Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Look and Feel of a Hive City

I've been digging on Dark Heresy lately, and a recent browse through the Fantasy Flight Games forums yielded this gem of a thread. The original poster asked what hive cities -- the ubiquitous urban megalopolises in the Warhammer 40,000 universe -- actually look like. The responses were amusing, along the lines of "Imagine New York City with a roof over it, with Los Angeles stacked on top of it, followed by Tokyo, Houston and so on for about 30 miles straight up."

Eventually a commenter named Jephkay posted a quick list of interesting features that can be found in these huge, ancient, decaying structures. Other forumites chimed in with their own ideas, adding to the list and no doubt firing the imagination of every Dark Heresy GM who stumbled across the thread. Here's a quick taste from Jephkay's original post:

Tactical Thinking in the Hive
I try to convey the multi-layered nature of Hives by making sure my players are aware of stairways. I'm constantly mentioning balconies, overlooks, bridges, gantries, catwalks, ducts, railways, sewage pipes, effluaries (not a real word, BTW, I made it up to describe the rivers of sludge that move waste around the underhive). They face attacks from all directions in a hive. Clever enemies will encircle the intruders, attacking from several angles at once. And there is always cover available!

There are also massive gates that close off various portions of the hive. These are most common at the spire/hive interface, but even then, there must be a few hidden ways up into the nicer areas. Also, I imagine some areas are off limits for other reasons, or once were, and the gates have been repurposed. Perhaps, a thousand years ago, there was a reason for a certain gate to close and lock for 12 hours at a time, but that's been forgotten, now there is a lockdown imposed on an area. No one knows where the cogitator is that controls the gate, so the dome in question has adapted to their imposed lifestyle. Perhaps they are unaware that no one else has such a limitation. These gates were intended to hold off armies, no force the Acolytes can muster can break through them.

I can also see massive bridges across great chasms between building blocks. The bridges themselves have buildings on them. The folks on either side of the hab-canyons occasionally get riled at one another for reasons known only to them. Every once in a while, a krak missile is launched across the void to avenge some slight. It escalates, and the bridge areas become warzones. Certainly, they can't take too much of this, and might eventually fall into the abyss between hab-zones. Of course, that's where the Acolytes have to go to collect some important scrap of information, just as a hab-war breaks out over breakfast...

Being a made up word, it should have made up rules. Perhaps falling into one counts as taking a toxic hit. 1d10 wounds, no armor or TB allowed? Drink up!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

From Common Adventurer to Ruler of the Realm

One of the players in Autumn Frontiers, my Savage Worlds sandbox campaign, has expressed an interest in pursuing that most old-school of endeavors: the construction of a stronghold. It’s the perfect springboard for a discussion about transitions, this month’s RPG Carnival topic, especially as it pertains to player characters who evolve from simple adventurers to lords of their own domains.

The player in question is Ben, my loyal co-author here at RPG Diehard, and he’s playing a gallant paladin serving a flame goddess. We’re only 5 sessions into the campaign, but Ben is already laying the groundwork for his character’s future: he’s starting to improve social skills so he can sway commoners to his cause, and he’s expressed interest in eventually building (or conquering) a small castle to better serve his character’s deity.

Very cool stuff indeed, and Ben is going about it in the right way, by putting things in motion early. But it begs the question: how exactly does a character transition from small-time adventurer to lordly ruler? The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is quite explicit in describing the mechanical aspects of territorial expansion — mapping the surrounding areas, driving off enemy hordes, paying labor crews to build your keep, etc — but is somewhat more nebulous in terms of what is asked of the aspiring ruler.

Surely there’s a transition coming at some point in the future, as the sword-swinging holy knight assumes the role of castellan of his own citadel? I’m thinking this will involve the social landscape of the game. As the paladin’s influence grows, the various groups and factions in Autumn Frontiers will react differently to him as he travels the lands. At some point, he won’t even have to travel to project his will — rather, he’ll be able to dispatch diplomats or companies of soldiers to carry out his business. Leaving him free, of course, to pound on Orcus.

In any case, Gygax’s meticulous mechanics for clearing a territory, mapping the landscape and building a keep don’t fit well with our somewhat more free-wheeling Savage Worlds game. Whatever transition is in store for Ben’s paladin is going to be decidedly stripped-down.

PS — My Obsidian Portal campaign wiki is growing, albeit slowly, as I add in details and adventure writeups.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hard at Work Heading Into the Holidays

Sorry for the lack of posting from me lately. I’m currently in the midst of a freelance editorial project for a major game publisher’s core RPG line, and I need to wrap it up before the holidays. Can’t talk about it in detail yet, of course, but it’s been a real treat for me to work on this month.

I don’t think I’m quite to the point yet where I can run “greatest hits” entries, but I might recycle a few posts from RPG Diehard’s early days (pre-RPG Bloggers network) over the next week or two.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Get Your Old-School Gaming Dice

On the prowl for some old school gaming dice? James from Grognardia was, and he got his fix earlier this year. If you’re willing to pay for a random handful, you could probably get your hands on some old school dice from Games Plus, my friendly local gaming store here in suburban Chicago, for 40 cents a pop.

Last week I happened upon a small cache of circa-1985 dice at the store. The clerk told me that the polyhedrals had been in the company’s warehouse for a decade or more, but they were dropped onto the sales floor a month or two ago, almost on a lark. I snapped the picture above with my camera phone.

I ended up grabbing a small handful of assorted dice, and when I got home I noticed that my d20 was numbered 1-10 twice. Old school indeed!

Games Plus has a mail order service that could almost certainly get some of these old school polyhedrals into your hands, if you’ve a mind to pay for ‘em.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cold City Recap: We Were Playing It Wrong

Our Cold City one-shot last week was a lot of fun, but in retrospect it’s pretty clear that I was running it incorrectly. I kept clinging to the old way of doing things — namely, keeping narrative control firmly in the hands of the GM (me). Nothing malicious or mean-spirited — I just forgot, repeatedly, to pass off the story narration to the players after they won a conflict. This is how Cold City is supposed to be played; players are supposed to feel invested by devising clever ways to win arguments and deal with combats, which is then rewarded by having them receive a few minutes to narrate the outcome (within reason, of course). It’s a very mature style of roleplaying that I really dig — but in the heat of the moment, I forgot all about it.

