Friday, January 30, 2009

A Few Thoughts on a Megadungeon

Since I started the Traveller campaign (which will have its own blog in a day or two) I have, naturally, started planning other campaigns I might run in the future instead of working on it. In particular, I've started thinking seriously about running a megadungeon again. I've been going off and on the idea for a while now, particularly since Swords & Wizardry came out. Every time I read about a great megadungeon campaign on Sham's Grog 'n Blog or Grognardia or The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope, I get really excited about running my own -- and then I get distracted and wander off to plan and run something else.

I haven't managed to get much done during the enthusiasm phase of these cycles, but a few things are starting to stick. No maps, no room descriptions, not even a general idea of what the levels are, just a few vague notions.

First, I'm thinking the first level or two is going to be the sewers/catacombs of a city. Non-sensical fantasy sewers, with goblins and bandits hiding out in them and little shrines to evil gods, but sewers the same. Below that, things start to get weird, but the first few levels are relatively normal, though they don't make good civic sense.

The trouble with this notion, and the thing that keeps me from embracing it wholeheartedly, is that it seems to suggest that I'd have the whole city above it mapped out in similar detail, which I'm not really up to doing. And if I did that, I'd start thinking about whether said sewer conformed to medieval standards, and then I'd be spending my time on wikipedia rather than working on the dungeon. I suspect I can solve my problems by going "pfsh, there are entrances where I want there to be entrances, and the PCs are never going to map out the dungeon and the city accurately enough to figure out whether they match up" and leave it at that.

And, as much as I like the idea of urban adventure, on any given day I'm just as likely to think it'd be better for the main home base to be some little village out in the middle of nowhere. Or at most a medium sized town, something more manageable than a city, since I'll already be spending a lot of time working out the dungeon proper.

The other major idea I've had is that the dungeon, or at least part of it, is not just an underworld in the usual dungeon-y, it is The Underworld, the realm of the dead. This makes a pretty decent explanation for why everything down there is so weird, in case my players start asking pesky questions, and would make for an interesting series of sub-levels. And it gives me an excuse to make the entrance to the dungeon or some of the doors within it great gaping stone demon maws, whose teeth you must walk under to enter it.

So. Now I've got that out of my head, and I can go work on my Traveller game.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Roleplayer's Mailing List

I got another crazy idea the other day, and I'm just getting around to implement it. It's an attempt to solve two simple but common problems: How do I find games to play in? And how to I find players for games I'm running?

I solved both problems by making friends with people who turned out to be interested in roleplaying, but especially here at college I wish there was an easier way to get in touch with people who share my hobby. The traditional solution would be to start a club, but I don't really have the time or the patience to deal with the college bureaucracy required to start and maintain such things. I might get dragged into one anyway, so we can reserve rooms and post flyers and such, but for now, all I really need is a way for potential players to identify themselves and potential GMs to contact them.

Thus, I've created a Google Group -- a mailing list. Even if it doesn't take off in the way I hope, it'll make it easier for me to manage recruitment for my games. And if it does succeed? If other people start using it to recruit for their games? Not only would it now be much easier for freshman and the curious to get into games (one reason I might end up creating a club anyway: advertising) the roleplaying community in the area would really be a community, aware of each other and what people are doing, rather than a bunch of little sub-groups that don't talk to each other much.

What's going on now works, so far as it goes. I've got players, most of the GMs I know have players. But things could be better, especially since one of my longer-term gaming goals is to get to know enough people to run an irregular player group dungeon crawl, and something like this would be great for scheduling sessions. At the very least, it'll be an interesting experiment

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pudding Rancher

Sometimes I get very strange ideas. It started out innocently enough: I suggested "Pudding Rancher" as an additional Fable 2 class, in the spirit of the parody on The Escapist. Then, with a mind poisoned by hours of Pokémon breeding and a recent viewing of Australia, it occurred to me that this would be a perfectly good game in its own right. In my initial conception, it was a bit like how I imagine Viva Piñata, a brightly colored animal breeding game, except with an additional FPS like mini-game of pudding wrangling, and special titles based on the particular combination of puddings you owned, or what you'd done to your puddings.

Sadly, I'm not in any position to create a computer game. No programming skills, no interest in acquiring them, and too short an attention span to see the project through at any rate. And so, lacking the skills and the drive, I'd resigned myself to leaving Pudding Rancher in the bin of unrealizable projects, until I realized:

I can write a roleplaying game. The math will necessarily be less complex, the possible combinations somewhat simpler, and there won't be any shiny graphics to advertise it, but I can make a pen and paper game about buying, catching, breeding, growing, and selling puddings.

I further pondered the idea of making it a board or card game, but in the end have decided against both options -- mostly because I don't want to have to produce the materials needed for such games. It may very well end up being board or card game like: you might take a stack of 3x5 cards to write your pudding's stats, or draw a picture of your ranch to ease management of it and the puddings on it. But though a game with pre-drawn cards or tokens or whatnot might increase the appeal of the game, I'd rather have the grand flexibility that an roleplaying game (or roleplaying-like game) can provide.

