wandered around in a bit, until we all got bored with it and its fancy names for dwarves and elves and werewolves and they settled down to lunch time monster hacking in the evil sorcerer's tower.

And that only covers the games that actually saw the light of play. I've got a lot more campaign ideas rattling around that I worked on for a week or two, then dropped in favor of something shinier, since I didn't have the pressure of immediate play to get me really working. I do try to recycle that material, in some form or another, so most of the more interesting one should see some use someday.

This came up now because the same thing is happening with the game I've got planned for next semester. I've been working on a weird science tropical island hex crawl thing for about a month now, and I'm kind of starting to lose interest in it. Or rather, I've stumbled upon some newer ideas and am starting to get more excited about them.

At first I was sort of frustrated, especially since I've always kind of admired those guys spend ages building wacky detailed settings. But now I'm thinking it's just kind of my natural game-planning process, when I'm given any length of time to do it in. It's not like I'm under any kind of time crunch, since I know from experience that I'm fully capable of running a decent game with just a sketch of a setting. I'll hang on to the really cool bits (Gamma Knights!) and I may well end up back working on my little patch of hex terrain once I've worked the other ideas out of my system, but I'm allowed to put it aside for a while and play around with something else.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Second Stab at Paranoia and a Possible New Year One Shot

Coming to you live, mid-session in a Paranoia game! A couple of the other players have left to take Maggie home, so the other half of the group is hanging out, fiddling with computers and things, and talking about Stargate.

I have a new appreciation of pre-rolled characters for one-shots. I'd been over at my Paranoia GM's house for about three hours before we finished our characters and actually started the game. It always takes my group ages to make characters, and yet somehow we always end up making them, even for short games, and characters we're never going to use again.

This is mostly because none of the other GMs in my group tend to bother rolling up characters ahead of time. Neither do I, honestly, but that's usually because the one-shot games I run tend to be out of the blue, "oh, hey, we're hanging out, we should game" kinds of affairs, or games where character creation is supposed to be short and easy. This is a lie. Character creation always takes between 30 minutes to an hour, even if it is entirely random or for a character that will be used once and then discarded.

I'm making an exception to this general habit, and rolling up characters ahead of time for the game that I might be running on New Year's Eve. I haven't decided whether I'm going to run it, and I haven't decided what system I'm going to use, but I'm rolling up characters anyway. (I was planning on using Swords & Wizardry, but apparently one of my players has a never before mentioned life long dream of playing Traveller, so I might end up running that instead.) Luckily, they're characters for Traveller, so the generation process is pretty fun in and of itself.

Anyway, I'll probably do a more thorough session analysis once the whole thing is over and done with, but so far the game is going pretty well. There haven't been a whole lot more treason accusations than last time, but we haven't gotten very far yet, and at least one other character is keeping track of possibly treasonous activity. I've also read a bit more of the (red section of the) rulebook, and discovered that there is, in fact, a reason for wanting to turn your team mates in for treasonous behavior. You have to do it to get promoted. So there's a mystery solved.

Friday, December 19, 2008

How to Start Roleplaying

I've gotten a couple of hits from people searching for that question, and none of the other top ten hits on Google are all that helpful, so in the interest of human knowledge, I'm going to give it a shot.

I'll assume that you (our questing reader) are looking for information on Real Roleplaying, not the computer games by the same name, or, um, the other kind. Not that I don't fully approve of both kinds (better than an FPS at least) but they're really not my area.

So what do you need to start roleplaying? Friends, a place to play, some dice, and a rulebook or two. There are plenty of other optional things various people might add to that list, but that's the core that you need to get started.

Friends You probably have a few of these already, but if you are absolutely starting out with this roleplaying stuff cold, you have have some trouble convincing them to get on board with you. Ask around anyway ("Hey, I found this crazy new game I kind of want to try. Feel like giving it an afternoon?") because there's a good chance you know some people who have secretly always loved roleplaying games but never gotten the chance to play, or, even better, some actual bona-fide roleplayers who are too shy to talk about it with the uninitiated.

If you don't have any friends, or if none of your existing friends are interesting, you have but one option: make some new friends. Go hit up your local game store, check out your school's Magic club, go online and check out the forums. Nearbygamers may be worth looking in to, and there's always Meetup.

If you can, try to get at least three other players, preferably in the range of four or five. The optimal number depends on the system and your particular personality, but having a handful means you can still play when someone can't make it, and let's you build up the kind of banter and player creativity that really makes these games shine. On the other hand, I've heard some very good things about solo games, so if you can only find one or two people, or you'd just prefer a more intimate kind of game, give it a shot.

A Place to Play Either the easiest option or the hardest. Traditional locations are your house or your local game store. If you're still in school, you may be able to start up a club and get some space from your educational facility of choice. (I've always just gone the basement route -- those of you tuning in from home may have some better ideas.) Wherever you play, make sure it's a place you can bring snacks. Soda, chips, and similar items are, again, traditional, though I tend to have more success with cherries, carrots and the like.

Dice Do dice rank above rulebooks? You bet! Even if you're playing a diceless game, or mostly making stuff up as you go, you're going to want something to play with while the other players have the spotlight, and to roll on random charts and such. They're also fun to collect, and for GMs, an excellent way to strike fear into the hearts of your players.

You can go down to your local game store and see what they've got, or buy them online. I'm partial to Chessex myself, but I hear Game Science is pretty much the best in the business quality-wise, and of course you'll need a d30. Check what game you want to play before buying them, since you might need a full D&D set, a bunch of d10s, or a bunch of d6s, but don't listen to those commies that tell you that you can roleplaying with dice you've scrounged from boardgames. It won't be the same.

A Rulebook or Two If you can hook up with some existing gamers, great, get whatever they've got. If you're completely broke you can get away with borrowing their books for a while, but it's nice to have a couple extra copies of whatever books the players reference at the table, and you'll want your own copy to peruse at your leisure. (Carry your books around with you is also a great way to recruit. Especially monster books. People love monster books.)

Starting a group on your own gives you a choice. Which game to start with? Personally, I'd recommend some relative of D&D, since that's sort of the lingua franca of the hobby. Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord are both simple and either dirt cheap (if you want the dead tree edition) or free (if you download it and print it out yourself).

Ultimately, though, I don't think it really matters what you start out with. If your local game store (or, loathe as I am to suggest it, game section of Borders) has a decent selection, head over and flip through whatever you think looks interesting. If you like a little strategery in your games, you might have fun with 4th Edition D&D, urban fantasy fans should check out White Wolf's offerings, comic book geeks might find Mutants & Masterminds to their taste -- and that barely scratches the surface of games available to day. There's a lot out there.

