Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Emotional Investment in Character & Story

In addition to keeping the holiday fires burning for my family, I’ve been playing a bit of Skyrim and reading and thinking about role-playing. There was an interesting post on Bethesda Softworks’ (creators of Skyrim) forums that talked about the failings of the writers of the game. It was pretty well thought out, but I couldn’t help but feel that the poster may have missed the intent of the game designers.

Like some tabletop RPGs where the GM is creating a world as a canvas on which the players can “paint” their stories, Skyrim is a sandbox-style game. The NPCs and events of the world, taken on their own, are somewhat flat. As various posters in the thread above noted, there are many examples of games where some player choice is sacrificed in favor of a more compelling story (as determined by the writers of the game.) But, in true sandbox style, it is up to players to discover what compels them in Skyrim.

This is the approach I’ve tried to take with my tabletop game as well. By having my players create some background information, and noting how they interact with and influence NPCs, I’m able to get a read on what they value in their characters, and in the story. The stuff they’re emotionally invested in. Of course this is much easier to do in a tabletop game than in a CRPG. But I think it’s one of the keys to a successful campaign.

Jared von Hindman, who writes for WotC in various forms recently posted an article on character development, and some of the differences and connections between the game-mechanical aspects of characters, and the emotional investment in story I’m talking about here.
There your characters are, living out a story, which is presented by the DM. Yet those characters are living out a story that, if TVTropes has taught us anything, often follows certain narrative imperatives. Stories have power. A story told enough times can reshape the world. Your adventuring party is creating a story, touching elements of older, darker stories that they might never see the end of because that's not their story.
— Jared von Hindman
As a GM, I’m creating stories in my campaign that are independent of the characters, yet may be influenced by them. Oftentimes, as von Hindman says, there is a certain narrative imperative to the story that creates an informal agreement between players and GMs, and the campaign will, for a time, follow a certain path. This is, to some extent, a matter of convenience for both players and GMs. We have a limited time in which to play, and a certain amount of narrative imperative keeps the game in a context that provides the illusion of full freedom of choice within a realm that is manageable by a GM (who most likely has a job, family, and other commitments that need attention.)

Ultimately though, what will make the campaign work is the emotional investment of players in their characters, their characters’ stories, and in the stories of those around them. Balancing this with game mechanics, the dynamics of individual game sessions (influenced by factors like attendance, distractions, and player capabilities, to name just a few), and maintaining a sense of continuity, is what keeps the campaign juggling-act such a challenge.

So that’s my goal for 2012. To see if I can engineer a successful combination of these factors, in hopes that they’ll foster a greater emotional involvement for my players in both their characters and in the campaign. If you have any suggestions on how I might be better able to do that, or if you think I should try another direction entirely, please let me know!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two Styles of Play

David Peterson's Mouse Guard
I've visited this issue several times in the short run of this blog, so I hope you're not bored with it. I find it fascinating. In short, there seem to be two major styles of play employed by those I game with:
  1. These players are focused on the game-mechanical aspects of their characters and measure their success by additional mechanics enabled. 
  2. These players focus on the story, both of their character (background) and achievements in the campaign.
Of course I'm simplifying this radically to make the point. In general, younger players tend to be #1's, while older players are more likely to be #2's. I play with more younger players than old. The ratio is about 3:1. Players assume characteristics of the other style at times.

My theory is that the younger players are more likely to have grown up with CRPGs, which focus on mechanics as a metric for character advancement, and tend to have less-personal stories. Older players are more likely to have played table-top RPGs first, and may have branched out to CRPGs.

This all makes for an interesting challenge as a GM. Some of my players get an immense amount of their game satisfaction from tracking progress, advancing capabilities, and poring over rules to find game-mechanical advantages for their characters. Others are daunted by this level of detail, find it a burden, or would happily remain oblivious to it. Games like CRPGs and 4e D&D put a lot of burden on the player to make sound game-mechanical choices in order to keep pace with the encounters the game provides. These games are predicated on the idea of character/challenge advancement.

So, as a GM I get the benefit of a system that empowers my players to define a lot of the rules that they'll be using (as a subset of the gamut of game rules), and puts the utilization of those rules in their hands. However, I am then burdened by the task of generating encounters that challenge the capabilities of these characters. Players expect that opportunities to use these capabilities will arise, and are usually disappointed when they do not. The knife has two edges.

WotC's 4e D&D
For those players who are content to focus on story or setting, I can easily sketch rich outlines that they then fill out with the results of their choices. Granted, these players assume that I will do so in a fair and impartial way. They are required to trust that I will do so, and I am bound to honor that trust. Anything less leads to disaster, as I'm sure anyone who played an RPG in middle school, or high school experienced first hand!

So, I'm sitting here with this knife in hand (Not literally. It's the figurative knife of modern game rules that make my life easy as a GM, as well as complicated.) And I'm wondering if there is a way to carve out a system that works for both styles of play?

What would you do if your favorite campaign was run using two different rule sets? If, for example, one session was a story-based system like the Mouse Guard RPG, while the following session used something more mechanical like 4e D&D? That's just a crazy idea I threw out. I don't have an answer yet, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Skyrim on the Tabletop, Pt 1

A Nord from Bethesda's Skyrim
The trouble with creating your own game rules is that creating a good game is much harder than it looks. My poor Friday night group has been subjected to several iterations of game rules, published and (mostly) unpublished, and yet they still turn out each month. I think I do a good-enough job of creating an interesting setting, and therefore they’re willing to put up with the eccentricities of my house rules.

My latest wild hair was inspired by the CRPG, Skyrim. Aside from the racial components, the characters are defined by three attributes and eighteen skills. This seems like an endearingly sleek setup, yet there are delicious complexities hidden within. Each of the skills has a tree of perks that may be unlocked, that give the character a unique flavor. I found myself wondering what a tabletop version of the game might look like. Green Ronin did it with Dragon Age, so why couldn’t something similar be done with Skyrim? (Keep in mind, this is all very sketchy at this point. More brainstorming than anything else.) What follows is influenced by Skyrim, 4e D&D, and my own house rules.

At 1st level you have 8 pts to distribute between the attributes of Health, Lore, Combat, and Agility (Strength, Constitution, and the other 4e attributes are not used). You may not put more than 5 points into any one attribute per level. After that, at each even-numbered level you gain 2 pts, and each odd-numbered level you gain 3 pts. That number becomes your bonus to d20 rolls for skill checks (and/or attacks) based on those attributes. In addition, you use those points in the skill trees to select specific talents or capabilities.

Example: A first level character might put 5 pts in Combat. Specifically, 2 pts in Block (unlocking the parry and small shield perks), 1 pt in Heavy Armor (unlocking the chainmail perk), and 2 pts in One-handed melee (unlocking d4 and d6 weapons such as daggers and short swords).

Fighting with a short sword (proficiency bonus +3), and adding the +5 for Combat proficiency, the player would add +8 when rolling to hit with a d20.

Combat (Combat Points) — AC
Health (Hit Points) Start with 20 — FORT
Lore (Magic/Knowledge Points) — WILL
Stealth (Stealth Points) — REFL


Athletics (Initiative +1, +2, +3, +4)
Block (Parry, shields, sm, md, lg)
Endurance (Defender Aura)
Heavy Armor (Chain +5, scale +6, plate +8)
Martial Arts
One-handed melee (Weapons, d4, d6, d8)
Ranged (Weapons: d4, d6, d8, d10)
Smithing (Make armor, 5, 6, 8, or weapons, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12)
Two-handed melee (Weapons, 2d4, d10, d12)

Alchemy (Make potions or poisons, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12)
Arcane (Conjuration, Arcana)
Crafting (Non-weapon item, non-magical, +1, +2, +3)
Divine (Restoration, Arcana)
Elemental (Destruction, Arcana)
Primal (Alteration, Arcana)
Psionic (Enchanting, Arcana)
Shadow (Illusion, Arcana)

Acrobatics (Agility, Balance)
Light Armor (hide +2, leather +3, studded leather +4)
Sneak (Including Move Quietly, Hide in Shadows, Back Stab, Sneak Attack)
Speech (Including Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, & Streetwise)
Thievery (Including Lockpicking & Pickpocket)

I've roughed in some basic perks above, but imagine extending those with some of the options from Skyrim, feats from D&D, or the combat options I derived from 4e that I use in my house rules. In my current system, players build their attack powers on the fly using the following menu of options and a point budget based on the character's level.

