Apr 132017
 

It recently came to my attention that this year is the 35th anniversary of Star Frontiers, a fairly forgettable sci-fi roleplaying game by TSR, the then publisher of gaming powerhouse Dungeons & Dragons. After doing some research it seems that there are still people playing the game, or at least I’d infer so from sites like http://starfrontiersman.com/ and http://www.starfrontiers.com/.

Although you can download the entire product line in pdf format from either of those sites, it motivated me to dig out my boxed set and to run the introductory adventure for my group. (These days it’d be called a one-sheet, but I think the fact that it fit on one page was largely coincidental). Most had never played before and a reasonably good time was had by all. So how does it hold up against modern games? Let’s see:

Simplicity
⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤ Star Frontiers only uses d10s and virtually every roll is percentile based. You can roll up a new character in minutes and (as is common with most old-school games) most of your character building time is spent shopping for starting gear. My group was able to start playing immediately after building characters.
Crunch
⬤⬤⬤◯◯ All the different “classes” give you a set number of skills at a set percentage value. When you advance, you can increase your existing skills or take a level in a new “class” and acquire new skills. There’s no penalty for multi-classing and it’s actually encouraged since the only way to improve fighting skills is to take a level in one of the martial classes so you can mix and match to any combination of skills. The downside is that starting characters only have 2 levels (one of which is almost always combat-related) — so players tend to start out somewhat monotonous.
Verisimilitude
⬤⬤⬤◯◯ It’s hard to guess how actual laser-weapon combat would play out… but SF does a fair job of what I’d imagine it’d be like. Unskilled combatants have a decent chance of surviving most combats and while skilled fighters have a clear advantage that’s no guarantee of victory. The only downside is that it’s still reliant on (the equivalent of) hit points for tracking damage and there’s no game effect for having 1 hit point or 100 hit points (again, common in older games).
Versatility
⬤⬤◯◯◯ The Star Fronteirs universe is pretty squarely locked into a sci-fi space opera setting. Many skills are linked to specific pieces of equipment so you can’t easily just re-skin the gear and be in a different universe. That said, you can always move to a different planet with all-new environmental dangers and monsters. And you can run exploration, noir-style detective stories, corporate intrigue, piracy, and other types of stories — so it gets a second dot.
Thematic
⬤⬤◯◯◯ The main reason I never actually played Star Frontiers back in the day is that it never gave a strong sense of setting. Sure, the aliens were cool but… it never really seemed to “click” with me. We explored a few planets, foiled some Sathar spies, and then… couldn’t think of anything else to do but explore some more planets. This might just have been a failure of my teenage imagination but… flipping through the books again, everything still seems kind-of flat. A good GM can still make a compelling SF campaign, but I don’t think it ever inspired average game masters.
Cost
⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤ I’m torn here. Back in the day, the original boxed set cost about as much as the main rulebook of any other game — but had slightly better value since it came with dice, fold-out maps, and cardboard tokens that would blow away at the slightest wind, so would be slightly-above average for cost value. But since everyone lacks a time machine, I’m going to go with five stars since you can’t beat free.
 April 13, 2017  Posted by at 11:28 am Game Reviews No Responses »
Apr 112017
 

There’s a million role playing games out there and you have a limited budget. How do you know which is the best one? Not necessarily the best one overall, but the best one for you, your budget, and your gaming group?

I can help you out with the first two, but you alone know what your group likes (and if you don’t you’ve got communications issues far beyond the scope of what can be sorted out in a few blog articles).

Knowing the internet as I do, I’m not going to try to make a case for this game to be number one and that game to be number two and so on. That sort of thing is just flame bait. Instead I’m going to try to set up a system for comparing games based on their attributes, much like the Consumer Reports magazines my Dad used to get when I was a kid. (O.K. so pretty much exactly like Consumer Reports). Each game system will be ranked on the following qualities:

Simplicity
Is the game easy to learn, easy to play, and easy to make up characters?
Crunch
Not quite the opposite of Simplicity: is there enough granularity and complexity to ensure replayability and sustain your interest?
Verisimilitude
Does the game accurately simulate realistic combat, skills… or at least does it feel real? The litmus test for this is whether you can accurately simulate a wolfpack attacking a single target or not.
Versatility
Are the rules locked to a specific universe or do they lend themselves to multiple genres?
Thematic
Is the system particularly good for particular genres or types of stories?
Cost
What’s the financial barrier to entry?

Just for fun, lets’ take a look at Tic-Tac-Toe:

Simplicity: You can’t get much simpler than Tic-Tac-Toe. Five out of Five stars.

Crunch: One Star. It’s hard not to lose interest after 3 games.

Verisimilitude: Also one star. No my knowledge, Tic Tac Toe doesn’t represent anything realistically. (To be fair, it’s not even a role playing game so, I’m a jerk for trashing it in this manner.

Thematic: Also one star. I have no idea what the theme is supposed to be. Placing one of two letters in a grid is nearly the acme of abstraction.