So far I've just got a general idea of the stages of the game ("pudding wrangling," "the pudding auction," "pudding breeding," and "the pudding drive," for starters) and some ideas about stats for puddings ("flavor," "charm," "size," and a derived stat, "tastiness"). I'm considering giving pudding ranchers stats, to make it more distinctly roleplaying-like, and I have some vague ideas about different ways of rolling up puddings, depending on their origin.

It remains to be seen whether I'll actually get this done, but I needed to share it with the world. You may now resume the pudding free portion of your day.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Excellence of Random Character Generation

Traveller character generation is a lot of fun. Maybe the best session of character generation I've had. Feng Shui was kind of a trip, too, and character generation for Is This Fair? went well, but this was a unique experience.

I went into it thinking that I was going to run a default Traveller game. A little trading, a little exploration, a little running for their lives; I didn't have any specific ideas about what I wanted the campaign to be like, and I figured that sounded fun. If the players really took to one adventure or another, I'd move the campaign in that direction, but to start with I was going to keep things standard.

Then one player rolled a twelve. I pointed at that he could automatically qualify for the nobility if he put it into Social Standing, which he promptly did. Five terms later, we had a character with a Social Standing of 15 and a bunch of Yacht share. Add that to the pirate who has slept with half the party, the drifter who wandered onto the ship in a drunken stupor, and the physician with a crush on another guy the pirate once slept with, and we had the makings of a pretty distinctive campaign.

They've all gotten very excited about the idea of running a "space cruise ship." They're planning on doing the usual missions and trade and so on, but they're also hiring several stewards and taking full advantage of their noble's Duke social standing. They've taken very well to the "jump and try to make as much money as possible before jumping again" standard Traveller game play and given me a great excuse to have all kinds of weird NPCs show up to bother them. I couldn't be happier.

And this, without any planning on anyone's part. We rolled some dice and came up with an entertaining explanation for the numbers. A most promising sign.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Traveller Game Starts Tonight

Not dead, just busy. Busy with school, busy with making my character for and playing in Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord game, busy with my Traveller subsector.

That last is coming along quite nicely, and is just about in playable shape. I've got all the worlds generated and named, the basic situation of the handful closest to the starting world detailed, and the starting world itself sketched out pretty well. I've also got the zillions of random tables that attracted me to Traveller in the first place, so I'm not worried about running out of ideas.

I expect chaos. Both good chaos, crazy ideas and wacky quips chaos, and bad chaos, "how does that rule work again and is it my turn?" chaos. Even if it ends up just character creation -- which it very well might, seeing as I've got eight people who say they'll be there. And even with a more manageable number, it's still the first session of a new campaign, with a new group, using a new system.

But it'll be fun. It's Traveller. I'm getting to play a game that's been on my run list for at least a year, and that I've thought sounded since I first heard of it. It will, at the least, be an adventure.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Core Activites: D&D, the Third and One Half Edition

I'm skipping around a bit, since I thought I'd tackle the two editions of D&D that I've played before I risk the rest of the versions that I'm familiar with mostly by hearsay. More importantly, there are more differences, and more significant differences, between 3rd edition (and its identical for our purposes revision) and its predecessors than between any of the older games. Best to get the broad strokes laid out before diving into minutiae.

Not that the differences between the game I started with and the older versions I'm just now discovering are staggering. It's still got the same basic core activity of every edition of D&D -- kill things, take their stuff, level up. How you get XP is a little different, loot is a little different, and what you get when you level up is quite different, but the outlines remain the same.

The experience system suffers mostly stylistic changes. I'm not well versed enough in the lore of AD&D to know if the business about "overcoming challenges rather than killing monsters" is unique to 3rd Edition, but even if so there's not as big of a difference as you might think. The book does suggest "XP for achieving story goals" and "XP by fiat" as options, and there's some talk in the challenge rating system about adjusting those ratings to take into account the difficulty of the circumstances, but CRs, and the accompanying XP, remain mainly attached to monsters.

Loot -- particularly of the magic variety -- contains some more significant differences. The CR system assumes that the PCs have a certain amount of magical equipment at each level, and magic items can, in a normal campaign, be purchased freely. There's no mention of XP for treasure since gold is now it's own reward, effectively becoming a point buy character generation system tacked on to the existing level based one.

The changes to treasure only foreshadow the really big innovation of third edition: powers. I don't use that word in the 4e sense (though that is where they end up) but rather just as a general term for all the mechanical stuff that PCs in third edition get. Spells, feats, class abilities, skills -- not to mention all the strange new subsystems introduced in books like Magic of Incarnum, Book of Nine Swords, and the Psionics Handbook (and its Expanded descendant).

