Sunday, December 27, 2009

Against the In-laws (uh, I mean, Giants)

So, I'm hanging out at the in-laws place for the holidays, across the country from home, and my brother-in-law (let's call him Pear Bear) asks me if we can play D&D. Wow. I've taken crap from my in-laws for so long for my geek habits, and now, after some bonding over a skiing trip, he's ready to get down. He had never played before. We gather my other brother-in-law, who's played with my geek buddies once before in Chicago (let's call him Fartin Martin), and my 78 year old Dad (who's also in town, never played before, but has seen my play since I was wee).

I had just DM'd Against the Giants the night before I left town, and I had sufficient equipment with me to rock the game again. And rock it we did.

After using some pregenerated characters and a *very* brief explanation of their stats and items, we started the scenario. Against the Giants is a classic D&D module that kicks off a series of modules, and it's very "old school." Pear Bear, Fartin Martin, and Dad started at a cave entrance overlooking the Steading of the Hill Giants. They were basically supposed to check it out. After I described the scene, they automatically slipped into classic D&D mode without any prodding: Bickering over plan of attack. This lasted for at least 25 minutes. Persuaded by some of Dad's military tactics (he was in the army back in the day), they decided to let Pear Bear (the thief) skulk around to gather intelligence. He successfully did so, and upon returning, the group decided to have Pear Bear set a diversion with a fire to let the group sneak in. And somehow work in a pincer movement to trap the giants. Shit quickly hit the fan as Pear Bear climbed a wall, terribly missed a pack of dire wolves 4 times with flasks of flaming oil, and was then spotted. Pear Bear eventually used some dust of disappearance on himself, snuck around the other side, and opened the back door.

By the time we quit for dinner, giants and dire wolves were swarming everywhere. Pear Bear was still invisible but retreating. Dad was getting his butt handed to him by a horde of hill giants (especially after I rolled a couple crits), and Fartin Martin was levitating 25 feet up in the air and blasting down spells but pretty trapped.

The final reaction: Dad was completely engaged by the planning but bored by combat (and fell asleep in front of the tv shortly thereafter). Fartin Martin had fun, but longed for the fast insanity and character-based decisions that he experienced before with my buddies (we played a fast indie game called Cold City, which is about monster hunting in creepy post-war Berlin). And Pear Bear was hooked. I mean completely hooked. He couldn't stop talking about it. He desperately wants to finish the scenario, and he told me to bring my dice to our football fest tomorrow (which isn't happening, because the Eagles are playing a big game across the Broncos. Go Birds!!!!). So, he's now trying to schedule some time for Friday. And he even started talking about the possibilities of gaming in, say, a 30 story building with aliens.

Wow. I mean, Pear Bear is one of the most grounded people I know. It was pretty cool to be part of such a quick conversion. If we get a second game in, I'll keep you updated.

And I'll definitely post a picture that Pear Bear's wife took of gaming. Good times.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gaming a Villainous Bank Robbery

For many moons now, I've had the idea floating in the back of my head to play criminals engaging in a down and dirty bank robbery. As of late, our gaming has been somewhat sporadic, and due to player flux, we've been playing a handful of short, random games instead of our Savage Worlds fantasy campaign. Perhaps the time is now right to put the villainous bank robbery game into action.

The question now is: What setting or existing content (if any) and system should I use?

My first thought is to use the system A Dirty World, which has some neat little mechanics to model Film Noir. I picked this game up at GenCon a couple years ago, and it's just been sitting on my bookshelf. As Greg Stolze, the author of the game, explains:

"Your ability to get things done fluctuates depending on your mood and circumstances. Instead of a series of temporary modifiers, everything is in play all the time. If you want to retain your purity and courage, you have to work for them. If your character undergoes experiences that are going to turn him into a rat bastard, he gets rat bastard abilities whether the player wants them or not. The result is a game where character is always critical, because explaining your character's reactions to events is what builds his ability to change events. His struggles and discoveries impact your character directly. Drama and mechanics fuse."

That sounds pretty cool. But I'm still left at a loss for how to structure a game focused on a bank robbery, and because I don't want to devote the time to build a one-shot from scratch, I'd love some great published materials (in any system) as at least a starting point.

Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Player Skill vs. Character Skill and the Case of Social Encounters

All around the rpg blogosphere, I see the debate focusing on player skill vs. character skill. Games focused on player skill are often associated with old school games - players are encouraged to make the decisions that really matter, and what's on the character sheet is de-emphasized (except for traditional mechanics like spells and combat prowess). Games focused on character skill are associated with newer games - players can have their characters do wonky things, and the stats on the characters' sheet may allow for a pretty good chance of success. We've played both kinds of games recently, such as AD&D 1e (arguably player skill focused) and Spirit of the Century (arguably character skill focused). I tend to find games that focus on character skill more fun because they encourage the insanity, and I just love my insanity in rpgs. But I understand the allure of games focused more heavily on player skill as well.

Having just traveled to California for the holidays with the inlaws (in particular a place called Temecula that is in the desert sorta between San Diego and LA, and centered around a gargantuan mall), I've heard a lot of "Yo, dude!" in the past few days. This got me thinking, strangely enough, about the player vs. character skill debate as it specifically applies to social situations in rpgs. Because there are few mechanics for social interaction in old school games, player persuasiveness usually drives what happens in these games (use Charisma, never!). In newer games, there may be a variety of stats that address social situation, and these may carry the day with a couple die rolls.

Given this distinction, it strikes me that social encounters in rpgs exacerbate the problems that I have with games focused on player skill.

If I don't have to be good with a battle axe in real life to be a mega-damage destructo Dwarf fighter, why should I need to have good social skills in order to be a charismatic Paladin who can convert all forms of life and sway them to my cause? Why the asymmetry? Is it because we perceive physical skills to be harder to pick up than verbal ones? Given the population of folks I've gamed with and worked with over my life, I feel confident that this isn't the case. The ones with heavy verbal acuity are often heavily trained and versed in their subject area. And the gaming crowd doesn't have a tendency to be easy on the social ears.

So, is there a solution for this problem? A way to save the player skill focused game during social encounters? Here's my off the cuff solution:

Encourage players to explicitly use tactics in social situations and not just combat situations. There are several rhetorical moves and ways to structure persuasive arguments, and some are more or less effective given the social situation. If the player plays this tactical game well even though the player may stumble and mumble and show lots of butt crack, the GM in the player skill game should be more lenient. Though, we now face the problem of figuring out what strong tactics are and how we could be explicit about them.

Some games, like Burning Wheel (and allegedly A Song of Ice and Fire) address this problem - they list a variety of rhetorical moves, and they have explicit mechanics for social combat that play these tactics against each other. This seems better to may than simply saying, "Yeah, smart guy, whatever you say. Now make a diplomacy check." But as I've found, these mechanics can sometimes be unwieldy. They're almost too clever and involved for their own good.

This all makes me wonder if there's a mechanic out there floating out there in Platonic rpg space that can synthesize the old school and new school approach around the use of social tactics. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Check out Ben's homemade DM screen!

After an extended diaspora, we got the (gaming) band back together last night to play Against the Giants. It turned into a big ol' brawl in the stone giants' mead hall, and we ended up with a pyrrhic victory (literally). The highlight of the game was certainly Ben's homemade AD&D DM screen, complete with wacky illustrations and woe-to-ye-adventurers proclamations.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Song of Ice and Fire at first glance

A blog reader asked for a more substantive rundown of A Song of Ice and Fire—which I played last weekend at my local game store—and I'm more than happy to oblige.

Here's the game in a nutshell: It can be played like a typical D&D game, where you adventure around the lands of George R.R. Martin's Seven Kingdoms, defeating robbers, wenching at taverns, etc—but that's not really what the game was designed for.

Rather, the quintessential ASOIAF game is one that mimics the progression of Martin's voluminous book series of the same name: the players create a noble house complete with a coat of arms, a house motto and a physical castle somewhere within the Seven Kingdoms. This house gets a character sheet all its own, detailing defences, land holdings, population, geography, natural resources and more. None of these factors are very high, because the game assumes you're playing a "starting" house that's just begun to ascend in terms of influence in the kingdom.

Only when the noble house has been completed does the actual character creation begin. Players generally make characters based on specific roles in the great house: the lord's son and heir, the hard-bitten tracker, the master of the castle's hound kennels, the brash knight, the shieldmaiden, etc. Crunch-wise, the characters are your typical modern fantasy archetypes, with skills and specializations and feat-like capabilities. I was never a min/maxer, so this segment of the game is lost on me—I just speed through it so I can get to the actual playing.