Cost: Four stars. It’s cheap to play, given that all you need is paper and writing implement — but not free so I’m savagely knocking down a point.

Tic Tac Toe: ⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤◯◯◯◯⬤◯◯◯◯⬤◯◯◯◯⬤⬤⬤⬤◯

In other words, not a great game. But you knew that already.

Tomorrow, we’ll tackle an actual game.

 April 11, 2017  Posted by at 2:07 pm Game Reviews No Responses »
Mar 152017
 

Click to download a 21-page preview for Pathfinder-compatible Modern Adventures.

Anyone could be a mutant.

Your neighbor, sibling, co-worker. Anyone. They might not even know themselves until they start sprouting extra eyes, tentacles, or fangs.

Sometimes they look just like everybody else.

Sometimes only the brain mutates, resulting in strange cravings, urges, and behaviors. Human on the outside, they might feel compelled to kill, drink blood, or build coccoons. Is that guy down the block really going out at night to bowl? Or is he on a quest to devour fresh brains?

For that matter, what’s up with those headaches you’ve been having? Those achey muscles? And is that a “normal” rash or an indicator of something more sinister?

Anyone could be a mutant.

Even you.

On Sale Now

Mutant Manual is a suppliment for creating mutant characters (including player characters with GM approval). Appropriate for any modern-era campaign, Mutant Manual contains:

  • Over 120 mutant traits, both advantageous and detrimental.
  • Statistics for 56 mutant archetypes and mutant animals.
  • Statistics and history of 12 qnique mutants.
  • 20+ New, mutant-specific Edges, Feats, Stunts, Qualities, and power modifiers.

Digital files are compatible with 5 different systems:
                    
…but only Savage Worlds and Pathfinder-compatible versions are available for print.

 

 March 15, 2017  Posted by at 4:34 am Products No Responses »
Feb 232017
 

I had a problem.

My players were unfocused, distracted, and prone to side conversations. Getting through a round of combat was like wrestling a rose bush. The bush kept growing however the hell it felt like and all I managed to do was get torn up over it. Also, the bush never seemed to learn anything, regardless of what I said from week to week.

With so much resistance to actually playing the game which they weekly came to my house to play, I figured everyone was just bored and looking for a new game. But they’d be damned if they’d admit it. “No, no. We like this game. We want to keep playing” they’d say. They apparently just happened to enjoy talking about games on Steam more.

Maybe they were just being polite, but I doubt it. I tend to run with a fairly frank, if prone to self-delusional, crowd.

The solution?

Give them more to do.

This may seem counter-intuitive given that we’re talking about a crew that couldn’t maintain focus for more than 45 seconds at a time, but it helped break the cycle of constant distraction from distraction. A good part of the problem was that distractions are a self-reinforcing cycle. Player A takes twice as long to decide on a course of action so player B gets bored and starts a side-conversation with player C, which I then have to interrupt to get them to take their turn. It takes them a few seconds to re-familiarize themselves with the map, plus snap at me for interrupting them so… their turns each take 50% longer. Then it’s the bad guys’ turn and as much as I try to speed things up it still takes a while given that there’s 5 bad guys. Player D, having had to wait through the equivalent of 7-8 player’s turns is up getting a soda-pop when their turn comes. And by the time a new turn comes around Player A has started checking something on their phone.

And so on.

And so on.

I was sick of constantly being the bad guy, constantly having to remind everyone that it’s their turn. So I made the players do it. Not only did it free me from a unpleasant task but it made the players more aware of how disruptive they had all become.

Here’s how it works:

I use roll20.net for maps. It also has a bunch of neat-o features like built-in character sheets, automated dice rolling, an initiative tracker, and programmable macros (for stuff that’s not already built into the character sheet). Nobody uses the built-in character sheets so I had to set one up for each character, but I only filled in the sections related to initiative. This let me roll initiative by selecting a character on the map and then clicking the INIT macro button I’d also set up. Clickity clickity click click click and with a mere 2 clicks per character, I’d have a whole turn’s worth of initiative determined. I thought there might be some blow-back from the players over not rolling their own dice but they were so checked out I don’t think they even noticed.

Once the turn order is established, I hand over responsibility to one of the players. It then becomes their job to determine who goes next — and to call on them to declare their action. Instant improvement.

This didn’t completely solve the problem, although it did double the number of people paying attention (myself plus whomever got tapped to be the initiative-keeper) so I found it necessary to switch up who the initiative keeper was from round to round. At first, I just rolled a die to decide whom it would be, but it seems to work better just going clockwise around the table. (This also has the unexpected benefit of last turn’s keeper being able to prompt the new keeper of their duties — one less task for the game master.)

But what if you don’t have access to roll20.net? Use a dry erase board. Or movable magnets. Or just jot names down on a piece of paper really quickly. Heck, you don’t even really have to come up with a system. Just tell each player it’s their problem now; figure something out. The worst case scenario is that it takes forever and the players know what it’s like to be the GM for a while.

 February 23, 2017  Posted by at 2:13 pm Anecdotes No Responses »
Feb 102017
 

I set out to write something insightful yesterday but I feel like all I did was gripe about my poor project-backing decision.

