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explanation does not equal excuse
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER ELF
Reading through the Mystara Gazetteers has got me thinking about fantasy races more than usual. I’ve talked about this before. Since then I’ve seen a number of good posts on the problem of race as destiny in the blogosphere. By that I mean the problem with certain kinds of traits as inherent to a particular race. Some physical traits differentiate the races, but what about games which offer skills bonuses, abilities modifiers or even preferred weapons. There’s an argument that suggests these add flavor to a race, while another suggests they primarily serve those looking for min/maxing. I’m not sure where I fall on that- if Dwarves get a bonus to using axes, should a player be able to shift that bonus to something else to represent a unique member of their race? If so, where does that end? Does it undercut the intent of such bonuses? Some might ask: lacking mechanical elements for differing races, what’s the point of playing one?
But there’s an implication in the most recent gazetteer's secret history, known only to the Immortals. I mentioned it in my review, and I want to look at it further. There’s the suggestion that the Orcs and other humanoid races were in fact the playing out of a kharmic debt. That an evil race had so transgressed such that they were forced to be reborn as a dim-witted and hated new people on the planet. That’s a pretty awful thing, both for what it says about the judgment of the Immortals and what it says about responsibility and agency for the Orcs & Company. Is there a way for them to break out of that destiny? Are they restricted to this destiny of violence, stupidity and hatred from their fellows? Would those kinds of limited instincts make them more animals than anything else? And if such races bring disaster to others, then where does responsibility lie?
That aside, I want to think about what fantasy races bring to an rpg. I think there’s a difference between playable races and more “NPC-centered” races- what they offer to the GM vs. the player. I’m also focusing on fantasy races, because I think they offer a different set of reasons and benefits from sci-fi aliens. I’m commenting, in part, on a couple of geeklists I recent put together: You Want to Play a What? Non-Standard Playable Races from Fantasy RPGs and Vegetable Elves & Sinister Hobbits: Playable Variations on Classic Races. So below is a list of ideas about what fantasy races actually do or offer- with notes on a few of those.
ROLES FANTASY RACES SERVE IN WORLD-BUILDING AND PLAY
*Signifies Fantasy: Fantasy races, especially the classics signify a fantasy setting- and often a high fantasy setting. In fact, we usually have to define an FRPG as being human-only rather than not. There’s expectations from some players that if they’re playing fantasy they’ll get some choice on race.
*Easy Moral Differences: …without having to go into a defense or explanation. Fantasy races can be given distinctive traits- Elven love of nature, Dwarven Greed, without worrying about the hows and whys of such a thing. Or if there are answers, they’re thin history or mythical explanations. On the other hand, describing an entire human culture with the same type and consistency of traits a fantasy race gets would likely feel strange. Consider the difference between making a race “evil” like the Orcs and a people “evil” like theRed Wizards of Thay. Usually, it is easier to accept the proposition that they’re all evil in the first case over the second.
*Freedom: …from human standards when playing as a PC. Allows cover for some kinds of personality types. In some cases this is a variant on “I was just playing my character.” But in others it can offer a freedom to take on other characteristics: positive or negative. I imagine that in some cases this is a variant of the above. But I’ve also had players play races with neutral or positive cultural traits ( like “Chummy”) as an exercise to force them to try something new.
*Challenge: Extending the idea above, playing races with defects, cultural issues or lower status can offer players a test of their abilities. Half-races often fill this role in settings. But consider the state of the Elves in Dragon Age. That’s a deliberate inversion offering obstacles to playing.
*Geography: Allows for clear geographic distinctions without having to go too much further into the details. For example, pointing to an area and describing it as the Mountains of the Yellow Dwarves or the Forests of the Elven Clan Terratis offers players a decent picture. Pointing to a human kingdom/region may require more detail, perhaps a real world analogue.
*Easy Player Distinctions & Choices: If you offer a player a quick list of choices for play, they’ll usually have some expectations based on races. In a solely human setting you have to rely on the single axis of “class” to distinguish them or else you have to take the time to explain the different human cultures.
*Clear Adversaries/Allies: This may be as easy as saying we’re enemies or friends with the Halflings. Then when players encounter a member of that race, they have a starting point to begin from. They don’t have to worry about which country a human’s from to establish a basis for response. Some of this goes back to the idea of moral differences and inherent traits. In LotR, if you see an orc, you kill it. I’ve had players say to me, especially when I’ve offered more complexity to the depiction Goblins or the like, “sometimes you just want to have bad guys and be able to kill them.”
*Reversal of Expectations: Related to the above point, GMs can use fantasy races- especially those with an established reputation- to flip things (often as a means of commenting on them). D&D began with many monstrous races with intelligence and culture, which leads to questions about the morality of just slaughtering them. So things like Industrial Elves, Druidic Dwarves and Altruistic Gnolls offer a way out of that. However, as I mentioned above, that can get wearing for players- especially if all of their expectations are subverted. Left with no ground to stand on they can become frustrated.
*Parody: Races can be used to parody of real world institutions, perhaps to address touchy subjects while maintaining a distance. Political positions could be enacted to extremes- an almost Swiftian approach to these ideas. I still think Greg Stafford’s Mostali from Glorantha are at least a little swipe at rules lawyers and unimaginative players.
*Novelty: A new race or new take on a race can add novelty to a setting or place- make it clear that this isn’t your same old rpg. Both Talislanta and Earthdawn focus on this as a selling point.
*Genetic or Physical Differences: This can take many forms- perhaps as simple as being able to see in the dark, or perhaps more radical like the stone-skinned Obsidimen of Earthdawn. Consider the advantages and limits of Insectmen or Centaur types. On a surface level, such differences might just establish a cool or distinct image. But on a more interesting level, the GM can consider the “What If” of the race. For example, what’s the implication of a race that can see in the dark? Is there an origin for that? (beyond being underground dwellers) More importantly what does that mean to the lives and culture of that people? Consider how much darkness means to human beings- how we react to it, what we associate with it. If we have a race that has never been in the dark (expect with eyes closed or blindfolded) how do they think about these things.
Take the Trolls from Glorantha, their sensitivity to the sun has a mythic origin and also shapes their life and sense of the world. As well the curse laid upon their people- with most trollish children being born as stunted throwbacks (trollkin)- impacts their identity and sense of martyrdom. What about races with relatively short lifespans? Is there anything about that which affects their approach and attitude? Contrast that to races with longer lifespans- that’s certainly a consideration for most depictions of Elves, for example.
*Theme: Races can be used to underscore the theme, point, or identity of a setting. The Warforged of Eberron are particularly iconic, and they sell the point of the pseudo-steampunk of that world. The vegetable Aldryami and Stone Mostali of Glorantha can be read as a response to the static take on Elves and Dwarves coming out of other fantasy rpgs. The bizarre races of Planescape reinforce just about weird and different that setting is. In my own campaign, I used the idea of several different hybrid races, collectively called the Createds. Each has a small population pool, often combined with odd restrictions on behavior, such as loyalty or aggression. They served to illustrate the fallout and fragments from past dominion by Wizard Overlords who had created them purely as slaves and tools.
*Easy Description: Classic races can be used to easily define and remember certain traits or aspects. The swift Elf, the solid Dwarf, the mighty Troll, and so on.
*Tech Differences: Different races allows an easy way to divide and maintain parallel cultures with distinctly different tech levels or social development.
I’m usre I’m missing some other functions these races serve in a game. I’m hoping it will make me think more broadly about their function when creating a game world or running a setting. A couple of things do occur to me. First, Shadowrun mixes both sci-fi and fantasy. I wonder if Shadowrun could just as easily been done with only humans? What does the call back to old races add to that setting? Second, do all of these ideas apply to alien races from sci-fi games? Are there some different elements those add? Or is it a difference of origin and emphasis?
explanation does not equal excuse
I have five campaigns I'm running right now, each bi-weekly. I'd like to consider the beginning of March as the start of the gaming season, since everyone gets sick in Jan & Feb. So here's where everything is:
THE LAST FLEET (BSG Inspired Fantasy Homebrew with Microscope world building)
The Fleet finally made it through the Stormwall into a new realm. However, they quickly discover a place caught up in a massive war between two Elven Empires. On one side, the Dominion of Timbers possesses the secrets of slaying gods and reforging them into weapons. On the other side, the Confederation of Rings fights a losing battle to protect their remaining deities, turning to secret and self-destructive magicks in their defense. The party makes their way to the independent mining colony of Neversun, where they learn much and save the life of the Grand Vizier, twin to the Gnomish Necromancer they fought.
The Vizier presents them with several options and suggestions about where they might go to find refuge and resources to the fleet. All are dangerous. Before leaving Neversun, the party takes over an underworld gambling den and establishes their own people there as intelligence sources. They travel to Carcul where the great spawning of the Sky-Sharks is about to occur. There they work to impress the Flotsdam Runners, a group of expert guides and sky-sailors. In the midst of the massive hunt, Marreg the Orc leaps from his vessel and punches a Killer Sky Whale in the eye- killing it as all rolls sync up in a moment of glory. Bridgehowl, leader of the Runners is duly impressed. They agree to lead the party into the Curse- the abandoned orcish lands, cursed by the dying Orc gods when they fell to the Dominion of Timbers.
WAYWARD (Changeling: The Lost homebrew)
The group returns from the Deep Hedge, having completed their quest. They've brought with them several changelings rescued from various durances, including two who seem to contain the other parts of the sewn together darkling known as Stitcherman. The group now have the blessing of the power of Judgment to establish a new Court- one which they hope will bring balance to Wayward by squaring things with the other three Courts: Rust, Gardens and the Wolf. First they manage to bring over to their side a number of fringe members of the exiled Winter Court. They obtain oaths from them and clear the new members of past misdeeds. Finally they present themselves to Edward Brambleteeth to announce their new Court- he's angry, but they point out that they set out at his orders. The situation becomes more complicated when they unmask a Keeper among the numbers of Gardens, Lonesome Dog. The Keeper escapes and Edward tells them to leave while he considers their petition.
The group then presents themselves to Sybold Futures, Prince of the Court of Rust and Edward's brother. They want Sybold to recognize them and the Court of Wolf as official Courts. Sybold tells them they have his blessing if they can essentially clean up all of the outstanding messes in the city before the end of March. The group agrees- knowing that it will be heavy work and will put them at odds with Edward. They consult with an imprisoned elemental of karma who gives them important information. That allows them to kill the Winter Court's deadliest agent, the Wizened Soldier Unbecoming Tim. They deliver his head to a shocked Sybold. That done they follow up on various leads- considering how to best handle destroying the enemy Draconic Fairest. Edward meets with them again and reveals much about the secrets of the old dynasty, but the group shocks him with many other facts he was unaware of. Finally while out driving, Nate spots one of the Winter Court leaders, Regardless, meeting with the disguised Keeper Lonesome Dog. Though they're enemies of the Winter Court- he cannot bear the thought of the Keeper using them for its own ends.