Weapon-based powers (1pt each):
The available attack powers are as follows ({M} indicates a melee power, {R} a ranged power, and {W} indicates a power useable both ways.)

All weapon users gain the following powers by default:
{W} 1 die damage (die-type based on weapon equipped)
{M} Grab (target restrained)
{M} Knock Prone (no move)

Additional attack powers may be selected from the following list:

{M} Back Stab — Minor Action
Trigger: You make a melee attack roll against an adjacent enemy using a light blade. The enemy must be granting combat advantage to you.
Effect: The enemy takes 1 die damage (weapon) + extra damage, based on level, if the attack hits.

{M} Blindside (gain combat advantage)

{M} Cleave (make a secondary melee attack against an additional target; target must be adjacent to attacker)

{M} Defender Aura — Minor Action
You project an aura 1 that lasts until you end it as a minor action or until you fall unconscious. While in the aura, any enemy takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls when it makes an attack that does not include among its targets either you or an ally of yours who has this aura active.

If an enemy subject to your defender aura either shifts or makes an attack that targets an ally of yours but not you or an ally who has an active defender aura, then you may make the following opportunity attack (range: melee 1):
Target: The triggering enemy
Effect: The target takes weapon damage equal to 3 + extra damage, based on level.

{M} Disarm (no attack)

{R} Favored Enemy — Minor Action
You can designate the nearest enemy to you that you can see as your favored enemy. You can designate one enemy at a time. The favored enemy effect remains active until the end of the encounter, until the enemy is defeated, or until you designate a different target as your favored enemy. If you can make multiple attacks in a round, you decide which attack to apply the extra damage to after all the attacks are rolled. If you have dealt Favored Enemy damage since the start of your turn, you cannot deal it again until the start of your next turn.
Target: The designated enemy
Effect: The target takes extra weapon damage if the attack hits equal to 3 + extra damage, based on level.

{W} Fusillade (no sense)

{R} Hit and Run (shift a number of squares equal to 1 + Wisdom modifier)

{M} Intimidating Charge (when you charge, target suffers -2 on next attack)

{M} Press (push target 1 square and shift into the space that the target occupied)

{R} Sneak Attack — Minor Action
Trigger: You make a ranged attack roll against an enemy using a light blade, a hand crossbow, a shortbow, or a sling. You must be hidden from that enemy (make a Stealth check opposed by the passive Perception of the enemy. If the Stealth check succeeds, you are hidden from that enemy until the end of your turn or until you attack.)
Effect: The enemy takes 1 die damage (weapon) + extra damage, based on level, if the attack hits.

{M} Switch Positions (exchange positions with adjacent target)

{W} Tumble Past (shift 1 square)

{R} Volley Fire (make a secondary ranged attack against an additional target; target must be adjacent to, or the same as original target. Special: You can use this option only once per round. Only useable with a “load free” weapon.)

{R} Vulnerable Prey (when target has no adjacent allies, target suffers -2 on next attack)

Of course, there are a lot of questions to be answered about how this might work, but I hope to expand on the idea in future posts. As always, your insights are welcome!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thank You, Dave

A couple of years ago I was verging on an episode of game master burnout. Running games, but not really getting any chances to play. I messed around with CRPGs and various MMOs, but I missed the easygoing nature of the tabletop. I decided I’d need to take a chance on an entirely new gaming group. I joined a D&D meetup list online and found a guy looking to start a game that sounded like it was a good fit. We both ended up at our FLGS on the same date, but for a different event. We touched base, and agreed that we’d get together. At the event I met another couple who were fun to play with, and connected them with the new game as well.

Dave was the game master, getting back into D&D after a long layoff. He brought a tremendous energy, a deep homebrew setting, and a friendly vibe to the table. Eventually, we became a group. Dave, Sarah, Andrew, Adam, Bob, and I. We had a great time. But, eventually Dave found himself in the same boat I had been in a few months earlier. I added another group to my campaign to get Dave some playing time, but the commitments of developing his own homebrew setting were outweighing the available time that Dave had, so we decided to shutter the campaign.

After a bit of negotiation we decided to go with the Dark Sun setting to take a little bit of the labor out of the creation part for Dave. Andrew and Sarah moved, and the group changed a bit. But Dave still brought his enthusiasm and energy to the game. Being a creative guy, Dave refused to settle for the easy route with Dark Sun, and had soon created his own town in the setting, and a bunch of new plot elements. We had a lot of fun with it. As our characters leveled up, we discovered things about 4e D&D that were less than satisfying to us. We chugged through it. There were some epic encounters and memorable NPCs. Dave started talking about winding up the campaign by year’s end, and revisiting his original setting concept.

So, yesterday we played an all-day Dark Sun D&D marathon. The like of which I haven’t played in since high school. Dave and his wife organized meals and gaming like the gracious hosts they’ve been for so many sessions before, but on an epic scale. The final fight was a great challenge, and pushed our characters to their limits. It was perfect.

Thank you, Dave. For all the work you’ve put in over the last few years on these campaigns. Thank you for inviting me to your table, and into your home. Thanks also for gathering a great group of people to game with, and keeping us gaming together with your creativity and generous spirit. Thank you for pursuing your gaming interests towards the next campaign you’re planning, and inviting me to participate in that as well.

A couple of years ago I was verging on an episode of game master burnout. Running games, but not really getting any chances to play. Thank you Dave for giving me the chance to play. But more important, thank you for reminding me why I play. To spend time with friends at the tabletop, laughing and telling stories and having a great time. And thanks to Sarah, Andrew, Adam, Bob, Neil, Aaron, and the other folks who’ve wandered in and out of the Dave’s campaigns. I hope we get more chances to play together in the future!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Out of the Cave

Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
- William Blake

It’s pretty easy to get tunnel vision while playing in or preparing for an RPG session. We are constrained in various ways by the rules we choose, the story to be told, the clichés of genre that dictate the common language of fantasy, or whatever milieu we may have selected for our game. We sit in our caves and draw upon the walls with chalk and charcoal, telling stories by firelight. But there is a whole world of gaming out there. A million caves where a million tales are being told. And, like the million monkeys with their million typewriters, a few Shakespearean epics are being written.

Whether it is a plot, or a rule system. An ideal game mechanic, or the most satisfying narrative twist. It is out there waiting to be discovered if we are open to it. One of my art teachers in college, Richie Kehl always urged us to look at stuff with a naive, or innocent eye. One of my favorite experiences in his class was a multi-hour barrage of imagery shown so fast, you were soon unable to put names to what you were seeing, and saw only shape and color. Looking at games and game rules in a similar way requires some significant effort. Acquiring and reading game rules is a labor of obsessive love. I would be the first to admit I don’t really have the patience for it. But I’m slowly doing it anyway. Because I’m curious, after decades of gaming, about what else is out there. Beyond my cave.

Over the last few years I’ve gotten active in my local RPG community, and online, to connect with others via a hobby that I’ve found entertaining and fulfilling since I first discovered it. That the hobby still holds me in its spell is testament to the power of gaming. But I returned to gaming with renewed fervor a few years ago when I found that I was becoming isolated and sad. I was looking for a cooperative social outlet (and wasn’t working at a daily job.) I missed being part of a team. It has been a rich and rewarding experience. I’ve been more experimental in my gaming, and willing to game with people I didn’t know. I’ve learned new games and met new people.

I’ve always kept myself open for surprises. I don’t plot and plan.
-Steven Spielberg

As I’ve played more, I’ve tried to be more open to change. I’ve honed my session notes to a few pages, and try to listen to my players for cues on where the game should go. When playing I’ve tried to add creatively to the worlds I’ve been invited to explore, helping the GM define the place (and hopefully making it richer for everyone involved.) When creating characters, I’m not usually going to spend as much time on the mechanics of how, as I am the mysteries of why. But I’m open to discovering the answers to those mysteries in the run of play.

So now I find myself thrown back into the world of 9-to-5 work. Gaming, instead of being the core cooperative experience of my week, is a luxury. An option. I’m really enjoying the work. (I had the odd experience last week of putting in a full day, then racing to my FLGS for the weekly D&D Encounters  session. I enjoyed both in equal measure, for entirely different reasons.)