So, in today’s post I’m going to try to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. In Pathfinder, Necromancy is irrevocably connected to the Negative Energy Plane so casting necromantic spells involves channeling some degree of negative energy– which is an evil act. So good necromancers quickly become neutral and neutral necromancers have to work pretty hard to avoid sliding into evil. Therefore, the assumption is that necromancy is evil. This gets bolstered by the general icky-ness of corpses themselves. They spread disease and, as a result, countless social taboos have sprung up around handling corpses. So necromancy not only violates morality but also social mores — truly the action(s) of a villain.

But does it have to be?

When you’re building your own fantasy world, you can discard all that. Maybe corpses don’t decompose (or they don’t decompose as rapidly) for a few days, so there doesn’t need to be social taboos surrounding dead bodies. In such a world, necromancers might be the holiest sort of magic-user; their ability to speak with honored ancestors (and charge for the service) would give them access to  secret information (and money) which they could then parlay into becoming the toast of the city. That’s a far cry from the stereotypical black-robed, pallid, carrion-vulture that most necromancers are depicted as.

Maybe the local Necromancers Guild has an incredibly strict code of conduct, designed to prevent moral corruption (or at least keep necromancers from acting on evil inclinations. (Which then becomes a possible campaign model; the players get hired to investigate a necromancer suspected of breaking the code). In this type of world, necromancers would still be feared but they’d also be admired for their dignity, sense of honor, strength of will — all of which are necessary to follow the code.

Or, going a step further, break the connection between Necromancy and negative energy/evil. As detailed in plenty of other places, an army of undead soldiers has numerous advantages that I’m not going to go into here but the most important of which is: fewer living soldiers have to die in a war. This means that a country with necromancers has a larger post-war population than one without, which translates into a larger labor pool and a stronger economy. Instead of being terrible, rotting monsters, undead soldiers would be regarded as valuable, loyal defenders. If that seems too weird, consider this: if your grandparents could rise from the grave to keep you safe, wouldn’t they? Furthermore if that sort of thing happened every day, most people would get used to it pretty quickly, overcoming any innate fear and replacing it with respect. Some would even want to keep their undead ancestors as “healthy” and presentable as possible (regardless of whether it’s due to image-consciousness or actual affection). This might motivate alchemists and morticians to develop preservative treatments that would slow or halt decomposition and prevent the spread of corpse-borne disease.

Taking that idea a step further, countless stories tell of ghosts and revenants who rise from the grave to avenge some wrong or complete unfinished business. If undead aren’t intrinsically evil, then these ghosts and revenants become agents of justice — and so would necromancers. Able to draw information from beyond, necromancers make great investigators. They might be the head of local police forces or religious inquisitions.

Here are some of alternate necromantic groups I’ve used in past games:

Drawing of a man wearing an ancient doctor's maskThe Collegium Nox

The Collegium Nox was a group of arcane necromancers searching for ways to eliminate death. Basically they were all doctors, trying to discover immortality. Not for selfish reasons, but for the good of all mankind. In a campaign world without divine magic their healing skills made them welcome everywhere they went, which more than offset any intrinsic creepiness they might have had. (This was a campaign world where divine healing magic was pretty rare). Furthermore, they had a version of the Hippocratic Oath that compelled them to treat any wounded or diseased characters they encountered, good deeds which typically offset the innate slide into evil Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 to which necromancers were prone.

I used the standard D&D wizard class (with necromancy specialization) but made up a few new spells that let them transfer health/hit points to somewhat compensate for the lack of healing magic.

Air Elves

While not strictly necromancers, this is still an example of the type of  alternate-world I’m advocating. I ran a game where all the non-human races were affiliated with one of the classic elements. Elves, being flighty and whimsical as well as being associated with the outdoors, were linked to elemental Air. I gave them some non-standard racial abilities which I won’t go into here, but the one most germane to this discussion is: Air Elves never “died” due to old age. As they aged, they became weaker and frailer, not because they were growing weaker but because their connection to Air kept getting stronger — and they became less solid with every year. Eventually, when they reached the point when another species would expire, they instead transitioned to a completely immaterial existence. I used the standard stats for ghosts to represent these ancient elves; the only thing I changed was the requirement that they be evil.

Neither required a massive change of rules — or a lot of development. I just had to think up how they’d fit into (or change) the culture.

