19 December 2013

Games End the Same Way

Now this is an interesting one:



"My games consistently and without fail end up with my players ending up saving the world from something or someone. I don't really make the choice for them ever when they are playing but, every time I present them with problems it always seems like they get involved in Larger than Life and grandiose adventures like Lord of the Rings where they end up being the group of 4-5 people that turn the tide of a horrible atrocity/cataclysmic event that sets them up to become BIG DAMN HEROES.
Its strange because when I read books or play games I tend to prefer the more morally ambiguous, gray on grey kinda world. Stuff with lots of political intrigue and characters with agendas. Books like Song of Ice and Fire, or games like The Witcher 2 come to mind. However, every game I run ends like the former.
Does anyone else experience this phenomena?
"

I think this is another example of the divide between what your players are expecting and what the DM is expecting, but there's another twist; the DM expects a different game than the one he's providing. 

This DM, from his own words, prefers to populate the world with a large cast of characters who have very real and very different opinions on things. They have foibles and character flaws, and often struggle with each other in various ways. But here's the thing- the "shades of grey" approach to the game only applies if your characters are detached, like we are when we're reading The Witcher or A Song of Fire and Ice. We can't make decisions on who "should" win, although we often like to. Look how often people have a "favorite" house or pretender to the throne in the Game of Thrones miniseries! And look at how much people like to argue who's the actual good guy in the Witcher series!

It's only natural to pick sides, after all. And so, lo and behold, when the players are confronted with different shades of grey, they still absolutely pick a side and now that's their side, and the game's been reduced to your basic "defend the good guys, fight the bad guys" kind of game. 

And the players? Well, that's what they're expecting. That's what most players are used to, after all. The current style in vogue in post 3E fantasy gaming is of Big Damn Heroes and their epic struggles against Big Damn Villains. And so when they're presented with shades of grey, they might deliberate in picking the "right" side, but they'll still pick a side. Because that's the way the fiction always works. People who switch sides are looked at as untrustworthy and shifty, even if they change sides from the "wrong" one to the "right" one. People respect staunch opponents who stand by their convictions, even if their convictions are abhorrent and practically evil. 

For the ever-increasing heroism, well, that's partially a tendency of level-based systems, and poor planning as a DM. Realistically, fantasy worlds tend to be at rest, because our own world is basically at rest. The high-level actors, whoever holds the reigns of power in the game world, naturally want the world to stay where it's at, because they're already in charge. The people who want change are the people who stand to gain from it, who by definition are not in power yet. When the power slips, somebody new grabs the reigns and life settles down a little bit, again.

But the players are a bit of a wrench thrown into the system, one that most world-builders, DMs, and systems fail to account for. The player characters are a strong force of change because they're often not tied down, they are often very powerful, and they don't have much of a sense of allegiance. They rampage and roam across the land because it makes for entertaining gameplay and that's what games are for- but that's completely the opposite of the way real human beings act and it throws the world off in the same way that Smaug showing up one day in Constantinople would. 


In real life, of course, people would deal with Smaug in one way or the other, either by slaying it, leaving the area, or dying wholesale and having their rivals come in after the dragon's left and settling down in the perfectly  good land- but something happens.

Very little happens in the average world when the players show up, kill the monsters/slay the necromancer/end the goblin raids/depose the sorcerer-king. Realistically, somebody should step into the power vacuum, and possibly somebody worse. The player characters are destabilizing the world by providing massive change, even if it's positive. If the players clear out a keep, maybe the local Duke decides to repair it, and now he's pressing his claims over the surrounding forests. This starts a war with the next Duchy over, and now there's a small war brewing over what was just a standard level 3 adventure. And off they go to the level 4 adventure, where they slay a tribe of lizardmen, which finally relieves the strain of the goblin tribes they'd been warring with; and soon the goblins will focus their efforts on building ships and make contact with the mainland...

And instead of dealing with the real consequences of the players' actions, and simultaneously giving himself the interesting shades of grey real-world "who should we even be helping here?" thing that the DM so desperately wants to inject into the game, the DM panics and just has them fight a larger monster that shows up out of nowhere, because the players are higher level and don't have anything more to do on the island now that it's been cleared of monsters. Instead of giving the world a breath of life, it's on to the next Monster of the Week special and now to keep up you have to go with the Dragon Ball Z approach where the next monster they're fighting is even bigger and stronger, and the one after that is even more powerful, and so on, and so forth...

Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. Monster of the Week is a fun way to play a game, and really rejuvenating. But if it's not what you want, you have to look at why you're not getting the response you wanted to get and changing how you plan, present, and play the game. It's the only way to get things to change, after all.





18 December 2013

Parading Villains Are A Problem Now?

A man on /tg/ posted today:


"A problem I see with reoccurring characters and/or villains that are given an early introduction is that some characters will try to fight them immediately. I understand that the DM will usually try to show that they are really powerful and that the PCs can't win, but some characters will try to do that anyway....whether it be a stupid barbarian that always picks a fight to a noble paladin that's willing to die in battle to try and protect people."

This is such a strange thing to ponder about, or to note as a problem that is happening to multiple people that I had to write something here about it. I mean, it's so opposite to the way that real life works (not to mention the way that most games run) that it's like I stepped into a bizarro world.

Are there really players who leap headfirst into danger and expect to survive? Are there really DMs who have absurdly over-the-top sinister villains that are easily identifiable by passers-by and then are surprised by the consequences? Are there really DMs who plan out storylines involving said villains and don't account for the actions of their players? The mind boggles...


I mean, honestly, the fact that players might expect to survive (and win) any given fight isn't entirely unreasonable. It's a symptom of players being used to easy victories from video games and from games that are designed around expecting frequent, relatively safe combat that the players are all but guaranteed to win (3rd/4th edition D&Ds and Pathfinder, respectively.) When you've played a hundred hours of a game where cutting down your foes is the preferred method of combat resolution and when that's worked for you every single time because the game you're playing has detailed rules for that and for little else, that becomes the baseline. Oh look, it's the bad guy, being evil in front of us. Let's go ahead and kill him, obviously the DM wouldn't put him there if we weren't expected to win...

And, as a DM, you should know that's the expectations of your players. I personally make it a point to tell people that haven't played with me before what my personal style is like. It's only good sense- you don't know what your players are going to expect going into the game the first time you play, and it's good to make sure that your expectations are all on the same page. Which means that, since it's a two-way street, you should have a pretty good understanding of what your players are like, their tendencies, their expectations of you, and what their play is likely going to revolve around.

And after doing all of that, how on earth are you still going to have a problem with this sort of thing? I mean, honestly, what baffles me is that, knowing that their players are apparently aggressive and careless, and knowing that they are likely to go towards "heroism" rather than "common sense", DMs have nothing in place, setting-wise, to prevent said homicidal wandering murderhobos from doing things like killing the Arch-Duke of Maleck-Kreb. You know, like guards? Or some sort of reasonable protection like real-life important people use? If the players are able to immediately slay the villain the first time they see him, how did he make it far enough along to be a threat in the first place? Why wasn't he assassinated in his daily rounds of Malicious Peasant Mockery last week? How does somebody with such feeble defenses become a villain? Why does he make it a habit of appearing sans body guards, defensive enchantments, or self-defenses in front of fully armed and armored strangers?

If there are body-guards, soldiers, guardsmen, mercenaries, or what-have-you, and the players charge to their deaths, then what's the problem? Obviously they're going to die, and that's good, because the players now understand that taking on the big bad guy isn't an idiot and he isn't defenseless. Taking him on will require planning, better equipment, and possibly some help. That's exactly what should be happening. So you're out one (or more) characters and now the main villain looks even more impressive and intimidating, and now you've got a lot of interesting things to talk about. Surviving party members can mourn the dead. The villain has an excuse to increase his extortion, and the suffering villagers might recognize and hate the surviving "heroes" as the source of their suffering. "You're the friend of the damned fool who's responsible for this, aren't you?" The player made a serious mistake, and now it's corrected by removing the character from the game.

So I guess I'm trying to say that I can't understand a single part to this problem. The single negative fact, that a PC has died, can easily be turned into an important learning moment, a potent roleplaying moment, and some world-building all at once. It's literally a win-win... unless the player's a bad sport about it, of course. But that's a totally separate issue entirely...