That’s not to say we had a bad time. The session was great, in fact, and very moody. I’m a WWII history buff, so I feel like I presented a pretty atmospheric, spooky rendition of postwar Berlin. Plus, Ben’s brother-in-law was at the table for his first-ever pen-and-paper RPG experience. I gave him the British paratrooper character and he warmed up instantly, delivering his lines in a cocky Brit accent for the entire evening. That’s about as much as you can hope for from someone who’s never played tabletop RPGs before!

The plot was fairly straightforward: civil engineering crews composed of German and American workers were trying to repair a sprawling power station in a bombed-out Berlin neighborhood. Something kept happening, though. Every time the engineers would start the generators and power up the turbines, the entire setup would crap out. Fused wires, burnt-out transformers, the whole lot. Then, in the night after each attempt, there would be a horrible attack reported somewhere in the immediate neighborhood. Something was happening — but what? The players discovered a hidden Nazi hospital in a forgotten sub-basement below the power station, dating back to 1939. A little room-by-room exploration revealed a collection of metal sarcophagi, each containing a gruesome-looking humanoid creature.

The lab was hooked into the power station’s supply, so whenever the engineers would attempt to start up the generators, the nefarious operation would draw off some energy, short-circuiting the whole affair and, incidentally, activating one of the stasis coffins and releasing the inhabitant. The players tracked down one of these unfortunate creations, killed him in a blaze of gunfire, and brought the corpse back to the headquarters for research.

We played a little bit beyond there and then stopped abruptly to head out to a bar for some beers. The session was a lot of fun — and really ideal for a newbie who might be intimidated by the math of certain other, more complex games — but I still regret not playing Cold City as the developers intended. I think we would have had a much more robust session if I would have remembered to pass narrative duties around the table a bit more.

Also, the trust mechanic barely came into play. I love the idea behind this element — a multinational gang of cautious allies who are always casting sideways glances at each other — but it didn’t really click for a one-shot. We didn’t have the well-developed interactions and backstories that seem necessary to bring in the trust bonuses. All the same, we shoehorned a few trust-based rolls into a couple scenes, just to try them out. Used as part of a campaign, they would have added a lot of depth to the whole setup.

Regardless, a fun time was had by all, and we pledged to re-try Cold City and/or Hot War again the near future.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Blue Planet, Midnight For Cheap at FFG Holiday Sale

Thanks to the good folks at the Blue Planet RPG mailing list, I found out that Fantasy Flight Games is having their annual holiday sale. I missed this blowout last year, but my buddy snagged all the books for the Midnight line for $5-10 each. Quite the discount, especially for a very well-supported 3.5 setting like Midnight.

The real treat, though, is the Blue Planet portfolio. As near as I can tell (FFG’s site is blocked at work, bleh) each BP book is $5. That means you can get the whole line for under $50. As longtime RPG Diehard readers will know, Blue Planet is one of my all-time favorite game lines; it’s also the richest, most detailed sci-fi setting I’ve ever encountered. When I lived in Missouri, I had the chance to meet (and game with) Jeff Barber, Blue Planet’s creator, who later went on to write the original Midnight core rulebook.

So do your part, drop a Hamilton or two, and get some great books!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cold City: Actual Play Session Pending...

On the agenda for tonight is a one-shot session of Cold City, Malcolm Craig’s atmospheric game of conspiracy and horror set in postwar Berlin. I’m the GM, which is really ideal since WWII/Cold War history is a hobby of mine, and I also speak a little Russian.

The game’s buy-in is that PCs are members of the Reserve Police Agency (RPA), a trans-national group of investigators who roam the alleys and ruins of Berlin, seeking out the crumbling remains of hideous technology, experiments gone awry and otherworldly monsters lurking in the shadows. Heady stuff, to be sure. Players are encouraged to play different nationalities — and the inherent suspicions therein. This is the Cold War, after all. For our game, I’ve pregenerated a group of three disparate characters, all bound together by the common mission of the RPA: a Soviet black marketeer, a doughty British paratrooper, and an over-eager American photojournalist.

I’ll write up a post-game account of the session next week.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cautionary Tales from the Sandbox

Ripper X over at Advanced Gaming & Theory wrote yesterday about the trials and tribulations of running Isle of Dread as a pure sandbox module — as in, the players wander around a map, discovering cool stuff and fighting off foul beasts. Sounds like fun, right? I’ll quote Ripper X:

On paper, a complete wilderness adventure sounds great! Wandering around blind, not knowing where in the hell you are going, or really what you are looking for. In actual play, this was SLOW!!!! So slow that I was getting bored, and it was all the same thing. I thought that it would be fun, but plotting a coarse and deciding of where to go that day is frickin boring! I don't know if it was my fault, or if I did something wrong, or what. I thought about it! I really did. How can I spice this up? But with such a large map to explore, I really couldn't prep anything or describe a scene more clearer then what I was. I really didn't want to spend too much time talking about a day where nothing happens. I did give the place a lot of sounds and smells, but the players weren't all that interested, and I kept failing my random encounter checks.

His post serves as a cautionary tale about what to avoid in a sandbox campaign. It seems Ripper X was a little too wedded to the sandbox concept and could probably have been a bit more liberal with his random encounters (as in, fudge the die rolls so they actually happen, or adjust the rules so you’re rolling more frequently) without infringing too much on the spirit of the game. Moreover, it’s important to note that sandbox games are defined by their lack of a linear plot — but not necessarily their lack of story. Time spent exploring should be time well spent; the PCs should learn something important about the area, uncover a villain or stumble across a previously unknown map feature.

Plus, those villages aren’t just set pieces. The natives travel the lands, send out patrols, hunt, trade, etc. There’s no reason why a large percentage of ‘em can’t be on the move, thus increasing the chances that the party might encounter them. The island itself was a bit limiting — it’s a finite bit of territory, and if you treat the published module as canon, it’s entirely possible for the players to bumble their way through the least-interesting parts of the map.

I say all this not to condemn Ripper X — quite the contrary. I’m glad he posted his concerns, because I’m running a sandbox campaign myself, and any wisdom that can help me avoid such pitfalls is useful. I’d be grateful for any advice from DMs out there: What have you gotten right or wrong in your sandbox game?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wilderness Campaigning in Savage Worlds

I’ve found the “raise” mechanic in Savage Worlds to be particularly useful for procedural tasks that come up in wilderness campaigns. [Each raise in SW represents a multiple of four by which you beat the target number; if your die roll beats the target by 8, you get two raises, for example. Dice explode in SW, so raises happen a little more frequently than you’d think.]