And that's it. There should be some "how to role play" stuff in the book you get, and some examples of play, but really, as long as you get the basic idea, you don't need a whole lot more. Go make up some stuff that sounds fun.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hating It For A While: D&D and the Follies of Youth

When I was 14, I hated D&D. Classes were constraining, levels artificial, the whole (3rd edition) shebang too precariously complex to tinker with. I much preferred GURPS. Nevermind that I'd never been able to run a decent game with GURPS -- it was systemized, flexible, realistic, everything D&D wasn't. So what if it took four hours to build a decent robot?* You couldn't build robots at all in D&D. There weren't any rules for it!

I got over it. Classes, I realized, were actually pretty neat. They gave you a quick way to define your character and make sure everyone in the group has something to do. Levels, too, make a pretty nifty character advancement package. It's more fun to get a couple of things all at once, but only occasionally, than to spend a point here and a point there every session or so. And so what if there are no "rules" for robots? That never stopped me in my first campaign. Just throw something together than feels right and go with it. (That last point, I'll admit, has taken me a little longer to get to.)

A couple years after the madness, and I'm talking to this who's just joined the RPG club at school. He's going on about how great Exalted is, and how much D&D sucks, and I'm thinking, "Man, that guy sure sounds like me back in the day." He was talking about social mechanics and starting out as a nobody and how boring fighters are, but still, same general idea. He'd come across this new, shiny, amazing game, and suddenly he realizes that, hey, D&D's not the only way to do things. And for some reason, what inevitably follows is "this new, shiny way is much better!"

But it's still missing the point. You start out as a nobody nothing in D&D (or at least, pre-4e versions thereof) so that you have to pick you battles, think carefully, and make getting to the next couple levels really mean something. There are no social mechanics in D&D because you play that stuff out. Fighters are there for the people who really just don't want to wrestle with a bunch of mechanical doo-dads, whether because they're new to the game or just don't enjoy it.

A lot of people go through this phase. Some people stick in it, and spend their whole gaming career ranting about how D&D is killing their favorite game. Others move on, realizing that D&D just isn't for them but that other people aren't idiots for liking it. And some of us embrace it again, no longer victims of our youthful folly. There's something about D&D -- a mix of slightly archaic design and overwhelming popularity -- that makes it very hate-able. At least for a little while.

*To be fair, 4th edition is a lot better about that. You just throw on a couple of advantage packages and you're good to go. But I still can't excuse the absolute horror that was GURPS Robots, known in my group as "the reason we got into an argument about the volume of a human." And the worst part is, I thought this was fun. It was, I guess, but not as fun as playing the dang game.

(Written for this month's blog carnival, on Transitions & Transformations in RPGs.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

What am I doing with alignment?

I haven't completely decided what I'm going to do with alignment in my Swords & Wizardry game. (Which could really use a name, but more on that later.) The system, by default, doesn't make any specific requirements about how or whether alignment functions, and though it does have a couple of suggestions the document makes clear that it's up to the particular referee to decide.

I've never done a whole lot with alignment in my games. My long running games both used d20 Modern and Arcana Evolved, neither of which even have alignment in the D&D sense. Even on the occasions I've run straight up 3rd edition D&D, alignment has never been that big a deal. Mostly, I just accepted it as either part of the game or not, and didn't give a whole lot of thought as to how I was going to include it.

With this game, though, it seems to merit a bit of consideration. On the one hand, at some point I would like to "do something" with alignment, make it and deities generally more important in a campaign. I'd really like, at some point, see about taking the Law/Chaos axis as far as it could go, to the point where the Lawful Evil and Lawful Good deities team up against all the chaotic ones.

On the other hand, I don't know if this is really the game for it. I'm trying to go for more of a pulp/weird science vibe with it, and I don't feel like big cosmological conflicts really fit. Feels too high fantasy. From that angle, since there's no mechanics regarding alignment that I have to account for with the system I'm using, I might just drop the whole thing entirely. Because if I'm not going to have a big cosmological set up backing it up, I don't know that it's worth the arguments and hang ups that tend to come along with alignment.

On yet third hand, the hand we use to talk about mutants, there is the whole radiation thing. The Gamma Knights, and their likely radiation and mutation worshiping adversaries, suggest an interesting angle of their own for dealing with "alignment" and similar things. The problem with that is one of terminology. "Pro-radiation" and "anti-radiation" are a bit awkward as entries on a character sheet, and they don't completely encompass the distinction I'm thinking about, since the Gamma Knights use a fair amount of radiation powered technology themselves, they're just careful about it.

And, of course, I'm not really sure what the point would be, in setting up a system more complicated than a detect radiation spell and a few other things of that nature. The fight against those crazy mutants up in the hills, exposing themselves and anyone they can kidnap to radiation, (or, alternatively, those stuck up Gamma Knights who think they know what's best for everyone, and won't let "the common people" in on the ancient secrets) may end up being a big deal within the campaign. But I don't know that I really need to systemize it.

Which would mean, then, that I'm leaning away from using alignment at all. That's very likely what I'll end up doing, but I have this sense of alignment as fairly important for D&D, which is still what I'm trying to play, even if a fairly modified version of it. I don't plan to discard it without some serious thought.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What I'm Doing With Clerics

Kujhak is the only safe city for a hundred miles. Maybe more. Maybe even in the whole world. We don't get news from far off to often, so it's hard to tell. At any rate, it's the safest place near anywhere that matters.

The Gamma Knights keep it safe. They patrol the roads, they collect odd bits of lore and almost lost technology, they guard the secret places where dark things dwell in the night. They alone can turn back creatures infected with radiation, and the more powerful among them know ancient lore of healing and light, carried through the generations from the great cities of our ancestors. They keep to the old vows, too, wielding just blunt weapons and ray guns, as the ancient laws decree.

But they can't be everywhere. Outside Kujhak, off the roads, below the vaults, isn't safe. Even other towns, even places where the Knights have made treaties, it's best to watch your back, because those places may have new leaders with new ideas, who haven't heard of the Gamma Knights or at least don't fear them. The Knights would like to tame those places, but they don't have the strength or the time. At most, they can dispatch a few of their younger, rasher members out to do a bit of mapping and "creative diplomacy."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Stuff I Still Want to Do With D&D 3.5

The all caster game. Every player runs a cleric, wizard, psion, or similar. Likely using a very decadent, aristocratic setting, where magical ability carries serious political significance. (And perhaps there are lots of angry barbarians out to bring down the pleasure-seeking, slave-holding, demon-worshiping establishment that the PCs happen to belong to?)

The all psionics game. I like psionics, but I've never really gotten a chance to use it. There'd still be fighters and barbarians and so on, but anyone who casts spells would be out, and magic items would be completely replaced by their psionic equivalents.

Tome of Battle, Tome of Magic, and Magic of Incarnum. I have 'em. Never used 'em. 'nuff said.

Gestalt. And maybe a bunch of other house rules from Unearthed Arcana, but this is the main one. This would definitely be an opportunity to use the previous idea, and maybe even the "all caster" bit. I'd just declare that one of the two classes used has to be of that variety.

