Friday, September 30, 2011

Objecting to Objectives

Didn’t do any gaming last night, though I was down at the Baranof tipping a drink. My original plan had been to get some writing done. That didn’t happen either, though, as people kept “dropping by.” First my brother and his new buddy, Joel, showed up wanting to play D&D (like I’m a vending machine?!) and conversation devolved into how Google has a pipeline to extraterrestrials and the 'droid phone is reverse engineered alien tech.


More intelligent conversation followed, though, when Tim (head honcho from Gary’s Games) showed up after his pizza party at Razzi’s (it was Tim’s B-day a couple days back). Tim follows my blog and as a fellow game designer, had some thoughts on the whole objectives thang I’ve been talking about lately. While I managed to bring him around to my way of thinking (more or less), we realized that part of the difficulty here is my use of the term “objective.”

So while yesterday’s post made a half-assed stab at what I mean when I use the term, I can see that it’s a problematic one as it gets all jumbled with “goals” and “mission objectives” and such.

The problem is, I can’t just say “I want games to be ABOUT SOMETHING” (which is kind of what I want to say) because all RPGs are “about something.”

Deadlands is about “undead cowboys and weird horror in the Old West.”

Ars Magica is about “a group of magi and their companions in Mythic Europe.”

Vampire the Masquerade is about “vampires hiding and surviving in a darker version of our current reality.”

Traveller (and many other space travel games) is about “dudes in space” with a particular setting (Terran Empire, specific aliens, whatever) built in.

See, all those games are about something. But they provide no BLUEPRINT for how the game gets played. That’s what I meant by “objectives of play.”

Here’s what they DO give you:
  • Interesting character creation (everyone wants to play a neat character, right? Part of the joy of role-playing is the escapism in pretending to be someone else).
  • Interesting systems, what we call rules or mechanics (designers feel the need to distinguish their product from others AND it’s nice to have nifty rules specific to the particular setting).
  • Interesting and/or inspiring premise or setting (dinosaurs in the Hollow Earth! Thousand year old vampires partying at night clubs! Star-travelling inquisitors of an undying god-emperor rooting our demonic heretics threatening the stability of the Imperium!).
And that’s it…aside from a large page count and slick graphics.

That’s not enough.

Nothing in Deadlands (or Hollow Earth Expedition or Vampire or Rifts or whatever) explains why the characters are together doing anything. Nothing explains what they’re supposed to do. Nothing explains to the GM how to facilitate game play. There are suggestions for players to “check with the GM to see if a character concept is acceptable.” There are “adventure ideas” for the GM. But for the most part, all you’ve got is a pick pile of pieces…possibly shiny and newfangled but not assembled…rather than an actual engine for doing anything.

And a pile of pieces may as well be a pile of shit.

Sure (to take the analogy a little further) RPGs may be “some assembly required” but the GOOD games (my judgment call, folks) have INSTRUCTIONS FOR ASSEMBLY.

For example, Moldvay’s Basic set explains how to make a dungeon: think of a scenario, draw a map, add specific challenges and treasures, stock random challenges and treasures (if desired).

Edwards’s Sorcerer explains how to create a story driven scenario using PCs demons and kickers and relationship charts and how to drive the story with bangs.

Weedin’s Horror Rules explains how to write a script (HR’s term for “adventure”) using mood, antagonists, chain of events, and cast of characters, all in a style that mimics classic horror/slasher films. It also explains how to run the game, drive the plot (using actual rule mechanics) and how to adapt different styles of play (ranging from humorous to heroic to PVP) to the game.

These are examples of well-designed games that provide more than just “pieces” for play. They actually provide what could be called “a complete game” unlike the majority of commercial RPGs on the market.

Let’s look at it from a player’s perspective, for a moment:

I find a copy of HEX (Hollow Earth Expedition) at the game shop, and say “Right on! Human adventurers mixing it up with dinosaurs! And it looks a LOT less boring than Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (The Most Boring RPG Ever Written). Let’s pick it up and give it a whirl!”

I purchase the game, read through it drooling at the neat options for character creation, loving the simple even-odd dice mechanics, totally digging the Dinosaur-Nazi-Ancient Atlantean setting. I convince my group to run the game. Everyone digs it and buys a copy (yay! A win for the designer/publisher!)!

We all read it so we know how to play! The players agree not to read the sample adventure scenario so as not to spoil the “surprise.” We bring characters to the first session:

Player Joe creates a total hardcase bootlegger/gangster. Player Christy creates a Laura Croft-esque treasure hunter with an Indiana Jones-like code of ethics. Player Jimmy creates a “mad scientist.” JB, of course, creates a big game hunter hoping to mount a stuffed dino-head on his wall.

The GM says, “Well okay so you’re all on this movie set…” WTF?!
The GM explains that’s the sample scenario: everyone is a part of a movie crew that gets sucked into the Hollow Earth. Nobody in the group wants to play “members of a movie crew.” The example characters are things like “treasure hunter,” “mad scientist,” and “big game hunter.”

Okay, says the GM…scratch that…I’ll think of something that uses your characters.

A week later, the GM is at a loss. I mean, he supposes he can make them all a part of a group testing an experimental digging machine…but why would they be together? The gangster character is looking to exploit opportunities, the BGH wants fame in the form of killing the most dangerous game, the scientist wants to create crazy shit, and the treasure hunter with the heart of gold wants to find fabulous treasures without anyone getting hurt in the process.

The game doesn’t explain this. The game doesn’t provide a blueprint for this. The game suggests that GMs find a way of unifying the group (as with the movie folk scenario) but then doesn’t explain how to reconcile players’ disparate expectations…expectations created by the game’s own character creation section.

In the end, the GM has a couple-three options:

  • Require the players to create new characters that work within the GM’s concept of how the game is going to be played. “You’re all part of a movie set,” or “You’re all Arctic explorers in the Royal Military qualified for airship duty.”
  • Force the players to give up their own preferred character concepts for ones that “work together.” The mad scientist invented the digging machine, using the gangster’s money. The gangster hopes to exploit the resources of the Hollow Earth. The other players have been brought along as “special consultants” (in archaeology and big game, respectively) setting aside their own pre-conceived agendas. This still doesn’t explain how to create an adventure, nor how to keep players cooperative in the face of different goals/motivations…but at least it gives some semblance of “reason” for the characters to be together. So long as no one else joins with a wildly different character concept.
  • Allow players to keep their character concepts, and just hamfist them into the game environment (i.e. who cares why they’re together, let’s just play!). For example, “You’re all refugees who somehow ended up stranded in the Hollow Earth: survive and find your way out!” To which Jimmy says, “but I want to build crazy inventions” and Christy says, “but I want to find lost civilizations.” And the GM says, “Well, right now you’re being chased by a T-Rex backed Nazi platoon…what are you going to do about it?” And next session it will be, “Well, right now there’s an exploding volcano and hostile natives…what are you going to do about it?” Etc. until players get tired of “lip-service protagonism.”

Now, Tim pointed out to me that games like GURPS or Rifts requires a GM to make some stiff choices in order for the game to “work” as in: “Okay, folks this is the game, this is what it will be addressing, this is the type of characters allowed, this is what’s not allowed, this is what the adventure is about.” Fine; dandy. But then:

A) Make it explicit in the rules that this is necessary for running the game (‘cause it is).
B) Make it explicit in the rules that the players are only empowered in so much as they are allowed empowerment by the GM. In other words, there ain’t nothing “wide open” or “endless possibility” about the game, except so much as it applies to the GM’s preference.
For me, as a PLAYER, this is a turn-off. At least in D&D, I get a say in my own character concept (I can play a fighter with a 9 strength and an irascible attitude if I damn well please), within the framework of the game. Being told, “well, you can’t be a Ventrue elder or a bloodbound Tremere because all the PCs are going to be young anarchists of the 12th generation” is sucky. That ain’t what I signed up for.

That’s just the player perspective though. From a GM perspective these games are just as much a headache…but I’ll get to that in another post.
; )

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Objective-less or “Crippled” RPGs

Just before I start stomping on toes, let me just state that this is a blog and personal soapbox, not a forum/workshop on game design. As such it reflects my thoughts and opinions…things that have certainly changed over time (and will probably continue to change). I welcome discourse and disagreement for a couple reasons: it’s more interesting, it helps me rethink my own position, and it helps me refine my ideas/theories.

All right, let’s start stomping.

Yesterday’s post touched off a number of disagreeing responses regarding my complaint that most RPGs have no inherent objective in their design, and that this is a BAD thing.

Since this is a blog, I don’t have a provisional glossary and tend to throw around terms willie-nilly…when I say “objective” I’m talking about the object of play for the non-GM players, and (as a consequence of this) how the GM creates a game to meet that objective.

The following are NOT objectives:

“The objective of the game is to have fun.”

That’s not an objective…that’s a self-evident truth of game playing (as in, “we hold these truths to be self-evident…”)! If a game isn’t fun, why the hell would we play it? To keep our spouse happy? To get a job promotion? I guess there are other reasons to play a game, but for most of us, we aren’t being paid to play. We assume that RPGs are written for entertainment and recreation (i.e. “fun”). If having fun isn’t an unspoken goal (at least) of sitting at the table, then it may not be worth playing. Jeez!

