Monday, February 28, 2011

I may be a wyvern...

...but right now I FEEL like a shambling mound.

As a guy who really digs on astrology, I have to say I found this post over at Beyond the Black Gate incredibly clever, and amusing. I have no idea how much thought was put into it to draw parallels with the Chinese zodiac (Chinese astrology is NOT my forte), but flail snails and flumphs? He definitely knows his old school monsters!

I thought briefly about trying to ape his work with a stab at western astrology, but I just wasn't up to it today (as I said, I feel a bit "shambly"). The last few posts were a bit of a drain (thanks to all who bothered to read through them) is the late night baths and the early morning rising. Things on the blog "to do list" this week:

- back to the B/X Companion with some mass combat examples
- exploration of the Black School (the one I always wanted to attend as a kid)
- progress report on the new project (somehow I still managed a couple-four pages today)
- religion...again...maybe

Oh, yeah...and if I can get it up for Thursday (*hope*hope*), I'd really like to return to the captain's seat for an evening...I've got a little game I want to run. We'll see if I can pull it together.

Happy Monday, everyone...eight hours from now I've got to be at work, so it's time to catch some zzzzzzzz....

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cooperation and Your Own Objectives (Part 4)

It's important (I think) to point out that none of the examples in my last post have any kind of conflict of creative agenda (in the gamist/narrativist/simulationist sense). While I have encountered CA conflicts in the past (notably with AD&D, Over the Edge, and various White Wolf games), in the examples listed all the players were on the same page with regard to what we were "playing for." The "disconnection" I'm writing about is one in which PC objectives get supplanted.

What do I mean by "supplanted?" Well, I mean the objectives are suppressed and replaced...and generally this is done in the name of fulfilling the cooperative spirit of the game:

In example #1 the GM is suppressing specific PC objectives in order to provide inclusive cooperative scenarios.

In example #2 the players are suppressing the PC objectives for acting against the group consensus of "right" behavior in-game.

In (hypothetical) example #3 the GM is suppressing the PC objectives for acting against the group's (out-of-game) moral considerations.

In example #4 the GM is suppressing all PC objectives in order to fulfill a campaign objective (in hopes this will lead to "cooperative play").

Why is this a big deal? Why do we care if specific objectives of an imaginary player character gets suppressed, or supplanted, or "put off for awhile?" Why does it matter.

Well, back in Part 1 of this series, I postulated that ROLE-PLAYING is:

Player objective (out of game) matching Character objective (in game)

And you may say, so what if it is?

Well...if role-playing is player objective matching character objective and you are halting this process, then you are halting role-playing. And if you do that, then what are you left with?

Or, to put it another way:

IF the main thing a role-playing game has over a computer game or a board game or a war game is its ability to provide a role-playing experience, THEN that experience needs to be encouraged and nurtured, not suppressed and supplanted.

Now let's go back to that original postulated theorem: that role-playing IS "character objective and player objective meeting." What the hell is this supposed to look like exactly? Are we talking play-acting with a funny voice? Are we talking about writing pages of backstory and background for a character?

Not at all.

If I say, "I'm a dwarven adventurer, I make my living scouring dark holes looking for treasure (because it pays better than working as a blacksmith)," you're on your way to role-playing. It's as simple as that.

And as hard as that...if during the game you can sit down at the table and say (to yourself):

Given that I'm a dwarf...what would I do in this situation?

...then you ARE role-playing.

And there are certainly different levels or qualities to role-playing...some people may have more specific objectives (as I stated originally) than others. And the more specific and concrete those objectives, the deeper or more "enriched" the role-playing experience. For example:

Given that I'm a dwarven exile who feels he has lost his honor and can only be redeemed through death in battle...what would I do in this situation?


Given that I am a crippled dwarf who has never felt worthy of his beard and needs to prove himself useful, as a person and as a member of the Black Rock Clan...what would I do in this situation?

...can lead to a different quality of role-playing than simply, "I'm a dwarf...dig?"

Notice that role-playing (by MY definition) has nothing to do with finding a way to use tactical feats or "daily powers" or healing surges in order to defeat monsters. That's World of Warcraft stuff, not role-playing. Likewise, my definition of role-playing has nothing to do with considering "how can I make the overall story more interesting by using metagame mechanics to screw with this imaginary character?" That may be fun for collaborative story-telling, but it's not role-playing...not in my book anyway.

The challenge is this: given the cooperative nature of RPGs (that's "social contract," son...we're all in this together, playing a game), how does one reconcile disparate character objectives?

BECAUSE if you CANNOT reconcile those disparate objectives, then SOMEONE's opportunity to have an enriching role-playing experience is going to get stepped on and/or squashed.

And we don't want that.

Are you folks grokking my point here? Let me give you an example from my own waaaay back past:

I was a player in an AD&D campaign. I had specific, powerful objectives for my character. Other players in the campaign had their own objectives (as all role-players willing to invest some time in their characters/campaign are wont to do). However, for whatever reason, my character's particular "story arc" was pursued a bit more closely than others and ended up (more or less) taking over the entire campaign. We went from a cooperative game experience to "the JB show."

Not that it wasn't fun, not that it wasn't memorable, not that it wasn't interesting and had lots of role-playing opportunities for everyone. But the other players went from being protagonists in their own right to "supporting characters" of my own PC's story.

That's ugly. That's not what promotes long-term growth of the hobby. That's not what the game is supposed to be about. If it was, then there really would be "winners and losers." In this particular instance, I can say "I won." Because MY PC objectives (my role-playing goals) took precedence over everyone else's objectives.

In part 3 of this series, I closed by saying "here's what I'd like to see happen." Well, here it is:
  • I want to see players role-play to the extent that they feel comfortable.
  • I want to see player/character objectives (the heart if not definition of "role-playing") honored by both the game master and others.
  • I want to see a game system that reflects these values, rewarding players for role-playing, AND
  • I want to see a game system that does this while still allowing the players to proceed together, in cooperation, towards a consensus campaign/adventure/scenario goal.

In the game I'm currently writing (the fantasy cyberpunk RPG), I am including these ideas as priorities of design, specifically with regard to the development (aka "advancement") system. Personally, I think I've managed to make it consistent and coherent enough that it can work the way I want it (though it will need some strong instruction and examples). From now on, I intend to include these priorities in ALL future design projects.

Which may be slightly problematic for the space opera game (it will certainly require a lot of thought due to the scattered nature of a game spread out across a million million star systems).

Cooperation and Your Own Objectives (Part 3)

[please refer to post 1 and post 2 to see what the heck I'm talking about]


Example #1

As a DM running a "sand boxy campaign" like, say, the Goblin Wars, I outline a broad overview of the campaign setting and throw out some "teasers," possible adventure ideas players might explore. One PC states he's interested in reclaiming his ancestral dwarvish home, lost in the war (specific objective). Another PC is intrigued by the possibility of discovering ancient ruins from pre-recorded history, possibly to uncover lore that will make him a powerful magic-user (semi-specific objective). A third wants to make some quick cash doing bodyguard work (weak objective). The other PCs are just "along for the ride" at this point, waiting to see what the DM is going to throw at them. How do we reconcile the separate objectives with the standard "party-up-and-adventure" assumption/imperative?

Possible Resolutions of Example #1
  • DM ignores party objectives ("putting them off till later," whenever that might be) in favor of an adventure he's crafted for the party.
  • DM chooses one PC's objective and crafts an adventure specific to it (whichever one grabs his interest/appears easiest); other PC objectives are ignored or "put off till later."
  • DM attempts to craft an adventure that addresses ALL party objectives at once. Tricky to do (and cumbersome as well).
None of these possible resolutions are particularly satisfying. When I encountered this example, I chose to go with the first resolution (i.e. ignoring everyone). Which raises the follow-up question: why bother crafting a sandbox with options at all? See also my recent Traveller experience at last summer's Dragonflight Convention for a similar scenario.

Example #2

Party is exploring a site-based (dungeon) adventure. Characters are engaged in defeating monsters, avoiding traps, and acquiring treasure. Party consists of a mixed bag of individuals including mostly chaotic neutrals and goods (there is a drow character that is lawful neutral). One player, a newbie to the table-top game is playing a thief. The thief is out-classed by the other PCs in the party in both the fighting and magic departments, and so turns to what she knows: stealing (newbie playing a thief? Perfect sense). Character palms and pockets choice treasures from hordes while the other PCs engage monsters in combat. Later, players are upset with the PC's actions, and "rough up" her character, including strip-searching her making her turn over everything that looks like it might have been "suspiciously pocketed." The player was role-playing in character, but has compromised the "cooperative spirit" of the group. As a DM, how do you handle this situation?

