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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Systems and Skills

So lately I've been jotting down notes for a new setting and discussing dice rollers for a Wave game with potential players and generally doing the things one does when one has a mind to run a game. I won't be able to really get it rolling for a few weeks at least -- no time until after finals -- but I've been thinking about it regularly and it's starting to sound like a viable idea.

The thing that I'm currently hung up on, besides matters of time, is system. I did something unusual, for me, and started sketching out a setting system-less, (Took a page out of Trollmyth's notes and started with themes, in fact.) and while I'm pleased with the results so far it means I still need to figure out the mechanical side.

While I haven't gotten quite down to the level of what the player characters look like and do, I know I'm going to need at least some kind of jedi-knight analogue, a mutation system, and some way to handle magical tattoos. I'm also considering a cyberpunk-ish or otherwise somewhat post-modern tech level. So Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord, which otherwise are my go-to systems right now, aren't a completely natural fit. I can crib Mutant Future's mutation system, but I'd also kind of like something that's more forgiving of acquiring them in play, in addition to your existing class/race. And I might be able to make clerics work as the jedi-guys, but depending on where I go with those I might need to make a full new class (which is something I've wanted to do for a while, so that wouldn't be too bad) and then I'd need to figure out what else to do with clerics, and healing in general.

But LL and S&W are my go-to systems for a reason. Right now, they do everything I want out of a system and nothing I don't: fast, deadly combat, magic with for interpretation and additions, a save system, and a couple of other odds and ends. None of the other systems I've used before or have the books for quite fit that bill; I was considering new World of Darkness for a while, but discarded it before I really got serious about the setting. I don't have any use for most of its skill system as implemented (in particular the social stuff; while I can understand the arguments for mechanical supports for certain kinds of characters, with the way I've been playing lately those skills would just get in the way) and I'm similarly suspicious about how the morality system would interface with the kinds of gaming I've recently gotten used to. While I still want to try Vampire, Mage, and all their ilk at some point, that game will have to wait.

One system that has caught my eye, however, has been BRP. I've been looking for an excuse to pick up that book and take it for a spin ever since sirlarkins started posting about BRP, and it has a reputed flexibility that appeals to me: I suspect it would be fairly easy to tweak its character power subsystems to support the character types I have in mind. It does have a lot of dependence on skills, but I'd feel more comfortable ignoring or downplaying certain parts of that system if it didn't mean tampering with some platonic grid of ability scores, and it might do me some good to have a skill system to mess with again. I've gotten perhaps too suspicious of them lately.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Early Thoughts on Wave and Gaming

NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, so predictably, I've been thinking a lot about gaming lately. If all goes well, things are going to continue to be quiet around here through the end of the month. Last year I quit NaNo early, partly because I got massively distracted by a sandbox I was working on, but mostly because the novel was terrible. So I'm hoping that doesn't happen this year.

Anyhow. The main thing that's had my attention lately, gaming and otherwise, has been Wave. Trollsmyth and I have been using it to chat about gaming and setting stuff, and it's been great for that. It's a more convenient format to re-read than e-mail, there's a lot of tools for organizing conversations, and most importantly, conversations have a lot more structure to them. Everyone talks about the real-time, simultaneous editing, and it does conversations run a lot faster, but being able to break a conversation into multiple streams, or head off in another direction if I think of another question a few days later, is the main advantage Wave has over my other forms of communication.

The improvement in my between-session activities is good enough to make it a permanent tool in my gaming arsenal, but naturally I've also been pondering the use of Wave as a gaming platform directly. There's a different ways here to adjust (and perhaps improve) traditional play-by-post gaming; in particular, Wave's editability suggests a lot of possibilities, and the ability to easily manage a number of Waves with different combinations of participants should come in handy as well.

Trouble is, one of the main things I like about the online chat gaming I've been digging so hard lately is the ease of immersion. The 15-minutes-a-day format of PbP doesn't really encourage that. It's got other advantages -- and I don't really have another spot for a 4-hour block of gaming in my life right now -- but that's still a serious drawback. So I'm starting to think about what would take the best advantage of the PbP format, if I was to run a game like that. There's no point running a game that I'd be happier with if it was in chat. If I'm going to use the medium, I want to do something with it that only it does well.