Iron Heroes. Again, got the book, never used it. I'll probably someday use it for a one-shot or something. I'd consider throwing in some Book of Nine Swords guys, for mechanical variety and possible philosophical conflict. Actually -- a whole game where "those fancy pants fire breathing guys" and "those luddites who think magic items are going to eat them or something" have to team up against a problem both of them hate (say, demon summoning sorcerers or the like) could be pretty cool, in a bad kung fu movie kind of way.

Arcana Evolved. Ran it once, had fun with it, and I'd like to do it again. I'd probably want to make up my own setting, though. And ditch Litorians. Another book I'd consider mixing ToB up with.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Superior Scribbler

So Sirlarkins, author of the most excellent blog The RPG Corner, has gone and given me the Superior Scribbler Award, which is pretty neat. A bit mind-boggling, perhaps, but very nice of him. He writes:
To me, Odyssey is a living example of the "go play" attitude--seems she's always plotting or scheming about a new campaign to map out or a new system to take a creative monkey wrench to. I can definitely sympathize. Yet, here's the thing folks--she manages to run games too! Too many would-be GMs, I think, fall victim to what I like to call the "Stanley Kubrick syndrome," getting caught up in the perfectionistic quest to perfect every set, shot, part, and line of dialogue. Sometimes you just have to grab your camera and start shooting. Odyssey shows us you can have your cake and eat it too.
Which, to me at least, is illuminating. I don't give a whole lot of thought to what this blog is "about." It tends to be "about" whatever dang fool thing popped into my head most recently. So the suggestion that there is, in fact, something resembling topical coherence in there--well, it's interesting to me, at least.

But the point of the Superior Scribbler award is that those who receive it get to pass it on to five other blogs who they think deserve it. I happen (as others have noted) to think that there are a lot more than five blogs out there that count as "exceptional," since I read a lot more than five. On the other hand, a lot of those are gaming blogs, and considering the speed this thing is already sweeping through the game blog-o-sphere, most of the good ones should get picked up by someone. So I figured I'd pick out the five best blogs that aren't part of our little cross-linked universe that still ought to have some interest to gaming folks.

Fraggmented: John Seavey writes about a lot of things, most of them geeky. Of particular interest to me is his series on storytelling engines--their creation and maintenance, as well as the various things that can go wrong with them. He starts out mostly writing about comics, but has since expanded to just about everything; movies, TV shows, books, you name it. Even beyond the purely academic (or even writerly) interest I'd have in such a topic, there's a lot of points to consider when setting up a campaign, since those are often built on long term story-generating status quo's themselves.

Square Mans: Mathew Colville is another eclectic blogger -- but he does a fair amount about gaming, of both the tabletop and digital varieties. And he doesn't just write about them--he analyzes them, writing long, intellectual posts whose intensity just about makes up for their infrequence.

I Waste the Buddha With My Crossbow: Dr. Rotwang writes about GMing! And the eighties! He's the guy who got me in to Traveller, and he writes a lot about not taking this GMing stuff so dang seriously, which is a good antidote for the kind of compulsive perfectionism all those GMing advice websites, great as they are, can engender. I know I've kind of broken my "no blogs that other people I read will probably hit" rule, but dang it, this was one of the very first blogs I started reading back when I first started getting into this crazy sub-hobby, and it's great.

Zompist's E-Z rant page: Now, what's really amazing is Mark Rosenfelder's main website, where Virtual Verduria and The Language Construction Kit reside, but it's not a blog, and his rant page is pretty spiffy too. He's a conlanger and world-builder par excellence, so there's a fair amount of advice and information regarding those two topics. No comments allowed, sadly, but he does write about economics and politics so it's probably just as well.

A Villain's Life: Not in any way gaming related (unless you're running a superhero game, I guess) Doctor Cataclysm's personal weblog is just fun. Cataclysm makes for an entertaining narrator, and where else are you going to see catfish men trying to destroy the earth with crystal resonance and an android from the future with a baked goods subroutine gone awry.

And, finally, the rules:
  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.
  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Roleplaying Quotes

We've pretty much always kept track of quotes during games in my group, dating back to the first campaign I ever ran. Usually one of the players volunteers for the responsibility, as Maggie did in the 4e game I ran over the summer. I did do the Is This Fair quotes myself, though, on the idea that the DM doesn't usually say too many funny things anyway.

We never really decided, "Oh, we should keep track of quotes," though. It's just something that happened. We kept them sporadically up until Is This Fair, and since then I've tried to make a point of it in the games I run and play in, just because they're so much fun. I enjoy going back through and reading them, my players enjoy going back through and reading them, and I've even found them a handy tool for explaining just how much fun D&D can be. They're also a fairly good way for me to remember what happened in a particular session, and they make a good cointerpoint to a more usual recap, with which I've rarely been able to capture the tone of the game.

I'm not sure why I always end up with so dang many of them, though. I don't know if it's that I have a particularly quippy group or if it's something about roleplaying or what. I'm leaning toward the roleplaying, though -- at the very least, it's a particular interaction of that group and the kind of social focus roleplaying tends to encourage. I keep quotes outside of game, too, and I don't end up with nearly as many, though I do pay closer attention when I'm gaming.

Oh, and there's Qwerty. He's good for a lot of quotes himself, and he tends to encourage that kind of behavior in others. So that's at least part of it.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Paranoia Quotes

"We are the computers friends. And friends clean each others stuff." Hygiene Officer Peter-R-WQR-1

"Greetings, citizen! We have no plans to eat you, no matter how tasty you might look." Loyalty Officer Mel-R-BOK-1

"Ah! There's blood everyone, just like in Beta Complex. I'll clean it!" Peter-R-WQR-1

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how clean is the dead body?" Peter-R-WQR-1

"I ate a grenade!" Mel-R-BOK-1

(From the game of Paranoia I was in about a week and a half ago. I was waiting to see if the other players had any more quotes, because this list is woefully incomplete.)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

I Hate Maps

Sure, I love looking at them, especially odd or fantastical maps, I admire people who enjoy creating maps. But I'm the only Dungeon Master I know who kind of loathes sitting down to make my own campaign maps. My last long campaign suffered greatly from this; I wish at some point I'd actually sketched out the area and how it related to the rest of the mainland.

It's mostly that I'm not very good at it, and I'm excessively perfectionist. I especially hate coastlines, because I can never, ever, ever draw something that looks right to me. I can do okay with terrain, as long as I keep telling myself that it doesn't have to be "accurate" and the players will never see it, but coastlines just drive me crazy. Which is a bigger problem than it should be, because while I hate coastlines, I love pirates and underwater adventure.

So for my next campaign, I'm using Google Earth and a ruler to roughly copy real coastline, so I can skip all the coastline stuff and skip right to filling it in with craziness. I'm mostly snagging using Indonesia, because it's all island-y, has a little more scope than the Caribbean, and is right near an awesome lost desert continent, and also because I found the island of Sulawesi:

Which, being much cooler than anything I could possibly come up with, is the starting area for the campaign. Or rather, an island off the southeast corner of it is. There's a good chance the players won't have the time to explore enough of it to see how crazy it is, but at least this way if they decide to sail all the way around the edge of it they'll get something kind of neat.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Did 4e D&D Kill Exalted?