Possible Resolutions of Example #2
  • DM allows the extortion/humiliation of the thief to occur (PC pays the price for going against the group); newbie learns to "get along" with the cooperative spirit or go back to video RPGs.
  • DM institutes a "note passing" policy (or something similar) so players don't know what actions are being taken by other party members (though when the thief starts passing notes or calling for "out-of-room conferences" they still know what's going on and force the thief to cough up the loot).
  • DM exercises "DM force" to preclude PCs from acting against each other unless a character is caught "red-handed;" breeding resentment in players.
All of these resolutions suck...they all seem to be enabling the overall immaturity at the table rather than addressing it, and none of these possible resolutions encourage a character to engage in role-playing, should their character be a scurrilous rogue and thief. Honestly, I haven't encountered this kind of situation since I was a kid, but this specific one is taken from an actual play post taken from the blog of an adult role-player.

Example #3

Players are playing Shadowrun; their run involves kidnapping a celebrity movie starlet (or the Shadowrun equivalent), and holding her for three days so she misses her scheduled commercial appearances. One PC is a sleazy, low-life mage (you know the type...), who decides to have some "fun" with their captive while the group waits for their payday; he has spells that can control the celeb's mind and she has a weak will anyway so he makes her fall hopelessly in lust with him so he can have his way with her in the sleazy motel where they're held up. While this opens all sorts of interesting possibilities, the whole situation makes the other players incredibly uncomfortable...and yet none of them do anything about it, as they don't want to start an intra-party conflict. And it's not like the mage is "hurting her," right? Clearly, the objectives of the player is having a distressing effect but this time it is the PCs with more "wholesome objectives" (um...kidnapping people for pay?) that are being subjugated by the "cooperative spirit." How should the GM address something like this...especially considering there are no mechanical consequences from just being an outright bastard?

Possible Resolutions of Example #3
  • GM lets the game play out as the most natural thing in the harm, no foul and the other players aren't saying "boo;" screw 'em.
  • GM draws the line on what lines can and can't be crossed in the game world, instituting a morality that isn't present within the game text for the peace of mind of the other players.
  • GM takes the player aside and asks him to refrain from indulging his sick fantasies in this particular instance, if only for the good of the "group spirit;" considers not inviting the player to future games.
As usual, I'm not a fan of any of these resolutions. In this instance, the problem is (for me) a lack of morality or rules of conduct within the game system. Certainly, if this were D&D and a chaotic wizard was pulling these shenanigans, the party paladin would step in and clean his clock; here, there are no alignments. In a world where everything is permitted...well, you get the idea.

In reality, this particular scenario happened in a game of Shadowrun I was running, and the "sleaze mage" in question was an NPC the other PCs had hired. I had the NPC engage in his lewd behavior and questionable conduct specifically to force a reaction from the players...but their only reaction was to be turned off by the whole thing. They had no interest in intervening or worrying about ethical questions. Bunch o' pansies, if you ask me...however, I place it here as an example of disconnect between "cooperative play" and "individual objectives" because I can see myself doing this as a player, given the right set of circumstances. Why not? Cyberpunk (even fantasy cyberpunk) IS, drugs, and chrome. But some folks just want to shoot imaginary guns I guess...

Example #4

The game is Vampire the Masquerade, there are eight players besides the GM. All characters reside in the same city, which has a small group of NPC vamps in addition to the PC. Each player creates their own character the "White Wolf way:" character concept, backstory, some ties or connections to the city. Characters are not expected to be a "party;" they are expected to be interesting characters and get involved in the drama of undead life. The players are all smart, hip college students...they all are able to come up with fairly specific concepts for their characters if not outright objectives. For example, the sewer-living Nosferatu wants to dig up dirt on all the vampires of the city so that he can blackmail them all as a way to power. The Ventrue club owner just wants to own a really cool bar that is popular with kindred and kine alike (and, in fact, already has the bar as part of his backstory and background points "spent" during character creation). You, as the Storyteller (GM), have some ideas for possible conflicts but the group seems hopelessly do you get them all involved in a scenario or plot and still provide them with in-roads for meeting their objectives?

Possible Resolutions for Example #4
  • Storyteller ignores the player objectives in favor of his own plot, railroading as necessary to get PCs involved (such as blowing up the Ventrue's bar in the opening scene).
  • Storyteller offers his conflict/plot without railroading, possibly "throwing bones" here or there for PCs to pick up or not (like allowing the Nosferatu to find useful pieces of blackmail material during the session).
  • Storyteller takes all the character sheets home with him after session #1 and attempts to craft a scenario that addresses all stated objectives in some coherent fashion...and then throws his hands up in disgust and walks away from the game.
Once again, these are all pretty awful ideas, even the 2nd one which is immensely difficult to do in practice (it requires both specificity of objective AND a clever player to pick up the clues/indicators laid down...unless you're just rubbing it in his face).

In actuality, I (the GM in this story) did kind of a combo of these ideas, though mostly number one and number three. It's just damn hard to craft an open-ended scenario for this many players...though in my defense, I played in other White Wolf games run by other storytellers (including both Ars Magica and Mage the Awakening) that had FEWER players and yet still completely failed (and for pretty much the exact same reason). At least my game got to session 3 before I bailed...

Now I can hear certain game designers reading through these examples and my last two posts and yelling, "Who the f-- cares, JB?!" They may offer suggestions like:

a) cut down on the number of players (to better manage individual player's objectives better), OR
b) choose the players that sit at your table carefully so that they don't get any "funny ideas" in their heads and "roll off the rails," OR
c) play a game where the object isn't anything more than using your abilities tactically (and in cooperation) to beat up monsters and take their loot. Who needs the other silly drama stuff?

Ugh, people! That's defeating the whole point of my posts!

Here's what I'd like to see happen:

[oh,'s 2:14am...I am going to bed, folks...we'll continue this tomorrow...]


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cooperation and Your Own Objectives (Part 2)

Now just in case my last post didn't offend anyone, allow me to continue my attempt to get folks riled.

I said that fantasy role-playing occurs when the objective of the player matches the objective of the character. Here are some things I do NOT consider "role-playing:"

- "My character's 'objective' is to use his abilities, powers, feats, and skills in a tactically sound fashion to aid the party is bringing down a monstrous foe," aka The 4E Standard Objective. This is bullshit as far as role-playing goes, pure and simple. Sure, there may be people in this world who have a superficially similar bushido-like approach to their career as a soldier of fortune, but that's not an objective. An objective is something like "to maintain honor/face (even in combat)," or "to die a hero's death in battle," or "to show off my (combat) moves in a display of hotdog, adrenaline junky-ness." But not every person fits that few, in fact, that I'd need much more demonstration from a player character (outside of combat) to justify consideration of these as true objectives.

Some examples? Okay:
  • Samurai guy: must conduct all affairs with the utmost dignity and respect, from bargaining with employers to bartering with shopkeepers. Must be aware of own honor at all times, to the point of challenging/attacking anyone who steps on or snubs that honor (including employers, shopkeepers, companions, etc.). Honor is an inconvenience.
  • Viking guy: must constantly bemoan the idea of dying like a thrall or merchant (in bed). Must seek combat against worthy foes at every opportunity. Never run from a fight (even against a foe that outclasses him) as it is better to dine in Valhalla that slave in Nifflheim. Peaceful resolution is something to be spurned.
  • Show-off guy: must always be first into any hazardous activity (walking point, scaling walls, checking out scary, dark holes). Must brag about exploits to anyone who will listen, talking himself into gigs that might be suicidal. Should always be looking for the biggest, meanest, challenge he can find in order to impress the lads/ladies. Cannot sit quietly or move stealthily; inactivity is painful.

- Indie gamers that role-play (via "author/pawn stance") things happening to characters against the character's objectives because things are "more interesting that way."

Now some indie gamers might object to this, and we can get into a whole debate over what a role-playing game IS and blah-blah-blah. THAT's not up for discussion here. Point is, certain games (for example, Capes) are much more "story creation" games with contested plot points than "role-playing games," even if one is creating a character for each "scene." And games like InSpectres skirt the edge so dangerously that they may well fall out of the RPG category, too.

I am all in favor of players making interesting/questionable choices on their character's behalf that might result in problematic consequences...even (and especially) choices they wouldn't normally make in real life. The key to whether or not this is "role-playing" is the you (the player) share the same objective as your character.

For example, is the player's objective to seduce the barmaid (which would result in trouble) in line with the character's objective? Or does the character want to remain true to his betrothed sweetheart and the player just wanting to cause trouble for him (the character)? Do you see the difference?
  • In the first instance, the character is a dog, and the player is playing him as a dog. That's role-playing.
  • In the second instance, the player wants something bad/interesting to happen to the character (he gets in trouble with the barmaid) while the character ends up becoming some sort of "flawed simpleton" that blunders into trouble and now we can address a specific premise or have some dramatic scene, introverted ("O why did the gods allow me to be seduced? Why did I drink such strong wine that night?") or not (the girlfriend catches him with his pants down). In either case, the player is not role-playing; the player is directing the character in a scene (or scenes) for their own (and others) amusement. While this is a fine and dandy way to play, it is NOT taking on the role of character in imaginary game world.