In many ways, the proliferation of powers is a good fit for the core activity of D&D. It's an addition that most of the video games based on the game have made, and it grows naturally out of spells, and special ability based classes like the monk. It adds a new angle to play -- the character build -- that provides a good "away from the table" activity for players. But mostly it just means that everyone gets a decision or two when they level up, strengthening that particular motivation, and the core activity as a whole.

But it does tend to shift the focus. The proliferation of powers, and associated uniqueness of each character and difficulty in creating new ones, naturally leads to a greater focus on the characters and away from the campaign that contains them. (I suspect that the changes to third edition reflected a pre-existing shift in play style rather than forcing a new one on everyone, but it does have an effect on new players picking up the game.)

Even a dungeon crawl--heck, even if you're using the same dungeon--in third edition will differ significantly from a dungeon crawl in OD&D, due to the changes in the kill/loot/XP/level cycle and to all the little peripheral adjustments in third edition. One game will be about conquering, or being conquered by, the dungeon, and the other will be about the characters doing the conquering. Just because systems share a core activity doesn't mean the games you run with that system will be the same.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Planet KordCorp

Behold, the genius of Traveller!
KordCorp 0508 A445511-14 SRTI Ag Ht NI

A sleepy little world populated mostly by robot farmers, and that happens to be the headquarters for KordCorp.

NPCs of note:

Ted Kord, billionaire industrialist extroardinaire. Mostly too busy to bother with the PCs, but they very well might see a well-coifed man storming through the space station, surrounded by sycophants and aides.

Yeven Orthos, once the head researcher for KordCorp. He and Ted had a nasty falling out, and now he spends most of his time trying to drum up support for a takeover by people with "the real knowhow," him and his scientist buddies. Wiry little guy with messy black hair, and quite pleasant when he's not on the subject of Ted Kord, traitorous bastard.

"The Shining Star" would be easy enough to write off as a bunch of drugged up hippies, if it weren't for their unfortunate tendency to assassinate an important public figure every so often. There's a rumor going around that they get their instructions (and supplies) from some offworld interest, but most investigations into the matter end in unhelpful conversations in bars with shadowy figures you are never seen again.

Local Rumors:
1 Erdo Mitchel's robots have gone crazy!
2 The West River Boys, a bunch of no-good surly frog-ox rustlers, have been spotted at least once or twice in the hills to the north.
3 Rusty Sallone is looking for someone to ship something awfully weird to Goro. Comes in boxes and growls.
4 Sunday Jones ran away from his father (Stewart) a couple days ago. He's still looking for her, and worried that he'll try to hitch a ride with some offworlders and he'll never see him again.
5 There's some real shady guy wandering around town, says he needs a couple people he can trust to get a message offworld.
6 A couple lab-coated guys came downport a couple days ago, looking for something with scanners (wouldn't say what it was, so we couldn't help) and they haven't been seen since.

Kordford -- the only thing approaching a city on KordCorp. Named for the leader of the original settlement, Elijah Kord, an age and a half ago.

Snake Eye's Saloon -- Run by the eponymous Joe "Snake Eye" Jefferson. Mostly the best place to pick up rumors in Kordford, but Snake Eye occasionally needs a job or two done, too.

"Speedboat for the lake of your imagination" indeed.

This is pretty much the extent of what I'm designing for each of the half a dozen planets that comprise the starting area of the campaign. Everything else in the sub-sector gets a paragraph, at most, until the PCs express interest in it. I'm good at winging it, and I plan to make use of that skill. And Traveller looks to have a lot of support for such shenanigans, with its spiffy random encounter tables and list of pre-statted NPCs.

This is the first time, though, that I've actually had to sit down and decide that I'm not going to obsessively detail everything on the map. Normally, that nonchalance comes naturally. I don't know if it's because I've gotten older or because Traveller hands me a subsector map to fill out, but I did feel an urge to go and detail every planet on the map, and put a lot more together for KordCorp. Not that I had any ideas to either effect, mind you. I just felt like I should drive myself crazy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Two Week Principle

So now I've got a deadline. I sent out an e-mail to seven prospective players (and I've already gotten one response) setting a date to start on January the 23rd. That session should be mostly character generation, but it still means I need to have some idea of what's going on in my subsector by then. None of this "I'll start recruiting when I'm ready" nonsense that doomed last semesters attempt at a Traveller game.

Every game I've ever run successfully, that actually lasted for a couple months and had a good time with, I had up and running in less than two weeks. Any more time to plan than that, and I start getting unfocused, and usually find something more interesting to work on. I don't have nearly the problem keeping my mind on the game once the players start getting up to interesting hi-jinks.

Traveller's a good game for a two week start up, since I don't need to do a whole lot of planning to get started, and I've already done a fair bit of the work. Thanks to the Traveller System Generator I have the basic details of all the worlds worked out. I want to give names and a bit of character to the half that don't have either yet, and more detailed write ups to the planet I've picked to start in and the worlds nearby. NPCs, conflicts, trade tables, maybe a bit on the local wildlife -- nothing too fancy, but enough to get a game going.