In ASOIAF, the characters' house is just as important as any other character. It is its own character. Everything the players do—defeating armies in the field or scheming in the royal court—has mechanical effects on the house and its stats. Characters can choose to invest their XP and their riches into their house, granting tangible improvements to various values, or they can keep their rewards and use them to improve their individual characters.

Moreover, since the characters are all integral players in their house, they call upon the house's resources at any time—but they should do so wisely, lest they squander them. In the game I played at my local game store, we were asked to head north and sort out a squabble between three minor estates. If this had been a typical game, we would have gathered our longswords and bows, mounted up on our horses and set off. Since it was ASOIAF, we mustered several hundred foot troops and some mounted knights and marched north en force. When we encountered raiders, we used the game's straightforward mass battle system to deal with the whole combat in maybe 30 minutes flat.

The game has a "social combat" system called Intrigues that is very similar in spirit to Burning Wheel. Characters can use social maneuvers to duel with friends and foes, hoping to gain the (verbal) upper hand and thus win the encounter. It's a bit crunchy for me, but I'm glad it's there, as you can really make characters to excel at this sort of play.

All of this works together to make the game feel very epic. I mean, I can say stuff like "OK, my character wants to scout ahead. I'll take 20 hand-picked horsemen with me" or "Well, I can't pay that retainer fee right now, but how about I offer to marry my house's firstborn daughter to your lord's heir?" I mean, that stuff is straight out of the books!

Here's the post-game writeup I posted on the game store's forum. I daresay it sounds like an excerpt from the books!

Anders Estermont, the third son of the Lord of Estermont, arrived at House Blacksun to deliver a request from his father, who rules from Greenstone Castle off the eastern shore of the stormlands. Three banner houses had fallen to squabbling with each other, and Lord Estermont beseeched the Bastard of Blacksun and his retinue to march north and set the matter to rights. Anders, for his part, was delivered as a ward to House Blacksun in an effort to forge a lasting friendship between the two houses.

Kerrick Sand, Ser Alric, Maester Dorian and Anders Estermont gathered the greater part of their infantry and horsemen and set off, marching overland for several days. They encountered evidence of wilding raids: burning farms, scattered lifestock and slaughtered smallfolk. They eventually arrived at a small town and met with Lord Tarbor (sp?), who commands the lands and owes fealty to a larger house to the north. After an attempted poisoning and a wildling ambush in the forest, the party figured out that Lord Tarbor's liege lord was dead, and that his sister had rallied the region's smallfolk in a bid to seize power. Even now she plotted her brother's downfall, no doubt, from some squallid hovel deep in the woodlands. Tarbor, however, was little better; he ruled with an iron fist and routinely terrorized his own serfs to ensure their loyalty.

Faced with the potential of a localized peasant uprising, the House Blacksun contingent mustered their resources and weighed their options carefully....

So all in all, it was a good start to the game. And it was very fun to actually roleplay alongside the storied characters and locations from Martin's books. The GM isn't as familiar with the source material as the players, so I forsee that becoming a problem at some point in the future as we increase our influence. But for now it's a fun counterpoint to the much more plodding progress of traditional RPGs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Scripted Adventures and Old School Sandboxes: Not So Different

Common rpg blogosphere wisdom says that heavily scripted adventures are the antithesis of the old school sandbox. In scripted adventures, characters are essentially railroaded from scene to scene and battle to battle, while characters in sandboxes can do anything they want and go anywhere their abilities allow, so long as the pre-existing design of the sandbox allows it. In scripted adventures, change in the world is predetermined by the writer, while change organically occurs in a sandbox as a result of characters' actions.

Gameplay of both scripted modules and old school sandboxes, in addition to some story-driven indie games, over the past few years have convinced me that this is a false distinction.

Last night, we played Death Frost Doom - a seemingly old school sandbox dungeon in many respects that is built for use with a D&D retroclone. The writer, James Raggi IV, exhorted the DM in the intro to be fair according to the way the dungeon was set up and let the characters face the consequences of their actions. The problem was, the dungeon was set up in such a way that the odds were stacked heavily against the characters, and the scenario was generally set up in such a way that there was one very likely conclusion. Indeed, a quick perusal of actual play reviews reveals that many others hit this conclusion upon playing it.

In other words, this "old school" scenario was set up in such a way that the characters were physically free to do what they wanted, but only in the narrow confines of a fairly small physical area. I think there are several ways that Death Frost Doom differs from traditional old school sandboxes, but this aspect remains right on. Given these narrow confines, the characters acted in fairly predictable ways.

On the other hand, we've been playing a heavily scripted Planescape module (Dead Gods) on and off for a while. The scope is epic and crosses several planes. There's a heavy meta-plot built into it. But given some meaty story hooks in addition to just physical ones and the simple lure of treasure, players have made some very unpredictable and wacky decisions around the back story. Needless to say, I've had to heavily modify the module on the fly. In essence, the module has become more of a sandbox than not. And in ways that I never could've predicted in advance.

We've played other more story-driven games more recently as well - like Fading Suns using the Spirit of the Century (SoTC) system. Fading Suns has a crazy amount of source material, and SoTC has mechanics based around story-like attributes of characters, like Haughty Noble (or whatever else one comes up with). Using these mechanics has allowed for unpredictable and organically driven play as well, in ways that just don't emerge in the traditional sandbox.

When I look at all these types of games together as a GM, a conclusion starts to emerge for me: There are lots of ways to allow characters free reign and meaningful choices. Sometimes, an open physical environment works. Sometimes, GM or module-provided story hooks can provoke unpredictable choices that require GM responsiveness and flexibility. Sometimes, explicitly written character traits can serve the same goal. These are all just different tools that the GM and players can bring to bear. Including such tools in game content or game mechanics simply emphasizes and reinforces that aspect of the game. As a GM, I try to select the right tool at the right time because it's not just the content of the module or sandbox that matters; it's also the group, with all their strengths, weaknesses, and mood shifts. It's all about using just the right tool and bringing the cool at just the right time.

And that's really the bottom line for me. I'm not so concerned about remaining true to source material I may have prepped 3 hours before a game as much as providing interesting and fun situations for my players to which I need to respond flexibly. Sometimes, these situations are hard to manage, because a truly open world, with a range of story and character hooks AND mechanics can end up about anywhere. (This is actually my biggest weakness as a GM - that I end up putting myself in situations that are too unpredictable and tough to manage on the fly.)

But it just goes to show: Sometimes the sandbox feels scripted and the script wide open.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dying a Cold Death with Death Frost Doom and the Old School Plus

Four of us played Death Frost Doom (DFD) a couple hours ago on a snowy night in Chicago. It was either that, or continue a long dormant Planescape campaign. But I downloaded DFD today, and it seemed fitting, so we went with it as a one shot.

As with some others who have discussed DFD, I won't review it in whole (though I will include some SPOILER details), because others such as Grognardia have done this well. But I will give some overall impressions and some broader thoughts about Old School Gaming (or whatever).

Bottom line: DFD was fine. But the hanging out with friends was the best part, and I think we should've resurrected our Planescape campaign instead.

DFD is very atmospheric - it's a creepy, location based scenario at a shrine with no active monsters and a bunch of ways for PCs to hurt themselves if they do the wrong things at places like water basins. There are a lot of old, creepy rooms with things like dried blood, torture instruments, and endless crypts. There are a lot of weird magical things, like a cuckoo clock that warps time. Again, there are lots and lots of crypts. And there's a way to make all the corpses in the crypts wake up. This is an endless horde of undead that pc's will likely run from or get killed by eventually.

One character (out of 6, because the 3 players had 2 characters each) escaped after waking up the horde of the dead. This was only because all the 5 surviving characters that ran from a zombie horde locked a door to a creepy chapel and snorted trippy purple dust that they found way earlier. One of the characters went deaf. Another went blind. The one that was best off rolled a 70 on a huge percentile table and was "Safe from Harm!"

In the end, there was a lot of wandering around empty, weird, creepy rooms. And frantic running at the end from a zombie horde and then through a horde of ghouls. There was little for the PCs to figure out, and the scenario naturally ran toward what strongly seems is this intended conclusion. The one where the undead horde spreads out over the fantasy globe causing DOOM! Except to the tripped out magic user who was Safe from Harm!