17 December 2013

Dark Heresy: Opinions

Assassins are basically acolytes, if you don't think too hard about it


I don't like the word “review”. It implies that I'm somehow a neutral arbiter of some sort of truth, or that I'm somehow able to separate my personal foibles, weaknesses, and neuroses from the world of objective facts and deliver to you an opinion in the form of a recommendation that's stripped of what makes me different than you, as though I have the ability to recommend to you what'd be great at your gaming table instead of mine.

So let me just write a what I think, what the problems are, and how I'd fix it. It's a long read, so if you're in the mood for something lighter, come back later and please, please, tell me when you agree or disagree. I very much want to hear alternate opinions on this one. 

Some background: I've actually been running a several months-long weekly game of Dark Heresy for my players, with a couple of breaks here and there. It's been a combat-light game of investigation, where the players are searching for a missing man who isn't at all what he appears to be, in a world of shifting allegiances and mutual mistrust. It's been a whole lot of fun. It might be one of the most interesting games I've had the pleasure of running. Top ten certainly. But here's the thing. The game is best when we're not actually playing it.

16 December 2013

The Wax Museum and the Cult House

So I've been getting back into the swing of my Dark Heresy campaign. It's going pretty well. They've gone to a wax museum on Athena 5 (the paradise planet) where their target, one Batu Berlacher, seems to have made multiple phone calls in the weeks leading up to his disappearance. They walk around a bit and it's got a lot of wax people they don't recognize, and a shooting gallery game, which their assassin wins. His prize? A book about foxes. Most of the party doesn't recognize foxes, being two hive-worlders and a guy from a horrible tundra death-planet. The tech-priest is more or less disgusted by the fact that somebody would bind animal skin and sliced trees together so inefficiently. Their museum trip over, they decide to go in the back and snoop around, where they are stopped by a guard.

They have an arbitrator with them, though, so the two security professionals talk it out, and they are left to poke around the break room and some boxes. A semi-trailer truck is idling, and the man inside the truck is reading a magazine. They are suspicious and ask questions like "what's are you hauling" and "what is this place" and get basic answers. The man is not nervous and wants to go back to reading his magazine, so they let him and get back to looking through boxes.

Most of them have wax in them. Some of them, however, have what look like newish human bones. Finally, some clues.



They go back to the guy working the front desk that sold their tickets and ask him if wax museums use human bones. The guy says, basically, "No, what? Of course not. It's all wax and metal rods." So they go to see the manager, who is in the back. And they snoop around and interrogate him and look through his emails and they ask "where's the manager," and he offers to go get the manager. But he starts to fucking book it, and they throw bolas at his knees and he falls over and they interrogate the shit out of him for a while. He gives up an address and confesses to everything, being in a cannibalistic cult and eating other cults and all this nasty stuff, and so they stick him somewhere? Lock him in a room? I can't remember now, but they called the interrogator and he's "sending a team." So that's a plus, then.

They go to the address and it's a mansion with a big iron gate. Two of them can get over, so they climb like monkies and walk across to the grass. The other two sit tight and wait. The tech-priest blasts the callbox mechanism and starts a smallish electrical fire. This, predictably, does not do anything.

The assassin and the guardsman are inside and look for a light switch. They turn on the lights outside and also inside. They also find a man, still alive, with his intestines out across the room. They give him a merciful death and find the opening mechanism for the gate. They go back through, and through the other door at the entrance, where they find two cultists sitting. They speak together something like "I'm so glad you could make it," but when the guardsman pulls out his weapon, one of them dives to the ground and knocks over the table and the other falls backwards out of his chair and goes for the door. The one whose legs are wrapped pushes himself up, and his torso separates from his legs. His bones rearrange themselves, forming a sort of skeletal second set of legs out of ribs and spine, and he begins to vomit continously. The other's tongue wraps around the guardsman's hand (he put his hand over it to stop him screaming from his injury), and when he pulls away, the man's esophagus comes out with it. It's animated and covered in stiff spines.

They fight, and the esophagus flees. And that's what happened the last two sessions.


07 December 2013

Dark Heresy Day

Today's Dark Heresy day and I am not at all ashamed to say that I have done literally zero prep work. Partially, it's because I'm that kind of a guy; I would much rather go by the seat of my pants than prepare a bunch of stuff that probably isn't going to happen anyways, and partially because I front-loaded all of my work when the campaign was brand new and now there isn't hardly anything left to do except watch it unfold.

It's kind of a neat experience. I have a long list of plot elements to drop, events to unfurl, and ominous portents to unleash... but no preparation left. All I have to do is go over my notes, make myself a drink, and try and get back into the mood of the game. It's completely the opposite of the mood of the last couple of games (time shenanigans and high fantasy, respectively), but Dark Heresy has the added advantage of being the most suited for my personality.

Hopefully I don't mess things up. It's hard to get back into the groove like this.

04 December 2013

Monster Hunting





A monster-hunter styled game where you can craft items out of the monsters you slay would be a lot of fun, and it wouldn't even necessarily have to be lot to keep track of.

Here's what I was thinking about.

If you go for a basic Target Number style system and use D6s, you can have characters decide their starting stats. I'm thinking no more than three stats: Muscle, Wits, and maybe Stamina? They should be close to each other, character-wise. They all represent reasonably competent human beings, at the prime of their lives. They're all savvy and strong, but it's fun to have different stats and each be responsible for a different part of the hunt.

In contrast to the simplistic stats of characters, gear gets a couple of different stats. The gear characters can start with should include inexpensive gear for different environments (cold-weather armor, warm-weather armor, basic metal/cloth armor for all situations, basic metal and bone weapons and shields, that sort of thing). To get better equipment, the hunters have to hunt giant monsters and bring the remains back to town, where they can carve off teeth, eyeballs, bones, and the like to create more useful equipment- which lets them tackle larger and larger monsters. What they can carve is randomly rolled, because sometimes the teeth aren't going to make a good sword, or the monster had a broken jaw years ago and it's not going to hold up as a good weapon, or its venom glands didn't have hardly anything in them by the time they got to butchering it; and so on.

So now instead of having a relatively dull set of Iron Armor, now this hero's got a cloak made from the rare and deadly (and aggressive) Giant Kraglod that gives her a substantial bonus to resisting paralysis. So, too, are her garments made of Kraglod silk, harvested from its spawn's cocoons She's wielding a long dagger she crafted from a Swamp Kronx's stinger that is both deadly sharp and retains the essence of the monster's deadly venom. The shoes are from leathery Balicrask hide, tough and yet supple, that's completely waterproof and has her finding herself almost never out of breath.

And so, game-wise, each piece of gear gives you a very concrete statistical bonus. And you can mix and match for the situation at hand. The Kraglod's cloak might give you +2 vs paralysis. The dagger might deal 2d6 damage and deal +3 poison damage (Which stacks each round! What a blade!). And so on.


Helping in this task are lesser types of gear- heroes can spend time searching for herbs to brew potions back in their home, or they can buy and create bombs and traps out of reeds, ropes, and meat that they brought (or carved on the spot), and a good couple dozen other items that you can buy or make.

I dunno, I'd play it. Maybe I should write a Basic Edition of it... sometime.

01 December 2013

TIME IMPLOSION: THE GAME

Last night, under the influence of a variety of liquors, we managed to play a game of Mini Six. As you might have guessed, the theme was TEMPORAL CATASTROPHE, and I told my players to peruse the book and make a character from any time period because they're all going to be unstuck from time and working together, like the Scooby Doo gang, to make things right again.

whowowowoaahahoh- time itself is in trouble!


 Good god though- it went terribly.

The first, and I think largest problem, is that Mini Six as a ruleset is TERRIBLE. I feel awful for recommending it and I feel awful that the author of the system will probably read this, since role-playing is a small community and word gets around but dude, this ruleset is not good. I know it's based on another system that probably gets a lot of love for whatever absurd reason but this incarnation is not written clearly at all. It took us entirely too long to figure out if we added our weapon skills to our attack rolls (still not really sure), and the system itself is like really cheap underwear- it doesn't support you where you need it. When are you supposed to roll? Do you combine attributes and skills to kick people? Why is there such a difference between high and low rolls? Why is this so much worse of a generic system than Risus?