Because that's my goal. Get the game started. That's, ultimately, why I decided against the other contenders for next semester's game. As much as I like Swords & Wizardry, and as intrigued as I am by the new World of Darkness games, neither of them give me the same "get up and game!" feeling that Traveller does. (Thanks, ChattyDM!) I know I can generate a lot of space adventure and fast, and I have a lot more confidence that the players will all be on the same page as me. Those other systems have their own two weeks in the future, but this time it's all Traveller.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Core Activities: D&D, the Editionless Edition

Often known as OD&D, but on the tin it's just D&D, no number, no "Advanced," no hint of any other game that was or will be. This isn't a game I've played, and indeed my knowledge of it is based mostly on Swords & Wizardry and hearsay. But even that gives me enough to know that this game is different in many ways from its descendants, and it has its own variation on the basic D&D core activity.

In OD&D, there's none of this "you get XP for challenges" nonsense. You can get it from killing monsters, though they're usually not worth the trouble, even if your DM includes bonus XP for special powers instead of basing it exclusively off hit dice. Instead, the main source of XP is treasure.

Thus, the dungeon. Even 4th Edition gives a few nods to that classic adventure location, since it provides a convenient source of clearly defined areas full of interesting terrain, but OD&D lives it. If the standard set up is to get XP for "overcoming challenges," or even just fighting monsters, there are plenty of other places to get it. But the dungeon, as traditionally defined, is just about the best place anywhere to find a lot of treasure. (Unless you're running an Ocean's Eleven style palace heist game, which could be fun. Make it a single race party and call it "Ocean's Elves" for maximum player irritation.)

Leveling also provides a slightly different reward than in the more recent versions of the game. True, wizards and clerics get spells, but not as many or as often, and fighters don't get any powers except from magic items, which are in turn much less common. (Monty Haul campaigns notwithstanding.) In the style the game is intended to be played, player cleverness does what modern games do with skills and feats, and the game tends to stay more down to earth. What leveling up does provide is a measure of survivability. A few more hit points, a slightly better chance to hit, and now your character can stand toe to toe with a goblin for more than a round.

But even without getting a whole lot in the way of neat powers, OD&D is still fun. It spawned a hobby, and is still played to this day. This is largely because the activities involved with gathering XP -- outwitting traps, solving puzzles, fighting monsters -- are fun in and of themselves. Later editions shifted XP a little more away from "scorecard" and a little more towards "currency for cool things," but even they depend on the fact that getting that XP is fun.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I Was a Single System Gamer

I've never really thought of myself as a single system gamer. I started out with D&D 3.5, but I got into d20 Modern fairly quickly, and GURPS not too long after that. I was generally aware of the larger universe of roleplaying games, and had designs to try a number of them. I wasn't one of those people who never played anything but D&D.

Except that for the most part, I never did play anything that wasn't d20 based. My flirtation with GURPS crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, and I spent the next few years playing and running D&D, Arcana Evolved, d20 Modern, and Star Wars d20. Since then starting college, I've played in a short GURPS campaign and ran a session of Feng Shui, but the only serious campaign I've ran was 4th Edition D&D.

And yet, somehow, I've never identified as a D&D gamer, or a d20 gamer. It wasn't even that I wanted to play other games, but always ended up playing d20 because that was all my group would play. The people I play with have always been fairly open to new games. (Upon seeing the new World of Darkness books I had in my backpack, they each picked a splat and started making characters for fun.) I just always ended up playing d20 games.

I only really noticed this when I started writing about the new World of Darkness. Lots of responses, lots of advice, lots of people who are very much not D&D players -- rather than D&D players who dabble in other systems, like me and a lot of other bloggers out there. Or, as the case may be, players of no particular system who nevertheless end up playing D&D and D&D derived systems most of the time.

The way things are looking, though, I won't be playing anything d20 for a while, and D&D is only a little less unlikely. Several of my prime candidates for players in a campaign next semester don't like d20 at all, and I've been in the mood to experiment with another system for a while. I might still end up running Swords & Wizardry, which is close enough to being D&D to count, but Traveller, Mage, and Vampire are all very much in the running. My home group hasn't discussed next summer much, but most of our recent gaming has involved experimenting with new systems. I might not be a d20 player again for a while.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Core Activities: D&D

Core activities, like many things in RPG, are about motivation. What do players want, and how do they get it? A good core activity helps a GM harness what players want to create situations that are interesting in play.

Dungeons & Dragons has a very good core activity. Players, like a lot of people, like power. They like being able to do cool things and have control over their world, or in this case, the game world. D&D has power in spades, in discrete, easy to use packages -- spells, class abilities, magic items, and in later editions feats -- and a direct, simple path to it. Collect XP, level up.