I think we all felt disappointed. I rate my GMing as average at best, but conjuring up a creepy atmosphere certainly doesn't play to my strengths (for example, I tend to laugh with my players a lot about stupid RPG stuff, like when the Halfling found a ring that turned her invisible). We especially laughed about how the randomly generated characters were all female except for the Dwarf. Because we're all guys and haven't gamed with females for a while. Probably like most of you reading this.

The players were frustrated that there wasn't much for them to do (I found myself saying a lot of things like "ok, you bash the cuckoo clock"). And then they died because of an event that didn't absolutely need to happen if the players didn't trigger it. But c'mon, the scenario seriously pushed the characters in that direction.

So, is this Old School Gaming, as many seem to perceive it to be? My first impression is NO: It has many trapping of the old school. There's a sandboxy dungeon, and players aren't forced to do anything. But there is a one big story trigger looming over the whole thing. I generally like "story" in my games, but I like it when character decisions are much more meaningful - when the odds aren't so heavily stacked to trigger one event, and where there isn't such an emphasis on DMing as just atmosphere for a couple hours - I really like the unpredictability of character decisions that have impact in a more wide open area.

Maybe DFD is Old School Plus. Old School on steroids, where the decision to explore a dungeon for an evening is stupid in itself. Because you're probably going to die in one of the fairly limited ways the writer intends, and perhaps exactly the way the writer sets up as by falling on, by far, the most impressive and overwhelming chopping block. I don't know. But I'm kind of disappointed. I read so much about this scenario on the blogosphere and there is some legitimate excitement. Maybe I just couldn't bring the scenario to life. There's definitely truth to this, and it is a well written book with lots of creepy content.

But I also think the scenario just wasn't right for our group. Which is ironic, given that we've been playing through the Planescape module Dead Gods (a wacky and heavily scripted adventure that I've really had to alter significantly on the fly due to player decisions). DFD is supposed to be wide open. But even compared to scripted modules, it feels surprisingly narrow.

So, Death Frost Doom is good fun for an evening. It got us together around the table on a snowy night that 4 people couldn't get to. But DFD is just not set up to enable player choice or impact in a way that I think was very meaningful to any of us.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Getting down to (gaming) business

I joined a new campaign at my local gaming store this weekend; we're playing A Song of Ice and Fire, the RPG of George R. R. Martin's Westeros fantasy setting. And even though we played for barely 2.5 hours, it was a substantive session—we got more done in 2.5 hours than my current group gets done in 5 hours.

Paradoxically, one reason why we got so much done is because none of us are friends. I mean, we're jovial and polite around the table, but we don't gossip about girlfriends or the latest movie we just saw, and we don't go off on crazy tangents about unrelated stuff. Now, these things are the staples of many a game group, and truth be told I wouldn't want to go without them—but this session was a really interesting glimpse at what can get done when the group focuses solely on the task of gaming.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The D&D Endgame is a Game of Thrones

Think about it: the PCs have made 20th level, scoured the realm of humanoids and bestials, opened the frontier up to trade, established strongholds, invested their treasure, sired a few heirs...what's left but the complex intrigues that fuel George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire? The endgame of D&D and other fantasy games is the beginning of an entirely new game...the game of thrones.

Yes, a couple weeks ago I made the mistake of pulling my own battered copy of Martin's "A Feast For Crows" off the shelf. Now I'm once again helplessly embroiled in Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms that form the basis of the series' tales. I spent today scouring Wikipedia, reading up on Robert's Rebellion and the Targaryen dynasty when I should have been working.

Being back in Westeros once again has got me thinking about how to properly render Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire as an RPG. Earlier this year Green Ronin's iteration of the game came out. I don't have that, but I do have a copy of Guardians of Order's seminal book--the first and sadly last that they were able to publish before folding.

A proper Game of Thrones game, to me, would see the player as characters at the zenith of power in a typical D&D game--commanding a medium-sized household, perhaps, and strong enough to make alliances with similar lords. Then, of course, the machinations of power and intrigue, coupled with the highly volatile nature of Martin's Seven Kingdoms, would present successive scenarios to drive the game forward. In this sort of game, the gamemaster has a lot more to do, since he must be actively pursuing the agendas of many powerful NPCs. Sometimes these agendas will be at odds with the PCs and their burgeoning fiefdoms; other times they'll be allied.

I could see this playing out a lot like Birthright: players make long-terms decisions that might take weeks or months or years to bear fruit. Thus the game must be very farsighted in nature. The GM shouldn't hesitate to say things like, "OK, so that's where we stand. Three months pass, now what do you do?"

Anyway, I'm just starting to think about A Song of Ice and Fire. There's a group that's running an irregular campaign over at my local game store; from reading their Web forum, it sounds like they're playing it similarly to how I'd play it. I'll probably sit in on a session or two and see how it feels. Honestly, I'd rather be a player at this point. Taking the reins as GM of a world like Westeros is a tall order indeed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Narrativist Sandbox?

Thought experiment: Imagine a sandbox type game with some serious narrativist elements thrown in. What would such a game look like? Would it work? Is Castle Greyhawk still Castle Greyhawk when utterly personal and non-tactical decisions repeatedly come into play?

I've been thinking about this lately because my group has been dabbling in two sorts of games - a savage worlds fantasy sandbox campaign in the old school vein (GM'd by co-blogger Pat), and a more narrativist streak of games like Burning Wheel and a more recently started Spirit of the Century game in Fading Suns space that I've been running. It's also worth mentioning that I've shown up at a couple of Chgowiz's old school fantasy games.

Upon the deepest of reflections, it turns out that I like elements from these various games, and I have problems with these types of games as well. I find "old school" games a little restrictive because the pc's are fairly powerless and every little thing takes so much effort. And while I love true sandboxes as the basic framework for games, I find that these games lack real connections between the characters and the world. Which makes all decisions a player based thing rather than a character based thing.

I find many narrativist games too foofy, for lack of a better word. In my current Spirit of the Century game, the world is so wide open that I'm forced to be a little too heavy handed (for my taste) with plot hooks. But I love how games like Spirit of the Century and Burning Wheel have mechanical repercussions for personal characteristics. For example, in SoTC, a character can have the aspect "disdainful to non-nobles." Pulling this aspect into a roll can give a character a mechanical bonus to do things where this applies (which could be a range of situations). The environment or reaction of the NPCs change accordingly, and voila - a plot starts to appear that's grounded in character sheets.

So, the question is now: Could a fantasy megadungeon fruitfully work with a system like Spirit of the Century? Would the balance of the old school and new school be just right? Or are we really talking about oil and water?

Go ahead and roll

How many times has this happened: You're GMing and a player says "OK, we're at the burned village. I want to see if I can find tracks from the raiders." And before you can say "Yep, there's a set of huge footprints leading into the hills" the player has thrown his dice, read the result and glumly reported back to you: "Nope, I didn't find 'em."

A variation of that scenario happened last weekend during my Savage Worlds fantasy campaign (featuring special guest player Chgowiz, in his first-ever Savage Worlds outing!). It illustrated that "think, don't roll" can still be applied even to new-school game systems like Savage Worlds.

Had the player asked me what he was able to find, I would absolutely have delivered the details. But once those dice fall, it's tough to backtrack and be like "Weeeell, you officially failed, but it's tough to miss orc footprints in soft soil."

It also points to a general weakness in games where there's a known target number or difficulty class. If you want to roll and tell me you fail, that's fine and dandy—yep, you failed. But if you want to tell me what your character does, you might just get a surprise when I tell you, "OK, you do it."

I'm thinking of putting a little edict in place for my campaign: Unless you're in combat, you don't have to roll for anything unless the GM says you do.

Chgowiz, for his part, took the exact opposite approach. He described his character's actions in detail and tried to set up situations where he wouldn't have to roll—because that added the chance of failure. He had some observations of his own from the game, which I hope he's able to post over at his blog.

Regardless, it made for a very interesting game that truly spanned the divide between old school and new school.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fully Painted: Fighting-Men with Polearms

A while back I had started collecting a Warhammer Bretonnian army. I never got past my intial purchase, which was a boxed set of Empire Men at Arms. They sat in a box for a few years, but I pulled them out again earlier this summer when I started getting interested in painting up figures for use in my fantasy RPG campaigns. They're multi-part plastic models, and they come packaged with a ton of extras. Take a look at the polearms in this photo—they could have come straight off the pages of Gary's overly detailed halberd illustrations. There's enough diversity on each sprue so no soldier needs ever look like his comrade.