ARTIFACTS (High Fantasy Homebrew with Microscope world building)
The group continues on their quest to undo the spell which causes the sun to burn the land like a furnace. Each day for the hours surrounding noon it blazes and bakes the land. The Oracle continues to present them with a set of choices of direction- unable to specifically guide them since the shattering of prophecy. In the compound of the Seven Masterless Killer families, the uncover a secret- that the destruction of those families had not been a betrayal, but rather an internal purge organized from their secret alliance with the Empire and the possessed Empress. Armed with this knowledge, the group fought their way free, managing to kill a few of the new leadership. Next they arrived in the great city of Neylan, the de facto capital of one of the rebellious provinces. They untangled a complex riddle- revealing that one of their own number was not who he believed himself to be. Rather, he had been possess and manipulated by a powerful artifact to give it a body. Still unsure of what that episode had added to their quest, the group moved on.
They arrived at a field of corpses, site of a battle. Following the trails back, they discovered a tower under siege by a madman mercenary and his monstrous allies- servants of the Mad Empress. Within the besieged castle, they found the Empress' brother who had come here- like the group- seeking the Bells of Pellic to break the Sunblaze Curse. But the Bells had already vanished from this place. The group fought a desperate holding action against the army, at the same time battling agents of the Night Elves who infiltrated in search of the Bells. Only but summoning and organizing the spirits of the dead from the early battle did they managed to defeat their foe, but few remained alive from the castle. Taking the Prince with them, they moved on.
And found themselves in a strange and frozen place- a garden with dancers and fountains held in time. But they came to life at the behest of a wooden golem who called the party member Batu, the barbarian, his master. Treated to food, wine and dancers, the group tried to assess their situation privately. Batu had no real memory of this place- but in the interrogation the rest of the group realized that the “Batu” that they knew was not the barbarian, but instead the magic item he held possessing him. That item, a ring cut from a unicorn horn pointed to the key. As various agents appeared and spoke to Batu, who they called Lord Scarreign, it became clear that there were powerful amoral manipulators behind the scenes- the ancient unicorns. Batu's ring realized that though it believed itself to be one of these unicorns, in fact it was a device created to sow chaos among them. The group made a break for it as the real Lord Scarreign returned- rescuing two prisoners. One of those, the scholar Error Dricel had a solution for finding the Bells- not seeking the Bells themselves which could not be scryed, but rather searching for the tell-tale fragments of the spells which had once held the Bells in place. Only two might would know how to do that- and with that the two gates opened...
LIBRI VIDICOS (Steampunk Hogwarts Fantasy Homebrew)
In the midst of the school being invaded, the group manages to bring back the dead headmaster, Direlond, killed at the end of the previous year in a battle with these same enemies. The group finally managed to put the pieces together of his puzzle in time to revive him. He lends his aid, getting many of the students and staff to safety. However the enemy has clearly been enacting some kind of powerful ritual using the schools teleportation system. When they go outside, the group sees another school- the fifth one- presumed destroyed in the battle with the Ardorans centuries ago. The group decides to travel there- clearly the invading forces want something from that lost school, enough to stage a raid on Libri Vidicos to get to it. They travel over- but almost immediately face another threat with the appearance of a Chronal Drake, a beast which breathes age and decay. They watch helplessly as Libri Vidicos teleports away- escaping from the drake's assault. They are now trapped here...despite this they continue to press on, exploring and eventually coming upon the enemy- including several of the traitor instructors and students. A massive melee breaks out and the group lets loose a variety of powers which cause the walls and floors to crumble. The party makes a desperate bid to escape- activating the defenses of a secure room. When they release the door lock, they find themselves in a new place: Sigil the City of Doors.
There they meet with several members of the planar mercenary group, the Sons of the Tower. Some of them come from the party's world and have been seeking a way back. The group aids him in hunting down another key which may lead back home in a mad journey across the city that takes them from shops, to a barfight, to a collapsing arena and finally into the awful sewers of Sigil. They get the key and activate it- returning at last to Libri Vidicos. The headmaster congratulates them on their victory. The mood though, is bittersweet, as a ceremony soon follows to honor those who fell in the battles. The school year moves on- with the party having the chance to set up a last, massive party for all of the student body, especially the graduating fifth years and the guest students from the other two schools. It goes off as a massive success.
WALLS OF PAVIS (High fantasy Homebrew with Gloranthan elements)
The group returns from their travels to rescue the last people of Kraletorea untouched by the influence of the God Chainers. They have managed to defeat two of the inner circle of their enemies, recruit a number of soldiers and craftsmen, and save the new avatar of the Dragon of Change. But the cost has been high- with the death of Raythe's god Phairdon in the battle. They have a few days to rest in Pavis before they must aid the Flintnail Cult with a ceremony in the Rubble designed to bring blessings to their work and the city. The group make deals to take several of the traditional adversaries of the Flintnail's out of the picture and arrive to give aid. This puts them at odds with the more radical Pavis Cult members who see the party as Lunar toadies. The group triumphs despite this, making a deal to gain the aid of the Trolls in exchange for granting them rights to a newly revealed temple in the heart of the Rubble. The Grey Company, leaders of the radical Pavis Cultists, respond by killing one of the party's agents. Raythe, still angry over the loss of his god, takes the fight to the grey Company's door. He calls on his last favor from Labrygon and they appear in the middle of the Company's secret refuge. The party slaughters everyone there, leaving only one survivor to tell the tale. They gather two of the Masks of Pavis and use them to gain allies within the city, including the moderate Pavis Cult leadership.
Next they turn their attention to the food supply and venture forth to follow the trunk of the great Giant Tree, in hopes of locating some resources. After some travel they manage to uncover enormous mushrooms as well as massive seed grains. However, they have to fight off several giant predators including mice, owls and snakes. After securing enough to offer Pavis a significant safety net, they encounter yet another of the Seven Pharaohs- those who will have to travel to The End of Time to fight against it. When the group returns to Pavis they work on getting various helpers and agents into place; they suspect that the God Chainers will bring the battle to the Valley of Prax and they want to be ready. To bring the community together, the group decides to spend much of their resources providing a festival for the city. With a Pavis Ceremony a week away, complete with a bardic context, they decide to offer a contest, event or display each day leading up to that. Each party member chooses a day and comes up with an activity and ties it into their own god, as a means of giving honor to their lesser known deities. They put on a scavenger hunt, a footrace, an obstacle course and a special market day with prizes.
explanation does not equal excuse
I like beating up monsters.
When a video game rpg has a good, fun combat system, I really enjoy the process of tuning it, figuring out the right approach and farming monsters for experience and loot. That's actually what I really love about the last couple of Final Fantasy games. FFXII had the best combat system, allowing you to tune and program your actions. FF XIII, while it runs on rails, actually has combat mechanics you can consistently tweak and tune- each time working to get your kill time down and your stats up. I like the mundanity of it.
But I would cut my own throat if I had to do that in a game with a GM. I like stories, I like choices, I like characters. Actually, even when I'm playing through a video game rpg, I tend to tell myself little stories about what's going on. When I played Valkyrie Profile 2, I got irritated when a new mage character popped up in the party late in the game. I'd already leveled and equipped so many PCs that he became superfluous; I didn't want to grind to level him up. So I stipped off all of his gear and put him in the active party anyway. Whenever we got into a battle I imagined him saying “Um...please, can someone give me a weapon...” or “So cold....so cold here without armor...”
That made the process palatable. But the one video game recently that really forced me to come up with an alternate story was White Knight Chronicles. That's really what inspired my geeklist The Worst GMs from Video Game RPGs. White Knight is a pretty game, with an OK combat system, and a story arc where all the PCs send up having to carry the stupid ball down the field. It was in the middle of it that I realized that the GM of the game was a dick. Once I realized it was a bad tabletop game, everything fell into place...
SESSION REPORT: THE WHITE KNIGHT CHRONICLES CAMPAIGN
So the first warning sign comes at the start of the game. You've just finished making up your character, your Avatar. In the game that means choosing your appearance and gender. At the tabletop, you just finished rolling up your PC. You join the group and immediately get relegated to the back of the party. The other characters have real names, backstories, and they're clearly the focus of the GM's story. Leonard's the youthful hero, Yulie's the bow-wielding healer, and Eldore is the elder grizzled warriors with magic. You'er joining a new group, one where the other players have played in the setting and know the GM's style. You play quiet, remain behind, because hey- it's a chance to play. I mean even later when the GM does a long sequence with the Leonard, you're willing to listen because you figure he's going to come around to you, but he doesn't. And then leonard gets a big magical artifact right out of the gate. You look around at the other players- they don't seem to be reacting so this must be par for the course. So now you have four players in your group, but one of them can summon a giant fantasy robot from time to time to fight instead of him.
And then at the end of the first adventure, the GM pulls his first trick. The Princess you've been protecting gets grabbed. Despite the group being right there- despite the bad guys having to run to get to a giant lumbering airship, they manage to get away. The GM doesn't even let you roll. They're “too far” to catch up to, despite having been less than ten feet away a moment ago. He doesn't even let the archer take a shot. You begin to see where this is going.
Still you press on, and have a couple of decent adventures. The recurring villain attacks and you defeat him- but of course he manages to fly away. You can buy that it builds up tension. Then after traveling through the desert, you arrive at a new city, at which point things start going downhill slightly faster. A new player joins the group, a girl the GM's clearly smitten with. Though she doesn't ask for it, she gets to have the coolest equipment. She gets to use a katana one-handed but no one else does. At least she doesn't get a giant artifact robot...yet. Of course it is pretty clear from the start that she has a dark secret.
Hint: she's in league with the bad guys.
But of course the GM won't let you follow that line of inquiry at the table. Whatever, you move on. It's another player at the table. And then you rescue the Princess again. And despite specifically saying that you wanted to keep an eye on her, the bad guys again manage to sneak up and snatch her away in the middle of an open stone courtyard. You grit your teeth and press on, even though the GM seems to have trouble remembering your character's name and you never get any scenes in the spotlight. Still it is an interesting world, the combats are decently fun, and the other players seem to be having a good time. Except for the new girl, Kara, the one the GM likes. He keeps taking her out of the room to do secret squirrel stuff and she always comes back a little creeped out.
Anyway, you eventually get to the next city. That's actually pretty cool- a mining colony built on the back of a giant monster. This could be good. But then the GM introduces a new NPC to the party. Cesar- he's that worst kind Mary Sue GM character. He's cool because the GM says so, he's the son of the ruler of the city, he has a shit-eating grin all the time when the GM plays him. He's constantly joking lamely. And of course, he's immediately hitting on Kara. Still, you think, I can put up with this for a little while. So you play along and finish the dungeon in the city- and then it becomes clear that Cesar isn't leaving the party. He's here to stay. And now you have to listen to the GM do scenes between his Mary Sue NPC and other NPCs.
And it gets worse when you get to the end of the next dungeon, as the GM doubles-down on bad choices. First, it becomes clear that Cesar is another chosen one. He gets the next super-cool robot artifact. An NPC- not you or the other party members. Second, after you beat the bad guy- the party doesn't get to finish him. Instead the bad guy's lieutenant does that. And third, because he hasn't done it enough- the GM snatches the Princess away, despite the group outnumbering the opposition, being within ten yards, and possessing magical battle mecha. They get away again.
By now you've invested some time in the game. In some ways, you really want to see if things can get worse. They do- as the GM plays out scene after scene between Kara and Cesar. That gets more and more tiresome. You almost pray for death when the group of pygmies capture your group- another instance of GM fiat, given your overwhelming firepower. Somehow they not only defeat the group without a fight, they manage to tie everyone to posts for execution- because suddenly all of the magic the group has acquired doesn't work? The GM waves his hand and moves on to yet another scene of an NPC rescuing the party.