Okay, so...if you will (for the moment) buy into the idea that fantasy role-playing is matching character objective to player objective, what does any of this have to do with "cooperative play?"

Well, for one thing: how does one resolve players' differing and sometimes conflicting role-playing objectives with each other when the form of cooperation is supposed to be one of shared participation in common cause?

FOR EXAMPLE: Six players sit down to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The assumption is that the five, non-DM players will create characters that work together towards a shared, oh, raiding a dungeon and finding a big heap of treasure. Pop quiz folks: what's the great hope for the session?

A) That players will work together to defeat the insidious dangers of the adventure?
B) That players will role-play their characters, even at the risk of supplanting the adventure goals?

Now before you answer, bear in mind the following:

#1 The main thing an RPG like D&D has over a video game is the ability to role-play. If you're not interested in role-playing, why are you playing in the first place?

#2 The rules of D&D (at least the B/X rules) state that things like "winning and losing" don't apply to D&D games. Gygax wrote a bit about there being better quality of play in the DMG, but I don't recall any emphasis being put on "winning" adventures...only on adventuring itself.

For me personally, I say role-playing takes precedence over conquering said dungeon...which may be a reason why so many of our "dungeon adventures" back in the day were never completed.

And even while that could be debated, one has to consider that Dungeons & Dragons provides the option of throwing together individuals of wildly different backgrounds...the classic example being the paladin and assassin that are members of the same adventuring party. Even if you're playing an edition that doesn't allow this particular combo (like 2nd edition or B/X) you can still have good and evil (or Lawful and Chaotic) individuals in the same group...and both players and characters of such disparate backgrounds will often find their objectives in conflict with each other. What is one to do in such circumstance?

If I get around to a part 3 in this series, I'll give some ideas.
; )

Cooperation and Your Own Objectives (Part 1)

All RPGs are, at some base level, "cooperative ventures."

At least all the ones I've ever owned and played. By "cooperative," I mean, as opposed to sports or business or organized crime. When you sit down at a table to play an RPG with some "people" (they may not even be friends or relations!) you are agreeing to abide by certain rules of engagement, based on the game being played. Kind of a malleable (by game) Geneva Convention.

That, I believe, is what is referred to as a "social contract." If the some guy (or gal) is not on the same page as the other players, it's up to the group (or the designated referee, often referred to as a "game master") to oust the troublesome a ref ejecting a player in a sporting event.

Now cooperation in an RPG can look many different ways, depending on the game. Some players work with each other against a common antagonist (usually the game master, sometimes a player). Some games pit players against each other. Some RPGs have players voluntarily upping their own characters' stress levels and aiding fellow players in doing the same with helpful suggestions.

Regardless of the form of cooperation (determined by the game, genre, and/or style of the group), each player brings his or her own objectives of play to the table. These may have nothing to do with the "cooperative style" of the game itself.

These objectives of play can be weak and watered ("just to have fun" or "hang out with some people") or they can be strong and specific. Often, unless a player is already familiar with the game, group, and particular setting, the objective brought to the table is hazy and general and only becomes more specific over time. For example, one might sit down at a table thinking "I just want to play a badass wizard," but over the course of the evening this might be distilled into "I really want to find the Wand of Wazu, key to ultimate power," or even "I really want to make Ted's character look like a douche after he went and palmed that diamond."

When the objective of the player matches the objective of the character, then you are engaged in fantasy role-playing.

Conversely, if your character's objective and player's objective is different, I would say you are engaged in something other than role-playing. Oh, it's still "play," and you're still playing an RPG (maybe...the definition of an RPG seems to get hazier and hazier over time), but I'm not sure I would call it role-playing. Certainly not "fantasy role-playing."

Let's look at some examples:

My character is a paladin. I would like my character to find a holy avenger sword. Why? Because it is one of the most badass weapons in the game (increases character effectiveness), it has special powers only paladins can use, making me a stronger party member (team considerations), it is a rare and powerful weapon and would indicate I've reached a personal milestone (prestige/status implications). Does my paladin character care about finding a holy avenger sword? Probably not. If he was really so mercenary or status-minded, he'd probably lose all his "paladin special powers."

WHAT IF - my Dungeon Master presents my character (in-game) with a choice: you can have your holy avenger sword (here it is, go ahead - take it), but doing so means ten innocent people will die. And die horrible, agonizing deaths. And if I choose to sacrifice the sword, the innocents will be freed.

What's more, my DM tells me: this ain't no "test." This is the real deal. I can have the sword or not...and if I decide to give it up, I'm not going to get something better or "nearly as cool." Instead, I get nothing...besides the lives of these innocent villagers. Maybe some satisfaction. Oh, yeah...this may be the only holy avenger sword in the campaign world, so my character will probably never see another.

Now as a player, I could say something like, "well, taking the sword will allow me to save and protect more innocents in the future." But that's a bullshit justification. There's no guarantee my paladin won't get hit by a bus the next day (or a poisoned arrow) before he ever has the chance to save another single person. I see paladins as fairly Kantian, black-and-white types who would know the end doesn't justify the means.

On the other hand, I could simply game the system...the rules of AD&D allow me to screw people over, lose my powers, and then ATONE for my failings ("say five Hail Mary's and ten Our Father's...") to get my powers back. And THEN I'd have the sword, too!

But then, why the heck am I playing a role-playing game?

If all I'm doing is killing monsters and acquiring stuff to become more badass, why not simply play World of Warcraft or another video game with no such moral quandaries and where I am assured I will be reward with treasure drops by playing within the bounds of the virtual game world?

After all, I didn't HAVE to play a paladin...shouldn't it say something that I chose to play one?

But if all it says is: I want to play a fighter that has special powers...well, then, you're playing the wrong damn game. Or rather, you're playing the right game, but you're not playing to the game's might as well be playing a vid.

And I wouldn't call what you're doing "role-playing."

[to be continued]

Rant Aborted

Last night I started writing about my ideas on "cooperative play" and "personal objectives" that started crystallizing in my head after Thursday's game of Wrath of Ashardalon. Unfortunately, in trying to segue into my "philosophy" I had to describe my thoughts on Wrath, and by the time I fell asleep (I was writing in bed) the post had basically devolved into a 3+ page rant regarding the game itself (and that was BEFORE I even started to reference recent articles on "addiction-design" philosophy in video game design).

While it would be "fun" to post yet another ranty rant regarding a WotC game, I think it would be counterproductive to discussing my actual point regarding cooperative play and personal I scrapped it for now. Hopefully, I can have a more coherent post up later today.
: )

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Morning Assessment

Yesterday wasn't nearly as productive as I'd hoped it would is a constant surprise to me how distracting a beautiful baby can be, especially as I grow to love him more every day.

However, I got several more pages written (page count is now officially at 26 of 64), including much of the "gear" chapter (including all cybernetic enhancements and weapons) and a page of combat rules. Once I add the actual equipment and combat tables (currently residing in Excel format) the page count will probably spike another 2 or 3.

ALSO, finally figured out how I want full-auto fire to work in the game. Unlike the space opera game, resource management IS a small part of the new book, harkening back to it's D&D roots. However, I needed to make ammo counting as simple as possible.

In addition to writing, managed to FINALLY pick up a used copy of 1st edition Shadowrun down at Gary's...I now have 1st through 3rd edition. And you know what? The 1st edition book is more impressive than I remember. For a 1st edition game, it is surprisingly complete, well laid out, thoughtful, and (wow!) beautifully illustrated. It is also MUCH MORE "D&D cyberpunk" than the later books...really dark fantasy stuff. There's not a whole lot of attempt to shoehorn every metahuman critter as being a different strain of the HMHVV virus, for example. Ghouls are just ghouls, man!

It's still a bit more fiddly than I'd like, even as it tries to be generic. And it screws up its own math in the character archetypes. But all in all, this was an excellent game. I've written too much of my own not to finish it now (I, it's coming out pretty fast)...but as I said before, if you have the 1st edition rules and 1st edition Grimoire, Samurai Catalogue, and Sprawl Sites, you really have a fine game on your hands. Maybe the Seattle Source Book for flavor, though it's a little out-o-date (the Sonics are still playing here? Did the NBA award us a new franchise? What about the stupid, deep bore tunnel we're going to be payig off for 20 years?).