Unfortunately, right now when I ask my brain that question ("What would PbP do well?") it keeps spitting back "Vampires!" So I think I'm going to give it a few more weeks.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gaming Stories

There are a handful of stories that all gamers have, and that we pass around, ritually, when meeting each other or inducting new gamers into the tribe. Dice superstitions, "how roleplaying changed my life," and "the worst game master/player ever" are all well known anywhere gamers are, and we all have our collections of memorable anecdotes and thrilling incidents, either from our own experience or borrowed from the collective pool.

This is so much true that I tend to think of these topics as clich├ęs. Sure, I can write about how writing helped me get through high school and made me a better person, or the bizarre behavior of some Dungeon Master, or the funny things I do with my dice when I'm bored, but why? It's good to revisit those topics every so often, trade the details of each particular incident back and forth, but there's little of real consequence to be said on the subject.

So what's really interesting to me is how fascinating these stories can be to non-gamers. Every so often I'll go back to gaming when I'm writing something for a fiction or a non-fiction or a poetry class, since I have to generate a fair amount of material for those classes and gaming is a reliable subject for me, since I'm interested in it. Then we'll workshop the essay or the poem or whatever it is, and a bunch of non-gamers, people who have barely heard of D&D, will read it, and while not all of them care, there are always a few who are fascinated. They want to know more. Even if it's something simple; that old reliable story of the guys who "train" their dice, say. It's a window into the customs of our peculiar tribe.

Which, I suppose, explains why those stories keep getting passed around. Even though we've all heard them, or stories like them, a thousand times, it's a way to reaffirm our membership in that peculiar tribe. (And to reassure ourselves that, while we spend our Saturdays pretending to be elves, we're nowhere near as crazy as "that guy.") They're tokens of our various customs: why we game, the trials we've all survived in common, our shared talismans and paraphernalia.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Biggest Game Master Mistake

It's kind of ironic, for me, that Johnn Four picked Game Master Mistakes as the topic of this month's RPG Blog Carnival. Roleplaying Tips and Campaign Mastery are both great resources, and his GMing advice is, in general, solid. But Roleplaying Tips was also a major part of my most important game mastering mistake.

See, I've got this perfectionist streak. It's under control now, but it used to be a pretty vicious one. There was a period in high school when I would fail entire classes from simply not doing the work, and while that can't all be laid on that tendency, a big part of it was just that my idea of what would be "good enough" was so overwhelming that I didn't want to start at all. Naturally, that was about the same time I started game mastering.

So I went through this stage where I was obsessed with game mastering advice. I pored over the 3e DMG, read the "running the game" section in every roleplaying book I could get my hands on, and combed the net for articles on technique and style. That's where Roleplaying Tips comes in: at the time, it was the major source of game mastering advice on the web, at least that I could find.

And despite all that, the games I ran were terrible. The advice had nothing to do with it; though the quality varied depending on the source, on the whole it was fairly good. But I put more effort into "doing it right" than into just running a fun game. It took me a long time to figure out that it didn't matter how nicely my notes were organized if there was nothing for the players to do.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Next Campaign Is A Long Way Off

I've been thinking a little more lately about running a game again. I don't have time right now (and that's not entirely bad, because the main reason I don't is the amount of gaming I'm already doing) but I've started thinking about it regularly again, sketching out ideas here and there, and figuring out when I might next have the opportunity. I'm determined to get back into it slowly: it'll be next semester at the earliest, and I very well might put it off until next summer or even later. But I'm considering it.

Part of the reason I'm taking it slow, beyond just the time constraints, is that I'm still not sure why the last few games I've run didn't work. I had fun, and the players had fun, but neither the Traveller game nor Is This Foul? ever clicked for me. They were both chores to prep for, and I didn't always look forward to game night. I'm starting to get a better idea about why that was, but I don't want to put the effort into running a regular game again until I've got, at the least, a new tack to take.