“The objective of the game is to tell a story.”

Unless your game system provides specific rules for structuring the game in something resembling a traditional narrative structure (you know, like having a beginning, middle, and end centered around a plot and conflict and climax, etc.)…unless you’re playing a game that provides you with the specific tools to do this, then no, that is NOT an objective of play.

Now I’ve written before that story CAN come out of play (or has the potential to do so) regardless of a game’s strength at facilitating a story-telling agenda…but such is an afterthought, or “gravy,” not an objective of play. Without tools to structure your game as a narrative, there’s little one can do to guarantee a story (at least a coherent or quality one) arises out of play. This is one of those reasons why “system does matter.”

“The objective of the game is to pretend to be an imaginary character having adventures in an imaginary game world.”

No, that’s just defining adventure role-playing.

Okay, so getting THAT out of the way, what exactly are some valid objectives of play?

Depends on the game. An objective should provide a foundation for play and should point both players and GMs in a direction of “what to do” both in play and preparation. Good game design will (in my opinion) clearly state the objective(s) of the game…usually somewhere near the beginning of the rules (as you might find with most games of the board- or war- variety). Good game design will also establish a “road map” (at least) for the GM to see how to get to that objective.

Let me give a couple of examples, good and bad. I’ll use out-of-print games so as not to wreck anyone’s current revenue stream:

GOOD: Dungeons & Dragons
I’ve quoted this before, but here it is one more time: the opening paragraph of the introduction to Tom Moldvay’s Basic set.

In the D&D rules, individuals play the role of characters in a fantasy world where magic is real and heroes venture out on dangerous quests in search of fame and fortune. Characters gain experience by overcoming perils and recovering treasures. As characters gain experience, they grow in power and ability.

It really doesn’t get any clearer than that. In chapter eight, the rules describe how to create an adventure scenario for players. Later rule sets (like the Cook/Marsh Expert set) builds on this foundational objective, explaining how to take characters out of the dungeon and become movers and shakers in the world (establishing castles and dominions).

BAD: Star Frontiers

Yes, yes, I’ve taken flak before for lambasting Star Frontiers. What can I say? It’s a sorry-ass game (it is also the second RPG I ever owned/played, after B/X and the AD&D hardcovers). There are two books in the SF set, a Basic book and an Expanded rules set. I’ll quote each:

Basic Rules:

Each player in a STAR FRONTIERS game plays a character, either a human or alien living in the far future...characters can do anything a real person could do if he was living in a STAR FRONTIERS world: shoot a laser, drive a skimmer, chase dangerous interstellar criminals, explore alien worlds, or anything else the player wants the character to do. Players are not limited to only a few actions by the rules. A player has complete control over his character, and makes all decisions for him.

Unlike many other games, there is no clear winner or loser in a STAR FRONTIERS game. In most games, the players will have a goal, such as capturing a group of terrorists who have kidnapped a politician or recovering a rare medicine that was lost when a spaceship crashed on an alien planet. If the players cooperate and reach their goal, everyone wins. A skillful player who uses the same character in several adventures will see that character rewarded, becoming richer, more powerful and able to handle more difficult missions.
Expanded Rules:

STAR FRONTIERS Science Fiction Game is a role playing game. In this type of game, each player controls an imaginary hero, making all his decisions and guiding him through heroic exploits: defeating villains, capturing criminals, and exploring strange alien worlds.

To me, this says nothing of how to play the game: your character is an imaginary hero. You control him doing heroic exploits. "In most games the players will have a goal." What about the other games? Some possible, specific examples are provided but the main focus is on "be this guy, cooperate with other players, shoot lasers." It is emphasized that you have "complete control over your character," but then, why are you not determining your character's own goals? Or if you are doing so (because you have complete control), then how do you determine which goals to make?

To me, the game crippled…like a bird with a broken wing. Yes, you can pick up the bird and move it around, but it doesn’t move by itself. The Star Frontiers game provides some ideas for creating “adventure scenarios” but without objectives for players, there’s no incentive for them to do anything, other than “well, if you don’t go on the adventure I’ve created than we won’t have a game tonight.”

That’s lame. That might as well be a railroad. The adventure included with SF is a total railroad: you’re on a ship that gets taken over by pirates. You have no choice but to escape in an escape pod sans your standard weapons/equipment and end up marooned on a hostile planet.

[my one-page dinosaur game maroons players in a prehistoric past, but that’s a premise of the game, in the same way that SF’s premise is “characters in space”]

But we’ll come back to “player incentives” in a moment; let’s talk about crippled RPGs from a GM perspective, first.

When a game doesn’t provide clear, valid objectives of play…in other words, when all it provides is a system for interpreting player actions and a game setting…it is left to the GM to make the game “go.” This is problematic for a number of reasons:

- It relies on a high level of motivation/drive from the GM, which often relies on GM railroading (and thus player de-protagonization) to make the game “coherent”
- It produces wildly divergent, possibly unrecognizable styles of play…something that can lead to a conflict in player expectations and thus dissatisfaction

Dissatisfaction? Yeah. If I expect grand space opera and I get gritty noir or over-the-top space comedy (all possible ways of playing Star Frontiers), I may very well be disappointed. Do folks not see how this can happen?

If I sit down to play D&D, there might be dungeon delving or wilderness exploring or political intrigue, but regardless I know that overcoming challenges and finding treasure is going to net me experience that will ramp up my level and get me closer to individual goals like personal power (spell casters) or titles and land grants (fighters). The objective of play doesn’t change, regardless of campaign or adventure (or individual) goals.

Some folks have stated this “concrete objective of play” limits their creativity. I don’t see how it limits creativity, only that it focuses game play. Nothing stops a GM from modifying Expedition to the Barrier Peaks to allow the PCs the opportunity to get the space craft up-and-running again (exploring brave new worlds). Nothing stops a GM from providing PCs with a temporal gate back to “dinosaur land.” I have rifted AD&D characters into Boot Hill through the Machine of Lum the Mad before, and it didn’t change the game except to provide a few new challenges and toys to the players. And I’ve had plenty of intrigue and romance and vengeance –based campaigns as well…all build upon the same foundation of play.

For me, games that don’t have objectives have never lasted very long except on the strength of predesigned/pre-written adventures (I ran a long Vampire chronicle using all those 1st ad 2nd edition adventures). Without that structure (um, “railroad?”) things tended to devolve into “um, what do we do now?”

More on that (and more on player objectives) in another post.
: )

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wow...Right On Tampa!

Congrats to the Devil Rays for never quitting. Just fantastic way to finish the season.

As for Boston...well, it's hard to feel bad for anyone who still has the Patriots to cheer for...
; )

Objectives versus (Simple) Existence

My days are relatively boring, often quite similar to each other. I suspect this is the nature of human existence no matter what one’s culture, status, or geographical location…at least when one’s country isn’t at war or in the midst of a great social upheaval.

No, life is boring and that generally means things are going smoothly. There may be the occasional accident or drama or upset that occurs to “shake the tree” but boring is good and comfortable. Go to the daily grind (whatever that is for you), spend time with the family (no matter what “family” looks like), find something to eat on a regular (relatively speaking) basis, and indulge in the occasional vice (football watching and weekly role-playing, for example).

That’s LIFE, though…life as (one hopes) it should be: routine and comfortable. Most folks want something different in their fantasy role-playing.

At least, I do. I enjoy playing role-playing games but not for the simple escapist fantasy (or, I should say, not for that alone). Personally, I prefer there to be some OBJECTIVE to play; it’s not enough to imagine myself as a cool character in a strange place/time and occasionally roll a few dice. Maybe for some folks, that’s enough. Personally, I don’t see how that can sustain long-term interest.

Unfortunately, most RPGs provide no objective for play.

I went through a quick list of role-playing games, including only games that I owned and not counting different editions as different games (for example, only 1 D&D, 1 Vampire, 1 Shadowrun, even though I own 2 to 5 editions of each of these). The total number of RPGs totaled 60 (and as this is just off the top of my head; I’m sure I missed a few). Of these, at least 70% have no objective.
[and just as an aside, I own absolutely zero versions/editions/supplements of GURPS]

At least 70%...some of the ones I included as objectives might be a bit of a stretch. For example, Battle Tech has definite objectives of play (destroy all enemy mecha on the battlefield), but Mechwarrior does not (except as pertains to piloting mechs in combat missions). Since I combined these as ONE RPG on my list, it went into the “yes” column, though if one is just playing MW with spies or technicians (??) “objective” is pretty much undefined.

Here are some positive examples of what I’m talking about.

D&D has definite objectives of play. Characters travel to an adventure site (called a “dungeon,” created by a “Dungeon Master”) and look for treasure, while trying not to get killed in the process.

Everyone knows what they’re doing there, right?

Call of Cthulhu (and Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues) has a pretty well defined objective, too: characters have a mysterious situation (created by the GM) that needs to be investigated…hopefully without succumbing to death and/or insanity.

Shadowrun, Top Secret, and James Bond also have specific, concrete missions: characters are assigned a “mission” with “mission objectives” (pretty explicit, huh?) and get paid if and when they complete the mission. That’s about as clearly defined as it gets.