 February 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:41 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 092017
 

I like Kickstarter. Even though the paNik campaign didn’t get funded, I still think it’s truly great and one of the things that makes modern life worth living. If you have a dream but no money, Kickstarter can help make that dream come true (assuming said dream is practical and you’re sufficiently convincing and/or popular… not that I’m bitter). 20 years ago, your only option for most Kickstarter projects was to go begging to banks, getting a second job and saving, or mortgaging your house (assuming you have one — and that’s really just a different way of saying going back to the banks).
But just as important are the benefits to the sponsors. You don’t just get the book or artwork or whatever tangible product is being manufactured. You also get the satisfaction of knowing that you get to help someone else realize their dream — at least a little. It’s incredibly empowering. Personally every time I browse through projects, I feel like a di Medici, patronizing the next da Vinci or Caravaggio. It’s a feeling that was formerly only experienced by bankers and the very wealthy, now made affordable by modern technology. Most of the time I don’t even want the stuff I’m sponsoring, I just either think it’s a good idea or the creator seems especially passionate or with increasing frequency: when it’s someone’s first project and it looks like they won’t get funded (not that I’m bitter). Usually I’ll only pledge a handful of dollars; I try to strike a balance between giving enough to actually matter but not so much that I get saddled with a ton of crap I can’t use. Sometimes, I get caught up in the excitement and actually end up pledging a significant amount of money (usually with gaming stuff) and since I’m (in all honesty) motivated by the idea of Kickstarter than I am the actual products of Kickstarter, within a few days I usually forget all about the things to which I’ve pledged. So, I’m surprised and delighted when a package comes in the mail. It’s always nice to get something besides bills and coupons for local businesses.
Except when the product is not… good.
Now, I don’t want to disparage Kickstarter as a whole (which is why I spent the first two paragraphs championing it). I know Kickstarter folks aren’t necessarily professionals and don’t have pro-grade skills so I cut them a lot of slack. I overlook amateur design decisions like too-large a typeface with too-small a leading, tiny margins, etc. etc. I also don’t expect high-quality prose (although… is it too much to ask that somebody check for proper homonym use before going to press?).

Still, you need to have a new idea.

I’m not going to name names, but I recently received a book that was basically a Pathfinder adventure ported over to Savage Worlds. As far as I know, it was an original adventure; I’m not trying to imply that they just re-skinned someone else’s published work or anything like that. But it was clearly set in a Pathfinder-esque world, complete with Pathfinder-type treasure such as bags of holding and swords that give “to hit” bonuses. Those are all old ideas and ones I’d prefer to do without (for reasons which I’ll get around to explaining in later posts). Why re-invent the wheel? It’s not like you’re going to improve on the concept of “roundness”.

There are millions of possible fantasy worlds. I want to see something different than just another Pathfinder clone. After all, Pathfinder is just a clone of Dungeons and Dragons, which itself borrows heavily from Lord of the Rings. Any differences between them are largely the result of lost resolution (such as when you photocopy a photocopy of a photocopy of a picture). I’m sick to death of Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds with stock elves, stock dwarves, stock wizards, et cetera. But. I understand the appeal. I get why people still like that stuff. Pathfinder is (or was) the most popular tabletop RPG for a reason. But let Pathfinder be Pathfinder.

The super cool thing about Savage Worlds is that it lets you create your own world with your own system of magic and magic items. Back in the day the only way to do that was to create a bunch of house rules that were likely to just make your players grumble. After all, if they’re expecting to play game X, they’re not going to be happy with game X2. Yeah, GURPS came out pretty early, but… GURPS had problems of its own (for instance: firearms had more attributes than player characters. It’s true).

I’ve been writing, deleting, and re-writing paragraphs for a while now… only to find myself griping in circles. As cathartic as that may be for me, it’s less than amusing for you so I’m just going to come sum everything up right now.

Open source games (or easily license-able games like Savage Worlds) give you a framework with which you can innovate without needing to create a whole new ruleset (which is both cumbersome and, in most cases, needless). Through the magic of Kickstarter, other people can enjoy your innovation with the convenience of not needing to learn new rules. These technologies (and open source rulesets are a form of technology) make it easier than ever to be creative.

Just actually be creative.

 February 9, 2017  Posted by at 9:20 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 072017
 

In my last post, I advocated limiting player character racial options to foster character development, reduce stereotypical character behavior, and generally foster creativity. Those weren’t idle words, I practice what I preach. The last fantasy game I ran was in Savage Worlds in a world I called Byelloterrania (as a riff on “Mediterranean”. Plus I just like “Byello” as a prefix). Giving your world a name is important because it shows that you’ve put at least some thought into things and it immediately sets that world apart from any “default” world your players might assume they’re going to be playing in. Byelloterrania had only 3 player character races.

In ancient times Byelloterrania was ruled by one sprawling empire, which was a paradise for humans. Unfortunately it was a paradise built on orc slave labor. When the orcs inevitably rebelled a multi-generation long war shredded the Empire. From the ashes, 3 kingdoms emerged.

Picture of effete author Ashley Wilkes

I’d like to strengthen the Empire but all this ennui is just too crushing.

Effetroix

What’s left of the old Empire reorganized into a country called Effetroix (a name I derived from “effete”). Effetroixan orcs are still enslaved there and the humans have become decadent and lazy. They’re more interested in recapturing the glory days (and preventing further rebellions) and have lost the drive to innovate.

Pellucid

The other human-run kingdom, Pellucid (a name I found up by looking up synonyms for “clear”) is a monotheistic theocracy comprised largely of fiefs who supported the orc rebellion. Despite being the smallest kingdom it has a rapidly growing economy and is the leading source of technological innovation having recently domesticated horzes and dolgs. (Changing the spelling is an attempt to make ordinary animals seem strange and foreign.)