I'm also thinking I might actually prep for the game a bit before start up this time around. Normally, there's a pretty short time between idea and execution when it comes to my campaigns; it's normal for me to run a game within just a week or two of coming up with the concept. The trick there is that the two times that technique's been really successful, I was running a pre-existing world; in one case a published campaign setting (in this case, the Diamond Throne), in the other, the setting from a (terrible) novel I'd written several years prior. I'm thinking about giving that world-building thing a try again, so that suggests spending a bit more time on the game than usual.

I'm hesitant to make any dramatic statements about what exactly I'm going to run, because it's so far off that I'm almost guaranteed to change my mind twelve times before it hits the table. But at least for now, I'm thinking it's going to be a fantasy, location-based, sandbox-y thing, because I've been wanting to run something like that since I came to college and it keeps getting pushed back in favor of other ideas. That, in turn, means I want to use either Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord, with plenty of house rules and bits and pieces from other things.

I'd also like it to be a chat game. I've been having a lot of fun playing in the two Trollsmyth's got going right now, and I want to try my hand at setting one up myself. I also like the idea of pulling in players from my entire player base, which is currently pretty scattered geographically. It'd be fun to play some new combinations of people off each other, and starting with a larger pool gives me a better shot at getting a group all willing to put up with romantic shenanigans.

So that's where I'm at as far as running a continuing campaign goes. I might run some one-shots before I get that started (Vampire, Mage, and Promethean will probably get that treatment, since I can't see running a full campaign for any of them soon, but the reason I got them in the first place was to use them) but for now, it's going to be planning, and playing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dungeon Soap Operas are the Best Kind of Soap Operas

It's been three sessions since I rolled any dice in the solo game, and before that it'd been at least five or six sessions since they came up at all. (At least on my side of the screen.) It's not quite free form -- a few spells have been cast, and ability scores referenced -- but, as Trollsmyth mentioned about the time that the new style started, it's definitely shifted more towards relationships and social maneuvering, with the occasional desperate rescue attempt thrown in for good measure.

That's the key word, though: "shifted." The game started out solidly D&D. Lots of mucking about in dungeons, figuring out traps, and getting chased around by spiders. A lot of times my character ended up talking to the various dungeon residents rather than fighting them, and there was a brief detour to the plane of Fairey, but it was still mostly a game about treasure, the nasty things between me and the treasure, and the odd world-threatening artifact. A good game, but nothing too unusual.

Now, yes, it's very different. It's mostly talking, often about other people, and reacting to all the weird social situations my character's gotten herself into. Treasure's no longer an issue, and even saving the world has receded in importance. Now, I spend more time thinking about relationships, between my character and various NPCs, and between those NPCs themselves. An unusual amount of time, for me; while friendship, romance, loyalty, enmity, and other such bonds have always played a part in my games, we've been spending much more time than I'm used to dealing with them, sometimes to the point of simply playing them out. While I liked the game before, I'm greatly enjoying the change.

But it all grew out of that dungeoneering. Mucking about in dungeons gave my character something to do that didn't require complex relationships with several NPCs, or fifty e-mail's worth of setting knowledge. It was fun to do on it's own (particularly the kind of dungeons Trollsmyth runs, where you learn all kinds of things about elven history when you're not busy running for your life), but it also lent itself to developing the kinds of relationships that now support the game. The dungeon, after all, is how my character met those people in the first place, and the danger was part of why she started to care so much. It provided a backdrop, and a backbone, for the development of the friendships we're now exploring.

To take the most obvious example: The big turning point in the campaign, the moment when it became clear even to me that something different was going on, was when my character and one of the clerics she'd hired back at the beginning of the game got themselves involved in an awkward budding romance, and we spent most of several sessions just playing it out. But things had been developing in that direction for a while, all in the context of their adventures. He delayed an expedition half a day looking for her when she disappeared into Fairey; she opened the potentially deadly door into the Tower of the Stars partly so he wouldn't. When they finally acknowledged, and acted on, those feelings, it was with that history. Dungeoneering created situations where those moments could happen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Magic Item: Wayedge

Taichara and Trollsmyth have both posted versions of a magic item called "Wayedge." I don't think I've ever posted a magic item to this blog, but I thought now would be a good time to start. (Dave, at the Tower of the Archmage, was similarly inspired.) Without further introduction:

