Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Subtle Art of Railroading

Railroading is a dirty word in tabletop RPGs - but it doesnt' have to be. Granted it is most often caused by poor gamemastering - but if done properly, it can really be an effective part of the DM's toolbox. The first thing is to consider what games railroading can work for and what types of games they simply cannot work for. 

I argue that D&D an games of a similar ilk have an inherent element of railroading to them. Dungeons are linear. Players go from numbered room to numbered room encountering whatever is detailed in those locations. You can't go to Room 5 if there is no Room 5. So, player characters, by choosing to engage in a dungeon crawl, are submitting to a certain level of railroading.

Railroading is not functional in more story-focused games like Vampire: The Masquerade and A Song of Ice & Fire. Games that focus on character proactivity and roleplaying require far more freedom than more traditional adventure RPGs. So for purposes of this blogpost, adventure fantasy types of RPGs I'm focusing on.

Other than poor gamemastering, railroading is most evident in modules and pre-written adventures. If the adventure is written under the assumption that the player characters are going to go explore the Temple of the Big Bad and they don't then the written adventure seems to grind to a screaming halt. 

But there's an inherent flaw in this concept: The world doesn't grind to a screeching halt and wait for the PCs to act. The world of an RPG continues moving forward whether the player characaters act or not. Sauron continues to mass his armies in Mordor whether or not Frodo sets out to destroy the Ring. The Empire will continue to trouble the galaxy whether or not Luke ever leaves Tatooine. The forces of evil are proactive.

This means that a clever DM can subtley obligate the players to deal with the threat at hand, because if they don't that threat will continue to grow in power. But if the Temple of the Big Bad is in the north and the players decide to head west instead (for whatever reason), what's a DM to do? Well, maybe there's another temple or cave in the west that was undiscovered. Because the players never went to the northern Temple of the Big Bad in the north the DM can effectively move the central threat without breaking the established details of the campaign. The growing evil is now bigger than suspected because they have evil outposts to the north and the west - because evil is proactive.

Creating the sense that the threat of your campaign is a growing, breathing thing not only gives a tense and sense of grandure to a campaign that your players can enjoy, it also allows the DM to move these threats which they have detailed into the path of the player characters regardless of what route they take.

No, it isn't perfect - but it can help keep the player characters, gamemaster and campaign as a whole focused - as long as it isn't too heavyhanded.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I Finally Got a Chance to Play 5e

So, much to my surprise, I got a chance to play D&D 5th Edition. My brother-in-law runs a 5th ed game for his friends and invited me to join them. I'd read the 5e PHB when it first came out and it seemed to have positive reviews - but now I was going to get to finally "test drive" the game.

I decided to play a Human Paladin, based loosely off Jaime Lannister. As I made the character, hints of his own identity slipped into his creation - which is a credit to the game in my opinion. Within 20 minutes I had a character done and was ready to go. I have to say I was really impressed with how quickly I was able to whip together a character in a game that I'd only read once before. Granted, a lot of D&D's concepts have remained the same - but still. I was particularly pleased to find that the heavy use of feats had been minimized, resulting in characters beginning play with at most a single feat - and in most cases, none. 

Instead, the background system is used to provide something that helps keep characters from being cookie cutter - and for the most part it works. The fact that it had an impact on the role-playing aspect of my character's creation is a credit to the system. I started off trying to build "Jaime Lannister" and in the end "Jaysen Casterly" ended up being a Paladin of Kelemvor, both proud and grim who was seeking to restore a rightful king to his throne and in knowing that all men must die and fast the Lord of the Dead's judgment, had a lust for life and all its pleasures. All that from a 3 rolls on a chart.

The big change seems to be the removal of static modifiers. Most benefits grant a +1dX or or Advantage. So Bless grants a +1d4 bonus to attack rolls, while flanking an opponent grants Advantage. Advantage is simply rolling 2d20 and taking the higher of the too. It's more random than previous versons of D&D, but for sake of speed of play it works just fine. Less time doing math, more time rolling dice - which is a good thing, in my opinon.