Picture of Groucho Marx looking wistful

Guess where I stole the name “Freedonia” from?

Freedonia

The kingdom of orcs, for orcs, and by orcs. Since most orcs are poorly educated and they eschew anything Empire-related, the government is a hot mess. Still, it beats slavery and things are gradually getting more organized.

Effetroixan Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.
  • Uneducated: Efetroxian Orcs may not begin play with any Knowledge (skill) although they may buy the skill(s) through normal character advancement. They are illiterate unless they acquire the Knowledge (Language: Reading) skill.

Free Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Cursed: Although Efetroxian wizards were unable to destroy the rebelling Fredonians with magic, various lingering curses cling to the nation nonetheless. Fredonian Orcs receive one less Benny per game session.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.

Effetroixan Humans

Effetroixan humans have the following traits:

  • Racial Enemy: Efetroxian humans suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with free orcs.
  • Refined: Efextroxians have exceptionally refined hearing and receive a +2 bonus to any Notice skill rolls relying on hearing.

As with any other human, they also receive a free advance during character creation.

Non-Effetroixan Humans

Humans from Pellucidia or Freedonia have no special traits other than the usual free advance during character creation.

Astute readers will notice that I mentioned there were three races… not four. That’s because the differences between Effetroixan and non-Effetroixan characters are cultural, not racial. There’s still only orcs and humans. The third race, I added as a joke.

Hobbits

The most universally hated race in Byelloterrania, hobbits are small, nimble humanoids with large, bare feet. During the Great War, a group of hobbits somehow acquired powerful magics which could have turned the tide conclusively to one side or the other. Refusing to choose sides, the hobbits destroyed these magical artifacts rather than let either side get them.

Hobbits live in remote small villages where they avoid contact with outsiders. Any hobbits encountered traveling outside of their home village are usually exiled, making them doubly-reviled. Not even other hobbits can trust the shifty little creeps.

  • Devil’s Luck: Luck may be the only think keeping the wretched race alive. Hobbits draw one additional Benny per game session. This may be combined with the Luck and Great Luck Edges.
  • Low-Light Vision: Hobbits ignore penalties for Dim and Dark lighting, allowing them to see in all but pitch black conditions.
  • Mockers: Accustomed to abuse, Hobbits have learned to give as good as they get. They begin play with a d6 Taunt skill.
  • Reviled: Hobbits suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with either humans or orcs.
  • Short: Hobbits average only 4’ tall, giving them a Size of -1 and reduces Toughness by 1.
  • Spirited: Hobbits are generally optimistic. They start with a d6 Spirit instead of a d4.

Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to play a hobbit. Ever.

Now, when I was putting this together I expected everyone to create characters from all over the place — just like they do in every Pathfinder game. To my surprise, everyone played an orc — except for one player who went human. Moreover they all chose to live in (and be from) Freedonia.

Yehani was the token human from a formerly noble family, willing to do anything to reclaim her ancestral lands from the orcs — even earning the orcs trust and building infrastructure like roads.

Thorn was a former orc mercenary hoping to make up for a troubled past by seeking justice for others, kicking butt, and writing wrongs.

Elmer was an orc witch with a hatred of slavery so intense he was willing to back Yehani’s power grab if it means someday there will be an army strong enough to invade Effetroix.

Jonan was basically an orc jester who originally was solely motivated by profit but after an expedition to Pellucid, became obsessed with horzes and importing to Freedonia so no Orc would ever have to pull a plow or wagon again.

Had I opened up the floodgates to the standard array of races, Thorn would probably have been a dwarf, Elmer an elf, and Jonan either a hobbit or half-elf… but don’t they just seem more interesting as orcs? Furthermore, if they were all different races their only reason together would have been for the money and the campaign would have just been another series of dungeon crawls (which, to be honest, was all I was going for… at first). I know it would have been just ‘crawls, having played with that particular group before and that’s how they roll.

Instead, their mutual orc-ness gave them a reason to band together and a motivation to try to improve the lives of the orc peasants they lived among. Over time, the campaign became about empire-building and political alliances — and not because of anything I did as the GM. It was the players who took things in a completely different direction because their characters were more fleshed out than mere racial stereotypes. They only had to stretch a little at first… but they kept on stretching. And had fun in the process.

As one player said, “If you’d told me when we started this campaign that I’d be mediating disputes between the Bricklayers Guild and the Livery Coalition… and having fun doing it, I’d have said you were crazy and refused to play.”

Luckily for all of us, they did play and it was a blast.