Hey, two games I shouldn't be talking about in just one post! Warning: Baseless speculation ahead.

Exalted's obviously not dead, or even really dying. People still play it, people still talk about it. (It occurs to me that the only people I personally knew who played it don't anymore, but they're not playing anything; graduation broke the group up and then business. So anyway.) But it doesn't dominate like I hear it used to, and there's been a bit of talk about why that is that suggests at least some people have stopped playing it.

If that's true, there are a lot of reasons for it, from the somewhat unwieldy system to the inevitable loss of the new and shiny factor. But it occurs to me that the drop off in net activity, and theoretical corresponding play activity, happened in about the same time frame as the rise of 4th Edition D&D. Which, when I was playing it, struck me as remarkably similar to Exalted in some ways.

There's the obvious mechanical similarities between charms and powers, for one--though charms are a much broader animal than powers, the combat ones at least still have the same "bite-sized tactical awesome" vibe. And there's the general "this is a game about epic heroes, built on top of a crunchy tactical combat system" goal.

I don't know how far to credit all that "Exalted is broken!" stuff on, since the people I know who played it got on just fine, but from what I know from experience that 4e's base system is very tight, and I hear the 4e supplements are about as clean as could be expected. It does, at the very least, have a higher rate of book production than Exalted, which could appeal to some sectors. And it's also got a much greater general fanbase, which if 4e is a factor in this hypothetical drop off at all is probably the main reason. I can easily imagine people giving 4e a shot because it covers a lot of the same ground as Exalted and they figure they could get a group together a lot more easily.

Right. So. I'll stop writing about games I don't play now, I promise.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

nWoD + Sandbox

So this new World of Darkness thing and my pre-existing obsession have combined, Voltron-like, into something new and horrible. What if I ran a World of Darkness city as a sandbox? Or at least something sandbox-esque; Vampire, Mage and the rest lack levels and treasure, but there are a few principals besides "run around stealing things" that I could loot for a game run with such a system.

Most specifically, the idea of having a large, irregular player pool and allowing more than one character per player appeals to me, and wouldn't be too hard to implement in a dark urban fantasy game. I'd just make sure that the action ends by the end of the session, so the next one can start at the local nightclub or whatever else the game uses as its tavern-equivalent. With that policy in place, scheduling becomes a lot easier, since I don't have to worry if a couple people can't make it, and it would be easy to introduce new players and include people who can only play on an occasional basis.

On the other hand, I'd have a whole lot more characters to keep track of--more plans, goals, family members, rivals, and NPC reactions, not to mention more factors to work into any NPC plots and plans, if I go in for that sort of thing. My main thought right now would be to rely heavily on maps. Get a map of Washington DC, or a couple specific neighborhoods, and mark it up with the places various characters have been, then key in all the people they've pissed off. Planning for the future wouldn't be too much of a problem; so long as I could keep a good handle on what's out there and what's already happened, I can figure out how to react to whatever weird plan the PCs come up with during play.

I'm not sure it'd really end up being all that different from a normal nWoD, just with stronger emphasis on setting and how the characters interacted with that setting than on any particular player groups grand story arc. It's unlikely that I'll find out any time soon, since I'm still happily working on my Swords & Wizardry sandbox and I've got plans to run that all next semester. But it might be a fun thing to try, if I ever give into the lure of those wonderfully shiny books.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Vampire? Seriously?

I've been struck lately, in between working on my sandbox thing, by a weird interest in all things World of Darkness. These things come and go--at one point I was fascinated by Promethean, and I even went through a brief period where I was into Exalted--but lately I've been wanting to get a couple of those big old shiny hardbacks and play some Vampire or some Mage or even some Werewolf. (The new World of Darkness versions at least, since they seem a little less heavy on teenage specialness angst and random technology hate.)

"Play," of course, is the strange part. I usually get kind of grumpy if I'm not running the game, or at least a game. I've gotten better about that recently, but I haven't played in a long campaign for a while. If the Battlestar game had gone on longer, I might have gotten less puzzled and more irritated when the GM started talking about "writing a campaign." Or at least started itching to run my own game, though that's less of an issue now that I don't have one and only one regular group.

But at least for now, there's something about those new World of Darkness books that tells me to make a character and start messing around in someone else's world. Sure, I could run a game, probably happily. Flipping through the Vampire corebook did give me some ideas for my usual side of the screen, and I've come up with a couple of interesting things I could do with Mage, but mostly I want someone else to do the story work and let me get on with the wacky adventures.

Could be that I've already got enough game master side projects going. I'd very much like to have that Swords & Wizardry game running by January, and that won't happen if I start thinking too hard about exactly what kind of Indiana Jones hijinks a bunch mages could get up to. And if it were just Promethean, that'd be easy enough to work out. I've got a thing for the robot/humanity/angst thing that game is built around. But other than that? All I know is I've got this sudden urge to be a vampire (or whatever) and knock some stuff over. Sometimes my gaming interests just don't make sense.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My Very Own Crazy-Stupid Random Chart

I've finally started putting actual material together for my S&W sandbox. No actual mapping yet, but I'm going to see about printing out some hex paper so I can start that tomorrow. (Assuming I don't get terminally distracted by some kind of White Wolf thing, or go back to obsessing over Traveller.) I've mostly been working on character creation material, and I have all the major ideas in place so now it's just a matter of putting pen to paper. (Or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be.)

See, I started playing Fallout 3, and a bunch of guys I know started playing Fallout 3, and then I remembered that, hey, post-apocalypse can be fantasy too, and it's got a long and noble history in D&D and the fiction that inspired it, and wouldn't it be cool if the players could be mutants? So now I've got Takalik Abaj, an underwater city that survived whatever great cataclysm that created the setting, and the players can choose to either be from there or to be a surface dwelling probably mutant.

If they start out as surface dwellers, they can play any race (including, knowing my players, some ridiculous ones of their own devising) but have to roll on the Starting Mutation Chart. (To be devised. I've got a bunch of pre-made ones, I just need to sit down and hack my favorite results together into one chart.) I may allow humans to choose not to roll on the chart, since it'll probably have a fair amount of less than helpful results, but mutants are fun.

City-dwellers have to be human, and can't be wizards ("The sorcerous arts are unknown in the technological city of Abaj." I may write-up a technologist class to make up for it.) but they have a better chance to use pre-cataclysm tech without it blowing up in their faces, and they get to roll on the What Did You Smuggle Off the Boat? Chart, reproduced in its current form below.