Oh, yeah...I also made it down to the Baranof where I played a round of 4th Edition Light in the form of the WotC board game Wrath of Ashadalorn (or something). For a board game it was pretty, "meh." In many ways it reminded me of the superior Siege of the Citadel, crossed with DungeonQuest; however, with everyone playing "against the board" it was a fairly one-sided (i.e. "too easy") game...I was trying to maneuver monsters to kill the other players just to spice the thing up, but with multiple "healing surges" (and healing abilities) there really wasn't a chance of "losing."

Mostly the game consisted of drawing cards in the correct order and following instructions. Hell, one could probably just write a D100 table for each card deck and roll percentile dice, in order, every round.

However, I will say the plastic figurines were fantastic...I wanted to pocket a cave bear and take it home for painting (I did not, though). And I REALLY wanted to see the otyugh or dragon come out of the monster deck (they did not). I was confused by the creature that looked like a Michael Moorcock "Hunting Dog of Dharzi;" what the heck was that supposed to be?

Luke assures me WoA bears only a passing similarity to 4E. Well, it bears a passing similarity to real D&D, too (otyughs and duergar)...however, it's pretty "meh." I'll stick with my own game, thank you...maybe try to get a set of the plastic figures off eBay or something.
; )

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Playing Hooky

There's snow on the ground which means Seattle drivers turn batshit crazy. I'm staying home.

I mean, there's not much snow on the ground, and I could take the bus, but A) I find the idea of something happening to me one day before the start of [my] weekend (especially with a baby at home) totally unsettling, and B) I really, really, REALLY don't want to be stuck in a madhouse downtown tonight...and snow is supposed to fall throughout the day.

So I'm staying home. My plan is to log a few-ten quality hours of writing on the new book (another 4 pages yesterday). I just wish I had something heavier duty than a Mac laptop to work on.

All is ready. Later.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Character Exploration (Part Two)

My post from yesterday was actually finished today (around 2:40 in the AM) so you'll have to forgive me for pretty much trailing off mid-sentence before I got to my point. Let's try to wind this up:

To say character exploration is somehow antithesis to role-playing...even old school D&D kind of missing the point of role-playing altogether.

Like reading a (poorly written and meandering) novel, playing a game of Dungeons & least with the older editions) opening a chapter and seeing what befalls our characters. If the characters develop specific personalities over time such that players can point to them, than your game IS exploring character.

And it's not an unusual phenomenon...hell, it is part of what sets role-playing as a game apart from so many adventure board games. My "elf" in Dungeon!, might have some back-and-forth banter (via me) with the other players, but within the limited scope of the game the only "character" you develop is one of cowardice or courage (and possibly, foolhardiness).

Old school D&D, with an emphasis on challenging the player rather than the stat block, ends up revealing a bit more about a character...especially in the long term (campaign-style) play. And that "revelation" is what I call (when observed), "character exploration."

It happens even in short-term play...over the course of my White Plume Mountain one-off adventure, several of the party members started exhibiting signs of character development. Gustav's antagonism with the polar bears comes to does, the party's maltreatment of Brian the halfling (and his eventual rebellion against it). I'm not just talking about "social interaction" between characters (at least some of which can be attributed to the constant power shifts in the social contract between real players at the table)...I'm talking about the decisions characters make within a game, often based on their (character's) past experiences within a game, as if they were real people!

Now THAT is something you don't see in other least not the same way. If I'm playing the video game Mass Effect and find the one section is really only possible (or convenient) to complete using a shotgun, than I (as a player) may decided to deal with that section with a shotgun, regardless of the character I'm using. In RPGs, characters are far more unique...even "old school" characters with their minimal stat line (six ability scores, hit points and AC, a handful of spells and gear). Because each character's experience in the game world is unique based on a) its minimal stat line, b) the actions of the adventure/dungeon/DM, c) the random fall of the dice, and d) the reactions and interactions with fellow party members.

I've seen players say, "well, my guy doesn't want to get into THAT situation, because I always seem to get out-maneuvered in those types of encounters." Even though he's aware that it's a game, his character is perfectly capable, and he's not a complete tactical dunce. His character's history of failure builds an ingrained flaw in his psyche...that only seems to occur when using that particular character.

Another character (not player...the character!) had got into a habit of seducing bar maids in every town he visits. At some point, he gets into a committed relationship with a very talented, very cool, very attractive NPC adventurer. And then he blows it by jumping into bed with yet another wench down the road! For absolutely no "gain" in the game (no gold, no XP, no necessity within the objections/parameters of the adventure)...just allowing his character to be the dog he is...even though the character's personality in this regard is the opposite of the player's. In fact, the fall-out from the debacle ended in a LOSS for the PC...lost his love interest, lost an ally/adventurer, and ended up gaining multiple enemies because of the incident.

None of what I'm talking about requires any player to write up pages of "backstory" for their character. None of what I'm talking about requires elaborate character generation systems providing skills and feats and synergy bonuses and racial bonuses and dodge bonuses and exotic weapon proficiencies and blah-blah-blah. These kind of exercises may actually DISTRACT from the exploration of character in game. If you write it all up beforehand, what is there to discover? If you're too busy with optimizing your character for his next prestige class, who has time to observe what the characters are actually doing?

NOT that character exploration doesn't occur in both these instances. It can and does, especially depending on the effort of the individual player. But stat-building and historical narratives are NOT explorations of character. Character exploration is what occurs in-game.

Here's an example of what I mean: I sketched an idea for a sleazy toad cleric a while back for an on-line OLD SCHOOL game. I had a fairly elaborate idea of the kind of character I wanted him to be...cowardly, repugnant, slovenly, lustful. A scurrilous rogue, in other for tomb raiding and dungeon crawling, and possibly abandoning his buddies when things got inopportune.

IN PLAY, that's not what actually happened. He ended up leading the charge more often than not and in the end died (what I would consider) a bit of a hero's death, fighting a defensive withdrawal to keep a slavering pack of troglodytes from killing at least a couple of his buddies. THAT personality evolved over-play...based on the situation, based on the actions of the other characters, based in part on MY ridiculous personality. But none of that had been originally planned by me. One could look at his adventures over three or four game sessions and see how the character of the character developed. THAT's "character exploration."

All right, I think I'm done on the subject for now.
: )

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Character Exploration in D&D

A while back I started writing an essay with a title like "the Many Ways to Play D&D," or something equally pretentious. Pretentious and trying to list all the categories of D&D player I'd come across over the years, I realized the whole mental exercise was a fool's errand. After all, who am I to criticize (or judge) someone for playing D&D the "wrong" way. Come to think of it, I'm not sure there's a "right way" to play D&D at all.

I mean, there an absolute correct way to play a game of D&D? Gygax didn't run his campaign with the AD&D "rules as written;" in the end, I think most role-playing games in general, and D&D in particular, have rules sacrificed for brevity and "fun" at some point during play.

[I don't even know how one might run a D&D "tournament", what a cluster f*** those old Gen Con tourneys must have been! It ain't Magic cards, that's for sure!]

All this is my preamble-y way of saying, of course you can play D&D any way you damn well please.

Now let's talk about character exploration.

In the past, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned how much I dislike the way character generation has exploded over the last couple editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Even back to the latter days of 2nd edition...even before the Players Options book was published those damn kit books and non-weapon proficiencies and yadda-yadda-yadda. Giving players MORE options during chargen makes the chargen process LONGER unless players have 1) a solid concept of what they want as a character, AND 2) extensive knowledge of the system (usually gleaned from practice making characters).

However, few players would meet both these requirements, causing chargen to be a rather long, drawn-out process...and thus making the death of a character more cumbersome, more of a penalty (you have to sit out longer to make a new character). The usual fix? Make sure characters don't die as readily in the game. Go easy on players, fudge dice rolls, or institute new rules that ensure character death is a thing of the past. Ugh.

Of course, none of that has to do with character exploration.

I think most would agree that playing an RPG is about a little something more than figuring out the best way to tweak your character. That particular "metagame" is nothing more than exploring the game system...and exploring the system should be secondary to, well, playing the game right?

Let's just agree on that for the sake of argument.

So getting that out of the way, what exactly is "character exploration?" Well, it's about exploring one's character, right? Seeing what makes him or her tick?

And how exactly do we know that? By observing what the character does over time.

Does such a thing have a place in the D&D game? Yeah, I think it does...even in short-term game play.

Consider the literary tradition from which D&D comes. Sure, sure a lot of us "younger kids" (like myself) bring a more "cinematic" mindset to our action-adventure, but those bibliographies in Moldvay and the DMG aren't listing movies to go see for inspiration...they're books. And books, in general, have more opportunity for "character exploration" than film just due to the narrative structure.

At least in the action genre. Howard's Conan may not be an incredibly introspective guy, but you get a greater idea of his values and ideas on "the wickedness of civilization" than you get from a screening of Conan the Destroyer.