Even a “story game” like Sorcerer can have explicit objectives of play; in the case of Edwards’ game, play is about resolving the player designed “kicker” and in doing so, address a specific premise. That may be hoity-toity and abstract, but it’s still an objective.

Most RPGs, though...even the really slick, “well-designed” ones...are ridiculously ambiguous about what the hell players are supposed to do. “Characters are supposed to have adventures.” Um, what kind of adventures? “Anything you want, or anything the GM can imagine.”

That tells me nothing, pal.

White Wolf games (of which I’ve somehow managed to collect a great number: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Aberrant, Adventure!, Trinity) are some of the worst when it comes to this. “Create a story about vampires!” How exactly do I do that? “Have the players make vampire characters and then have the GM make an adventure!” About what, exactly? “Anything you want! The pain of losing humanity, the conflict between young and old, vigilante justice through the use of your vampiric powers…whatever!”

See, that’s bullshit. “Anything you want” or “Whatever” are extremely lazy choices of game design. It’s actually NOT making a choice. Your game is about vampires, sure. Vampires doing WHAT exactly? Anything you want? No, that’s stupid…give me a reason to play the f'ing game.

Games based on specific intellectual property tend to be equally stupid. ElfQuest is about elves. Elves doing what? Whatever you want. No, that’s not a useful answer. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (a game that I consider to be The Most Boring RPG Ever Written) is about “life in the Xenozoic Age.” What do your characters do? “Whatever they want.”

No, that’s stupid.

As a GM, I understand part of my responsibility is being creative; that’s part of what I sign up for when I take on the role of "Game Master." However, I need a framework to work within…and the players need expectations, too, besides “entertain me.” Watch the difference here:

D&D: Players create characters (as explained in rules); DM creates dungeon (as explained in rules). Players ask, “Have we heard of any dungeons ripe for plucking?” DM says, “As a matter of fact, you’ve come across info on just such a place.”

Ars Magica: Players create characters (as explained in rules); GM considers possible conflicts/antagonists (as SUGGESTED in rules). Players ask, “So what are going to do tonight?” GM asks, “What are your characters interested in?” Players say “Getting more magical power by spending ‘seasons’ experimenting and researching.” GM: “Okay, um…what are your non-magi characters doing?” Players: “Um, what is there for them to do.” GM: “Well, they can…um…well, there’s this baron who’s kind of a jerk…um…” Players: “So what? He knows better than to mess with the covenant house, and anyway, we’re not antagonizing him.” GM: “Um, you’ve heard about a dragon in the hills.” Players: “No way we’re going near it! Those things are dangerous and we don’t need treasure.” GM: “Ummm…well what do you want to do?” Players: “Hey, we agreed to play this stupid game; YOU entertain US.”

Most games without objective are like that: Rifts, Marvel, Castle Falkenstein, Over the Edge, The last is an example of a tasty little system with utterly nothing to do. Oh, excuse me: it has “wide open possibilities.”

Translation: no explicit objectives or direction for play.

I hate that. As a player I hate it, because I either end up bored or railroaded (or both) more often than not; as a GM I LOATHE it, because the author is giving you ammunition without a gun and telling you to go out and “do something.” Just providing “sample scenarios” or “adventure seeds” isn't enough. What is the objective of game play?

“To play vampires in the modern day.” Doing WHAT exactly? I can play vampires using GURPS or D20 or RISUS or Toon(!) for goodness sakes…what the hell do I need your book for? Mood? Pretty pictures?

“To play undead cowboys in a horror/fantasy Western.” Doing WHAT exactly? At least in Boot Hill, the gunfighting rules are quick and efficient.

“To defeat the Empire!, without treading on the toes of Luke Skywalker & Co.” How exactly am I supposed to do that? Just create random “situations” that may or may not have any rhyme or reason or consistency or pertinence to anything?

As I write/design my own games (slowly…oh so slowly) I try to keep in mind exactly what players and GMs are supposed to do and HOW they are supposed to do it. One of the complaints Josh had regarding my dinosaur game was he didn’t really know WHAT he was supposed to do in the game, even after reading the rules. And while I can say (in my defense) that a one-page micro-game doesn’t provide enough space to list an objective, I totally agree that it’s certainly more fun to play a game when you know exactly what you’re supposed to do IN the game.

I am really, really tired of lazy game design that simply assumes “Oh, GMs will know what to do with THIS.” Even if that’s true (and certainly not even experienced GMs have the time, energy, and/or creativity to craft adventures and sagas from scratch ALL the time)…EVEN IF it’s true, it’s still laziness on the part of the author. And it makes me want to chuck ALL these games out the freaking window. Give me something to do besides "make a cool character for a cool setting."

Adventure doesn't just happen, idiots. Ugh.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Seahawks Sunday

[this is a non-RPG post...sorry]

Just got home from the Seahawks' home opener against the division rival Cardinals. Thank God for defense and the 12th Man, because...well, because I'd rather see a win than a loss and the 'Hawks won today largely due to the defense and the crowd. And now we're tied for 1st place in the NFC West...once again, we're on pace to defend our division title (in the worst division in football).

How bad are the Seahawks this year? Here's the deal: after actually watching the offense perform in person, I can say without a doubt that Tavaris Jackson is the Zoolander of quarterbacks. He cannot go left to save his life.

Last year, wide receiver Mike Williams was a huge part of the (little) offense Seattle had. This season he has mysteriously disappeared for reasons unexplained...until today. Williams generally lines up on the left side. Jackson almost never targets the receivers loaded to the left...even when they have good separation or are wide open at the 10 yard line. It is the weirdest trend/habit I've seen: look right and throw (if someone's open) or look to check down in the middle (usually with poor results) or get sacked. He's like Zoolander: he just can't go left.

In the post-game analysis, I heard an analyst (whom I respect) noting that on the one TD scramble Jackson had (on a broken play), the QB had Mike Williams "wide open in the end zone" and couldn't understand how he could have missed it (and he wasn't willing to give him many accolades for the near disaster). However, once you understand the receiver was on the left-hand side, it all makes sense.


Fortunately, we didn't need much QB play against the Cards at home. Next week, we face a battered Atlanta in Seattle, a much better team than Arizona. Right now, I don't plan on going to that one. But you never know.

They might need me in the crowd.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Halloween Project

Over at Sword & Shield, Fenway is in the midst of mashing the creativity of the OSR folks with the happy little doorways found in your traditional Christmas "Advent calendar" to make a horror themed (D&D) adventure resource for Halloween. He needs 30 volunteers (one for each day of the month, I suppose, with himself as one day)...though perhaps he'll let some folks "double-up."

If you're interested, check it out and post a comment/commitment to his blog.
: )

Friday, September 23, 2011


Last night (Thursday) I was out gaming again, but I was back at the Baranof again, for the first time in many moons, and my usual table of players was nowhere to be found. That's because they're still back at Cafe Mox enjoying Dungeon Crawl Classics and I...well, I wanted to try something different.

Yes, I've made a split from my gaming amicable split (I hope). But after doing DCC for a few (six) weeks, I've decided I've had enough and want to get back to something else; however, most of the other players are still greatly enjoying the game and I want them to keep playing/enjoying it if that floats their boat. I am about encouraging table-top role-playing and growing the hobby, after all.
: )

So, I've withdrawn from that group (for the time being anyway) and now find myself back where I initially started, more than a year ago: in a booth at the Baranof, sitting across from a single player with a pitcher of beer between the two of us.

[the bartender was so happy to have us back, SHE bought the pitcher...nice!]

There were a couple-three differences between that 1st session at Baranof's and this week. For one, the player at the table was Josh from the regular Thursday night group instead of my brother (who doesn't show up anymore). For another thing, I'm not feeling like "oh the group will never grow to be bigger than me and one dude." I've done the "build-from-scratch" thing once already and know it works (too well...the regular group has just gotten bigger and bigger over time!).

The main difference, though, is we were playing my new micro-game, Out of Time, instead of B/X. Really wanted to try out the dinosaur thing (in case you haven't gathered that from my recent posts).

All things considered, the game worked pretty good, even with only one person. Josh hadn't actually bothered to read the rules (one page, dude! C'mon!) but it took very little time to explain things and character creation was extremely quick (as designed). The most difficult part for me was the prep time involved in creating an "adventure;" however, even that yielded some good thoughts/fodder for game design theory, and I'll be posting a series here shortly about RPG objectives...or rather the lack thereof in many (most?) RPGs.

For this first session, I limited the character concept somewhat in that all PCs (in this case, just Josh) would have to be someone who'd be found in a Humvee driving around Afghanistan. This could be US army, UN peacekeepers, imbedded reporters or foreign correspondents, etc. Josh's character turned out to be an army engineer/demolitions guy and (as a sergeant) the highest ranking enlisted man in the Humvee.

There were three other army guys in the Humvee (NPCs): Sally the driver/greasemonkey, "Tex" (he had another name, but I can't remember now) manning the coaxial machine gun, and Bill who had some medical training (at least, he was the guy carrying the medkit). While in hot pursuit of some Afghani, "insurgents"...the Humvee crew managed to drive through a dimensional warp and into the Land of the Lost, smashing their rig into a huge-ass, prehistoric tree.