The second problem is that nobody really knew what to expect from a time implosion, and although my liberal borrowing of Zladko helped the framing and created a bizarre character and half-true tale that everybody liked, it wasn't quite enough to help the group's cohesion. A belligerent Hunnic warrior and a timid Arabian street rat don't really mix, and between the dozens of tangents and distracted discussion and a general lack of direction the game went nowhere fast and we all got bored. They liked Duke, the absurdly tall be-suited man, and they enjoyed my rendition of the Cave of Wonders and also how the genie of the lamp turned out to be a re-skinned Hades, but the fact is that the session got off on the wrong foot while I was trying to feel out the party composition and the way that the session was going to happen. By the time I figured out how to sate the Future-Sikh and Hun's appetite for violence and reconcile that with the Arab and Spaceman's need for adventure, the session was more than half over and everybody was tired. Oh, well.

The fast-talking and probably treacherous genie of the lamp, not that this went anywhere

Next time, I'll start with a stronger call to action than a fumbling Russian man (although I'll probably re-use him, since the Soviet Union is such a rich and interesting place for people to come from), and probably try and include more conflict in general, especially conflict that doesn't involve battling things. And maybe I'll make the characters myself, and let them choose between them, so we end up with characters that are planned out and the feeling is more of a "oh man Time Itself chose us to fix it!" and I can semi-plan out a course of action that lets each player do something neat (or fuck up massively, with equally exciting results)...

But the real net benefit is that we're back on to Dark Heresy next week. So more procedural work, more scouring the galaxy, and more general 40k weirdness. They're on the cusp of discovering what, exactly is happening, and that's a fun place to be. Hopefully they like what's going down! I know I will...

22 November 2013

The Feeling Wheel (with bonus Random Emotion chart!)

This is, apparently, called the Feeling Wheel.

There's a lot of overlap between Psychology and tabletop games, and this wheel categorizes emotions in a way that I'd honestly never thought of. You could turn this pretty easily into a "random emotions" chart. Just take the chart and roll 1d6 if you want your basic emotions, or consult this longish chart I created if you're looking for a more subtle emotion for your randomly generated needs.

Not bad, right? Randomly generate a person using your favorite ruleset and then give him a random emotion to be in the throes of when your bold adventurer's party meets them. Help visualize the emotions of the mighty villain you just rolled up by randomly generating him a dominant emotion! Why decide between Guilty, Frustrated, or Joyful when you have this chart?

Create a Helm of Emotions and have the players be in-character consumed by a completely random emotion each and every morning!

Or possibly something you just thought of now that's probably twice as creative as what I thought. It's your game, probably. If it isn't, maybe it should be?

Anyways, here you are. Please enjoy.

 

18 November 2013

Guild Wars 2


I've been playing (and thinking about) Guild Wars 2 instead of tabletop games.

If you've been living under a rock, Guild Wars 2 is a non-subscription based MMORPG that manages to feel completely different from World of Warcraft and its multiple clones in a couple of really massive ways. Luckily for me, they're also great ideas in their own right that can be used in your average tabletop game. Each of these are pretty big ideas, and they really each deserve their own article- but lemme give you the quick overview.

Fairly standard is the way that you can pick race and class, so I'll skim over that. Each class is available to each race, and, interestingly, each race has optional abilities that they can eventually learn, in about the middle of their progression. A Norn can eventually learn to turn into a bear or a raven, if they want, or stick to the regular abilities they'd normally learn through their class.

Once you start the game, you go through a quick introduction that serves to immediately let you know what the major conflicts in the world are. Humans fight some invading centaur (which feature heavily in the human zones, but I'll get into that later), Charr battle against the ghosts of the king they slew to reclaim their ancestral lands, Norn fight an enormous ice worm, and so on. The things you do in your "personal story" always take place in single-player only scenarios, and serve as a unifying thread to the things you're doing, which is pretty useful, because the entire rest of the game is fairly open world.

There aren't quests, in the traditional sense (except for your personal story); instead, you travel to a level-appropriate zone and either react to events or, if nothing interesting is happening, then you can help nearby people with their problems. You can easily identify what you're supposed to do, because you can either go close to them or just look at the top right of your screen when you're somewhat nearby. It'll tell you who the person is, where they're hanging out, and what they want you to do. The things they might ask you to do range from the oddly mundane (water my crops, remove graffiti, check the fish traps in the river) to the actually heroic (help the Seraph kill the centaurs, assist the wounded, recover stolen supplies).


The neat part, though, are the events, which happen at any time and generally actually have an effect on the world. If centaur are invading, for example, you can get experience and "karma" (an abstract non-gold currency that can't be traded but can still be used to purchase items) for helping the defenders out. The awesome part is that the events chain into each other. If nobody helps the defenders, then the centaurs will take over and the inhabitants will flee, rendering that settlement useless until you recover it. If you win, then the settlement will occasionally send out strike teams to try and push them from nearby caves as well, and eventually mount an attack on the centaur settlement as well. If it succeeds, then the centaurs will be a non-issue for a while- until they attack again. And the events scale in difficulty, too, so you might be able to help out with a small skirmish on your own, but when the big guns show up, it's a group event and you're going to either hope some more adventurers hope up to help too, fight your ass off and try to win anyways, or just let them take it and come back later.

This sort of push-and-pull combined with actual effects on the world around you means that as you're exploring and trying to find things to do, you're met with multiple choices- and sometimes they work together. If bandits have put up a roadblock and are killing all the travellers, and this part of the area you're in wants you to help travellers or kill bandits, fighting in the event lets you double-dip. I've personally finished multiple "hearts" by participating in a single event.

The other neat thing is the way that groups are assumed to work. Each class is responsible for their own survival and for dealing damage, meaning that there are no required classes for group content, and there is no "niche protection," to use a tabletop term. Nobody is standing in the back healing. Nobody is standing in the front getting beat on. The DPS isn't standing behind the boss and hitting them as hard as possible. Every class is maneuvering around, attacking when they can, dodging when they need to, and laying down combo fields when they think it's useful. Instead of the top-down design of "bring 1 tank, 1 healer, and then as much DPS as you can handle," the game says "bring what you prefer," especially since changing up the weapons you've brought drastically changes what you class can do (plus you can bring two weapon sets, anyways.)

So you're thinking of the classes in terms of what they actually bring: what boons they can grant your party, what kind of combo fields they can place and what finishers they have access to, and what kind of conditions they can apply to your enemies. You're thinking about the classes in terms of their class, not in terms of their broad type. You bring a longbow on your warrior so you can set down a fire field that other classes can use blast finishers in to give you all some Might. You bring a staff on your elementalist because you see that your thief is using a shortbow and can blast them repeatedly. You see the other elementalist switch to staff so you equip your scepter and a focus, so you can use the finishers in the fields he's placing down. And so on.



So that's quite a bit that you could add to your game. Planning out dynamic chains of events is something that people have been doing for a while now, and it's actually exactly what Dungeon World recommends in the form of its Fronts. Really, every dynamic event in Guild Wars 2 is a smallish Front in disguise and it's one of the freshest and most fun ideas in the game. So why not add a similar thing in your game? All you need are some things to happen and some people who need things done, and your players will happily occupy themselves and decide what it is that they want to do in the game.

Weapon swapping and weapon-specific skills wouldn't be terribly difficult to implement either. There are a couple of similar styles in any system of D&D you care to mention- with a bit of love, they could be as intuitive and as tactically interesting as Guild Wars', in that they become a toolkit to be changed during certain situations instead of a dull bonus to the only weapon you ever use. For example, instead of making a warrior choose between weapon feat chains, why not let him take them all simultaneously as he gains levels? Why not add different bonuses to weapons as the warrior levels? Why not let spells have a broader effect than stated, and let them be pushed around, thrown, blocked, or otherwise interacted with?

There are a lot of good ideas in this game, and I'd be very surprised if most of these elements weren't already inside of a half-dozen excellent tabletop games already.
 

21 October 2013

Warning: Ruminations


I feel like running a very low-magic fantasy game with a very simplistic resolution system. Maybe something with d6 dice pools, and some sort of way of making what you're wearing and being protected by important.

Maybe something where your character's level is defined by the number of d6s they have to spend, and your weapons and armor are their own sort of thing, so you could have a guy that had three dice in Sneaking and two dice in Suave and he's got a bow with Accuracy 2 and Power 1, and his buddy in the picture is a dude with Beardliness 1, Strong Arm 1, and Tenacious 3, and he's got a sword with Sharpness 2 and Crossguard 1, and his shield is Stout 1 and Sturdy 2, and so on.