Fully Painted: Death Knight and some Zombies

Fully Painted: Mantic Elves

Monday, November 2, 2009

Coming soon: My homebrew follow-up to Points of Light

My Autumn Frontiers campaign is largely inspired by Rob Conley's "Points of Light" supplement published by Goodman Games, and I recently wrote him an email asking if I could publish some of the details of my evolving campaign world as a "living" addendum to his published product.

I'm pleased to report that Rob gave his blessing to this effort, which will hopefully result in a short PDF that I'll make available as a free download. A lot of the detail of our game is still scattered throughout my notebooks, so it might take a while to distill it all down into something worth publishing. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fully Painted: Death Knight and some Zombies

This death knight is a Reaper figure from an old Warlord faction box. I wasn't too sure how I wanted to paint him up, but I knew I wanted his sword to be striking. I started by painting it red—but the paint I used was old, and it looked terrible. So I tried to salvage things by painting the sword in this sort of yellow-fade-red scheme, which came out better than I'd expected. And seeing the finished product really helped me imagine this guy in the game—which will come in handy if/when my players ever encounter him. The sword he's carrying was forged from a smoldering meteorite, and it radiates scorching heat when wielded by the knight.

And below you can see some zombies from the same Reaper/Warlord boxed set. Maybe they're the death knight's retinue? Or just shambling undead with a hunger for brains? This was my first attempt at painting zombies, so I went for a straightforward paint scheme that emphasized their pallid flesh and wobbly gait.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Outside the Sandbox: The Challenges of GMing a Large Scale Game

Tonight, my buddies and I are going to embark on a new game that I'm GMing. We're playing Fading Suns with the Spirit of the Century Rules (instead of that crappy victory point system or D20). I've played in a 6 month campaign of Fading Suns before, and I love the setting. It's Middle Ages in space, with a touch of Roman Empire thrown in, and a huge array of different planets and campaign possibilities. The setting is also politically explosive, and it's explicitly aimed at having large scale political repercussions for PC actions. With source books galore, it's maybe one of the most well supported settings I've ever seen. But there's a potential problem that I've quickly run into: With so much source material and options for players, it can be demanding on the GM.

Contrast this sort of game with the sandboxy old school games that are all the rage right now. I'm actively playing in one of those right now (using the Savage Worlds system), and I'm really digging on it. We can go wherever we want, and every little thing is a struggle. We've been playing for about a year, and we still had some serious problems with well positioned goblins not so long ago. The map is set, and the GM doesn't force any plot hooks on us. I know this took a whole lot of preparation on the front end to get this sandbox up and running. But in game, things seem to be more straightforward for the GM.

On the other hand, part of the appeal of Fading Suns is that players can move from world to world, and city to city on these worlds. As a GM, I have some plot hooks for players, and Spirit of the Century is set up to give players incentives for characters to follow the GM's lead (there's a really cool mechanic for this, called invoking aspects). Some degree of player buy in to what the GM has planned is necessary for this sort of game. But the last thing I want to do is railroad the players. After all, I get most of my fun from GMing from trying to flexibly respond to the unpredictable things players do. On a very large scale.

In fact, the large scale nature of the game is what appeals to me so much. It's just how my mind tends to work. It's what fascinates me. But it sure makes for tough preparation and on the spot GMing sometimes. As we play, I'll keep posting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fully Painted: Mantic Elves, freebies from GenCon

I've been painting a lot of miniatures in recent weeks (byproduct of getting married in September? You be the judge...), so I'm starting "Fully Painted," an occasional series on RPG Diehard, to show off some of my finished products.

Up first is a pair of elves I picked up as freebies from GenCon this year. They were from Mantic Games, a new game company dedicated to producing inexpensive plastic fantasy figures for use with "mass battle" wargames like Warhammer Fantasy and Arcane Legions. They hadn't yet launched at GenCon, so they were giving out a free sprue of these elves to generate excitement for their pending release.

These elves are sculpted like the traditional "high elves" with their imperious demeanor and helmet crests and master-crafted armor and whatnot, but for some reason I decided to paint them up more like the "wood elves" of Tolkien lore. So I did both figures in slightly different shades of green, along with a little detail work–not much, though, because I plan to play with these figs, not put them on a shelf. As such they'll get knocked around a little bit. Better not to spend much time on them, especially if I'll be re-gluing arms in a month or two.

The good part is that my Savage Worlds fantasy sandbox campaign has several elf and half-elf characters, so these guys will no doubt hit the table sooner rather than later.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Looking back on the worst session ever

I've seen a few posts here and there about the worst GM, worst game session, worst player, etc. and it's inspired me to recount my own tale of woe. It was an easy choice—I've had exactly one really terrible game experience, run by "That Guy" I knew in college, and it almost singlehandedly turned me off to fantasy gaming for five years. Here it is:

At the time, our group (composed of high school students, college students, grad students, one professor) was taking turns in the GM's seat, running short arcs of various games. One week, a player I'll call "Steve" took the reins, promising to run his own homebrew fantasy setting which, in his words, had been under development for decades.

That should have tipped me off right there. Excessive pimping of your own setting and/or game system is often a harbinger of a bad game.

But anyway, we rolled up characters using our generic fantasy system of choice, met in a tavern and got our mission. We were to sail across a vast sea and perform some task. Exactly what it was didn't matter; we never got there. In fact, the session lasted about two hours before we all stomped away from the table in disgust. Read on:

Steve explained that wood was very rare in his campaign world, so all boats were carved out of stone and then made buoyant by magical enchantments. This, he explained, was very commonplace and enabled stone merchant ships to ply the seas of his fantasy realm. Good stuff—we boarded our rock sloop and set sail for the horizon. No doubt adventure awaited us in the wilderlands beyond!

At this point, about an hour of play time had elapsed. Another hour remained, although we didn't know it at the time.

After a day or two of sailing in our magical granite clipper, with no land in sight, we entered the first line of defense set up by the inhabitants of our destination.

It was an anti-magic aura.

We sailed right into it. And our boulder boat started sinking instantly.

This development prompted a huge metagame discussion about what, exactly, we could do to save ourselves. We brainstormed, strategized, dumped excess cargo, shed armor, tried to flee, argued with the DM—to no avail. He had a bemused expression on his face, like he was just waiting for us to stumble across the obvious solution to the problem, but clearly there was none.

After 30 minutes of this, we all threw up our hands. "We don't know what do do!" we moaned.

But Steve knew what we could do. And he told us.

"You all drown!" he crowed, rolling dice to see just how long it would take for our lungs to fill with saltwater and for our bodies to stop twitching spasmodically.

You could have heard a pin drop at the table. One by one we picked up our dice. A few guys went outside to smoke. A couple more went home immediately. The oldest player, whose basement we were playing in, tried to gently talk some sense into Steve and explain what a crappy game we'd just had.

But he didn't get it. In fact, the more he was taken to task for the impossible scenario he put us in, the more he dug his heels in and refused to compromise. He kept insisting that his world was awesome, that we'd agree with him if we just rolled up characters and played again. But at that point, the damage was done.

I didn't play fantasy RPGs for years after that, preferring instead to focus on sci-fi and superhero games—anything to avoid a game with freakin' magic.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fresh from 1980: Grenadier's Fighting Men boxed set

The "buy of the day" from last weekend's gaming auction has to be this boxed set of AD&D Fighting Men from Grenadier Models Inc. The set is in mint condition, considering its age.
The box is pristine and the miniatures themselves look like they were cast yesterday. I even had to clean off flash and mold lines, that's how new they were. Take a look:

I love the variety of weapons and poses: halberds, swords, axes, spears, crossbows and more. I don't think any of the dudes herein are fitted out exactly the same way. And is it just me, or do you sense a little trepidation—maybe even fear—in the lead-molded faces of these bold little fighters? They're aggressive, sure, but I'll bet they know when to turn tail and run.

Believe it or not, I snagged this box for $3. I'll be painting a lot of miniatures this winter, so perhaps I'll check back on these fellows so we can see how they've progressed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fistfuls of loot at the fall gaming auction

Last weekend was the fall auction at Games Plus, Chicago's gaming mecca. Enthusiasts from near and far emptied out their closets and bookshelves, filling the halls of Games Plus with much-loved gaming books, miniatures, board games and accessories.