Much hilarity ensued.

I like the system of the micro-game a lot, and I'm thinking of ways to incorporate it into other, non-dinosaur-themed games. Josh was rolling well all night, and never had to burn cards to get "extra effort," nor did he spend them to offset the damage he took in the single actual combat encounter (a fight with some dire wolves that killed good ol' Bill). Combat worked well, though I had to invent some spot morale rules (which were fine). It sure is tough to hit a pursuing t-rex with a vehicle-mounted machine gun while bouncing across a grassy savannah at 50 mph.

Anyway, that's enough for now...I need to catch up on some sleep. More later.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dino Questions

So I have a few free minutes now that the baby's asleep (the days of using my "day off" for late breakfasts and power writing are long gone, I'm afraid), I wanted to revisit some of the questions and critiques of my micro-game Out of Time (downloaded 170 times! right on!). Since I don't have a whole lot of time to organize this stuff in any sort of alphabetical FAQ, I'm just going to run down the list and address folks' concerns:

Inconstant Hit Points: Out of Time (which I will hereafter abbreviate OOT) uses an abstract method of tracking "damage" to a character called Hit Points, a familiar term to most role-players. HPs in OOT are determined by rolling a D6 and adding it to a certain base number depending on your character's ability scores. This D6 is rolled at the beginning of each session, meaning your character may have more or less hit points to work with each session.

This is purposeful within the context of the game. As a survival game (you're stranded in a prehistoric time hoping to find someway back to your own time), your overall health will vary over time...who's to say your character isn't ill some week with a tropical disease one week or feeling great and on the ball the next. Living like a castaway, you're sure to experience rough patches "off stage" between're not always at your level best. There is no "home base" to which you can retire between sessions. Sure, you might fix up your cave so that it's livable, but there's no guarantee you don't pull your back carrying water up the cliff face. The D6 roll is just random health/fatigue/luck of the week; your ability scores could provide as many as 21 base hit points or as few as 0. And if a T-Rex bites you, well, it won't matter all that much regardless.

Wildly Skewed Abilities: In OOT you are dealt a hand of cards at the beginning of the game that determines your abilities; it is possible that your character is completely deficient in one or more areas or evenly balanced.

For the OOT character, one has to realize this is just a starting point. Think of your character as one on a television show or movie: especially in B-Grade adventures (the type featuring dinosaurs, natch) characters are often 1st presented as cardboard archetypes...the strapping action hero, the weedy scientist, whatever. Also keep in mind that having a single card in one of the four abilities makes the character average in that ability; drawing 7 cards gives you a good chance of being at least average in most of the four categories. But as with a TV show or film, characters start with a strong concept and then deepen and develop over time, gradually changing or revealing hidden depths. The "hand you're dealt" is just a starting point for the player, a direction of how to play your character. Think of yourself as an actor and THIS is how you were cast by the director. Consider the characters in the TV show "Lost:" mostly average Joe-types whose actions later determined their depth.

"Advancement" (or lack thereof): There is no "advancement" in OOT, there is development...a character's gradual change over time. Your character might start out as Joe Shmoe, but after a session of dinosaur survival, he might trade one of those extra cards in Skill for one in Strength...a little more physical exercise, a little less video game playing. The development is start with a certain hand, but you can change over time, reflecting your preferences of how you want your character to change.

But it's not "infinity up." If you develop a hardened persona from living on the edge of survival, something else is going to give: perhaps you start to spurn technology, taking a more "back to nature" approach (moving Supply to Skill). Perhaps your character becomes less empathetic to his fellow man, having watched so many folks die (moving Spirit to Strength). There is a price to be paid for developing one ability over others, and the development rule reflects that. Likewise, people who are already excellent in an area (face cards and aces) have a more difficult time changing their ways...they've found what "works for them" and are set by inertia. To me, this reflects a bit of real life. A guy used to relying on his muscle to get things done will tend to continue to do so, rather than develop other strategies. Characters with more minor ability draws (i.e. number cards) will be more adaptable over time (necessity being the mother of invention and all that). I find this to be a nice little bit of game balance.

Anyway, the goal of the game is to find your way home, not to become "He-Man Dino-Killer." This isn't a game about superheroics. It's about survival and ingenuity.

Deficient Abilities - Too Harsh?: There are four ability scores in OOT and if a character is deficient in any one of them (i.e. has no cards) then he automatically fails any challenging task (i.e. "rolled" task) that would use that ability. For example, if Spirit-deficient Tarzan tries to sweet talk socialite Jane ("Hey, Me Tarzan, Yo") there's no way she's going to dig his rap. Likewise, if Joe Scrawny tries arm-wrestling Tarzan, he's going to lose-lose-lose.

However, as stated in the rules, there's more than one way to skin a cat and if you can find a way to use another ability score to accomplish a task then you can do so. This is, after all, what we do in real life. We may not have the strength to haul a piano upstairs, but we can rig a pully system to do so. We might not be able to come up with the most romantic patter to woo someone, but we can find other ways to impress/interest the subject of our affections. Finding ways to do this (i.e. player cleverness) is the name of the game.

Why Shooting is a Supply Roll and NOT Skill: There are no skills in OOT; your ability scores determine your capability in each of four areas and you can develop from there over time (if you choose to do so). "Supply" is the ability that governs all use of mechanical stuff, including firearms. If you want to repair a vehicle found in the jungle or fly a plane or fix a transistor radio (not that you'll get any good stations), or shoot a gun...all of those things fall under Supply.

A gun is a tool and like any tool, requires a certain degree of knowledge to use effectively, especially in combat. There are plenty of very coordinated and athletic folks out there that don't know the first thing about guns or how to use one effectively, just as there are people who are great shots despite being lousy in the "Skill" ability (mental acuity and dextrous proficiency). And yes there are some people who can do OOT, these would be people who drew cards in both categories.

For the purposes of OOT, there are people who have mechanical aptitude and those that don't. This particular conceit comes from my own experience: I am pretty terrible and hate most things technical or mechanical. Other folks (like several "manly guys" I know), love screwing around with guns and cars and power tools and aren't afraid to take shit apart when it breaks. For purposes of the OOT game, that is one category of capability (i.e. ability score) that not everyone is proficient in.

Likewise, these same folks have a tendency to collect and hang on to useful tools and such; the real outdoors types carry Swiss army knives or Leatherman multi-tools and are ready to dismantle or tighter or jury rig shit they come across in the random time-dimension of the OOT game. If you want to be a skilled surgeon or chess player or fencer or academic than you have a high Skill score. If you want to be MacGuyver or Joe Survival Nut, then you need a high Supply roll. That's how OOT works.

Equipment and Resources: OOT is NOT a resource-type game. It does not track the number of bullets left in your clip or how many beers are left in the mini-fridge that just dropped through a temporal portal. My idea for the more "robust version" of the rules was to have certain "special bennies" available for characters who drew Aces in a particular a working vehicle for an Ace of Supply or psychic intuition for an Ace of Spirit. I also toyed with the idea of characters having available equipment based on their starting draw in the diamond suit (i.e. Supply category).

But Supply is more about your ability to use gear and make something useable out of nothing. Yes, the person with a high starting Supply score should be able to start with some decent equipment ( depends on where and when the character was when initially sucked into the OOT world). But people (and things) are sucked into the OOT world all the time. Even if your character didn't make the trip with his trusty thirty-ought-six, it doesn't mean he won't find a .50 caliber Browning somewhere along the way. And anyway, all weapons are (generally) on "human scale" anyway...the game is designed to be cinematic and abstract, and for the purpose of OOT there's no practical difference between a handgun and a rifle. Especially when it comes to a charging T-Rex.

Scale of Damage: The damage rates are pretty satisfying to me, though I might include a "big game" category of firearm for those foolhardy types looking to hunt a triceratops with an elephant gun (good luck!). Such a weapon...and possibly .50+ caliber military weapons...would do 3D6 damage ONLY TO CREATURES LARGER THAN MAN-SIZED. Against humans, there's a finite amount of tissue damage a shot can do, and this is determined by the random damage roll.

Because it's a cinematic game, the full version would probably also have rules for "knocking out" opponents with fists and clubs (and rocks) instead of "mortally wounding" them. I like the "contusion scale" found in Horror Rules, and might try adapting something like that to the game. Or maybe not...I think it's totally valid to leave the decision to K.O. someone in the hands of the player administering the beating (and if they choose to break the character's neck or back, well, that's okay, too).

All right...I think I've answered all the issues. If anyone else has follow-up questions or comments (or actual play feedback!) please post it here. I appreciate the input, truly!
: )

A Real Horror Show

You might think I'm talking about the absolute beatdown the Seahawks sustained at the hands of Pittsburgh this week...yeah, I watched it till the bitter kneel-downs at the end and then numbed my pain by watching excellent football the rest of the day (dammit, why can't Seattle play like New England or San Diego or Philadelphia or Atlanta or even Detroit? Oh, yeah...because we decided to sign Tavaris Jackson instead of Matthew Hasselbeck. Congrats, Tennessee...nice having a pr-bowl QB, huh?).