Life is something that, to a certain extent, can’t really be plotted or planned. You surf the wave of experiences and sometimes you lose your balance, sometimes you wipeout, and sometimes you hang ten and rip it all up. The wave’s a little different today. I’m fighting for balance, and looking ahead to see what opportunities might present themselves. I’m trying to remain open for surprises, to keep an innocent eye on what I see.

How does your gaming fit into your life, and what priority to give it?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Question of Skills

Over at Hack & Slash, -C posted recently about skills and skill use in RPGs. The post cites extensive skill options as being an obstacle to new gamers, an impediment to gameplay for skilled players, and unnecessarily complex. The core question being presented was:

How is selecting a limited number of options from a list a superior method of customizing your character compared to using a limitless number of verbal options (words) to describe what your character is like?

There were a lot of good comments, and the dialog highlighted the debate between rules-light and rules-heavy gaming. Personal preference plays a major role in the choice between the two, but is there a happy medium out there? And, if so, has it been published, or is it still waiting to be published by a game designer or hobbyist?

Image from Players Handbook 2 published by WotC
Several commenters expressed an interest in scaling skill complexities. That is, general skills that could be approached from a rules-light perspective, allowing more on-the-fly adjudication by the GM, and then progressing to checks for more specialized options. A bone of contention involves the calculation of difficulty ratings for challenges and whether or not an exhaustive list of situational modifiers is necessary.

After our most recent D&D Encounters session I had an interesting chat with one of my players who had spent much of his RPGing career playing 4e D&D. He expressed some reservations about having a GM calculating difficulties, and a preference for clear and accessible modifiers that could be calculated by both GM and player. I respect his right to expect this when playing 4e D&D (considering that many of the modifiers in question are, in fact, presented in various portions of the rules) but I don’t believe it is realistic to require a GM with a table full of people to entertain to make such involved calculations on-the-fly. Some compromise has to be made. (Now, if someone were to create an app for GMs that, when the skill in question was entered, supplied a list of all possible circumstantial modifiers, I might sing a different tune.)

In play some players prefer to implement skill use by rolling a die for a check and indicating which skill they’re using, while others prefer to describe a proposed action and then enter into a negotiation with the GM about which skill would be appropriate for the check. Without getting into the specifics of individual skills (examples of which can be provided to illustrate the advantages of either of the play preferences cited above) I think both styles of play can coexist at the table. That said however, in my after-Encounters conversation, the point was presented that a player adhering strictly to the rules system in use might feel slighted by other players being allowed to check skills in an alternate manner.

When we sit down to play a classic board game, there are some agreed-upon rules that we follow, and everyone at the table is expected to abide by them, or work to achieve a consensus on how they are to be interpreted. By nature, an RPG promotes a variety of play styles, and actual play often involves a range of rule-use depending on the situations presented. The ultimate goal being not so much to “win”, as to resolve the conflicts that occur on the way to the end of the story or adventure. As a player, you have rights and responsibilities within the framework agreed upon by the group. The GM has a large influence on this, as they have agreed to act as an impartial actor in the game, presenting situations and adjudicating conflict resolution as necessary.

So, which is preferable, a range of codified skills, or the freedom of extemporaneous skill use?

Clearly, we need to consider player expectations, GM workload, and group consensus. Compromise becomes a necessary ingredient in order to make the game work. As we agree on the compromise of a combat system, or other RPG sub-systems, we need to do so with skills. There are many available models, ranging from no specifically-defined skills, to a few general skills, to a wide range of clearly defined skills. What does your play group choose?

What I’ve implemented at home is a tiered model. I have a long skill list of specific skills that players are free to purchase proficiencies in. I also explain to players that they may propose actions for which they do not have skill-specific expertise. I use the modified 4e difficulty ratings that include easy, moderate and hard options for different levels of challenges. The level of a challenge is something I either pre-assign, or adjudicate on the fly based on my interpretation of the circumstances (is it an Epic action like plugging a volcano to prevent the destruction of a city, or a Paragon action like convincing the Lord to evacuate the city due to it’s impending destruction, or an Heroic action like leaping across a lava flow with a baby in your arms as the city is engulfed?) Once I have determined the level, I can judge whether or not the task will be easy, moderate or hard for the character.

If a character is trained in a skill that applies to a challenge, the target for their roll is drawn from the range at the base level of the challenge. If a character is not trained, they may use the appropriate ability modifier to add to their roll, but the level of the challenge will be considered higher (reflecting the fact that they are not trained, but may have some innate capacities.)

It is not a perfect system, but it is modular and has several ranges for difficulty modification that may be applied, and negotiated with the player, without necessitating consulting a rulebook to determine the specific modifiers for climbing a rain-slicked wall covered with algae (for example.) My goal is to provide some expected structure for those players that feel more comfortable with that, while allowing others who prefer a looser approach the freedom to attempt virtually any action that they can imagine.

It’s a challenging question, and underlines one of the key play-style differences between vintage and modern RPGs. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on the matter!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Adventuring in Skyrim

A vista from Skyrim
I haven't played very deeply into the CRPG Skyrim yet, but I'm captivated as I was with its predecessor, Oblivion. The viking-inspired scenery and cultures of Skyrim are beautifully executed. The game-play (I'm playing on the X-Box) is good. There are over 200 "spaces" to visit in the game, which includes some fairly sizeable dungeons.

I think the dungeons are where I have the most fun. Crawling along, experiencing the weird ambient lighting and sounds (especially when something howls, crashes, or moans out of the back-channel speakers on the surround system) is totally immersive for me. The sense of tension is palpable, and it truly captures the best moments of past play experiences at the table in "traditional" RPGs. As a result, I find myself wondering if the play experience is richer for me because I grew up reading and playing at the table, as opposed to having access to CRPGs as they've evolved over the last 20 years.

I've played CRPGs in various forms, from the text-based ZORK, and various MUDs like Medievia, to basic graphical games like the Baldur's Gate series, to MMOs like World of Warcraft. But all of that came after fairly rich literary and gaming experiences that occurred almost exclusively in my imagination, and that of my friends. Because of that, I think I'm pretty forgiving of game mechanics, and I easily get involved in the story and scenery (whether in text or image form) of the game. That's not to say I've never played a crappy game, as I recall more than a few with ridiculous graphics, mechanics, or story elements that put me off. For the most part, however, my CRPG gaming experiences have been good.

Oblivion and Skyrim have been something different though. They are not perfect games. And I think the Bioshock and Mass Effect are examples of games that explore more provocative stories. But I find myself most drawn to the classic fantasy tropes that Bethesda has explored with their Elder Scrolls series. The open adventuring environments (notable even in the graphically-simpler Morrowind) and level of detail just make these games complete for me. It's the sort of feeling that inspires my campaign creation. Building a world that continually unfolds as my players explore is my aspiration.

Capturing some of the tension and excitement that I experience in Skyrim, and bringing that to the tabletop for my players to experience is part of the challenge of GMing for me. A creative goal. Whether or not I'm successful, I have fun trying, and I'm inspired to keep at it by games such as Skyrim. What inspires your gaming experiences?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Holiday Schedules and Session Frequency

I have two groups that play in different parts of my campaign setting once a month. One player from the Friday group also plays in the Sunday group. I try to keep the campaign wiki up to date with recaps (although I’m behind right now), and the Friday game at least falls pretty consistently on the third Friday of every month.

Still, it’s a challenge to keep players up to date and informed about what’s going on in the campaign. Some of that stems from the different levels of player involvement, which includes factors like interest, attendance, and general RPG savvy (a few of my players play RPGs very rarely.)

In contrast to my own campaign, Wednesday night D&D Encounters at the game store have a core group of three to four players that show up nearly every week. Encounters features short sessions, and a fairly linear story, so it isn’t too difficult to keep up to date on the details. Frankly, I’m a bit envious that I can’t run my own campaign this way, but it just isn’t realistic to be able to get everyone around the table at home on such a regular basis.

When I consider the campaigns I play in, and those I run, there is a wide variety of campaign awareness. That is, players that are following the story, and/or events of the game world around them. It ranges from totally unaware, to immersed. As a GM, I have to assume that if players keep returning to the table, they are entertained. And that’s my primary goal, that playing an RPG provides entertainment to players and GM alike.

November and December, along with the Summer months, can be challenging times to get people together for gaming. Given that only a few of my players seem to be actively involved beyond the sessions themselves, I’ve grown to accept these little breaks in the flow, and use them to renew my creative energy.

