Monday, June 29, 2009

Eight New Year's Resolutions: Sixth Months Later

Since it's half a year since I wrote up my New Year's gaming resolutions, I thought I'd go back and check on the ones I made. So far? Things are going well. I've gotten the important ones done, and made progress on everything else.

8. Pick up a copy (or two) of Fight On!
Done. Got #1 through #4. Once I've got a job and enough other things to pad out a Lulu order, I'll catch up again.

7. Post a little more regularly
This one was too vague to be a real resolution, but so far I'm happy in this area. I've switched to a MWF schedule and that seems to be working out fairly well. I did miss Friday, but for the most part the reduced schedule lets me get ahead enough to make up for my slacking off.

6. Train a new GM
Some progress here. I got boytoy to run a game, but I may have scared him off by getting frustrated with his dungeon. I also got some of one of my non-GM players to run a few NPCs in the Arcana Evolved, and that seems to have encouraged him.

5. Read a few Conan stories
Various factors (laziness, etc.) have kept me away from the library. But I should be able to get there in a few days.

4. Write up a megadungeon through 3 levels
I've almost finished level 1, so there's progress. On the other hand, I've discovered that I don't need to have it written through three levels to run it. My players have played enough Diablo 2 to have a healthy respect for stairs down.

3. Finish my Traveller Subsector
Another "sort of." I've got enough to play it, but it's not technically complete yet. This was supposed to be a summer project, but at the moment I'm working on other things.

2. Play in a campaign
Done! Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord campaign continues to rock.

1. Run a campaign
Also done. I've run two, in fact.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

(Washington) D.C. Superheroes

So I spent the weekend in New York, and came back with another patch of roleplaying ideas. Last time I went I had some ideas about generating cities using random tables, and I gave a bit more thought to that idea. (Mostly about pregenerating businesses to drop in as necessary.) And I thought some more about hacking together a system to run a cyberpunk campaign. (Perhaps using Basic Roleplaying as a base?) But mostly I got this strange idea about running a superhero game set in Washington D.C., in the early 70s.

Setting a game in the 70s was an idea I'd had while surfing Wikipedia. Specifically, those pages where it lists all the events of importance from a particular year. This struck me as a great way to generate background and color for a historical game, and such a time period would have a number of advantages along those lines, even if I was making some tweaks in the timeline. The 70s in particular appeal to me as a decade because it's outside my personal experience but not remotely distant, the culture is distinctive and recognizable, and the mood contrasts with the current era's in interesting ways.

But I wasn't really sure what kind of game I would really want to run in a the 70s, until I remembered my long-standing interest in running a superheroes game. I put it off for a while because my group didn't seem into it and I wasn't sure what system I'd use, but now I've got enough superhero-obsessed players that I could wrangle the rest into it, and I've done enough research to decide that Mutants & Masterminds would be worth taking for a spin. Washington D.C. is the obvious choice for a home base, seeing as it's close by and I know it fairly well, and particularly the early 70s were an interesting time to be in the city. It also has some persistent institutional dysfunctions that would make it very attractive to crusader-types; this would be right around the dawn of (limited) home rule, and a natural time and place for such personalities to get involved.

After talking with my brother for a while, we decided that brand new superheroes with a street-level focus would be the way to go, and that works very well with both the city and the time period. The players would be one of the first real supergroups to start working together, and they'd take on the various gangs in charge of different parts of the city, all the while dealing with other territorial supers, a suspicious but embattled federal government, and the city government itself. There'd be politics and international goings on happening in the background, but the majority of the action would be based on fighting over control of turf and maybe solving a few of the city's problems along the way.

Monday, June 22, 2009

That Dang Supplement Treadmill

The other day, I realized why I've stopped playing 4e D&D. It has nothing to do with the system itself. The system itself is spiffy. Not perfect by a long shot, and I don't think I could run a really long, serious campaign with it, but there are a lot of games that fall into that category. Heck, I considered running it this summer. I like running it, my summer group likes playing it. If it weren't for the sequel they'd been bugging me to run, it should have been perfect.

Except for that dang supplement treadmill. The thing that really clinched that decision for me -- to run Arcana Evolved rather than 4e D&D -- was that I knew that a bunch of cool stuff had come up since the last time I ran 4e, and if I ran it again there would be a serious temptation to buy more of that cool stuff. This is true of Arcana Evolved as well, but to a lesser degree. Not as much stuff, and I've already got a ton of 3e books that I haven't gotten a chance to use yet.