This slightly curved, elegant steel blade is called Wayedge. Its grip is a striking black, and feels almost like wet, polished stone to the touch. Those who have heard of it claim that it is never found, only won: though the details of the stories vary from teller to teller, and none seem to agree on just who the past weilders of the blade have been, all who speak of Wayedge claim that it always comes as a reward for a test of wisdom. Sometimes, this is an obvious thing—perhaps unravelling a puzzle presented by the sword's current possessor. (In the stories, those who own the blade are often curiously ready to give it away, despite its reputation as an object that makes all tasks easier and all places closer.) Other times, the test is more subtle—it might simply be that the blade is secreted in a place quite difficult to reach, and thus requies some cleverness to gain.

Wayedge is a sword +1 that grants it's weilder a +1 bonus to all saves, and can undo any knot without harming the rope or fiber that forms it. The blade also eases any journey its possessor undertakes in a number of mundane ways: weather turns fairer, most met on the road are friendlier, and often the weilder picks up an uncanny knack for shortcuts. However, whether because of the history of the blade, or on account of some peculiar power, at some point on most longer journeys (and many shorter ones), its weilder will be greeted by someone who seems to recognize the blade but offers only mysterious riddles for conversation. Sometimes this is simply a fellow traveller, who may perhaps offer advice or warning once his riddles have been answered, but more often than most who possess the blade would like these riddles are posed by someone who could present a significant obstacle to the journey.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters

Robertson Games recently posted an interesting contribution to the on-going discussion of how to define "old school," Differences & Directions in Dungeons & Dragons, which lists a bunch of differences he sees between Basic D&D and the latest edition. It hits most of the major features that I think of as differentiating the styles behind the two games, and both makes it clear that neither style is inherently superior to the other and demonstrates why different people might naturally prefer one style to the other.

In fact, it creates a pretty thorough checklist of things that I think are awesome in the Labyrinth Lord game. But not a completely thorough one, and that's another advantage of the list. It presents old school as a handful of features that, while they work well together, can also be taken and considered individually or in groups.

In my case, besides some quibbles about the power level part of the list (I love having just one spell slot to wrangle at first level, but I can't legitimately describe a game where a gang of 1st and 2nd level characters end up on the plane of Fire, however badly they do there, as "low power.") the main area where I don't clearly lean towards the Basic side is in the "Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters" category. I really can't be -- I'm having too much fun playing a nixie, which isn't as far out there as you can be in terms of monsters with weird powers, but it's still a lot more exotic than the standard options.

But I'm not completely in the 4e camp, either. The character who's now a nixie started out as a dwarf, and a fairly non-descript one at that. No unusual powers, fairly standard backstory. Likewise, I tried to make my cleric a reasonably typical human with a reasonably typical backstory. I've been having all kinds of fun with her, because "reasonably typical" means she's actually fairly odd in some respects, by my standards -- she's argued with the party half-ogre in favor of slavery, and her religious ideas are, obviously, pretty far out from my own.

For the most part, I like making characters who are fairly normal, particularly when the setting itself is interesting. It's easier to explore a distinct milieu when my character's not an odd-ball herself. But I don't mind at all when a character doesn't stay normal. I'm much happier with my dwarf-turned-nixie than I would have been if she'd stayed a dwarf; though then again, that's partly because of all the interesting social issues it brings up for her and the rest of the group. And those wouldn't have been as interesting if I hadn't already been playing a relatively normal dwarf to begin with.

(Not entirely normal, mind. One of the things that made her being a nixie interesting to begin with was that there were a number of features of dwarven society that she really wasn't too thrilled with, but I didn't make her knowing that, and she only really found that out herself after hanging out with humans for a while.)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Writing as a Player

So. Posting. It's been light lately. Trollsmyth's already covered a big part of why pretty well, pointing out that the solo game we're doing has recently veered into social, setting-heavy territory that makes it even more difficult to discuss intelligently than most campaigns. I've also just moved back to college, and I'm still adjusting to the changes in my schedule and social life associated with that. But I'm also still figuring out how to write about being a player, and how to think about it in a way that I can write about.