I’d be interested in your thoughts about campaigns, session frequency, and your experiences with alternative meeting systems (e.g., Skype, and the like.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

To Rule, or Not to Rule

D&D developer Monte Cook recently posted an interesting article about game rules and the style of play they promote. He asked a couple of questions about RPG rules, and briefly talked about the differences between past and present iterations of D&D rules.

Does the game present players with challenges that have pre-made solutions?

For example, can all monsters be defeated in straightforward ways, which is to say, attacked with swords and magic missiles until they die? Can all physical obstacles (walls to climb, narrow ledges to traverse, rivers to cross, and so forth) be overcome with die rolls? Are those die rolls achievable given the PCs’ level and abilities? Is the solution to every puzzle available to those with the right skills or spells? Is the counter or resolution to every problem hardwired into the game?

Put another way, need a player look any further than his character sheet to solve every in-game challenge? Are the bounds of the game defined by the bounds of the rules?

Looking back at the game’s roots, the answer to these questions was usually no. In the early days, the game’s mechanics rarely provided solutions to the problems the characters faced. Players stretched beyond the bounds of the rules and looked for solutions not covered in the books. Player ingenuity was always the key to winning encounters. And very often, the DM didn’t actually have a set solution in mind ahead of time. He expected the PCs to come up with something on their own.

— Monte Cook, Legends and Lore columnist, in the article Out of Bounds

In the first D&D Encounters session of the new season on Wednesday, we met to create characters. About half the players at my table had played with me through the last season, so they were pretty familiar with my GMing style. We got to talking about my style, and in particular how it worked, or didn’t work for them. I really appreciated the input, and it brought to mind a couple of things that crystallized for me when I read Monte’s article.

In general my GMing style is to play encounters without set solutions in mind. I’m open to letting players explain their intended actions outside the context of the rules, interpreting a probability and either calling for an appropriate roll, or narrating the consequences of their choices. During the Encounters season just finished we had a player at the table who specialized in creating elaborate sequences of actions in response to encounter circumstances. I indulged him, perhaps a touch too much, in that his play style was what I expected from players, as it fit my GMing style.

However, most of the rest of the table was playing in a style that fit the structure of the present iteration of D&D rules. They had the expectation that the encounters they faced during the session would have pre-made solutions that were designed to be arrived at using the options available to their 4e D&D characters. This was true, of course, and I was open to either approach, but failed to adequately communicate that. The more elaborate sequences of actions presented by our unique player also took up more time in the spotlight than the more efficient 4e actions. My players candidly told me that, while they were entertained by the antics of our unique player, they didn’t want to be short-changed for playing by the rules.

This was good food for thought for me in considering the mixing of gaming styles at the table. Monte ends his article urging players to consider the rules not as definitions of their actions, but as a framework upon which they can build actions, sometimes making choices that go outside of the framework.

The rules are not the sum total of the game. The game is larger than that. Breaking the rules, circumventing the rules, or ignoring the rules does not take you out of the game.

—Monte Cook

As a GM, recognizing the style of my players, and making on-the-fly adjustments to my own style in response, is part of the cooperative nature of RPG play.  In designing my own rules for my home campaign, I’ve deliberately left a lot of open space for interpretation and exploration by the players. One of the great strengths of 4e D&D is how much of the game mechanics it puts in the hands of the players, freeing up the GM to focus on other issues. I really value that design consideration. However, the old saw about “with great power comes great responsibility” is a core truth in 4e D&D. Players are faced with an often-bewildering and ever-expanding array of character options, each with its own seemingly-unique mechanic. (More experienced players are quick to recognize the modular design of the options, and often quick to criticize 4e for that.)

Looking at the Encounters season ahead, I want to take my players’ input into consideration and adapt my GMing style to encourage their participation. And, as Monte said, look for opportunities for everyone to play in the spaces between the rules when that feels comfortable to them. In my home game, it is less of an issue, but it has certainly raised my awareness of barriers to player participation. As a GM I most enjoy sessions where the players drive the story. Making sure my players have the tools to do that, and the space in which to do it, is part of the balancing act of GMing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Character: Saraneth "Sleight of Mind"

What happens when an illusionist tries her hand at cards? In an effort to raise some much-needed coin, Saraneth uses a combination of disguise, deceit, and a bit of good fortune to fill her purse.

Saraneth resisted the urge to check her moustache. A necessary part of the disguise, and the most fragile. The costumer from whom she’d bought the glue insisted that even the notoriously sweaty Althus Manutius, one of the Copper Show’s most noted players, hadn’t sweated through it during his latest role as Captain Dark in “Dark Dangers Abound”. Not that Saraneth had coin to spare at the Copper Show. Nor the patience to listen to Althus Manutius, whoever he was. The costumer had dropped names like a sower dropped seeds. Saraneth had nodded, and smiled, as if the penny dramas of Irongate were the most fascinating thing on earth. The costumes were pretty to look at though. But none were so fine as d’Garlim’s coat. Or rather, her coat now.

The costumer had marveled at it. Even offered her gold for it. He recognized that it was not a prop, but the real thing. That was a problem. Too many people were recognizing it of late. If word got back to the d’Garlim family, there might be questions asked. Pointed questions.

In the end, she decided to risk it again. Tonight she was Tarique, a young noble of the guard spending a few hours throwing coin and caution to the wind at Pox Motley’s public house, known to the locals as “The Jester” for the bad caricature of Motley that served as a signboard.

Of the players still at the table, only Rankin was left to bet before the reveal of three. The greasy merchant fingered a stack of copper coins briefly, and then he nonchalantly shoved the whole stack forward to raise, going all-in. Benedict promptly folded. Elliott the Sharp had six coppers and a silver piece in front of him.  He looked at his cards again, a squire and sword, both crowns. Promising enough to lure the silver piece out as he matched the merchant’s bet. Maricius, to the left of the Sharp, folded and it was Saraneth’s option. The few gold coins that had been wagered that evening were in front of her, as well as much of the silver.

“At least give the man a chance to win his money back, Tarique,” Benedict said to Saraneth, using the nom de guerre she had adopted for the evening, apparently none the wiser. “You’ll hardly note the loss of ten coppers, sir!”

Saraneth gave him the stink eye, and dropped a stack of coppers into the pot. “I will pay to see what Rankin holds. If he’s trusting in chance, he’ll be sadly forsaken.”

The attention of the table turned to Janus, who had gotten a bit deep into the Jester’s ale and opted to play the hand blind. Janus smirked, belched, and matched the bet as well. “I’m innit.”

It was time for the reveal of three. Benedict tapped the stack of cards and turned over the king of crowns, three of shields, and the five of cups.

Janus hiccupped and tapped the table, satisfied to leave the pot as it was. Rankin waved his hand over the table with a theatrical sigh, all his remaining coins already in the pot. The Sharp echoed Janus’s tap with his own. Saraneth raised a silver piece.

Elliott the Sharp coughed explosively into his hand.

Janus seemed to sober a bit and scowled at the disguised Saraneth before sliding a silver piece of his own into the pot, leaving himself only four coppers, and still no clue as to his own cards. The Sharp pondered a moment, eyed Saraneth in her Tarique disguise and advanced his last six coppers, all-in. A tangled web of finance and fabrication bound the players tightly to the table, as they anticipated the returning.

Benedict turned over the six of shields.

Janus chuckled to himself and tapped the table again. Saraneth added four more coppers to the pot, forcing Janus to relinquish the last of his funds if he wanted to play on. Frowning, Janus did just that and lowered his head to whisper slurred prayers to the hidden cards on the table in front of him.

Four players remained, the pot in three portions according to the priorities of those who had chosen to wager their all. Over 80 coppers on the table.

Benedict turned over the last card, known to some as the reward. It was the queen of cups.

Only the victor’s revelation remained. Rankin snapped his cards decisively on the table. A king and queen giving him a strong two pair with the royal couple already revealed. The merchant chuckled confidently. Elliott the Sharp tossed his cards out in disgust, nothing having materialized despite the tantalizing possibilities. Janus took a last swig of ale and muttered a plea into his empty tankard as he flipped the mystery cards before him, but found nothing of merit.

Saraneth managed to restrain her grin as she placed her two and four on the table, completing a straight with what Benedict had dealt.

Rankin gasped. “You had nothing when you called me, you young fool!” The merchant’s face was bright red. Benedict laughed into his sleeve. “Heh. You bet silver before you saw that six you needed! Who was it trusting in chance, eh?” The dealer shook his head. Saraneth collected the coins with a good-natured laugh.