It reminds me the most of 3.X, if it were paired down and streamlined. It's still got a tad more fiddly bits than I'd prefer, but I think that's done to combat the "cookie cutter" problems that gamers have from AD&D.

The game slowed to a crawl a few times, but the DM is a fairly new to the hobby and really new to 5th ed. The fact that he only had to halt to look something up once or twice with a group of seven player characters shows how quick the game can play.

Over all, I'm pleased. Pleased enough to grab the core set of rules. I don't think D&D 5th ed will bcome a "go to" system for me - but it's certainly not bad by any stretch. I think it will be useful to me because it feels like they tried to balance the fast-play nature of OSR with the options of more modern incarnations of D&D - and I think they succeeded.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Clerics Don't Suck (Introduction)

So, I've been thinking about what to do for my next blog post for the past few days and I decided to do a multi-part post on Clerics. These holy rollers are, arguably, the most necessary class in D&D and its retro-clones. They provide healing, support spells, combat support, and they wreck house on undead.

But in almost every group I've played in over the past twenty-five years when the time comes to sit down and make characters, there's always a collective sigh followed by "Alright, who's going to play the cleric?" No one wants to play the cleric. They're boring. They're stuffy. They're walking Band-Aid factories. They don't get cool weapons. They're stuck under the thumb of their god or alignment. The list goes on and on. In the end, though, someone's gotta do it.

I don't feel badass.

Clerics don't suck. In fact, clerics offer as much (if not more) role-playing potential as the more "exciting" classes. Over the next few posts I'm going to touch on different aspects of the cleric class and discuss where it works, where it doesn't, and just how freakin' awesome this class is if you just have a little faith...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Political Intrigue in RPGs: Is it possible?

So, I'm a big A Song of Ice & Fire/Game of Thrones fan. Books. Movie. Doesn't matter. Also, I loves me some Vampire: The Masquerade. Needless to say this means that I enjoy the occasional political RPG. The problem I have is that I've rarely found them to be done effectively. Either superb mechanics give out under gamers who aren't half as clever as the characters they made, or the system doesn't reflect the genre conventions necessary to tell a twisting, turning tale of backstabbing and betrayal.

No matter how cool your character is, they'll never be
Tyrion Lannister cool.

I'm not saying the former to discredit any gamers. These games are fantasy, so naturally we're going to make characters that are stronger/smarter/prettier than us. That's the nature of the game. Nor am I attempting to chastise RPGs where politics become part of the game but aren't necessarily the focus. Most versions of D&D don't get political beyond getting a title, some land and some followers.

Then there are the troubles with being the GM of a political game. There are countless NPCs with their own goals, motives, resources and personalities to manage. The GM has to be able to juggle them, and keep track of what they're doing (because they have to be proactive in a political game). Top this off with the fact that like the players, no matter how clever the GM is he's not going to be as smart as some of his own NPCs. Finally, the GM is still just one mind working against several as far as political machinations go. It's easy to get overwhelmed.

...or things can degenerate
to "Shotgun Diplomacy."

I'm not saying political RPGs are impossible - just that they're very difficult and require a lot of work. What have been some of your successes running political games? What are some lessons you learned from mistakes made along the way? When you played the roleplaying game (of thrones) did you win, or did you die?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In Jokes in Published Products

So in the old TSR modules from back in the day, you'd occassionally come across a little in-joke or nod to famous folks, pop culture, or even other gaming authors. The big one that always springs to mind with me is Tower of Zagig, from Greyhawk - which I always took to be a play on Gygax. And let's face it, they might not call it a lightsaber, but that's what a Rod of Force and D&D 3.X's "Brilliant Energy" weapons are. They're lightsabers. Admit it.

"You see a lightsaber. I see a psionic spirit blade."

I've met gamers who hate this and feel it pulls them right out of the setting and adventure and others who love it. When I was doing the supplemental material for White Box Omnibus many of the citizens of the local village are named for figures in the OSR community. Why? Because it's fun and because these folks have really had an impact on me as a gamer and an author.