With that in mind, here’s what I’ve been tinkering around with for our campaign.

Orienteering and Getting Lost
We’re using a 5-mile hex map to explore the world of Autumn Frontiers. When heading overland, the party announces their general destination for the day (“We’ll head south until we get to the abandoned watchtower and then camp for the night”), and then one player makes a single Tracking check. Generally this will be the character with the best Tracking stat, but I can imagine situations where other PCs may have to step up to the plate.

A success means they’re able to navigate a single hex and proceed on toward their destination, rolling again in the next hex. A raise means they get through one additional map hex — covering 10 miles, estimated very roughly, before rolling again. A further raise equates to another 5-mile hex covered, etc. It's possible, with a single incredibly lucky dice roll, to have the PCs to hike unmolested several dozen miles toward their destination without getting lost.

If the roll fails, the party is lost in whatever 5-mile hex they ended up in. The GM should describe the physical geography, especially if there might be a chance that the players could spy a landmark and thus orient themselves that way. This can either lead to more exploring to find a new route, or perhaps an overnight stay in the wilds before attempting orientation again the next day.

Foraging for Food
A success means the character hunts/scavenges/forages enough food to sustain himself for the day — in our campaign, this is going mostly going to mean wild game meat, because one of the characters took “Vegetarian” as a hindrance. Each raise allows the PC to feed one additional character for that day. Note that foraging — especially hunting — takes a significant amount of time and should definitely affect how fast the party can travel overland.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New Campaign Wiki Via Obsidian Portal

After reading a spate of blog posts on the topic, I’ve successfully launched a (bare bones) campaign wiki. I’m using Obsidian Portal, which is a free hosting site that’s designed specifically for roleplaying games.

My goal is to create entries for most of the major locales and characters in the game — and then include just enough content to get the players interested in contributing. Clearly there’s no guarantee that they’ll bite, but even if I’m the only one who ever edits the wiki, I think it’ll be a good tool to help me organize the campaign. The markup language (HTML and Textile, which I'm learning to love) is just complex enough that I could lose lots and lots of time tinkering with this site.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Everway: My Favorite Obscure RPG

Zachary the First over at RPG Blog II wrote today about his favorite obscure RPG. In response, I dropped a comment about Everway, which to this day has the distinction of being the one game I’ve played more than any other in my gaming career. It’s also a game system that I’ve seen used to run an incredible array of genres, including Star Wars and homebrew superhero.

Everway was a bit of a marketing dud, and in retrospect it seems pretty clear that Wizards of the Coast (yes, WOTC published Everway) didn’t have any idea what they had on their hands. They made it into a boxed set and marketed it in toy stores alongside Monopoly and Risk. Big mistake.

In brief: Everway uses a tarot-themed “Fortune deck” to resolve actions and situations; players flip cards from the top of the deck in lieu of rolling dice. Cards themselves are interpreted by the GM based on their orientation, the illustration and a few bits of prose on each side of the card. I’ve included an image here of a card called “Summer.” It has two interpretations, depending on its orientation when flipped: “Energy” vs. “Exhaustion.”

This dynamic allows the GM and players to paint with broad strokes when necessary — and dig deeper into the plot and story for special moments. In combat, flipping a card like “Summer” is pretty cut-and-dried...if you get the positive result (“Energy”) chances are you might power through your opponent and land a crippling blow. Likewise, if you flip the card and it’s inverted (“Exhaustion”) the GM might describe how your character falters at a key moment and loses the advantage.

In a social scene, a card like “Summer” takes on an entirely different flavor. Different interpretations might depend on how the situation is going at that given moment. It could be literal (the nobleman must retire to bed; he’s exhausted) or it could be figurative (the barbarians tire of your attempts at parley and choose to speak with their axes!). Bantering with the GM over the myriad interpretations of a given card flip almost becomes a game unto itself, and it's certainly one of the most satisfying elements of Everway resolution system.

The flip side, of course, is that there’s virtually no crunch to the game and players must be of a relatively high maturity level to avoid an imbalanced play experience. Character creation starts by choosing a few fantasy art cards to illustrate key scenes from your character’s background. The boxed game comes with 90 or so random cards, and players are encouraged to seek out their own. (I snagged a small lot of Michael Whelan cards on ebay to use in my campaign.) This element makes the game instantly visual; players are encouraged to pick new cards throughout the campaign to illustrate new encounters or situations.

Characters have just four stats, representing the four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air. From there, players can buy powers to describe specific effects, or they can sketch out their own separate, uniquely customizable magic system. If you want magic, you must put work into designing it for yourself.

But again — the numbers don’t matter much; they’re just there to give the GM a few absolutes upon which to measure the rest of the game. Card-flipping is where Everway really shines. Depending on how much weight the GM has allotted it, a single flip might determine if you land a punch or mobilize an army.

Over the years, I’ve played several campaigns of “vanilla” Everway, usually some variant of the traditional D&D campaign. There’s less of a focus on combat, though, because the resolution system moves so quickly. This leaves more time for robust storytelling and character development, which I really enjoyed.

From this basis, my old group successfully ran Star Wars using the Everway system. In place of the Fortune Deck, the GM made up his own “Way of the Force” deck, with phrases and concepts appropriate to Star Wars. (Yes, we even had a “I Have A Bad Feeling About This” card!)

After that, we built on this success by molding Everway to run a Silver Age superhero game. Again, this necessitated a new, homemade Fortune Deck with cards like “Up, Up and Away!” and “The Villain Unmasked!”

The key with Everway is that the game moves fast. There are no cumbersome combat tables or formula to work out. You’ll move quickly from combat to a chase scene to a negotiation scenario, then back to combat — all in about an hour of play. Everything hinges on the GM’s interpretation of a flipped card. This meant we were able to really plow through a campaign — encompassing many months of in-game time — in a relatively short period of time.

(It's worth noting that Everway's published universe draws heavy inspiration from more ethereal, romantic, dreamy, mythological fantasy tropes; it's definitely NOT swords-and-sorcery. My group considered using the published setting for about 2 seconds, then jettisoned it in favor of a homebrew world that was essentially a clone of traditional D&D, albeit a bit darker. We've not looked back since.)