And I know that's a poor example...there IS character exploration in cinema, even action cinema, but most film is not of a serialized medium. And Dungeons & Dragons, at least as initially designed IS a serialized medium...characters and the game world are supposed to have some continuity over time, a series of adventures like Ffafhrd and Mouser, or that Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his buddies.

Personally, if the only exploration done in an RPG is "exploring the dungeon," well, that might get a bit boring...couldn't I just be spending my Thursdays logging into the World of Warcraft? For me, a great part of the fun of role-playing is seeing what the players do with their characters...not just how they get out of some fiendish trap, but how they interact with each other and the various NPCs of the game world. THAT's what makes D&D such an interesting game.

Recently, I was comparing Dungeons & Dragons to Shadowrun, in that the latter game seems like some crazy kook asked "how can I get machine guns and cyborgs into my D&D game...or 'port elves and dwarves into the cyberpunk genre?" But for all its extra cool rules and sourcebooks and "skills," D&D is STILL a leg up on Shadowrun in character exploration...because Shadowrun is a big fat caricature in a lot of ways.

At least in D&D, there's an idea of some sort of strange world "out there" that characters will interact with, eventually at a ruler-vassal level some day. No such maturation process exists in Shadowrun...every session could simply be another "Meet Mr. Johnson at the club, run the mission, get paid" and you would be "doing Shadowrun" the way the game is designed and presented.

Fun as a novelty, sure? But long term? Eh...that's simply "exploring the dungeon"...over and over again.

D&D CAN be played this way, of course. Why not..."meet the wizard at the tavern, delve the dungeon, get paid." But it does (at least in earlier editions) have rules built in for a more interesting bit of character development. And many other RPGs do not...making it possible for long term game play to stagnate after awhile.

More on this is early, early in the morning.

Answered My Own Question (Shadowrun)...

...and apparently I am crazy. Resistance tests have always been a part of Shadowrun from the 1st edition.

The main difference between 1st and 3rd (1st and 2nd appears to be the same) is that one's "spell pool" is equal to his or her sorcery skill in the 1st edition and that 3rd edition makes an actual sorcery test as opposed to a test based on the Force of the spell.

For example, a 1st edition mage can cast a power bolt 5 with a sorcery skill of 6 and roll 5 dice for success (for the force of the spell), plus any dice in his spell pool (six, based on sorcery) for a possible 11 dice. A 3rd edition mage rolls dice equal to his sorcery skill (regardless of spell force) and augments with spell pool (the average of the magician's intelligence, will, and magic rating); the force of the spell only matters for the difficulty of the target's resistance test.

What is the practical effect of this? Well:

- if you plan on allocating your spell dice to beat the drain, 1st (and 2nd) edition is a better deal. Why? Your character can be wired up with boosted cyber-reflexes and still throw mean fireballs, saving your (sorcery-based) spell pool for resisting drain.
- in 3rd edition, dwarves are the best spell-casters (Will bonus), and cybernetic enhancement has terrible downside to one's magic pool.

Oh, yeah...after 1st edition, you can still use bound elementals to augment magic pool (and thus aid in spell defense)...however, I only find the "burn your elemental for auto-successes" rule in 1st edition (which REALLY ups the power level of mages over anyone).

And they took out the spell "turn to goo!" What the f---?!

1st Edition Shadowrun Experts?

I just have NOT been able to locate a copy of the first edition SR rules, nor the 1st edition Grimoire, and I'm beginning to think my memory is completely off the rails: did magic get hugely nerfed between first and second edition??

Here is how I remember the old 1st edition rules:

- Magic pool was equal to the caster's sorcery skill rating
- The number of buddies that could be protected by spell defense was limited (either to the number of the defender's sorcery skill or magic attribute...I don't remember)
- There were no "target resistance" tests: magician's rolled versus a target number and if the magician's successes weren't offset by a defending mage's spell defense, the target took the full brunt of the caster's success

If I AM remembering correctly, this made magic a very potent weapon, as opponents with no magical support could be quickly and easily hosed.

I also remember bound elementals could be "burned" (at least one service) for spell defense...another good reason to go through the cost and hours of summoning an elemental for a magical "bodyguard."

Am I off my rocker? Have targets always received a saving, "resistance test" to offset the success of the magical spell-caster?

Thanks for your help folks!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Another Blast from the Past gaming last night and no new writing on the game project today. Just "stuff" getting in the way: basic tiredness (last night) and attempting to be a good parent/spouse with a fussy baby today.

But right now, I have a spare moment.

I should probably write about...oh, I don't know...D&D or game design or my B/X Companion being selected as a finalist for the Three Castles Award.

Instead, I just want to say that I finally got in contact with my old friend, Jocelyn, of whom I've written many times in the past. Now granted, I never went out of my way to track her down (I mean, I knew how to find her if I'd wanted), but considering I didn't do anything other than the "laziest possible approach" to people searching (i.e. facebook)...well, I'm just pleased that it worked out at all.

Strangely enough, she has seen the blog (?!)...or maybe not so strange (our mothers still talk to each other after all). I wonder what she thinks of the things I've written. Probably, "JB has too much time on his hands." Or maybe something about living in the past.
; )

A while back, I started writing my "personal gaming history," chronicling my life as seen through the lens of a life-long gamer. No, no...none of it has been posted to the blog (yet...)'s loooong (as one might suspect) and possibly only of interest to yours truly, even if it was to be finished and posted. Jocelyn certainly figures prominently in the early years of that history.

Huh...anyway, just hearing from her makes me try to remember back some 23+ odd years ago. My life was much different back in those days. I wonder who will be my son's friends as he grows through childhood. I wonder what (or who) he will remember fondly from his past when he's closing in on his 40th birthday.

You know, maybe my parents have similar (or had similar) thoughts about me...but I'm so oblivious I've never wondered whether they did or not.

Ugh. That's enough ruminating in that direction. Diego's still asleep, but I need to go grab a shower before dinner tonight (we're going out with non-gamer friends, so I should probably smell presentable). Hopefully, I'll have a more game-related post later.

Happy Friday, folks!
: )

Thursday, February 17, 2011


There are two things I’m musing about today. The first is people hunting dinosaurs with guns…that’s going to be its own post. The second is an adequate development system for characters in a Fantasy-Punk RPG.

As in, “character development,” as opposed to advancement. I’m tired of the term “advancement.” Characters can develop in a number of ways, including “in-game effectiveness” without necessarily becoming “advanced.”

For example, in a world where characters are members of a freelance covert ops team doing black ops missions for competing corporations (and others able to pay their bill), there are a number of ways characters can develop (good and bad):

  • Karmic Development: Doing good things reaps good returns and bad things the opposite.
  • Reputation: Success and integrity (“professionalism”) increase rep; screwing up and hosing your buddies wreck it.
  • Experience: Skills and abilities develop with practice, but age and fatigue build up as well.
  • Relationships: These can be built or burned over the course of a career.

One thing that’s always semi-disgusted me with certain RPGs (like D20, though there are many) is the one-way development of characters: it only goes up. Characters get better and better only facing penalties as/if applied by a GM.

For example:

  • D20 provides no “karma” penalties to dice rolls based on prior actions.
  • A poor “reputation” has no required effect on reaction/skill rolls except as applied by GMs (perhaps as a “circumstance” bonus)
  • Experience points only go up unless characters on subjected to permanent energy drain; aging penalties are only enforced if GMs keep a strict record of “campaign time,” and generally won’t affect most demihuman races in a “human scaled” campaign
  • With regard to relationships…well, there’s always another adventure right? Always another meet in the local tavern and a tale of treasure and danger to pursue. Otherwise, there’s no game, yeah?

Again, GMs can certainly create their own house-rulings on this issue (“Your Chaotic Evil character is no longer allowed in the campaign as he’s created too many problems.”) but many times, GMs will attempt to find a way to justify the PC continuing to adventure as if nothing has happened. Only a failed save or reduction of hit points is going to end a character’s adventuring career, never blacklisting or fatigue or their “sins catching up with them.”

Personally, I’m tired of it. Stagnation and “player/GM burnout” are the outcomes I’d expect with a one-way advancement scheme.

I suppose you can keep your game fresh by continuously adding new game content (tied to advancing to new levels or purchasing new source books or whatnot). But it seems (to me) to be more elegant to include the balancing act, the tension, in the game rules.

Look at Call of Cthulhu. Yes, you have a constant upwards trend of character effectiveness (skill percentages only go up)…but you also have a downward spiral of Sanity. AND that sanity is inversely tied to one of the most useful skills I the game (“Cthulhu Mythos Knowledge”), which ensures the better your investigator gets at investigating, the more likely he is to end up in an asylum, gibbering and drooling.

