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 »
Jan 102017
picture of a man fleeing a crowd

Athletics: Super handy for any character
in any game.

Something like 13-15 years ago I tried to run a Shadowrun game. Since my previous Shadowrun campaigns tended toward gritty street-level affairs, I thought I’d mix things up by trying to go “epic.” I’d been itching to use the Bug City adventure/sourcebook for some time and used it as the basis for the campaign. The player characters would be hired by a corporation to break into Bug City and retrieve valuable data from the server. There was also a list of secondary goals they could accomplish for an extra bonus but the data was the primary mission; without it, the corporation would suffer extensive losses (if not go bankrupt outright) and not be able to pay the characters if they failed. It was going to be like a big heist movie, where all the specialist characters came together to pull off feats that none of them could accomplish on their own — with a lot of giant insect monsters. They were meant to be one of the best in their particular business. Elite. Maybe not the best in the world, but certainly one of the top two available in the North American continent.

Since this was a new campaign and I wanted the players to sense the grand scale I was going for, everybody got to make tougher-than-normal starting characters.  Basically, I adjusted the values for each priority upward by a few points (increasing resources by 25% in the process) and let everyone have one skill at 8 (or 2 skills at 7). To top it off, everyone got either 25 or 30 experience points so mages could start out as initiates if they wanted to (they did).  If having higher numbers to play around with didn’t make them feel like big shots, the equivalent experience of 5-6 missions got the point across. “I’ve already maxed out this skill and I can raise it again with XP?” — was something frequently uttered. “Yes” was always the answer, “although you’ll get more mileage from the points by bumping up weaker skills”.

On the other hand, most of the guys had never played Shadowrun before so, while they knew they were getting a good deal… they didn’t realize quite how good. They were also somehow convinced that I was somehow working against them as the game master. They acted as if all my suggestions were tricks, designed to make them have sucky characters (despite all the aforementioned bonuses. It made no sense). My number one piece of advice: Everyone should put points into the Athletics skill and everyone should have at least two points in some sort of vehicular skill. In Shadowrun, Athletics is more versatile than the climbing/swimmin combo it is in most games; instead it’s a catch-all of just about everything physical you might do — such as running, jumping, or lifting things (in addition to climbing and swimming) — things expert criminals do ALL the time. Suggesting a vehicle skill (Car or Bike) was my attempt to sustain a sense of realism. It just seemed ludicrous to me that the top assassins (or cat burglars, or mercenaries) can.  shoot wings off flies but need to take a taxi to get to the mission.

“Yeah, yeah yeah,” they said. “I’m not falling for your tricks.”

Since this was a large party of 7-8 guys I didn’t want to waste everyone’s time by inspecting everyone’s character sheet. Instead I ran a quick scenario where they got to engage in mock combat with some non-player characters. This g-bave everyone a chance to see how the system played out and a chance to move points around if they decided they didn’t like how they’d built their guy. Nobody moved anything. I’d planned on a prolonged scene, allowing the player characters a chance to go on mini “training missions” in an X-men style “Danger Room” but I could tell that folks were growing bored with fake make-believe combat. They wanted real make-believe combat. So I started the adventure.

Some background on Bug City: An enormous hive of evil insect spirits was discovered in Chicago. After repeated failed attempts to eliminate the threat, the army decided that containment was the best they could do. Accordingly, they blew up a ring around the city center two blocks deep and bulldozed the rubble into a makeshift wall. This, they reinforced with barbed wire, guard towers, and armed patrols with orders to shoot anything they see move. In addition, drones and astral magicians patrolled the skies overhead.

Just getting into Bug City is a mission in and of itself.

On the other hand, the player characters were supposed to be elite and they were told all of this in advance, so they could tailor their characters to the adventure. Everybody made their Stealth rolls to avoid the patrols. The techie made his Electronics roll to mask them from the drones. The mage kept a lookout for astrally projecting wizards and elementals. It was all going so well.

And then they got to the rubble.

“O.K. everybody, everyone needs to roll Athletics (8) to climb the rubble. You’ll need to accumulate 3 successes in 2 rolls at most. Otherwise, you’ll only be halfway over before the spotlights swing back to your position.” I said.

Crickets chirped.

Nobody had put ANY points into Athletics except for the guy playing the physical adept A type of mage who channels their power into physical enhancements instead of casting spells. — who had automatic successes in Athletics (in second edition this was a thing; a cool idea but game unbalancing if you had more than one per skill – which is what everybody did). In Shadowrun, if you don’t have a skill, you can default to an attribute with a +4 penalty, allowing anyone to attempt anything at any time — they’d just have a very low chance of success. In this particular case, a challenging Athletics (8) roll became an extremely hard Body (12) roll. Needing to get 3 successes made it practically impossible. Other than the physical adept, only one other character made the climb (an ork who’d maxed out Body).