It's pretty easy for me to write about DMing, because when I DM, I'm thinking a lot about what I'm doing and the technique I'm using and so on. I'm naturally in an analytical mode, because I want to improve what I'm doing. As a player, I'm mostly thinking about what my character's doing and how she's going to react. It's much less about technique and much more about the game itself, which runs me right into the problem that Trollsmyth discussed.

When I do think about technique during a game that I'm playing in, it's usually in reference to something that the DM seems to be doing. Lately, for instance, I've been thinking a lot about player failure, since my character in the solo game has been doing a lot of pretty serious failing, and I've been having all kinds of fun doing it. Part of the reason for that is that even when things go spectacularly wrong in the game, they often end up working out in her favor in some way. Things don't always work out exactly well, and there's usually some fairly significant fallout along the way, but she's also gotten a number of rewards -- and a few allies -- by taking advantage of the consequences of failed die rolls.

The trouble with writing about that from a technique standpoint is that I don't really know what the DM is doing, since I'm not the one doing it. It's even possible that this pattern I've noticed is completely unintentional. I've gotten some ideas from it for how I'm going to run things in the future, but that doesn't help much because to focus strictly on what I "would" do makes the discussion a little too hypothetical to be of much interest to me.

On the other hand, I've gotten some interesting ideas out of looking at my reaction as a player to various DMing techniques, so despite the problems with that format it can be worthwhile. But I haven't been playing exclusively all that long, so I'm still figuring it out.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I Didn't Think I Hated People Quite That Much

Your BrainHex Class is Seeker.

Your BrainHex Sub-Class is Seeker-Mastermind.

You like finding strange and wonderful things or finding familiar things as well as solving puzzles and devising strategies.

Each BrainHex Class also has an Exception, which describes what you dislike about playing games. Your Exceptions are:

» No Mercy: You rarely if ever care about hurting other players' feelings - mercy is for the weak!
Learn more about your classes and exceptions at

Your scores for each of the classes in this test were as follows:

Seeker: 20
Mastermind: 16
Survivor: 14
Daredevil: 7
Achiever: 5
Conqueror: 2
Socialiser: 0

Go to to learn more about this player model, and the neurobiological research behind it.

(Via Jeff's Gameblog.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Unusual Situation

Last week I played a little 4e for the first time. I've DM'd it before, but never sat down and ran my own character. It was pretty fun, especially considering that it was Maggie's first shot behind the table for us. So the pacing was a little rough, and we didn't have time get to the "real" part of the adventure, but what we did do was fun; I was particularly impressed by her combat descriptions, and renewed my resolve to work on my own skills in that area.

As I was getting ready for the game (using the Character Builder to make a half-elf bard, "Fiona Trollkin," and a longtooth shifter warden as a back-up in case we needed a defender) I thought to myself, as I often do in such situations, "Man, it'll be nice to get a chance to finally play." It took me a moment to realize that no, wait, I play all the time now. This summer there've been a couple times where I played four sessions in a single week. Sessions that often last up to eight hours. I'm not even running a game of my own right now. It's all play.

What's really weird is that I don't even have much desire to start running a game again. I'm pretty happy just playing. That's never happened to me before, and I don't know how long it'll last, but for now I'm enjoying it. Being able to game, and be really happy with the game, without the work? It's nice. (Not that I'm not doing a bit ofwork for the game, but not nearly as much as I would be were I DM. My main contribution is thinking up setting questions that Trollsmyth then answers.) Partly this is because the games I'm in right now are really good, and fit me in a way most of the games I've played in before didn't quite. But I suspect it's also partly because I've gotten really frustrated, in various ways, with most of the game mastering I've done in the past year or two. Not really sure why that is yet, but luckily I don't have a huge need to figure it out immediately. I've got time to let the answer come to me, and in the mean time, I can play.

And while I'm on the subject -- not running a game of my own is part of why the blog's been so quiet lately. I've been thinking about game stuff a lot, but mainly stuff that has no business being on the blog, or that Trollsmyth's already covered. I've also been trying to take care of my hands, since they've been acting up a little and there's other stuff I need to do on the computer that's more important, but the main of it is that I haven't had a whole lot I wanted to write about. I'm still keeping up with the blogosphere, but things may continue to be quiet around here for the time being, particularly since I'm going back to school soon.

