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...