And 4e D&D has the specific issue that using it rather than some other game would be largely about the cool stuff. If I wasn't going to be fiddling with weird party combinations or coming up with killer monster combos, there wouldn't be much point to playing it. I can enjoy that style of game, but it's not significantly superior to the kind of game where the focus is on something other than character tweaks (or where I can make that kind of thing up myself) and it's a lot more expensive.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Never Have a Plan

So, after Friday's session, Artemis asked me if I'd expected them to fight the ice golem, or try to sneak around it/negotiate with it. She'd interpreted my placing an obviously overpowered monster in their way as evidence of some kind of plan.

Which I didn't have. Yeah, I set up the terrain, with the ledge and everything, in a way that gave them a chance at dealing with it without getting completely hosed, but (to be entirely honest) that wasn't what I was thinking when I set it up like that. I was thinking "hey, Ax has that neat gliding ability, and his player seems really into it, I should give him an opportunity to glide into combat." So I did. Only once the scene had gotten rolling did I realize how smart of me it was to do that.

I didn't have a plan. I never have a plan. I didn't know whether they'd sneak around it, or figure out a way to kill it, or just charge in and get themselves all killed. I hadn't even given much thought to how they'd deal with it. I knew it was possible for them to deal with it somehow, even if that might involve bringing in their parents and mentors, but I figured it was up to them to work out exactly how that was going to go down.

It's not just that I know the players will mess up any plan I come up with, though that is why I originally adopted the policy. More fundamentally, any plan I come up with can't possibly be as interesting as one designed by four or five people very motivated people. If I come up with a plan ahead of time, I'd be tempted to say that whatever crazy idea the players came up with was "wrong," and that would make the game less interesting. It requires a certain comfort with improvisation, but I developed that quite quickly when I realized it would get me out of doing work.

So I don't plan. I come up with ways to motivate my players, and then I get out of their way. Less work. More fun. Your mileage may vary, as always, but it works for me.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Neo-Classical Is Better For New Players

On Thursday, I'll be running a six or seven person foray into my megadungeon. (Or perhaps another adventure. Not likely, but I haven't ruled it out.) I considered using 4e, because it's been on my mind a lot lately and I've pegged it as a good system for one-shots, due to its consistency. Ultimately, I decided that Swords & Wizardry would handle the group size better, and I've been looking for an opportunity to introduce this gang to neo-classical play for a while anyway.

Another consideration is that we're going to have a brand new player at the table. (The younger sister of the boyfriend of an old regular from my high school group.) I've already sworn off introducing new people to 3.5 D&D. Despite my occasional frustrations with it, I like the system, but I've been playing it on and off for nearly seven years now. I've read all the core books, cover to cover, multiple times.

New players don't have that experience, and trying to introduce them to the idea of roleplaying and actually play the game while also explaining the system to them is an exercise in frustration, even if they are interested in its intricacies. More often, they aren't. The last few times I've tried to run 3.5 with people, it's turned into tedious frustration. Boytoy had decided roleplaying "wasn't his thing" partly because of his lack of interest in dealing with that system, which I'd originally used to introduce him to gaming.

4e isn't quite as convoluted as its predecessor, but it's still a decision heavy, rules-mastery focused system. I'm comfortable running it (and, presumably, playing it) but a large part of that comfort is based on that same experience I have with 3.5, and such systems generally.

For new players, it's just too much hardware. They don't need all that stuff to "get" roleplaying, and if they're not interested in it, it just gets in the way. If I suspected she'd be a rules junky herself, and we were starting up a proper campaign, I might consider it. But for a one-shot, and a player I know basically nothing about? Much better to go with a system that gets out of the players way and puts the heavy lifting on me, rather than the book.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fun with Death & Doom

(And frost, too, come to think of it.)

Last Friday's session of Is This Foul? was pretty combat heavy. Beyond a little exploration and the usual scenery chewing, two fights took up almost the entire five hour period. In retrospect, I probably it was probably too combat laden; I set up said combats mostly because I was curious about how they'd play out, forgetting that at least one player has very little interest in combat, and the rest do fine without it.

On the whole, though, it worked out rather well. We had a guest with us, running an NPC, so the combat-focus was probably good for keeping her from getting too lost in references to backstory and the ever-more convoluted plot. And, of course, I had the always antic-prone Halden to keep things interesting, by nearly getting himself killed and attacking his brother (one of the PCs) at slow moments.

I was fairly pleased with how the fights themselves turned out, too. Both were interesting, and quite different from each other. The first involved three high speed "grave wolves" zipping around outside the radius of their (single) light source, based very loosely on the harrier class from Iron Heroes. Though well within their capabilities, it was tough enough to put Halden into serious danger, prompting some amusing attempts to protect him from his own idiocy by the more responsible members of the party.