1. A set of two linked communicators*
2. A fancy science lock pick* (It may resemble a ray gun, an unmarked sphere, or another odd but unassuming device)
3. 3 vials of highly refined lazarine (each can be used as a powerful healing potion, or as an ingredient for more exotic purposes by a skilled technologist or enterprising wizard)
4. 2d4 power cells
5. Fold-out boat (Just add water!)
6. Autograpnel*
7. An oracular skull, answers 1 yes/no question per day and only occasionally poisons its user with radiation
8. 60 ft. of power cord
9. A dashing cloak with a pin of gold and human bone
10. A flying (and air breathing) fish companion, maximum flying height of 20 ft. It is not otherwise a magic fish.
11. Several bottles of fine Abajin wine. No, you don't know how they make wine underneath the sea.
12. Steel crowbar
13. Several wrenches of various sizes and a bag to keep them in. Also some screws.
14. A box with many mysterious symbols on it. Inside are 3d12 bones.
15. A box with many mysterious symbols on it. Inside are bees. You don't know exactly how many. Probably a lot.*
16. A Universal Detector* (see note below)
17. Tin of mustache wax
18. Duck tape
19. A pen that writes on anything. Sometimes it glows.
20. Firestarter cube*

*Requires a power source

Some of the above items may or may not be stolen from Jeff Rients Deck of Stuff, which is where I got the idea for the chart in the first place. I also snagged a few from my copy of Darwin's World--I've got that and a couple of other books with science fiction equipment lists that I intend to borrow from for Takalik technology. And with any luck, I'll be able to con my players into adding to it, or at least to my general tech list. They get to choose what they start with if they make it up themselves, assuming it's not too ridiculous.

The Detector, incidentally, gives the user the direction of the closest example of whatever material it's set to, but there's no way to tell what that material is without following where the Detector leads, and a lot of the presets it comes with are weird. Could be gold, old bits of fish, could be bees. No way to know. It and the other more complicated items could all use better descriptions, especially visually. It might even be a good idea to put together an actual equipment list, for record keeping and treasure generation purposes.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

I ate a grenade!

Friday night and way into early Saturday morning me and my high school friends played some Paranoia. (XP edition, Classic style.) We used pre-made characters, the DM ran an adventure that came in the book, and it ended up being a lot of fun. I ran a REGISTERED MUTANT with the "Matter Eater" mutation and a habit of randomly chewing on things. We'll probably play again when we get together over winter break.

And with any luck, when we do play again, we'll get a little more actual "paranoia" in. I almost shot the Team Leader after she reprogrammed a robot to do something weird and wouldn't let the Hygiene Officer look at her stuff (I was the Loyalty Officer, figured that was my job) but that was the only actual accusation of treason in the game. Even that ended up getting dropped, when we went off to finish--well, what we'd decided was the mission, since we were never properly briefed.

The rest of the time we functioned as a team. I wasn't too clear on how, exactly, accusations of treason worked--was it something I should yell about and then start shooting, or wait until the team debrief and then unload?--so I mostly stuck to keeping a record of all of my Team Leader's "treasonous" actions. And the rest of the team kept focusing on "completely the mission," rather than blaming the complete failure of the mission on the rest of the team.

The near complete lack of treachery ended up not being a problem. The mission was a complete fiasco, but the guy debriefing us was responsible for it being a fiasco and wanted to keep the whole thing quiet, and it was a one-shot anyway so none of us got into any trouble. And by the time the debrief came around, I was too tired to care about reporting the treason list I'd assembled. Debrief anyway ended up being really short, because everyone was tired.

Still, the name of the game is Paranoia, so a little more backstabbing wouldn't have hurt. The big issue was just that we didn't have a good idea of why backstabbing was so crucial. I suspect that the player section of the book has some information on how you actual go about reporting treason to the computer, and on exactly how badly you can get screwed over if management decides you're responsible for the mission failure.

That wasn't the only factor: The Team Leader's player was under the impression that "there were cameras everywhere," which I don't think was true, but it would have helped if we or the game master had been more familiar with the material. It also might have helped if our secret society missions had been in more direct opposition. But basically, since we didn't know why backstabbing our teammates was a such good idea, our natural instincts took over, and we're all pretty veteran roleplayers, especially with each other. Completing the mission and working with the rest of the party come pretty naturally.

Oh yeah, and I ate a grenade, saving everyone. It was a grenade that one of my team mates had thrown, but still.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

On Players

I've been lucky, as a game master. I've had good players. I had a good group of players when I started running games, and I've continued, with a few minor exceptions, to have good groups since.

I've had players who wrote positively epic character journals. Players who gave their characters family members and mentors and nemeses, not to mention goals that screamed adventure. I've had players who had players who happily moved on to the next idea when I told them no, that combo really is too ridiculous.

And most importantly for me, a GM who improvises a lot of her games, I've had players who come up with dumb ideas and then run with them. Who tell me what they're planning, so I don't have to guess what they're trying to do and can focus on coming up with my own crazy ideas. Who have that perfect mix of confidence, enthusiasm, and crazy inspiration that I will never be able to do without, no matter how good at game mastering I get.

I've had good players. I couldn't have run games that were as fun as they were without them.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Flying Blind

My novel is going surprisingly well, considering I have no idea what I'm doing. My last two NaNoWriMo novels, and most of the successful writing I've done in the past, have all been planned to some degree, even if it's just a general sketch of the starting situation and a rough idea of what I want the climax to look like. This time, I mostly intentionally decided I wanted to do something different, and see if I could write my novel without any idea of what I was doing or where I was going. (I was also really busy this October and working on other things, but that's beside the point.)

I shouldn't be surprised, really, that it's working (at least so far, we're not out of week one yet so there's still time for it to all go to hell) because I do stuff like this all the time when I GM. One of the best single sessions I ever ran was almost completely improvised: a one-shot, Gnome Town. I'd sketched out a little dungeon in the hour before I ran it, but I ditched that half-way through and just started riffing on whatever bizarre thing popped into my head and whatever crazy plan the players came up with. The players were pretty hot that night, so it worked out well.

That's the only session I've ever run completely on the spot, though I did improvise most of my one session of Feng Shui. More often, I'll have a general idea of the situation, but little or no idea what the players are going to do. That tends to be my default play style, and it can range anywhere from reasonable responses to character actions based on the pre-defined scenario, to completely making up major details of the game on the spot just because it would be cool.

When it works, it works. Going into the Infamous Wedding Incident, I didn't have a clear idea of what was going to happen, figuring that the players would come up with something. They didn't have a clear plan, because they figured something weird would happen that they could riff off of. My solution? Faen ninja terrorists. In hot air balloons, with long-spears and flaming catapults. The players grabbed hold of it and started doing their crazy thing, and pretty soon we were jamming. It was great.