How do you feel about it when an author puts in jokes or pop culture in published products? Does it erk your nerves, or do you appreciate cute nods? Maybe it's somewhere in between for you - which is where I stand. I love the idea of the "Tower of Zagig," but dear god please keep your damn laser sword out of the hands of my pseudo-medieval fantasy fighter.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Intellectual Properties as Tabletop RPG Settings

Dungeons and Dragons is based on many works of fantasy fiction. Whether its Lankhmar, Conan, Dying Earth or Middle-earth, they all have a hand in its creation. But Dungeons and Dragons isn't set in any of those worlds - or at least wasn't for many years. There are versions of D&D set in some of those worlds - but D&D as an entity stands on its own. Not long after D&D we saw The Call of the Cthulhu from Chaosium, which to my knowledge is the first role-playing game set in a pre-existing world established by an intellectual property.

Since the release of CoC, it seems like any IP that could be turned into an RPG was. Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel Super Heroes, DC Adventures, Dune, Dragon Age - the list goes on and on. Games set in pre-existing worlds with an established canon familiar to the table top gamer have the advantage of providing an immediate and shared understanding of the setting. This makes theme and tone easy for a game master to establish and game mechanics can be tailored to fit aspects unique to that setting.

But, there's a trade-off: Canon. In  Star Wars Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star. In DC Comics, Superman is pretty much a god. Players want to play in these settings to emulate both the setting itself and its heroes - but often the player characters can never be as good as iconic character, or at least are limited to accomplishing lesser tasks than the famous heroes.

Does this make IP settings self-defeating? I sit down and play Star Wars because I want to be like Luke Skywalker - but I'm never going to accomplish the things he does, so is my goal truly achievable at all?

The answer is "Yes, but..."

In theory your character could participate in the Battle of Yavin and be the one who destroyed the Death Star. But in doing so and undermining both the established canon and the established character does that cause a deviation from the IP so great that the IP is no longer truly what it began as? If someone other than Luke blows up the Death Star is Star Wars still Star Wars? After all, now the familiarity that provides comfort and understanding for a given setting has been shattered. Where do they go from here?

So, in IP settings is it worth breaking canon and potentially irrevocably change the setting or can players be content to live in the shadow of these glorified NPCs? Is there a balance to be found?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Face-to-Face Gaming: Is it worth it anymore?

So, with the advent of virtual tabletop software like gamers are no longer limited to gathering around a physical table anymore. Virtual tabletops give us everything we could need to run a game online. Digital maps and miniatures, dice programs, chat, video, even mood music - it's all there. Granted, there's an intangible energy around a physical table that can't be denied - but I find myself asking more and more "Is it worth it?"

Logistic problems, life obligations, miscommunications - physical gaming groups can get waylaid by all kinds of problems. Not to mention the host has to make sure everyone has suitable seating, lighting, a table large enough and that their house is suitable for guests. Yes, these are normal adult responsibilities - but let's be honest, sometimes you just don't feel like doing the dishes when guests are coming over. Not to mention it seems inevitable that the host is always left with clean up duty. Soda cans, snack bags, miniatures, dice and books are cast about the room in the aftermath and its the host's job to deal with that.

Not that the players are without their own responsibilities. They still have to commute to and from the game, often providing rides to those who don't have transportation. Not only is this gas, but it's also time. If game runs long (and let's face it - it always does, because it's fun!), then they're stuck running on less sleep than they'd like the next day. This can be a real problem if the next day is a work day.

With virtual tabletops you only deal with your own mess, in your own home, with a clock right on your computer screen and when it's over you can close the browser and be done. Hell, you don't even have to wear pants.

That being said, you also don't have the feel of dice in your hand and your friends aren't genuinely across the table from you. There's an energy that comes from real face-to-face social gatherings, and that's definitely part of gaming. There's something intangible about rolling your own dice and seeing your mini on the table.

But as we get older and our lives get busier - is it worth it? Virtual table-top gaming removes a lot of the ancillary trouble - or at least allows the individual gamer to handle it in their own fashion. But is that convenience worth giving up that intangible energy that comes from gathering around a real table with real people?