It gives the PCs a reason to go out and do things. Whether its rumors of a dungeon filled with peril or a glimpse of some guy getting mugged in an alleyway, XP gives extra bite to any plot hook. It also makes it easier for PCs with very different motivations to get along. The guy who's out for revenge against his father's killer and the guy who mostly just wants to get rich are both willing to go along with the do-gooder's latest crusade, because there'll at least be a level in it for them, and maybe a neat magic item. Whether leveling up is an end in itself or something that will help them achieve other goals, XP gives everyone something in common.

Now, each edition has a slightly different take on how you get XP and exactly what those powers do, and I'm going to work out some of those details in later posts, but that's the idea at the heart of them all. It's a major part of why the game has kept going for so long. And thanks to computer games, it's an idea that will likely outlive D&D itself. Just another debt we owe to 1974.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Core Activities: Introduction

I've been thinking a lot lately about what Mike Mearls calls "core stories," and what Joseph at Greyhawk Grognard has called "campaign tentpoles." Not that they're nearly the same concept, but they both contain the kernel of the same basic concept. Mearls applies it mostly to settings, and Joseph to campaigns -- and a particular kind of campaign at that -- but they both posit that successful game has some kind of repeatable, foundational activity to it, that GMs can vary or diverge from as they please, but that still remains, a touchstone for the campaign no matter how crazy things get.

Although Mearls focuses on the setting elements involved, it's as much mechanical as it is story or setting based, which is why I'm using the term "core activities." D&D's core activities include the "leave civilization, kill things, and take their stuff" elements that he identifies as the core story, but they also include the mechanical tidbits involved in that process -- gaining XP, leveling up, and using new powers and magic items. If you took the core story he identified and ran the game using, say, GURPS, it wouldn't be the same game. While you do gain XP in GURPS, "leveling up" is very different. Such a game could certainly be run, but you'd have to deal with the fact that a GURPS character has much less intrinsic motivation to descend into a dungeon, fight monsters, and find treasure than the average D&D character.

A good core activity makes it much easier to pick up and run a game, and it makes it easier to pick up and run. Pretty much anyone can pick up some D&D books and run a game. Not necessarily a good game, but I know a lot of folks can attest to how much fun even a simple dungeon can be if its new and different from anything they've ever done before. A more experienced DM doesn't need to lean on the core activities as much, if they have some cool new idea they want to try out, but for a long running game its nice to have something fun and familiar for when everyone needs a breather.

Having been inspired by the excellent Storytelling Engines series at Fraggmented, I'm going to take a shot at examining some different core activities, starting with D&D (and its derivitives) and working my way through the rest of the games on my shelf. I'll try to figure out what the major elements of the core activities of each are, what works and what doesn't. In particular, I'm going to try to examine the mechanical aspects of these activities, and how they interact with setting and other social or conventional aspects of play, since that's what got me interested in the topic in the first place.

Friday, January 09, 2009

My Problems with a Mostly Modern Setting

Almost done reading through Mage. The main item I've got left is the Boston mini-setting in the back, and then there's some legacies and merits and things that I'll read in more detail later. (It's unusual for me to read a new RPG book as thoroughly as I've been covering these new World of Darkness volumes, I'm usually a lot more haphazard about it. But it's an entirely new system and I've got a lot of time on my hands, and I'd like to do a thorough appraisal before I get back to school and start playing.) So far, I like what I see. The system's spiffy, I'm starting to get this whole "themes" thing, and there's an amusingly large number of references to dungeon crawling -- I mean, exploring Atlantean ruins. Right.

The one thing that's keeping me from enthusiastically throwing myself into running the thing is the setting. Not that it's bad -- for "secret modern occult politics" it's quite good, and I like what I've read of it so far. But it's still modern, and it's still a pre-made setting. Both of those things make me nervous.

I've never run a modern game. The closest I came was when I ran a session of Feng Shui where the characters helped President Harrison Ford fight Nazi ninjas. I've run post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, a fair amount of fantasy, and a brief, ill-fated space campaign, but never anything even close to real world modern. I don't write much realistic (or even semi-realistic) fiction, either. I've started giving it a little more attention lately, but for a long time I just wasn't comfortable writing anything set in anything remotely resembling the normal, modern world. Even if it was supers or something, the real world parts would trip me up.

I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it makes me wonder if I can do a decent job with Mage as written. What if there's a real, good reason I've avoided running a modern game all these years? What if being uncomfortable with it throws off my game? What happens if, three sessions in, I decide I can't handle it?

Pushing myself out of my comfort zone could be a good thing. But the other problem with the setting is simply that there is one. All but one of my campaigns have used more or less custom settings. I did once run a game in the Diamond Throne, but I completely changed the geography, significantly altered the history, and didn't use several of the races. It's a habit that worries me, because while there's a lot I can do to alter the magical parts of the Mage setting, I'm a lot more limited in geography, history, culture, and most other major things I could change, if its still going to look vaguely like the real world.