Of course, the session could have been even better if I'd had better floor plans for the wedding, and a better map of the city, and a better idea of the "normal" order of events, what would have happened if the wedding hadn't been disrupted by a four foot tall version of the IRA and a cross between Mr. Freeze and Jack Sparrow. And part of why it turned out as well as it did was that I knew who a fair amount about the other people who ended up involved--the town guard and the main villain--and what their tactics and motivations were. Because the faen just got the fight started; what made that fight great was the combination of Faen, the villain's attempts to take advantage of the disruption, one of the player's attempts to take advantage of the disruption, and the rest of the party's efforts to keep order along with the city guard.

But being willing to make stuff up as I go along? Being confident in my ability to make stuff up as I go along? It's been key to whatever success I've had as a GM. And it's fun. Part of the reason I count those sessions among my major successes is what I great time I had during them. Which isn't everything, because the fun has to be there for the whole table, but it's important.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

National Novel Writing Month

I don't have a plot. Or more than the vaguest sketches of characters. I don't even have that much of a setting.

But I've got enough. "College. In space. With pirates."

That should be enough for anyone. We'll see how this goes.

Oh, and I'm Oddysey on the NaNo website too. NaNo madness is better together.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Back to the Hex Map

The idea of a hex map has been back on my mind lately. I've been thinking more generally of running an exploration-based game with no regular player group for a while, mostly because college gamers are flaky and I want to do something diametrically opposed to the dirty hippy indie games/Exalted that usually gets run around here. Since Swords & Wizardry came out, I've been thinking even more seriously about that, because I think it'd be a good fit, better than thed20 Modern that I was originally considering.

Plus, hex maps are cool. I had all kinds of fun making my first, despite never getting to run it. Game prep should be fun, and filling out a hex map is a good way to fill an afternoon.

I've already been doing a bit of thinking about what I would put on this theoretically hex map, despite really needing something other than a list of names from the 1972 census for my NaNoWriMo novel. Things that should be on the hex map so far:
  • Alien artifacts
  • Tombs of ancient tyrants
  • Temples to forgotten evil gods, preferably infested with snake-men
  • Several different tribes of goblins that the PCs can screw with and start wars between
  • Dinosaurs
  • Underwater Atlantean-analogue dungeons and relics
  • Robots gone berserk
  • Little towns with dark secrets
  • A mad wizard in a tower
  • Entrances to the Underworld, realm of the Twelve-armed God
  • Football-sized ruby
  • A dragon
  • A crashed spaceship
  • Carnivorous apes
  • Blind, death-cheese making monks
That covers most of the bases, but is there anything I'm missing?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Left Behind by Modern D&D

Every so often I go by RPGnet, just to check things out, and see what the latest word is on noisms's Monstrous Manual reading. I'll see this wall of [4E] tags, generally in front of character optimization threads or arguments, and occasionally I'll get this very strong sense of not belonging to modern D&D.

Which is weird, because it's not like the content is that different from the usual talk on 3.5 forums. While I do enjoy a bit of character optimization, my tastes usually run towards poking around the strange corners of the system rather than actual character optimization, and even for that I have a limited tolerance. So I never had much to say on the usual 3.5 forum, either.

But I still felt basically at home there. 3.x D&D was my game, the game that I started on, the game I knew and loved. Even when I wasn't playing it (which was most of the time, my major campaigns being based on d20 Modern and Arcana Evolved) I still basically understood it, and could discuss it, and cared about it.

But now? I go into the D&D forums and it feels like I'm not even on the same planet as some of these people. Even the people saying things I've said myself about the game in the past -- it's easy on the DM, combat's fun, fast, tense -- I just can't quite grok, because I keep wondering when they're going to notice that the tension is completely artificial. And the ones who are talking about this or that supplement and how humans are suboptimal and how this power combines with that other one--no clue, man. None.

Not that 4e is a bad game. On the contrary, it's a very good game. But--it's like this. I see someone say "D&D," no qualifiers. I know what that is, I've been playing that since I was twelve. Then I see the words like "starlock" or "dragonborn," and I have to do a double take. "That's not D&D," I think. But it is.

It's an unsettling feeling.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Swords & Wizardry, NaNoWriMo, and that Dang List

Who, exactly, was responsible for the decision to release Swords & Wizardry two weeks before National Novel Writing Month? I was getting ready to run an online game with some pals back home when I remembered that, in a week's time, my life will be consumed by that thing the innocent call a novel.

So now S&W is on the list of games I want to run, from which no man ever returns.

Okay, so Feng Shui returned. Also 4th Edition D&D. But neither of those were on the list for that long. Iron Heroes has been on my shelf for ages, and once came within a few hours of seeing play, only to have me decide I was insufficiently prepared and ditch it in favor of the madness that became Gnome Town. Traveller and Encounter Critical seem headed towards the same fate.

Someday I'll run all of those games.

But Swords & Wizardry is a little more than just "a game I want to run." It's a cleaned up, modern version of OD&D.

OD&D has been on my mind for a while. It'd be worth playing just for it's historical value, the game that started it all. But I've also been reading Sham's Grog & Blog and Grognardia, and drinking the rules-not-rulings, do-it-yourself, old school kool-aid. It reminds me of the way I used to play games, hacking stuff together at lunch that seemed like it would work, not worrying too much about game balance or GMing technique.

But OD&D, the three little brown booklets, is intimidating. I've put off picking up the PDF for a while, because I've had other stuff going on but also because I was worried about how much work it would take to piece together how to play. I know there's a lot missing out of the S&W PDF, a lot of the weird essential charm that makes OD&D what it is, but it's neat and it's clean and it's exciting. It's got me thinking some things that I don't always think -- not "how can I use these neat things in my game?" but "what neat things can I make for my game?"

That alone makes Swords & Wizardry too cool to just languish on the list. With any luck, I'll pick it up again after NaNoWriMo, in that post-novel rush of crazy ideas.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All The Characters Are The Same! or Why I Spent Six Hours Reading The Expanded Psionics Handbook

As I hinted at the end of yesterday's discussion of some of 4E's limitations, there's another more important distinction between 4E and 3e. In the new edition, each character has roughly similar capabilities. Sure, there's the striker/defender/leader/controller thing, and the variations on each of those themes, but it's all pretty much doing damage and deciding when to use your encounter powers and whether to burn your dailies. Occasionally you stick some interesting effects on the monsters, and there's a fair bit of moving around, but it's all just variations on a theme. It's a fun theme, and if the DM is on the ball you can get a lot of mileage out of it by changing the environment and monster behavior, and even more by building different characters in different ways.

But it's all one kind of fun.

There are a lot of different ways to generate varieties of fun -- call those ways the dimensions of fun, if you like fancy phrases -- and 4E drops a lot that 3.x had. One of the big ones, the one it had to give up to get the tactical complexity it's designed around, is variation on the mechanics behind character powers. 3.x has feats, skills, Vancian magic (of divine and arcane quality), psionics, incarnum, shadow magic, truename magic, binding, whatever that dang Tome of Battle stuff is, plus a bunch of class specific doo-dads like bardic music, rage, and dragon shaman auras all stuffed under "special abilities." All of which makes characters a lot harder to build, and a lot harder to predict how everything in the greater system will interact, but it allows for tremendous variety in the way the game plays. It also opens up a lot of headspace, creating a convenient source of ideas on how societies and environments might interact with the powers that drive them.