“Well played, gentlemen! I trust we can do this again sometime?”

"A two and a four!" Rankin rose abruptly, and waved his hand, "Bah! Who plays with such common cards? It's madness!"

As the merchant stalked out, Saraneth spoke as if to herself, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! ... The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance," She tapped her winning cards. "Not my line, Rankin. Some poet. You might find you're as cursed as the rest of us despite the noble cards you hold."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pwning the Game and the Fear of Failure

Why is it that so many gamers are not just satisfied with success, but they must have success on the scale described by the US military as “shock and awe”?

One of the golden rules of roleplaying games is, "Thou shalt pick a role and stick with it." Spread around points, and you'll typically end up with a watered down character incapable of taking on the adventure's larger challenges. Careful planning is the name of the game.
— Kat Bailey, Associate Editor, GamePro

Kat’s talking about the video game Skyrim, but one only has to look at the extensive character optimization threads in the D&D forums hosted by WotC to see that min-maxing is the name of the game for many players. But in the context of an RPG played on the tabletop, you’re usually not flying solo. You have a team around you, a supporting cast. It’s OK to have a weakness, or a quirk, or a blindspot. Some other member of the team likely has it covered.

…failure serves the deeper function of making players readjust their perception of a game. In effect, failure adds content by making the player see new nuances in a game.
— Jesper Juul, Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games
I wrote yesterday in The Elements of a Good Story that complications, and overcoming the challenges of complications, were key pieces to a good story. So, it seems like it would be more fun to have a character that might, at times, not be able to pwn the monsters, challenges, and any NPCs the GM happened to roll out. It’s one of the reasons that dice are a part of RPGs. You roll the dice. You risk failing. That sensation of wondering which way the die will fall… How enjoyable is it really when you roll a two on a d20, and announce, “Uh, two. That’s 36 versus AC. Does that hit?”

In one game in which I play, one of the players has built a nigh-unhittable character. He’s studied the rules, combined the most advantageous of them, and as the combat gets underway, he begins activating bonuses and maneuvering about until he’s added near double-digit bonuses to his defenses. It’s all within the rules of the game. And, my suspicion is, that for him it is a sort of commentary on the state of that particular game. I don’t have a problem with a well-built character. And, I don’t have a problem with a rule set that allows such min-maxing to occur. What I find myself wondering though is what the players are really getting out of the game?

Is it really satisfying to take the risk of failure out of the game? When complications and failures are the time-tested and proven elements that authors have been using for centuries to hook readers into caring enough about their characters to turn the page and keep reading?

So, I’m challenging you to consider that the next time you sit down to generate a character for an RPG. Understand that you will be “adding content” to your gaming experience by embracing failure and seeing where it leads. And for GMs, what about exploring the possibilities by presenting a carefully-crafted unwinnable encounter? Can you plunge your players into the pit of despair, yet leave a trailing, frayed end of rope of hope dangling just within their reach? Or, are you willing to accept their crazy MacGyver solution to the problem? A solution that you’ve driven them to create because you cast them into that pit? I think both players and GMs would benefit from adding a little bit more failure to their games. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Elements of a Good Story

I volunteer in the library at my daughter’s school, shelving books mostly. One of the benefits is getting to hear the librarian read stories to the kids. They’re usually pretty simple stories, but the combination of the librarian’s voice (which transports me back to my own elementary school days) and the kids’ excitement as they listen makes it fun. This past week, the librarian pointed out to her class of first-graders that they were “sophisticated listeners, and ready to learn about the structure of a story.” She told them about main characters, and how they often have expectations about the events of their lives, and how authors present the characters with challenges that disrupt the characters’ expectations. “What makes a good story,” she said, “is how the characters overcome the challenge.”

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. And, it was a good food-for-thought for me to consider while designing encounters for my players. My task is to present them with a challenge. Something that disrupts their expectations and forces them to change their plans. The story comes from the choices the players make, and the relative success of their characters as they attempt to meet the challenge. In an RPG, the dice play a role as well, occasionally disrupting the player’s plans and presenting new challenges or opportunities.

The Two-Tiered Encounter
I was playing in Dave’s Dark Sun game last week where, due to time restrictions, the encounter we were involved in had to be cut short. To be continued next week.

A sandworm, from the cover of Heretics of Dune. © Ace Books
I was inspired by the design of the encounter though. There was a threat that the initial opponents might be joined by a significant lurking presence. I likened it to one of the sandworms from Dune, but that is mostly player conjecture. I’ll have to wait to find out next week what the creature is really about.

The design of the encounter echoed what the librarian had said. As players, we throw our characters into encounters with expectations about how they will resolve. As GMs, we can design encounters that create a set of expectations. What makes for a good story is a complication. A second tier to the encounter. Something that disrupts the players’ expectations and forces them to change their plans. In Dave’s encounter, there was the lurking threat of the creature to consider, but we had our hands full with the NPCs escorting the thing. The scope of that threat is, as yet, unknown.

In my Sunday game my players are fleeing through the sewers and subterranean ruins of a mighty metropolis, escorting a scholarly expert to the site of a rift, where beings from the Far Realm are imposing their aberrant, tentacled presences on the well-meaning folk of a local shrine. This scholar may have insights that are critical to thwarting the menace. Of course the path to the shrine is a hazardous one. In Sunday’s session they encountered a tribe of goblins and their mad chief, Ximenes. The tribe worshipped a creature, the blackworm, that laired in the sewer depths.

The Blackworm tribe demanded a toll for passing through their territory. When the coin offered by the party was insufficient, the goblins kidnapped the vulnerable and valuable scholar and bound him within a metal statue of their god in a huge vaulted chamber. The party, attempted a parley, and then launched an attack, felling swaths of goblin minions as they swarmed forward. The mad Ximenes chanted out a ritual of unknown significance and then joined the fray, wielding magic and a great mace with equally deadly effect. Just as it looked like the party was claiming victory, and with many resources used to reach that point, one of the pools in the chamber seethed and spat ichor, and a black dragon rose out of it, spewing an acidic cloud at party and goblins alike. The ritual of Ximenes had apparently succeeded.

This two-tiered encounter was a surprise to the party, and they had to think quickly about how to deal with the complication. They had liberated the scholar, and their mission could continue only if they survived the current challenge. After a bit of consideration, they chose to flee, engineering covering fire and spellcraft to help ensure their escape.

All in all, it was a successful session for everyone. I have the librarian and my fellow player and GM Dave to thank for the inspiration and reminder about what makes a good story. Stuff I’ll keep foremost in mind as I’m designing encounters in the future. As always I’d love to hear about story complications and challenges you’ve faced, and what made them work, or caused them to fail.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Delves: In the Baltics

Approaching Castle Cēsis, Latvia
Over at Hill Cantons, yesterday there was a cool discussion of the sense of place in fantasy. I'm sharing my Delves images to illustrate some of the places that have given me a fantastic sense of place over the years, and I hope they'll prove entertaining to you as well. In this series, I'm revisiting our trip to the Baltic states, including Sweden, Latvia, and Estonia.
Exploring below Castle Cēsis

Some of my Delve images will be more documentary in nature, while others (such as the algae-covered pond in Stockholm) seem to evoke weird or fantastic scenery that one might encounter in the RPG wilderness.

Communicating images to players using words alone can be a challenge. Combining the hands-on experience of descending into the cool darkness below a castle, and an image or two can be helpful. I find myself remembering the other elements of the experience as well. The smells and sounds that can make the scene more real to players when they're described.

Kuressaare Castle, Saaremaa Island, Estonia
Skansen Park, Stockholm, Sweden

Thursday, November 10, 2011

D&D Encounters: The Good Parts

Anyway, here’s the “good parts” version. S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride 

Role-playing games are the “good parts” versions of the stories they tell. The sword fight atop the Cliffs of Insanity, or the escape from the labyrinth of the Zoo of Death. The most recent season of D&D Encounters, the Lost Crown of Neverwinter, was drawn from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, which is a gazetteer of the city and environs of Neverwinter from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

I recently concluded my Encounters GMing duties at Card Kingdom, one of several FLGSs in my neck of the woods. I was fortunate to have a number of players who attended regularly and played creatively. (Shout out to Kevin “Kez the drow”; Leon “Byron the paladin”; Jordan “Reigh the cleric”; and Brooks “Monkeybeard the rogue”.) They formed a foundation at the table for people who dropped by to try out the game, or happened to be in town on vacation (like the couple visiting from the Netherlands one week in September who chose to spend part of their vacation gaming with us. Shout out to Irene and Boris, if my notes are right about your names!)