Each day had a particular theme. I stopped by for Saturday (the tabletop RPG book day) and Sunday (the miniatures day). Once the bidding commenced around 11 a.m., it didn't stop until about 8 or 9 p.m. The Games Plus team went non-stop, auctioning items fast and furious—and frequently switching out auctioneers when a particular volunteer's voice started to fade.

Most lots went for less than $10, and plenty of great deals could be had for as little as $1 or $2. The auction featured several jewels from the hobby's early days. In particular, I saw near-mint copies of Phil Edgren's "The Book of Monsters" and "The Book of Demons"—both circa-1976 unofficial supplements to D&D and other first-generation fantasy RPGs. I admit that I didn't really know what they were when I saw them sitting atop a pile of books. But a quick flip through the musty pages confirmed their old-school cred. They were published through Little Soldier Games. I couldn't find much reference to Edgren or the publisher on the Web, but there's this.

Interestingly, throughout the day, the D&D 3.x core books received much higher bids than the 4e stuff in the auction. One 4e PHB with a starting bid of $10 didn't even sell! But none of the current generation of fantasy games proved as popular as the Pathfinder core book. I saw just one copy go up for auction, and bidding ended somewhere around the actual retail price for the book.

And I spotted this just before I left, so I couldn't bid on it. But I would have!

So what did I get, you ask? I scored a copy of Fantasy Flight's "Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation" 2-player board game, and a I won a lot of 6 AD&D books, all by Gygax—two of which were immediately earmarked for The Reverend, an occasional commenter on this blog and a real-life fellow gamer here in Chicago.

On Sunday, the miniatures day, I spent about $35 and walked away with a nice pile of assorted miniatures, rulebooks, terrain and some static grass. I had entered some of my own stuff in the auction too; later this week I'll find out how much cold, hard store credit I'll be getting from that.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dynamic dungeons and the lessons learned therein

Earlier this week was the 20th session of Chgowiz's Dark Ages OSRIC campaign. I've only played in maybe 12 of those sessions, but that's alright—Mike's running a drop-in/drop-out campaign along the lines of Ben Robbins' West Marches concept.

But last Tuesday's session was a real meatgrinder, almost from the get-go. We ventured into the abandoned dwarven mines, an area that we've mapped extensively and thoroughly cleared out over the previous 19 adventures. The thing is, the unfolding story of the Dark Ages meant that a tribe of goblins, bent on delivering genocide unto a nearby kobold tribe, moved in to occupy the mines.

We hadn't counted on this.

What started as a simple "OK, let's get back to those stairs leading down to level 2" turned into a 2-hour running battle with untold dozens of goblin warriors. There were five of us in the party—4 PCs and a hireling—and we absolutely exhausted all of our resources in a desperate attempt to keep those goblins at bay. We threw oil flasks down hallways, hurled javelins, tossed spells, smashed our way through cordons of goblins and finally escaped into the wilderness. It was daytime, so the goblins opted not to pursue.

But I think this session really illustrates how we have all become "better" players over the course of this campaign. Early on, we had a pretty horrific hireling casualty rate. But this most recent adventure saw everyone emerge alive—the cleric even used one of his precious healing spells to treat our wounded hireling!

We relied heavily on our map to navigate our way into (and out of) the goblin deathtrap. Out of all the oil flasks we threw, I don't think we killed a single goblin—but by setting doorways and corridors on fire, we made those pesky goblins think twice about pursuing us.

The party included a 3rd level cleric, a 2nd level ranger, a 1st level cleric and a 1st level elf fighter-mage, plus our hireling. During the ensuing combat, the two higher-level characters used their double-digit hit points with great aplomb, soaking up tremendous amounts of damage and barking terse orders at the other two characters. Mostly those orders were "Light a torch! Throw the oil!" I'm not really a big fan of having higher-level characters order around the lower level characters—but dammit, our survival was in the balance! My 3rd level cleric wasn't going to screw around when it came to saving the party!

One aspect of last night's campaign that really stood out to me was Chgowiz's pacing. During the frenzied escape, it would have been easy to gloss over some of OSRIC's rather tedious timekeeping requirements. Mike didn't, which meant that our combat rounds were very regimented and by-the-book. Everything took the time it took, no questions asked. Digging a flask of oil out of your bag meant that you couldn't benefit from your shield that round. Casting a spell meant you couldn't move—so do you want to run or cast? Several times our very survival came down to an initiative roll.

In the end, as Chgowiz notes on his blog, our deliverance came in the form of a single botched die roll that paradoxically saved our collective asses. We fled, lacking treasure and a measure of our dignity—but we were alive, and 13 goblins were dead. In this campaign, that's the greatest reward.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rules-lite Savage Worlds: It works for us

This month marks the one-year anniversary of my Savage Worlds fantasy sandbox, Autumn Frontiers. We're about 14 sessions in, which averages out to about one session per month—not too bad, but a little less frequently than I would have liked. Oh well, we're all adults with busy lives, so I'm not gonna turn up my nose at 14 substantive sessions in a year. And did I mention that this is the longest-running game I've ever GMed?

Anyway, we're using Savage Worlds, and over the last year we've tinkered mightily with that system. Most of our modifications have been designed to speed up an already fast ruleset. That's one of my weaknesses as a GM—no system will ever be fast enough for me, because I live in mortal fear of boring my players with drawn-out, grinding combats. So anything that speeds things along is paramount at my table.

The first thing we did was eject the playing-card initiative system in favor of a single d6 roll per side (one for the players' party, one for the GM's monsters). This also necessitated tweaking all of the various edges that reference initiative or being dealth the Joker, etc. Spending a benny can still win the players initiative if they so choose, however. I know the playing-card initiative system is a hallmark of Savage Worlds, but to us it just introduced 52 extra fiddly bits to our already crowded tabletop. Out it went.

We've also ignored a lot of the combat maneuvers (disarm, called shot, etc) as well as most of the edges that don't show up on character sheets. When I stat out monsters, I prefer to express their threat in terms of hard numbers rather than edges (which, like feats, are difficult for me to remember during combat).

We kept the skill list, but we only use about 6 skills regularly, the rest being relegated to specific situations or characters.

Really, what's kept us most excited about Savage Worlds has been the innovative resolution mechanic: Target Number 4, which you can attempt on a variety of polyhedral dice based on your relevant skill. But you're always trying for a 4, mostly. And any dice that rolls its maximum explodes, allowing you to roll it again and add it to the previous number. This can result in some hideously high damage rolls, both for the players and the monsters they encounter, and that's kept things very interesting out in the wilderness. Anything that rolls dice to attack you can, conceivably, drop you with one attack. We love it!

In retrospect, the path we've charted with this game has a lot in common with UncleBear's "Old School Anything" concept—just strip out all the extemporaneous stuff from your game, look at what's left, and run a game with it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

GenCon photo highlights..finally

Yes, I know GenCon was more than a month ago. But I'm just now posting a few choice photos from the games I enjoyed last month. Gimme a break!

First up is a pic of Frank Mentzer DMing a session of Tower of Gygax. It really was a treat to watch him rock the party's world. I think the pic is big enough for you to zoom in and see the whiteboard o' death behind him. I didn't actually get to play with Frank, but I watched for the better part of an hour and then jumped in when a new DM took over.

Here's a shot of the GM Jam featuring (from left) Josh from Stupid Ranger, Zach from RPGBlog2, Jeff from Bonescroll, Mike/Chgowiz from the Old Guy RPG Blog and Tony Law of RPGCentric. Since I'm a player in Mike's sandbox fantasy campaign, I did my part by shouting questions designed to extol Mike's virtues and tout my own capabilities as a player.

I also played in Zach's Microlite74 game "Smash and Grab at the Kobold Caverns." The title was very accurate—the session was only two hours, compared to the normal four hours for a GenCon RPG event, and the players were literally competing to score the most loot and win the very real prize that Zach had hidden in his backpack. Toward the end of the session, as the characters began fleeing back to town with their treasure, my character drank a potion of strength, heaved open a huge door and grabbed a single gem that proved to be more valuable than anything else retrieved by the players. Thus I won the prize—a custom set of Call of Cthulhu dice! Thanks Zach—nice ears, buddy!