The second was one of the most interesting pure combats in 3.5 that I've ever run. (I've run plenty of combats that were interesting for plot or character reasons, but it's unusual for me to engineer something that holds my attention just on tactics.) I set an ice golem, from Frostburn, in front of a stone door -- thus, a fairly likely candidate for the "vaults" they're looking for in the tunnels they were exploring -- and the PCs on a ledge across the ice cave from it. Normally, this critter is CR 9, but I cranked up its HD into the territory where CR calculations for such things get a little wonky. Suffice to say, it was well out of their league, even with five level 10 PCs and a level 13 NPC along for the ride.

Luckily, it didn't take them long to figure that out. Kheriim, their mage blade, summoned a fire elemental, and when it smashed that in one hit they became very cautious about engaging it directly. Which was smart, because a few of the lower-hp characters could have very well died after but a single lucky hit, and even Ax (level 13 and a warmain to boot) could only handle a few rounds next to it.

Instead, they figured out a bunch of ways to fight it without getting close to it. Tricks with runes, the aforementioned fire elementals, a dancing-sword type spell, alchemist's fire, and running away really fast were the order of the day. There was also some talk about pulling it away from the door long enough to try to get through it, though they were lucky enough to take it out just as they'd decided to pull back and regroup. In short, they sat down and started thinking, a much better result than I've ever gotten out of all of the "level appropriate" fights I've thrown at them over the years.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Neoclassical Roleplaying Games

So there's a new term running around, originally coined by Robertson Games, that attempts to describe the retro-clones: Neoclassical roleplaying games. The idea being that since OD&D and Basic are commonly called "Classic" D&D, and games released around that era have also picked up the term, a new, reimagined version would then logically be called "Neoclassical." And, as Trollsmyth points out, it accurately conveys the fact that, though they do draw upon older styles, these are new games, in a new era:
Yes! That is perfect, since most of us aren't exactly playing these games the same way they were back when. It's a reinvention, a new style, based on studying those games, tweaking them, exploring what those structures and styles mean.
Thus, it's a term that I can use without feeling faintly ridiculous. I like "old school," but I tend to avoid using it to describe things I'm doing. (You'll note that I have an "old school" tag, but that's mainly to make sure all my Swords & Wizardry stuff gets binned in "Legacy D&D" on RPGBN.) Neoclassical fits the kinds of games I've been getting into lately much better: I'm drawing on an earlier era for inspiration, without having been part of it myself.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Extra-Special Unnecessary Campaign Planning Time

So right now I'm in two regular games (playing in one, running the other), about to start a third, and running a fourth on an occasional basis. (It's awesome. Time-consuming, but awesome.) Naturally, my thoughts have turned, not to the game that I'll be restarting when school begins again, but to the game after that. Speculation at this point is useless, because by the time that game actually rolls around, I'll have a different set of immediate interests, but that doesn't stop me from thinking about it.

Right now, the two top contenders are some kind of World of Darkness thing, and an exploration-based Swords & Wizardry game. They've both been on the list for a while, and the group at college has expressed a certain amount of interest in both ideas.

The main thing that's got me thinking about World of Darkness (probably Mage, maybe Vampire, and I still haven't ruled out Werewolf) is that college would be a pretty convenient time to run something like that. My home group hasn't expressed a whole lot of interest in it, and so far college remains (mostly) free of the scheduling conflicts that would make an exploration-based game more attractive. I'm fairly confident in my group's ability to maintain enough cohesiveness to run the kind of campaign that the WoD books encourage.

On the other hand . . . the Arcana Evolved game I'm running now is very plot-based. (By design, and demand.) The Traveller game has been fairly plot-based, and will only continue to get more so. I'm starting to get sick of that kind of game; at the very least, the volume of information to keep track of is a bit daunting. It might be nice to try something different for a while. A switch from working out what all the NPCs are plotting to designing locations would do the trick nicely.

Of course, whenever location-based gaming pops up as a possibility, I start thinking about West Marches, and the multi-party style. One idea that's been bouncing around in my head today would be to have one local pool of players, who play every week or so in-person, and another who play online, via chat. I'm not sure if it'd really be a great idea to divide up the pool like that, and I'm not sure just how much success I'd be able to have in recruiting for the chat side of things, but the idea is there. It would, at the least, be an interesting experiment.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Case For World Mastery

I'm having fun running Is This Foul? I've got a good handle on my notes and prep, the players are contributing, and there's plenty at-the-table banter so the actual sessions are always a good time. I don't want to create the impression that I'm not having fun.