No, that wasn't was both disgusting and expected. Instead, I'm talking about the Horror Rules RPG by Chris Weedin. Finished reading it today, and wow, color me impressed.

I should probably preface this post with a bit of my personal background with "horror RPGs:" not much. Mainly because I'm not very good at it. Or not very comfortable. Or both.

I own Call of Cthulhu (I don't remember the edition...3rd? 4th?) but I've never had the players that really wanted to play it. And honestly, the system never worked that well for me...folks I know who run CoC regularly have always played it fast-and-loose, and chargen seems a little long for a game where character deterioration is an inevitable given. Don't get me wrong, I love HPL and own several books compiling his stories...but I'd rather read about it then play it.

I also own Pelgrane's Trail of Cthulhu, which I think is a better game (for its theme) than CoC but I've never found anyone willing to play it. It sits gathering dust on my shelf.

I own the indie game InSpectres, a terror-comedy game that combines Ghostbusters slapstick with reality TV sensibilities, and have played quite a bit of it, but only with kids/teens. We've had some "scary" games, but mostly they've been weird-silly rather than horror. It's a nice beer & pretzels game, but the rules don't really lend themselves to serious stories.

I've attempted to run Vampire the Masquerade (1st and 2nd edition) in a "horror-style," especially with the 1st Hunters Hunted supplement (waaaay before "Hunter the Reckoning" was its own superhero-esque game), but again, my players at the time really weren't into it. Specifically, I only ever had one player willing to try a hunter session (and afterward he said he wanted to "play a vampire the next time" instead. No, I did not kill his character off in some gruesome fashion). The other players, well...they were pansies, what can I say?

[to be fair, these latter fellows had some challenges playing blood-suckers in general, not just blood-suckers being menaced by even worse demons]

And anyway, VtM isn't much of a horror game, no matter how spooky of music you play (following the mood setting directions of the game authors).

So, yeah...not a great track record with horror games. Part of it may be that I'm not a huge horror fan myself. Oh, I've seen a few of the classic films: the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a couple each of the Jason's and Michael's and Freddy's, Carpenter's Thing and Ridley's Alien, several zombie/mutant movies. Heck, I've even watched the first couple Rob Zombie flicks and two or three of the better terror offerings from the last decade.

But I wouldn't call myself a "fan." I'm not really into being scared...I like interesting stories, and films like 48 Hours Later and The Ring and The Descent have interesting premises in my opinion. Films like the Saw series (of which I've seen not a single installment) do NOT. But that's just me.

And because I'm not a huge fan (and because my wife is REALLY not into scary movies, having been subjected to nightmarish features like The Exorcist as a small child) I don't really hang out with other people who are into horror films; i.e. other non-horror fans. And if you're not hanging with like-minded folks, it's hard to get a game going where people are on the same page.

Horror Rules makes me wish I did know a few horror fans.

This is a great game, and really goes to show why unique games, designed with a specific objective in mind, is so much better than generic RPGs like "GURPS Horror" or well, whatever. Weedin has written a game that captures the tropes and conceits and (dare I say?) the humor inherent in the monster/slasher genre.

Because horror movies are often ridiculous, filled with crazy premises and glaring plot holes, as well as obtuse characterizations. That doesn't stop 'em from being scary and suspenseful or just is what it is. A vehicle designed to give the viewer an adrenaline high through fright and clever pacing. Humor is often purposefully present in these films to offset the terror or rope-a-dope the audience or just because the filmmakers are, well, whimsical folks with a playful sense of humor (yes, it takes a playful imagination to find unique methods of killing characters in a movie). Horror Rules captures this through a variety of rule mechanics designed to both emulate the genre AND entertain the players of the game. It's pretty darn cool.

This RPG has the goods to do cinematic horror better than any other RPG I've seen, including AFMBE and more recent zombie apocalypse games. It has character classifications (not classes) which direct character concept and provide (one-time) bonus abilities true to their archetype without using "suites" of powers or levels/experience systems. It has a minimal skill system and a finite method of task resolution in direct opposition to the "open-ended" dice systems found in similar skill-centric games (like World of Darkness, Shadowrun, D20, etc.). It has metagame mechanics (like 2nd Thought, Luck, and Stupid Thing Points) that can be used in multiple ways depending on the chosen style of play (the book outlines several) and that really help emulate the genre. And I think Horror Rules' "sanity loss" mechanics are both better and more interesting than those found in Call of Cthulhu. Really.

While the game is roughly 100 pages in length, much of this is full page illustrations, or the sample adventure script; there's about 70 pages of actual rules and almost a quarter of those pages are devoted to actual GM instruction (real, practical information, not "mood setting" suggestions) and adventure creation (two separate chapters, nice!).

From my perspective, that's awesome...I want information on how to run this type of game. Not every RPG needs to be (or should be!) run the same way. And while killing off player characters in an adversarial way is kind of my raison d'etre (at least in B/X play), there's a way to do it in the horror genre that, all kidding aside, has the potential to sink the game if not done right. After all, if your players are going to buy off on the "fun" of horror gaming (including the high probability of being killed in an agonizing, traumatic fashion), then they deserve to be treated to the expected tropes of the genre.

This game tells you how to do that.

Anyway, it's very impressive, and I'd love to try it out (especially with Halloween coming up soon), if only to see if it works as well in practice as it looks on paper. Turns out Gary's Games does stock Horror Rules, though I don't think they plan on doing an "annual tournament" like in Yakima. Too bad, though...playing Horror Rules on Halloween would be just as fun as renting scary movies for the occasion (something I've been known to do).
; )

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Yakima Gold

So we spent most of the day in Yakima today (that's in Yakima County, Washington...named for the Yakima nation, which was the largest American Indian population west of the Mississippi prior to several bloody massacres at the hands of the U.S. Army). It poured rain, which didn't stop me and the boy from heading out on foot to explore the town. Nice as the hotel was (fantastic biscuits and gravy!) it was boring to hang around and the baby just did NOT want to nap. Something about the excitement of being alive and all, I guess.

However, the rain DID stop our (my) initial plans to hit up a few used book stores that I found on line...they were just too far from our base o operations and I did NOT want the boy to get pneumonia. Fortunately, we stumbled across a little collectibles shop called Ron's Mini-Mall and found a couple nice pieces of swag for the collection.

First up was a copy of the collected issues of DC's The War that Time Forgot...another 1960s piece of weird extravaganza featuring WWII soldiers in a Lost World (i.e. dinosaur) setting, reminiscent of the Turok Son of Stone comics I remember from my youth. Although the collection is black & white, printed on cheap pulp, and hopelessly dated, it is EXACTLY the kind of thing I am in the mood for right now with my recent dinosaur fetish. I'm going to have to clear some shelf space next to Xenozoic tales for this bad boy. Apparently, another comic company is putting together a similar-themed "re-boot" using 21st century soldiers of a Special Forces type, to be issued later this year. Whatever...I just need to know how many Thompson machine guns it takes to bring down an allosaurus.

[my Out of Time micro-game has been downloaded more than 120 times, by the way...still intend to get back to answering the questions/concerns certain readers brought up]

The second thing I picked up, though, was even MORE interesting. In one locked shelf, I found something that looked suspiciously like role-playing games (they were next to a big bowl or two of dice), but that I'd never heard of. Turns out it WAS a role-playing game I've never heard of: Chris Weedin's Horror Rules: The Simply Horrible Role-Playing Game. After some inquiries I was able to discover Mr. Weedin is a local author (well, he lives in Selah, just outside of Yakima) and he writes/designs RPGs for his own (indie) company. Horror Rules has been around the Yakima area for a few years (the copyright is 2003) and they have an annual Horror Rules tournament over Halloween, no less. The little old lady who was giving me the low-down said it was "quite different but a lot of fun." If she was a regular participant, she is definitely the oldest RPG gamer I have ever met.

Anyway, I picked up a copy of the basic game (Weedin has another nine or so supplements for HoR that adds on various genres and such), and I'm about halfway through it. And so far, it ain't half bad. I'm not much into horror role-playing, though I have a bit of experience with both Call of Cthulhu and InSpecters. Horror Rules seems about halfway between the two in terms of tone and technicality.

And it's barely 100 pages long (including a sample adventure). Nice.
: )

Anyhoo, I'm sure all be posting more on that later...if you're interested in Weedin's stuff you can check out his (very nice) web site, which has buttons to browse and order. Considering the quality of the book, his prices are pretty low...I don't know if he's nutty or if printing costs are cheaper in Eastern Washington, but I should probably find out as it might be worth the gas to get out there for my next print run.

So, yeah...back in Sea-Town now, safe and sound after a nice little visit over the mountains. Books to read and wine to drink (visited a couple wineries on the way out of town and picked up some good stuff). It is pouring rain in Seattle which means autumn has officially started in the Pacific Northwest. Personally, I love it. But I'm kinda' weird.
; )

Friday, September 16, 2011

Taking the Initiative

I will be somewhere in Yakima at the time this is being posted. Hopefully…if not, it means we got to our hotel Friday evening and there’s no internet access. That’s not very likely, but, hey, it’s Yakima (Washingtonians know what I mean).