Last I checked, Everway was purchased by Gaslight Press several years ago, though no new products have been announced. That’s OK — the game itself is easy enough to find on ebay

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

We're All Human on the Inside

A couple days ago, Dice Monkey tossed out a few possible explanations as to why some players groove on playing nonhuman characters. I wrote this comment:

Here’s my take. In most RPGs, despite what we tell ourselves, we are essentially playing ourselves on some fundamental, id-versus-ego level. As such, we offer up our most frank, honest roleplaying moments when we’re playing a character that’s fairly near to our own selves.

I mean think about it: when the DM takes a moment and describes something stunning and/or magnificent in the game, you don’t automatically say “By Alrindel’s fair eyes!” if you’re playing an elf, or “Stroke my beard if that isn’t a wondrous sight” if you’re a dwarf. You say “Sweet! That’s awesome!” — and then you scramble to “get into character” and react the way you think your character would act.

That’s why humans are so appealing. They allow us to experience the game through familiar eyes. This in turn preserves the wonder and majesty of the game.

Definitely worth repeating here. I always play humans, and I tend to have a more satisfying time as GM when I’m running a group of human characters. The best moments, most sublime flashes of in-character inspiration, come when we’re confronting things that affect us on a human level. No amount of character immersion can replace the unfiltered utterances that slip out in the heat of the moment.

This, I think, is why OD&D had such a mythical quality attached to it. You were basically playing yourself. You had a spear and maybe some leather armor, or a couple minor spells — but mostly, you were playing a scrub adventurer trying to stay alive in an environment that wanted to kill you. To play a human in such a setting is to enter into a social contract with the game itself. The price of admission is participation.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Defining Moment for Aquaman

Last night, I was lucky enough to get to the Eagles/Giants football game in Philly. I'm a huge football fan, and a diehard Philly fan. For what it's worth, I consider the NFL to be much closer to real life than rpgs. Strategery and emotion all wrapped up into one big padded ball. Anyway, the Eagles had come to a Defining Moment in the season. They had all the talent in the world, and they just needed to put it together. It was the 4th quarter, the Eagles had miraculously kept pace with the Giants on the scoreboard (even though the game looked a lot more imbalanced on the field), and they had the ball down by 5 points with 2 minutes to go.

The Eagles lost in the worst possible way. The play calls were terrible, and the execution on the field was worse. If they had won, it would've probably propelled them straight into the playoffs and in a race with the Giants for first place in the division. Everyone in the stadium knew this. We knew, as these plays were happening, that we were in a Defining Moment. In fact, it was the moment the team was built for - the moment to score points quickly with a devastating aeriel attack (fyi the Eagles are only capable of scoring quickly - they can't sustain long drives - but it sure is pretty when they do hit their groove).

But in this defining moment, the Eagles weren't good enough. Sports blue balls. Compared to rpgs, real life blue balls.

(Transition to rpgs)

I often see the same type of character come up in games. Not of a certain alignment, and not a certain skill set, but of a certain trajectory. The character has all the talent in the world but just doesn't seem to be so awesome. The player thinks, "That's cool, the time of my character, Aquaman, just hasn't come. But when the GM plops me in some water, Aquaman is going to tear shit up."

Finally, halfway through the campaign, the party ends up on water, fighting the pivotal battle of the campaign thus far that will change the course of the the campaign one way or another. The battle is tight as it draws to its conclusion, it's a miracle the party isn't fish bait by now, and Aquaman only has one half of his magic power beads left. The player knows his time has come, and it will be epic indeed. He dumps all his magic power beads into his Mighty Seahorse Punch, gets his mad bonuses, and rolls the dice...

Only to come up short. In water. In the Defining Moment of the campaign.

On any other day, I'd turn this into a question about GMing, rolling with the punches, or the virtue of enjoying failure. But after last night's game, I can only say that it truly sucks to be Aquaman.

Review: Keep on the Borderlands

Over the next few months, I'll be reading some of Gary Gygax's more well-known works and writing about my reaction to them. I've been a gamer since 1993, but I've never actually had the opportunity to read anything by Gygax -- though his old-school approach has influenced my gaming sensibilities of late.

At first blush, Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands comes off as exceptionally detailed (dense?) and quite spartan in its visual representation. The text starts in the upper left-hand corner of the second page and continues virtually unimpeded through page 24, broken only by a handful of tables and black-and-white illustrations.

It's interesting that this module contains a fairly thorough introduction to roleplaying and a primer for first-time dungeon masters; pages 2-6 are mostly rules recaps and tips for running the module itself. Considering this adventure clocks in at just 28 pages, that's a large percentage of content devoted to first-time gamers -- especially considering this module was bundled in the D&D Basic Set.

Of course, the intro is pure gold from an old-school gaming perspective, chock-full of Gygaxian goodness intended to guide players new not only to this particular adventure, but also to the entire roleplaying hobby. It's accessible enough, though Gygax isn't prone to providing a great many examples to illustrate specific rule situations.

The substance of the adventure itself consists of a setting (a castle in fairly close proximity to the Caves of Chaos) and a few adventure hooks to get the party out into the wilderness. It's a sandbox setting for sure, and I understand that Keep on the Borderlands was one of the first published module to attempt such a presentation. Even so, it's clear that the wilderness setting is, by and large, just a vehicle to move the characters on toward the caves. Just a handful of encounters exist outside the Keep and the Caves -- though it's worth noting that Gygax offers up fairly diverse fare that ought to certainly spark the imagination of DMs and players who aren't interested in charging directly into the Caves of Chaos.

The most interesting aspect of the module is the cave complex itself. To me, the presentation doesn't evoke the feel of a warren of caves crawling with orcs, goblins and hobgoblins. Rather, each region (the Kobold Lair, the Orc Lair, etc.) feel more like a battle area in a miniatures wargame -- which makes sense, of course, given that D&D was less than a decade away from its roots as a tabletop wargame when Keep on the Borderlands was published. But still, each "lair" is essentially the same: several rooms stuffed with enemies and loot, culminating with a "boss" character who, in the module at least, appears willing to wait patiently in his chamber until the adventurers burst through the door. Though there are a few deviations, most of the lairs in each cavern seem to follow this pattern.