4E has one way. It's a good way, but it's not the only way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It's Like the Best Apple Pie in the World When I Want More Than Just Those Damn Apples

Okay, so maybe being over 4E doesn't quite mean I'm going to stop thinking about it. Particularly, I've been trying to figure out what exactly it is that bugs me about it. This is a game I had all kinds of crazy fun running, and could easily have all kinds of crazy fun running again. So why don't I have much interest in it anymore?

That has more to do with obsession cycles than any intrinsic feature of the game, but my gut feeling answer is that it's much more limited than 3rd edition and its variants.

This is mostly nonsense. 4th Edition isn't significantly less complicated than 3rd Edition, it just increases tactical complexity at the expense of character complexity. With the exception of fighters, rogues, and other non-magic-using characters, 4E characters have fewer moving parts than their 3.x counterparts, and there's much less variety in the kinds of parts they use. However, this reduced complexity means its easier for the designers to ensure that all those moving parts have interesting interactions with each other, and that the characters have interesting interactions with the rest of the party. 

Which means, for pure combat, and even combat with motivational doo-hickeys (I'm fighting for the queen!) backed up by interaction scenes, 4E is superior. 3.x characters have an unfortunate tendency to find one best strategy and use it in every fight, to suck up table time with calculation, and to blow through opposition, though that last is mostly because the CR system rests on some assumptions that aren't supported by the game as she is actually played. On the DM side, 4E has much better support for making fights interesting, from making monsters easier to tweak and run to gearing its environmental design advice towards making terrain that gives players interesting choices.

On the other hand . . . 4E doesn't do a whole lot beyond that. There are precious few non-combat abilities, and it's impossible to build a character that doesn't focus on combat. It does have the skill challenge system, which I like a great deal and could see using to use to run a game by itself -- because it's a seperate system that's been bolted on to the main, power-based core where most of the game's complexity resides. 

If you want to run a game that revolves around exploration, or bullshit hi-jinks, or anything else where the point of combat isn't to have fun with the fight itself but to cause problems for the players, then whenever combat does come up it will invariably pull attention towards itself and away from the main point of the game. And if you don't use combat much, you're looking at a character sheet that you never use and making lots of character decisions that are never meaningful. 3.x often has the same problem, especially when you start adding in splat-books, but that's a function of the particular moving parts in the system -- what spells your wizard picks or whatever -- rather than being cooked into the arrangement of the moving parts themselves. It doesn't intrinsically assume, no matter how you build a character, that the character will be about "combat and occasionally some other stuff."

When I wrote this post, it ended up being crazy long, so tomorrow I'll pontificate about another, related difference between 3.x and 4E. As a player of mine used to say, "All the characters are the same!"

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Now It's Time to Think About Something Else

According to the blog, my period of mild excitement about 4e D&D ended up lasting, at most, 13 months. From the first "hey, this is cool," post to . . .

Right now. Yeah. I am over 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

The period of active, this is the coolest game ever excitement was even shorter. Hard dates puts it between the awesome, tactical craziness of my first session and the realization that all the tension in combat is artificial. Comes to about sixty days. At least it lasted longer than Feng Shui.

It's not like I won't go back to it. Right now I'm seriously thinking about going back to 3rd, after being off of it for most of that 13 month period. Or d20 Modern, which I've been falling back in love with. (First game on the other side of the screen. I'll never get completely over it.) So I will probably play 4th edition again.

But not now. Not while I feel like, to get the most out of it, to get the complete experience, I'd have to buy a bunch of books that I'm just not interested in buying. Not while I'm thinking about just how much I've got invested in 3rd and 3.5 and d20 Modern -- in memory, money and knowledge -- and how much gaming I have left to do with them. And not while I still have a lot to learn from the older editions of the game -- not to mention all the stuff that's not D&D.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

It's Not All About "Unified Mechanics"

I'm not interested enough in it to actually register and post, but there's an amusing discussion going on at Apparently, some contend that the only reason people play older editions of D&D is the nostalgia factor. If it's what you played in your childhood, that makes up for the obvious inferiority of a system without unified resolution mechanics. Or whatever.

Which puzzles me, because I started gaming as a kid with 3rd edition, but nowadays I play 2nd edition AD&D. I won't go as far as to call myself "old school," but there are a lot of things I like about the playstyle, and the older editions in general. I also know two guys my age who play 2nd exclusively, despite starting with 3rd, and will take any opportunity to declare 2nd's superiority. 

It's possible that us whippersnappers are just absorbing older gamer's nostalgia; I'm interested in playing older games mostly because of what I've read in the old school blog-o-sphere, and one of the other guys I know started playing 2nd edition when his neighbor gave him four or five boxes of books and miniatures and stuff. But I really do think that they're different games, different enough to be worth investigating.

I used to tease that guy about playing such an obsolete game. I assumed that the differences between 2nd and 3rd, and between 2nd and 1st, and between 1st and OD&D, were mostly a matter of fixing things that were "broken," and making the game more intuitive. That was the intent behind most of the changes, but there's a lot of really interesting stuff that got left behind along the way -- the troupe style of play, campaign-centered (as opposed to character-centered) play, irregular parties, and genre bending, just to name a few ideas that have changed the way I think about D&D, and gaming generally.

(Completely unrelated side note: I think "whippersnapper" is a pretty good term for those young, hip gamers who are getting into the old school scene. But that's just because it would give me an excuse to say "whippersnapper" a lot.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Battlestar Game: Getting to Know a New Group

That Battlestar Galactica game I'm in is going pretty well. We just had the second session last night. They've both been short, off-the-cuff affairs--the DM has walks downstairs and says, "Hey, you guys want to game tonight?" It's kind of refreshing, used as I am to long, rigourously scheduled weekly games.

The system itself is sort of weird, and I don't yet have a real good handle on the odds involved, but I don't think we're using it as written anyway. I've never played with this GM before, or with two of the other three players, and it's the first time I've ever joined a new group as a player since I first started gaming. I'm used to responding to new player styles as a GM, but adjusting to them as a fellow player, while trying to get the hang of a another GM's style, is not something I'm used to.

This GM's style is very different from mine. We're all Viper pilots on an old Battlestar, with the campaign starting just before the Cylon attack the on colonies. That just happened last night, but most of the game up until that has revolved around the specific, minute-to-minute activities of our characters on the ship. Trying to get enough sleep, hanging around in bars, going to the gym, interacting with NPCs, getting into fights. The first session largely revolved around one character trying to get revenge on an NPC (who outranked him) for vomiting on his dress uniform. There's also a lot of "party splitting," and one-on-one interaction; when we get off duty, one guy might go to the officer's rec, another to the gym, and another to shower and bunk, and the GM goes around and resolves each scene in its turn.

