Thursday, July 17, 2008

Another Day, Another Game

We had another session of the 4e game Sunday. I just haven't reported it yet, because my wrists have been wonky lately, so I've been trying to stay off the computer. With less success than I'd like.

Not a particularly exciting session, truth be told. Only three people showed up (though a fourth did arrive about an hour before the official end, after we'd decided to break for the night) so everyone was running more than one character, but they did alright.

Maggie has, again, provide a full recap. And even better -- pictures of the table, and of Sara and Doug, the guard drakes they took from the shady looking gnome. At some point, I'll write about how I'm handling that -- 4e has no official rules for henchmen or pets, so I'm winging it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Keeping an Eye on the Battlefield: 4e and Healing

I've noticed, running 4e, that PC hit point totals don't really matter. On a round by round basis, yeah -- if they're bloodied, or if they're low enough that a monster can take them down in one hit, that matters. But just paying attention to their hit point totals doesn't let me know how they're doing, what the pace of the fight is, or how close they are to defeat.

Because hit point levels go up and down a lot. Even at 1st level, they have a lot of healing. Whether they've used their second wind matters, how many players have used theirs matters, how much major healing the cleric has left matters. I'm used to keeping rough track of hit point totals, and the enemy hit point totals, to tell where the battle is headed, but running KotS I've had to adjust that strategy.

What I should do is make up a little battle tracker, where I can mark how many healing surges everyone has used throughout the day, who's used their healing surges, and what healing the cleric and the paladin (or the warlord, if they team had one) have used. Probably track dailies, too, because they're as important as surges in determining when the PCs should rest, and at least at this level they're a measure of the PCs abilities to get themselves out of trouble if things really go south.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Skill Challenges and a Sudden Interest in History

Had another session of my 4e game last night. Things are starting to come together. Still some arguments, but everyone is at least trying to move things forward. Maggie's done me the favor of compiling a recap, complete with quotes, if you're into that sort of thing.

The best part of the session was testing the skill challenge system, interrogating a shady gnome archaeologist to find out what had happened to their mentor. As written, it's basically just another fight, but I had some information I wanted to get to the players, (mostly pre-hooks, for if they finish this adventure before summer ends) and I wanted to see how the skill challenge system actually worked. I can easily see how it would apply to traps and exploring and such, but as to social encounters, I was a bit skeptical.

For us, it's great. It's not that much different from what we normally do, except there's an initiative order, so people aren't shouting each other down) and everyone has to participate, even the quiet players and the ones who don't normally dig social encounters. A lot of my players are good at and enjoy social encounters, but I have one guy whose comfort zone runs more towards stats and tactics, and he seemed to enjoy himself alright during the challenge. The system provides a safety net -- just do what your character's good at -- if you can't think of what to do, and me and the other players gave him some help figuring out exactly what that meant in game terms.

The ones who were more comfortable with it had no problem with it, and pretty soon people were rolling shaking the gnome down and figuring out why he was here and what the mirror he had was. If they gave me more detail about what they were doing, in game, I'd respond with more detail, or an extra benefit within the challenge.

I had players asking me questions about history. This, I don't think, is entirely on account of the skill challenge format. Having a shiny poster map with little bits of detail to latch had something to do with it, and reminded me to use visual aids more often. But the skill challenge gave them permission and time to ask questions, by explicitly giving the spotlight to each player in turn. And it made it easy for me to give them little rewards for doing so, and to turn the information from "boring DM lecture" to "something I found out by asking the right questions and getting lucky."

Oh, and most of the answers I made up on the spot, which was fun. It was based on some ideas I'd been thinking about for what they might do next, if they get that far, but now I have some specific detail for further adventures -- a dragon named Malebraxis, whose now young adult children have infested the mountains to the north.

I'll be doing this again. Even if it turns into a special event thing rather than my usual way to handle such encounters, it makes a good change of pace, and it's nice to have the structure there to fall back on.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The No Fun Game

Why do some people try to get others to play their game by explaining why the game they're already playing "isn't fun?" That's been the Wizards of the Coast marketing tactic for 4e, towards older editions, and the main effect I've noticed has been a perfectly justifiable increase in grouchiness amongst the people who play all those editions.

WotC (and their overenthusiastic minions) aren't the only ones who do this, though. It seems to be a foundation of the more annoying forms of Forge theory, that D&D isn't fun and all the people who think it is are delusional. And I've had several people try to get me to play Exalted using this strategy.

I don't get it. If those older editions weren't fun, how'd the hobby get started in the first place? (I'm using "fun" broadly here -- maybe better to say "worth playing.") In WotCs case, I think their target audience is people without the history to know any better, just trying to create comparison, but still. Clumsy.

