Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Get Out of Jail Free Cards

One of the things I like about Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord game is that it feels very deadly. That threat of death has a number of benefits to the game, not least that it keeps me focused and involved with the game.

But in objective terms, it's not deadly at all. We've been playing for half a year now, and no one's died. Honestly, it wouldn't be all that much fun if it death were a regular thing; beyond the usual fuss of coming up with a new character and re-integrating her into the ongoing campaign, one of the things I enjoy most about the game is learning about and interacting with the NPCs, and there wouldn't be much point to that if they were getting eaten or poisoned or whatever all the time.

Still, even despite that, the game feels ridiculously dangerous. Partly, this is just me as a player: I worry about stuff, even if it's not that huge of a risk. But more important is the fact that the main reason no one's died yet is what Trollsmyth calls "get of jail free" cards.

We've got a number of them in this game. Shields Shall Be Splintered is one; if I'm remembering correctly, the party's lost two shields so far, both times to nasty, horrible critters that probably would have killed us otherwise. The Table of Death and Dismemberment is another, and it's simultaneously comforting (having rolled on the table a few times myself, I know the odds of insta-death are actually pretty low) and terrifying (since Labyrinth Lord would otherwise be a dismemberment-free ruleset.) And, of course, there's more specific (and weirder) ones, like the potion that restores all hit points, neutralizes most poisons, cures most diseases. Then it changes your sex.

What all of these have in common is that they say, "next time you won't be so lucky." You won't have that shield, or that potion, or you won't roll as well on the table. The table in particular creates a moment of tension, as I wait for the DM to roll his dice -- and then another, one one of my allies hits the floor and I don't know yet whether he's just unconscious or completely dead.

And then, there's the fact that both the shield and the potion create decisions, which are to my mind the lifeblood of a good game. In the one case, deciding what weapon to wield gets a lot more interesting. In the other . . . as I discovered when it got used on Sunday, as if "death or sex change?" wasn't decision enough, since there is only the one, is "the first person to nearly die" really the criteria we should use to decide who gets it? Talk about roleplaying. I'm still kinda buzzed from that session.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sort of a Death Frost Doom Review

Death Frost Doom has hit the top of Noble Knight Games "Most Popular" list, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess hasn't even officially announced it. There's some kind of Finnish legal business thing standing in the way. But that doesn't stop everyone else from talking about it.

I got my copy a couple of days ago, and I've put off writing anything because I don't really do the review thing, and more importantly, because Grognardia already wrote a review. It's good, and covers a lot of ground that I would have, and a lot that wouldn't have occurred to me.

But I still want to write something about it, because Death Frost Doom is darn cool. I mean seriously, I'm already happy I got the thing and I haven't even gotten a chance to run it. I'm leaning much more heavily towards running a location-based sandbox game in the near future now because it'd give me a chance to use it in an organic way. (I might run it as a standalone game for my summer group, but that's not too likely since I don't think they'd like it. More on that in a minute.)

So no exhaustive review from me, but I do have a couple of points to hit. First off, if you get it from Noble Knight Games, it comes with a comic book-style plastic slip case and a cardboard back. I got the Random Esoteric Creature Generator in the same shipment (also in a plastic sleeve) and the whole thing came wrapped up in a bunch of paper inside its box. If that's standard practice, I wouldn't worry too much about the books getting bent up or crushed or anything while shipping.

But on to more important things: this is a fun adventure to read. I don't have much experience with published modules; the few I've read and run were published by Wizards the Coast, and pretty dry in their style. This is not like that. There's a fair bit of snarky commentary (mostly concerning dumb things the players might do), and almost all of the areas are described in useful, engaging detail.

Really, though, the writing style is indicative of a larger feature of Death Frost Doom. This module has an attitude. James Maliszewski touched on this point towards the end of his review, but it bears repeating. This module has a very specific point of view, representative of its author's opinions on how gaming ought to be done. In particular, there's some pretty strong ideas in here on how players should behave -- there are some pretty clear signals to the players early on in that area, and it's rather unforgiving of stupid mistakes. (This is why I say I'm not likely to run it for my summer group. If your players think that horrible, horrible failure is funny, or would treat it as a learning experience, go ahead and run it, but be aware that it's also likely to frustrate people who aren't so flippant about dying in stupid ways or "accidentally" triggering small-scale apocalypses. No, I'm not kidding.)

I'm hesitant, though, to go on at length about the details of what that point of view actually is. Partly this is because I haven't run the thing yet, and I want I want to see how it actually plays before I make too many grand pronouncements about its "style." But largely this is because, like good fiction, it's already as a module a better incapsulation of it's viewpoint than any essay about it could be.