This season of Encounters was written as an introduction to the convoluted politics of the Neverwinter area. The campaign setting book is, in my opinion, a departure from recent WotC material in that it contains a nearly overwhelming amount of story material, the intrigues and capabilities of the many interest groups vying for some part of the ruins of this once-great city. My impression is that the authors intend GMs to pick and choose the groups that they regard as the “good parts” of the story, and build their own Neverwinters from there. The story of the season unfolded doing just that, placing the party in the middle of several groups, and allowing some room for players to evolve alliances within the limitations of the Encounters format of a serial story.

The adventure season, written by Erik Scott de Bie, was pretty entertaining from a GMs perspective, with notable NPCs to role-play and several challenging combat encounters. I enjoyed the fact that there was enough information in the provided materials that my players were able to talk their way through what was designed as a combat encounter in the House of a Thousand Faces, and yet were just as entertained as if they had fought.

The season opened with a prelude story that was an optional introduction, and billed as a coming out session for the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. Unfortunately, due to release timing, the book itself was difficult to get a hold of at the time, and this meant that the convoluted backgrounds and themes available to add dimension to the role-playing aspects of the season weren’t equally available to all players. The Lost Crown of Neverwinter adventure contained hooks for players using the theme information, but having got off on that awkward first step, this aspect of the season never really materialized at my table. I blame myself in part, but looking at the complexity it represented in the context of the variably-attended Encounters sessions, it was going to be a challenge to realize all of that anyway.

Looking at the materials for the upcoming Encounters season, Beyond the Crystal Cave, which introduces the Player’s Option: Heroes of the Feywild book, I think they’ve addressed this issue. I’m looking forward to running this one, and plan on working in a different way to help make themes and setting elements a more integral part of the adventure season.

Players expect a D&D session to be the “good parts” of a story. That’s why they’re there. The gratification of heroic action and interaction that makes a difference in how the story unfolds. That’s one of the challenges of a program like Encounters where the story needs to be fairly established and somewhat linear. This is where it becomes a challenge for the GM to convey the impact of the player’s actions in such a way that they feel as if they are the agents of change.

One of the great challenges of RPGs in general is the crafting of a truly cooperative story. Finding the balance between story elements, player choices, encounter results, and GM designs that feels like a “good parts” story to everyone at the table. It’s nice to have materials like the Neverwinter Campaign Setting and Heroes of the Feywild as resources, and I hope WotC continues to develop materials like this. However, it’s up to the players and GMs to decide what are the “good parts” for their campaign. Using them all creates an overwhelming mess (as the Encounters season just completed could have been if too many more of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting power groups had been represented.)

So, what were the “good parts” of Encounters for you? Or, what are the “good parts” of any campaign you’re involved in? Do you prefer one type over another, or a mixture of “good parts”? What you do with your game and gaming experience is "of more than passing interest to us all"!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Character: The Characterization of Denar

Denar is a character I’m playing in an Eberron campaign. The character has a low intelligence score. So, the shtick is to make the occasional obvious observation, or to gaze silently at NPCs who speak in complex phrasings, or use big words.  It’s a little bit like Homer Simpson. Trouble is I’d like to play a more diversified role in the game than comic relief. So, I’m looking at strategies to expand my vocabulary of characterization. (Yesterday it was all about expanding my rules vocabulary as a GM, today I’m looking at it from the player’s angle.)

Denar also has a high charisma. I could play her as a classic low-intelligence, tough-guy stereotype in an alternative package. But, what I’ve chosen to emphasize is force of personality. This is the sort of character who radiates an intimidating vibe. (It helps that the character is a drow, a dark elf. Granted, it’s not a particularly original characterization, but that’s why I’m interested in ways to make it more sophisticated.) I’m working on a sort of a Dirty Harry vibe:

The Killer: [pleading] Please. Stop. No more! Can't you see I'm hurt?
Harry Callahan: The girl, where is she?
The Killer: [crying with reason] You tried to kill me.
Harry Callahan: If I tried that your head would be splattered all over this field.
Dirty Harry [1971]

So, how do I combine Homer Simpson and Dirty Harry?

Like Harry Callahan, my character is a loose cannon. She has been effectively exiled to the surface for not submitting to the drow authorities, who had determined she was too small to fight, and too stupid to create or steal the weapons they needed for their war against the aberrations invading the Underdark.

Like Homer Simpson my character is a survivor, and impulsive. 4e D&D has many avenues for dramatic recovery from equally dramatic damage. The character class I’ve chosen, the Blackguard from Heroes of Shadow, has multiple functions for generating temporary hit points, increasing survivability. The Blackguard may also use hit points as a resource, expending them to do more damage to foes. The image of a hero savaged by the circumstances of an encounter, like Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior Max, is a good approximation.

Homer is launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him.
— Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons

Denar doesn’t spend a lot of mental energy analyzing situations. What mental energy there is is reserved for action. Like Homer, who is described by director David Silverman as "creatively brilliant in his stupidity", Denar operates with complete disregard for safety, either her own or those around her, dabbling in mixing alchemical substances, and creating explosive devices. Like Scarlet the squirrel from Philip Jackson’s webcomic Sequential Art, Denar can accidentally create mechanisms and compounds of a deadly nature.

From Sequential Art by Philip Jackso

I’m looking for ways to play this without going all Leeroy Jenkins on the other players. I’ll try to play the accidentally deadly creations to the benefit of the team, presented by Denar as sort of an afterthought, representing her casual disregard for their potential for mayhem.
In the end, through all the mayhem, I hope that Denar will be able to save her people and the other members of the party. Despite her background and the common perceptions of the drow in RPGs, I'd like it to play out that her actions end up with a "good" result. She'll end up as a personification of the weapons she reveres, capable of destruction, yet without much intent.

I've heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan. You stole your father's armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese Army, destroyed my palace, and... you have saved us all.
— Emperor, Mulan [1998]

That's not to say she herself would have no intent. She's intent on proving the drow authorities wrong in their judgment of her. Proving herself both as a warrior, and an operative clever enough to secure the weapons the dark elves need to defeat the aberrant horde. And she's well aware (obsessively so) of a sense of mission in that regard.

I’d love to hear what you draw from when imagining your characters, and how you express those ideas in the game. If you have any suggestions on further development for Denar, I’d love to hear those as well.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Developing a Game Vocabulary

I was recently invited to play in a play-by-post Rogue Trader game. I don’t have much experience with the Warhammer 40K universe, which turns out to be a vast, diverse chaos of goodness. It’s got so much going on that fellow blogger Greywulf proposed that WotC adopt the Games Workshop model for their own signature setting. That’s a discussion for another day (check out the comments and Greywulf’s post for various viewpoints on that.)

Abilities and Skills
Going through the character generation process for Rogue Trader as a total newb, I struggled with some parts and was struck by a few ideas that were new to me. In particular, characteristics (which are abilities in other games, the classics like strength, intelligence, etc.) are what drive the chance at succeeding in skill checks. Other game systems often use the model of ability modifier plus skill competence, and allow players to increase their competence with individual skills.

So, using generic abilities (I’m not going to reference a specific game for this example) such as dexterity, a player might choose skills like picking locks and escaping bonds. In the Rogue Trader model a player would increase their dexterity as part of their advancement, and this would in turn mean that they’d be able to both pick locks and escape bonds better. Given that these two skills are pretty different in their execution, I wonder if that’s a good model?

To play devil’s advocate, I suppose it depends on what type of model you’re targeting. One of the design considerations that I’ve prioritized in my home game is that it be simple to execute, yet be rich in strategic options. Focusing on buying competence in specific skills means that players more clearly define their character (from a game-mechanical role perspective.) But buying advances in abilities means that the player has access possibilities of success in a broader range of skill checks, while still providing some role information (e.g., a character with advanced dexterity is more likely to succeed at a range of dexterity-related skills, while another with advanced constitution might be able to more readily endure a variety of conditional challenges.)