My first night at GenCon I arrived too late to pick up my badge. So I wandered over to a nearby hotel and watched as Luke Crane GMed a session of Burning Empires. I've played Burning Wheel and read Burning Empires, so it was a real treat to watch a game run by someone who knew the system and setting so intimately.

And that's it! Look for more horribly outdated posts here in the future.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Savaging the D&D Monster Manual

My local gaming store is gearing up to host its twice-yearly consignment auctions, so I've been combing my collection looking for unused material to sell off. Since I'll be dropping off a load of stuff in the next couple of weeks, my buddy (and fellow RPG Diehard author) Ben pulled together a pile of saleable stuff from his own collection to add to the auction; this lot included the D&D 3.0 Monster Manual.

While organizing our shared auction wares, I happened to flip open the Monster Manual. Now, I must confess that I've never actually perused any of the various beast books for D&D—if you'd asked me last week, I would have told you that their content is utilitarian in nature...stat blocks for critters and little else.

And although I found stats aplenty, I also found myself enthralled by the narrative description of the monsters. In general, I've turned up my nose at the more mythic, oddball monsters in D&D, preferring instead to populate my wilderness with evil humanoids like orcs, hobgoblins and troglodytes. You know, monsters that can think and strategize. But skimming the Monster Manual really fired my imagination in regards to some of the more fantastical creatures in the book, stuff like thoqquas (the segmented, elemental lava-worms that will fit perfectly into a dungeon I'm working on), mohrgs (more interesting than your average undead), hippogriff (until recently, I couldn't say that word with a straight face) and, of course, beholders.

Before I knew it, I'd pulled out a notebook and begun sketching out Savage Worlds stats for a dozen of the more interesting critters. They're on the way to my campaign notebook now—and Ben's Monster Manual, having offered up one last burst of inspiration, is on its way to the auction and, hopefully, someone else's gaming table.

Monday, August 31, 2009

If you dig sandbox campaigns, check out the comments at Ars Ludi

This probably doesn't need to be said, but Ben Robbins' marvelous West Marches series is an ever-evolving resource for players and GMs alike. Do yourself a favor and check back periodically to read the comments (and the timely responses from Ben and his players) that just keep piling onto this fantastic group of articles.

The wrap-up piece, West Marches: Running Your Own, has no fewer than 137 comments, probably more by the time you read this. They're from players and GMs wanting to know more about Ben's fantasy sandbox. He's responded to most queries, which of course prompts even more questions from his readers. You'll even find a few of my own comments mixed in among the discussion.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Gamers are social creatures, and so are Cubs fans

For the next session of Chgowiz's The Dark Ages campaign, we've been invited to join a larger gaming meetup group that's congregating at a bar in Chicago. We've been told that there's a decent-sized area full of couches and whatnot set aside for us in the rear of the pub, which is a really nice thing for them to do. I plan to reward this tavern's proprietors by spending freely my hard-earned gold coins.

But the opportunity to rub elbows with the non-gaming masses really piques the interest in my inner sociologist. I mean, this is a bar, and on the night of our game, it will probably be packed with Cubs fans cheering on the home team. This is Chicago, after all. I'd cheer 'em on too, if I had any interest in sports. As it was, our campaign's email list was full of pithy comments like "I'm going to bring my +1 dagger just in case we have to fight off a mob of rowdy Cubs fans. If we can find a bottleneck, they can't flank us..." and "don't worry, I got x4 damage from my backstab ready if they make it through the door."

We've been told that the larger meetup group includes more than a few old-school D&D players from the days of yore, so it's possible we might get a few drop-in players. This is perfect because Mike's campaign is set up to easily accomodate new folks. But what will the non-gamers think? Will they drift over to our table and spill beer on our minis (thus requiring me to LARP a tavern brawl)? Will they be ensorceled by Mike's GM style, with its curious waving of arms and pointing of fingers? Or will we merely be a curiosity, like the guy in the corner who's waaay to into his game of Golden Tee?

Time will tell. I hope to report back after Tuesday's game, with photos.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When the stars are right

Every now and then, things in my everyday life line up in serendipitous ways that make me really pleased that I'm part of this hobby. This weekend held one such event—I visited the Volo Bog, a natural wetlands area about 45 miles north of Chicago.

Bogs and marshes occupy a hallowed—one might say unhallowed—position in fantasy gaming. The haunt of ghouls, specters and wraiths, these watery expanses are created naturally by leftover ice chunks from the last ice age. The ice chunks melt over the course of many years, creating a poorly drained pool of stagnant water that begins to fill slowly with thick vegetation. They're not so creepy in the summer, as evidenced by these non-menacing photos I took, but they're still thoroughly interesting.

I learned from our tour guide that the Volo Bog (is that an RPG name or what?) is the southernmost "quaking bog" in the U.S., so named because of the thick mat of vegetation that grows on the surface of the swamp—thick enough to walk on, in some cases, which causes the whole green landscape to wobble as the waves course through the vegetation. Shrubs, cat-tails and even small trees grow in this organic carpet, which itself floats upon the deeper waters of the bog.

After the tour, my fiance and I were strolling around the visitors center, chatting up some of the friendly naturalists on staff there. They mentioned that each year they host an international bog arts show, featuring an array of artwork inspired by bogs. They also mentioned one standout from last year's show—a painting from a local artist inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's "Moon Bog." That got my attention! I've never read "Moon Bog" before, as it doesn't figure into the Cthulhu mythos collections on my shelf. But get this—the staffers actually had photocopies of "Moon Bog" on hand to give out to visitors, and they produced a stapled-together pamphlet of the story for me to take home.

It was really, really cool to spend an afternoon exploring nature and find out that it figures so prominently into the stuff of my hobbies.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Need an extra player at GenCon?

My GenCon plans have changed a little bit: my friend with whom I was going to be traveling had to bail, so I will be heading to GenCon on my own. So, I'm interested in dropping in on some games! Either official con events or hotel lobby affairs, doesn't matter to me. Send me a direct message through Twitter or post here and we can talk.

Bound for GenCon in Mere Hours

I'm not one to foist a crushing GenCon schedule onto myself. I generally enjoy sleeping at night and doing events during the day. Also (as evidenced by this post) I'm not even in Indianapolis yet—but since I live in Chicago, I'm only a few hours away, and I hope to be there by nightfall.

For me, GenCon will be an opportunity to catch up with a cadre of buddies from college and play some games. In particular, I hope to crash Zachary's Microlite74 game and play in my first-ever Castles & Crusades session. I'm keen on investigating a few lesser known games, including Godlike, the Mountain Witch and maybe Don't Rest Your Head.

I've also got my fingers crossed that I'll get to leave with a couple copies of Rogue Trader, the new rpg from Fantasy Flight Games set in the Warhammer 40k universe. I did some freelance editing for this project, and I'm really hoping it's available at GenCon. It looks so shiny!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Follow-up to Gygax memorial story

Last week I had the opportunity to write a follow-up story for the Chicago Tribune about the Gygax memorial planned for Lake Geneva. It was a deadline-intensive piece, and I wasn't able to interview Gail Gygax in time to turn the story in to the editors. I was pleased with the placement, though—page 3 of the Sunday edition.

There are no big revelations in the story, but it does describe Lake Geneva's general attitude toward projects on its lakefront. Plus I got to interview Jim Ward (though just a single quote made it through the final, edited article. Them's the breaks when writing for a specific page shape.)

Memorial of 'Dungeons and Dragons' creator proposed for Lake Geneva lakefront

It's a tiny piece, but it looks good on the page.

Here's the best quote from Ward that I never got to use:

I was picking books out [at the local bookstore], and I went through the rows and picked out my seven books. There was this gentlemen standing beside me who had picked out the exact same seven books. He looked at my stack, which included a Conan book by [Robert] Howard. He said, 'I've got this new game that actually lets you play as Conan!'"

That's Jim Ward, describing his first time meeting Gary Gygax in 1974. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Library D&D: Can it work?

I have a strong desire to put up a simple paper flyer at my local library (4 blocks up the street here in Chicago) and run a pick-up Swords & Wizardry game for whomever shows up.

I probably wouldn't be out of line to assume that I'll get mostly younger players, folks who have probably not played a pen-and-paper rpg—but it's possible I'll draw some older players as well.

I mean, didn't D&D get promoted early on by local libraries as a way for bookish kids to make friends and stay social? Is it possible to re-capture that excitement today? Can the "neighborhood game" be re-created in an era of iPods and video games and reduced attention spans?

