Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There's a reason our game is set in an original wacky fantasy land, and not in any attempt to recreate an actual historical era.

Members of the public who find themselves curious about those chat games I'm always rambling on about shall note that Trollsmyth has written up a second State of the Campaign covering both in honor of the end of the year.

The public shall further note that Grognardia has just published a missive that can only be described as a vile and untrustworthy slander on the style of play that Trollsmyth and I and the other good folk of the Doom & Tea Parties game have heretofore enjoyed. What other motive than base treachery could he have for the following?

Granted, this isn't a fault with Oriental Adventures itself, but it's very much a product of a gaming culture that conflated immersion with roleplaying and thus promoted the accumulation of reams of social and cultural details as necessities for "properly" roleplaying. It's not an approach I've favored in some time and I don't miss it at all.

It's almost as if he means to imply that there's something wrong with spending several hours discussing, in character, the courtship rituals of the various creatures and cultures that populate the milieu.

In all seriousness--it's good to be reminded, every so often, of the weaknesses of one's chosen style of play, and the ways it can go wrong if handled poorly. Just as, say, more pure dungeoneering is often slandered as inevitably devolving into nonsensical powergaming, the kind of game that I currently find so engrossing can easily take a turn towards navel-gazing alpha-nerd one-up-manship. (Though apparently I have not escaped an infestation of en dashes. Curses and lamentations!) Perhaps more importantly, someone who likes a more freewheeling, whimsical style of play would get just as bored with Doom & Tea Parties as I would with a game where the main difference between various gods was the name I wrote on my character sheet and the particular peculiarities I imparted upon my cleric.

But mostly what I worry about is the alpha-nerd thing. Thus the quote from Trollsmyth: "There's a reason our game is set in an original wacky fantasy land, and not in any attempt to recreate an actual historical era."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Someone, Somewhere, Has Already Done This, and For That I Salute Them

So what with Wave being the hot new thing, and smart phones being the other hot new thing, the thought occurs to me. With a game of D&D or what have you run on Wave (or, honestly, any PBP platform, but I'm currently enamored with Wave as a PBP platform for reasons of ease of set-up, interface, and flexibility; we'll see what I think once the 7th Sea game is in full swing but early tests look good) and a mobile device with internet access, one could conceivably play anywhere, all the time.

Screw animated miniatures and digital dice rollers. That's the technological revolution I want a piece of. No matter how bad of an idea it will inevitably turn out to be.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 New Year's Resolutions in Review

I posted my original list of New Year's gaming resolutions towards the end of last year. Now, we get to see how I did, both for my own edification and as a part of this month's RPG Blog Carnival.

8. Pick up a copy (or two) of Fight On!
Success! I've got 1-4 now, in fact. I don't have plans to pick up the rest that are out yet, but that's mainly because I don't have any old school D&D campaigns currently in the works. Next time I run a dungeon or similar, I'll see about picking up the next batch.

7. Post a little more regularly
Failure! No matter how you measure it, I posted less this year than I did last year. Which, honestly, I'm fine with. The blog does what I want it to.

6. Train a new GM
Success! At least by the specific wording of the original resolution: I got boytoy to run a couple sessions of Swords & Wizardry. He hasn't run much since the bat incident, but we keep talking about trying Mutant Future sometime.

5. Read a few Conan stories
Failure! In the specific wording of the resolution, anyhow. I read no Conan stories this year. I did, however, read a bunch of Solomon Kane stories, and the first two original Pern series. Which is really what I wanted, just to read some more fantasy.

4. Write up a megadungeon through 3 levels
Failure! But, again, only by the specific wording. See, what happened was, I filled out level one and got a start on the maps for level two and I said to myself, I said, "Gee, I bet I could run this thing now for the gang." Which I did, with excellent success: a few solo sessions for the boyfriend, another for part of the Traveller group, and then again a couple times over the summer. I never did get around to finishing up all three levels, but I accomplished the spirit of what I set out to do.

3. Finish my Traveller Subsector
Failure! Unless by "finish my Traveller Subsector" you mean "run a Traveller campaign," in which case, again, my performance was perfectly adequate. The dang thing still isn't finished, per se, and probably won't ever be. But I scratched the Traveller itch.

2. Play in a campaign
Success! In a way I absolutely could not have imagined back when I wrote these down. Less than a week after the original post went up, Trollsmyth started recruiting for his Labyrinth Lord game, talked me into playing in it, and, well, now I play in two pretty fantastic weekly games of Labyrinth Lord, and I've just finished a character for a soon-to-start game of 7th Sea on Wave. It's awesome.