I tend to skip over this kind of thing, unless the player's specifically initiate it. I'm usually busy trying to get back to "the action." But well handled, it's really quite engaging. I do worry, based on a couple of comments the GM has made about how he has the campaign "written up," that the game will end up being scripted events with these kind of character interludes in between, but that'll be a problem only when it starts getting boring. Right now, I'm having fun getting a look outside my usual gaming scene.

And -- I'd planned to write this post about how I'm the only woman in the group, which is a new and exciting experience for me, but I'll leave that until next time.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Games Up the Wazoo

The mysterious explosion of gaming has spread. Last night, a couple people I know wandered into the campus coffee shop with Burning Wheel, and next thing I know I'm agreeing to a weekly fantasy game. Add this to Yesteryear, and the irregular Battlestar Galactica game I was also more or less randomly recruited into, and I've got a lot of gaming going on.

Unfortunately, this means I'm thinking about putting my own Traveller game on hold. I'm still having fun working on it, and I'll continue doing that, but I've got enough going on besides gaming that I'm not sure I can justify setting aside two weekend nights for it. A weeknight game might work out a little better, but that's more likely to run into other people's schedules.

On the other hand, if I can figure out a way to tap into the rest of the college gaming scene, I might be able to put together a large group, ad hoc schedule, West Marches kind of game. There's talk of a gaming club, and while I'm generally dubious about the value of such an organization, it would be handy for this kind of project. 

I might use Traveller for that game, if I can figure out a way to reconcile the "return to home base at the end of the session" requirement with the whole spaceship thing. It might also be a good excuse to finally download OD&D and take a look at getting that together. Or go back to 3rd, and really make it my own.

I know this must make me sound incredibly flaky, hopping from one idea to another and never getting anything done, and I am. I'm still negotiating this strange new idea that my entire social life doesn't need to revolve around roleplaying, I'm enjoying getting to be a player for once, and I don't feel like doing the work to run a game right now. I'll get back to it, but I figure it's better to back off a little and take a look at how other people run their games, rather than drive myself crazy about not running the game that I should be running.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Notes & Nostalgia

I ran my first campaign almost entirely off of handwritten notes on graph paper. I carried them around in a couple of folders, and worked on them during classes. I occasionally e-mailed things to my players, and kept a few long term notes on my computer, but I printed out almost everything important I wrote on the computer and stuffed it into the folder.

I didn't write up as many notes for the next couple of campaigns after that (I'd started doing work in my classes) but they were still mostly handwritten. Even if I wrote them on the computer, I kept all my need-to-play session notes in folders and binders and notebooks. One somewhat less successful campaign even revolved around a box of 3x5 cards.

Then I got a laptop. The one real campaign I've run since then was almost entirely based on computer notes; basically just the maps, and a couple of player generated notes in a binder. Which was great, especially for in-game notetaking. (And, most especially, handling initiative. "Sort alphabetical" was my best friend in the whole world.) I could have gotten more use out of it if I'd organized my notes a little better, or kept them in a format I could search through better, but my notes have always been a mess, no matter what their format.

I love the convenience of keeping track of my campaigns on the computer. I like being able to take advantage of my typing speed, and I'd like to try using a wiki, or some other fancy new Web 2.0 organizational scheme.

But I miss scrawling out NPC organization charts, monsters, the random ideas I have for next session. I miss sitting down with paper, pencil, and a couple of books. I like having a big stack of paper, or a binder to flip through. And I especially like being able to work without any of the distractions that come along with the computer.

I do wonder, though, if that feeling is mostly nostalgia. There are a lot of technical advatages to working partly or entirely on the computer, but it's not how I did my notes when I was 14, and caught up in my love for this crazy new game that I had discovered. Before I knew what I was doing. Before I worried how to do my notes.

Edited 9/22/08, for the grammar.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Problem of Lists

The Traveller game hasn't started yet, but it's coming along. I'm most of the way through my starting sub-sector, and I've started sketching out the larger political situation. Nothing detailed, mind you. I just needed to know who was running all those spaceports, if there's no Third Imperium in my Traveller universe.

The answer is: another sort of space empire. So far mostly cribbed from Dune, but I'll add in other bits as I go along. Combined with at least some of the Class A and B starports being alien relics, run by robots, this satisfies what need I have for the setting to make sense. I'll make up for it with the planets -- I still need to figure out a place to put the Red-Eyed Cat-Apes.

I am, though, struggling with how much detail to put into that upper-level political situation. I'd like to keep it as loosely defined as possible, partly for philosophical reasons, and partly to avoid doing work. I do plan on making up a minor noble from a minor house (noble houses being the main thing I'm stealing from Dune) to be governor of the sub-sector, and eventually I'll work out a few rivals and allies, to aid in the generation of schemes and plots. But there's no need for a big list of all the houses and nobles and all of that.

Except that I had this idea, that if each of the houses has its own army and so on, then some of the characters might have pre-existing allegiances to them, or old grudges or something. Which would, then, necessitate some manner of list. Unless the players could manage to make something up on their own, if the idea interests them, but I've had mixed success with those sorts of schemes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quotes VII

"So the end of all life on the planet, and indeed the planet itself, could still happen anytime between now and next Tuesday." RPGpundit

"He's not ugly. I just hate his face." Emily

"I used to kill Hitler, then go back and stop myself. That was a pretty neat couple of Saturday nights." Deep Time . . . agent . . . guy (Does Starslip Crisis not have a character bible? Or did I just miss it?)

"At the top of the United States today sits a meritocracy, an elite who believe that their intellectual achievement earned them their high status. Meritocrats think of themselves as progressive and antiracist, but they are certified into the elite by the SAT, an IQ-like test on which whites and Asians consistently outscore blacks and Hispanics." Caleb Crain

"It's like, do they not have butter in space?" Gabe

"Mad with power. Post later." Dr. Cataclysm

"Smugglers aren't real. They're just manifestations of my fear of the sea. Combined with my fear of theft, secret caves, men with scars, and rum."

"You can trust me. I'm an English major." Oddysey

"Look, I'm not suggesting by any means that my readers should go kill George Lucas. And certainly not by using the swift, undetectable poison known as curare!" John Seavey

"Shush. There's nothing overcomplicated about Linux at all." Qem

"I can accept shallowness in my news media, but not in my comic books." Scipio

"What kinda gonzo-fantasy universe are you livin' in? In mine, a cut that lays your chainmail open and draws a line of gushing crimson across your chest is just an excuse to tear your shirt off." TonyLB

“Our party and our country are better off because of her, and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Barack Obama

"It is the opinion of myself and this website that the person responsible for this effect should go to jail, or gaol, or whatever the British call the place where you store your evil men." Tycho Brahe

"It's rare that you're simply presented with a knob whose only two positions are "Make History" and "Flee Your Glorious Destiny." Tycho Brahe

"Pirates: Is there anything they can't teach us?" Freakonomics