Luckily, it is about this time that Kara quits the group, more than a little fed up with the GM and the way his NPC keeps hitting on her- despite her obvious irritation with it. The next session, the GM has Kara (now an NPC) reveal her surprise- she was working for the bad guys! Cesar begs her to change her mind, and she seems about to, drawn by his clear charisma, but the bad guys take her away. Ugh. The next few sessions are a blur, with yet another session where the GM has the bad guys get away with the Princess before you can do anything. Then the GM introduces yet another obvious traitor NPC into the group. You try to follow up on that but the GM just keeps shooting you down. Quietly, you work out a plan with your fellow players- a fairly obvious gambit. When the traitor NPC springs his trap, you're ready for it, with preparations made beforehand.
The GM is, as you imagine, a little pissed that his “clever” plot has been found out. He glowers for a minute and then says that the ground beneath the group's feet collapses suddenly- it was a double-trap since he knew the players would see through his transparent first trap.
You sigh, clear the table and set up for another fight against a giant monster who will smack you around until Leonard and Cesar pull out their giant mecha. It will make the GM feel better.
Eventually you climb out of the hole. You're a little relieved- this is clearly the last part of the campaign. Your misery will soon be over. You fight your way through yet another dungeon, with the same bad guys you've been fighting for the last two. The GM has a “puzzle” here which is easily solved not through any cleverness, but by exhausting the possibilities. Eventually you reach the end, and fight the boss who goes down easily. You've been saving up for the big fight and the GM looks shocked. So suddenly, that isn't the final fight. Kara reappears- and declares her love for Cesar, and how she was wrong earlier for treating him like he was a jerk and creepy. It is an awkward moment at the table with the GM playing out this dramatic scene between his NPCs. Then the bad guy kills Kara, which adds another layer of creepy to things. Eventually you fight the bad guy and beat him, but only because of the mecha. Still you get out and flee the temple as it collapses...
...and are saved once again by the actions of an NPC, as the Princess, finally rescued. summons a giant flying ship out of nowhere.
A flying ship? Really. We walked all the way across the continent because this world apparently doesn't have horses and an NPC summons a flying ship at the end to rescue us so we could feel truly useless?
The fun doesn't end there. White Knight Chronicles 2 continues this tradition. Kara returns in a disguise even an idiot could see through...she's carrying the same weapon for god's sake...and her reveal is treated as a major surprise by the GM. And of course Kara reveals her love for the GM's NPC Cesar in a truly awful scene.
Anyway, the next time you're playing a video game rpg, consider what it would look like at the table. I'm not saying it couldn't be good- I talked about that a while back in this post- Emulation & Beyond: More Thoughts on RPGs & Video Games. But it does provide an amusing lens to look at what's happening and how much fun it is.
explanation does not equal excuse
Measurable? Perhaps in some cases. I've tried to be more concrete, but I fear these are more resolution-y than I want them to be.
1. Write an RPG
We've been playing our homebrew Action Cards for over a decade now, with many versions and variations. I think, though, with the most recent variants drawing from FATE, we've come to a pretty workable base system. I want to write up those core rules in a clear and useful way. Ideally, I want to get that put together and laid out so that the players can print out nice bound copies for themselves. I'll include a number of the optional modules we've used, but focus on a simple set of mechanics for campaigns, plus the options for running it as a pick up game.
2. Assemble and Develop Book from my Blog
I have three years worth of posts from my blog at Age of Ravens. Let's assume that at least three-quarters of that is trash, reviews or specific to a time and context. Of that remaining quarter, I'm guessing half is fluff and and half is solid with ideas. I want to pull that material together, edit and focus it and assemble a single book. I had some additional material I unfortunately lost when the primary hard drive died on my machine. I envision quite a bit of rewriting of the ideas, removing duplications, and expanding my discussions. I think that would be a useful exercise and perhaps one other gamers might find helpful.
3. Produce Board Game
We've playtested and refined our design of Right of Succession now for two years. I think it is pretty solid right now. I've tried it with a number of groups. Now I have to rebuild the layouts (lost with the hard drive) and rewrite a final version of the rules. I need to price prototypes and figure out a unit cost. Ideally, I'd like to get a couple more blind playtests done as well. Then I want to see if I can get finance, backing or even a Kickstarter to get the game done and published this year. My first step will be to make a solid list of project steps and outside labor I'll need (art, etc).
4. Submit Proposals
I have a number of comic pitches I've been working on, and several more in process. I want to get some of those out the door and into people's hands. I need to get packets with my recent work out to editors. I've put those together, but I really need and want to get things moving forward this year.
5. Build a Website
Related to that, I need to get a website built- at least to establish a brand identity. I want to keep blogging, but I need to have that channel draw more opportunities and offer an easy place to check on my work.
6. Set Simple and Regular Posting Schedules
With Iron Reviewer, I'll be posting a review a week. For this blog, I'll try to be more consistently posting every other week. I have more Geeklist commentaries to do, and I'll mix those posts in with general rpg posts,
7. Recruit New Players
Ideally, I'd like to recruit at least one new and solid person into our regular play group this year. I'm going to be changing over a number of campaigns, so there might be an opportunity. We've have some people leave over the last couple of years- some for the better, some not. But I think it is important to change things up every once in a while. I don't necessarily mean completely new people, but people I haven't played with for a while.
8. Manage Campaign Transitions
I have six on-going campaigns, many of which will wrap up this year. I really want to make those go out with a splash- especially the ones we've been playing for a long time. And I want to get some new and exciting campaigns off the ground this year as well.
9. Play a Skype-Based Game
I haven't done any games over Skype. I really want to try that, just to get a sense of the restrictions, structures and benefits of that approach. Ideally I want to play a session or two of that before I'd try to put anything together myself. I'd like to do something rules light, like FATE or GUMSHOE.
10. Try a Forum Game
I also haven't tried to do any play-by-forum gaming. I want to at least play in a game like that this year, again so I can get a sense of how they work. I'm a little nervous about the time commitment and what's involved with it- I really don't know all that much about it.
11. Play New Games
This year I got to try many new board games, but fewer new RPGs. I read many new games, but haven't had a chance to play them. I want to fix that this year. I want to play at least a dozen new rpgs. That may mean going outside my comfort zone and seeing about sitting in on games in the local area.
12. Go to Conventions
Related to the above, I want to see about going to at least one gaming convention this year to play. I've only run at cons over the last decade. And I haven't been to a gaming convention in a couple of years. I want to have the chance to sit down and play with new people. I also want to see about doing more networking and building contacts through that. My sister, the esteemed author Cat Rambo, is very good at that and I wish I had her talent. I am going to C2E2 in Chicago again this year, so perhaps I can meet up with some gamers there.
14. Get on a Podcast
I had the chance to be on the comic book podcast, Raging Bullets this year and I really enjoyed it. I want the chance to be on a gaming podcast this year. Not as a regular thing, but I'd like to do that- especially for a field I enjoy so much. I don't know how I'm going to do that, but I'm going to strategize...
15. Finish Video Games
I want to finish off more games before I start any new ones. I did manage to complete a number of CRPGs this year, but I have more I'm part-way through. It does help that the gaming industry is producing fewer and fewer games I'm interested in. I like turn-based games, and that has declined in recent years.
16. Reorganize Game Room
Sherri wants to reorganize some of the game room. Right now we have the board game collection downstairs along with the rpgs. She want to move the BGs upstairs to the front room. That's not a bad idea- and we really need to get things reordered now that we no longer have a houseguest living with us.
17. Finish System Introduction Geeklists
I've been working on new gamers guides to Mage: The Ascension, Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade, Mutants & Masterminds (2nd Edition), and Changeling: The Lost. I really want to get those finished. The Trail of Cthulhu list (Trail of Cthulhu: System Guide for New Gamers) needs to be fleshed out with the rest of the adventures. We also really need someone to do a guide to the various iterations of the FATE system, but that task might be beyond me.
explanation does not equal excuse
This has been a pretty dynamite year for gaming for me, and below I talk about some of the key things I learned (or relearned) this year about gaming. In mundane news, I had modest success in comics this year with the publication of a story in Rocketeer Adventures, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard won an Eisner (I had a story in issue #2), and I got to script and co-plot Flashpoint: Project Superman. I hope to get more pitches and ideas out there in 2012 and get more work. I had a couple of interviews for regular work this year, but the conventional employment situation in my area remains bad. Hopefully I can find more freelance and/or part-time work in this coming year. I finally had surgery on my right hand, which dramatically improved the quality of my life. I regained serious mobility with it and eliminated 90% of the pain. Most importantly, I managed a number of game reviews this year and remain in the running for the RPG Geek Iron Reviewer contest.
As a sidebar, I'll direct anyone interested to two lists I've put together:
List of Campaign Ideas The Next Worlds: Campaign Plans
Is the list of campaign ideas I've put together for 2012. Any feedback, suggestions or advice on any of them would be appreciated.
List of Review Ideas edige23's Iron Reviewer for 2012?
Is the list of things I'm thinking about reviewing in 2012. If anyone has preferences or requests, feel free to comment there or here. Thumb something is you want to see it reviewed.
WHAT I PLAYED THIS YEAR
I read more RPGs this year than I got to run or play in. Most games in 2011 were some flavor of our homebrew Action Cards system. We continue to tweak that. We've added in elements from FATE and the magic system in our latest campaign borrows heavily from that in Novarium. I keep fine tuning the system and I'm pretty pleased with it. I also played several sessions of Microscope, ran several sessions of Strands of Fate, ran our Storyteller-based wushu homebrew White Mountain, Black River, and did a one-shot using Dread. I wish I'd had a chance to play more games, but there's always next year...
Dave Enyeart ran his Fallout RPG campaign this year, using Action Cards as a basis, but heavily modified. That was pretty awesome. The only game I got to play in this year.
White Mountain, Black River
I ran a half-dozen sessions of this wuxia homebrew in 2011, but opted to put this on hiatus (in favor of The Fleet Departs campaign, below). We'd been playing it for over a year. I will come back to wrap up this story in the future. The campaign began as a vehicle to to try out some martial arts rules and give some out-of-town players a campaign they could drop into easily. Both of those goals had mixed success. Despite that, I love the tale we've been telling and the characters the players created. I want to give that some closure in 2012.
Libri Vidicos (Steampunk Fantasy Academy)
This February we'll hit the fifth year of playing this campaign. In that time we've gotten through three years of the PCs time at the school. This school year was more difficult for the characters, with greater pressures from on high. We also lost a player who'd been in the game since the start, taking us down to five plus me. But we managed some pretty amazing scenes and episodes: the great race, Valarain and the Elf Demon, the return to Codici Malefactus, the student exchange, the school invasion, and the travel to Sigil (from Planescape). The system's showing its age- it was the first real version of the homebrew we tried for extended play and we've made some advances since then. But it remains a game of solid and fun PCs.
Wayward (Changeling the Lost)
The nature of this campaign means that we move pretty slowly. Modern games can make it harder for a Gm to implement time lapse. That's especially true with so many issues on the table. We lost a player here as well, but I think that actually refocused the game. The group deepend and developed their connections in the freehold and found roles for themselves. They also uncovered some of the real sources of problems and fought successfully against the Winter Court several times. Probably the greatest shift came when they quested out and made contact with a supernatural aspect, the figure of Judgment. They returned from their quest with a blessing to establish a new Court and bring balance to the Freehold. That's changed the entire situation in the city, including a shift in game mechanics. Several times now the players have surprised me with their choices- and they've really taken control of the story in the campaign.