In the past, my Shadowrun “campaigns” never lasted very long as characters generally went one of two ways: cybered to the hilt (the money sink) or magicked to the max (the karma sink). Either way, it was just “play until play gets boring because all the players are ultra-effective” and then FINITO. Great…so much for entertainment "limited only by one’s imagination."

But maybe my imagination IS limited. Or maybe players’ attention spans are too limited these days to care (“we only play for a year and it takes us two months of sessions to get through a single mission anyway”) and it’s effectively a non-issue. Fine and dandy; I have had my bouts with “gamer ADD,” myself.

However, I still think it is more interesting to look at character DEVELOPMENT over time rather than character ADVANCEMENT. And while some games may be better as one-way development trains (my space opera game only differentiates between “slow” and “fast” development in Old School style…reward the good game play, baby), I feel that any game with a dystopian setting (say, any game with the term “punk” in the theme or title) should have the possibility of two-way development (positive AND negative).

Just what I’m thinking. Today, anyway.

[***actually, this is just what I was thinking about two weeks ago...I wrote this February 3rd and never posted it (nor did I get to the "dino-hunting" post). Since that time, I've accounted for 21+ pages of the new 64 page game, and it DOES incorporate most of these "development aspects" in its design...all four plus a fifth, in fact. However, the "negative development" is definitely "toned down" compared to my earlier fact, there are no rules (currently) for decrepitude or age...though they might not be a totally bad idea to work in somehow!***]

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day... all my poor devoted followers! How I have neglected you so!

As one might assume, my time and attention has been mostly focused on spending time with my new child and the mother of said child...which is as it should be, of course. He is so cute! And sleeps so little at night! Which means my wife sleeps so little, period!

Of course, I feel guilty for my profound ability to drop off at an instant's notice and sleep through most anything given the slightest chance to relax.

And so I've been trying not to do this, but rather share in my wife's o-so-special suffering. Which means I was pretty much dead on my feet last week when I returned to work...not to mention the fact that I had almost zero desire to be at the office. In fact, pretty much the ONLY thing I did (besides putting out the usual fires and snoozing through meetings) was to work on a new writing project...and no, it was NOT the space opera game, but instead the "dark future fantasy" RPG I would hope would suppress any last itches I had to play Shadow Run.

I've got about a quarter of it written in three days.

Unfortunately, having a four day weekend (I took today off to be with the, baby, and beagles are all napping as I type this), wasn't nearly as productive as I'd hoped. Um...I mean as productive writing-wise as I'd hoped (the family time has been excellent). However, I have managed quite a bit of what I call "one-handed writing:" that is, note-scribbles on legal tablets that will later be transcribed into actual pages of good solid text...while holding the baby in one arm. While my left-handed scribbles are only barely legible, the right-handed stuff is pure gemstones, and with eight solid pages, I figure I'll be able to knock-out another huge chunk of text next time I'm back at the office.

It's a fun little project: I'm cribbing stuff from Top Secret, B/X (of course), Advanced Recon, and Cyberpunk into the mix, and it's shaping up to be a tasty goulash.

Hmm...the storm outside keeps causing my lights to flicker and it appears my internet connection needs to be reset before I can save/post this. I'll take that as a cue to sign off for now. More progress reports later, though.

Hope everyone's having a good one!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Old School D&D on Television!

[God, I really want to write about Raggi's recent post over at LotFP and the earlier posts that spawned it, but I feel obliged to offer a more time-sensitive post first. I will (hopefully) come back to this particular bit of blogging mayhem, but you can read my basic thoughts in the comments section of Raggi's post]

So, once upon a time, I lived for a number of years withOUT a television, and let me tell you, you miss it not when it's gone. Sure, these days I miss a whole slew of cultural references from the decade of TV-watching I avoided, but truly a lot of it was dross anyway, right?

Those days of non-TV watching have been behind me for several years now. My wife and I acquired a television shortly before (or after) we got married (back in 2000) and my abstinence from the boob-tube went the same way as my veganism and daily martial arts training. Ah, well...I'm a little fatter, but it sure is a comfortable life!

Now I still try not to watch too much, but it's definitely harder to stay away from the TV during football season or Top Chef. However, the only real night of sitcom watching I do is on Thursdays (comedy on NBC), and in recent months I've been missing that in favor of gaming down at the local bar, the Baranof.

Doesn't mean I miss my shows, though...thanks to the magic of Comcast's On-Demand (yes, the wife and I upgraded to cable a year or so ago), I can watch the shows over the weekend. So it was that my (non-gamer) wife told me I absolutely HAD to watch an episode of the show Community (a sit-com about lovable misfits at a community college), that prominently featured Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, just so everyone knows, I wasn't super-enthused by the idea. Community is often pretty funny, but doesn't always "hit" for me, and I expected a lot of liberties to be taken with a game I well as a lot of snide humor directed at the expense of table-top role-players, possible World of Warcraft references, and perhaps even some product placement for Hasbro/WotC.

Frankly, I was fairly blown away.

First off, the characters were playing Old School D&D...not 4E, not D20, not even 2nd edition! They broke out a huge stack of 1st edition AD&D books...the same stack I used to carry around in MY backback whenever I went a-gaming somewhere. There was no product placement associated with the episode, the main "product" often featured was the old Dungeon Masters Guide with the re-issued cover...the same book that was first gifted to me at the age of...what? 11? 12?

They used a fake module for the episode that was worked up with the same trade dress as the old TSR modules (I assume it's fake because I've never heard of it and it was missing the standard TSR banner in the corner). And while there were liberties taken with the gameplay (only the DM ever rolled any dice) the game otherwise played a LOT like my old AD&D games...the semi-serious tones, the griping and snarkiness, the occasional spontaneous bits of getting into character...not to mention sexual overtones, inter-party conflict, and cheating in back rooms! It really took me back to my youth!

And battle mats or miniatures and no cutesy TV animations.

If anyone was interested in seeing what an Old School AD&D game looked like in action, they could sure do worse than watching this particular show. Yes, there were over-the-top bits (I was never so impartial as a Dungeon Master...though Lord knows I tried!), and certainly people sat still a lot more than we ever did, but otherwise there was a fairly accurate depiction of real role-playing in that show. I was pretty impressed. It actually made me want to pull out my own AD&D books, even though I've semi-sworn off that edition.

[I figure the books must have actually belonged to one of the writers/producers...they were just too damn authentic]

Welcome to Karth!

I know that some folks enjoyed reading the transcripts of my buddy Kris in his pillaging of the Village of Hommlet. As I wrote earlier, this was an adaptation of the classic AD&D adventure to a 3rd edition setting (yes, yes...we all have our skeletons in the closets and I, too, played D20).

It occurs to me that some folks might be interested in the campaign setting we may have noticed in the transcript references to a lot of places not found in the World of Greyhawk. I still have all my campaign notes, including rules tweaks (for example, half-orcs were not allowed as a PC race and orcs were considered goblinoids; gnomes were seafaring creatures with enemy bonuses against aquatics and the ability to speak with aquans; high elves favored class was sorcerer, etc.). I won't bother listing all the allowable prestige classes and such, but some might be want to rip off my locations for their own campaign worlds.

[unfortunately, there is no map to include with'll have to plug-in locations where you feel they'll work best for your game]

I could probably turn this into a little sourcebook or something, but I've got too many irons in the fire right now as it is. Just figured I'd share:

[hmmmm...on second thought, I see that even withOUT cleaning up the notes and properly formatting them, there're at least six pages...I should probably just put this into a .pdf document for downloading]

All, Karth notes (that was the name of the Earth with a "K," get it?) will be posted in the next couple-couple. Um...probably.

Happy Saturday!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday

It would be out of character for me to not say SOMEthing about this weekend's showdown in "Big D;" I do plan on watching the game but my enthusiasm will probably be at a lower ebb than usual...I don't particularly like either team this year.

Still for those of us keeping track of the winding down of the Mayan Tzolkin, this could be the last Super Bowl before crazy-ass "earth changes" (my bet is on a global pole shift) knock civilization on its ass. It's something I've been trying not to think of too much lately as I have a son now, and I'd hate to have to relive any part of that horribly depressing Viggo film, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic world.

However, if this IS the last Super Bowl our present civilization sees, it's only fitting that it features a match up between two of the oldest and historically storied franchises in the NFL. Maybe Kansas City would have been a better rep for the AFC (they were the first team to play against Green Bay in Super Bowl I), but it's only fitting the Packers have a chance to reclaim the Lombardi trophy one, last time.

It's just irritating that it's Aaron Rogers at the helm for the Packers. Sorry...I'm not a fan of the guy.