And even leaving aside the stupid insult angle, telling me why my game is bad doesn't give me any reason to play yours. It's sort of understandable that Wizards sees the world as "our new D&D vs. your old D&D," but it always puzzled me that the Exalted players thought that if I wasn't playing D&D, I'd automatically move to their game, like there weren't a hundred other systems out there that I could play.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Game of One's Own

I'm starting to think about homebrewing my own system. Mostly, I blame Trollsmyth's Moldvay/Basic hack, and Amagi Games. 4e coming out had something to do with it, giving me two related but different games to analyze.

And then there's my own sense that, someday, this is something that I'm going to have to do. Like running OD&D, or owning a sword. (And learning to use it, of course, but I've already started that; I have good luck with friends.) Someday I will write a terrible RPG and inflict it upon my friends. This is a law of my universe.

But lately it's moved off the back burners, and started taking up a bit more mental time. Especially since all this talk of cyberpunk started. If I were to start a serious project, now, it would be cyberpunk -- or rather, a fully cyberpunk-embracing version of that specific setting that was my first campaign. It's been on my mind lately, and while there were serious problems with that game I think there's a pretty decent setting there, cleaned up by my semi-adult self.

What's more likely to happen is that I'll use that setting for this year's NaNoWriMo novel (again) and run some D&D instead. Might be better to do another novel with it anyway, to get the setting into some kind of coherent form. (Not like it needs another incarnation -- this is one of my few really deep obsessions, along with D&D and Batman.) I may write up some notes as the mood strikes, but my school could really use some more D&D.

What I really want to know is, why does this have to hit during WoAdWriMo?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Not Post-Apocalyptic, It Was Actually Cyberpunk

Huh. So, I always thought of my first campaign as post-apocalyptic, in genre. Then noisms comes along with a new and exciting definition --
But cyberpunk was always about more than that, at root - its heart has always been in what Bruce Sterling called "the victims of the New"; the people who the Brave New World of the Future has left confused, damaged and trodden underfoot. From our perspective in the new millenium, what are the kind of things that will make people into outsiders, rebels, dropouts and scumbags, and what will those people - the ones with the pizazz to do anything, that is - be directing their rage against?

-- and I realize, no, it was cyberpunk.

Post-apocalypse never really worked, anyway. It had some elements of that, but it also had this whole techno-city-biz thing going on next to that, and the point was the conflict between the post-apocalyptic part and the shiny happy capitalism part. Cyberpunk.

Armed with this knowledge, I might go back and run another cyberpunk game some day. Using a setting built off of what I used for that original campaign, but making significantly more sense now that I have a better idea of what it's about. (That'll help with the novels I keep trying to write about it, too. A lot.)

One thing I know I'd change would be to add a lot more genetech to it. Gene manipulation, out of control retro-viruses, some kind of GM ecological disaster. In the real world, as a general rule, I think GM crops and gene therapy and so on are a good thing. But I like the themes their mis-use suggests, especially for a game. Lets me give people mutant powers and fun things like that. Out of control technology, generally, is something I'd like to play with; robots run amok and people buying military hardware off the street.

Unfortunately, I've got a lot of other games I'd like to run, so this may sit on the back-burner for a while. And I don't know what system I'd use -- I love d20 Modern, and I have both it and Future, but the equipment lists aren't that great, and I don't know that it handles genetech abilities that well. GURPS would be better in both those areas, but I'd actually have to send in my core books to get replaced (bad first 4th edition printing) and I'd want to get a couple other books. And while I like GURPS, I've never had that much success actually playing it.

Powerless 4e

The other day, szilard (of Neitherworld Stories) noted that there are lots of character features that aren't powers in 4e. Which got me thinking: is there a game there?

Take out powers and you'd probably have to redesign classes, to give them a tad more distinction, and I'd want to check to see how many to-hit bonuses attack powers have, to make sure the math still works out right.

But with a few adjustments, it'd work. Combat would have to revolve around stunts, but most martial power effects could be reasonably simulated. Magic might be trickier, but I'd probably use this to run something science-fiction-y anyway.

I don't know that there'd be any point, but it's probably possible. It'd definitely depend a lot more on having the right group than straight 4e.

Challenge: Media Influences

I'm a little late to the party, but here's the deal: James Edward, from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, has challenged the members of the role-playing blogosphere to list at least five media influences on their campaigns, and explain them. Check the links back to the challenge itself to see the power and majesty of the thing. Mine include:

Not the first book I fell in love with, but one of the earliest, and the deepest. It was one of the first science fiction books I read after discovering the genre through a book report on Asimov and--wow. It's the book I re-read every couple of years, often during NaNoWriMo. It's probably responsible for the amount and intricacy of the politics that tends to work its way into my campaigns, as have its particular vision of transhumanism (both the Bene Gesserit and Tleilaxu varieties) and image of an unconquerable wasteland.

A Wizard of Earthsea
One of the few fantasy novels I've read; my tastes and habits have always run towards the science side of speculative fiction, though that's beginning to change. It's got a cultural depth that I've never quite been able to imitate, beyond working some non-medieval details into my worlds. It's also probably the reason that every time I really think about how magic works in my world, it ends up related to words in some way, though for me it's usually writing rather than speech.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Flawed heroes! Magic rings! Epic quests! The other fantasy novels I've read, besides Earthsea and Lord of the Rings. Magic tied to the land, wise and seafaring giants, the whole "white gold wielder" thing, prophecy--these things speak to me.