Pavis High Fantasy
This remains a solid high fantasy game, with the players battling the Clanking City, the Godchainers, allying with the Rider tribes, destroying the Pavic rebellion, encouraging sedition, and harvesting from the Giant Tree. The system works, despite having been planned for a much shorter game. I look forward to wrapping up some of the interesting story threads we have happening in Pavis, and seeing what the players want to do next.
The Fleet Departs
A new campaign for this year, my fantasy take on the premise of Battlestar Galactica. I've enjoyed every session of this immensely. I love the characters and the system has really begu8n to click for me. They went through a number of disasters and have finally made it to the "new world." Now they have to figure out the politics and peoples of this new place. There's a war going on between two empires here- both Elvish- and the players may have to choose sides. We're going into session ten, I believe, of what will be 26 sessions total.
Another new campaign, where each player has an sentient magic item and have banded together to stop a spell burning the land. I'd initially planned this as just seven sessions, but we're going into session eight next time. I expect we'll have another four to five after that. The story's still coming along- and I hope to tie together more of the details I've been dropping. The campaign has a fairly linear course (they choose between two directions at each junction point) but I've left what they do in each location pretty open-ended. I've been using tags and aspects more seriously here and that's been fun. I really love the world the players created through the Microscope session at the beginning.
The alchemical campaign I'm running for just Sherri. We've done about four sessions of this, but haven't been able to get back to this for a while. She's begun to see elements of the larger arc of the story and some of the key NPCs have been introduced. I'm looking forward to seeing where we can take the story this year when we have time to play.
This year I learned a few lessons about rpgs- at least things that I hope will stick with me. Some of these are new, some rediscoveries, and some just simple reminders. But thinking back on this year in gaming, I want to point to these. I read many gaming blogs, and they're the source of many ideas I've brought to the table this year. I really want to thank Risus Monkey, who pointed me in the direction of many new concepts I might not have come into contact with. He told me about Microscope and I owe him a great deal for that. I also have to thank Dave Enyeart, who ran the Fallout campaign I played in this year. I only got to play in one campaign in 2011 and Dave raised the bar for me once again. Both he and Kenny have given me the opportunity to play in versions of the homebrew rpg rules I've been subjecting them to for years. That was illuminating, to say the least.
I keep coming back to it, but it bears repeating: Microscope's a cool game on its own, but it is also an amazing tool for structuring collaborative world building. It's shown me how important player buy-in to the setting can be, and how easily that can be managed. At the same time, it has made me even more willing to share power at the table: both in the creative and play management process. I can understand why some GMs might be uncomfortable with that, wanting to tell the stories they have in their head. That's a reasonable position. But I really believe that this collaborative approaches offers direct and tangible benefits to play at the table.
This is the first year I actually "got" how FATE works. I'd read a couple of versions of it before, but somehow it finally clicked for me. From those mechanics I've learned several lessons. Most important has been the concept of Scene Tags and Aspects. Just that little device- describing n place of conflict through those aspects has added enormously to our play. They make players conscious of the situation, they present a quick and tangible mechanical benefit, they make me as a GM slow down and think about the context of the fight, and they give players something interesting to hang their action descriptions on. When you state the chamber the party's about to battle in has the aspects Fog Laden, Damp, Flickering with Magical Light, Strange Brackish Pools, and Uncertain Footing, player immediately begin to think of how to use those things. It is a little device which obviously can be used across many games. FATE offers much more, but that technique I'll be using everywhere.
Earlier this year I read a description of combat in the Dragon Age rpg that ended up changing how I handle conflict resolution in our homebrew. In DA players roll their attack and then, depending on the margin of their success, can add bonuses and effects from their maneuvers. So instead of stating "I try to do X," and roll with an increased difficulty, the player gains the option to do X if they've done well enough. There's a little bit of retcon there. I like that- and I think that's especially useful for various kinds of heroic games (perhaps less so for horror and games which want players to have more uncertainty like The Esoterrorists). I realized I wanted a system that operated more like that. But to do that, I'd have to change around how actions got resolved.
Previously in Action Cards, players stated the action they wanted to attempt- including any elements, additional effects or spin they wanted to cause. They'd make their draw and tell me their result. I would then pull for the bad guy and tell them if they made it or not. At that point they could invoke skills or other mechanisms to get redraws or bumps. That meant an extra stage of resolution, and scrambling around after the fact for the players. If a player had done really well on an initial pull, a pull from me could negate that. So I switched the order around. Now, the player states basically what they want to do. If it is unopposed, I state a difficulty. If opposed, I pull for the opposition and tell them what they need. They can then draw and apply their various effects and options to their results- they only come back to me with what they manage, rather than trying a sequence of pulls.
The bottom line of this is that I've made the system player-facing. I tell them what they need, and they must figure out how to rise to that challenge. The steps go A-->B, rather than B-->A-->B and the player has more control over their final result. That's been successful, except that I'm still so used to the "OK, make a roll for me..." mode of play that I forget I need to set the difficulty or make the pull first. Just as important, if the players choose or realize they'll be failing, they have the choice to frame that failure themselves- creating their own explanations and descriptions.
I still haven't been able to settle down and read through Apocalypse World. I have the pdf but I really want to read it in hard-copy form. But the one idea I picked up from various gamer's discussion of it has been the idea of "spamming the setting." That is- when you're in a particular genre (Post-Apoc, High Fantasy, Modern Fantastic, Gritty Noir) make sure to throw details and elements of those tropes at the players. Make the fantastic sing, make the gritty feel grimy. Go over the top. That little piece of advice has been easier to remember and follow through with at the table than telling myself I need to add sensory details, drop names or the like. Instead I write "Spam XXX" at the top of each prep sheet and it sticks in my head.
Earlier this year I was thinking about a couple of related topics- why some PCs had frustrated me and what I wanted to do about a particular plot thread that the players had latched on to much earlier than I'd expected. Then the connection hit me. The PCs in question had made themselves static. They had character problems and issues but they wouldn't move forward on them. They had excuses- not enough time had passed in game, they weren't ready to share them with the group, they didn't want to change who their character was, they liked having secrets, they didn't trust their fellow PCs, no one really understood them, etc. That's a kind of defensiveness. John Wick in Blood & Honor explicitly talks about this- about players who have all of this super-cool baggage and backstory in their heads and won't share it at the table. The reasons for that can be various (not wanting to commit, not wanting to shift from the perfection in their mind, etc). But the result is that the other players don't and can't understand that player. They set up a loop of frustration between themselves and the rest of the table- because the other players "just don't get it..." and the other players can only logically assume that the player's being a selfish prick.
And a GM who doesn't let loose what's in their head is committing the same kind of selfishness. You may have the coolest plot and idea in your head, but it doesn't mean anything unless the PCs are actually making contact with it. Your precious snowflake of an idea is going to get battered around by the party. It is never going to be perfect- so pull back the curtain even if the time doesn't feel quite right. There's nothing worse than trying to tell the players after the campaign's over about all of the cool stuff you had planned but they never saw. Pull the trigger on your plots. You'll make new ones, you'll raise the stakes, and you'll give the story momentum.
Be explicit about victories for the players. Sometimes players do things that had repercussions elsewhere- shifts in bad guys' plots, changes in NPC reactions, or a tangent in the direction of the campaign. That knowledge serves as an intangible reward for the players. Give that to them. Either through meta-commentary or through news in the grapevine, tell the players when they've had success on that level. That's especially true for darker games where the down beats can keep coming fast and furious.
I ordered a large number of 12"x10"x4" Literature Mailer boxes. I've been using those to sort and organize my old campaign information and other projects. They store nicely on shelves and I can label them clearly. They're large enough to story small binders, plus notebooks and folders. Because I have a number of simultaneous ongoing campaigns, I put all of the materials for each on in a separate box. Then when I go to work on or run a session, I just pull that box down. When I'm done, I pack up everything and put it back. That's worked really well and helped keep me on task.
I started posting on this blog just to try out the blogs module. I'm still not completely convinced by it. The lack of an item on drop downs to link to blogs can be a problem. There's also the question of how useful they are to items discussed. They do show up under the items, so that does make them potentially more connected than general blog posts. The bigger question, I think, is one of visibility and whether more or fewer people will read blog posts vs. a general forum post. I expect I'll still keep posting here, since a chunk of this is cross-posting from my own blog, those some things are specific to here.
I do want to give a specific shout out to Dave Bernazzani and the productivity blog "Life, the Universe, and Everything" he did for a time earlier this year. More than perhaps any other thing this year, this had a direct and visible impact on my life this year. I applied several of the ideas he suggested and read several of the books he mentioned. In particular the Jim Rohn, mindfulness, and GTD suggestions were excellent. That led me to Dale Carnegie, which honestly changed my approach to many situations in my daily life.
explanation does not equal excuse
...And the Games Which Begat Us
Every once in a while, I'll post a piece and at the next game I'll hear, "Man, Lowell...someone pissed you off." I've usually taken on a particular player pet peeve, pointed at a bad behavior, or a addressed problems I've seen at the game table. They're often ones I (and other GMs) have wrestled with. Breaking down player types, trying to identify disruptions & riff on solutions, and figuring out "what went wrong" are easy fallback topics in many ways. They offer the illusion of being practical.
But here's the thing- I have really good players. I'm not actually talking about the present games. Most of the problems I've talked about over the last couple of years, the biggest ones- well, they're in the past. I'll admit that it is easier to focus on the negative, to pick out what goes wrong in a group than to pick out what goes right. With that in mind, I want to analyze what my players do well.
Right now I have a solid core group of a dozen players spread across five campaigns. In the extended group beyond that, I know about another dozen who I've played with or met and would play with again. We've lost a few people from the group over the last few years, but generally that's been about incompatibility. And we'll leave that at that. I want to focus on the positive here.
I love having a diverse cast of background characters- and the players usually do as well. They're open to the extra detail of having lots of names, knowing that they get greater choice about interactions and relationships. The players generally treat NPCs realistically- not assuming them to be cardboard cutouts, tools for the GM or a means to screw them over. Attitudes may shift once they get to know the NPCs, but players understand that an NPC has his own agenda and desires, existing for themselves and not for the party. At the same time, the players assume that should the players wish to engage to conflict with an NPC, that will be handled realistically. The shopkeeper won't turn out to be 50th level, an urchin won't be an assassin, etc. The players don't read NPCs as Mary-Sue characters who can't be overcome or as tenpins to be knocked over.
The group's unselfish. That's a trait that really demonstrates mature play. If a player knows they're about to get a chance at a big scene, more often than not, they'll bring along another player to share in the action. If someone hasn't gotten as much table time, the players are just aware of that as I am and try to push that forward. If another player wants to interact with an NPC that a player has a standing relationship with, they encourage that. If someone's had the center-stage for a long time, they'll usually step back in the next scene. If other players need help or support, the players inevitably step up to the less glamorous task of backing someone up.
Just as the GM strives to say Yes or Yes, But... instead of No, my players do the same thing with each other and with plot, subplots and details that I throw at them. They don't negate things but take those elements and run with them. They're excellent improvisers and quick on their feet.
