24 August 2011

No Idea Where to Go

The Monthly Module project is a little rough, seeing as how what I've managed to put together so far doesn't have any momentum. I mean that in the most neutral sense possible- it's like a vignette of a world, a quick sense of a place and time that the players can stumble across.

It's certainly not a "Tomb of Horrors" sort of deal- it's more of a "Isle of Dread" sort of deal. The people are laid out, the situation is there, so what do you do? There's no real prodding in one direction as opposed to the other, and rather a lot is left up to individual DMs- by necessity as well as design, as the module is no more than 5 pages long, including the title page. It's a short, quick, and dirty introduction to a scene that could serve as a springboard for other adventures, considering that it's populated with intelligent, ambitious men who need either be stopped or joined. And there's really no bias one way or the other, unless you personally like one side better and try and sway the PCs over to your side subtly.

But I guess that's what I'm after anyways with this sort of thing.

Has this been a really long month for anybody else?

22 August 2011

Samurai Jack as a Setting

Thinking about watching the series and making a quick Labyrinth Lord / Swords and Wizardry / whatever other retroclone writeup about the world and the people and places.

It's a pretty evocative work of fiction, and I think that it could make for a pretty compelling gameworld. It's got a lot of similarities to the Cantina scene in Star Wars, except extrapolated to the whole planet and run by a shapeshifting master of evil. What's not to like about that?

Of course, it'd be a lot of "work" (can you really call watching the entire run of Samurai Jack work?), and would take a lot of effort, but it'd probably be worth it.

21 August 2011

How to be a good DM

I keep seeing this sort of thing crop up, so lemme give you a couple of quick pointers on how you, too, can be a good DM, Lawful Indifferent style.

1) Do what your players want. Don't take it out of context. It means that you should do what your players want, because otherwise, they're not going to be happy. Unhappiness breeds discord, and nobody has to play in a game that they like. Does this mean that you have to give them everything they want in a game? No, that's not what I said. I said you should do what your players want. If they want to run a differently themed game than what you want, then run it. If they want to have a high-combat game, then run it. If they want to have a game where everybody's frogmen and they spend their time hopping around and converting people to the High Hopper, do it.
2) Make your players work for what they want. Doesn't that sound contradictory? It's not. Make them work for what they want, and they'll thank you for it later. Imagine that you spent all day working outside in the heat, getting a sunburn and blistered hands and scratched up knees, and finally, your backyard looks great. You earned it, and you probably love it. You earned it! Great job. Imagine that instead of doing it yourself, you got your kids to do it, or hired somebody to do it for you. It might look even better, but you know that it wasn't you, and there's nothing to be proud of. All games are the same way. If you win without hardly having to try, it's unsatisfying. If you win by the skin of your teeth, it's awesome.
3) Run something different. "But my setting IS different! My dwarves don't have beards!" Shut it, you hack. Do something different, really. Don't rely on standard fantasy tropes unless you're doing something really cool somewhere else, like playing a new system. Or maybe you really do love the standard fantasy elves and stuff- but you decide to make it like Ancient Babylon, and everybody has conical hats and wears pleated leather skirts and sandals and the world is a disk surrounded by a literal firmament and sometimes it cracks and causes monsoons and stuff. Be original.
4) Do what you love. This isn't contradicting any of the other ones either. If you're having a great time, even if you're out of your comfort zone because it's not what your players want, your players will notice. You're the biggest dictator of mood and theme in the game. It's a weighty responsibility, but that's the way it is. If you don't love what you're doing, you're killing your game. Don't be the grumpy DM that's constantly killing people out of some sort of grudge. Love whatever you're playing, even if it's not what you personally wanted to play (see step 1).
5) Don't plan anything. Ever heard the phrase "No plan survives contact with the enemy?" It's always been true, and always will be. Whatever you had planned, throw it out the window. Run a game by the seat of your pants, with maybe (maybe) half a sheet of regular lined paper in front of you for names. The best ideas I've ever come up with were roughly 15 minutes before game time. I wrote some names down, had a basic idea of what was going on (in this case, we were playing Dark Heresy and the players were investigating an apocalypse-world that had been overrun by, essentially, dinosaurs), and then we went from there. Everybody had a blast.
6) Do your own thing. Don't let anybody tell you how to run your game (including me), and take every bit of advice with a grain of salt (including this, if that isn't enough of a paradox for you). If you love running one kind of game and won't budge, cool. If you just want to run a bunch of combat and everybody on the internet is telling you to roleplay till it hurts, whatever. If you get chills down your spine at the thought of handing out +30 Greatswords and slaying Dragon Gods and every dungeon is a Monty Haul, that's sweet. Remember how I said that if you're happy, the game's going to run well? I wasn't kidding. Do what you like, and good gaming will follow.