Pleasant Surprises in Impulse Purchases

So, I'm just going to put it out there: I have zero self control when it comes to impulse buying stuff. It's terrible. So, often I'll grab a gaming book because at that moment I want it, even if it has no long term application. I justify it by saying "I'll use it some day in some campaign down the line." I've bought scores of books that almost immediately became self decoration. Not that they weren't good games, necessarily - they just got a read through and then never saw use. Pendragon really stands out when it comes to being a great game that I bought, read and never played. Then there are some of the more obscure (or at least less played) games - Dogs in the Vineyard, Secrets of Zir'an, Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved, Lowlife, and Tales from the Floating Vagabond all spring to mind.

Then there are books I grab in a moment of impulse that see a ton of use and become staples of my collection. This came to mind because yesterday my copy of Monstrosities for use with Swords & Wizardry arrived. I was a bit remiss to pick up this book because of the hefty price tag. Besides, did I really need another book of monsters for my game? There were enough in my other OSR books to surely fill the gap, right?

Then answer is yes, that is absolutely true. But Monstrosities is still an awesome product. This 500 page tome is more than just another book o' monsters. Granted there's definitely some retread ground here - but there's also a lot of original stuff too. What really sells it is that each monster listing comes with an adventure or encounter hook which makes the book easily applicable at the table. Yeah, it was pricey, but so, so good.

Which brings me to the meandering point I was getting at: What are books you grabbed on a lark or a whim that turned out to be great gaming purchases?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

How Many is Two Many?

So, I follow Tenkar's Tavern pretty closely. I don't comment often because to be frank I get easily distracted and don't want people to think I'm arbitrarily dropping out of a conversation. Also, it can often lead to pointless "someone is wrong on the Internet" arguments that I want no part of. But, I digress.

Tenkar's latest blog post talks about his wife asking why he needs two copies of certain books and to a point I can understand her point. I myself am a big proponent of own two copies of a certain books. I own two (or more) copies of Swords & Wizardry Complete, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, D&D Rules Cyclopedia, The Star Wars Roleplaying Games (West End Games; two 1987 First Edition copies and one REUP), Labyrinth Lord (3 copies of  revised core, 1 AEC), The One Ring, Rocket Age, World of Darkness core (the newer version), Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Changeling: The Dreaming and Changeling: The Lost. Probably a few other games too, but that's all I can think of off the top of my head.

The thing is, in spite of claims otherwise this isn't gamer-hoarding and I'm not suffering from dragon-sickness. The games that I have in the past, and will in the future, GM/DM/Storyteller regularly. I prefer to keep two copies on hand because most of my players aren't as into the hobby as I am and are not as likely to take the time or money to persue these books. So, I have a table copy, and a copy for my use. It just makes things easier to say "Oh, that rule's on page 125, see it?" than to take the book, flip through, find the rule, explain it, then take the book back. 

Not only does it speed up play, but it also promotes players learning the rules on their own because when they read it, the rule might be easier to retain. Also, shit happens and if someone spills a drink on a copy then I'm not up a creek.

Another useful aspect of having multiple copies (at least in the case of Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, The One Ring and Rocket Age) is that when I'm writing I can have two of the same book open at the same time for easy cross-reference while writing.

So yeah, multiple copies isn't gamer hoarding. It isn't. I swear. I don't have a problem. I can quit any time I want! Now if you'll excuse me, I see my wife eying my gaming collection while standing beside an empty box. I need to go.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Words of Power

So, lately I've been listening to a lot of radio dramas. Star Wars, The Shadow, and a few others. They're pulpy as hell and make me wonder if my grandfather enjoyed them back when he was young. I got to thinking about what exactly radio dramas are: Just words.

That's it. Spoken words. So, I started thinking about what I can learn as a GM from radio dramas. A radio drama tells a story without any visual point of reference and instead tries to weave that into the spoken words of the characters. It's not an easy thing to do and at times it can be obtuse, but when done right it is a beautiful, invisible thing. Sometimes, you don't even notice as the image is painted in your mind's eye.