1. Run a campaign
Success! I knocked this one out with two campaigns and a couple extra one-shot sessions here and there. I ended up being less than pleased with the results of those campaigns, but I learned a fair amount, and I've got a much better idea now of what kinds of games I want to run and how to run them well.

All in all, not a bad year. Four definite successes and another three satisfactory failures sounds pretty good, from where I'm standing. Enough so, in fact, that I've been putting some thought to what I'd write on a list for this year. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Experience Systems: The Foundation of the Game

The issue of experience, and reward systems in general, has been rattling around in my head for a while now. So I figure I should strike while it's the hot new thing, what with Jeff Rients XP-for-Exploration idea making the rounds, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess having sounded off about it (declaring that XP-for-gold is the only true way, naturally), so you know it's a big deal.

My basic opinion is, "whatever works for your game." XP-for-gold is what I use in my games, for most of the reasons that Raggi has already enumerated. I'm more open to the XP-for-Exploration idea than he claims to be, but I agree with his opinions on pretty much all the other systems he discusses, and I actually think he's missed a point against XP-for-roleplaying, in that it can create messes, socially, for me as the DM to be grading my players like that. (Or I should say, has created messes, socially, for me.) All the systems he's discussed, and really all XP systems, are to some degree arbitrary; at the very least, the DM creates the environment that the experience is being awarded in. But I like having the illusion of impartiality, and having something other than "Well . . . because I said so," when I get asked why Player X got more experience than Player Y.

Anyway. The thing about XP-for-gold is that it tends to break down if the players decide they want to ditch the dungeon for a soap opera, or otherwise find a way to take the game in a new direction. And while I'm moving into hypotheticals here, based on my experience, observation, and general sense of how the game ought to be run, in a long-running old school kind of game, the players are going to eventually figure out a way to take the game in some kind of new direction, away from "pure" dungeon-crawling. They're going to find something that they like better than gathering treasure. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, this is going to be something that's still largely compatible with XP-for-gold. Sometimes, though, it won't be. (Of course, as Raggi points out, this can be a great thing; having the players choose between level advancement and some other goals can be interesting, at least on an occasional basis.)

If you won't to know what to do at that point, talk to Trollsmyth. I still don't think he's told me yet what he's doing with the XP in our now heavily soap-opera-ified solo game. My character hasn't gotten any treasure in about twenty sessions. She doesn't care, and neither do I, but not every player is as nonchalant as I am about leveling, even if they are having crazy amounts of fun gossiping about boys with rakshasa and clerics or what have you.

I can, however, comment that the process itself is a very excellent thing to happen in a campaign, even if it does cause a few problems if things go too far afield: the campaign becomes uniquely yours. This is certainly achievable by talking things out with your players ahead of time and designing such a personalized campaign from the get-go, but that requires that you and your players both know what you want before the campaign starts. The beauty of a letting a game evolve like this is that you don't have to know. You just have to be paying attention.

If you've been following Grognardia's Dwimmermount posts you'll have an excellent idea of what I'm talking about--and at least an inkling of what all this has to do with XP-for-gold. His campaign hasn't suffered as extreme a drift as the Labyrinth Lord solo, which makes it a better example; I suspect its evolution is more typical for such games. But the basic pattern remains the same: it started out as a a game exclusively about Dwimmermount, guided by the rhythms of dungeon exploration. In the past few months, the characters have started to deal with potentially treacherous NPCs, uncover the schemes of ancient cults, lead their cities in response to undead hordes, and even delve a bit into some fantasy theology. It's still largely compatible with the dungeon delve, and by extension, XP-for-gold, but it's become a distinctly different game from the one the one Maliszewski started about a year ago.

And XP-for-gold was one reason why it, along with the solo game, was able to shift in such a way. XP-for-gold supports a player-driven game. It's not the only system to do so, and it's not required to run a player-driven game, but it does help: it helps the players answer that eternal question, "What do you do?" This is especially true early in the game before they've figured out their characters, established their own motives, and gotten involved in the larger schemes of the milieu. It's provides a way to run a foundation for a player-driven game before the players, and the DM, know what really interests them.

Allowing the players to drive at least the direction of the action is crucial to this kind of evolution, particularly if you want to start out simple and get more sophisticated like this. The players need to have the freedom to say, "Ooh, that looks fun, let's go do more of that." But giving players freedom can be a great way to get some very confused players, so sometimes, just to help them get their feet on the ground, you want a big blinking neon sign that says "Adventure Here!" XP-for-gold puts that neon sign right on top of any place that has a little treasure in it.