When presented with a challenge, my players rise to it. I'm not talking about the easy stuff like combat. Combat's a fallback- a place where people have solid ground underneath them, and mechanics to back them up. No, what I mean is that when my players face real questions: moral dilemmas, character development questions, social challenges, problems requiring sacrifice- they don't shut down. They might grind their teeth, they might wrestle with the problem, they might get upset (in character) about the costs involved- but they rise to deal with it. They don't pout, they don't get angry, they don't go passive-aggressive at the table. They use those challenges as a chance for drama, a chance to show who they are, and a chance to move the story in the direction they want.
They don't like to lose, but when they do- they run with it. They deal with setbacks and use them as a motivation to push themselves forward. They expect me to be fair with that, and give them serious obstacles but not GM fiat losses. They also know that I'm careful with some of the player hot-button issues (like hostages, surrender and being captured) and pull those out rarely.
I have a group of players who approach problems in very different ways. Some tend to direct, some to sneaky, some to negotiation, and some to crazy. Combine that with differences in what the players value in terms of solutions- compromise, victory, a heap of bloody corpses and you end up with some radically different takes on the game. But the players work through those differences. They balance those contradictory impulses. They talk to one another. Everyone gets a voice.
I had a player several years ago get really angry at the table because the other players were discussing an approach to invading a bad guys stronghold. He hated the need for discussing at all at the table- everything had to be get 'em. He doesn't play with us anymore. Planning is a part of play for most of the group- a chance to discuss options, figure out player strengths and call on resources. Players who step up to the leadership role are usually pretty good about involving everyone in that discussion. Everyone participates in that process.
On the flip side, my players don't overplan. They talk about what they can do, they assess possible obstacles, and consider solutions- but they don't dwell on every conceivable obstacle. They know that sometimes they have to just jump. We've also worked out some openness with that- if the players have taken at least some time to talk about their approach, they gain some room to "retcon" preparations. They have the tools they need, they can spend resources like drama points to set things up, etc. They also know that challenges and surprise are part of the game. Sometimes things go like clockwork and sometimes a monkey-wrench comes flying their direction. But they trust the table enough to be willing to go forward.
I've been playing with some of this group for many, many years. We've played through many of the classic genres and tropes (fantasy, horror, supers) but my players still manage to throw me for a loop. I tend to set up open-ended situations, without defining solutions or exits. I count on them to be able to figure something out- I trust in their abilities. But from time to time, they absolutely blow my mind with the connections they make, the ideas they pull out and the approaches they take. They've completely turned the direction of campaigns around more times than I care to count. Years ago, that might have been grounds for me to retool the plot to make it more challenging, but now I try to reward inspirational success like that.
At the same time, I can pull out surprises for my players- and they're generous enough to admit shock. I'd say I manage to pull out fewer of those twists on them than they do on me, but they're pretty smart as a collective group and as individuals.
I try not to run when I'm sick, tired or off my game. But it happens. Just as players have sessions that don't click for them, I do too. They're willing to take a skip week if necessary. When I quit smoking a couple of years ago, just as I was coming off three weeks of bronchitis, all combined with my birthday ending up crummy, most of the players were incredibly gracious and generous towards me. They're good people.
Rules rarely come up in the group. If I'm wrong about a rule, the players know enough to mention it after a game or scene is done (unless it will dramatically impact the moment). They're tactful and good with their criticism, never coming at me antagonistically. Rarely, if ever, do we end up going to the books to look things up and bringing the game to a halt.
I'd say only a few people in the group seriously follow what's happening in rpg gaming. You end up with a couple of folks who keep an eye on that, myself included. I read a lot of gaming blogs and try to see what's going on with new games. And every once in a while I bring some of those things to the table: new techniques for character examination, new approaches to resolution, new mechanics for handling sub-systems like chases. Most of these are experiments and some of them work better than others. The groups are really good about willing to try those out. That's how we've ended up with an evolving homebrew that's picked up a lot of elements of FATE in the last year. Its how we used a modified version of Night's Black Agents chases for a fantasy session last Friday, and its how we decided to use Microscope as a tool for play.
But at the same time, the group's willing to speak up and advocate for what they do or don't like. They like some systems and games and speak up for them. That keeps the worst of my toolboxing tendencies in line. They seriously consider what they like about Game X vs. Game Y and will talk about that. I'm never worried that they aren't giving me their straight opinion on something.
They make me like their characters. That's not to say they always have likable characters- but when they have more prickly characters they balance that with vulnerabilities. They openly show their weakness and secrets, because playing those out at the table is more fun than being angsty and brooding. Ward's hard-bitten commander in HALO seemed like a gritty *sshole...until we ran into an alien race that terrified him with flashbacks from a mission gone wrong. Sherri's Wizened Changeling Sarah No-Tears is prickly and angry, but she explicitly addresses that in her play. It undercuts her in some situations and she lets the other players use it to wind her up. Chas; crazed fire warlock loves her pet dog magic item. Even when their characters are solidly good guys, they have flaws that make them sympathetic. Sergei's a handsome and noble hero, but he worries about the responsibility that brings. He has the pressure of expectations hanging over him- not all the time, but enough that his character feels solid and human.
My players like growing their characters. Beyond the concrete markers of spending points or adding levels, they like to evolve and change their characters. They learn from their mistakes and make new ones. If they have a tragic past, they might work to overcome that, fall back, and then struggle forward some more. They like playing limitations and flaws and enjoying figuring out opportunities to advance and move beyond those. They also know that secrets, flaws, plots and backstories don't mean anything unless they actually get played out at the table. That makes them much more open about dealing with and addressing those issues.
I really trust my players. And I think that they've got a degree of trust in me. I trust that they will rise to the occasion, and that's why I throw heavy stuff at them sometimes. I trust that they will talk to me if they're not enjoying something in the game. I trust that they'll mention and point to plots and stories that they really want to see played out. Trust doesn't come easily- it is a currency built up over time. I'm lucky enough to have a dynamite group, and I keep working to make sure I earn and repay their trust.
I have to thank a great group of players for an excellent year of gaming. I got the chance to participate in some campaigns that were an absolute blast to run. I also had the chance to play in a superb Fallout campaign run by Dave Enyeart, who sets the bar pretty high for me with his preparation, story and attention to detail.
My thanks to Sherri, Steve, Scott, Kenny, Dave, Ward, Jacque, Chas, Jeanne, Alan, Chris, Rob, Gene, and Kali.
Thu Dec 29, 2011 12:58 pm
explanation does not equal excuse
A couple of friends in my gaming circle generously offered guest posts for this month, to help me round out the year with some different voices and ideas. Today's post comes from
my wife and fellow gamer. She brings a different set of tool to thinking about games- as a woman and as a DBA. In discussions about rpgs she inevitably manages to clarify my thoughts about rpgs or turn me towards something I hadn't considered before.
The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Tabletop RPGs
What was not to like? Online RPGs had it all:
*...continuous incremental reinforcement and accrual
*...instant calculation of complicated “simulation” formulas
*...loot and quests and and tons of content—always something new and always something for any mood—player's choice
*...constant reassessment of class balance and additional skill improvements. No one strives harder for “fair” than the MMORPG designers
*...whatever versions of “social” worked for each player—be it guild leadership/politics, anonymous assholery & griefing or just chatting with acquaintances on a friends list
*...visual reinforcement of player achievements
*...strategic planning with others for epic battles—cooperative play that required strict roles and orderly implementation of a plan
Everquest took the first toll at our table—and World of Warcraft stole away a lot of the fence-sitters. Once the dust cleared after all the desertions, things looked different. And with every passing day, they look better.
We seem to have permanently lost a few players—most were problematic--needy for the constant continuous reinforcement or to have the content revolve around their whims. MMORPGS really were a better fit for them than tabletop.
A few players who left later returned. Some people, even among the tabletop stalwarts, still play MMORPGs. There's plenty to like there. But when they sit down now, they know better why they are there. Appreciation for the games is at an all-time high.
And we've gotten some new players—wives & sisters & friends of friends who would never have considered sitting down at table if they hadn't gotten sucked into the MMORPGs; these 'novices' come to the table with a vocabulary of strategic cooperative battle and the desire for something ...more.
These things are merely anecdotal evidence. Still, when I look around the table and I see how much things have changed, I'm amazed. There is more to it than just the passing years. I imagine these phenomena have occurred elsewhere. Certainly, the RPG industry seems to have changed. To my eyes, RPG designers began thinking harder about why people were at the table—or maybe just the RPG communities did- paying increased attention to products that delivered that 'something more' and thinking hard about what did make the hobby fun.
I haven't seen a lot of discussion of the MMORPGs in the RPG community– what I have stumbled across treats MMORPG players as an entirely separate customer base or hobby community. But they're not. MMORPG players are RPG players—past, present and future.
What the industry response has been, whether a direct response to MMORPGs or not, is a boatload of really amazing and satisfying RPG material and some interesting back and forth about what RPGs really are.
In the last few years, we've seen some the corporate RPG houses take a distinctly business-like tact. The Old School community, on the other hand, is keeping their chin up and throwing some punches (and a lot of insults). Indie gaming has deployed their agents to every lecture hall, three-ring circus and performance art venue in the industrialized world. Different responses, each of them—but ones that each distill a distinct set of essences from the RPG paradigm and proffer it as the 'more' that fills the MMORPG voids.
It's The Real Thing
Some MMORPG players came out of those games expecting 'fair and balanced' systems of some complexity, lots of skill options, strong roles with important duties assigned to each role, and constant updates. If they came back to RPGs, they came back because they wanted more of the same at a slower pace and in a less-populated (and possibly as less-competitive) setting. Corporate RPGs sensibly filled that need. It was an established (and large) consumer base—why ignore it?
THE Corporate RPG, D&D 4e, opted for video-game simulation. Weird, huh? It's popular with the kids after all. And they're right. A great deal of what drew tabletop players to MMORPGs is in 4e. What's the difference? It's much slower. It's not 24/7. Players get all the crunch, but don't need the reflexes or the attention span or the patience for organizing a guild raid. And no one can get ahead by playing more hours. The balance, the strict roles and the constant changes/improvements...nerfs?...to each class—as well as a ton of mechanics to allow players to leverage their every experience point—still gleam with promise. But the pace is so much nicer. And 4e has all the usual tabletop charm—socializing, a little story, a character to call your own. Like all the best-known brands, it's got a comfortable universality too—lots of other people are playing it.
Now I'm also going to categorize Paizo's Pathfinderas corporate. Don't hate me. I know they're not WOTC. But they took the old corporate package, cleaned it up, tied a bow on it and taught the RPG community all over again about what's important to have from a corporate RPG system: good packaging, familiar system, large user base, steady stream of new product including new options & modules, and the ability to maintain a semblance of concern for customer feedback. They share the same feature list as 4e for post-MMORPG appeal. Just by virtue of not being entirely new (because we all know it's 3.5 in a better tailored suit), they've acquired a thin coat of attractive sepia-toned nostalgic lacquer that the the Old School revolution claims as their own.
Of course, not all corporate RPG designers joined the revolution. GURPS, for example, is still the same old attempt at a blow-by-blow simulation of everything under the sun. It has it's niche and it's loyal players and those don't seem to be going away—but GURPS hasn't changed nor has it's community. White Wolf blew it's setting up and rebooted with more mechanics on top of their old system—and while a few of the new lines were strong, they lost a lot of their loyal fans by changing their heavy hitters. They seem to be responding more to changes in the publishing industry than to changes in the RPG community. Plenty of other true-to their-tradition RPGs are still out there treading water.