Which model then is better? It seems like advancing the ability modifier is simpler to execute. Characters in RPGs often have fewer abilities than skill choices. Would prioritizing ability advances lead to super characters ridiculously competent at all skills related to that ability? This would depend on how extensive the game’s skill list was (I have a rather lengthy list of skills in my rules) and how they were implemented. Are characters automatically granted access to all skills governed by specific abilities, or must they identify skills in which they’ve trained?

I’m thinking out loud here, and interested in hearing any thoughts you might have on the matter. My goal in this little thought experiment is to see if there is a better character generation and advancement system for abilities and skills.

Character and Party Origins
Another intriguing aspect of Rogue Trader character generation was the origin path idea. In a nutshell, players are given a grid of options that include Home World (planets or systems of origin have particular characteristics such as Forge Worlds that emphasize technical mastery, or Hive Worlds that consist of densely-packed environments where social skills play a larger role); Birthright (which is a character’s general role in society, influenced of course by choice of Home World); Trials and Travails (outlining some event of momentous significance to the character) and Motivation and Career, among others.

Players plot a flow-chart path through the grid and turn in their results to the GM. The GM in turn plots the paths of each party member and then gives feedback to the players about where they overlap. It’s in the overlaps that players forge the backstory behind their assembly into a party.

I thought this was a brilliant system. While it does hold some significant limitations (the grid elements and how they are arranged can provide road blocks as well as inspiration in character generation), it seemed like a structure that could be readily adapted to other game systems and campaign settings.

Mike over at Wrathofzombie has a massive vocabulary of games that he has experimented with, disassembled, and re-forged into some cool rule and setting options. I’m starting to get a taste of what expanding my game vocabulary can mean to my own game. One of the challenges in pondering the creation of a sort of Frankengame, is choosing elements with natural synergies, and trying to ensure they don’t disrupt overall game balance. Maintaining the focus on simple execution, strategy-rich rules is key. Some great ideas may have to be left out. They need to be sampled however, just to keep the game vocabulary sharp.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Experience Points: A Tale of Two Parties

What a great weekend! I got to play in two games as a PC, which is always nice for someone who spends a lot of time on the other side of the screen. Two very different games with similar strengths. One 4e D&D set in the Eberron campaign setting, the other a home-brew rule set and setting. Both games featured interesting role-playing opportunities and challenging combats. Here’s what made these sessions strong:

We had three days before we were due to depart Sharn on a journey to a remote investigation site aboard Khorvaire’s lightning rail line, a train powered by captive lightning elementals. So, our ace GM asked us each in turn what activities we wished to undertake during that time. Each player was given “center stage” and a fairly free-form opportunity to play. Each of us took a little different approach, but almost all involved one or more of the other characters. It allowed us some time to ease into the game (after a month apart) and introduce our characters to a new player who was joining us. Everyone had a blast with it, and I’d seriously consider adding such windows to my own game when appropriate.

At the train station we were presented a parade of diverse and interesting characters as fellow passengers, including a wealthy and mysterious gnoll with a dubious reputation, and a lot of personal security. Of course the gnoll, a titled noble, attracted our attention immediately. All our attempts to investigate or engage him were rebuffed. Doors were closed and stewards were tight-lipped. Naturally this led to characters climbing about the exterior of a fast-moving train!

Yet we still failed to get access to Baron Gnoll. (He had a much more colorful name, courtesy of our ever-creative GM, but I spelled it out phonetically in my notes, and don’t want to misspell it here.) That’s when the train robbery occurred. And, just so you don’t feel like punching the “cliché” button and exiting the page mid-story, I’ll add that it was the first of two train robberies!

The gnoll’s dubious reputation did not endear him to some members of the party, so when we found him being accosted by two notorious thieves, we did not leap immediately to his rescue. The ensuing tricky negotiation was interrupted by the second, and much more brutal attempt at train robbery. Namely a band of barbarian halflings mounted on vicious, flying mechanical mounts of rather crude design that were promptly labeled “truckasaurs” for their jagged teeth and toxic breath. A wild melee ensued. Between the social chaos of the robin hood vs. bad king john scene, and the post-apocalyptic road warrior assault, the encounter was great fun. Kudos to our GM for successfully blending the classic train robbery trope with enough twists and wrinkles to suit even the most demanding players.

The city of Irongate is a rough and tumble place. Ask a band of adventurers consisting of a pair of berserkers, a young man on a quest for identity, a feral orphan girl with an affinity for bugs, a dashing rogue with a penchant for poison, a wanderer who yearns for the wilderness, a girl who is mastering the halberd (mightiest of polearms), and a girl raised by a mindflayer who dabbles in some of that creature’s mental manipulations. That’s the sort of array of characters that comes out of the Lords of Chaos home brew rules that my friend Randy has developed. They are trying to survive on and under Irongate’s mean streets, where Grancon (the rat-on-a-stick seller) has probably made more money in the past week than they have. Somehow they have escaped a necrotic cult, angered a band of thieves, intrigued a local confidence man, brought prosperity to a the Notched Dirk (an inn of ill-repute), and left a trail of dead and undead in their wake, all while losing much of what they had amassed as their life’s savings.

Lords of Chaos is a rule system that doesn’t use traditional classes, instead allowing players to purchase a wide variety of skills to suit their vision of their character. Characters and parties have an assortment of capabilities that must be explored in order to discover the possible synergies, strengths and weaknesses they possess. It makes for challenging and entertaining gaming. We’re still exploring tactics and strategies that suit our odd mix, working together in an attempt to forge a successful team.

Meticulously tailoring your character means a deep, personal connection with it. This is expressed in the strong role playing that occurs at the table. Each character is unique, and so the process of establishing the character’s role within the party happens, as in combat, in the run of play.

While fighting a band of ghouls in the sewers the party was confronted with the sounds of an unidentifiable approaching menace of potentially imposing size. The challenge of disengaging from the combat was significant and required creative play, as well as inspiring some great role playing from the players of the berserkers (who must manage their battle rage in surges, meaning they can’t just turn off their berserk on a whim.) Spellcasters placed distractions and impediments, an escape route was discovered and secured, and various attempts were made to defuse the berserkers. When one of them finally de-berserked, his attempts to soothe his raging ally earned him a broken arm. Yet another expensive trip to the healer was in store for the party.

Creating a combat situation that is then interrupted by some other event, perhaps necessitating a retreat, is a great encounter idea. Rapidly changing circumstances and elevating crisis levels keeps the pressure on the players and the tension high.

My thanks to both GMs and my fellow players for two memorable game sessions  with unique challenges and immersive role playing!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Winning Hearts and Minds

Rules as written. A phrase I’m not overly fond of. It’s usually trotted out by someone who is intent on arguing some point of order in the game rules that allows them some advantage in the game, either in the moment, or overall. But writing rules is a difficult task, and there is a reason that the language is (usually) precise. As rule systems become more complex, there are more opportunities for conflicts. And some players enjoy finding and exploiting those conflicts.

So, as a game master one of my jobs is to facilitate situations that will entertain my players. Some of those players derive the bulk of their entertainment from twisting rules as written and exploiting conflicts or oversights. Others just enjoy the mechanical process of manipulating rules elements and options. Either way, it’s not how I approach an RPG, and so I struggle a bit when trying to piece together a game such players will enjoy.

As a result I’ve tried to incorporate some game-mechanical complexity into my home brew rules. I use many of the conditions from 4e D&D, allowing players to apply them in particularly heroic moments. I have a point-buy character generation system cribbed from my friend Randy’s Lords of Chaos home brewed rules (those in turn grew out of various games including Champions, Stormbringer, and RuneQuest, to name but a few.) I don’t use classes. The first choice a player makes is whether to use weapons or spells, which sets the primary emphasis for the character, but does not prevent them from taking up the skill not chosen at later levels. All of this was done to entertain those who love to tinker.

In my heart though I’d really love a game without all that. Where each player came in with a character background, and perhaps one or two things their character was pretty good at. I’d set the scene, and the players would go about exploring and messing with monsters, and generally doing all the stuff that players do to wreak havoc on their imaginary world.

Robin Laws, a renowned game designer and writer is in the process of developing a game that touches on some more of the things I like. He calls the game DramaSystem, and the first release of it will be in the form of an Iron Age clan saga called Hillfolk. The whole idea sounds pretty cool.