And the Movie Was Pretty Good Otherwise

So there's a bit in Funny People that got my attention. One of the subplots is a pretty standard loser-comedy romance: Boy meets girl, boy turns out to be way too shy and awkward to actually interact with girl, roommate sleeps with girl. Pretty standard stuff. All you need is a discussion on how girls only sleep with jerks and shun guys who actually care about them, and you're set. And Funny People does hang around in that territory for a while.

But then . . . the guy in question realizes that he's done something weird by getting mad at this girl he hardly knows for sleeping with his roommate, apologizes, and then ends up going on a date with her, wherein making out and perhaps other things happen. The moral of the story is: "Of course women won't sleep with you if you never ask. Having actual conversations with them helps, too."

It was very weird. Not only did the movie demonstrate why the Nice Guy routine doesn't work, it did so in-character and made something of a big deal out of it. Which I wasn't expecting. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. Really quite refreshing.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Kung Fu Cowboys . . . with Lasers

I am seriously tempted to make this the basis for my next campaign.

What's Old School Good For?

I had a point that I'm not sure I communicated very well in yesterday's post, partly because, when I wrote it, I was still figuring out exactly what that was myself. Reduced to it's essence, the point is this:

The OSR is getting new people into the hobby. It's positioned very well to continue doing it, and expand those efforts, because many of its major participants are focused on figuring out why the games work the way they do, and sharing their love of those games with anyone who will listen. The games themselves are simple, fun, and appeal to a lot of people who have experience with newer games but don't find they quite fit.

"Old school," obviously, is about the past. But it's just as much about the future. Introducing new people to the old ways, and going new places you can't go with more mainstream games. That's what it's about for me, and I don't think I'm alone.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Old School is New to Me

Here's a secret:

About four, maybe five years ago, one of my friends showed up to our Friday night session with a big stack of rule books and a bunch of boxes full of miniatures. His neighbor had given him a couple boxes full of old 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D gear, and he was talking about starting up a game with some guys he knew from school. (We were engaged in another campaign at the time.)

I flipped through the books and started making fun of them. Class-as-race? Ridiculous. Individual XP charts for each class? Laughable. That weird system of saves? Archaic. The organization was impenetrable, the prose awful, the art hideous-to-non-existent. 3e, I knew from reading forums on the internet, was a great improvement.

That was back when I didn't know any better. Heck, even my friend didn't know any better. Based on, if I remember correctly, some vague knowledge of the Outdoor Survival Map, he explained to us how OD&D had been "a board game," where you moved your pieces around on hexes. What we didn't know about the games we filled in with crazy rumors and misinformation from other new-edition-playing twerps like us.

Then I started getting into RPG blogging. I started reading Jeff's Gameblog, and from there found Trollsmyth, Grognardia, and a bunch of other guys who knew what the heck they were talking about when it came to the older stuff. Not that any of them were, or are, gurus, but they knew that the older editions were fun, that 3e wasn't intrisincally superior to any of them, and they were interested in figuring out exactly what it was that made those old games tick. Luckily, that mix of enthusiasm and curiosity was enough to get through my idiot ideas on the subject, and I ended up coming along for the ride.

Now, I collect those old hardbacks, play in two Labyrinth Lord games, built my own Swords & Wizardry megadungeon, and have pretty much sworn off running 3e, at least for the next few years. I've taught people to play Swords & Wizardry who have never played an edition of D&D before in their lives. It's some of the best gaming I've done in my life.

A few final words, from Trent Foster:

Yeah, there are some "old guys" in our midst who actually were around back in 197x playing D&D in this style, watched the game/hobby move away from them, and are refreshed to see a new crowd pick up on what they liked about the game in the first place. But more of us are people who started playing the game later, after this style of play was already in decline, or had even disappeared altogether from the mainstream/commercial rpg scene, and are so interested in this style and approach to play now in large part because we didn't get to experience it then.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

My Absolute Favorite Thing

There's a point in a campaign when things have been running pretty smoothly for a while, and I've been spinning out a situation long enough for things to really start getting interesting. The players have a few things in the game that they care about, and are going after their own goals. They've started to pick up non-mechanical resources. There's a fun intra-party dynamic going on. I've got a few folks I've established as nasty-scary-bad, and if things are really going well they've got a serious hate-on for a villain or two.