The whole teenagers with superpowers thing was a big deal to me, at the time, and probably still is. Especially teenagers whole honestly like having their superpowers; the Animorphs never complained about having their powers, they complained that they had to deal with evil aliens, and couldn't get any help because they might be anywhere. Being a long-running, ensemble based series, it's a good model for team dynamics, the right mix of tension and co-operation, and how to give each character the right amount of spotlight time. It's also very talky, which is more noticeable in my writing than my DMing, but my ideal games do have a fair bit of chatter, both between PCs and with NPCs.

The Elder Scrolls
By which I mean Morrowind and Oblivion, not having played any of the earlier games. Morrowind, particularly, defines my ideal fantasy tone, a blend of mostly normal medieval/roman and bizarre bug creatures wandering around in the desert. I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to create fantastic ecologies for me games, and especially to use weird domesticated beasts, mostly because there aren't any normal animals in Morrowind, and how cool this is in the game.

Oblivion's influence is the most obvious of any of the items on this list, because I lifted the core of the plot to provide a backbone for the Is This Fair campaign. It worked out very differently, and I had changed enough things originally to make it distinct from the video game, but having a guideline was handy. I did, unfortunately, end up having the plot revolve around an NPC -- which is how it works in the game, but I should have known better. Especially since thinking about Oblivion and its major NPCs helped me work out some basic principles on how to make them important without upstaging the players.

On a less embarrassing note, it's also had an influence on the kinds of game I want to run. A great deal of my interest in sandboxes, with ancient ruins and collectible locations, is due to enjoying exploring Cyrodiil. And I'd like to use a something similar to the Imperial Cult in a future setting.

The Lord of the Rings
Well, duh, right? For the most part, though, I'm not into any specific setting details -- none of the non-human races are crazy enough for my tastes -- except maybe the long-lived line of kings descended from ancient glory days bit. I like the setting in the book, but I don't have a whole lot of interest in emulating it in my games. What I do like is the comradery and courage of the fellowship and the people around them. It doesn't work in every game I run, but I like to encourage it, when appropriate.

Special Bonus Non-Influence: Anime
There's nothing particularly wrong with it, and I've probably incorporated a specific idea from a specific show I've seen a couple episodes of here and there. But a lot of my friends are really into it -- which is why I've seen most of what I've seen -- and I've just never particularly cared. Except for when I was seriously into DragonballZ, but I claim extenuating circumstances.

There are probably some other influences and non-influences I missed, but that's a pretty decent list of the things I'm aware of. Except for "history," I guess, which seemed a little vague to give it's own spot, but I really do love settings and stories based on ancient culture and myth.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Jar Jar, You're A Genius

Do you read Darths & Droids? Imagine DM of the Rings, Star Wars style, except that the game master in question isn't nearly as much of a jerk.

It's also responsible for the phrase, "Jar Jar, you're a genius," existing on the internet. It's hit #40 on Google trends on its own, through the efforts of spam bots, but --
I think we owe it to the world to sustain and propagate this insanity. So if you haven't done it yet, go to Google and search for "Jar Jar, you're a genius" (with the quotes). Mention the phenomenon in your blog and encourage other people to Google for the term. Make posters proclaiming Jar Jar's genius and stick them up all over town. (If anyone actually does this, send us photos and we'll show them off!)

Having a love of Star Wars, webcomics, this comic in particular, internet shenanigans, and hijinks in general, I agree.

(Internet shenanigans brought to you by Qwerty.)

EDIT: If you're here for the first time, welcome. Though it's not quite as crazy as the game in Darths & Droids, you might be interested in the space adventure game I'm currently running. I've also got a quick and dirty guide on how to start roleplaying, a few notes on putting together a megadungeon, something like a review of Fight On! and a few crazy ideas for Vampire chronicles. And I encourage you to check out the links on my sidebar: there's a whole lot of gaming goodness in the blogs mentioned under "More Words to Read."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Noisms, of Monsters and Manuals, is writing an Australian/Cthulu mythos Labyrinth Lord supplement. And:

Even better than that, if we're talking pipe-dreams, I'd love to have some budding artists, layout people and computer-nerds to give the thing the veneer of professionalism, and turn it into something that people are really going to want to read and play. In other words: collaborators. What do you say, talented people of the role playing blogosphere?

So go check it out.

In less exciting news, my laptop's graphics card just fried for the fourth time in three months. This is both inconvenient and extremely frustrating. If I'm a little flakier than usual for the next couple weeks, it might be that I couldn't borrow someone else's computer. It's more likely, though, that I've just gotten sick of the blasted things, and am working on my megadungeon, safely removed from the digital world.