Last month I wrote an article about gaming in libraries; it focused mostly on video game events. But everyone I spoke to was enthusiastic about the idea of bringing in kids and showing them how to have some good, clean fun in their local library.

It would certainly make for an interesting social experiment.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Gaming and music: Firing on all cylinders

For last week's Autumn Frontiers campaign, I queued up about 70 assorted metal songs and let 'em rip over the course of our 5-hour game. Among those was a record that I consider to be my campaign's muse: Wintersun, an album by a Finnish metal band of the same name.

Back when I was originally brainstorming ideas for my Points of Light-derived fantasy sandbox, I listened to Wintersun a lot. The songs, with their Viking/dreamland-inspired imagery, really juiced my imagination, and even today, it's easy to travel back to the halcyon days of that worldbuilding effort simply by putting on track 5, "Battle Against Time." That song—the melody, really, and the stadium-rock vocalization that opens the tune—never ceases to fire my creative pistons, evoking images of adventurers roaming across a vast, uncharted wilderness, exploring the ruins of past civilizations and spending hard-earned coin in shabby frontier villages—before heading out into the unforgiving lands to do it all over again. Good stuff.

As an aside, I glanced at the tracklist from last week's game. As near as I can tell, Wintersun came up toward the end of the session, as the party's wizard PC was fighting for his life on the windswept cliffs of the Darkwater Keep. In fact, his death very probably coincided with a Wintersun song titled "Death and the Healing," which boasts some very apropos lyrics.
Time is the death and the healing Take your last breath, 'cause death is deceiving Time is the past, now and tomorrow Days fly so fast and it leaves me so hollow

A snowstorm blew inside a wolf's eyes
and the frozen tears covered all the mountainsides But then the time got by and the wolf died and someday that wolf would be I.
Sage advice indeed. UncleBear touches on designing a campaign soundtrack, and d7 over at the Seven-Sided Die compares rpgs to musical genres. It seems music is in the air. What type of music juices your campaign?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Savage Worlds fantasy sandbox, session 12

Last weekend saw the continuation of my Savage Worlds fantasy sandbox campaign, the evocatively titled "Autumn Frontiers" campaign. It's the longest-running campaign I've ever GMed. We hadn't played in a couple months, so I took the liberty of advancing the game clock ahead one month, plunging the wilderness into an icy winter.

As with previous sessions, the direction of this adventure was left up to the players. I had generated a few more random rumors that would have enticed them to explore new areas of the campaign map (which at this point is about halfway explored, more or less) but in the end they chose to follow up on some cyptic clues pointing to the Darkwater Keep, a ruined castle on a promontory overlooking a river a day or two east of their home base.

I'll quickly summarize the rest of the adventure: a PC died as the rest of the characters scouted the surface ruins of the Darkwater Keep. This was only the second PC death in the Autumn Frontiers campaign, and it was one of the most experienced players (he had only missed one of the last 12 sessions). But this particular player took it all in stride, and he embraced his death with gusto. Here's how it went down:

Jalez (the player's wizard, who is "seasoned" in Savage Worlds parlance and was actually quite powerful at this point) was keeping watch along a lonely cliff while the rest of the party hammered on a solid metal door. This door was one of two entrances the party had discovered leading into the dungeon proper; the first was well guarded by hobgoblins, so they opted to try this way in.

A half-hour's worth of incessant hammering on the door brought out a scouting party of troglodytes from the river 50 feet below the sheer cliff. Jalez was overpowered, and the troglodytes quickly started scrambling down the cliff face, carrying their arcane prize.

Upon seeing this, the rest of the party began desperately trying different tactics to slow the troglodytes and free their comrade. Prometheor the paladin spewed cones of flame from his perch on the cliff ledge. Kez the druid caused entangling roots to spring forth from rocky bluff, slowing the troglodytes' descent. Atabraxes the barbarian shapeshifter turned into a crow and plunged down to the water's edge, hoping to find Jalez struggling to the surface.

In the end, it was all for naught. Jalez, grievously wounded, was hauled below the dark river and torn to pieces by the hungry troglodytes.

Nico, Jalez's player, was a great sport during all of these tribulations, and it made me feel a lot better for killing a PC. By the end of the evening he was already talking about rolling up a ranger for next time.

In an email after this session, we were all hashing out the various events that led to Jalez's death. As GM, I can rest easy knowing that I did a very good job telescoping the danger surrounding the Darkwater Keep. Here's an excerpt from that email:

It ain't like you guys walked blindly into sudden danger; virtually everyone you spoke with warned you away from that place, and yet you still pressed on. Twas a true sandbox moment!

I also thought it was very interesting how some characters found their usefulness reduced by the particulars of the cliffside battle. Prometheor, for example, can go toe-to-toe with a marsh troll in single combat, but he couldn't scale the cliff face or swim in the river to save Jalez. It's a very important reminder that no character is an everyman, and that the Darkwater Keep will demand more out-of-the-box thinking if you guys want to delve deeper into its depths.

This is an example of something that Ben Robbins expands on in his West Marches writeups: the players must be given fair warning when approaching areas of the map that are really dangerous. They must understand that, so they have only themselves to blame when things go awry (sorry guys!).

That's not to say that the Darkwater Keep is an outrageous PC slaughterhouse; in truth, the troglodytes were fairly standard bad guys who unfortunately scored crazy good rolls on their dice. But adventuring there was just one option among many that were bandied about at the outset of this session. Doubtless the PCs will be interested in going back there soon to settle the score a little bit.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The doom of us all

Not really, but there's something just a little wrong about using an iPhone app to roll your dice. And that's just what my friend Colin did in a D&D game last weekend. He insisted on it, even when I shoved handfuls of dice under his nose. In fairness, he relented and rolled polyhedrals later in the evening—after his iPhone's battery started to die.

Here's the group shot. We were actually playing D&D 4e—a first for me, and I'm grateful to Andy (the DM, far right) for putting together a great game for the group, which included one rpg newbie and one fella who hadn't played since high school.

UPDATE: Stargazer notes a couple more dice-rolling apps.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Speaking truth to power

Just a quick note: I attended the American Library Association annual conference in Chicago last weekend. The theme of the event (believe it or not) was gaming and how libraries can foster game clubs. As such, Wizards of the Coast had a large booth where they pimped their Magic: The Gathering and D&D novel tie-ins. I dropped by and struck up a conversation with one of the WOTC staffers, who apparently worked on 4e a little bit.

This staffer asked me if I had tried 4e yet, and I responded that no, I hadn't, but that I played D&D regularly via some of the free retro-clone games available on the net. I made sure to slowly and carefully pronounce their titles: "OSRIC" and "Swords & Wizardry."

It's not often you get to speak truth to power, but when you do, it's simply sublime.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nobody's ever done me any (gaming) favors

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had to beg, cajole, threaten, bully, strongarm, entice and plead with my friends to get them even remotely interested in gaming. Every step of the way, I was on my own. No one did me any favors; I never had a big brother or older friend to introduce me to a particular game. If anything, I had to push back against the more traditional hobbies that my buddies were involved in—sports, dating, video games, music, etc.

So it was up to me to purchase all the gear required (using my meager high school wages), sketch out the adventures and settings, walk everyone through character generation—and then struggle to hold the group together through a series of adventures.

This process repeated itself for card games, miniature wargames and everything in between. I was always the first to come to a particular game line or hobby, and it was up to me to serve as the jolly ambassador, luring my buddies in with assurances that this new game would be better than the last. Only in college did I meet like-minded people, and I was more than happy to pass the cheerleader baton off to the new friends I made there.

In just the last few months, at the ripe age of 27, this process has been repeated yet again, as I've delved into WWII tabletop miniature gaming.

Because of this tireless passion, I have become the consummate gaming marketeer. It's no coincidence that I worked in gaming retail during college and loved every minute of it. I helped organize and run games, but my favorite part of the job was talking to newcomers, folks who had never set foot inside a dedicated game store and, at most, brought in memories of playing Talisman or OD&D from years past. I loved those folks, because they were primed and ready to be re-introduced to the best part of modern gaming.

If and when I ever run a con game, it will be the most badass game ever, because I know how to read players in just a few minutes—and then tailor the game experience to exceed the diverse expectations they bring to the table.