And while neither exactly traditional or corporate, D20 did manage to become the Linux of the RPG world; it inspired a bunch of DIYers by giving them an open-source version of a less-than-cutting-edge system. It's had it's heyday—but the overwhelming number of mediocre products undermined it's credibility. If it tapped into anything that resonated with the post-MMORPG crowd, it was the joy of creating—but this was at the level of the publication and not a process that occurred at the table. Some interesting content was created—and some of the best thinkers about that system (or minor variations thereof) put together very good materials. Mutants and Masterminds remains the greatest standout for me—one of the best superhero systems yet made. But I don't see it or any of the other d20 products/offshoots as being a response to MMORPGs. It was more a reaction to the idea of open-source than to MMORPGs.
Nostalgia Makes Everything Prettier
The Old School community responded to MMORPGs by digging their heels in. They knew what was good—and if you couldn't see the charm of the Old School RPG, you weren't right in the head or one of the club or something. And they were correct enough. No MMORPG offers the experience of the Old School canon (or their new stuff). And curiosity has a purpose.
The Old School movement maintains that the charm of RPGs lies in the very quirkiness of the old mechanics and settings and the shared experience of playing those modules. Balance be damned. This is about gaming history and the fun of mining a pre-designed setting and doing it by the book. These are the champions of the funhouse dungeons and the Runes of Death. And, frankly, it's the province of something that MMORPGs are definitely not—this is where heroes, loners and munchkins all bow to the inscrutable failure. Old School knows the dice will kill you—and if they don't, a single bad choice can. Did you look in the chest? You die! Or are possessed! Or find the key that you absolutely need to leave the dungeon! And there were no hints! Okay—maybe it's not all like that. But it's there. Sometimes it's about 'rolling a character'-- where there are clearly better and worse options—and you are stuck with what you roll. The sickly, ugly, unskilled beggar and the handsome, well-trained noble start out in the same group—and, yes, the beggar is truly a wretch in all ways—no hidden talents or secret organizations...
And the fun of it is that every group who plays the module or the setting has to survive the same hazards. Failure is okay. It doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't get you kicked out of the guild. After each untimely death, you just roll up a new character and get back in there. Who knows, maybe this time you'll be to be a pit fighter or a circus acrobat. And hopefully you laugh a lot and rejoice in your hard-won triumphs. That idea is pretty gorgeous.
It also stinks of old-timey fun that isn't always all that fun. Like a croquet game in whites on a too-hot summer day, the stories afterward may sound intriguing and a little romantic. But if you are truthful, the pleasure of the game was 9/10s the company you were in and only 1/10 the game and the costumes and the setting. Still, there's value in re-visiting the old stuff—there were snatches of brilliance. And the ability to laugh off a horrendous outcome for a fictional character that you enjoyed playing is invaluable to enjoying all the rest of your RPG years. So if I'm not convinced that nostalgia is actually the response to MMORPGs that fills any need except for the wish to draw a line in the sand and establish us/them on experiential grounds and bragging rights, well, that's probably because I don't have a great many fond Old School memories. Maybe I didn't play the right Old School game.
There! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ...
An Indie game? Hoo boy. Here's where the theorists are at work. It's a feast, if you're in to that sort of thing..and by that sort of thing, I mean any sort of thing. There's an Indie game that's just as in to that sort of thing as you are. The ones that seem to me to have gained currency due to the MMORPGs involve a few core concepts: 'the RP stands for roleplay', genre simulation, shared creation and increased player control. There's too many to even get close to listing all the note-worthies—so I'm going to point to a few examples.
I tie these to MMORPGs because they are exactly what no MMORPG can give anyone in satisfying measure. A MMORPG player is an insect in swarm—a well-served insect, but still, a mere insect. Sometimes the MMORPGs come up with some system to respond to the behavior of the swarm in a permanent and world-changing way—but a single gnat never makes a difference. And there is no roleplay—you can blather all day in your character's 'voice' but you can't really do anything outside fighting/crafting/questing/sightseeing the same things everyone else can and does fight/craft/quest/sightsee.. And no amount of creativity will allow you to turn WoW into a shared spy caper. You can't trump the random-number generator of the MMORPG engine no matter how important the situation is to you. You can't make up your own city and have any meaningful content there.
And here's the thing. RPGs are a form of creative play. There's the creation and acting out of a character. There's a story that is being told—but who's telling it and how that's arbitrated decides what's getting told and how. There's a setting and a reason the group is in the same place—maybe that's decided by genre, maybe by the GM or maybe by the players. MMORPG players have got their constant continuous reinforcement—but that doesn't mean they have found satisfaction. They come away from the swarm wanting experiences that are unique, stories that they can get involved in right away, characters free to do what makes sense...and they want to have some control when the random number generator betrays them. After years of grinding their characters up to max level, they've been rewarded with ...the opportunity for more grinding? No—there must be somewhere their devotion pays off.
This is not to say that corporate RPGs or Old School RPGs don't have anything for some of these issues—but the majority of those systems consist primarily of extensive mechanics for skirmish. The roots of war-gaming is apparent. And so, if the antidote for a malaise borne of hacking your way through a dungeon online is to hack your way through some other whatsit at the table at a slower pace and with fewer people, then you're definitely okay with one of the above. But it might be time for something a little different.
What about horror? Don't Rest Your Head
What about hard-boiled action? Hollowpoint
What about dark comedy? Fiasco
What about drama? Dogs In The Vineyard
What's interesting is that these are NOT just setting books plunked on top of a system...these are games that build the genre conventions into the mechanics. The games are engineered to deliver the mounting suspense and the inevitable (and often tragic) endings of their genre—and to do it fairly, logically, evenhandedly and ruthlessly. These are genre simulations. First time players are going to come out of these games amazed at what has just happened that they willingly helped happen.
It doesn't take a degree in Drama Engineering to make an RPG that can simulate a genre. The time-honored method of using a good rules engine and altering it to fit a genre lives on. The trick is to choose a rules engine that features some of the desired qualities. Fate 3.0 gives the player quick access to an interesting playable character and control when the dice play hard-ball—and the system has been beautifully adapted to a range of genres. For instance, Diaspora, a FATE adaptation for sci-fi gaming features player-created clusters that serve as the home base for the players, mini-games for different conflict types and an array of interesting ways to use the simple FATE mechanics to drive dramatic scenes—ways available to both GM and players. A FATE adaptation of Kerberos Club actually delivers a surprising amount of the Steampunk you may have been wishing for and never finding elsewhere. GUMSHOE was built for investigative games and has been adapted to multiple genres--and it has able handlers in Robin Laws and Ken Hite. Burning Wheel has a couple variations—including it's own strange fantasy setting and Mouse Guard (which is one gorgeous RPG book)--and it has a unique method of sharing control between GM and player that may be exceedingly palatable to players coming from the absolute GM-control world—Burning Wheel is not at all loosey-goosey.
There is no game that more clearly reveals the honest pleasure of shared creation than Microscope. Further validation of the players' efforts by incorporating the results in a standard RPG campaign just keeps the good feelings rolling. The game itself is simple enough that people want to argue that it's hardly revolutionary—but they are crazy-wrong. Try it. Play it with people you've known for years—especially ones you think you know backwards and forwards. Play it with mere acquaintances. You will come out of the experience with a completely new appreciation of your gaming circle. They're brilliant people, it turns out. At least, I hope for you it turns out that way.
And then there are the Indie games that put the roleplay back into RPG. I do think these are the ones the haters are most afraid of. Kagematsu is certainly a fearsome beast—and Love in the Time of Seid is not for the faint of heart. But dang, even if I never get to play these games, I need to be thinking about these types of games and surrounding myself with people who would play these games so that I can remember that roleplay is more than funny voices and awkward explanations when you choose to do something suboptimal. Because if I want to be heroic, I've got to learn to risk being foolish or tragically wrong...
So I wrote this.
Next year: more games, more risks.
explanation does not equal excuse
PREMISE VS. PROMISE
A campaign's only as good as its last session.
I really believe that- at least as the campaign stands in memory. There are some exceptions- campaigns which peter out or crash & burn will likely stand on a singular good session or memory of what led to the game's collapse. But if you wrap your campaign up, if you have an ending- it had better be a damn good one.
PARADOX OR CONTRADICTION?
As a GM you're desperately trying to serves different masters. On the one hand, you want that session to stand on its own. It should have a rising arc, a climax and then some form of denouement or resolution. You have to lead into your swing- and a rookie mistake is to have a session setting up the big fight and then handling the fight on the next session. You need some build up, a chance to build anticipation for that session itself. Rolling for initiative isn't that- and it focuses on the tactical aspect over the narrative. That last session has to be a complete story, setting the stakes, providing the conflict.
On the other hand, that last session has to support the weight of all the sessions which came before it. It has to live up to the challenges which came before it. It has to resolve some, if not all of the dangling plot threads. At the very least it has to tug on them before moving on. Depending on the kind of story you're telling and how long the game's been going on- that can be a hell of a lot of threads. And that doesn't even take into consideration that what a GM sees as a thread to be resolved may be very different from what the player sees.
DESTINY VS. FREE WILL
Another difficulty lies in the path of a train. If you're a GM who prides themselves on openess and improvisation, how do you "plan" for an ending. The concept seems a little contradictory. On the other hand, if you have written your ending- planned it out. How do you handle it when the players jump the rails? For other sessions you'd have more games to put the fixes in, so it wouldn't be a problem. And smacking players back onto the path is a sure way to make them feel powerless in the place where you want them to feel most powerful, or at least in control.
I'm a loose game planner. Depending on where the plot is, I usually try to focus on brainstorming details and ideas, think about which NPCs might interesting to encounter, figure out something for each player, and come up generally with plots that are open or need to arrive. I set up situations, but I don't usually think about solutions- I leave that in the players' hands. I might have a couple of ideas, but generally a table of smart people chewing on the problem will come up with a better approach than I can off the cuff. As a GM I'm usually thinking about a different level than the players and that can give them an edge.
SCRIPT OR PLOT?
So for an ending, I'm usually thinking about these things:
*getting them to the conflict
*how do I set the stakes
*what's the potential environment like
*who the opposition is
*what cool things can the opposition do
But, of course, I try not to marry myself to those sketches; the players may pull something out that makes all of that invalid. So I try to focus on those last two things, plus these two key elements:
*One or two moments for each player
For the first, this may be a chance to show off their particular skills, the appearance of a hated rival, the presence of a beloved NPC, or the revelation of something regarding their character. For the second, something the players weren't expecting has to happen during the conflict. It can be bizarre or tangential- but something has to happen that runs counter to their expectations. Avoid things that undercut the players cool (like the appearance of an NPC or group to save the day) and know that it doesn't have to be adversarial- it can just be strange. The twist should make the players uncertain about the way that they'd pictured things rolling out. They may have a sense of the inevitability of their win (and it may be inevitable) but this introduces a moment of doubt.