I know that doesn't give you a whole lot of information if you're trying to decide if you want to get it. All I can do to help you there is ask, "Are you interested in what James Edward Raggi IV has to say about gaming?" There's a clear enough connection between the ideas in this module and the stuff that he writes on his blog that you ought to be able to answer that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Real Problem with "Kids These Days"

Noisms has some interesting things to say about selling RPGs to kids today, commenting on some points Trollsmyth made on the same topic in a post on Mishlergate. They're both largely right, I think. I got into D&D with 3e when I was in middle school, but I was a kid who'd wanted to play D&D, and D&D specifically, since 4th grade. That's not usual. The group I play with at college is almost entirely composed of people who hadn't played RPGs at all before I met them, because even though they're all Grade-A RPGer material, they either never realized what RPGs actually are, or got intimidated out of trying them on their own. The industry doesn't reach a lot of potential players.

But that's partly reasonable of the industry. Though most of the people I knew in high school were perfectly able to spend the money to buy RPG books, most of them didn't. Why? Sometimes, it was because they'd rather spend that money on computer games or manga, both of which are much more expensive hobbies than RPGs if you're into them on the level that these people were.

But mostly, it was because they didn't see anything wrong with downloading PDFs illegally rather than buying books, and why spend $30 on something you could get for free? I can't generalize outside of the people I personally knew in high school (and know in college) but most of them didn't see PDFs as valuable. Either they didn't understand the work that went into them, or they didn't care. Likewise, they didn't understand the work that goes into distributing and marketing a product, so even if they did recognize that they were ripping someone off by downloading a PDF (or an mp3 file, or a movie, or a video game . . .) without paying for it, they just figured the main person they were hurting was "the company," which wasn't doing anything useful or properly compensating the artists to begin with.

So I can understand why a company wouldn't be interested in marketing their stuff to teenagers.

On the other hand, I won't deny that there's plenty of foot-shooting going on. The big issue is that companies are still making games for boys. But that's another post entirely.

(And note that, for the most part, I think my generation has a lot more good qualities than it's critics give us credit for. We vote, for one, and we've got pretty impressive volunteering and service numbers. But, for whatever reason, a lot of us do have this one obnoxious blind spot.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Peculiar Challenge of Play

I've been thinking a lot about the player side of things lately. This is unusual for me. Before Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord game, I hadn't played in a regular game since before I started this blog. Short campaigns, the occasional one-shot, sure, but nothing like a long-term, meets-every-week game.

And heck, even before that, I've never done a whole lot of long term play. A couple of weeks ago that game became the longest game I've been in, period, and it became the longest game I've been in as a player a while ago. My group in high school always tended towards short games, and I was the GM as often as not, so my play experience is somewhat lacking in general, and deficient in the area of long-term play specifically. There are trade-offs to that -- I've run a bunch of different kinds of games -- but it's nice to get this experience now all the same.

And interesting, as it's an opportunity to learn about my playing style. First major item of note: playing is really different from GMing. I mean profoundly different.

Obvious, right? Different power level, different responsibilities, different rewards. And people tend to be one or the other, so that's a pretty powerful marker right there. But I'm thinking of one item in particular, that's at the core of all the other difference: as a player, I have only one in-put into the game.

I'm used to running NPCs, and even fairly complex ones, but a PC is an entirely different animal, and in ways that I'm only just now really appreciating. The surface qualities are pretty similar: I talk in-character. I make decisions in-character. I create a personality, appearance, backstory.

But when I'm a GM, and I create an NPC I turn out not to like, it's a pretty simple matter to kill him, ship him to another continent, or just plain forget about him. But as a player, I'm stuck with the decisions I make (to an extent depending on the GM, so if I end up with something really loathsome I can make an appeal) and those decisions take on a whole different kind of significance, because this character is the main, and in many ways only, way for me to interact with the game.

So that guides my decisions. If I want, I can make an NPC who's incurious, or obnoxiously argumentative, or sort of stupid. None of those are options for the only character I can play, because I'm curious about the world, need to stick with the team, and like to figure things out and try different ideas. My needs as a player drive the development of my character.

But that in itself is a fun sub-game, and one I don't get to play as a GM. In this game, my characters have started out fairly simple -- more playing piece than character, really, because I haven't figured out what would be interesting to play. I make decisions based on what I, as a player, think is interesting. But then that gives me something to work with. Once I find out that I like exploring dungeons and asking questions about their makers, I decide that my character is curious and likes history. Once I find out that the GM will let me get away with doing slightly crazy things as long as they're interesting -- and even reward me, occasionally, for taking risks like running off into the woods alone after the pixies who took our stuff -- I adjust my earlier idea of her being fairly cautious and make her, while not reckless, willing to take those leaps of faith that I'd discovered were so interesting.

Setting up a character before play and letting her run out like clockwork wouldn't be all that interesting to me. But exploring the tension between "this is what I want to do" and "this is what my character would do" fascinates me. It's a constant challenge, and a constant source of new ideas. The particulars of the rest of the group will encourage me to switch I a role I'd intended to play off of one party member over to another. An offhand comment and an NPC's reaction will spark an entire new dimension to a backstory. It's a very different kind of fun than GMing, but a very satisfying one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Sense of Novelty, and Giving Players Control of the Plot

Things have been pretty quiet around here lately, mostly on account of a lack of momentum -- I let myself get out of the habit of posting regularly, and it's a tricky one to pick back up. So there may be some more rambly-type posts like this one, as I try to catch my footing again.