This is a bit at odds with my understanding of humanoid monsters. I have trouble envisioning female hobgoblins tending a cooking fire or bugbears keeping their loot in a locked storage room. Thankfully, I've read the various treatises on of Gygaxian naturalism that are floating around on the Web, so I understand completely why the module's author went out of his way to note how many kobold children might be present in a given room, or how easy it is to bribe the ogre who lurks in the caves. He was creating entire races and cultures, not just set pieces for the PCs to battle.

I think I understand the logic of the uber-detailed lairs, too. Gygax wanted the DM to have all the quantitative details (monster stats, patrol routes, rumor tables etc.) ready at hand, leaving him or her free to get creative with the rest of the Keep, the caves and their denizens. In fact, none of the NPCs are even named, not even the evil priest encountered deep in the Chapel of Evil Chaos; even this storytelling aspect is left entirely up to the DM.

Indeed, one could even say that Keep on the Borderlands is, by design, meticulously detailed but story-starved -- without condemning the module's author or early D&D in general. Gygax encouraged DMs to add or jettison anything that they felt appropriate. He provided the barest framework of a setting, confident that the circa-1980 gaming scene would offer up inspiration aplenty. Only then would a module like Keep on the Borderlands come alive and become a true adventure.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reading Gygax for the First Time

I entered the roleplaying game hobby in the early 1990s, when story-driven games like Vampire and Shadowrun were all the rage and TSR staggered through financial hardship. Consequently, I never played classic D&D; indeed I’ve only ever played in two short-lived D&D 3.0 campaigns and a single session of 2nd Edition AD&D — amounting to, at most, 20 hours of play.

It shouldn’t come as a revelation, then, when I say that I’ve never read anything by Gary Gygax. I’ve never thumbed an issue of Dungeon or Dragon magazine, never sent in my own campaign notes to TSR’s Lake Geneva mailing address, never enjoyed Gygax’s elegiac prose on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

That’s going to change. Over the weekend I bought both the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and Keep on the Borderlands, a module that’s informed many of the current products and writers I follow closely today. In coming weeks, I hope to chronicle my reaction to these and other works by Gygax, as I acquire and read them. Frankly, I’m interested to see how these volumes have weathered the decades since their publication. I also wonder much my own age might affect the outcome — after all, I’m 26 and have become accustomed to well-organized RPG books replete with tables of contents, indices and helpful reference guides.

Time will tell, so check back for more!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Great Purge of 2008

I'm in the midst of some housecleaning, at least as it pertains to my hobbies. Since the end of the summer, I've been selling off a lot of my comics and gaming stuff in order to free up some closet/shelf space for a more "distilled" version of my hobbies. Trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will...simply put, I'm tired of moving boxes of stuff around to find what I want.

In practice, this has amounted to a rash of eBay auctions lately...four to five comic book lots each week for nearly a month, so far. I've also taken a few loads of books to Half Price Books; last night's haul funded my purchase of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, which I've wanted to read for quite some time.

The problem, of course, is my own internal eBay policy. I allow myself to shop for new gaming stuff using only the funds I've acquired by selling off my own stuff, which helps keep my finances in order and lets me stay motivated to churn through unused bits of my collection. Last summer I sold off my Warhammer 40k armies; this summer it's comics. I'm having a tough time finding RPG books that I can let go. Plus my swelling Paypal account has me shopping more frequently on eBay...for the very stuff that I might end up selling off in another year or two. In fact, a careful read of my online commerce habits could even show that my purge is backfiring; my overall geek merchandise volume might be growing. I'll let you know next time I try to pack it all up in boxes.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Benny Economy in Savage Worlds

Last night, amid much negotiation and impassioned discussion, our group hit upon a cool new house rule for our Savage Worlds game.

We’re calling it the Benny Economy, and it expands upon an existing mechanic in SW that gives each player three “bennies” at the outset of the game. These are tokens, stones, glass beads, whatever, and they can be “spent” for rerolls and damage soaks, kind of like hero points in Mutants & Masterminds or fate chips points in Deadlands. And since the GM is encouraged to give out extra bennies during the session for good roleplaying or problem solving, these resources are meant to be spent, not hoarded.

The GM gets bennies too, to be spent by his minions and NPCs, usually one per PC at the table, plus a couple more for each big monster or villain.

Last night, though, we hit upon a much more dynamic way of spending bennies: When a PC spends a benny, it’s added to the GM’s stock. Likewise, when the GM spends a benny, it’s passed on to the PC most directly involved with the action.

So we’ve established a free-flowing metagame economy whereby the GM can inject a little fiat into the game — but only by passing on a minor advantage to the characters. And when the players need a hail-mary roll, they can try for it — but next time they might not be so lucky. Plus, the players around the table can watch the GM’s benny pile wax and wane throughout the game, so they’ll know at a glance how many resources the referee can bring to bear on a particular scenario.

Admittedly, this mechanic has virtually no grounding in the story or plot. It’s just a cool metagame notion that, for us, seems more engaging than the rules as written in the SW book. What do you think?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Keeping Stuff Random

These days, I’m rediscovering the magic of the random encounter table. This old-fashioned game tool is nothing if not time-tested and (mostly) campaign-approved by several decades’ worth of gamers.

But the aspect that’s most appealing to me is that it removes the GM from the position of lobbing threats toward the players. Instead, it’s the game world itself that offers the threat — and the story! I’ve been fine-tuning Autumn Frontiers with random tables in an effort to create clear distinctions between the mildy dangerous areas of the map and the truly deadly regions. I’d like to implement “danger gradients” to the wilderness, which Ben Robbins describes as logical threat progressions, intended to give the world a sense of order and make it feel like more than just a map full of encounters strung together. Mountain hobgoblins generally won’t come along when the players are campaigning through the swamp, but there’s a good chance these same protagonists might patrol the foothills of their chosen mountain range.

This is somewhat more difficult to implement in Savage Worlds, which doesn’t use encounter levels or rank monsters according to how appropriate they are for characters of a given level. But in a way, it’s even more exciting, because I can stock the map with an eye toward Gygaxian naturalism and let the players figure things out.