But like most things do, it's gotten me thinking. See, 3e D&D, and Arcana Evolved after its example, has a big emphasis on rules mastery. Pretty much everyone who's played it knows that: there's a lot of options, and some of them are better than others. It's an intentional part of the game's design. So I shouldn't be surprised when it takes over five hours to build two characters. Nor should I be surprised when the first thing most of the players do, when presented with a problem, is to start going through the book.

It's not that these things are bad. Mastery is fun. Learning a system, figuring out how to exploit it and the optimal solutions, are things I enjoy, too. More importantly, getting better at something is all kinds of fun. I get that.

But these days, this isn't the only D&D I know. I'm also playing in a (hacked) game of Labyrinth Lord, and I've been running a bit of Swords & Wizardry here and there, when the opportunity strikes.

Those games have mastery, too. A different kind of mastery, but there's still a lot to learn and get better at, and a lot that players can do to improve and expand their control over the game world. (Because that's fundamentally what "rules mastery" rewards you with: the ability to alter the game world more significantly and determine outcomes more efficiently.) A big part of what makes that ever-present threat of death satisfying, rather than frustrating, is it's something I can learn how to deal with. I may not be great at it now, but every time I deal with (or fail to deal with) a challenge, I learn something.

I've been growing to prefer world mastery to rules mastery. (Or perhaps inductive mastery to deductive mastery? One involves introducing fundamentally novel ideas to a pre-defined (but malleable) system, the other requires searching for pre-existing but undiscovered solutions within a rigorously defined (and perhaps, but not always, malleable) system.) For one thing, exercising rules mastery requires breaking immersion, and immersion is, I'm discovering, kind of a big deal for me. I'd much rather base my decisions on purely in-world data, when at all possible; the conditions of the environment, my character's personality, the effect an action might have on various NPCs, and other such factors are much more interesting to me than which feats I've got.

Likewise, as a Dungeon Master, I'd rather have my players pay attention to me than the rules. A bit selfish, but true: part of why the "pause to look up something in the book" response bugs me is simple jealousy. But I also prefer to reward the kinds of behavior involved in world mastery over the behavior required for rules mastery. I largely don't care how much time a player spends outside of game reading the rulebooks and thinking up new builds, but it very much matters to me how involved they are with the world.

Most importantly, world mastery, and games that emphasize it, are much easier for the new players I've introduced to roleplaying to get the hang of. The few people I've tried to introduce 3.5 D&D to since high school have hated it; there's a definite sense that you'll make the wrong choices, and it's hard to figure out just what the right choices are without a fairly good grasp of the system. (Especially in feats. Skills and classes are fairly descriptive, but feats suffer from excessive proliferation and a certain arcaneness in their effects and phrasing.) By contrast, they love Swords & Wizardry, and it didn't take them long to realize that equipment list is there to facilitate MacGuyver-like shenanigans.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Adventures Support Play

Now here's an idea for how a big company like Wizards of the Coast could make money off of people playing the game. In short: set up a big ol' database, and let users fill the database full of stuff. Characters, adventures, maps, encounters, that kind of thing. Other people rate, rinse, repeat.

I'm not sure it can be done. Not without the rating system turning into a morass of greifing, anyway. (Anyone played City of Heroes lately?) But if it can be done . . .

Heck, if access to the database was based on a subscription, then you could send micropayments back to people whenever someone downloaded their stuff. Even if all it could amount to was getting that subscription for free, it'd be a pretty good incentive for people to polish up their home adventures and send them in.

But pie-in-the-sky figuring like this is beside the point. What's important about that post is that it's another person who's come to the conclusion that the best way to build an industry off of supporting play is to publish adventures.

Most of the current industry out there has pretty obviously decided that publishing adventures isn't worth the time or the money. And they're probably right -- in the short term. In the long term? Adventures do a lot of things to grow the player base that can't really be done any other way.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Ever-Present Threat of Death

Despite grim warnings to the contrary, we haven't yet lost a player character or an NPC henchman on the field of battle in Trollsmyth's game. There've been a couple of close calls, and one roll on the table of death and dismemberment, but so far all the traps we've triggered have rolled low on damage or been of the incapacitating variety, the wandering monster rolls have been fairly favorable, and the foes we have faced we've managed to trick, run away from, or defeat.

We've been lucky, and I'm aware that luck won't hold. The game feels very, very dangerous. Monsters do (at least) 1d6 points of damage, and at least one of the NPCs has just 6 hit points. Even my character, with 10, is just a couple of bad rolls away from death herself. And while I know Trollsmyth isn't going out of his way to try to kill us, that's usually because he's up to something worse.