DotA 2, Part 2

Let me explain.

DotA is oD&D. It's the original, it has some warts, but they're charming warts that add to the gameplay.

Let's say Demigod is, I dunno, The Fantasy Trip. It's silly, it's bizarre, and you get the sense that the creators maybe didn't play the original the same way the original designers did. But it's not bad. It has its fans, and probably always will.

League of Legends is, let's say, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It's its own thing, it plays differently, and you either love it or hate it. I've yet to meet somebody who has a totally neutral opinion of it.

HoN is like Basic D&D, or the Rules Cyclopedia. It was supposed to just be a better chassis to play roughly the same game, but it ended up being its own thing. By the end of its lifespan (Immortals rules, anyone?) it ended up being so much of its own thing that comparing it to what it started out as didn't even really make sense. It could also be Advanced D&D, the comparison is close enough for me. The point is, they're comparable games that don't quite play the same way, but have the same basic concepts.

DotA 2 is oD&D. Again. Without changing anything. It's not even Swords and Wizardry. It's not a "Here's the game again, but with clearer rules and a couple of nifty changes I think you'll like that only affect the game in minor ways!" No, it's like they went and re-released oD&D while pretending it was something new, and wanted some money for it.

And everybody's hailing it like it's the greatest thing ever. Like it's some messiah to save us from the other games.

Let me link you some videos, real quick, and you can see what I mean.

First DotA:
Now DotA 2:

Thanks, Valve. Why is everybody getting so excited again?

DotA 2

Even if you don't play MOBA games (and I imagine most of the people who regularly read this don't), there's still a little bit that should interest you here.

Allow me to skim the history of MOBA games. It started in the Starcraft modding community as a game called Aeon of Strife, and when the next game from Blizzard, Warcraft III, came out, the game jumped over there. A lot of imitators and innovators came to the scene, naturally, but most people just played Defense of the Ancients, hereby abbreviated to DotA. It was wildly successful, for a couple of reasons.

See, unlike traditional real-time strategy games, you control only one unit. The same level of tactical movement, positioning, and teamwork is present as is in traditional real-time strategy games, but there's less micromanagement. As such, it's more accessible to casual gamers and lets you focus on making the single most optimal move possible. And for whatever reason, it just caught on more than any other mod did. I don't know why- it may have been a "right place at the right time" sort of deal.

At the time, the Warcraft III community was vast. It was one of the most popular real-time strategy games ever, especially because of the custom games. I'll even go out on a limb and say that it's the entire reason it was as popular as it was, since it was essentially 100+ games in one box.

So you have the most popular custom game mode in one of the most popular games of the decade, and you have a recipe for success.

But as we all know, the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, so we have a spate of games that are all trying for a piece of the DotA pie.

You have Demigod, a game that was panned for its rough launch but essentially was a fairly good game- you had enormous dudes fighting it out over something or another. It was also the first mass-market DotA-styled game, so people complained about the lack of a singleplayer or story mode. To put it in other terms, it's like complaining that your car doesn't have scuba gear- it's totally irrelevant. The whole core of DotA-style games is the multiplayer mayhem. Nobody's trying to play Demigod for the enthralling campaign, because the nature of the gameplay itself doesn't lend to epic storylines.

I haven't played it, but I always wanted to. It looked pretty cool, even if people like to misunderstand it and complain about it. Like I said, it was the first widely accessible game of its kind, so reviewers and customers who open the box are naturally  going to have a hard time understanding what it's even about. If it was released today, it would undoubtedly get a better chance, what with LoL and HoN having such wide audiences.

Next, you have League of Legends. League of Legends decided to simplify the famous and award-winning formula, taking out several gameplay elements, replacing others, and generally making a more accessible game. It was also free-to-play with microtransactions, meaning that you can try the game out and if you like it, you can buy stuff for it (like custom avatars, that sort of thing.)

It was (and is) wildly successful, based almost entirely on its accessibility. When anybody can play it, anybody can pay money for it, meaning that the company can grow and grow and grow. That's how I found it- it was free, so I gave it a shot. I liked what I saw, so I kept playing.

That's not to say that LoL doesn't have its shortcomings. It's frequently criticized for its passive gameplay and relatively shallow mechanics, which is probably true. When you can pick up any champion and figure out how to at least perform on a mediocre level with no real effort, the game is pretty casual. It has a fierce competitive scene, nonetheless.