As I write this, though, I am still in Seattle, taking a break from my regular work day and munching on beef jerky (just getting ready for Yakima, I guess…) and I realized something today:

I HATE individual intitiative.

Is “hate” too strong a word? Maybe…Lord knows I’m given to hyperbole at times, but I was mulling things over today and had a frigging epiphany regarding this, and if “hate” is NOT the right word…well, it’s pretty close. For me, individual initiative is a bunch of garbage.

I’ll walk you through my train of thought.

For the last couple years, I’ve been playing B/X and loving it for the most part. One think about it that I like a LOT is the fantastic, speedy, abstract combat system. No, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of some RPGs, but it WORKS and it’s quick even when working with large numbers of players.

And shouldn’t combat be quick? I think so. It’s an exciting part of the game and demands a quick pacing to keep folks engaged and the game itself moving.

For most RPGs, though, combat is where “imaginary gameplay” often grinds to an f’ing halt. Even when all the players on the ball, for MOST RPGs as soon as the game enters “combat phase” everyone is buckling down for a long, tactical exercise, often lasting close to an hour (or longer) for even a small encounter.

Many games skew their systems towards a “Ninja Turtle” style of encounter because of this. The classic set-piece combat of the TMNT comics features four ninja turtles facing a single, powerful adversary (Shredder, for example). Each turtle gets to show off a few moves, working as a team to take down a single, tough “boss” who is too strong for any single character.

But in non-comic book mediums (like film and novels), this is the most boring thing to watch or read about. In film, it’s cool to see bunches of guys flying around against bunches of adversaries. Even reading allows you to "see" this in your mind’s eye. But facing handfuls of NPC opponents in an RPG gets tougher to run/manage the more specialized their abilities and the more chunkiness to the rules. Trying to run a game where each character (or antagonist “type”) receives their own “initiative rank” just grinds the speed down to a crawl.

Last night we played DCC again (no, there was no clamor to try my dinosaur game…more on that in a future post) and we ended up in three monster encounters. And things were sloooow, or felt slow to me…I often felt like I was constantly waiting for my turn to come up, even when I did not have the lowest number in the initiative order. You see, despite being produced by an “old school” company, DCC has some decidedly “new school” sensibilities, including with regard to combat, and one of its D20 hold-overs is the initiative system: each individual rolls D20 then adds (or subtracts) modifiers to determine the order of battle.

I can see why this is appealing, especially to designers:

  1. The opportunity to provide distinction between characters (class bonuses to initiative, or feat bonuses or similar, rewarding player choice with a “better initiative” value).
  2. Ways of modeling extra attacks (like when you see…in a movie, say…some character strike two or three times before anyone can touch him).
  3. Placing “power” in the hands of ALL players (no one can complain that one person rolled low; you are responsible/accountable for your own die roll, and sometimes allowed a “yippee!” moment because of it).
  4. A method of “heightening drama” as characters have to wait for their turn to come around.
  5. Potential for additional gamist tactical play (should you “hold your action” or “reset/refocus” at a higher initiative order level, etc.?).

In all three of the game designs I’ve been working recently (well, except the dinosaur one), I include individual initiative myself for one or more of these reasons. In my fantasy heartbreaker, it gives me the ability to model the effects of class, level, and equipment. In my space game it makes Jedis and Han Solo types “faster.” In my Shadowrun knock-off, it gives me a way to use wired reflexes and magically boosted reaction times. All things I thought were features that added to game play.

See? I’m just as dumb as everyone else.

In practice…i.e. in ACTUAL PLAY…it doesn’t add that much to the game compared to what it costs. My FHB would be somewhat similar to DCC (with less bonuses/adjustments over-all) and I can tell you from experience that it is a total pain in the ass. When playing the Shadowrun game, the wonky individual initiative led to quite a few complaints (especially from the players whose characters were less “wired up” than others).

And it SLOWS things down. You call someone’s number, they hem and haw and dither a bit about what to do...NOT because they’re a simpleton or ignorant of the rules, but because THEY HAVE TO ACCOUNT FOR EVERY INDIVIDUAL ACTION THAT HAS OCCURRED. For example:

Player A goes
Player B goes (reacting to the result of player A)
Player C goes (reacting to the result of players A and B)
Monsters go (reacting to players A-C and anticipating players D-F)
Player D goes (see above)

Even in B/X…a very SIMPLIFIED game…an individual character has several options in combat: moving, attacking (melee? missile?), retreating, withdrawing, sometimes casting a spell…and of course, attacking or spell casting requires a choice of target as well. That’s a lot of decision making one needs to do each round, just for B/X.

However in B/X all characters act at the same point in time; that cuts down on a lot of dithering. The DM asks everyone what they’re doing. Folks give answers. Actions are resolved. Done.

The only time PCs aren't acting at the same time is when characters with two-handed weapons are forced to strike last...but even so you never have more than three ranks of "go:" Party-Monster-2Handers or Monster-Party-2Handers.

[okay, sure, you have FOUR ranks if a mixed monster group includes zombies. Zombies ALWAYS strike last, after everyone]

Today, I spent a bit of time reflecting on last night's DCC game...what worked for me and what didn't. Not because I want to tinker with the game rules (I'm not running the game) or because I have an on-going interest in critiquing the system (Goodman's not paying me for that), but because I'm interested in game design for my own purposes and I readily steal from anything and everything, mixing and matching and trying to add my own stuff, too.

And the game (i.e. DCC) just isn't all that good. I mean...I've already written about some of the things it does VERY right in my book. But then it still drags at times. Even when we have a smaller, more manageable group at the table (last night was 1 GM and 5 players, as opposed to the usual nine). It's not the GM's fault: Luke is brisk about calling for initiative rolls and counting down the order. It's the system itself, individual initiative, that slows the shit down. It's what made my Shadowrun combats suck unless I separated characters from the rest of the party so that 1 player faced 1 monster group. I can see this now in hindsight...and it makes me want to shred and retool from scratch all three combat systems I've been writing.

I can see now why Moldvay made the whole "individual initiative" thing OPTIONAL in the Basic game; he was one sharp dude, ol' Tommy.

[edit: yes, we made it to Yakima just fine]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Micro-Game Download

I'm not sure why folks are having a problem with this: I just followed the link in yesterday's post from a random computer at the library (without signing in to my accounts) and the download worked just fine. The library computer now has a copy of the one page micro-game .pdf on it. It looks great!

I don't know what to say except, "try it again." When you get to the mediafire screen, click on the yellow box that says:

Click here to start download from mediafire

It asks whether you want to just open the .pdf or save it. It really should work, folks!
: )

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dealt Dinosaur

All right, you can download my new, one-page micro-game here:

Personally, I think it's pretty sweet.

This is actually the foundation/skeleton for a decent little Lost World RPG. The full version would have fuller examples and elaborations on how to use the ability scores for task resolution, not to mention more stock antagonists (cannibals, Vikings, Roman more dinos, of course!). It would (will?) also furnish rules for scenario creation, probably with a few random tables.

The "end game" included with the micro is a simplified version of what I would use for a full game. It should be enough for play-testing. Unlike some RPGs there IS an objective to the game: getting the heck out of dino-land. As with the D&D endgame, not everyone will choose to pursue this goal, instead continuing to wander ("adventure") or settle roots in the prehistoric world.

Those folks will probably be eaten.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it; any and all feedback is appreciated. In addition to six-sided dice, you will also require one (1) deck of playing cards. I recommend using ones with a dinosaur theme. I picked up a set for myself today ($6) from Top Ten Toys: The Age of Dinosaurs.

Garden of Eaten

Hmm...I've been meaning to write up a post on why I find all dinosaur-friendly RPGs suck, but I just haven't gotten around to it. The truth is, it takes me nearly as much time to write up a semi-coherent, negative critique of...well, it does to write something positive and useful.

So instead, I just wrote my own game.

Still in the "one-sheet" phase at this time...but I have got the one-page (i.e. "micro-game" version) done, and will be uploading it to Ye Old Blog here, sometime tonight. If I'm lucky, I might even get a chance to play-test it a bit this Thursday at the Mox (we're down a couple-three people this week, which makes it a good night for a one-off).

: )

D&D is NOT "Cinematic"

If it was, player character could get a bonus level or two prior to going into the dungeon by participating in a training montage set to music.

; )

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Getting My Dino On (Terra Nova)

Back in early February or late January I saw a television commercial (probably during last year’s NFL playoffs), previewing some crazy-ass new show featuring 21st century people (humans) being menaced by dinosaurs. I had no idea what the hell this show was about, but I was damn excited to check it out.

No such TV show ever appeared.

This last week, while again watching football, I saw another ad for this same TV show. Apparently scheduled to start up at the end of the month (appears the thing might have experienced some shooting problems through most of 2011).

The show will be on Fox, a station that has managed to put out some quality fiction shows over the years (The Simpsons, Firefly, Arrested Development, the first season or two of 24), many of which they completely mishandle and wreck/cancel (Firefly, Arrested Development). The prospect of a decent (if quickly cancelled) series is a real possibility, but who knows...TV execs often make decisions that are a complete mystery to me; chucking good, creative art in exchange for the most insipid and ridiculous of “reality TV.”

