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


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...