I keep using XP-for-gold as my example here, but it's not the only system that provides that effect. Pretty anything that makes it obvious to the players what they need to do in-game to get that XP will do--which means that XP-for-roleplaying and XP-for-quests won't. Whatever their other charms, such systems either don't significantly guide in-game decisions (which in other contexts may in fact be one of the main advantages for XP-for-roleplaying and similar systems, but here it defeats the entire point), or they make it very difficult to define the rewards involved ahead of time without pre-framing the decisions the players can make. Sure, a good XP-for-quest-type system will allow the player to negotiate with the DM to define what they want the quests to be, but that doesn't give them much help in answering that question. Which is great once the campaign has gotten up and running and they have some ideas already, but it doesn't do a great job as a neon sign for the early game.

There are, however, other systems that do have the right set of features, XP-for-monsters and XP-for-exploration being the most well-known at the moment. They're not quite as flexible as XP-for-gold, suggesting a more specific range of activities, so they tend to be supplemental rather than comprehensive systems, but that's perfectly fine. In fact, I consider the D&D XP system's ability to accommodate expansions of various kinds one of its strengths.

(As an aside--while I tend to agree with Raggi that monsters really ought to be obstacles to XP-collection rather than an avenue for it, in a world where most monsters are unique (or if you could only get XP for a kind of monster the first time you killed it) XP-for-monsters could form the foundation of a really interesting game that revolved around researching, tracking down, and defeating various beasts.)

Eventually, killing those monsters or exploring those locations will lead to the PCs stumbling across some larger mystery, or they'll cross paths with the wrong people during their pursuit of gold, or they'll just run into some other activity that catches their interest. And that's all to the good, because the point of this kind of experience system isn't to define the game but to provide a foundation for it. It gives the PCs something to do and a reason to get involved in the world while you're figuring out what you want to do with a campaign.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Better Character Backgrounds

Yikes. The posting's been light lately, I know, but that's mainly because I've been busy -- and busy gaming. Two nights a week of Labyrinth Lord plus a new 7th Sea game just starting up has made this a very good semester.

I think I'm getting better at building characters and writing backstories, too. Time was, I'd just have my character's whole family killed off by some mysterious, unnamed menace and call it "giving her motivation." I resisted that temptation for my first character for Trollsmyth and have so far been very happy with the results; her brother has popped up in game directly (working, quite naturally, for a group that is not as bad as some of the other "bad guys" in the campaign, but still pretty bad on their own) and, more importantly, her relationship with her family has shaped the way she's reacted to most of the various exciting disasters that have befallen the party.

So in making the two characters I've built since then, I put a fair amount of thought into their families, and their relationship with their families. If nothing else, it gives me a reliable foundation for figuring out what makes that character tick. "Family" hasn't been as big of a deal for the cleric I made for the second Labyrinth Lord game, but it promises to be a major part of the 7th Sea game, seeing as how Trollsmyth is playing my character's half-sister.

But my old style of building characters did have one thing going for it--uninteresting as they were in themselves, those backgrounds did make it fairly easy for the GM to tie my character into their own schemes. In actual practice, what tends to happen with a really wide-open background like that is that it gets ignored in favor of the characters with a few interesting details filled in. You know, the ones that give the GM less work to do.

Taken to less extremes, however, throwing a few mysterious open-spaces into my backgrounds has turned out to be a handy technique. That brother I mentioned, I'd originally described as having disappeared a few years back, my cleric has a few mysterious NPCs of mysterious motive in her past, and my pirate has what I think is my best twist on this idea so far: a fight that he apparently started, but doesn't have any memory of, that went on to get him into a lot of trouble and eventually was what got him involved in the starting events the campaign. There's a couple people who he thinks might have been responsible for said trouble, including the guy who he got into the fight with (who now has an important family MacGuffin, so my character is going to go after him either way), but he's really not sure what happened.

This may or may not turn out to be a big deal in-game; likewise, the cleric's background hasn't come up yet in a significant way, but that's okay. There's already more than enough excitement going on in the game the cleric is in, and the point isn't so much to get the game to revolve around my character as to give the GM a few more options and ideas. Although it's certainly nice when a background does get used in a major way, it's not essential.

While it's too early to tell exactly how well this latest character will function in-game, he's the main reason I say I'm "getting better" at this character building business: I had more fun making this character than any I've made before, and put a lot more detail into it. Partly this is because I interlocked his background with Trollsmyth's character, and Trollsmyth writes ridiculously detailed character backgrounds, but mostly, I'm just getting better at the whole business of coming up with and picking out appropriate details, and, I think, connecting "things that have happened to my character" with "how my character acts," without tying myself down to boring or obnoxious behavior. Like most else in the hobby, it's a skill, and one I'm glad to finally be getting so much practice at.