That’s probably one of the reasons I’m not a wealthy business tycoon. Anyway…

Called Terra Nova it has an interesting premise that blah-blah-blah HUMANS VERSUS DINOSAURS!

That’s really all you need to know. Well, all I need to know anyway.

I love most anything that mixes “modern man” with dinosaurs…it’s just one of my favorite pulp fantasies. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the first Jurassic Park book/movie (before the Goldblum character got resurrected…wtf?), S.M. Stirling’s Sky People novel, all those lost/hollow world kind of movies, not to mention the Hollow Earth Expedition (HEX) Role-Playing Game (though why does it have to have Nazis, dammit).

I don’t know why I dig it so much. As a kid, Land of the Lost was definitely one of the weirdest/coolest TV shows on Saturday Mornings (at least with the original cast). I still love the premise of the show and would love to do something with it (what exactly? Who knows…).

Also as a kid, I remember reading old Turok Son of Stone comics. Back in Montana, my uncles weren’t too much older than me (maybe 10 to 15 years) and there were always old comic books of a “non-superhero” variety laying around: The Two-Gun Kid, Sergeant Rock, the Unknown Soldier, Turok, House of Mystery, Dracula, etc.

Turok was about an American Indian and his younger brother (?) who had somehow been transported to prehistoric times where, duh, they were often hunting or running from dinosaurs. I don’t remember any of the specific stories/plots from my childhood, I just remember being very taken with the illustrations, even (or especially) non-action ones: a half page image of Turok and his brother over-looking a bluff, watching a herd of honkers grazing in a pastoral valley, for example. Things like that.

The last couple years I spent a lot of time looking for old issues of the awesomely illustrated Xenozoic Tales (author: Mark Schultz). I had finally given up when I happened across the recently published trade paperback collecting every issue into a single volume. It took me a few days to read it cover to cover, but the thing is a real work of art, with beautiful story, pacing, characterization, and illustration.

[I’ll talk more about Xenozoic…and its associated RPG…in a later post]

No, I really don’t know what it is about the mix of people and dinosaurs that get me juiced; it’s just one of those things like Vikings/axes and sand-and-sandal fantasy that tends to fire my imagination. Dinos are just so HUGE and monstrous (always depicted with big, sharp teeth) and the idea of hunting them so ridiculously foolhardy…I mean it can’t result in anything but crazy heroics (or digested heroes).

Strangely, I almost never use dinosaurs or lost world tropes (Neanderthals, ape-men, etc.) in my D&D games, B/X or otherwise. The Isle of Dread is the only “dino-sanctuary” I’ve ever depicted in the game, and then but rarely. For whatever reason, the thought of fighters in plate mail attacking a T-Rex with his trusty magic sword just seems wrong.

But modern day heroes (18th century and later)? That seems the perfect protagonist for a dinosaur-infested campaign. Silly perhaps, but that’s just me.

I would love a good pulpy game that pitted dinos against heroic player characters. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find such a game (more on that in a latter post, too).

All right, all right. I've got some stuff to take care of right now. Perhaps more dino-stuff later.

Totally Hypothetical

Does anyone think it is possible to make a traditional RPG where...

Okay, okay, wait a second.

I'm not setting a hard, fast rule for what a "traditional RPG" is...I'm not sure such a thing even exists. HOWEVER, for the purpose of this post (only) I refer to an RPG in which:

- the structure divides narrative powers between players and "GM" with the GM having the bulk of responsibility and players having responsibility only for their individual character
- the game involves exploration of an imaginary game environment, only incidentally addressing exploration of a character's psyche
- expects any "story" that develops to develop out of actions that occur "in-game" rather than player choices through metagame thinking (i.e. this ain't no "story now" game); in other words, any story that arises from play is going to be of the "talking about what happened in today's adventure" rather than actual pursuit of a story bolstered by game mechanics.

OKAY, SO...given that I am defining "traditional RPG" in that way for the purpose of this post only:

Does anyone think it is possible to make a traditional RPG that is both class-less (in the "character class" sense of the term) and skill-less?

Or to be a bit more specific: does anyone think it is possible to do such and still have a game that is both fun to play AND that actually works well? that I think of it, I do know of at least TWO such games: Amber and Boot Hill (pre-skill edition)...the latter, of course, being one of my favorites in terms of game design, theme, and Old School goodness.

Okay, I guess I answered my own question: it IS possible. So here's the follow-up question: what other "traditional RPGs" have a class-less, skill-less system for player characters (and, no, Gamma World and Top Secret don't count: "species" and "bureau" are both classifications or "classes" even if they aren't specifically named as such).

Secondary, follow-up question: any specific thoughts on these types of games (the lack of archetypal classes and skills)...especially IN-PLAY.

Thanks folks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Is There A "Wrong Way" To Play D&D?

Dammit. I really did just want to blog about dinosaurs.


Is there a "wrong way" to play Dungeons & Dragons? No, there is not. Not really. D&D is a game, which (as a term) is an important distinction from either "play" or "sport." Man, I wish I still had my textbook from phycho-physical development (that was what my high school called "P.E. class"). Well, whatever...if I remember correctly, the main distinction between game and sport is the presence of a finite time limit (which D&D does not have) and the distinction between game and play is the presence of rules/structure.

D&D does have a rule set that provides it with structure, but it is a very loose rule set, explicitly stating that certain aspects of play will need to be improvised or refereed and that none of the rules are sacrosanct or incapable of change, should the DM choose otherwise.

Does this mean D&D is really just "play?" No...even if the DM chucked ALL the rules out the window, it would still have an inherent structure that "play" lacks, namely the presence of a "DM" in opposition to "players."

Right? Okay, yeah, let's just say it is so for the moment. SO...being a game with explicit text allowing changes at a whim, I suppose the only way possible to play D&D in a "wrong way" is to play in a fashion that doesn't jibe with the rules/structure as laid down by the DM. If the DM says everyone's going to roll D30s instead of D20s for attack rolls, than not doing so (playing the contrarian) would be playing wrong...with some predictably unhappy consequences for the player doing so.

All right, so, having said THAT...I do think the D&D game as written acts as an excellent vehicle for some styles of role-playing, and is less than adequate for certain other styles.

Oh, man...I really want to say "FAR less than adequate" but I know I'm already going to be ruffling feathers with this whole line of discourse.

In fact, screw this...I got two hours of sleep last night and it has been one exceptionally long day. The baby's been sick the last couple days, and this is my first real break in more than 24 hours. I'm going to veg out and watch some Monday Night Football. Or fall asleep in front of the TV. Or a little bit of both...zzzzzz...

[Tomorrow: Dinosaurs]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I cannot forget...

...that tomorrow (September 12th) is my brother's birthday. I have to remember to give him a call.

It's been a rough couple-three years for my Virgo brother, a person with the normal hyper-critical tendencies of his sign, especially for himself. Many times I find that the most important thing I can do is encourage him to NOT dwell on those negative things that have happened in the past but instead focus on a more constructive, positive future.

Easier said than done, of course, and something I need to model myself as much as possible (like forgetting the unfortunate 2005 Super Bowl or today's opening day Seahawks loss). But focusing on positive action...being courageous and compassionate to all...does help. And even if it doesn't entirely erase the negative memory of the past, at least you'll be accomplishing something positive in the world, rather than wallowing in past miseries.

Cheers folks. Tomorrow, I'll be talking about dinosaurs.
; )

What Can I Say?

The defense played their ass off, as I expected. T-Jack and the offense came alive in the second half and played their asses off (except Russell Okung, for some reason).

And then the special teams completely wilted in a way that utterly blindsided me, giving up TWO back-to-back touchdowns on kick returns, right after the Seahawks had pulled within two points.

Ugh. Finding ways to lose. Hopefully, though, the coaching staff can build on the GOOD things that happened in today's game. Congrats to the 49ers (enjoy the win, folks).

Special Mention: great work by the refs on a penalty-heavy day. Thanks, folks.
: )

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Opening Day: T-Minus 5 minutes (PST)

Welp, tomorrow is Football Sunday for the first time this season, and my favorite team will be playing down in San Francisco against our division rivals the 49ers. As usually occurs for me this time of year, thoughts of the roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd has conjured the urge to pull out Ye Old Blood Bowl set and mock up a, scrimmage...between the two teams in a true "fantasy" fashion.

Under sunny skies, I can only imagine the players warming up, the QBs limbering up their arms...

The rookies high-fiving each other for not being cut...

A few last minute pep talks...

And then, of course, the solemn faces for photographers while the National Anthem reminds us of all the unhealed scars of 9/11.

That is less interesting to me, though I know it is sure to be discussed on all the networks to some extent or another. What IS interesting to me is knowing just what the hell is going to show up for the Seahawks tomorrow. The pre-season flurry of cuts and new acquisitions, not to mention incredibly suspect play from our O-line in the four pre-season games gives most Seattle fans a lot of anxiety.

Not that 49ers fans don't have their own anxiety (can Jim Harbaugh turn Alex Smith around?). But I have a feeling the Niners own offensive line woes might find him running for his life.

And who knows how the injuries will pile up.