And then there's the campaign I'm running. For a while, I felt like I was just going over old ground, which meant there wasn't much for me to write about concerning it. More importantly, that feeling over going over old ground was causing me some vague dissatisfaction with the game. When I game, particularly when I run a game, I like trying new systems, employing new techniques, learning new things. Using a system I'd used ages ago to run a sequel to the same game I'd used it before just wasn't satisfying on that level.

That's better now, I think. For one, I've started doing more with the social aspect of the game. Trollsmyth's tea parties are rubbing off on me, and at least a few of the players are interested in that kind of thing, so now we have things happening like major world-shaking plot points hinging on who's sleeping with who, and who else knows about it. Which is new, and good.

More significantly, some of the things I set up at the beginning of the campaign in an attempt to make it more open-ended have started to pay off. Without delving too deeply into fiddly, campaign-specific details, (and without giving too many of my future plans away) a four-way battle for the throne of the empire the game centers on is stirring on the horizon, as well as at least two separate invasions from foreign powers. Each side is either driven by or heavily depends on the actions of at least one of the PCs, and while I will admit to meddling in favor of chaos, destruction, and general good times, what happens next is largely up to the decision the players make.

This is a pretty major change, for me. Historically, I've avoided railroading on principle, but for a long time I prided myself on being very good at getting players to do what I wanted anyway. Whether it was a kidnapped NPC, a shiny object, an enemy on whom they'd sworn revenge, or simply the stirrings of great drama, it was never hard to exert gentle pressure on the party in the direction of my convenience. I always left the details up to the party, and I was generally happy to accommodate their own plans when they had them, but in my best campaigns I always had a master plot, a final villain, and an ending in mind.

This was always fairly popular with my players, since I had the good sense to leave the details sketchy and to use plots and villains that interested them, but the new approach is much more interesting to me. Before, I always knew how the game was going to end, and it was just a matter of how they'd get there. This time, I'm playing to see how it's all going to turn out.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Quote of the Day

“I enjoy the challenge of building characters” and “I enjoy the challenge of playing (a character)” is the biggest division in the games hobby. It’s at the root of most other perceived differences new/old, tactical combat/roleplay, DM arbitration/Killer DM, crunch/fluff, “I walked uphill to the dungeon both ways!”/”gimmie fun on a silver platter”, 3d6 in order/point buy, character skill/player skill, etc/etc.

-- a comment from njharman of Troll and Flame on a "A Study of 2 different Playstyles" at Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Guess What's For Sale at Noble Knight Games

Here's a hint: when people ask what you're playing, you get to shout "Death! Frost! Doom!" at them in the most dramatic voice you can muster.

That's why I'm getting it, anyway.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Non-Obnoxious Angle on Theme in RPGs

Trollsmyth recently posted a discussion of theme in sandboxes which hits a lot of points I've been thinking about lately because the techniques he's discussing are all things he's demonstrating in the Labyrinth Lord game. Basically I've realized that theme doesn't have to be the province of railroaders and "art" gamers: the DM can set up the questions, the players can provide (or attempt to provide) the answers, and that's theme.

This is an idea that really works for me, since as an English major and a human being, theme is something I enjoy thinking about. Exploring a conceptual space set up by the DM is fun, satisfying, and keeps me involved in the game even when I'm not playing. I've never done a whole lot with theme in my own games, but now that I've got a framework for it I might have to change that policy.

A couple of observations to add: Part of what works about theme in Trollsmyth's game is how specific it is. (At least, the major one.) Are you for the gods and their empire, or against them? The history of the world suggests that this is the latest facet of the continuing struggle between empire and anarchy, which in turn is just a face of the cosmic conflict between law and chaos. But my characters don't interact with it on that level. They're aware of the cosmic side of things, and it may very well come up in play at some point, but it's not as important to them as how that empire might affect them and their families, their own personal relationships with the gods, and the relationships they've formed with people who have their own strong opinions on the issue.

Also, while that's the main, and most obvious theme in the game, there are at least a couple of smaller themes running around. One is trust: one of my characters has repeatedly had to decide who she can trust, and how far, as well as figuring out how much they trust her. Largely this is a result of the game being fairly serious about people and their motivations, rather than simply glossing over a lot of what adventure-type games often gloss over to get to said adventure. But I've noticed it as a thematic concern, because that's an interesting way to think about it. I doubt I'd have looked at it from that angle if there weren't some flashier thematic concerns running around, which given the fun I'm having thinking about it that way is a pretty spiffy side effect.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Scan of a Map

So I ran the megadungeon again last night, and Artemis drew this neat map. I've been hesitant to post scans of the main maps because (a) they're not all that interesting and (b) my players haven't seen most of them yet, but this handles both problems nicely.