 February 7, 2017  Posted by at 8:14 pm Anecdotes, Fun Stuff, Rants No Responses »
Jan 312017
 

Something I first noticed a long time ago is the tendency for characters in fantasy campaigns to devolve into stereotypes. In almost every fantasy game I’ve participated in as either a player or game master it seems that every player character is always of a different race (they also have different roles such as fighter, spell-caster, etc… but that’s due more to necessity than anything else).  What are the odds that every group of 5 adventurers will have a human, elf, dwarf, half-orc, and hobbit (or hobbit analog)? Not great. It could happen once or twice but more than that and it starts feeling contrived. This isn’t a problem — role-playing games are all about suspending disbelief — but what it is, is lazy.

What I mean by that is: it leads to lazy role-playing. Everybody knows that dwarves are gruff, elves are flighty (or aloof), half-orcs have anger issues, and hobbits are cheerful — and that’s all they are, or rather, that’s all most players allow them to be. Instead of dwarf-ness being one of many descriptors of a character, the dwarf character becomes the dwarf. The dwarf never has anything to distinguish it them from any other dwarf in the world — but they don’t have to. All they have to do is to distinguish themselves from the other player characters, which they did by declaring a different race. Character development done. Pow!

Picture of Gimli, the dwarf from the Lord of the Rings Movie

Archetype or Stereotype? Do dwarves wield anything other than axes? Ever?

I’d think this was just an aspect of gaming as a whole, except that its something I very seldom see in games with a modern setting. When humans are the only player-character race available, players go to greater lengths to define their characters. (A notable exception are games where everyone plays a different variation of the same monster; there’s not enough vomit in the world for me to be able to express my feelings for Malkavian clowns. A madness-themed clan from Vampire: the Masquerade. Virtually everyone’s first Malkavian character concept was either “murderous clown” or “psychotic mime”.)

Now, I am not, and will probably never advocate eliminating fantasy races. Part of the fun of gaming is pretending to be not only someone else but something else. That said, you should try paring down the number of available choices to 2 or 3 — at most the number of players – 2. When you guarantee that at least 2 of your players will have the same race, you’d be surprised how much work they go to to differentiate themselves. Give it a shot.

No, this is not just a trick to force players who don’t like to role-play to role-play or to force them into writing elaborate backstories, although don’t be surprised if either is the (partial) result. With two dwarves in the party, you go from being the dwarf to being an adventurous dwarf from the mountains or a cautious dwarf from the hills or the impetuous steppe dwarf. Already you’ve expanded from a single characteristic (dwarf) to three! Moreover since dwarves are clannish (a “racial” trait that only comes into play around other dwarves) the two dwarf characters are likely to either love or hate each other, which adds yet another layer for storytelling. If their clans are allied (or they’re from the same clan) do they always vote the same when making party decisions? If not, do they always disagree just for the sake of disagreeing? Either way, it’s a different kind of inter-player interaction that you don’t see when everyone is the only racial ambassador for 20 miles.

I hate to go Disney but… I’m gonna go Disney here. Consider the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie. There were only two races: humans and dwarves and every one of those seven dwarfs had a distinct (if unsubtly defined) personality — and so did the humans. Snow was innocent. The Queen was envious. The huntsman, compassionate (or weak-willed depending on how you choose to look at it). Admittedly, Prince Charming was pretty bland but then again, he didn’t have any lines either (that I remember). If nothing else, Disney knows how to make interesting characters.

Picture of Sexy Snow White Cosplayer

I’m sure this is the type of Snow White we’d all rather think about.

Limiting player options can be a hard sell, especially if one or more of your players have their hearts set on playing a “forbidden” race. I’ve found it’s best to get it out of the way before you even mention making characters. Say something like “Hey guys, I’m thinking of a campaign world where’s there’s 3 major empires and the only races are hobbits and elves. The hobbits used to be kept as pets by the elves but enough of them escaped that they started their own empire, Hobbitsylvania. The other 2 empires are run by elves and… etc.” Only after you’ve outlined the world and gotten folks interested, when they’re starting to buy into the idea — only then do you mention building characters.  Your players will get on-board.

 January 31, 2017  Posted by at 6:56 am Rants No Responses »
Jan 242017
 

In my last post, I ranted about the evils of min-maxing. I had more to say but I cut myself off in the interest of not taking up a month of your time reading a single article.

Something I almost always hear when I bring up the topic is: Why don’t you want people to play powerful characters?

My response: That is so not the issue. I have nothing against powerful characters. In my mind powerful equates to effective. If a character is too clumsy to scale a short wall, can’t drive to the next town over, or is too obnoxious to function in a social setting… they’re just not effective, no matter how many goblins they can kill before becoming winded.

image of an Elephant Seal holding a blue bucket

He’s got the bucket. He’s halfway there.

Say you’re playing a psychic character. It’s fine to bump up your powers a little bit by taking a physical flaw like “limp.” You could even take it a step further and get another boost by making them “wheelchair bound” and having little-to-no melee ability. The next step is to go for total paralysis… and thence to abandoning the body altogether until the character is nothing more than a psychic brain soaking in a bucket of life-sustaining fluids.