It kind of seems like a good bit to keep track of, but it's really not so terribly bad. You could sort of nest it into each other in the same way, so that you could buy a Rank 6 sword and then assign the stats, and nobody really cares what your sword is like (other than its relative quality- I.E. its rank) until it's time to swing the bastard around a bit, just like nobody really cares how charming you are until the Duchesses' (or Duke's, whichever you like) undies need to hit the ground.

And that means that you could have a couple of sub-systems that get put away until it's time for you to need them, like in very old-school D&D. Like your character is Rank 7 and that means that you have 7 dice to distribute between your qualities, so you pick three Social qualities and two each of Physical and Mental, and you can drill down into each category depending on what's going on. So you've essentially got three different parts of your character, and each one can have different benefits and maybe even spill over to the next ones...

The fun part is that this can go up and down each way, too, so that if you ever get to the domain level of the game you can separate out your character's Leadership qualities and Personal qualities, so you can have a guy who's not really smart or really personable but knows a thing or twelve about how to lead, or maybe a Barbarian King who's a whole hell of a lot better at decapitation than at decisionmaking...

I'll play with it more. Don't mind me.

16 October 2013

The Hard Sell




How on earth do you sell a domain-level game to your players?

"Oh yeah, you guys don't play as adventurers or detectives or knights or anything, you play as noblemen and Barons and Dukes, see, and you give commands to other people to solve problems, and build walls, and levy armies, and elect people from the populace as reeves and sheriffs and magistrates. That still sounds fun, right?"

And to the right person (me, for one), it does sound pretty fun. I remember using the excremental 3rd edition D&D rules to whip up some quick conversions and figure out how long it'd take any given group of craftsmen to construct a wall, for example, or how much gold some miners could dig up. I even ran it once, for my brother, although that abortive campaign really went nowhere fast for some reason. I can't remember why, honestly, because it started out pretty well.

But I digress.

Part of the problem is that the players are no longer working directly together. Instead, they are directly pitted against each other in a sort of ethereal board game, or perhaps they form a sort of cooperative ruling class where the main gameplay is arguing about stuff and waiting for their underlings to do things. The best case scenario I can think of is that one player is a sort of king, and the others are ministers of a certain part of the government (like the general of the armies, or the Head Reeve, or maybe the Lord of the Merchant's Guide) so that each player has a separate job, and they have to decide how to partition out their money and time and experts so that each person is accomplishing plenty of things without stepping on each others' toes or feeling useless...

But, really, at this point we're playing a really huge kingdom simulator, and I don't know if I'm able to simulate an ancient-worlds kingdom from a high level. It's a huge job, and would probably require a lot of reading and memorization and knowledge if I wanted to avoid the typical fantasyland boringness of "nothing ever changes unless something Named and Powerful does it," which I do.

The other part of the issue is that the genre as a whole is heavily skewed towards playing as an exceptional individual doing individually exceptional things. It's all about personal glory and personal belongings and very rarely about doing anything for one's society or even group. Maybe I've been reading the wrong games? Who knows.

Still, a man can dream.




12 October 2013

Terraria Distraction


I've been playing a lot of Terraria recently instead of paying attention to the community recently, so if there have been any kerfluffles or minor crises that you'd like to read about, you'll have to do it somewhere else, because I'm going to talk about adventure and mayhem.

Terraria is great because it's what Minecraft was supposed to be all those long years ago. It's an actual building and fighting adventure game, and it's absolutely brilliant. It's always got something for you to do, it's always got something for you to work towards, and there's always something awesome to discover.

Part of what makes the game work is that it has a certain structure to it, and it's sort of built into the game. You find natural caves and so spelunking for a while, looking for treasure chests and for valuable ores deep in the earth, which you mine and then transform into more useful equipment and weaponry. But unlike Minecraft, you eventually hit your peak with those weapons and armor. Where do you get more?

By fighting through the Corruption/Crimson and getting it, of course. And this entails you having built housing for a couple of NPCs, who form a town for you and provide their services. If you've built enough, you can get the Demolitionist to move in. And with his bombs, you can blast your way through the super-hard corrupt blocks and get to the Orbs/Hearts. Destroying them gets you gear, and also summons the bosses, who attack you with a vengeance. Beating the bosses nets you some supernaturally powerful ore, which you can make into weapons and armor.

But once you have beaten the bosses a couple of times, it becomes easy. Where to next? Why, the Dungeon, of course, where you'll fight the dungeon boss and make your way to a place with more treasure chests, traps, and powerful enemies than before. Eventually, of course, you'll master the Dungeon and where does one go next?


One goes to the Underworld and mines Hellstone and fights Imps and Demons. And the game continues like this for quite some time, all with a common theme; when you master the content you're given, there's always a place with greater risks and greater rewards around the next bend. And each place requires a different approach, a different style of moving and fighting, and different ways of building and digging. It's frankly brilliant, and it's always rewarding.

There's a lot we can learn about this sort of thing in our own homemade sandbox games.

Always Include Something Else

Not every game has to be about "progression" in the sheer gaming sense of getting new items and more levels so that you're strong enough to get new items and more levels. But it should be about progression in the real life term, where you're always trying to do something new and get something accomplished. A game where people sit around and contemplate their satisfaction with the way their life is would be interesting for perhaps a session, in a philosophical kind of way, but hardly the sort of thing you'd talk about with your buddies for the next ten years. It's kind of boring, right?

Similarly, a campaign where your characters sit around going "where do I even go next," is kind of boring for everybody involved. You're being entertained on a moment-to-moment basis, sure, but because you're not connected to the world as a player, neither are your characters. You're kind of aimlessly floating around, because you're not engaged to the world around you, and you don't know where to go next.

In Terraria, you're rooted to the world fairly quickly. You have to build a house to get shelter from the Zombies and the Flying Eyeballs, so you're connected to the place. It's not much, but it's alright. It's got a workbench and a door, and maybe a furnace. But soon you realize you need to expand, so you make it a little bigger. And then you realize there's a guy wandering around outside and so you make him a house, too. And then, next thing you know, somebody else moves into your house with you, and you realize that you need to keep building up your town so that more people move in.

And next thing you know you're part of the world. You explore and wander and discover, and then you go back to the town to store your belongings and sell them to the NPCs, who sometimes die and who have things happen to them. The world is its own character and has a very real impact on the way the game unfolds.

Speaking of which...


Put the Fiction First

The Corruption/Crimson are great in Terraria, because they spread slowly across the surface and actually change the world in its wake. The monsters are noticeably different, the ground itself turns into a strange and hideous color, and the background and music change. Everything is different, and it's obvious that you should check it out. If the monsters are too tough, you know you're not ready, so you head back into the natural caverns. This time you've got a purpose. You're not just getting strong so you can fight the zombies and flying eyeballs that were plaguing you, you've got to fight some bigger, tougher monsters.


And so you head back to the Corruption and head down the tunnels, fighting the monsters off at every step. And you see in the caves these enormous glowing things. What are they? What  do they do? You try a couple of things out on them, if you can reach them (and if not, the Demolitionist that moved into your town will sell you some bombs), and when you smash them you get messages on your screen and a neat magical item. Smash enough, and it's boss fighting time. The boss, of course, drops more magical items and some magical ores that you can smith into improved armor.

You can see, naturally, how the progression is obvious and clear, and how the game is designed to present you with the next step not by some sort of shoehorned "OH WOW LOOK ITS THE NEXT BOSS AND HE'S HERE FOR YOU TO FIGHT HOW CONVENIENT," it's presented as a natural and insidious part of the world you live in.

I illustrate the entire chain of events because it's basically the way every good threat in your game should work. If your players aren't aware of it, it's not in the game. If it doesn't noticeably change the game world in a way that the players dislike, it's not a threat, it's background. And players probably aren't interested in attempting to change the background.

This leads me to my last point.

Use Rewards

Some DMs like to use punishments to keep players in line. To wit, I recall reading a post chain on Reddit's /r/RPG board about "keeping it interesting," and what to do if the players are being boring in a sandbox game. The link to the pertinent part is here.

Ivaclue is doing fine until he says, in response to "but my players don't respect authority and would probably kill the guard captain for talking to them like that," that the guard captain should just be stronger and more powerful than the party, common sense be damned. And the worst? The advice "Make him and indestructable force. Make them stop disrespecting you." Frankly terrible.