And usually, at this point in a campaign, one day I sit down to prep for a session and I find an opportunity: a few dominoes that have all been set up already, or a set that just need a few adjustments to really go somewhere fun. I think to myself, "If I move this thing over here, and this NPC does that, the players will totally flip out." So I polish it up, come up with a plan, and get ready.

Then, if I pull it off right, if most of my assumptions about the players and the characters turn out to be true, the ones that don't turn out in my favor anyway, and all the timing works out, there's a moment. The players realize just what it is that's happened, and they're all looking at me, and they can't decide if it's insanely evil or the most awesome thing they've ever heard of. The characters at this point are usually pissed off, often terrified, and always ready to go pound someone into the dirt. But the players are having a blast. Because when it works out just right, I've given them a goal that they could never have come up with on their own, but is still utterly perfect for their characters.

And then I've got 'em. A villain who they'll follow to the ends of the earth. A problem they'll argue about amongst each other and come up with all kinds of schemes to solve. A brilliant set-up for, at the very least, a few weeks of high-stakes, high-intensity gaming, and sometimes something that will come to define the entire campaign. When everything works out right, it's about as close to perfect as gaming gets.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Lessons from a Campaign Ended

I ended Is This Foul? on Friday. The gang still got together and hung out, we just played Apples to Apples and 1000 Blank White Cards instead. (Note to those interested: Captain Kirk makes any 1000 Blank White Cards game 243% more awesome. Especially when people start thinking up cool ways to steal him.) We've got plans to get together next week, and I'll probably run a little megadungeon. But that campaign wasn't working.

The exact reasons behind that are probably beyond my powers of analysis. Mostly, it just never quite clicked. But I learned a couple things from it that I'm pretty sure will improve my chances with future campaigns. At the very least, it can't hurt.

Don't overload a short campaign. In a game with an indefinite time-span, sure, I can throw in as many plot threads as I want. The players will pick up on some, ignore others, and invent their own. They've got time. But in a game like this, with a definite end-date? My attempts at giving the players "choice" just ended up bogging them down with option-overload. They had too much stuff to get done, and too many looming loose ends. A short game doesn't need a whole lot of choice, because it's short. There's not as much chance of people getting bored, and they can get their self-determination kicks from figuring out how to handled whatever handful of problems I do present to them.

Don't mix old characters with new. This is an issue that's pretty specific to sequel games, and maybe even specific to the structure of this game in general. (More on that in a minute.) In hindsight, I should have had them all make new characters, and kept the old guard around as helpful-but-distant NPCs. Instead, I was running a party that included three well-connected, politically powerful masters-of-the-city with a lot of shared history, and a couple of people who had just kind of shown up. The latter two had their own reasons for being in the game, and interesting stuff to do on their own, but they didn't have a whole lot of reason to hang around or help out the first three. That caused a few problems.

Don't run two vastly different but interconnected parties. The idea of having one group of high-level city leaders and ambassadors, and another of their mid-level children and minions, sounded cool on paper. In practice, it created situations where one character would suddenly stop talking because his player's other, much more important character had just entered the room, and generally caused a lot of "who's talking now?" type confusion. Add to that the massive player/character knowledge problems that started when people's characters started to align themselves on opposite political sides (Which, I'll add, my players handled masterfully, but it's still something that's better to avoid when you can.) and this idea was just a whole lot more trouble than it's worth.

Don't run a game that I'm not completely sure I want to run. I'd mentioned the idea, and thought it sounded kind of cool. My players loved the last campaign, and were way excited about the idea of another like it, which is always awesome. I knew there were some neat political shenanigans I could try, and it'd be an opportunity to play around with some ideas I hadn't used before. But I wasn't sure I could handle the system. I worried that it wouldn't measure up to the last campaign. And I didn't know if this was really the game that I wanted to run. DMing is hard enough even when it's a game that I am consistently, 100% committed to. This campaign couldn't quite make that standard.

Edited the last paragraph for clarity.

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.

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.