Which is awesome. I've played in (and run) enough games where I was never afraid that a character would die to know that it completely changes the tenor of the game, and as far as I'm concerned, it's much better this way.

For one, I'm never bored in combat. I tend to lose interest in games where you're mostly just trying to figure out how you take down that monster, especially when it goes on for a while. In Labyrinth Lord, combat is ten minutes of terror. Most especially in that moment when I see that the monster has hit and done some serious damage, and I flip over to the table to see just what might be about to happen to my character, or to that cleric who I've gotten rather attached to over the past couple of months.

Secondly, it gets my brain going. It's not enough to set up what my character can do in combat and then wonder about what I'm going to do on my turn. I have to be thinking all the time. Where are the monsters and traps likely to be? Is there any way I can avoid running into them? Can I talk my way out of this fight? Is there any way I can distract a couple of them, maybe even the odds? What else is around that I could use rather than go head-to-head with this monster? And, above all else: when should I decide to run?

Sometimes, there's no way around it. I'm stuck in a room with two animated statues and not much else, and if there's a way to avoid crossing blows I'm just not seeing it. But even then, there's things I can do to make a messy death somewhat less probable. Having had the forethought to hire some help goes a long way, and occasionally I can think up some kind of stunt or trick to help during combat. At the very least, keeping out of fights when I can means I'm better able to handle the fights I can't avoid.

And that threat of deadliness means that I don't just think about the game when I'm not playing. I worry. I worry about whether or not my character's going to make it through the next session, about what might be around that next door that I haven't explored yet, and particularly about if and when I'm going to get those NPC henchmen killed. Now, partly that's just the kind of player I am (and that's definitely the reason that I think worrying about imaginary people is fun) but the ever-present threat of death (and doom) does increase the tension involved in that kind of investment, and makes it significantly more engaging.

Despite the occasional nerve that it wracks, I like knowing that if and when I slip up, or my luck finally runs out, bad things will happen. It's fun to work out ways to keep them from happening, and rewarding when I do. (And when I don't, well, dealing with that will be fun too.) It's got me thinking about ways to put a little of that sense into my own games. I've always felt vaguely that I pulled my punches too much when it came to character death, and now I've got some concrete reasons why that sense of danger can be a good thing.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Secrecy in the Early Game

The new campaign kicked off Friday. All in all, it was a success. Lots of fun character moments, plenty of antics, and fairly neat ending, with the lower level group all packaged up into a team and kicked out the door to go do some quest-type things. So next time won't have as much "which character am I playing right now?" type confusion; we'll be able to cut between the two groups rather than managing the whole gang all in one place.

It also had three private, out-of-the-room conversations between me and one or two players, lots of note passing, and a bit of attempted blackmail. Which is pretty much par for course for a new game of mine. The last two major campaigns I've run all started out with a lot of intra-party intrigue. Secret agendas, spying for outside (and possibly hostile) powers, and sneaking off for one's own mysterious purposes is typical behavior in the first few sessions, and while it tends to calm down once everyone gets settled, sometimes it comes back to explode later down the line.

It's partly my fault. Even when I don't start the campaign by handing each player a secret piece of information, as I did in this game, I sometimes start up the note passing, and I'll suggest the private conversations. Although I'm sure that at some point this kind of thing will go terribly wrong, in a player-vs-player kind of way, for the most part I think it's a good way to get a new party used to each other, it gets players thinking about their characters backgrounds, and it encourages PC-on-PC roleplaying. (Though I'm usually careful to apply a bit of outside pressure; a dangerous common enemy works well to keep even characters who don't like each other together.) And this campaign has a lot of political considerations going on, so I'm quite pleased at the level of player involvement and interest in that aspect of the game.

But it strikes me as peculiar that this always happens. While I intended for Is This Foul? to have a conspiratorial tone, the intrigue that's infected the Traveller game was largely my players doing. Certainly I've encouraged it, since they seem to enjoy the note-passing and discovering each others secrets, but I wasn't the one who said "I want my character to work for the people Duke Burris is trying to overthrow, because they've captured her fiancé."

It could be just the kind of players I attract. But it also occurs to me that, if given the opportunity, players have some pretty powerful incentives to give their characters a bit of secret agenda. It gets them more one-on-one attention from me, and it gets them more attention from the other players, both in the "what's that person up to?" stage, and when they finally orchestrate their big reveal. Once one person starts doing it, everyone wants to do it, because they see that other player getting more spotlight.

So is a certain amount of secrecy a fairly common attribute in player-dom? Does anyone else have these note-passing kinds of early games? And has anyone ever had secrecy go horribly, terribly wrong?