Lastly, you have HoN. HoN ported the classic DotA gameplay (and most of its items and heroes) to a more stable platform, giving elements such as ingrained stat-tracking and persistent profiles that the aging Warcraft III engine wasn't designed to do, and then made balance changes and added new heroes as it saw fit. It's more complex and frantic than HoN, and the players tend to be "tryhards" instead of easy-going normal people.

The champions are complex, the strategies are difficult, the team-fights are short, technical, and brutal. It's for the kind of gamer that doesn't mind losing horribly for a while, because it really does require a lot of practice and a lot of study time.

But (and this is the important bit) it's evolved from a straight port into its own game. It has things going on in it that aren't part of any other game, despite its beginnings. The strategies are different. The champions are different. It's its own thing, as much as Demigod or League of Legends.

And then you have DotA 2. I'm not even going to find an image for it, because I don't care. Honestly, I don't. It's just DotA, but in a new system. They have one of the creators on the team, and they're just making the game again. Really? You're not going to do anything different? There's nothing you would rather do this time as opposed to last time?

It's lazy, it's shallow, and worst of all, it's trying to cash in on a famous name by a third-rate designer.

If you read the next post, I'll tell you why this applies to roleplaying games as well. Stay tuned!

17 August 2011

Why is it a Bad Thing to Optimise?

One of the things I really like discussing, when I get the chance, is not the mechanical parts of roleplaying games or some sort of circle-jerkery with people who already agree with me via platitudes that most people will agree with me about, but actually considering questions that are actually questions.

Like this link from EnWorld.org. If you don't want to read it, it essentially asks:

"Why can't I optimise my character? I like doing it and make sure to make interesting characters and I'm not trying to intentionally break the game, so why do people look at me funny?" 

Since he's talkind about 4e, I can't comment to that edition. My knowledge persists of a single game played roughly a year ago, but honestly, I kind of thought that was the whole point of the edition. If you give somebody multiple repeated choices, who's going to intentionally pick the awful ones? Yeah, I'd love to be a Wizard with Plate Mail and a Greataxe! No, why would I mind that I'm not actually good at anything?

It seems a bit to me like calling the kettle black- since character building is as involved of a process as it is in 4e, everybody's optimising their characters by default. You're going to penalize a guy because he spends more time on it, or does it better than you? You're really going to say that because he picked a better selection of abilities from a group you also had access to that somehow that makes him a worse roleplayer? 

The best way is to look at it like a disease and its symptoms, if you'll excuse the expression. The reason that this guy is getting called a munchkin or whatever it is they call people now is that acknowledging that you're optimising your character is one of the warning signs of being a douchebag who's just trying to kill as many things as possible. Spending hours on a character building program thing making characters that are optimised is another. People are going to hear what you're doing and assume that you're another one of those boring guys who think that the idea of a good roleplaying time is to kill everything they come across, antagonize other players, whine when they're not allowed to look "cool" via their characters, and everything else that's pretty awful about having the types of players who think the words "optimising characters" isn't some sort of bizarre doublespeak.

The other answer is that optimising so that your character is the best possible in combat feels a lot like playing to win. You don't play to win in a roleplaying game, at least not in those terms- there's nothing wrong with playing your best to accomplish your goals, obviously. But there's a subtle and extremely strong difference in being character-goal-based and being player-goal-based.

Character goal based means that you're doing what your character would want to do. Plumbing dungeons because you need the money, saving towns because you're a nice guy (and could use the money), exploring the wilderness, becoming a king; these are goals that shift and change as your character changes. They're goals that make the game more interesting. Who's playing roleplaying games to sit around and do nothing?

Player based goals, on the other hand, are pseudo-meta-game constructs like trying to be the best at combat, or getting the most gold. They're essentially elements of competitiveness, and if you've ever had somebody be competitive of you when they're supposed to be on your team, you know what this is about. It's the sort of "I swear to god if he doesn't stop showboating I'm going to let this effing otyugh eat his ass and then I'm going home." The key element in competition is that somebody has to "win", and if there aren't any built-in metrics of scoring, than people will make them up and lord them over you. "Yeah, you did great but I did more damage!" or "I totally out-healed you, punk!"

Not that there's anything wrong with friendly jabbing or a little playful competition, mind you, but it has to be mutual, and if it's competitiveness to the point where it overshadows actually playing, then it's not mutual and it's now a problem. And that's the sort of message that intentionally optimising your character in a group of non-optimisers sends.

16 August 2011

How undignified!