What should happen is that you reward the players for everything they do. Not in the sense that they get rewarded in-game, but that they get rewarded with fun. Let them kill the guard captain- they obviously don't want to be model citizens. And they're rewarded with the fun of killing him, then the fun of escaping the town, then the fun of being fugitives who (as far as anybody can tell) blew up a tavern, killed a guard captain, and fled the city. Isn't that more rewarding than "you attack the guard captain but he counterattacks and knocks your weapon out of your hand and tells you to do as he says or else?"

That's what I thought.

Terraria, of course, uses the rewards of better gear and neat magic items to keep you on the right track. For the most part. Some parts (like when the flying skulls kill you when you're at the Dungeon without fighting the boss, or the way that the Underworld is almost silently hidden away deep underneath the earth) aren't perfect, and are of the "you just plain can't do that" section.

But most of it is ready for you at any level. You can tackle the Dungeon in wooden gear. You can ignore the Corruption and head straight for the Jungle. The game doesn't change based on what you do and it doesn't shoehorn you into a single path the way that Ivaclue from Reddit apparently thinks is the best way to run a sandbox game. The entire world is there for you. Some parts are harder, and some parts are easier. Take on the challenge you think you can handle.

Anyways, I hope this all gave you food for thought. This one kind of got away from me, so enjoy this unusually long and dense post.

04 October 2013

Sinkholes

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about sinkholes, to the point where I've actually been fleshing out the skeleton of a story about them.

In the story, this young man walks through his backyard and he sees this sizeable hole in his backyard where there used to be nothing more than a smallish tree and some grass. And the weird thing is that it's pitch black all the way down. He can't even see the reflection of the sunlight off of the sides of the earth, so he goes up to it, right? And it's completely pitch black. He can't see anything. He tries kicking some rocks into it, but still nothing. He goes and gets a flashlight, but it's nothing. And he's too creeped out to get closer to it, so he calls apartment management to try and get somebody to look at it, and then he goes back into his house.

It's not long until the maintenance guy gets there, but he's stumped, too, so he calls another guy to come look at it. The two of them bring a length of rope and a flashlight, but can't figure out anything and they're both creeped out by the fact that the light doesn't go anywhere. They were going to climb down but now neither of them want to, so they call management.

Management calls the police, and the police set up the crime scene DO NOT CROSS tape, and try and figure out what they're doing. They call in some geological surveying types, but they're confused as hell, too. They've got a camera with a light on it, attached to a pipe that's attached to a machine, but they're getting the same nothingness. It's like reality just stopped inside of that hole.






That's not the end, of course- the protagonist goes back into his house and can't sleep and things start getting weird from them on out, but I haven't decided exactly how. I'll get back to you on that one.

26 September 2013

Ask Questions, Gain +Improv

 A wonderful article by "weem" describing some very juicy techniques with which to run a game. It's  geared towards Dungeon World, but can work in literally every game you play in. Let me give you an example:

"In Dungeon World however, the players play a much larger role in the crafting of the world around them. Using that same example, as the DM you may turn to the Elf in the group and ask him a question. It could be simple… “Have you met the Elves to the North before?” (keep in mind, the campaign may have just begun!) or it could be a more leading question (the best kind)… “You were there once, and were even offered a place among them. Why did you turn it down?”."

Using the principles and suggestions in this humble blog post will make the quality of the games you play in and host significantly better. Some of the more experienced GMs out there will doubtless recognize these techniques as things they've developed over the years, and that's pretty much how you know it's golden.

The full link follows:
http://www.theweem.com/2013/09/dungeon-world-ask-questions-gain-improv/

22 September 2013

Dungeon World Session Two Recap

I would like to dedicate this post to Bartleby, the half-dead halfling warrior who was very nearly slain in a courageous and heroic duel to the death with skeleton champion Siggurd Broadson, known in life as a masterful and honorable fighter.

He probably could have made it if he hadn't had to swing a burning bookshelf at an ice giant lich. Or if he hadn't been beaten at by the same, or nearly extinguished wholesale by death magics.

Let me tell you about the game.

The adventurers stand at 4; Dirk the thief, Aziz the druid, Bartleby the halfling fighter, and Baldric the Bard. They had set out to the Ice Giants' Tower for reasons of completely petty larceny and looting, and found, instead, a complex filled to the brim with skeletal guardians, angry and petty ice giants, and heroes of distant legends past.

In this week's exploits, they ventured deeper into the tower, and discovered, unlike the bare and stony upper levels, a cushioned, carpeted, and comfortable sanctum, complete with dresser, chest, and numerous stocked bookshelves. In the middle of the room stood a pedestal topped with a crystal skull. A staircase led onwards and downwards, the brother to the one which they entered the room with.

The halfling and the bard went to the dresser and pulled open the shelves. The bottom one had luxuriant and beautiful robes, which the halfling mangled into a suit of clothes and a turban, since the last battle against the mimic left him without armor or much other than the underwear he'd had. The bard tossed the giant's staff to the druid, who caught it without much enthusiasm.

The second drawer had the giant's ignored and disgusting socks, which were growing edible mushrooms somehow. A thriving ecosystem of insects and small rodents were present.

I don't remember what's in the top drawer, but I do remember what was in the chest and in the secret shelf the thief spotted on the bookshelf: A thorny and enormous crown of silvered metal, and a golden goblet that the ghost in the thief's head helpfully informed him was used in the blood magical rituals.

The crystal skull was found to speak, annoyingly, and make grand and loud proclamations. Everything, from crown to mushrooms to coinage found its way into the thief's sack. They were in the middle of covering their loot in books and piling it into the chest when the owner of said treasures walked in. An ice giant lich! He shouted in indignation for his staff from the diminuitive thieves. For lack of anything better to do, they threw it at him. He caught it and blasted horrible death magic. Yeah, he was pretty mad. Dirk's ghost screamed that it was Geiknir the Thrice-Dead and the bard recalled some fairly interesting facts. I'll write them in more detail later.

They fought him with moderate success, taking a few lumps and giving out a few in return, and snapping the giant staff in half, until the druid decided to attempt to ignite the ice giant. He misthrew the torch, and lit the carpet on fire instead, which spread to the bookshelves and threatened to engulf the entire room.

The thief fled, and the druid attempted to change shape, but failed, and stood in the middle of the fire and did nothing. The bard abandoned his musical stylings and tackled the wizard, which let the halfling fighter chop the hand that was swinging towards the druid, who had shifted into a bear and charged. I'm omitting some of the fight for the sake of brevity, you understand. There was also a burning bookshelf bludgeoning and some entertaining songs. And a thrown knife or two?

Geiknir teleported away, and the party decided to pursue down the only unexplored avenue, only to be stopped by a squad of skeletons, standing in formation, led by a singular skeleton with a large sword, a golden helmet, and a gilded breastplate. Bartleby immediately challenged him to a battle, an honorable duel, in hopes of slaying their leader before the battle properly began.

The skeleton revealed himself to be the twice-killed Seiggir Brodson, a famous warrior that the bard had sung songs about, but the halfling was stuck. The duel ended poorly for him- after a couple of slashes, the skeleton pressed his advantage and slew the halfling, who hung onto life with the faintest of threads. They recovered their dead, as is the custom after a duel, and the party fled up the giant stairs back into the sanctum.

It was no use, though- the lich was there, and demanded the other half of his staff back. The thief discerned that it was a ruse, and that the skeletons were back! A retreating melee ensued, but Bartleby and Dirk were captured by the skeletons while Baldric and Aziz fled. A single headbutt from Bartleby, in defiance of Seiggir's mocking taunt shocked the skeletons, and both of the heroes lept into action and smashed the head of Seiggir. The rest of the undead collapsed in a heap, no longer bound to serve a slain master, and the heroes quickly scooped up the loot and high-tailed it the fuck out of there.


Nevalix is the closest settlement, as a town built around a keep on the border of civilization. The populace is mostly military, merchants, and the families of guardsmen, but they're friendly and helpful and happy and have a good life. They dispersed- Bartleby found a halfling cook named Tark Haverngton and fell to discussing mushrooms and the delights of home. Baldric is in the company of Lord Anaster, who recognized the bard on sight and offered his home to the vagabond bagpipist. The Druid went to seal his pact with Death itself, and preyed upon a young wandering couple while disguised as a great albino wolf.

Dirk, on the other hand, proceeded directly to the nearest temple, that of Shaunra-thom, and asked for a quick exorcism. An immensely fat priest helped him, but the ghost was absolutely not happy when he heard what Dirk had planned. Too bad for him. At least, for now...