Kill one, all but one, or none. Now if you're playing a tactical RPG with no room for error or modification of results, then ignore what I have to say- in fact, probably most of what I'm saying here won't apply to you. It may get a bad rap, but the "Man behind the Curtain" GM approach really helps in the final session. If you're going to seriously go for the death of a death in the final session, assuming you haven't been killing them all along, then just kill or martyr one character. By martyr, I mean, allow them to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If you kill more than one, then you split the power of that dramatic scene in half. If you're going to kill more than one, then gack everyone except for a last man standing to tell the tale. Anything in between dilutes the moment.
Late in the key conflict- chase, fight, debate, caper- be on the lookout for significant moments. Play those up and give them emphasis- slow down and use them as an excuse for a turning point or to wrap things up. And a good turning point is a quick false or real victory, with a resulting sudden rise of the stakes and continuation of the conflict. For example, a player stabs the demon possessed emperor who has been behind things, killing the villains- but it turns out there's an infernal portal which still needs to be closed or the world will be destroyed. Or the characters blow up and escape from the bad guys wasteland fortress- only to discover an army of crazed biker minions still pursuing them.
Both true stories.
Or at least they happened in a game.
Finally, remember that for the final conflict you don't have a budget. Spam the fantastical or whatever elements dominate the genre you're running.
CURTAIN VS. EPILOGUE
Once the conflict's over- don't be afraid to move to some narrative moments. Keep an eye out- the player who managed to get the least cool in the conflict should get the most immediate scene or thread resolution. I mentioned before the GM fear that they won't wrap up every plot thread. The truth is: you won't. But if you wrap up at least one major or significant thread per player, they will forgive you. They'll focus on that. Get to those quickly. If elements of those threads are present at the scene of that conflict, then do those immediately. You may be exhausted, but press through.
Here's where it gets tricky. You've got a couple of approaches here, two big choices. You can either walk off into the sunset or go for an epilogue.
Walk off into the sunset really works for shorter campaigns- but sometimes they just pop up out of the blue- a visual moment that seems to sum things up. I had that in a fantasy campaign where the players did some HeroQuesting, fought the big bad, and then popped out in a field, now turning verdant green outside their adopted city. They looked at each other, dusted themselves off and walked on home as the camera panned away. It was the right ending for that game, even though it left many personal sub-plots unresolved, if encapsulated the practical theme of the campaign.
If you decide to go for the epilogue- get in, get out, get done. Take control of the narrative and run it- you can let players react and perhaps interact with a couple of people, but don't stretch it out too long. Don't be afraid to do some scripting ahead of time. If it fits you can use it, if if doesn't then drop it. Again, try to focus on one or two details for each player- threads that need to be resolved. Taking a strong narrator approach to wrapping things up here can work- "the camera pans over the ruined city..." or "...you see the doors open and the heroes come down to receive medals...". If players have stated ambitions- then you can have those fulfilled. Otherwise be careful about making decisions for them- have them offered a job or a position, rather than taking in (think of the ending of Sanjuro for an example). Tell the story quickly and with some closure. You can make it work, but...
Don't drag it out. Quickly told- in and out- wrap it up. Then the players can talk about what happened and decompress.
Whatever you do: don't over explain stuff. Leave questions unanswered. If there were things happening that you thought were particularly clever as a GM, but was either stuff that the players missed or couldn't have known- SHUT UP. If the players want to know about that, they can ask later. Focus on their story, rather than yours.
SO WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?
In 2012, most of the campaigns I'm running will wrap up- which means this weighs heavily on my mind. And I've been thinking about the next campaigns- which you can see here: The Next Worlds: Campaign Plans
explanation does not equal excuse
So far I've used Ben Robbins' Microscope three times to create campaign world backgrounds (The Fleet Departs, The Hunt Begins: Artifacts Wielding Heroes, and The Road to Doubtfall). Each group has enjoyed doing that and I think they've been more invested or at least aware of the background as a result. They know as much as the GM at the start, and can still be surprised when the GM twists or uses something from that history in a new or novel way. That's especially true when something created by a player comes back to them at the table. In any case, Microscope has been the best game purchase I've made this year and the product which has most inspired me.
Next years will see all five of my campaigns wrapping up, so I've been working on a list of capsule ideas. I'll come back to those in a later post. Some of the ideas I'd batted around I'm enthused about, some might work with the groups, and some might not work at all. When I started thinking about these, I also began to think about how I might use Microscope as a lead in. It works better for some concepts. For example if I end up doing a Trail of Cthulhu game, I want an aura of mystery and detachment. But for other games it practically demands to be used. One idea I had that has stuck with me has been a fantasy City Guards campaign (given my love for games like L-1: City of Lies). I figured I could set that up with a session of Microscope. Then I started thinking further- having a history could help, but what I really need is to build an interesting and living city- one the players knew and had an investment in.
MICROSCOPE VS. SURVEYOR'S TOOLS
So here's my approach- a pretty obvious one- but one I hope the players will enjoy. Most of them have done Microscope before, so they should be comfortable with the structure. We've played with a modified version of the "scene" rules. We did this in interests of time, since we had a larger group. In the standard rules, a player adds a scene below an event. That scene takes the form of a question about the event (Why did the Duke decide to abandon his mistress? What made Aquaman decide to call off the sharks?). Then players take up characters on the fly and play until that question has been answered. Then play moves on. In our games, players could add scenes by stating a question about an event. They could then answer that question themselves or point to another player to answer it. This lacks the actual rp of Microscope but it worked fairly well for our purposes.
Here's how I imagine City Building using Microscope:
Begin with a premise, a simple statement about the city. (Decaying New England Industrial Town, Dwarven Trade Center). Obviously you should have some sense of the genre there.
Build a palette. If there are elements which might usually appear in the setting/genre but you don't want, establish those (i.e. no dragons in a fantasy game). Alternately, if there are elements which might not appear in the setting/genre, this can be established (i.e. fairies in a vampire game). This should be done by some consensus, with players offering options until someone passes. So pretty much we follow the normal Microscope structure, with a narrow focus.
Normally players would now take turns adding elements to the timeline. We follow that structure for turns (one free round, players begin and end a round, legacy ideas) but what we're actually adding differs:
Neighborhoods: At the top level, players will name and describe a neighborhood of the city. These can be districts, neighborhoods, sections, markets, souks, precincts, wards, quarters, hoods, etc. They might be defined by walls or by common lore (the High Castle vs. the Gathering Wells). Any neighborhood should be large enough to contain a number of lesser elements. Right now we won't care about the relative size or if there's any overlap (the GM can sort that out after). We also don't care about the geography. Players should name and offer a general description of their neighborhood. The general tone and wealth of the neighborhood should be understood from the description. Order and placement doesn't matter. This element corresponds to Eras in Microscope.
Sights (or Sites): Below each neighborhood will be a collection of sights. A sight is a Person (shopkeeper, rumormonger, civic leader, mysterious wanderer, local kook), a Place (a store, an inn, a burned out grotto, place of execution, warehouses, a temple, a gypsy camp), or a Thing (a particular festival held there, an important guild, the enclave of a race, a secret organization). The order of Sights below a neighborhood doesn't matter. This element corresponds to Events in Microscope.
Rumors: Finally, each Sight may have one or more Rumors attached to it. A rumor should be a statement or question about the sight. Rumors can be floating among the populace or may be limited to a particular group. Most importantly, they may or may not be true- or they may be partially true. So a rumor about a person might be "He's actually legate for a demon prince from the land of Iod." A rumor about a place might be "People looking for rare herbs can usually find them here." A rumor about a thing might be "The festival may be delayed this year because of the vanishing of the youngest daughter of the high priest." This element corresponds to Scenes in Microscope.
Players will end up constructing the history, people and details of the setting as they build the city. They're encouraged to develop connections between people, use elements from one neighborhood in the story of another, and twist things around as they wish- so long as they don't directly contradict something established. Of course rumors don't directly establish things, but more hint at concepts. The idea behind rumors is that these develop local color, give the GM plot hooks, and even more importantly give the players storylines they can opt to pick up and develop as they see fit in play. In that way, players will be building their own version of the The Kaiin Players Guide or the RumorQUEST system from products like Geanavue: The Stones of Peace.
NOW TO THE MAPPING
I think this might actually work- but to put it into play after will require the GM to organize things after. They should draw a rough map after the creation, actually putting things in a physical relation to one another. Special locations can then be marked on the map. I have to do some more thinking about the process- for example, how determining the Focus works in the each round, but I think it has real potential.
Now here's how I'd actually put this into play...
The players taking the role of city guards in a fantasy city. The actual genre background could be anything (steampunk, high fantasy, more medieval)- determined in this case by the city creation session. Players would work to maintain order, uncover conspiracies, limit the Thieves Guild, and most importantly- keep adventurers from burning the whole place down. I imagine the city would work best as a crossroads (like Lanhkmar) with several distinct cultures and/or races. Players could come from all walks of life, perhaps some having been sell-swords before taking an arrow to the knee. I see this as a hybrid procedural/networking/adventuring campaign.
To that end, I'd probably use a portion of GUMSHOE- at least the investigation mechanics. I talked about a number of hacks for that earlier. One option would be to pick up Lorefinder, the GUMSHOE adaptation for Pathfinder, and use that. That might work for other GMs but I haven't played PF and heading that route would take some investment or time and learning. More likely I would build a hack using either modifying either the standard resolution rules of GUMSHOE or FATE. For the former, I could easily adapt over some of the new "Thriller" combat, chase and action options from Night's Black Agents. For the latter, I'd have a little bit looser framework to play with. FATE has the advantage of being something my players have started to enjoy and building some of the sub-systems I want would be easier. Some things to consider:
In Mutant City Blues, all superpowers fit on a chart called the Quade Diagram. So if you see evidence of one kind or power or effect, you can look nearby on the chart and make an assessment of the other likely powers. That's a conceit that helps make the set-up playable in a straight mystery campaign. I think that you could build a similar device for magic in a fantasy setting. Mages might have access to several different schools, each with some specialties. They could be really distinctive, like the magic traditions presented in Greg Stolze's Reign. Alternately, it might be fun to build a set of characteristics (smells, physical components, visual cues, etc) associated with different kinds of occult practices. Different chantries could be given their own magical personalities or signatures. Perhaps different magics might be distinctive across racial or ethnic lines. Ideally these kinds of details would be nice pieces of the puzzle for the players. I don't necessarily want to have the logic challenge depth of something like Lord d'Arcy, but magic should offer clues and have limitations.
AREAS OF EXPERTISE
I'd go with a smaller pool of investigative skills (a always default to that terminology)- and I probably should look at Lorefinder to see how they handle it. We'd want a number of lore skills. Cultural and/or Racial Lores would be useful and ideally we'd keep the number of those small, which offers a constraint on the setting. Monster Lore would be a useful ability as well, especially if something got loose in the city. That would be an investigative skill with a combat or tagging element as well. How one breaks up 'forensics' would be a question. Could a warrior identity a style or a weapon from the wounds inflicted?
I would also consider issues of corruption, evidence disposal, covering up and so on. (I've been watching the Aurelio Zen series, so I have that in mind). Pull with superiors could have a rating and be based performance and "keeping things quiet" instead of how well you actually solve crimes. That rating or pool could be used for favors, access to resources or covering one's ass. Drawing on it too much depletes it- meaning you don't have it as a defense when the heat comes down. Cover Up or Evidence Disposal might be its own skill, or simply an aspect of the existing skills. I wouldn't have the player competing against one another- instead I think have aspects or ratings represent trust and teamwork between them could be more useful. Of course all of this could be treated more seriously or more comedic, depending on how the GM wants to turn that dial.