But I like that no one really knows what’s going to come along when the dice are cast. Random encounters add a level of danger and mystery to the game that’s made all the more real when the players understand that even the GM can’t see everything coming. That’s not to say the GM should treat every random result as gospel; it’s important to keep things appropriate to the particular setting (merfolk raiders coming along when the party is adventuring in the high plains? Maybe not.). But respecting the random encounter keeps everyone on their toes, which in turn leads to that all-important byproduct of roleplaying: adventure!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Spells Inspired by Heavy Metal, Part One

Ever since Jim Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess casually tossed out a half-dozen OD&D spells based entirely on metal song titles, I’ve been excited to try my hand at this sort of music-infused creativity. These spells were all created in about 30 minutes, intended for use in the Savage Worlds ruleset. The band names for each song are included in parentheses. Consider this the first entry in an irregular series; I'll write up more as the mood strikes me.

Rust of Coming Ages (Serenity)
Rank: Veteran
Power Points: 5
Range: Smarts, Circular radius centered on caster
Duration: Instant
Description: The spell causes objects within the caster’s Smarts radius to age instantaneously. Most metal objects will corrode and rust; leather will break; wood will rot and degrade. Gear that is already ancient (like heirloom weapons or artifacts) will crumble into dust. Weapons that aren’t destroyed will have their damage decreased by one die (down to a minimum of d4) and exhibit extreme signs of aging, making them worth one-fourth their average resale value. These weapons have a 30% chance of breaking each time they are used in combat.

Shadowgate (Battlelore)
Rank: Seasoned
Power Points: 3, 5 vs. an undead Wild Card
Range: Smarts, in a straight line from caster
Duration: 1 round
Description: When faced with undead creatures, the caster is able to open a gaping pit beneath the fiends, allowing the infernal darkness to reclaim its minions. On a successful Arcane roll, an inky black chasm opens at the feet of the target, which must then make an Agility check or fall in. With a raise, the check must be made at a –2 penalty. On a critical failure (snake eyes in Savage Worlds) the pit opens normally, but disgorges another undead foe instead of reclaiming one (GM's choice).

How Heavy This Axe (The Sword)
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 1 per damage die
Range: Touch
Duration: 1 day
Description: By touching a weapon or item, the spellcaster is able to increase or decrease its relative weight as perceived by the bearer. This weight change is variable, but can be no more than half of the object’s original weight.

The Fire Still Burns (DragonForce)
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 2
Range: Touch
Duration: As long as fuel is available
Description: By holding a piece of charred wood or fuel in his hands, the caster is able to kindle a new flame. The flame must have been extinguished within a number of hours equal to the caster’s Smarts.

Spirit of the Hawk (Falconer)
Rank: Seasoned
Power Points: 4
Range: Line of Sight
Duration: Smarts in minutes
Description: The druid is able to see through the eyes of a soaring hawk or other bird. The caster cannot control this animal, however.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Getting Fantasy Miniatures for Cheap

I love gaming with miniatures, even if it’s just to help everyone around the table visualize important characters and monsters. Sure, cardboard counters are cheaper and easier to play with, but the wargamer in me really grooves on using actual sculpted miniatures for roleplaying.

Finding cheap miniatures, then, has become an amusing quest for me; at GenCon, I probably spent an hour pawing through huge bins of plastic D&D minis, all priced two for a dollar. I ended up with eight new additions to my collection — mainly because I spent most of my time helping fellow prospectors track down figures for their collections. (“Anyone need another Skulking Ghroll? I’ve got two over here!”)

Anyway, for groups looking for another outlet for cheap plastic minis, check out the MageKnight auctions on eBay. Most gamers fondly remember MageKnight as the pioneering clicky-base game that shot itself in the face with a career-ending rules revamp. Folks still play MageKnight, but there’s not a whole lot of demand left for the figures themselves, which started out looking kind of shoddy but got increasingly better as time went on. Even better, there are literally hundreds of different models in the series, representing dozens of races and factions and equipment combinations. I just won an auction for two dozen undead-themed characters and another dozen male human adventurers — for about the price of a single D&D Minis booster box.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

RPGS, Greek Tragedy, and Greenspan

I was watching the Newshour with Jim Lehrer tonight, and it triggered some "deep thoughts" about rpgs. The Newshour showed Alan Greenspan's testimony before Congress today about the economic collapse. Greenspan talked about his shock that his "ideology" had proven wrong - that his free market view of the world had led to terrible and unpredictable consequences. Of course, the media jumped on this, because who wants an ideologue guiding economic policy? But as a social scientist, I have much empathy for Greenspan. If you listen beyond the sound bytes, he was really talking about his theoretical model through which he views the world, which is supported by an ample amount of empirical and historical evidence (yeah yeah, his model involves some problems clearly, but that's not what this post is about). Really, theoretical models are one of the central tools of social science, and when one confronts problems with their basic assumptions, it causes serious shock. Greenspan indicated as much.

(Bear with me, we're getting to rpgs.)

This Greenspan stuff in turn reminded me of Greek tragedy, which I used to read and teach. One central feature of Greek tragedy (and the Iliad) is playing out what happens when humans meet their conceptual limitations - when they realizd that the most fundamental things they believe are wrong (you know, like when you realize that your lover is your mom). That's when shit hits the fan. Part of the point is that we're just human; we're not gods. And a key different between humans and gods is the ability to know or see the world for what it is. Our worldviews always have flaws, and as humans, we always need theoretical worldviews to organize and even form what we know and see. That just a fundamentally shitty part of being human.

(Here's the rpg part.)

I've had so much fun thinking about Greek tragedy over the years and seeing things play out similarly on the global stage in recent months (only from an intellectual standpoint, duh), that I wonder if these kinds of themes could be integrated into rpgs. In a way that's actually fun. Could I fruitfully play a character that this kind of tragedy happens to? Would it just be stupid?

In our "old school" game right now, this kind of game may not work. I'm playing a holy roller paladin with no doubt about his worldview, so he'd be perfect for this kind of tragedy at first glance. But I'm having the most fun gaming that I think I've had since I started playing with some of my current group a couple years ago. Much of my fun comes from kicking ass and talking in goofy voices - not deep philosophical intersections between gaming and tragedy. Also, we're using Savage Worlds, so there's no mechanical support for this kind of thing (is there anywhere and is it fun if it's out there?).