One of the distinctions that Laws makes is the difference between procedural and dramatic events. Procedural events are the meat and drink of traditional RPGs. We’re busy with the procedures of looting tombs, slaying monsters, and saving villages. Dramatic events are the emotional interactions between people:

Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. The interaction can often be measured by a shift in power between the participants. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it.
— Robin D. Laws, from A Column on Roleplaying

At this stage of development it’s hard to judge the relative merits of DramaSystem, but the concept that Laws is pursuing has a lot of promise. I imagine structuring encounters in my campaign specifically with the dramatic event model in mind. That is, my players are petitioning NPCs or one another for some form of emotional gratification, and the granter needs to be persuaded in some way to provide it. Developing relationships between PCs and NPCs that feature hooks for dramatic encounters may take some time, but I’ll definitely make it a priority. Expanding the game in this way allows me an opportunity to explore other possibilities in the game world. Having procedural in addition to dramatic components will make for a richer game, and I hope my players find it rewarding as well.

What do you think of the distinction between procedural and dramatic gaming? Does your current game contain enough depth to entertain you, or do you wish it had more? Does something like DramaSystem appeal to you, or are you content with procedural adventures?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tools of Game Mastering

The game master in a role playing game has a wide-ranging set of responsibilities. Host (often, but not always literally providing location, refreshments, etc.), narrator, arbiter, teacher, counselor, to name just a few. To do the job well requires a blend of several talents and motivations, but most important is the desire to create a story. As in any cooperative effort, whether it is a team sport, an acting troupe, or a corporation, there are agreed-upon ground rules and accepted structures that establish a framework for the interaction.

In RPG groups we spend a lot of time debating the values of various frameworks, in the forms of competing game systems and editions thereof. It’s interesting to note how game systems have evolved from GM-centric to player-centric. In the case of D&D, early editions left a lot of room for GM improvisation, and expected GMs to exercise their creativity when adjudicating issues at the table. The most recent edition of the game has focused on a modular, balanced system that puts much more burden on the players (while at the same time giving them extensive tools with which to handle their increased responsibilities.)

I will leave it to others to debate the merit of these tools and the rules they enable, but I’d like to express a sort of wish-list to game designers in the industry, while asserting that I fully intend to follow this path as a GM with or without their assistance.

I’d love a set of tools as nifty as the players have to create my game. I acknowledge that I form a much smaller target audience than the mass of players I entertain, so from a pure profit perspective, you may not consider me worth it, but I ask for it nonetheless. Players have character generation engines (in software and book form), they have literary sources that provide inspirational heroes that act as templates for their characters.

A few recent books from Wizards of the Coast have contained more of the type of material that I think is useful to GMs. In particular, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting is my favorite example, if a bit challenging structurally and in the volume of options presented. I think the NCS is most effective because it contains broad factions, as well as specific individuals, and historical precedents that a GM could draw from to weave interesting plots. What are missing are some sample recipes for how to pick and choose from the available ingredients.

Looking at the game as a whole, a book of recipes might include combinations of the following ingredients that are already in place, but have yet to be properly exploited: Character themes and backgrounds are powerful elements (themes having been introduced with the 4e Dark Sun campaign setting) that have been tied in to adventures in this past season of the in-store Encounters program for organized play. There are some guidelines for incorporating those in the NCS, but I think there is room for general discussion (perhaps in a new GM’s sourcebook?) that describes the potential for this sort of material. It might include a template for GMs to generate themes specific to their own campaigns.

Organizations, guilds, and alliances are another core ingredient for GMs. I’ve toyed with a rating system in my home game that gives a numerical approximation of the players’ standing in relation to the various organizations they encounter. I’d be delighted if some of the brilliant game designers out there would take a shot at generating a tool for GMs to quantify this, and some ideas for enacting it in regular sessions of play.

Finally, I think the impact of environment on the players has been neglected. The Dark Sun Campaign Setting does a fair amount of this. But there, the environment becomes a dominant player. Aren’t there techniques for environmental effects that could be expressed as ingredients in the recipe model I’ve cited? 4e materials include environment-based traps and disease rules, so why not integrate these into a campaign model?

As a writer, one of the tools I’ve found useful is a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Some of the techniques that Evan Marshall proposes would be quite useful in adventure design. They are modular enough that a GM could use them when creating a sort of plot map, rather like a dungeon map, that would include the ingredients I’ve mentioned above. Faced with a challenge, most modern game materials describe the results of the players’ successful resolution of it. But, as Marshall points out, what grabs the audience is failure. Our heroes are trying to cross the rope bridge, but the villain severs the lines, collapsing the bridge. Now what will the heroes do?

Many of the ingredients for some fantastic campaigns are out there, but scattered over a range of sourcebooks, web pages, and online utilities. Just as players have “builder” software to construct characters that reflect their ideas and interests, I’d love campaign-level tools that offered the same functionality. It wouldn’t be necessary to make it software. A resource book that guided a GM through the process of building adventure and campaign arcs, with links to the ingredients, would be incredibly useful.

Add in some insights from “celebrity” GMs (like Chris Perkins and his Iomandra campaign) to round out the material and provide guidance on “flavor profiles”, and you’re starting to talk about a tool that I’d love to own.

As a GM, I’ve got lots of story ideas. My players have plenty of their own. All the ingredients are there for a successful campaign, but the challenge is bringing it all together in a timely fashion (the game is still a hobby for me, and real-life responsibilities beckon) and making it flexible enough to respond to the dynamics of actual play.

What tools would you like to see for GMs, or do you think tools are necessary? And, what ingredients have I missed that you feel are vital to successful campaigns?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I was explaining The Walking Dead to a friend over coffee yesterday. It’s a zombie story, but it isn’t really about the zombies. Just like Dungeons and Dragons isn’t really about dungeons or dragons. The Walking Dead focuses on the terrifying circumstances that confront the characters after a zombie apocalypse. The choices that they must make are made more urgent by the circumstances, but they are choices that face people in the real world every day. Life and death choices.

One recent plot on the show revolved around the choice whether or not to save the life of a wounded child. The adults debated whether or not a world full of zombies, and a life spent trying to avoid the same fate was really a life worth living. The choice was made more urgent by the necessity of surgery to save the child’s life, with the complication that not all the materials needed to conduct the surgery safely were on hand. This is the kind of choice that, sadly, I’m sure is playing out daily in many parts of the world. Talking about it in the context of an apocalyptic zombie invasion doesn’t belittle the significance of the choice, but rather gives the audience and the performers an opportunity to role play the impact of such choices and how they might be made.

Confronting players with choices that are meaningful, and have significant impact are the keys to player involvement in an RPG. Rewards and complications should await each decision, some immediate and others with broader implications. In an earlier post I talked about pillars, plot elements that may be addressed by the players when dealing with a component of the game or story. Pillars form a great structure for constructing meaningful choices. As a GM, you can also identify pillars for your PCs. What are the hot-button issues that will engage them in conflict?

But how do you get players tied in tightly enough to a campaign that they feel strongly about issues or people? One of the methods I used in my current campaign came out of discussions with Mike over at the blog wrathofzombie. He has experimented with a lot of different rule systems and game mechanics, as well as having written many of his own. I’ve almost always profited (in a gaming sense) from following his advice. He suggested a player questionnaire that included identifying three allies and three enemies for the each character. So, from day one of the campaign I had raw material in hand to use in crafting meaningful choices for my players.

Like the wounded child from The Walking Dead, the allies identified by my players for their characters are people the characters care about. They are motivated to aid those allies, or agonize when those allies come to harm, or are threatened. As the game progresses, I’ve tried to expand their circle of friends, providing more pressure points for conflict. And, in the process of determining whether or not these acquaintances are going to be allies or enemies, the players must make tough choices. Choices that sometimes determine which side of the fence the acquaintance lands on.

PCs may also uncover causes that they deem worthy of investment, or have such causes built in to their origin stories. This is another form of pillar for a character. In the capitol city of my campaign world, halflings are most often slaves. One of my players developed an ex-slave halfling who, in the run of play, has been spreading the idea that halflings deserve better. His activities and attitudes, the choices he has made in dealing with other halflings and humanoids, have begun to influence others. Things are changing, and there are consequences developing out of his choices. In some cases those consequences might be tremendously positive for the halfling population. But, as the United States experienced in the Civil War, a populace divided over the issue of slavery and the profit it represents can erupt in violence. The road to such a war is a long one, with many more issues than just the enslaved halflings. But at some point, the character may be forced to consider whether or not it’s a road he wants to be on.

As always, I’d love to hear about choices your PCs have been forced to confront in RPGs, and what impact they had on the story.