So I started to wonder how I could do that in game. I started listening for cues in he radio plays. Whether it was Darth Vader mocking a tortured Princess Leia by using his words to point out the terrible pain inflicted by an interrogation droid or the Shadow describing how he lingered unseen and his voice seemingly echoed from nowhere, I realized these kinds of techniques could me used as a GM to draw players into a game. It's not happening around them - it's happening to them. They are part of the story, part of the world and part of the game. You can draw them in with just words.

Just some food for thought.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Faithful Servant, Master's Bane: Familiars

So I'm sitting here listening to the Brainstorm Think Tank podcast as they discuss familiars. This is quickly becoming my favorite podcast amongst the plethora produced by Wild Games Productions. +Erik Tenkar pointed out that a lot of spell casters avoid getting familiars because of their fragility, and he's not wrong. I heard players complain about this for years. As I'm listening to Erik, +Glen Hallstrom and +Vincent Florio talk about ways around this I was surprised to not hear my own fix come up, because it's really simple.

The standing rule I had in every edition of D&D was this: If your familiar doesn't participate in combat, he won't be targeted in combat. If you don't use him to scout, he won't be the target of traps or hidden enemies. Boom, problem solved. I can understand why folks don't like this idea because in it makes their familiars feel less "real," and less involved in the campaign, but my experience was the opposite. By players not having to worry about their familiar dying from bad dice rolls, they're more willing to make them a part of the character's backstory.

Scabbers, he rat familiar of Ron Weasley, is a great
example of a familiar with a developed background.

Another option I had in one game, many years ago, was a player who wanted a monkey similar to "Jack the Monkey," from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Sure, why the hell not? But, he wanted the monkey to actively participate in combat, scout, etc and still be immortal like the zombie monkey from the films. I thought long and hard about this before finally coming up with something. Sure, the monkey was effectively immortal - but because it was undead it could still be turned or potentially destroyed by a cleric. This gave the familiar durability, but the players were still cautious. It worked. I was surprised and it lead me to decide that a good method was to have familiars be effectively invulnerable, with the exception of one particular source of damage. In every edition of D&D and the retro-clone this has worked out swimmingly.

Whether it was my wife's wizard who had an eagle that firmly believed he was actually a roc under the influence of a terrible shrinking curse and his pride lead him to be easily influenced by charm and illusion spells, or the wizard/thief I once played who had a ferret who might get distracted in battle by a shiny object for several rounds and was effectively removed from the battle - familiars, like PCs, just need a little push to make them unique. It's not that they can't die, and they shouldn't be immortal - but they are part of the player character's story, and need to be respected as such.

Respect the monkey, but don't trust him.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Patreon of the Arts

So, I've noticed a fair amount of OSR creators have Patreons, myself amongst them. I'm not here to shill my hack writing, but instead am rather proud that after receiving my first month of support from those who were kind enough to back me and wanted to give a shout out to the creators I'm now able to support.

Erik Tenkar: Erik's blog, Tenkar's Tavern, has pretty much become the hub of the OSR communty for me. Erik's honest, he doesn't sugar coat his opinions - but he's also fair and amazingly generous when it comes to the OSR community.

Dyson Logos: Again, a ridiculously generous member of the OSR community and an amazing catrographer. I have to be honest, I was a bit intimidated by him at first. He always seemed aloof and mysterious - as if he were secretly crafting maps from a mysterious wizard's tower in an unknown demiplane. Truth be told, he's the genuine article. Talented and classy.

Tim Shorts: This guy does great micro-adventures with awesome maps. They're just perfect for a night of gaming when you've got nothing planned. He does it with love and he does it well.

Matt Jackson: Another cartographer, and a damn fine one. I'm always amazed at the caliber of character in the OSR community and Matt's is the finest. Honorable, forthright, and just a stand-up guy.

I'd also like to take a minute to thank everyone who's backing my own humble patreon. Your generosity benefits not only myself, but these fine creators.