The set up does have its advantages. Everyone has more or less the same baseline knowledge of the world: like ours, but darker. I don't have to do much in the way of pre-game explanation to allow everyone to make characters that fit. And there's a lot of material already out there. I can use maps, neat history facts, and locations from the real world, even with a few minor modifications.

But I haven't quite been able to convince myself. I'm still wondering if I should put the effort in and whip up a neat little dark fantasy or cyberpunk world or something, give myself a little more room to breath, a setting more like I'm used to. The only problem with that is that, at the moment, I don't have enough to hang a game on. If I already had some crazy cool idea that would work with the system, I'd be sketching it out without giving it this much thought. Trouble is, I don't have anything like that already, and despite my misgivings about running Mage "straight" I don't know that it'd be worth the effort and risk to try to force a more unique setting.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Early Thoughts On Mage Orders

I'm about halfway through Mage, currently making my way through the rotes. It's interesting reading; the orders and paths make a lot more sense now that I know what they can actually do. The most interesting thing I've noticed is that each of the orders suggests a very different kind of camapign. It's not hard to imagine a mixed cabal, but on their own each order has its own unique set of activities.

In that sense they're much more distinct from each other than Vampire covenants. The covenants are much more different from each other politically, each having far more divergent views on the origin and purposes of their kind than the different orders do of theirs, but their core activities are all more or less similar. Each seeks to expand its own power at the expense of the others, by subverting mortal wills and weaving webs of favors and deceit. They've each got their own style, and different things they want to do with that power, but every vampire is driven by the same basic needs of territory and haven.

Mages, too, all have the same basic goal of learning secrets and advancing their power, but each of the orders has a very different set of day to day activities. The Mysterium leans towards "magical Indiana Jones," while the Guardians of the Veil are more black ops cloak and dagger. It's not simply that a guardian is "the sneaky one" and a mystagogue is "the book-ish one," filling different roles the way classes do in D&D. Each order represents its own mode of play.

The "default" mage game seems to be a mix of the different activities of the orders -- searching for mystic secrets, defending those secrets from rivals, dealing with mortals when something goes awry, and mixing it up with the local power structure. This provides another contrast with Requiem, which presents a mostly universal set of basic behaviors -- feeding, finding a haven, gaining and maintaining access to good territory -- and then layers the goals of an individual or group on top of that foundation.

Not that any given Awakened group wouldn't have its own unique features, but a game could also be defined by what it omits from the basic design. Drop the political aspect entirely, or nix adventures in long forgotten tombs. Secrecy from sleepers would be difficult to remove, being a core part of the game, but it could be de-emphasized, a barrier to other actions rather than something the group takes a proactive stance towards.

I suspect, though, that an amalgam of different styles would make for a very robust, interesting game, such that intentionally tampering with the basic mix wouldn't be worth the trouble. But a certain amount of adjustment would be inevitable; the players would naturally signal the activities they're most interested in by the order they choose for their characters, and the campaign would shift to fit those preferences. That strikes me as one of the strengths of this model -- there's a lot of variety in what a "normal" campaign might look like, and there's a built in method for the players to clearly demonstrate what they want out of the campaign.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dice Preferences

Part of the reason I could never quite get into GURPS was the dice. All d6s, all the time, at most varying the number used when rolling for damage. I appreciate the elegance of the system, and I can sort of see the appeal of being able to use whatever dice are on hand to play, at least for new players and groups. But I like my bag full of crazy, fancy dice too much to really be happy using nothing but d6s for the length of a campaign.

I like dice in weird colors. I like dice in weird shapes. I have a fondness for the d8, because of all the clerics I played when I was first starting out. I like d12s, to the point where I get excited when I find a system that uses them. And I like systems that use lots of different dice, mostly because I've got a lot of different dice.

That collection of preferences was a (small) factor in keeping me away from White Wolf and similar games. Who wants to just roll one kind of dice all the time, even if it is a little more interesting than a bunch of d6s? When the books I'm reading through now finally overcame all my various resistances, I discovered that dice pools are just as much fun as rolling crazier individual dice. Different kind of fun, but it's still nice to throw a handful of dice, and even more fun to pick out the dice I get to roll again. A tactile pleasure, rather than an aesthetic one.

Which shouldn't have been surprising to me. My favorite GURPS character ever was a street racer who, thanks to a GM who hadn't seriously considered the results of letting all the PCs outfit themselves with TL 14+ tech, ran around with a gauss rifle. She regularly rolled ridiculous amounts of damage dice thanks to a snazzy rate of fire and ludicrous Gun skill. (Which was more a side effect of her crazy vehicle handling skills than an intentional attempt to game the combat system, but I did take advantage of it.) Somehow, it never occurred to me that the fun I had rolling that bunch of dice would translate to dice pool type systems in general.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Seven Players With Computers

We finished that Paranoia game on Sunday night. We picked up right where that post leaves off, since by the time the rest of the group came back everyone else had to go home.