But here's another idea: It may be possible to implement something like this as a GM - somehow turning the basic assumptions of the world upside down in a way that creates a crisis for characters to deal with. (Pat - I'm not encouraging you to do this for our current game, because it's great like it is.) The rpg version of an economic crisis. That way, we could still have raucous fun without getting bogged down in the depression of it all. So it would still be fun. But would it have enough tragedy in the game to bring out the themes I'm interested in?

I just don't know, and I'm probably out thinking myself what this post. Maybe I should just stick to channeling my inner 13 year old.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The One-Two Approach to Starting a Campaign

Our group has stumbled across a simple, effective tool for generating excitement about a new campaign. It is this:

When starting a new game, try to get in two quick back-to-back sessions before settling into a comfortable gaming schedule.

For Autumn Frontiers, we managed (by pure luck, it seems) to play on a Thursday and then again the following Saturday. Two sessions in less than five days -- that was a herculean scheduling feat. But it managed to stoke the imaginations of both the players and the GM, thereby giving legs to a campaign that might otherwise have muddled along. I had to plan for two separate sessions, and the players got a chance to fine-tune their character concept with the followup session on Saturday.

It's a simple thing, but I'm glad our busy lives allowed for a quick burst of gaming to start off a new campaign.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Last Weekend's Old-School Gaming Moment

Yep, we had our first great old-school gaming moment last weekend. The first of many, I hope, from Autumn Frontiers, my Savage Worlds/Points of Light sandbox mashup.

The players were exploring a ruined holdfast situated in some forested hills. As near as the PCs could tell, the crumbling, three-story tower and half-collapsed curtain wall had been built — and then abandoned? — centuries ago by a dwarven culture. The drum tower itself was in particularly bad shape, with heaps of rubble and collapsed masonry everywhere, not to mention gaping holes in the floor and ceiling.

The dwarves had stashed several sealed cauldrons of tar in various places around the holdfast, perhaps intended to be used to defend against invaders at some unknowable point in the past. The players found these cauldrons and deduced their contents after a little experimenting. (“I sprinkle some of our magic ice powder into the black liquid. It turns into a crystal? OK, I use my sword to spill a little bit on the floor and light it on fire. Cool, it burns! Must be tar or pitch.”)

Using ropes, the players were able to work their way into the squat tower. They explored the top level (replete with battlements and a commanding view of the surrounding countryside) and headed on down to the first floor, which was partially built into the hillside. Over the years, a small stream had pushed through the tower’s thick stone wall and now flowed slowly through this chamber. Roots hung from the ceiling and moss grew on the heaps of broken masonry piled everywhere. It was dark and dank.

So it was no surprise that this fetid chamber should be home to a colony of oil beetles, huge and black with glistening carapaces. The players locked swords with these beasts for a few rounds, but common sense quickly won out. They darted back upstairs, whereupon the paladin and the druid began dragging one of the heavy cauldrons to the edge of a large hole in the floor...that led down to the beetle-infested first level. While they were doing this, the thief and the wizard mounted a determined defense against the enraged beetles, which were now swarming up a crumbling spiral staircase onto the second level.

After a few close calls, the characters managed to tilt the cauldron over the lip of the maw, sending a hundred or so gallons of black tar spilling down into the depths of the beetle hive. The druid tossed in a torch, and the rest is history. I didn’t even roll — those beetles didn’t have a chance. They squealed and hissed and burst from the heat as their innards boiled.

It was a elegant solution that I didn’t really see coming — and it’s also a strong argument in favor of logical dungeons built for particular purposes, with lots of options for enterprising players. In this case, the dwarven holdfast was meant to defend against something, so it was only logical that the battlements should have cauldrons of tar ready to be dumped on invaders at a moment’s notice. Turns out the “invaders” were inside the tower itself.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Back in the Hot Seat After a Long Absence

More than a year after I GMed my last multi-session RPG, I sat down with a group of friends last night to delve into Autumn Frontiers, my new fantasy sandbox campaign.

It’s difficult to express how much my gaming ethos has changed over the weeks and months that I’ve been brainstorming and sketching out this setting. In years past, I produced self-contained adventures that — while drenched in detail and very engrossing — offered little in terms of sandbox play. This was fine, because the players I gamed with were part of this paradigm as well. With few exceptions, they expected a “plot” and were only too happy to move along it.

Since then, though, my sentiments have changed. Starting with a chance encounter at Ars Ludi, I’ve voraciously sought out articles and blog posts from the likes of James Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, Ben Robbins, Rob Conley and Sham the Quixotic Referee. Their quirky return-to-yer-roots notions really set off a cavalcade of ideas in my head — made all the more relevant when you consider that I missed old-school D&D entirely, having started playing RPGs in 1994 with d6 Star Wars. The whole effort was made manifest when I picked up Goodman Games’ Points of Light supplement (co-authored by Rob Conley, btw). My game grew legs and took off, if only in my head. And even if the players barely scratch the surface of the world, it was certainly worth it.

And so, on a Thursday night in October, we met at Ben’s place in Chicago. Four players showed, including two I’ve never gamemastered for. With little more than character sheets, a rulebook and a blank hex map, we cranked up the heavy metal and got to gaming.

It ranks as one of the most singularly satisfying GM experiences of my life. Everyone was in-character and one the same level — namely, a semi-campy mashup of Conan-style swaggering, played out against the backdrop of a frightened, depopulated medieval frontier village. The “tavern” where the party met was just few rough-hewn benches tucked in the corner of the village blacksmith’s shop; Garron, the one-armed forgemaster, sold ale by the mug and kept his smithy ringing late into the night, helping weary travelers shake off the cold with beer and helpful gossip.

Each player had received a randomly generated rumor via email in the week prior to the session, and they eagerly presented these hints in-character as the PCs gathered in Garron’s workshop. There was a great moment when the highborn wizard harumphed about not wanting to go risk his skin exploring the ruins of Tora Norrith, but the spirit of adventure on out in the end. The PCs agreed to depart at sunrise, and we had a nice little scene where the characters bedded down in an abandoned barracks.

The overland trip to Tora Norrith (just a few hours' hike, given the topography) was an absolutely golden wilderness scene, festooned with Survival rolls, foraging attempts and even some discovery (the druid stumbled across an ancient quarry site carved with dwarven runes; the thief had the presence of mind to make a charcoal rubbing of these runes, which will help out immensely if they choose to investigate further).