Purposed Items in Swords & Wizardry

One of my favorite things in fantasy literature and RPGs is the idea of weapons which are sentient (or semi-sentient) and driven to a purpose. Elric and Stormbringer. Tomas and the Armor of Ashen-Shugar, and of course The One Ring and Frodo Baggins. In Swords & Wizardry White Box this is something that isn't addressed - and as a retro-clone of original "brown box" D&D, I can understand why. However, it is something I like to include in my games and keeping in mind the streamlined style of White Box I've attempted to create a simplified system for including weapons with ego and purpose in my games.

"The Ring is mine."

Purposed Item

Purposed Items are an extremely rare type of magic item. There is a 1% chance that any Greater,  Intelligent Weapon, or Unusual Armor is a Purposed Item. These exotic artifacts have the will and essence of a living being bound inside them. That spirit lives on in the item, hoping beyond death to achieve some lofty goal. Perhaps a powerful sword seeks to lead the greatest army the world has ever known, or an enchanted circlet is bound with a soul who wishes to once again rule the world as they did in a time before memory. The referee should develop the exact history and personality of each Purposed Item.

Purposed Items are always intelligent and always able to communicate with their wielder, either through empathic impulse (65%), telepathy (30%), or in rare cases, audibly (5%). Each time the wielder uses a Purposed Item, he must make a saving throw. If that saving throw fails, the wielder is compelled to follow the will of the purposed item for one round. If the Purposed Item is able to maintain control over the wielder for a number of consecutive rounds equal to or higher than the level of the wielder, the Purposed Item gains permanent control over the wielder. The wielder has become a vessel for the will of the Purposed Item itself.

Purposed Items can only be destroyed by specific and unique means. Perhaps a weapon must be melted down in the fire of an ancient dragon or a evil ring must be worn for a full lunar cycle by a pure and uncorrupted soul. The method of destruction is always tied to the history of the object and is often nearly impossible to accomplish.

"Well, then—let it be thus so—and men will have cause to tremble and flee
when they hear the names of Elric of Melinbone and Stormbringer, his sword."

Simple, Not Boring

Wow, has it been almost six months? Whew. That's quite a long time. Things have been busy 'round the house. My freelance work continues to grow, I've had a surprise hottest seller on RPGNow, and coolest of all, I have a seven-month old daughter now. (And yes, she's a badass).

One of the other really cool things that has changed is that I finally got a chance to do some real, physical gaming round a table with friends, dice, character sheets and junk food. It had been at least two years since I'd gotten a chance to participate in a physical game and it was absolutely fabulous.

When it came time to get the crew together, I wanted to initially run either Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry. All of my players were totally down for this - except one. I have one guy in my group who just doesn't do the whole OSR thing. He's not a fan of older editions.

He doesn't have on them and will play because he trusts me as a GM -  but he finds them to be boring. Characters have no flavor. First level PCs are one-hit wonders who die with a single bad roll. The adventures are meat grinders.

Neither I, nor any of the other gamers in the group, believe any of these things to be the case - but this guy is adamant. The last time we all gamed together, I was running the amazing Barrowmaze, using Labyrinth Lord. The party got rocked hard and very nearly avoided a TPK. Since then, everyone else has been itching to take on Barrowmaze again - except this guy. His exact response was "Nope, ef that place."

The thing that bothers me the most about this guy is the fact that he feels like he needs rules to make a unique character. A heavy armored knight and a light-footed swashbuckler can both be fighters. An arcane scholar from a magic college and a tribal witch doctor can both be wizards. The lack of rules can be a huge strength in making a unique character - but this guy just seems to see the classes as cookie cutter.

I'm kind of at a loss of how to deal with him. He'll play because he thinks I'm a good DM, but he always bitches about OSR games. I'm reaching the point where I've considered asking him to leave the group if he's genuinely not enjoying himself.

This kind of thing drives me berserk. If you don't enjoy a game, you aren't under an obligation to play it - but at the same time, don't sit there and talk shit about it while participating. Show some respect for something others love, because we're all gamers together.