In between sessions, we added two players, this being a mostly social "hang out with some friends we haven't seen in a while, and maybe do some gaming" kind of affair. So we had seven players, one GM, and everyone in possession of a laptop or other chat device.

I had fun. Make no mistake. I got to bother people with a sock puppet and reprogram a bunch of scrub bots to attack my fellow troubleshooters. But I can't say I recommend the size of the group or the level of technology in use. For some, maybe, and in our group it worked out okay, but there were some problems.

Most important was that the set up slightly overwhelmed the GM. Seven people texting to you trying to pull secret bullshit is kind of hard to deal with. This is a problem in any group of that size -- I've had issues running groups that large myself -- but the technology factor amplified it. If we'd been passing notes, the volume would have likely been a bit more manageable.

It would have also made it more obvious which other players were sneaking around doing their own thing. Everyone was fiddling with their devices, but some of us were passing notes and others were just recording suspicious events. (Or goofing off, but I'll get to that in a minute.) On the one hand, it was nice for me, being one of the people getting up to a lot of the antics. (Not all -- our Happiness Officer turned the air ducts we were using into trap-filled pits of doom. Good times.) But the guy playing our Loyalty Officer pointed out that this greatly reduced our options to spend Perversity Points to thwart the other players actions.

But the major problem was just how distracting being hooked up to the internet can be. It might have been okay with a smaller group, and a large group might have been okay without the gadgets, but together? The people who weren't in the spotlight had a terrible temptation to decouple from the game entirely.

Not that it didn't go well. I had fun, and everyone else seemed to have a decent time. We've got an experienced group that works well together, and we had a good GM. But the combination of a large group and laptops has some definite pitfalls.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Size of a Book

So now I (finally) have Promethean, Mage, and the World of Darkness corebook. Still haven't had a chance to go through them properly. I'm half way through the core book, currently trying to work up the gumption to get through the combat section. Not that I'm not interested in it -- I'm intrigued by the system. I've never really looked at a dice pool game before, and this one has a number of features I quite like. Number one is getting to roll handfuls of dice all the time. I like rolling dice. And I like getting new dice -- I've only got six d10s at present, so if I decide I'm going to run these games I'll need some more.

I haven't even cracked Mage and Promethean yet, but I've already noticed one thing: these books have a very attractive feel to them. The corebook is about the size of the average D&D supplement, but the others are practically proper tomes. Particularly the Mage corebook, which is now the thickest RPG I own. I'm not used to it, and it gives the book an attractive heft and unusual feel. Vampire and Promethean are both about the size of the 3.5 corebooks, maybe a little heavier. Which still gives them a reasonable attraction, seeing as their dimensions match the first RPG books I ever owned, and the ones I've spent the most time with.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Game Masters Should Also Be Writers

One of my more peculiar beliefs is that all game masters who possess the time and interest should also be writers. This is based entirely on my own idiosyncratic personal experience, and may very well not be universally applicable. But it's kept me out of trouble, and done a fair amount of good for my players, so I feel confident in recommending the practice.

It doesn't even have to be good writing. It may help if it's not. I've written two and a half novels, a play, and a novella, all spectacularly bad. That hasn't stopped me from getting a good deal of benefit out of them, both the practice of writing and the artifacts themselves.

In the first place, it encourages a creative habit. Not particularly necessary for an experienced game master, but it does a novice good. My first campaign was loosely based on the first (and most dramatically terrible) novella I wrote, and having that grounding of ideas on which to base a campaign made that early campaign much more successful than its inspiration. And my habits of thinking about stories and places and ideas for a long time, being used to doing "work," alone, as a source of entertainment, and writing down ideas as they came to me or as I stole them all started with writing, and all were handy as a game master.

It's not just being a former writer that's a benefit. Knowing that if an ideas proves to be unworkable for a game, I can just repurpose it for a story or something, keeps me focused on the table, and on ideas that make sense there. Likewise, there are certain things I'm uniquely terrible at writing about, but still call to me -- things involving guns and explosions, mostly. So action and adventure go in the gaming bin, and anything philosophical or sociological, (I read too much Heinlein as a kid, but I'm trying to kick the habit) focused on particular moments of emotion or decision, or that comes with anything resembling a plot goes in the writing bin. It also keeps me from getting too wrapped up in theme, though I'm starting to come around to the idea that there is a place for such things in a game. A decorative place, sure, but a place.