They secured passage south on a returning supply wagon from the ancient and bizarre quartermaster, who essentially said that if it's just them then they can hop on wherever there's space because the wagon's going south with or without them, so they got their stuff ready, found a nice and neat flophouse to snooze on for free, and prepared to figure out how they were going to turn their loot into piles of gold.

And that was the second session of what was planned to be a one-shot but just can't seem to end. Not that I mind, though, because the game is brilliant and fast-paced and creative as hell, and it feels like no matter how much I play of it, I want to see more happen.



21 September 2013

Orcs Again!

The coolest and best thing about Orcs is that they are completely unlike any existing human society. It's the reason that I wrote so much about them the other day (here); because they haven't quite managed to be relegated to a single human subculture yet, Blizzard's strange stereotypically vague Native American attempts notwithstanding.

They are part Ancient Greek city-states, part Polynesian seafaring raiders, part Mesopotamian god-kings, part Gallic warrior caste, and uniquely their own thing. Their depictions are often negative, but they're often portrayed as the enemy, even in Dungeon World. I said, why not let me play as Orcs and experience the world from the other side?

So let's do that.

Here they are.

20 September 2013

Dungeon World Tomorrow! And: Playing Orcs


Dungeon World

I almost feel guilty about being this excited for it. It's such a brilliant game, exploding with enthusiasm and ideas and fun. Everybody, from the guy that usually sits in the back and watches, to the guy who's all about rules and structure, everybody loves it, and it feels great. The way that everybody contributes equally, and the way that you can (and are encouraged to) pick on characters and draw them in with the fiction is great.

They're currently in a giant's tower that's sticking partially out of the snow. I can't remember what they decided it was, but for some reason my notes include the word "courthouse"? Maybe some sort of civic building constructed by giants, or maybe a temple to some sort of lawgiving deity? It doesn't really matter, because the giants are long since dead, and the only thing that's left is a small horde of skeletons (which fused into one giant skeleton due to the slightly bungled attempt at disenchanting them by the Bard, read more about it two posts back or so), some of your typical dungeon denizens (rats, mimics, you know, whatever), and who knows what else.

It'd be fun if the courthouse tower/dungeon opened up into a sort of labyrinth (and I even have some dungeons generated and waiting on the wings), but maybe something more exciting is in order?

Gotta write up some Fronts and some Dungeon and Monster moves to use on them next session. Probably gonna do a couple of writeups about the Giant Skeleton and the Mimic, so that when this session wraps up, I can tie it together in a nice module-sized PDF, clean up the rough edges, fluff out some cool ideas, and then put it here. Mostly for my own benefit, you understand.

Should be a good time. This game is great. I can't say enough good things about it.



Dark Heresy


It's going to be weird to be going back to Dark Heresy. I've been running it as a detective game, and it's been rough. I've never done it before, and it's frustrating because the powers that they're up against are clever and mysterious and it's difficult to get the right balance of "damn these guys are good" with a sense of movement- because when they run out of clues, the only thing that's going to happen is that the bad guys are going to start winning. Which is actually kind of alright, now that I type it out in front of me, because their plans are pretty sinister and noticeable. If the players screw up badly enough, it'll be time for running and gunning. Heh, heh, heh...

Don't wanna spoil the surprise, so I'll leave it at that.

Lemme wrap this up with something I'd intended to post yesterday but ran out of ideas before I could: the Dungeon World Orcs. You remember, the ones from an ancient fallen civilization from another continent, you remember, cmonnnnnn it was just yesterday! Go read it again, then come back here for some rules.

19 September 2013

Dungeon World Orcs

You finally spot your quarry- the dozen orcs that have set fire to your village and slew all of your friends. There couldn't have been more than twelve of them, but they were battle-hardened warriors where your fellow villagers were mostly farmers and their wives and children, and they put them all to the sword. None of them died. They stole everything of value, killed and cooked what livestock hadn't run, and left, singing songs in their strange tongue, mindless of the blood and gore that caked in their thick hair and in their armor.

You'd tracked them over the past day; not a difficult task, since they were obviously making no effort to hide or keep secret what they'd done. They marched at a quick pace, despite being obviously burdened with heavy armor and their huge, spiked weapons, and talked and chattered amongst themselves the whole time. Now that they've camped, they'd taken off their armor and they huddled around a single campfire, yapping at each other and wrestling among themselves, almost rolling into the fire once. They all laughed at that, but you watched in horror. These were the orcs that slew your village? Not a day ago they killed dozens of your kinfolk and now they were rolling around in the grass and making obscene gestures at each other? 

One of them, the largest one, snapped a command and the other orcs visibly sunk. Here was the boss of the warband. You had a tiny dagger that the orcs had deigned to steal, and it seemed useless against the scarred hulk that towered more than twenty feet from you currently stood. The huge orc had no helmet, and you could see that he was missing an eye. He glared out from his empty socket at the others, and cuffed one on the head. He spoke several sharp words, and then gestured at the sky. The orcs quieted and calmed down, and eventually they all went to sleep.

You were still standing there. What on earth were you going to do?


Let's talk about orcs.

In Dungeon World, Orcs are savage, bloodthirsty and hateful. They all swear fealty to a chief, and they are all trained to fight. Some of them are berserkers, transported to near-insanity during battle because of their demonic rites. Some of them are priests, who pluck out their own eye as a sign of devotion and make pacts with their gods for vengeance. Some of them are shamans, who talk to spirits. And some of them are slavers, who roam the seas looking to shanghai a crew or two. This is all directly from Dungeon World's writeups of the race, and is taken for absolute truth.

But is it? How much is exaggerated by terrified enemies, or disgusted onlookers? And most importantly- what can we infer from these descriptions?

Well, a lot, actually. Nearly everything you could want to know about a people is there, actually. Funny how that works, isn't it? So let's start with the basics and extrapolate where we can.

 

Stating the Obvious


If we take them at face value, we have a people who are pious, angry, and ready for battle, which we can clearly see from their aggressive disposition, their numerous warriors, their willingness to fight, and the central place that their shamans and priests hold in their society. This is the basic facet of orkiness- a sort of aggressiveness mixed with religiosity.

Each of these things tells a story about who orcs are, where they came from, and what they're like as individuals.


Orc armies, assembling

Ready for a Fight


Let's start with the most obvious facet of "orcishness," their combativeness. If every orc is taught to fight, then we can assume they have a strong martial tradition. Martial traditions occur only in societies with frequent low-intensity warfare, like Ancient Greece, Gaul, Mesopotamia, or Imperial China. In order for this to happen, the landscape must be of a type that supports at least city-states, and either large enough that a centralized government is difficult to administer efficiently, or dispersed enough that centralization is impractical entirely.

Both kinds share key features; in the absence of a centralized government, there are no kings to moderate in-fighting and direct their population growth towards an external enemy, there is no ethnic kinship (despite seeming similarities in language, appearance, and customs) so they remain free game to be enslaved or pillaged, and there are numerous feuds and rivalries with any neighbor, so that there is a kaleidoscopic web of temporary allies, potential enemies, and chains of atrocities committed on both sides.


This all, of  course, necessitates that there are cities, or at least permanent settlements, both because tribal nomads don't produce iron goods that orcs are known to possess, and because nomads generally do not have strong martial traditions, which orcs are again known to possess. This actually completely gels with their being described as hordes, because the peoples that have been historically referred to as hordes (i.e. the Roman's "barbarians" and the Mongolian Empire's "hordes" that enveloped swaths of Eurasia). Both of these people actually had complex societies with some fairly large cities (including the "barbarian" cities of Orleans, Bourges, and Chartres, which still exist today), trade routes, non-food producing specialists, a priestly class, and various other trappings of civilization.

So we've decided that they obviously have squabbling city-states, that they may or may not have had experiments in feudalism, and that they are very obviously possessed of at least a couple of disparate ethnic groups that fought constantly, leading to the establishment of a "warrior culture." This leaves us a couple of useful seeds you can use in your next game, including peaceful orcish cities, orcish ruins, and orc traders. Or possibly an ancient orcish battleground, or an orcish tomb of an ancient emperor.


Help From Above


Next up, we have their religion. Their religion is explained by three entries in Dungeon World- one of them being the Berserker, who undergoes a "kind of twisted knighthood" called Anointing By The Night's Blood, which turns a normal warrior-orc into a half-mad warrior whose madness never really ceases. This mirrors the real-life view of the Nordic berserkers, whose enemies believed that they looted, pillaged, and destroyed constantly in their horrible heretical frenzy. Of course, this isn't true- in real life, berserkers were highly valued and completely sane outside of battle, and even formed a regular part of armies and the personal guard of kings. But we do, undoubtedly, have a sort of holy warrior here. Can you say paladins?