It's also clear, upon reading this post so far, that I'm pretty good at complimenting myself. Ha! But really, the point of this post was to point out that successful games and the perpetuity of our hobby can really come down to just one person, or a handful of dedicated folks. Gamers who lack groups shouldn't lose hope; rather, they should always seek to broaden their horizons
and keep moving forward. The next player could come from anywhere.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Character Levels and the Sweet Spot

It seems that most role playing games have a sweet spot - that magical range of levels (or points in point buy games) where the game plays best. In D&D, I always considered the sweet spot to be around levels 4-9. Before this range, characters can be cut down by goblins, and every little thing is simply a struggle. Past this range, players just seem to get more powerful rather than more cool. As a GM, it's tough as hell to run a challenging, interesting, and fair game for characters that can cast wish, teleport anywhere, and shoot instant death rays from their pinky fingers.

But somewhere in this range, something wonderful seems to happen. The power levels of the magic users and fighters seem to cross. Everybody gets equal screen time. Characters get a variety of new abilities that are simply cool - I was playing Osric today, an old school D&D clone, and I noted that my druid character would get shapeshift 3/day at level 7. Imagine a party in need of recon. The druid turns into a small bird and flies. Wow, look at all that shiny stuff down below the trees! Wait, what's that coming through the clouds. Wyverns. Crap. A chase ensues, straight back through the trees and to the party. Magically powered chaos. Now, that's cool.

So, let's say that you buy my argument that games do have sweet spots. Once we've identified the sweet spot, what are we to do about it?

Should we work our way up to it, bit by bit, so we get that (ahem, plodding) thrill of character advancement through blood, sweat, and tears? Should the GM just fudge XP so that characters get to that sweet spot faster?

Neither, I say. The reality is that most of us don't play in a single campaign for longer than 10 sessions, and that's really pushing it. My buddies and I just counted how many different games we've played over the last 3 years, and the answer was somewhere around 12. A 4-5 session arc is the norm (at least, for us), and then we're off to a new game. I know most gamers out there don't have solid enough of a group to even play this much.

So, I say start the game in the sweet spot. Play the game where it's at its coolest.

(For what it's worth, these thoughts are in response to some of the games - both very high powered and low powered - that I've been playing lately. And the grief that Pat's been giving me about always wanting my characters to succeed. It's not that I always want them to succeed - I just want them to have the opportunity to do something cool. Playing in a game that's set at the sweet spot seems to be a key to this).

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blitzkrieg Commander: Breakthrough on the Dnieper

A couple friends came over last week to try out Blitzkrieg Commander, a WWII tabletop wargame rule set that I picked up last month but hadn't yet tried out. Up until now we'd been playing Crossfire with my 10mm WWII figures. Crossfire is a fun game, but the game sort of assumes that each group will house rules the hell out of it. And although I'm working on some house rules for Crossfire, they're not yet complete--so we've had only marginal amounts of fun with the game, owing to its half-finished nature.

I had high hopes for Blitzkrieg Commander, and it didn't disappoint. The rules are quick and intuitive--just tell the players how to issue orders, explain the few modifiers that the game uses, and you're off and running!

We played an "Exploitation" scenario taken from the main rulebook. I set the game in October 1943 as part of the Red Army's crossing of the Dnieper River. For our game, the Russians had already penetrated the main German line, so the German players would be commanding reserve units that weren't properly deployed for the coming assault.

Here's a look at my kitchen table just before the game started. We were playing "deep," so the Soviets entered on the closest short table edge and had to push through several layers of German defenses.

Here's the Soviet assault force: 6 T-34/76s (each with 1 infantry squad riding) plus an SU-122 with a few more infantry squads on the other flank. The BA-10 armored car is one of the two command units.

The Germans were deployed in several different areas of the board, which prevented them from mustering a solid counterattack initially.

In addition to scattered infantry and MG squads, the Germans had 2 Tiger I tanks, 1 Panzer IV tank and 1 Sturmpanzer Brummbar.

Plus a PaK-4o anti-tank gun! It was dug-in behind some hedges and drew first blood once the game got underway.

And thus the game began! The Russians had to capture as much territory as possible, and they started off by moving forward toward the small village in this photo. Both Red Army command units gave lackluster performances in these opening turns, giving the Germans time to pull back some troops and open fire with their PaK-40. The first kill was a T-34.

The Soviets dumped their tank riders in this small village and attempted to drive straight through to continue the assault. Unfortunately the Brummbar was close enough to provide a serious roadblock to this plan.

On the other flank, the infantry pushed through another small village but spent waaay too much time attacking a dug-in MG unit. Because of this, they weren't able to keep up with the rest of the assault, and they didn't do too much damage. Note the smoking T-34 and SU-122 in the background.

After several turns, the German players had the bright idea to move their Tigers up into the fray. They actually drove right up and parked atop the central hill, thus threatening a huge area with their guns. This maneuver proved to be the deathblow for the Soviets, as their 4 remaining T-34s spent the rest of the game trying desperately to stay away from the Tigers.

Both the German and Soviet infantry units chewed each other to pieces in the urban areas, but not before the German infantry, armed with panzerfausts, drove several T-34s back into range of the Tigers. The final play came as the Tigers plunged into the woods in pursuit of the two remaining T-34s. The Soviet player (me) conceded the game after this photo.

All in all, we found Blitzkrieg Commander to be a very satisfying game. In retrospect, I should have given the Soviet side a lot more points; the rulebook suggested that the attacker have double the points as the defender. The scenario as I set it up didn't have quite that disparity.

The possibility of failing a command role at a critical time made for some very exciting play. We also liked that the turns weren't fixed; players could issue a bunch of orders, or fail after just one or two, thereby ending their turn.

We didn't include artillery or air support in our game, as we were just trying out the rules and didn't want to further complicate our learning session. But for our next game, I think we'll do a straight point build and see how the game plays that way.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dark Heresy: Musings on System

Earlier today, Pat posted about our first two sessions of Dark Heresy. I thought I'd post a slightly different impression of the game and focus on the system.

A very brief overview: The system is percentile-based, and a player succeeds by rolling under the relevant ability. At least at first level, most things are pretty tough to do - 35% is a pretty damn good ability score. It's very difficult to do anything unskilled (you halve your relevant ability score when you roll), and skill descriptions are very narrow. This means that instead of having a few things you're good at, you just suck to different degrees at a small handful of things.

Though, there are exceptions. As we quickly found through play, the tech you use makes a huge difference. A huge part of character advancement is opening up your ability to use certain tech rather than actually being good at using the tech.

And then there are all the random tables that can really screw you up. And there's lots of evocative, scummy source material. As Pat said, it's a gritty game.

Before going on, let it be said that Pat is doing a typically great job of GMing. He's very descriptive and even-handed. He excels at "street-level" type play, so much of this game is perfect for him.

But as a player, I absolutely detest the system. In no particular order, here's why:

(1) The skills and psycher abilities (they operate like magic) are very narrow. This makes it difficult to use your skills in creative ways besides the obvious "I shoot him," or "I pick that lock." This actually would kill me if I were GMing - when characters have broader skills or abilities, their creativity can really take the game in unforeseen directions in ways that are quantifiably supported by the strength of their stats. I think this is super cool.

(2) Ability scores are so low that anything you're not teched up for seems next to impossible. For example, there was a scene at the end of the game where a spaceship was taking off, and we wanted to stop it. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I wanted my very agile character to use the momentum of a moving vehicle to launch herself toward the spaceship so she could get inside, destroy it, or whatever. But I had no directly applicable skill, and I thought there was no way I could succeed. So I didn't do it. But it would've been cooler if I thought I could. The system just doesn't encourage anything near cinematic play. (I guess some just favor it that way.)

(3) There're too many moving pieces in combat for me. Things slow down too much when you get to the level of figuring out armor penetration. This is for some, but definitely not me. I couldn't care less about modeling this stuff.

Here's what I love about the game:

(1) The deadly random tables. It was my character who got sucked into the warp on an instant death 1/100 roll, and it was indeed awesome.

Final verdict: I'm having a great time, as always, playing games with my gaming group. The dark heresy source material is robust and evocative. I don't think the rest of my gaming group cares about system as much as me, and I'm pretty sure they don't prefer as freewheeling a game as I do, so I don't think they really care about this stuff. But this system feels way too constraining for me. The chaos and unforeseen circumstances generated by the random tables are great. But the mechanics are plodding in combat, and with narrow skills combined with predictably difficult odds hardwired into fundamental parts of the system, much of the system stands in stark counterpoint to the awesome tables.