Here's a picture of ol' baby Josh getting peeped at by some old creepy people, a cow, some sort of goat/wolf, and somebody who's probably a pedophile since he's hiding halfway behind something (a door to a very narrow room? a curtain for an enormous window? A secret passage built into a mural?) and has what might be the world's creepiest grin.

Little dude doesn't look too comfortable- they really oughta get him some pants before he freezes His divine little toes off. What kind of divine savior only has eight or nine toes?

A lot of early art is extremely creepy, especially right around the time when Christianity came into vogue (so to speak).  See, look at that. We have a bizarre, emaciated-looking Jesus baby being presented to some sort of bearded man, perhaps a king, with a bunch of people once again peeping the naked baby. What is up with that? Did people honestly a) go around showing people their naked newborns and b) did they really not bother to put pants on him? C'mon now, that's the Son of God who is Also Still God and a Holy Ghost (or something, the Trinity stuff always gave me a bit of a headache when you try to reason it out), and you're holding him like he's some sort of doll and handing him off to some lazy-eyed bearded guy?

If I saw something like that, I'd probably call Child Protective Services and let them figure it out. For real, creepy stuff.

14 August 2011

Keeping Focused

I can't believe I'm still focused. It feels like this module is putting itself together. There are only a couple of finishing touches- a map (significantly), a cover (so very insignificant that I might decide not to have one at all, since I don't have any art for the module anyways), and maybe a couple of "where do we go from here" touches that I personally like so much.

I mean, a module should be a little burst of creativity- if you're using one, you're probably either starting a campaign or trying something new, a breath of fresh air from somebody else's minds. So that means that maybe you'd like to do it yourself after you're done doing it somebody elses' way and besides, the world isn't static. After you slay the nefarious Ulahwe and save the poor denizens from its torments, what next? That can't possibly be it- and it shouldn't be.

How exactly one would digress on a post explicitly meant to be a quick status update is beyond me.

Stumbling Block

The module I was writing has stumbled a bit while I got inspired in a totally random direction by my brother. I think it might take all of my focus to finish what I've already started, even if I don't like it as much as the other one I could design.

The thing that's really cool about trying to do a 1-month module is that it really limits the sorts of things you can do. You can't get all grandiose and spend weeks planning and plotting, and days drawing out the perfect map, and then let it percolate. It's 30 days, start to finish, from vague idea to poorly written descriptions of places to (with any luck) a halfway decent module that's about something that isn't stupid.

This first module is going to be absolute rubbish. It feels like the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's not the direction I want to be going. But that's part of the challenge too, I think- I'm halfway through the month. That's not enough time to start over, even with what little I've already done. Plus, I don't want to waste my really cool idea on a half-month project when I could just finish this kidnapping module thing and then give the full month of love to the other idea.

So I've got to really figure out what I want from this module, and that's a good feeling. Get it right, turn an ok idea into an awesome one, and then we're golden.

12 August 2011

I want to link this post by Commodore Rients, because it made me have a thought that I think deserves a half-coherent answer.

It hit me right around the end, where he said,"The new Conan movie will probably be crap, too. And I'll probably hate the 3D technology. But judging by the trailer this flick certainly seems to be firing on all cylinders in the sex and violence departments, which is a hell of a lot more important to me than whether Howard was properly aped."

I couldn't possibly agree more, and wouldn't hesitate to expand it to a lot of spheres. When a group stops creating new material and instead starts aping people under the vague impression that it's more important to be "true to the source material" than make something that's totally fucking awesome, you've got a serious problem.

So what if the new Conan movie is a blasphemy against Howard? Why should I care? I love Conan and all, but what's wrong with a Conan-inspired movie about a muscular guy slaying things with a giant sword? I'd watch that thing.

07 August 2011

Snippet: Techpriests and Inhumanity

I think the reason that techpriests are so evocative is that they're such an uncanny combination. They're both devout priests, extremely intelligent, and ultimately inscrutable. They're mechanical genuises who have managed to calcify knowledge about the world into a somewhat freewheeling religion whose tenets include replacing their human parts with machine parts.

They're deeply inhuman in appearance, and so very human in nature. I think they hold a strange attraction, even as we're repulsed; there really is something appealing about having mechanical arms, improved eyes, and the like. It's just human nature to want to be better than we were before. But, beyond the philosophical question of whether "natural" is "good", is it desireable to have improved body parts that no longer allow you to pass for human?

In gaming news today, I'm going to attempt to play some Microlite 74 and see how it works. Wish me luck! I've more or less abandoned my idea for pre-creating magical items, and replacing it with magical items I'm going to make up as the players decide they want something of the category. Or maybe I'll make some up real quick, write them on index cards, and then go from there. Who knows? I sure don't!