On the other hand, perhaps Frank Gore will have his regular annual field day with the Hawks, while the defense looks bemused...

I can only hope Marshawn breaks off a good run, leaving Niners strewn in his wake...

And the refs play a fair game (of course)...

But of course, it all hinges on Tavaris ("T-Jack") Jackson, and whether or not he can show he can be a 1st string QB in the NFL...even in the paltry NFC West. Oh, man. We'd better make some kind of showing or it's going to be a loooong season!

Ugh. Well, I'll be watching the game regardless...with my cap on my head and my son in my lap. Will it be worth watching? Will I watch till the bitter end? Yes to both! It's football for goodness sake!

I'd wish all the fans out there luck but, unfortunately, half the teams are going to lose. I can only hope y'all have fun regardless.

Go Seahawks!
: )

Hand-Waving Rewards

I realize that several of my regular Thursday night table-mates read my blog, so I need to preface this post a bit. I’ve got some harsh words…or at least “potentially inflammatory” ones…regarding our recent forays into the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and most of these are going to be directed at the style of our GM, Luke, because it illustrates something I want to write about. I want to be clear that I do not mean this post as an indictment of Luke’s GM skills or his ability to run a fun game; I’ve been having fun along with the rest of you, and I wouldn’t bother showing up if I thought his game was total garbage.

That being said, I’m going to be blunt here and, anyway, Luke’s a big boy.

All right, let’s get down to it.

Thursday night’s game had the usual cast of DCC miscreants at the table. I had missed last week (being in Montana), but I wasn’t the only one. As with the last two sessions that I attended we started in town. Luke (our GM) asked who wanted to “carouse” (a random roll that spends money and has the potential to earn you XP…though there’s a better than average chance of an interesting “mishap” occurring). This particular game mechanism is one Luke first adopted a couple weeks back. As I did previously, I chose to abstain from carousal; though this time I was doing so due to a lack of funds (in the earlier session, I spent my cash instead on a suit of chain mail…go figure).

A couple members of our party suffered misfortune due to their carousal checks, earning the enmity of a local cult. To atone for their sins, they were tasked with stomping out a slave ring at a rival temple. They in turn got the rest of the party involved; we invaded the place, and kicked everyone’s ass. A couple of PCs were knocked out in the process, but all ofthe character’s survived.

At the end of the session, the evil shrine had been all but cleaned out and our charming of the high priestess ensured we took every available scrap of treasure. Luke said he didn’t want to bother adding up all the treasure in the module and simply ruled we each received 100 gold pieces worth of treasure. He then awarded XP and informed us we each had earned 200xp for the evening.

This was not an unusual evening as far as rewards go. Luke always hands out XP at the end of a session, and the amount we have received has always been some flat, arbitrary number. This was the 2nd time I had used this particular character (since he became 1st level). In my prior session he had received 300xp.

Arbitrary, flat numbers. Regardless of character action.

Some of the PCs have a LOT more experience points (for those who don’t already know, in DCC you earn XP in order to go up in level, just like in D&D). The guy sitting next to me had 1300 by the end of the night…close to three times my character’s total. Part of this has to do with his character being present for an extra session or two compared to mine. Part of this has to do with him “hitting it big” on the carousal table and earning an extra couple-three hundred XP (or more).

Um…what exactly is our goal here?

Hmm…perhaps the question isn’t really specific enough. How about this:

What is our motivation for playing this game? What is the objective of play? In-game, what the hell are we trying to do?

Reward systems influence behavior. That’s not up for debate; if you don’t agree with it, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Systems of REWARD in a game INFLUENCE BEHAVIOR. Period. If your game provides “reward mechanics” it is going to have an influence on player behavior, i.e. the actions they take within a game.

For me, good game design includes system mechanics that reward behavior meeting the designer’s objectives of play (JB's Axiom #3 of good game design…remember those?). The reason why it’s “good” game design? Because the reward will influence behavior, and if that behavior enforces the game designer’s objectives, then you have designed a system that will get people to play the way you (the designer) want it to be played.

In Old School D&D, the reward players play for is increased effectiveness. Characters go up in level and gain the ability of having more dramatic impact on the imaginary game environment. While the acquisition of magical equipment often provides increased effectiveness, such acquisition is generally left at the (arbitrary) mercy of the DM’s generosity/stinginess. However, ALL players can count on LEVEL improving their characters’ effectiveness, and they know the way to gain level: by earning experience points through the accumulation of monetary treasure and the defeat of opponents. Gaining XP is a non-subjective means of earning reward: if I acquire 2000 gold pieces, then I acquire 2000 experience points, and if I am a fighter, that will mean I advance to second level.

So what does that compel me to do? Fight monsters and look for treasure of course!

Now if I simply receive X amount of experience for showing up and sitting down, what does that compel me to do? Show up and sit down, sure. What does it compel me to do in the GAME, though?

Not a goddamn thing.

Why bother formulating plans or carrying on elaborate manipulations of a charmed enemy if the GM is simply going to award you a set amount of gold? Why bother taking risks, or doing ANYthing interesting/courageous if the GM is going to award the same amount of XP to you as the guy who holds the torch and fires his crossbow every other round?

Right now, my character has absolutely ZERO motivation to take any kind of bold action, or attempt anything particularly clever. Hell, right now, the MAIN things I can choose to do (as a player) to increase my character’s effectiveness is A) make sure I show up (and survive) every single week, and B) spend as much money as possible on carousal rolls and hope I get lucky. These are the only two things that will bring my character the promised reward of increased in-game effectiveness.

Not that you really need “in-game effectiveness” when your main actions alternate between drinking/whoring and cowering in the back of the party.

[actually, I believe character level IS added to the carousal roll meaning you party better as you go up in level, and extra hit points DO mean extra survivability while cowering…still, that's not exactly what I call “adventure”]

What a bunch of horseshit.

Now, it may sound like I’m railing against good ol’ Luke’s style of reward allocation (and I am) but this is not the first time I’ve heard of this…only the first time I’ve experienced it. Many times I’ve read posted (both on my blog and elsewhere) with ideas of XP allocation for similar non-merit play. Ideas like:

  • “I just level PCs up after a certain number of sessions,” or
  • “I just hand out X number of experience points per hour,” or
  • “I just reward PCs for the completion of missions (sometimes the same amount whether they succeed or fail!).”

Every time I read one of these suggestions, I cringed inwardly at the thought off what it would do to the game play experience. Now, though, I’ve actually had a chance to experience this style of reward system and I can tell you exactly how it makes me feel:

Pretty irritable.

Not outright angered perhaps, but definitely annoyed. And it has nothing to do with an anti-commie agenda or anything…it doesn’t piss me off that everyone receives the same reward regardless of action and/or merit. That doesn’t irritate me…in fact, if you’re handing out arbitrary rewards, I think you’d BETTER do it consistently.

What does irritate me is this: my actions make no goddamn difference.

Regardless of whether I play smart or stupid or cautious or reckless or brilliant or bonehead. Regardless of whether I crit every roll or fumble every roll. Regardless of whether or not I play in alignment or whether or not I even play cooperatively with my fellow players…or instead try to stab them all in the back. Regardless of ANYthing…

Flat 200xp. Thanks for showing up.

Galling is what it is. The whole bonus-XP-for-random-carousal-die-roll is hardly worth mentioning in light of the main issue. At least with THAT you can make a statement about your character by whether or not you choose to participate.

I suppose for some people, the idea of hanging out with their buddies, rolling dice, laughing, and drinking beer is enough…that the fun of the game is NOT in any imaginary objective, but in imagining you are a big strong warrior, or a furtive thief, or a mutated sorcerer, or whatever. I suppose that there is enjoyment to be had in “playing pretend” with likeminded adults in a safe, non-judgmental environment, and that the game mechanics are present simply to provide some structure for what would otherwise certainly devolve into something sordid…or worse, “zany.”

Hell, what am I saying? “Suppose?” OF COURSE, there is enjoyment to be found in exactly these things…that’s why I still enjoy showing up to the game despite the overall pointlessness of the exercise! But even so, I find myself wanting more from my game (otherwise I wouldn’t bother venting my complaints across the blog-o-sphere!). I mean, if all I want to do is drink and blow off steam and shout obscenities and make off-color jokes, I could do that over a game of pool or darts or in a karaoke bar. If all I wanted to do was imagine myself as a strapping fighter, I could daydream or write short stories with myself as the hero.

Getting handed a couple hundred XP after a moment’s reflection from the GM makes me think, “why bother?” It feels condescending. To me, it’s pretty f’ing lame.

*sigh* I’m sure I’m going to catch flak for this post.

[by the way, one thing I didn’t point out is that the DCC RPG…at least in its Beta form…does NOT have any type of reward “system” built-in. It has levels, it has XP needed to earn levels, but it has no rules on how that XP is acquired. Luke’s decision to hand out flat amounts of XP per session is a perfectly valid choice…as I said at the beginning of this post, this is not meant to be an indictment of him. What I AM trying to indict is the whole “play for pay” idea and what an irritating concept it is. I say this having experienced it firsthand…I think it SUCKS and believe that any reward given without merit or deed is a pretty damn paltry reward]