Also of interest to me would be developing some mechanic for players establishing relationships with people or groups. I know Smallville uses something like this and Ken Hite mentioned a mechanic like this in discussing the future Evil Hat project, Bubblegumshoe. You could have a general network or contact skill, but then gain specific affiliations. Your relative reputation and level of corruption could affect who would deal with you- I like the idea of tracking those on a spectrum. But for example, if a PC has established a link/relationship with someone from a minority group (let's say Gnomes) he might be able to spend or invoke that connection when dealing with a Gnomish Anarchist collective. Of course doing that strains and might even break the tie. The obvious idea would be to have friends in places like the Wizards' Chantry, the King's Guard, the Thieves Guild and so on. I think having some mechanism for public trust and friends in the community could serve as a nice balance or "carrot/stick" device for the players.
So that's the idea- when I try out the city building exercise I will report back. I'd be curious if anyone else has done collaborative city creation, either using this system or another.
explanation does not equal excuse
I'm a big fan of GUMSHOE, I have all of the core system books, and even have the limited editions of Bookhounds of London and Ashen Stars. I think there's dynamite stuff there- and the recent pre-order of Ken Hite's Night's Black Agents really caught my attention. I've been going through that pdf and I hope to have a couple of other posts on that this week- a sample conspiracy and an overview of what NBA brings to the GUMSHOE system. That being said, I'm a also a wuss apparently.
THE FUTURE OF GUMSHOE
I've expressed some reservations about GUMSHOE's system for contests, for rolled resolution. That primarily uses one side of the system, general abilities. Last week, I happened to listen to the Pelgrane Press forum which took place at the Dragonmeet convention, a panel including Simon Rogers, Ken Hite and Robin Laws. You can find the hour-long audio here. The panel's especially interesting in that they give some insight into upcoming projects- including the possibility of a Trail of Cthulhu China sourcebook.
They also touch on some areas close to my interests. Robin Laws shoots down the idea of a GUMSHOE Companion or Compendium. And he does so quite rightly- as he defines it. He describes a compendium bringing together the variant rules and options from the different GUMSHOE books into a single resource. I agree that's a bad idea- it isn't particularly useful, undercuts the market for the different game lines, and establishes a "canon" for GUMSHOE rules. GS isn't a generic rules system in the way that Hero or GURPS is- instead it is a game engine which means that while the different flavors share some basic mechanics, there's no call for uniformity or established baselines between the games. I talked about that factor in generic systems a while back.
On the other hand, I don't think that completely invalidates my desire for a GUMSHOE Compendium. I imagine it more as a factbook or a collection of new ideas and options. Perhaps something done purely electronically, pdf rather than print. I talked about my wishlist for that kind of project in this post- which included (among other ideas) brief articles on historical period mysteries, new versions of the Quade diagrams for other settings, and Nancy Drew style games. This last one, it turns out, will be among the versions of GUMSHOE which Evil Hat will be doing- using relationship mapping as an element. I'm really looking forward to that.
EMBRACE THE NEGATIVE
But of course, one thing I'd like to see are some alternate rules approaches, some serious retooling of the system- hacks and options. Ken Hite takes up that question in the panel- suggesting that what might be useful would be an approved wiki or webspace where GUMSHOE people could offer their own system flavors and options...
...which he calls Whiny-Baby GUMSHOE, or later, WhineSHOE. I shouldn't be too surprised by that, since Robin Laws specifically calls players and GMs who want to state difficulties ahead of rolls wusses (page 68, Ashen Stars).
So here's the thing- I'm willing to accept that label, to take that dismissal. I really love GUMSHOE, and you can see that in the many positive reviews I've written of the products. (GUMSHOE, Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, Bookhounds of London, The Armitage Files, etc.). And my goal is to have a game, a system that my group will enjoy playing. Because they didn't over the several different campaigns we played it with, across two GMs and distinct casts of players.
And mean to to use some of the elements I really love about the game, I have to run a WhineSHOE campaign. And I'm fine with that. I have to hack the parts my players didn't enjoy. And I shared their reaction when I played. I suspect our group's developed in a different direction- we've been playing together for many years, the longest of us together since the mid-1980's. Even the newest members of the group have been with us for at least five years. That means that we've developed habits of play, likes and dislikes, and have tried many different systems. All of the group's have a remarkable level of trust and they're generally willing to try anything, any genre, any system. We have a few exceptions- my wife would cringe if I ran HERO and a couple of people would flee if I suggested Rolemaster. But we have a solid level of fun- and that's the group I want to run for.
I think we have tailor the game to the group, not the other way around.
MAKING IT MY GUMSHOE
Again, I don't want to suggest GUMSHOE is bad or broken. If I were doing conventional horror, I would stick with the GUMSHOE. Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu all pretty much work for me. The uncertainty and feeling of stress and powerlessness works there. That's why I think highly variable "The dice screwed me" systems like All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Cyberpunk 2020 work to model their respective genres. The die represents the fickle middle digit of fate. If I were going to do a longer horror campaign, however, I'd probably make changes because I've found the resource tracking wearisome for more than a few sessions. And for games like Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues I would significantly retool because I don't want the same tension as I want in a horror game. Just as I wouldn't use Dread to do a classic high romance fantasy game or FATE to do a terror scenario, I wouldn't use GUMSHOE as it is for certain genres with my group.
So let's consider the dimensions of the problem, based on the reactions I had from our group. I should also point to to responses Simon Rogers had to a couple of the issues I mention here- with some interesting approaches to the system.
GUMSHOE uses a single d6 for action resolution. That means a fairly narrow range of results, with any modifier positive or negative, offering significant shift. This means that certain elements, such as weapons fall end up grouped together, with only a few options. I'm not opposed to that, though some may not care for it. But the flat line of the d6 bothers some players- especially those who prefer a curve or at least some granularity to the results. I think some of this is more an emotional reaction to the sparseness of the results, but that's still a legitimate response.
2. Spends and Uncertainty
In our groups players often felt a lack of control in the general ability system, despite the spend system. Not knowing the difficulty obscured judgement. The narrow range of the system made spends feel like guesswork, rather than a strategic or tactical decision. As a result, they viewed their characters as completely buffeted by fate or incompetent. A good roll could be just as wasteful as a bad roll depending on the amount spent.
As the years have gone on, we've moved to less reference and less tracking of details in our games. Fringe systems such as fatigue, exhaustion, reaction rolls and the like have fallen to the wayside. General abilities (and to a lesser and more manageable extent investigative abilities) require tracking, marking and revising. Some abilities refresh at different rates.
There are a couple of other problems which could be considered, but I think they're secondary-
4. Can GUMSHOE Model Action?.
The blog Nerdtropolis has discussed this. I'm not sure I entirely agree with him, but he has a point- especially if that's the experience his group had with the system. I'd suggest looking at the new tools Night's Black Agents offers. Many of them make chases, combat and action more interesting and more dynamic. Beyond that, I'm not sure any of the options I suggest below address this problem, especially since our games have been moving towards more and more abstract combat/action sequences.
5. Excessive Number of Abilities
This is a personal preference. I come out of years of playing games with lots of detailed skill lists and options. What I've learned is that the more skills you have, the fewer opportunities for use most of them will get, and the more weight will fall on a handful of really useful ones. My preference these days is for "create your own" skill lists. But GUMSHOE, by its nature, requires a set list. Given that we want to make each ability cool and have the power to generate its own story, I'd like to see fewer abilities.
Option One: Changing General Spends
A somewhat unsatisfying option would be to allow spends after the die is rolled. That breaks suspense, but gives absolute control. On the other hand, it does beg the question as to why you'd need a resource system then. A better alternative would be to follow the standard procedure- declare action, declare spends, check success and then allow an alternate, stop-gap spend. In this case, players could spend from another source to make up the difference: Stability or Health, to represent their pushing themselves to their limits to succeed at a particular roll. The stakes on future rolls become pressing when players gamble with their "hit points."
Option Two: Overspends
In GUMSHOE situations, players overspend easily, so that a with a high spend feels like a waste of resources. Some test situations have a compared margins of success, but many don't. When the player makes a spend and rolls a they could perhaps be allowed a one or two point pool refresh, in another ability. This could be a related ability which has been tapped out, or perhaps Stability or Health. This is more a device for the GM to keep players from feeling frustrated with the system.
Those two options are minor tweaks, intended to keep most of the GUMSHOE engine intact. The next two are more draconian.
Option Three: FATESHOE
I've mentioned before my idea for using FATE as the engine for certain GUMSHOE genres. The excellent skalchemist suggested a few modifications. Essentially players would have a set of Investigative Abilities with no rank. They would also have a set of General Abilities, but these would have a rating. If the GM wanted, he could also have a set of stats to pair with those abilities, or else stick with success rolls based on the ability ratings. Players would also have a set of aspects, with one of them representing their investigative drive. You'd have two stress tracks, Stability and Health. In most other respects, the system would operate like FATE. However investigative abilities would not require rolls, but FATE points could be spend on them to gather extra information.
I like this one, as our group's really embraced some of the ideas from FATE. I can imagine trading off negative elements and scenes- being tailed, running into enemies, being captured- for FATE points. It also fits in well with the improvisational structure of something like the Armitage Files. It does put power into the hands of the players- reducing tension potentially but offering greater buy in.
Option Four: WhineSHOE Lite
A more elaborate approach to retooling GUMSHOE would start by knocking down the barrier between 'investigative' and 'general' abilities. In the chain of development, by the time we've gotten to Night's Black Agents, with have general uses for many investigative abilities and vice-versa. Certainly many abilities will be more often used one direction or the other, but the premise holds. So first we reduce the number of abilities down to a more manageable number- collapsing certain ones together. Let's say that we want to end up with something like thirty abilities.
Each ability would have a Rating and a Spend. When used in a contest (opposed or unopposed) players would roll and add their rating. The numbers for rating would vary, depending on whether you wanted the flat of a d10 or d20 or the curve of 2d10 or 3d6. In any case, we would balance the rating and the difficulties to the dice in that system. When used for information gathering, no roll is necessary.
The Spend for an particular ability is rated from 1-3. Spends are purchased independently from rating, and have a rising cost. I'm imaging each ability line will have three boxes to show and mark spends. If a player uses an ability for investigation, they may spend from that pool (if any) to gain additional information. For the most part this operates the same as investigative abilities in GUMSHOE. But players may also spend points from that pool to gain a general benefit. This could be either a bonus to a roll, with declaration made beforehand, or a special option- taking a cue from Ken Hite's new system of "cherries" for high level skills in Night's Black Agents. This would be kept simple but interesting, with no more than one of two non-investigative spend benefits. A more elaborate system might have addition epic picks for investment, but that's really more chrome than anything else.
This approach serves as a kind of "quick-start" GUMSHOE- it keeps the important elements of investigative skills. But it also has a much reduced and easier to handle tracking system and resource management. It works to reduce the barrier the rules offer between a player and their narrative. And it takes out most of the problems our groups had with the system.
Several of the campaigns I have on my agenda are GUMSHOE settings or variations on those. I think the system remains among the most interesting out there. The trick I have to work out now is crafting a hack that I like and that my players will enjoy.
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