05 August 2011

The Monthly Module

I think I mentioned it in another post, but I've decided to start attempting to write (if not release in some marginal fashion, i.e. here) a small adventure module once a month. I've got a couple of reasons for it.

1) The best way to improve is practice
2) The best way to make sure you improve is to tell everybody you know that you're going to improve
3) The best way to get feedback is to let everybody see it
4) The best way to let everybody see it when you're broke (i.e. me) is to put it online in public places and maybe enough passers-by will be interested enough in it to take a look, and maybe out of that tiny percentage, something like 1% will actually try to give me feedback. (THANKS GUYS)

So that's that. My first module's already been through a few permutations, but I've decided it's a blackmail-and-random scheme by some bandits whose motives might not be as simplistic as it seems. The main goal will be to recover the hostage and deal with the bandits, but they're not marauding good time bandits- these guys are people, too, and maybe the PCs have more sympathy with them than with the Duke...

Originally, it was going to feature Cyclops, but then I decided that Cyclops fit into a module about blackmail like the proverbial Cyclops in a module about blackmail. Why would they even bother, what difference does it make, that sort of deal. It doesn't make any sense to have a Cyclops hanging around some, essentially, political dissidents, because Cyclopses probably don't care about politics and having a one-eyed giant around attracts more attention than it probably should to somebody with a legitimate goal. Like you're planning on using more force than is necessary for pretty much anything. I mean, can you imagine? Somebody wants something done, so they bring a giant. How uncouth.

Anyways. You can look forwards to that, monthly. One new adventure. Per month. It'll be fun, it'll get the creative juices flowing again, and, most importantly, gives me a time limit each and every month so that I don't get lazy or lose the flow and say "well, I'll do it later, I guess." That's happened roughly five times in recent memory, and it's getting old. I want to be the kind of guy that has produced something of value, where people would think about using my shit in a world ensconced in shit. I'm not finding a picture for that, sorry.

04 August 2011

Happy Birthday!

Today is your author Nick Wright's birthday, Happy birthday man!

Tonight we will celebrate over beer and pretzels with a few friends over a good game.

His birthday is bringing back memories of the first time we ever played an RRG together. He found this old Basic edition book that we no doubt mangled to death (BECMI 2 I'm told), but it didn't matter because we were young and we were having fun. That one chance discovery turned into a huge part of our lives. I wonder how different our lives would be had we never found this tome. We eventually branched out and began to play other games, began to understand the system, and began to have even more fun. 

So I thank him for all the great years of roleplaying, and for being the best brother and Dungeon Master in the world.

I love you, man. Here's to many more years!

03 August 2011

Location, location, location

One of the things I've really been having fun with while writing little mini-adventures is the locations. A good characterization is always fun, mind, and making up interesting creatures is like scratching a particularly insistent itch, but there's always something about the place itself.

I think different kinds of people like different kinds of adventures- or maybe fans of different genres like different adventures. There's something different between me, a location-based lover, and somebody who really wants to run a game of political intrigue, or wander through faceless dungeons, or scour a city, or solve a murder mystery. It's not that I don't want to run those sorts of things, naturally, but I always find myself being drawn back to writing and playing games where the really interesting thing isn't what you're fighting or who you're talking with, but where it's all taking place.

Maybe I've read too much fiction like that, where the world is as large of a character as any of the supposed protagonists and antagonists (Asimov's Foundation series, for one, possibly the Theives' World line as well, although that's cheating a little), but it really only seems natural to me.

I guess it's the sort of toolbox I'd prefer as well- don't give me seven new monsters and an enormous city and twenty interlocking characters with unique motivations I have to sort through or else the adventure won't play properly- give me an awesome, interesting, vivid location so that I can strip out what you put in there and put something appropriate to what I'm playing in there. Because you're not me, and you don't game with me. You don't know that I prefer nomadic assassin-mage goblins to the traditional warrior-clan goblins, or that my dwarves live in Petra, ride camels instead of mules, and wear robes and turbans instead of horned hats and plate mail.

If I take away all of the things I'm not going to use, don't want to use, or can't use, and I'm left with a boring place to go visit, I'm not going to play. It's one of the reasons,  I think, that I like Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits more than most people: I don't care that there's not really a reason to go, cause I'll make one up. I don't care that the monsters are kind of oddly chosen, because I'll make those up too when I get there, based on what I'm feeling like and if I'm bored at the moment. But the idea that we're walking along on enormous, slightly vibrating strands of web cris-crossing each other to find and fight the Spider Goddess, now that I like. We can work with that.