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.