Most Seattle fans are, of course, rooting for Green Bay to kick the Steelers ass, still smarting over Super Bowl XL. However, I actually heard a comment on the radio today that helped me put 2005 in perspective...can one really blame Pittsburgh for that particular travesty? Biased refs, biased media coverage, but do the Steelers have any control over this sort of thing? And what are they supposed to do about it? Give the trophy back?

That's sillier than awarding a tie in baseball.

Well, whatever...I probably will NOT be rooting for the Steelers on Sunday, simply because I can't stand their quarterback (that's MY hang-up, I realize). However, I don't think Pittsburgh is going to win regardless. Green Bay is hands-down the better team between the two of them, played against better competition during the regular season, and beat better teams. Pittsburgh had the "perfect storm" of events to get back to the Big Dance this year...a first round bye, and two home games against teams they already saw in the regular season (and against whom they matched up well). Barring a serious (i.e. game-ending) injury to one of the Packers' key players, Green Bay should be able to take them apart...just like the Patriots did for my birthday weekend this year. This ain't the Cardinals the Steelers are facing, but a team with an outstanding defense. And the refs (and media) are as likely to be biased towards the Pack as to Pittsburgh, so they can't count on that kind of help.

Anyway, that's all I'm going to say on the subject. I thought I should write SOMEthing, seeing as I've commented on the NFL all season long. We'll see what happens Sunday.

50 Fathoms Deep

So last night, I went down to the Baranof to hook up with the gaming group after being on a hiatus with the birth of my new, lovely son (ooooh! he's so cute!). The last couple weeks Luke's been running a "weird pirate" game using the Savage Garden rules, one of the current pop RPGs I haven't had a chance to play of late.

Excuse me...Savage Worlds. I was calling it Savage Garden all evening until Josh (also making a first appearance since his new daughter was born) tells me, "Um...I think that's a restaurant."

"No,'re thinking the OLIVE Garden." Oh, right.

Have you ever eaten at the Olive Garden? I have...though not for many years. You see the commercials on television, and you say, hmmm, it sounds like a good idea. And look at all those smiling, happy people being treated like "family." So many options and pastas and sauces to try...and breadsticks!

[all right, all right...I actually have a tendency to believe the opposite of what television commercials tell me. But I can imagine being someone who buys into what the boob-tube tells me. That's just role-playing]

So you sit down at Ye Old Olive Garden with your family or a team of co-workers or your baseball team or fellow cast-members from the play rehearsal you just finished. And there IS a lot of food. And a lot of options. And most of it is pretty tasteless, and some of it is not very good, and your wife with the touchy stomach is going to pay for the evening in hours to come, and at the end it feels like you spent a lot of hours for not much pay-off.

Savage Worlds isn't quite as bad as the Olive Garden...but there are definitely some similarities.

Which doesn't mean I didn't have a good time or that Luke wasn't proficient or that the setting wasn't interesting or imaginative. But the game definitely wasn't to my taste...that's just my honest opinion.

I'm very familiar with Pinnacle's original Deadlands game, considering the Weird West setting probably the best new idea in gaming (at the time it was released) since "Gothic Punk." Unfortunately, the Deadlands system itself had three big strikes against it:

  1. Steep learning curve
  2. Long character creation (though as with Shadowrun, it did include several archetypes for faster start-up)
  3. Excessively fiddly combat (and I like my western gunfights...Weird or be fast and furious affairs).

Savage Worlds has certainly done away with #1...the game is far easier to jump right into and understand (with only single dice rolls, set target numbers, and a "wild die"). While we used pre-gens for the game, I would have to believe that character creation must be radically simplified as well compared to appears to be a simple point/dice allocation system (the original Deadlands combined point allocation with random draws from a deck of cards, making use of both the showing and the suit...a cool idea but, again, not very simple to execute or teach).

And combat has been simplified considerably as well, especially in the damage allocation phase of the game...aaand that's all I'll say about combat for right now.

All in all, the SW system feels a lot like Deadlands Light. Which, I suppose, is great if you liked the original Pinnacle system but found it too hard to teach, too long to make characters, and too fiddly in combat. I don't know if I originally liked the Deadlands system or not...I was never able to run a single session with it, let alone a campaign, and my knowledge of the fiddlyness of chargen and combat comes from making practice characters and running mock combats. I was never able to get past the TEACHING part (none of my players were enthused enough by the setting to bother learning the game).

So having never actually PLAYED Deadlands, I can't say what game play feels like. However, I can say what Savage Worlds feels like.

Kind of bland.

There's a lot of dice rolling. Even though you aren't rolling many dice, you're often trying to set up a dice roll...whether you're in combat or hunting game or sailing a boat or looking for treasure or anything. The game feels like, "hurry up and get to a spot where you can roll a dice." And if you're smart you try to angle the action so that you can roll your bigger dice.

Most of the time, it felt like the target roll was either 4 or some gi-normous number that required blowing the top off the dice (rolling the max and then re-rolling and adding). Since fortune is a fickle bitch, the randomness often lent an overall feeling of lameness...for example, it didn't help to "blow the top off" the roll, when all that was needed was a roll of 4 (I had huge successes rolling every day our ship was at sea...without receiving any benefit from those "huge successes"). And then when one needed to roll high (such as for damage rolls with a tough/armored opponent) those "exploding dice" always seemed a bit more elusive.

There are other pet peeves of flawed design I could list (for example as Hindrances that have mechanical value versus those that do nothing and have no rules for enforcement). But that's just going to get redundant...the fact is, I didn't find the game all that fantastic.

Which, I have to say, kind of surprised me. I especially liked the Weird Pirate idea of 50 Fathoms (though I have to say I much prefer Christian Aldridge's version of the setting in his 1997 game Maelstrom)...hell, I like pirates in general and was looking forward to swashbuckling adventure. Plus, I've seen how popular Savage Worlds is (at the Dragonflight convention last summer, SW was definitely the largest turnout of any game a country mile!). And I know the game won some Gamers Choice award at Origins in 2004.

My question would have to be: why? Why would someone choose to play Savage Worlds? What was its competition that year anyway?

Ah, well...I am a man notorious for being "behind the times" in these things (I only just started listening to Lady Gaga in 2010). There is probably some cool IPhone adaption for the game that elevates the play experience to a whole 'nother level, that I'm just missing.

The point is, it wasn't really to my taste. But it was fun to get back with the guys and play and kabitz and poke fun at each other and consume large amounts of beer. Hopefully I'll get to go back next Thursday...there's nothing on "must-see TV" that beats role-playing, even a semi-bland game like Savage Worlds.
: )

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Village of Hommlet - D20 Style (Part 9)

[continued from here]

The Rest of the Dungeon

After stripping the bodies of your enemies and piling them against the portcullis, you set off to explore the rest of the dungeon. This time, Geffen is careful to map the interior, though you also have your chalk out to mark the way.

As you cannot get through the portcullis, you head back up the stairs and through the ogre’s chamber. Past the antechamber (the door opposite the secret one), you find yourself back in the cellar that contained the zombies and the two locked doors. You now take the time to pick the locks on the doors and find that they contain stores of supplies. The first contains dozens of spears, pole arms, and axes, as well as scores of arrows and crossbow bolts. The second one contains shields, leather armor, barrels of salted meat, and two kegs of excellent brandy.

You also find a crate in the weapon room containing more than fifty black capes sewed with the yellow eye of fire.

Going back through the torture chamber tunnel, and then through the crypt, you explore the rest of the underground complex. You find the chambers that housed both bugbears and gnolls, but nothing of value is in these rooms, only squalor and filth. You find a room with a pool in it; obviously the water supply for the hideout, a giant crab-like monster lurks below the surface and menaces you when you approach! Deciding that your party has enough water to last, you leave the pool and creature in peace, rather then risk further injury. You also find the other side of the portcullis, and loot the fallen; the sergeant has a gold chain around his neck and all the men have purses of coin. A simple winch mechanism lifts the portcullis.

Finally, down a long deserted corridor you find the chamber and barracks of the guardsmen and the residence of the high priest. The guards’ barracks contains only cots, salted meat, and other basic supplies, but the chamber of Lareth is another thing entirely! It is lavishly furnished with rugs and wall hangings and a silver serving set and goblets begs your immediate attention. A brazier of sweet incense burns near a carved alabaster box filled with rich unguents (obviously worth a good amount of gold) and lastly you discover a gold necklace, beautifully wrought with ten gorgeous fire opals and set with diamond chips. It is obviously worth a king’s ransom!

You also find another tunnel, near the guards’ chamber that leads in a long upwards slope to the surface…well outside the moat house and deep in a bramble grove. This is probably the way the remaining guardsmen fled. You use this exit and hike the short distance back to the moat house, where your horses and the body of Burne awaits.