Most importantly, writing makes me appreciate just how easy running a game is. Running a game comes with a source of ready made ideas and information in the rules and whatever setting is implied or described by them, frequent but small deadlines, and a gang of happy, crazy people with ideas of their own and responses to mine. I have much more control over the finished product when I write, but that also means I have a lot more work to do. Writing is sometimes frustrating, often time consuming, and often hard -- and game mastering is, too. But compared to writing, it's a dream.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Place to Play

I still don't have a system for the game I'm running next semester (or even much of a concept, beyond a lot of possibilities) but that's okay. What worries me more is that I don't have any clear idea where I'm going to play. There's dorm rooms, lounges, and library break out rooms, but none of those are exactly ideal. I'm used to a particular kind of play space, and I suspect (as I mentioned when I manically discussed how to get into the hobby) the inadequacy of the one we were using threw off the game I tried to run last year.

Play spaces are important. I know it's possible to run a game in any old place, but I prefer my gaming environment to have certain qualities. I like a large table, especially when running a game that needs a battlemat, but even without one I like having space to spread out all my books and notes, and space for players to do the same. Ideally, I'll have a little table of my own that I can have at my side, for reference materials and so forth. Light is important, too. It has to be bright enough to read by, but too bright light (a category that mostly applies to fluorescents) will put me to sleep. The chairs should be good, and an assortment of mismatched ones ads flavor to the affair, though that's far from necessary.

I'm not as big on snacks as some people, though I recognize that they're an important feature of the social rituals surrounding any gathering, and I like to be able to provide whatever food and drink the players prefer. (At home, that means Doritos and Cherry Coke, by ancient tradition.) Myself, I've mostly given up eating junk food while gaming -- takes the edge off, mentally -- so when I do have snacks it's mostly cherries and carrots and the like. What does matter to me is water. I tend to drink a lot of water when I GM, both because of the damage even mild dehydration does to my alertness and because I talk so dang much.

I also like being able to keep stuff where I game. Mostly I just don't like having to move all my books around, but it's also nice to be able to do prep in the same spot that I GM. And it's a major convenience when running a battlemat game, in case we have to break in the middle of a fight.

At home I just play in someone's dining room (or basement) but none of the spaces I have available at college quite fulfill these requirements. My dorm room doesn't have a table or much in the way of chairs. The one actual residence I have regular access to tends to get sort of crazy on game night, and doesn't have a good table anyway. The study rooms at the library have these huge glass windows so anyone can look in, lousy lighting, too small tables and not enough chairs for the group size I'd like to have. I'm probably going to end up running it in my hall's lounge, but the table there has this picnic bench thing going on, and I'd have to pack up my stuff.

I figure I'm not unique in having preferences for my gaming environment, those my specific preferences might be. Anyone else given this any thought?

Friday, January 02, 2009

Dr. Horrible as a Model for Preludes

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, besides being awesome, strikes me as an example of the intent of what White Wolf calls a prelude. (If you haven't seen it yet, be warned that there are some spoilers coming up.) It's a fairly short story about one character who then goes on to have a series of adventures with another group of characters, who are introduced in the story but not central to the action. In the course of the story, something goes terribly wrong, setting up the (implied) motivation for the character's later behavior, lending depth and tragedy to any later stories.

If nothing else, it's a good illustration for why a prelude might be a good idea. Were Dr. Horrible were to show up in another movie or show, antagonist or otherwise, he'd be much more understandable and even sympathetic than if presented cold. (Which is funny, because in the show I don't think Dr. Horrible is actually all that sympathetic until the end. He doesn't seem to have much concept of other people as independent actors, with lives and feelings of their own. Which is sort of the point, I suppose.)

Being a movie, the comparison isn't perfect. The Whedon brothers have a lot of latitude in setting up the specifics of their tragic payoff, because they're writing everything out ahead of time. Trying to get that level of premeditated cohesion in a game would invite either the potential for the whole thing to go horribly awry, or boredom as everything plays out exactly according to schedule. By necessity, you'd need to be willing to play a little fast and loose with exactly how things turned out.

But starting out with a character and a simple-ish goal wouldn't be a bad way to go. The "element of tragedy" part might be a little bit tricky, but luckily World of Darkness games tend to have that built in. "Character X wants to do Y, but whether he succeeds or fails he will in the process get vampirized" is pretty gameable, especially the vampire involved has his own motives.

Without such an obvious avenue, the easiest thing to do would be to agree with the player ahead of time that, regardless of whatever else happens, at some point something terrible is going to happen to their character. Might even go so far to have them come up with something cool and character appropriate during the course of the game. One thing that would help with defining a tragic moment on the fly like this would be giving the character some kind of defining flaw to build off of -- the classic approach, and one Dr. Horrible uses.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year! Have a Sonnet!

Adventure seems to be at hand at last
So long has been the week since we last played
Our cola and Doritos well arrayed
Our DM summons us to vistas vast
Where we will find a dragon to harrass
A might foe to fight with spell and blade
We'll likely only do it if we're paid
We're unwashed thieving bastards unsurpassed
But more than jewels and triumphs have we gained
And fiercer feats than dragons have we dared
Within us greater wonders do abound
We count the craft of worlds in our domain
No better gods than friendship have we found
Those worlds that most keep private we have shared