Now comparing our limping psychic with the brain-in-a-bucket… who is more effective at the task of making a sandwich? Dusting for finger prints? Convincing the boozy derelict to tell you where the McGuffin is? Hailing a taxi? (Depending on your game system, the brain-in-a-bucket may be able to accomplish them through telekinesis, ESP, and telepathy respectively, but it’s likely that they either can’t afford all three or they use up all their “spell points” performing them, so there’s nothing left to fight bad guys with).

Believe me, I understand the virtue of power fantasies. It feels good to pretend to be completely bad ass… but do you always have to be Superman? Isn’t it just as satisfying to be Spider-man or Cyborg (both of whom are more bad ass than you or I will ever be)?

But I digress. The point of today is to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness.

How to keep Min-Maxing From Killing You

Friends, the solution is so simple that I, myself, doubted it at first. But it works and it could be yours for… sorry. I started channeling an infomercial there for a moment.

But my solution is pretty simple: Make everything a cooperative roll.

By everything, I mean “most important things”.

Most systems have some sort of mechanism for allowing two or more characters to pool their efforts so that the highest-skilled character gets a bonus to their roll, allowing them to achieve feats they otherwise aren’t capable of through the power of teamwork. Sounds great… in theory. Because in most systems, the bonus is so paltry it’s hardly ever worth the bother. On the plus side, there’s also no penalty if the lower-skilled characters fail. The only downside is the higher-skilled character doesn’t get a bonus they wouldn’t have gotten anyway if the lower-skilled character never made the attempt in the first place.

I’m not talking about that type of cooperative roll.

I’m talking about the type of cooperative roll where the highest skilled character makes their roll and everyone sees how well they did. Then I make the characters with absolutely nothing in that skill make a nominal roll as well to see if they did something to mess things up for the high-skilled character. (Depending on your system, you may need to reverse the order). If the zero-skill-ers succeed, fine. If they fail, the high-skill-er gets a penalty — and suddenly everyone at the table is irritated at the zero-skill-er, who is suddenly motivated to acquire that skill.

Group of women laughing while a man stands aside looking dejected.

One of these characters isn’t playing along with Operation: Laugh At All the Sultan’s Jokes

This method enforces teamwork and cooperation, not just in how the characters are played… but also how they’re built. Thugs can no longer safely skimp on social skills, knowing that the party leader can carry them. And I primarily use this method on social rolls (those being the skills my players tend to forego in favor of the skillset of murderous hobos). I justify it as: Picture your brother and yourself in a fancy office with leather seats, and velvet curtains. Your potential employer has the Queen of England on speed dial. That’s just how classy they are. You, being the team negotiator, have just made an incredibly compelling case as to why you should be hired for double the usual rate when… your brother inexplicably starts picking their nose. All your work is undone; you are clearly ill-mannered peasants and undeserving of a high-paying job. That’s an extreme example but the same principle applies to most other interactions. Even if they sit perfectly skill throughout the encounter such robotic mannerisms can still be off-putting.

A character with absolutely no skill in Diplomacy/Negotiations/Etiquette has absolutely no idea how to behave during Diplomacy/Negotiations/Etiquette, hence they have to roll to see if they unwittingly commit some sort of faux pas. It shouldn’t be a difficult roll. I’m only talking about DC 8-11 (for Pathfinder) or +2-3 (for Savage Worlds, which offsets the penalty for lacking a skill). You want to incentivize, not mandate the skill so there should be a better-than 50% of the skill-less player succeeding. On the other hand, if you make it a sure thing then the roll becomes a formality and is easily skipped over so try to keep the odds of success less than 75%. Also, only unskilled characters should have to roll. If they have a single point of a skill then they have some idea of how to act and know enough not to do anything embarrassing and counterproductive. (I suppose there might theoretically be cases where a character might need more than the bare minimum in a skill to avoid slipping up… but those should be extreme exceptions.)

As for a penalty… I’d say -2 is adequate for Pathfinder and -1 for Savage Worlds, those being the inverse of the “teamwork” bonuses in both systems. And the penalty is cumulative. This means that (using last post’s example) of the melee fighter, ranged fighter, healer, and sneak… about half of them will fail, giving the face a -4 penalty (-2 SW) most of the time. The next time they level up, they’ll think hard about learning the basics of social conduct.

You can use this mechanism for non-social rolls — as long as you can think of a logical application. For instance, those with absolutely no knowledge of crafting and/or repair won’t know to clean and oil their weapons. Those with no ranks in Riding or Animal Handling not only can’t do stunts in combat but also might slow the whole caravan down by 15% because they waste everybody’s time by being thrown from their steed or being unable to stop their mount from racing off into fields. The same thing applies to vehicle operation — except speed is reduced by 50% because the unskilled driver can’t get the vehicle out of second gear… and so on.

You don’t want to use this mechanism where there’s already a penalty for failure (such as climbing or swimming). Nor do you want to overdo it. You don’t want to seem like you’re picking on the player(s) of unskilled characters. I’d say no more than twice per session — and even that can be too much if it’s twice every session — should be enough to nudge your players toward reasonable characters.