The Road Back

You carefully tie Burne to the back of his great white horse, and stow your wealth in bulging saddle-bags. Kendra has changed her scale mail for the gleaming plate armor once worn by Lareth the Beautiful, a unanimous decision by the party as it was she that struck the telling blow. The group is amazed as the way the armor seems to magically contour to her body, slighter though it is compared to the six foot Lareth. Bryant carries the cleric’s quarterstaff, having given his own sword to Kendra. She in turn gives you the dagger of Burne, to use until it is decided what to do with his gear. So equipped your battered party turns its horses towards the open road.

More than a day has passed since you first entered the moat house, but your party has not yet rested, and figures to regain its strength after finding solace at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. However, it is near dusk as you head east back to Hommlet The dim light is enough for your half-elven eyes, however, as you guide the humans in the party.

You have not gone very far, though, when you find your way blocked by two horsed figures, one dressed in armor and the other in casual robes. The robed man holds up his hand for you to halt as you approach. You recognize Turuko and Kobort from the inn!

“Whoa, fellows!” says the monk from the back of his horse. “It appears you’ve had a rough time, with many wounds among your party, and at least one member not fit to ride. You should have taken us along on your excursion, as we could have kept you in better repair. Perhaps you need some protection to see you back to town? The roads are very dangerous at night and we’d be willing to escort you to Hommlet for a share of the spoils.”

Turuko blinks at your offer of 10%, then smiles. “Actually, we were thinking more like fifty percent.” The barrel-chested Kobort fingers the hilt of his long sword meaningfully.

You “tsk” at Turuko and the two thugs attack!

Turuko launches himself into the air, feet and hand flying, but Bryant is there striking with his new quarterstaff before the human can do any damage. He strikes twice, and the monk goes down in the dirt. You sling Burne’s dagger as Kobort kicks his mount forward, and it easily pierces the big fighter’s shoulder. Then Kendra and Eldoran are riding forward, the dwarf striking the foe in the knee and the paladin glancing a blow off the man’s shield.

Kobort throws down his sword and sues for peace. “Let me live! I’m not evil! Turuko told me that it would be easy money to waylay your party, since you all were wounded…I didn’t want to kill anyone! Please don’t slay me!”


You turn to Kendra and suggest you tie the dog up and leave him for the buzzards. Kobort, large man that he is, shivers in fear and pain at his wounds as you and your companions surround him with drawn weapons. Kendra shakes her head.

“We won’t leave him to die, but I don’t see any wisdom in letting a potential brigand loose either…he might try to waylay some other poor soul who is not as prepared as ourselves.

“Let him leave all weapons and armor to us, and let him bury his fallen comrade. After that, he may ride away to find some honest work for himself, but we will not leave him with accoutrements of warfare!”

The five of you supervise the burial of Turuko (performed by a half-naked Kobort) and then allow the man to ride away, with only his breaches and a small bag of copper. Your party then continues on to Hommlet.

In the Common Room

Ostler is only too happy to send a pot boy to Rufus, while his other servant stables your horses. Burne is brought into the common room and laid on a table with a sheet thrown over his body. Then Ostler goes about getting you some food and drink.

The common room is full of people tonight, but the whole room has fallen silent at the sight of Burne. Some of the men drinking are laborers from the castle and are used to Burne’s presence every day. To all the villagers of Hommlet, “his Most Worshipful Mage of Hommlet” was a figure of both respect and awe. They find it difficult to believe the wizard is dead.

However, the silence is broken as Rufus arrives. Rufus sees the covered form of his cohort and goes red in the face, hand on the hilt of his sword. He glares at your party not saying a word, just as Ostler comes into the common room with a tray of drinks. The inn keeper halts mid-stride clearly sensing the tension and danger in the air.

Then Kendra speaks: “I’m sorry, Rufus.”

It is enough to dissolve the tension, and with that the five of you sit down to table with the fighter and share what transpired in the dungeons beneath the evil moat house. The common room is filled with low buzzing as people alternate between listening and commenting to their neighbors. You consider briefly taking the conversation back into a more private room, but decide the townsfolk have a right to know what happened to the wizard that employed many and was a protector of all.

Rufus countenance grows dark as you tell the tale of Lareth and his strangely garbed warriors. He chokes a little when you tell him of Burne’s death, and all but hoots with joy when you describe the defeat of Lareth and his men. You show him some of the trinkets taken from Lareth’s personal chambers and the crowd “oos” and “ahs” over the jeweled splendor of the loot. Then, as you finish your tale a startled look of hope comes over Rufus’ face.

“Wait…by what you say, Burne’s passing was only three days ago. If this is true, then there is still a chance to save him!”

Rufus quickly begins ordering his men to prepare horses for travel and to bring them to the inn, and also orders a few days worth of iron rations from Ostler. Then he explains, “The soul of my cohort has left his body before its time, but his body is still whole and intact. It is possible to call his spirit back to its form but it would take a mighty holy man to do so. The High Priest of Apollo in Gilea has the power to raise him up, but we must be able to get the body to his temple within 10 days of its death. After that, even the high priest may not be able to call him back!”

While Ostler makes ready Burne’s body (and the rations), Rufus continues, “Listen…I must try to raise my companion while there is still time, but this entire incident is troubling. This ‘Lareth’ whom you slew was a cleric of surpassing power, and only a true worshipper of dark gods could command the type of unholy might you describe. This was no charlatan using the name of Elemental Evil…this was a cleric of that foul power! It is good that you stopped him when you did, and extremely lucky for you that Burne was along with you to help. But if the dark power is rising enough to call mortal servants, this whole region could be in great danger!”

Let Me Tell You About Nulb

Rufus continues, “I must travel south (and quickly!) to Gilea or I would investigate myself, but I need someone to go to Nulb and investigate the old temple dedicated to the Cult of Elemental Evil. I charge your party with doing this; you have already proven yourselves worthy and strong by deeds both good and fell. You must make certain that the old temple is secure, that the seals on the place are unbroken. The seals were placed both to keep potential worshippers out, and to keep other things IN. It is the ‘other things’ that worry me!

“Travel the Western Road to Tryss…the same road that goes by the site of our castle construction, and the same road that goes by the moat house. You should see sign posts marking the lane that leads to Nulb a few miles past the moat house. Just on the outskirts of Nulb, you should find the Temple, once a place of great evil and foul creatures. Be VERY careful.

“Nulb itself is a miserable little village; I have only ever been there once, on a scouting expedition for Burne. The place is smaller then Hommlet, and meaner…it’s fallen on rough times the last few years. I daresay there may be brigands residing in Nulb and feel free to do with them as you will. To my knowledge, there’s no real law or militia in Nulb and it is ruled more by strength then by group consensus. Like Hommlet, it falls loosely under the rule of Gilea, but the Empire does not ride that far north and does not enforce its will over the village. However, that does not mean there are no agents of the Empire there…Gilea has a vested interest in keeping an eye on the old Temple Ruins, so you may find hidden help in Nulb…though why they did not notice the rebirth of the Cult is a mystery!

“You may take Burne’s gear to help you…I am sure he does not begrudge you using his equipment while he soars the afterworld. If we bring him back from the dead…well, we’ll deal with that if the lucky event comes to pass. However, until then, please use his enchanted items to best ability. His wand will fire magical missiles and this musical chime will open any lock or door with a slight ringing. His dagger is also enchanted and his ring will protect the wielder as if you were wearing an extra suit of leather. His other items back at the tower, I will keep for now.

“One last word of note: be very careful of your treasure. Nulb is not known for gentle qualities of its townfolk and unguarded loot will surely be stolen. Find a good base of operations in Nulb that you can secure against robbers, or buy a house in Hommlet even! I will return in about two weeks and after that I may be able to help you store your valuables. Until then, be careful!”


Your party enters the Waterside Hostel…a fairly seedy place. The proprietor is burly and scowling, his bartender is surly and sleazy. Two slovenly women act as the barmaids/entertainment of the establishment, and both give you an unfriendly eye as you rent your rooms. On the bright side, all the costs are half of what they were at the Welcome Wench.

You feel a bit uncomfortable as you pay the fee; all eyes are fixated on the platinum you count into the innkeeper’s meaty palm.

You tie your horses outside, Geffen assuring you that they’ll make a ruckus if anything happens. Then you go to your rooms and wait for nightfall. Once it is dark the party, at your behest, takes to the streets in pairs looking for “anything suspicious.”

There isn’t a whole lot to explore. There are no lamp lights and the streets are dark, only lit by the crescent moon and stars. The only place open (besides the Waterside Hostel) is the Boatmen’s Tavern. Lights and raucous noise emanate from the river-front establishment. A drunk appears passed out on the street a few yards from the entrance.

[this is the end of the transcript and as far as the Doc and I got through the T1-4 super-module. Hope you all enjoyed the recounting of our's been fun in the telling!]