I was faced with a dilemma. Do I let the players duke it out with the army and fight their way inside, knowing that the half who survived would be deprived of essential resources? Do I end the campaign on only the third session (1 to make characters, 1 to train, and the official start)?

image of a jolly bear wearing round glasses

You too can be as wise as a bear wearing glasses. Always choose Athletics

In the end, it came down to the physical adept. Automatic successes meant that he automatically could climb the rubble regardless of how burdened he was (I said it was unbalanced) so he ended up carrying the party over the rubble one by one. Because the gap in the searchlight pattern only happened every 45 minutes, it took about nine hours (in-game time) to clear the first obstacle. (The adept would scale the wall to get outside, wait 45 minutes, throw a guy over his shoulders and clamber over the wall again only to wait 45 more minutes to climb out again.)

Moral of the story: When your game master says “take a skill” you should damn well take the skill.

 January 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:04 am Anecdotes Tagged with:  No Responses »
Jan 042017

The Entropic Gaming System by Mystic Throne Entertainment is a hidden gem of a gaming system. I originally bought a copy as a show of solidarity to other small press publishers and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s a really solid game system. It’s detailed without being overly complex and the basics are easy to learn. There are a fair number of combat maneuvers that take some work to memorize but they’re all logically derived from the core mechanic so it all falls into place pretty readily.

Cover of the Entropic Gaming System RPG rulebook

Don’t let the muddy cover illustration (and bad scan) fool you. It’s a top shelf game.

Like most games, Entropic breaks most things into attributes and skills. Like Savage Worlds, each is represented by a die type ranging from d4 to d12. Like White Wolf you almost always roll an attribute and a skill together and add the result together. Most of the time, you’re shooting for 7, which is pretty easy if you have 2d8 in a skill/attribute combo. Not so much if you’ve got 2d4. What I haven’t seen before is their elegant method of determining crits. If both dice come up the same number, it’s a critical. Critical hit or critical failure depends entirely on whether you would have succeeded or not normally. I once critically succeeded against an orc by rolling a 2, the lowest possible result for myself. The orc lacked the skill in question and his attribute die came up a 1. I had doubles and I technically beat his roll so… critical success. Characters who are good at stuff tend to be very good and the skills they’re not good at, they tend to be terrible — much like the real world. However, because you always roll at least one die, there’s a chance that an unskilled character might succeed through luck or raw talent.

You might think that this sort of set-up would lend itself to min-maxing characters and you’d be right… to a point. Dexterity is considerably more useful than other attributes so everyone will be sure to load up on it. It’s not as bad as in some systems since they make a point of declaring that two-handed weapons (and presumably heavy machine guns) use Strength instead of Dexterity to attack. So there’s ways around the conundrum of having a less-than-agile but still effective combatant. Likewise, there are enough skills that nobody can master them all and everyone will be forced to make a roll they aren’t optimized for at least twice per session.  Min-maxers will love rolling 2d12 Dexterity + Firearms… right up until they have to score a 7 on their d4 + nothing Spirit + Resist roll. Such characters tend not to last long, which I like.

Combat plays really quickly, even through everyone gets 3 actions per round. It seems like a lot until you realize that movement is an action and so is parrying or dodging. So if you’ve got 3 guys shooting at you and you opt to dodge them all, you could easily use up all your actions before your turn comes. You’re a chump if you do, though, since a better use of one of those actions would be to dive for cover. There’s a variety of combat maneuvers you can use to gain an advantage (or to penalize your opponent) so fights against heavily armored opponents don’t end up with one side just making a bunch of attacks and hoping for a critical.

Another thing that streamlines combat is: fixed damage. A dagger does 3 points of damage on every hit. A given gun always does 5 damage. You’d think this would remove some of the drama from play by eliminating the damage roll but it mostly just serves to move things along. Plus, there’s always a chance that an attacker might score a critical hit (which gives a bonus to damage). Alternately, a character can spend a Hero Point (the equivalent of a Fate point or Savage World Bennie) for a modest bonus to damage. Likewise, you can spend a Hero Point to gain either a +1d6 to any skill roll or +3 if you prefer a sure thing. You can cash in hero points for other bonuses/benefits, all of which are summarized on a single page. Furthermore, most situational bonuses give you the equivalent benefit of a Hero Point (which must be spent immediately)  so you not only get to choose the mechanic your bonus uses but, it’s a consistent system across the board. In this manner, the EGS saves a lot of time and system space (both physically in the book and also how much you need to carry around in your head) in a manner both ingenious and elegant.

The 0nly major flaw with the EGS is that it’s still pretty new and I don’t think all that widely distributed, so you’re likely to find other people playing it. Also, if you’re the type of GM who likes to run book adventures, you’re mostly out of luck. (There are some available… some published by paNik productions… but they may not be in your preferred genre). On the other hand, it has a tremendous amount of potential and it’s a system I really believe in. Which is why I develop for it.

 January 4, 2017  Posted by at 7:00 am Favorite Systems, Game Reviews No Responses »