Secondly, their religion is described in the entry on the Orc One-Eye, where a lengthy prayer of vengeance is delivered to one "Gor-sha-thak, the Iron Gallows," praying for vengeance against an unnamed foe, invoking the powers of night, of runes, and of the clouded sky. This, again, sounds fairly nordic; runes, blood magic, and one-eyed gods being a notable part of the Norse pagan worldview.

Lastly, you have the entry on the Shadowhunter, who is literally a holy order of assassins. They serve He of Riven Sight, the one-eyed god, and use poisons and shadowy magic to kill people that the orcs deem unworthy. This tells us a whole lot about orcs, once again- namely that there is enough left of orcish society to support not only a priestly caste, but to have holy assassins. This implies a high degree of organization, of information about other societies, and of frequent stretches of peace. After all, you don't send assassins to kill people that you're attacking- you send in assassins when they're not expecting it. This puts a wrinkle in the nordic theme, of course, and lends a sort of ancient middle-eastern paganism in. Which is kind of neat- now we've got a bit of interplay with lunar symbolism, the shadows of night, and a bit of the vengeance pokes through once again.

So when you put it together, what have you got?

An orcish general surveys the carnage he has wrought

Who's The Tusked Dude Over There?


A people who willingly meet their enemies in battle with no qualms for "fairness" or "honor," watched over by one-eyed sky gods hungry for sacrifice and for rivers of blood, who sail the oceans in their reaving ships, pillaging and plundering the cities of their foe-men, led by priests and berserkers anointed by night, commanded by chieftans' force of will and strength of personality in a de-centralized world of city-states and feudalism.

From this, we can extrapolate that orcs are independent, pious, and unafraid of personal sacrifice. They value personal accomplishment and do not acknowledge inherited prestige or positions, although they're not stupid and won't do things like disrespecting a king in his own castle, surrounded by guards. An orc makes friends and enemies easily, and has little to no truck with stupid notions like honor. To the victor goes the spoils, says the orc, and if the gods didn't like betrayal and backstabbing maybe they should do something about it. They tend to act rather than think. They talk with their hands and are vivacious. Their language is harsh and fast-paced, and tends to be made of compound words rather than unique words for each thing. A troll would be an uglywartmonster, and an dragon would be flyingfirelizard, for example.

Want to play them yet? Me, too. But I haven't written the rules just yet. Maybe check back tomorrow?










17 September 2013

Dungeon World!


Last Saturday I played Dungeon World.

At the risk of sounding a bit like a crazy person I want to just go ahead and say that playing it was like a dream come true. It was a bit like a really great pair of underwear- it's got support where you need it, it mostly stays out of the way, and it doesn't look terrible, either.

The best idea, I think, is that each players' action has the potential to really make things worse, so you often have situations that quickly snowball out of control. I really do mean snowball; shit gets crazy quick.

As a good example, the first thing my players' party did was decide that they're going to a frigid arctic dungeon, deep in the north. I had them roll to make a Perilous Journey, and so they did. The quartermaster, to whom the food supplies belong (a halfling who immediately demanded that he be quartermaster as soon as he found out what that was, no less), rolled fine, so nothing happened to their food. The trailblazer, not so much- he rolled a 7. I asked him what was up, and he told me: "Oh, the map was upside down!" We decided that they'd have to eat an extra ration, since they were headed exactly the wrong way and wasted a lot of what would normally be productive travel time. But it got interesting with the scout, who rolled really, really poorly. I offered him a hard choice- you can either stand your ground here, and try and outsmart, outfight, or otherwise trick it (not entirely unlikely, since the scout was a bard,) or you can run for your life and hope that your party helps you deal with it. He chose to run for his life, and I told him what was chasing him: An enormous, slavering yeti.

And so, without any preparation or forethought to what was happening, we have a clear picture of the party; a somewhat oblivious but well-meaning bard, a possibly sheltered thief, and a halfling who is more concerned with the food than with where they're going.

I can't remember how the fight went, but I do remember that they ended up getting some help from the Druid (the last party member, who according to the Bonds that they wrote before the session, actually knew most of them from before), and they dispatch the Yeti, but not before the bard's music attracts more of the beasts. I left one of the failed song attempts hanging, because I'd had a plan for later...

Anyways, they run into a nearby ice cave (they used Spout Lore to decide that there were some caves nearby, I think,) and the thief uses his powers to detect traps, asking if it's safe. It isn't- the bard's bagpipe music has weakened the ice and it's going to collapse! But the Druid runs deeper into the cave (a result of a failed attempt to aid, I think)!

The entire session goes on just like this, with two steps back to every three steps forwards. It was like a roller-coaster ride, and I highly recommend Dungeon World to anybody who's tired of preparing game material and just wants to play a really fun, really exciting fantasy game.

11 September 2013

DUNGEON WORLD


This Saturday I'm running Dungeon World, and I'm excited.

And why shouldn't I be? It's a semi-narrativist, semi-traditional game of dungeon crawling with an obvious love for its source material and no qualms whatsoever about giving you that old-school D&D vibe in a totally new way.

It's no secret that I'm in love with old-school dungeon crawling, especially in a system that lets you get away with making literally everything up on the spot. I mean, the entire game is based around exactly that; every roll lets the players or the GM dictate what's happening in the world, in totally in-game terms. And it's all player driven.

See, the players actually get to shape the world during character creation. You ask them what god they serve, and they just make it up. Where are the from? They make it up, and tell you a little bit about it. They have "Bonds" to other characters, and that lets them define who other peoples' characters are.

During play, it's the same way. When they want to attack something, the monsters get to hit back if they roll decently well. They can choose not to take this retribution damage, or they can choose to knock the enemy around a little. Or they can choose to hack extra hard.

And if they roll poorly? Then I get to "make a move," too. And it's always something cool. If it's just a fight, maybe their sword gets knocked away. Or maybe they slip and fall. Or maybe their enemy uses their momentum to push them towards the chasm they were fighting near. Or maybe now the valiant hero is in the middle of the hordes of monsters! Or maybe the bad guy's about to smash the super-important Crystal of Amun-Reth? It's all about making the consequences match the outcome. And it's all written directly into the way the game works.

The whole game is like that, and it's really exciting and really weird. Instead of thinking up even a skeletal plot, I've got to wait and see what the players come up with, draw (but not fill) a couple of dungeons, sites, and places, and come up with some names. I can't fit anything together yet, because I don't know what the players are going to bring. It's like getting ready for a jam session, and I really, really hope that they are going to bring their A game, because I'm going to bring mine.

I haven't been this excited about a generic fantasy game in a long, long time.

16 August 2013

Pitch and Go

I want a game that I can pitch to my players (or my co-players) when one or two guys don't show up and we still feel like playing something for a couple of hours, something that ends itself by the end of the session. Something that's a mix between a dungeon delve and a one-shot, but without the system mastery test that is modern D&D's character building. Something that you know isn't going to go on forever- a three hour movie to traditional role-playing's wandering literary saga.

I'm thinking a game about People Who Are Screwed, or People Who Were Nearly Screwed. Like if you take the central idea of Call of Cthulhu, where you're basically boned and it's up to you to be boned later, if at all, and so you fight and struggle for a while, except that CoC is basically D&D with a different theme and a lot of insanity and that's not what I'm after.

I'm thinking a game where your resources are limited and represent ways that the player can control the narrative of the game. A game in which the DM is talking and the player has the ability to say "Wait, but I," and the DM has to incorporate what he said (provided it makes sense, and the character is reasonably able to do that thing), and maybe make the player spend their resource to make sure that it does happen.


There should be a "central resource" that lets you absorb failures and keep moving, like a health system in a more traditional game. So you might spend a point of Gun but you should have spent more because the guy lives through the gunshot and punches you in the mouth, and even though you have the upper hand since he's already wounded he's a tough guy, and you lose two health as well. Or maybe you try and use your Friendly Guard to get you to a less secure part of the prison, but it turns out that you should have used more points because he put you in minimum security instead, where there's a guy from the other gang and it isn't long before he's punching the shit out of you and you can't defend yourself, so you get a little beat up and lose one health... See what I'm getting at?