 January 24, 2017  Posted by at 8:32 am Rants No Responses »
Jan 172017
 

We recently introduced a new guy into our Sunday game. As he was new to the group and new to the system, he showed up with his character unfinished. This was a good thing, since I always get a better sense of the character’s stats and abilities if I can watch it being built. It’s easier for me to remember their capabilities that way (as opposed to looking at a finished character sheet and hoping I’ll suddenly manifest a photographic memory) and thus, easier and more fun to plan adventures. It also gives me a chance to get insight into a player’s thought processes (again, helping me customize things to appeal to the individual).

New Guy’s character concept was a magical sniper and he needed a few pointers on skills. He’d completely overlooked Stealth, for instance — which is crucial for sniping and naturally, everyone should have athletics. He readily accepted our suggested tweaks because, as he said repeatedly and unintentionally ironically that “I’m not a min-maxer.” If only that were true.

You see, he’d given his character the lowest possible Strength and the highest possible Intelligence (which is crucial for arcane casting).  People this is the very definition of min-maxing. When you bottom out something you think you won’t need to afford maxing out something else which you think you’ll be using all the time, you ARE a min-maxer. There’s no point in denying it.

Image of an woman with a dramatically undersized leg.

If you have one leg minimum size and the other maxed out… you might be a min-maxer.

So… now that we’ve defined the terms, here’s where I explain why min-maxing is a bad thing, bad enough to be called a “game killer.”

A min-maxed character is imbalanced, by their very nature. Imbalanced things tend to fall. Sure they can wobble around for a while, perhaps even an extended period of time, but eventually the inherent instability causes them to stumble and fall — unless someone keeps tilting the table to keep them upright. That someone is usually the game master and a good one can keep things balanced almost indefinitely. Over time, they might even start to think that balancing unstable characters is their job. It’s not. It’s the job of everyone at the gaming table to help everyone have a good time — and if you’re only concerned with making your character the best at X, you’re not doing your job. Why? Because the min-maxed character completely sucks at everything except the few tasks they’re optimized for. That generates a lot of slack that the other players have to pick up. If they also happen to be min-maxers, this becomes increasingly difficult. Everyone has more to juggle.

Going back to our sniper-mage… the guy is made out of paper. He’s capable of dishing out truly prodigious amounts of damage but in the trial session we went through (designed to convince him of the importance of rounding our his guy), he got beaten up by a toothless old hobo in ill health. (No lessons were learned, by the way.) The character is unstable. He can wobble around for awhile but no matter how good a shot or how stealthy he is, eventually someone will engage him in melee combat and at that moment his character is dead.

So now, as the game master, I’m put in the position of having to either tilt the table (metaphorically) to ensure all combat only happens at range — or become a player killer. I don’t like killing players. (Wounding, maiming, and severely incapacitating, sure.) It takes time and effort to make up a character. Nobody likes to feel like their time has been wasted. Another reason not to kill player characters is, due to some quirk of min-maxer psychology, they never make the connection that they died due to over-specialization and their next character is even more lopsided, if possible. Therefore, killing them only makes things worse.

image of hand playing mumbledepeg.

This is what GMing a group of min-maxers feels like.

I’m trying to make a broader point than just whining about the New Guy, though. Assume that a typical gaming party consists of some combination of melee specialist (Fighter), ranged specialist (Mage), face (Bard), sneak/scout (Rogue), and medic (Cleric) and that they’re optimized for their role and only their role. What happens when they need to cross a river and there’s no bridge or boat they can hire? Since swimming comes up so seldom in most games, it’s the first skill dumped by the min-maxer. What happens when they need to engage in a car (or chariot) chase? The bad guy gets away. Always. (Until somebody makes a racing-optimized character). So the game master now has to juggle things to make sure that the party never encounters any rivers or chase scenes just to prevent a total party wipeout. Worse than that, though… players expect to face challenges they’re good at overcoming. Meaning that the above group needs to not only face melee antagonists, ranged antagonists, heated negotiation, hidden information, and the aftermath of melee and ranged antagonists at least once per session. Moreover they have to face those things without their characters being confronted by one of areas of incompetence. You’d need a difficulty 6 combat encounter for the melee and ranged specialist… but if the face becomes incapacitated then the difficulty 5 interrogation you had planned for afterward is shot all to hell because the other characters can only handle social skills with a difficulty of 1 or 2. (I’m making those numbers up so as not to reference any particular system).

Is this impossible? No. But it takes work. More work for the players and more work for the game master. Eventually, even the most enthusiastic game master gets tired and needs a break now and then. They have to spend at least an hour each week prepping for the game. Is it your fault they have to spend an hour and a half instead? (Maybe not, but it never hurts to ask these things from time to time). Is your GM having fun? Or are they visibly frazzled and fatigued?

Are you in a group of fairly reliable gamers who just can’t seem to keep a campaign going? Does everybody want to play but nobody wants to game master? Do your campaigns always peter out after 2 or 3 sessions? It could be due to lots of factors.

But it could also be due to min-maxing.

 

 January 17, 2017  Posted by at 8:01 am Rants No Responses »