So the nucleus of the game is such: You have a character sheet, which represents a character. On this sheet are a number of resources, which are rated numerically. Some of the things are possessions, and some of the things are skills, and some are otherwise depletable assets. A zombie survivor might have Gun 6 or Crowbar 2, but a prisoner might have Colluding Guard 3 and Shank 1, Drugs 2, and so on, representing the finite reserves of resources that the character has in their possession. All resources are depleted the same way, because the time frame of the session is such that meaningfully recovering one's strength is impossible; the pressure is always on to move forwards or irrecoverably lose.


Of course, moving forwards has its own risks, which is the point of the game.

And the DM would have to set a good goal, one that is (probably) possible in a single session. Escaping an alien invasion is a good goal, as is stopping a terrorist from detonating a bomb on christmas. "Finding all the treasure" is not a particularly good one, but "finding the Scepter of Torgol" might be. "Kill all the Aliens" is an extremely poor one, but "Find and slay the Queen" is fantastic.

The more I think about it, the more cool ideas I get. This idea might be the solution I'm looking for, and it should be fully worth fleshing out. I might put up a smallish PDF today or tomorrow, time permitting- I'm still on a bit of a vacation with the wife, after all!


06 August 2013

D&D IV Post Mortem: Part 4

Glad you could join me, here's my fourth (and probably final) part of why I dislike 4th edition D&D.

You know the rules by now, so I'm going to go ahead and just get into the meat of the thing. This is the finale- I'm putting my last four reasons into one post, because I'll be honest- I am really tired of writing about this by now. It's not that I don't have the time or the inclination, I really just don't like writing about things that I don't like.

Ten Reasons Why I Hate 4th Edition D&D

7. It fetishizes fun

    Or: Why being miserable is fun, too

If you haven't watched this yet, you have no soul.
Playing 4th edition feels a bit like the game was designed for children. And I'm not being mean when I say it- some of my very favorite media was designed for children. I am a huge fan of Ponyo, for example, and I know the target demographic isn't 20-somethings. But I don't care, because it's adorable and it's cute and it has a lot of really meaningful stories in it. It's life- the kid is obviously kind of lonesome, and he has a rebellious streak and he's kind of dense, and you can see that in the background, where he's not looking, adults are going on with their real lives. His mom is lonely because her husband is always away on his boat and you can see that even in a kid's movie she has very real anger at him. And Ponyo's father (I can't remember his name) is the same way- he is a good guy and a bad guy at the same time. And he has to go through some seriously difficult decisions in the movie. In a kid's movie! It's a lot deeper than it looks, and a lot sadder.

And that's what makes it good, in the end. Some things get resolved, and some don't. Some things are better, but at a very real cost. A lot of people died, although naturally the movie doesn't show it, and a lot of people suffered a lot by the time the movie ends. It's the sadness that makes the happy ending stand out as much as it does.

This is related to 4th edition D&D because the game is all "fun," all the time. There are no save-or-die effects, because it "isn't fun." There are no real penalties, because it isn't fun. Nobody likes keeping track of long-term effects, apparently, so everything gets put in a template and everything has one-round or shorter durations. You don't have a "saving throw" anymore, because who wants to fail one? Instead, it's a 50% chance that you shrug off any (save ends) effect. And there are a lot of them!

You can't die, because dying isn't fun. You can't get wounded, because that's not fun, either. And so what you're left with is a really monotone experience. You can't make a diplomatic character, because that's also not fun for some characters. Everybody's strong in combat because combat is fun, and on and on and on. The thing is, of course, that not everybody has fun in the same way, and defining fun to be "constantly getting into tactical skirmishes and winning them" is disingenuous, to say the least.

I think this point proves itself, because if you try and do anything that isn't tactical skirmishing, you aren't using most of the rules, and if you aren't using the rules, are you playing the game?

No, you are not. Moving on.

8. It's hard to create your own stuff

    Or: Why "system mastery" as a plus has got to go

The tightness of the system is lauded by a lot of people as finally bringing the excesses of the horrible, horrible design of 3rd edition to reign. "Finally," people say, "I don't have to play a Wizard or be completely useless," leaving aside that there are 20+ good fantasy games where that doesn't happen. I guess in some people's minds, it's D&D or bust, and only editions from 2000 or later count.

I digress. My point is that 4th edition is a very tight system, there is no way to dispute that. Everything's hammered down and (at least ostensibly) balanced so that there is no wrong way to build a character. You can be more or less specialized, and there are more or less optimized builds for each class, too. You have all kinds of powers you can choose from that are roughly balanced, and so you never feel like you're missing out on choice.

But what if you want to play something truly unique, something that isn't covered by the rules? What if you want to play a Necromancer Knight? What if you want to play a Final-Fantasy style Leaping Dragoon fighter?

Don't worry, it's only another 15 powers and then you can play a Necromancer!
Well, in most other games, you'd write up a quick class description, or just take the appropriate skills or abilities and make it work, because most other games let you make things up. In oD&D, for example, you could write it in about half an hour. Hit Dice, Thac0 chart, basic abilities, drawbacks, experience chart, some titles (if you care), and you're done. Completely new class, completely new fighting style, completely new experience in a game.

In 4th edition, you're going to have to get writing, because a new class takes a good 20+ powers. And you're going to want to write some feats about it, too, and don't forget the fact that you have to balance it with the other classes or nobody's going to have any fun, because the game is still about combat first and foremost, and there is literally no other purpose to a class other than to provide a role in the skirmish minigame. Have fun!



9. The artwork is hideously bad

    Or: Why Wayne Reynolds is the bane of my life

There is a lot of bad 4th edition art. I'm talking, seriously, a lot. I actually kind of feel like making a separate blog for it, because I just can't stand it and there's nothing better to prod your creativity than having to see a thing that you despise, is there? I mean, when's the last time you felt like taking to your platform of choice and saying to everybody who passes by: " I absolutely love puppies and would like to talk about it!"

Well, never.

So here's some official 4th edition art on the right there. Look at that stupid shit! It makes me want to gauge my eyes out. There is nothing interesting about this art whatsoever. Here's a wereshark or something, POW, it's attacking and there's some splinters, luckily there's a nice pirate lass with a lot of buckles and doodads ready to turn around and attack it, maybe. I guess. I dunno. It's stupid and honestly, this is a really superficial complaint, but most of the 4th edition art is about this same level of boring workmanship. With the budget that WOTC has, you'd think they could hire somebody who could at least draw a compelling scene, but pretty much everything the dude draws looks like that.

I mean, honestly, look at it. Have you ever seen anything less compelling? Ever? It's an atrocity that this man is allowed to draw anything, let alone that he is on the cover of the flagship of the single largest role-playing names in the industry. It's damn pathetic, and every time I think about it I get a little upset inside.

Here we see Generic McSwordswarrior, posing for the camera with his boots full of buckles, his hair perfectly coiffed, and absurd looking weapons. If there is a more boring pose, I'm looking for it. Everything about it screams shallow psuedo-edginess, like this has been focus-tested into oblivion and mathematically formulated to appeal to the lowest common denominators. I really, really hate the art.

But you know, I could look past this point if not for my last point.





10. I absolutely cannot get into it

    Or: Why does everything feel the same?

Nothing feels magical in 4th edition D&D. And I mean nothing. Magical items are a dime a dozen and are little more than either stat sticks or trinkets. By default, everybody will be bristling with magical items.

All the characters all have a series of powers that they cast, but they almost all take the form of "deal damage, add a one-round effect" for encounter powers and at-wills, and the only really interesting ones are the daily powers, which, obviously, you can only cast once a day. There's no really neat stuff like druids shapechanging or being able to summon creatures, or anything. Everything is focused on extremely temporary effects (a single turn, in most cases, and probably not more than two or three for the most part), which means that whatever it is that you hit somebody with, they're shrugging it off after their turn is over.

I can't get into it. I'm sorry, but I can't. What it feels like is that each player and all of the monsters are self-contained spheres; everything slides off of them without much effort, they glide effortlessly over most terrain, and they are generally untouchable. They don't feel like human beings anymore. They're the Fantasy Superheroes I was talking about in the last post, and you know, I just can't get into it. It doesn't feel like fantasy anymore. It doesn't feel like anything.

Nothing holds your players back. Nothing permanently stops your enemies, except, of course, for beating them to death over a period of a couple of turns. And that's why I can't get into it. There are no reasons to take prisoners, or to negotiate anything, or to interact with the world in