We had a few stumbles with the Savage Worlds rules, including forgetting all about the soak roll when the druid took a crossbow bolt to the chest (he survived). And I’m still learning how to effectively run NPC enemies in Savage Worlds. But all in all, it was a great first adventure and — get this — our next session is scheduled for this Saturday! So soon — gotta go prep!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dungeon Vermin in Savage Worlds

I’ve been enjoying some of the posts lately about “dungeon vermin” — giant beetles, centipedes, rats, scorpions and other creepy crawlies that adventurers are sure to find in most ancient catacombs. So I started thinking about how to incorporate these suckers into Savage Worlds, the system of choice for my upcoming fantasy game. There’s not telling how much dungeon-delving the PCs will do, but if they do venture underground, I like the idea of having a thriving ecosystem waiting for them down there.

The key with dungeon vermin — near as I can tell — is that they’re not threatening on their own, but they’re able to endanger the party in certain situations (right after a big battle, for example, when the exhausted, drained characters blunder into a pit filled with giant leeches).

How to represent this in Savage Worlds? The best way, I think, is with the Shaken mechanic. Savage Worlds doesn’t use hit points; rather, each character has three wounds representing progressive levels of injury. Shaken is a sort of pre-wounded condition that limits a character’s actions and makes it much easier to subsequently wound him.

So, rather than stat out full blocks for each type of dungeon vermin, I think I’ll simply give them an attack rating, a toughness score and a custom Edge (read: feat) that limits any successful damage roll to Shaken. This makes them superbly annoying, occasionally deadly — but never to be ignored.

Think of the insect pit scene in King Kong — the characters were on the ropes, exhausted, and the scary bugs thought they had an easy meal on their hands until the rest of the party showed up and massacred the insects. But not before the swarming bugs managed to snack on a few adventurers. Dungeon vermin should be a low-level background threat for most of the game, except for that one-in-a-hundred situation where the Shaken result combines with some other unforseen scenario to make the players really sweat.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Playing With Half A Group

Scheduling (and all the woes therein) has been a common theme here at RPG Diehard. Both Ben and I have lamented the challenges involved with simply gathering a group of players together, to say nothing of the actual art of playing the game.

For Autumn Frontiers, my new Points of Light/Savage Worlds campaign, I’m going to try my hardest to stick to a regular, reliable schedule. And the more I think about that, the more I think that that’s probably going to necessitate playing without all the players present, at least every now and then.

This is going to be a bit of a change for my group; over the years, we've been pretty easy-going and only too happy to continually postpone a session to make sure everyone's around the table. What that's resulted in, however, is a whole lot of polite emails and not very much gaming. Time for a change?

If handled properly, I think this sort of play can actually serve to enhance the immersive, survival-based fantasy game I’m hoping to run with this group. If we’re set to start at 7 p.m. and a player can’t make it until 8:30, that’s fine — the game will proceed, and I (the GM) will play their character. Or another player; it doesn't matter. The point is that the game is ongoing even when the player is absent — not in a punitive way, though, because that would be cruel. Then, when the player does show up, he’ll enter the game in media res — maybe in the middle of a mountaintop chase, or maybe in the middle of a tense lockpicking moment.

Part of me wants to put my foot down and say “Alright, we’re playing every Thursday; no compromises.” But that’s not fair to adult players who have lives and spouses and jobs; moreover, I’m just as likely to cancel a regular game at some point too. I’m curious how you might handle a group that’s chronically difficult to schedule. Do you regularly play with half a group?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Join Us Or DIE!!!"

The words just tumbled out of my mouth, and I regretted them as soon as I uttered them. I was GMing what looked like our final session of Wild Talents (transhuman, far future, sci fi version) for at least a while (and perhaps forever). These were the words of the Big Bad, the leader of the invading, universe hopping, barbarian, alien horde, and these guys were flat out stronger than the PCs. At least one of the PCs didn't like the position he was put in - he felt as if he were offered no choice and was essentially being railroaded to "join," and this is literally the last thing I want in a game. For a second, I thought about taking it all back, but hell, I was the GM, and I wouldn't allow a PC to do take backseys on an important decision made in the heat of the moment. In the end, a compromise was struck between the PCs and the Big Bad - the PCs joined, and the aliens would only occupy their universe for 5-10 thousand years on the way to domination of reality. In retrospect, I don't think my decision was that bad. Here are a couple factors to help you decide:

1) The PCs were more physically powerful than anything else in the game thus far, and flat out dominated (partially because of the version of the rules we were playing with). There were lots of diplomatic ramifications of the use of extreme force throughout the game, but the PCs could physically overcome anything until the alien horde. They knew it was coming, but didn't know how powerful it was.

2) The PCs largely ignored the horde, focusing instead on local diplomatic issues and immediate threats, until it hit them in the face. Part of our game setup was the impending threat of the horde, so it's not like they missed any hints.

3) We had intended to hack in Burning Wheel's social combat rules, because they're great (and work much better than their mechanically similar cousin rules for real combat, IMHO), but I forgot all about this until afterwards. That's a shame, because diplomacy was what won the day in the end (well, sort of won).

4) The PCs saw themselves getting torn apart by the horde in space, but proceeded straight to their leader without any subtlety. One PC (the one who complained) actually set a charge on his ship to blow up if things went to hell. He didn't use it. Let's just say I would've looked favorably upon interesting decisions besides fight or talk (you know, like escape or something creative). Also, one of the PCs could construct teleporters in a single round.

5) I certainly could've said something else besides "join us or die" that would give the PCs other options. Like: "Go back to your leaders and tell them my proposal. You have 5 hours, Earthlings. Don't be late. AHAHAHAHAHA!!!" But then this would've become more like a choose your own adventure instead of a rpg, right?

6) We definitely wanted to finish off this arc so Pat can run his west marshes game he's been talking about.

7) I really had no preconception about how all of this would turn out, and I actually had a lot more adventure planned for the evening. But it was all moot after this encounter, and it seemed like the obvious stopping point for the arc because it changed the game world so drastically.

Looking back after writing all this, it certainly seems to me like I didn't screw up. Though, I'm sure the PCs would add in 7 more points that bolster their side. At the very least, this seems like the flip side of Pat's stormtrooper post below (man, his low-level survival game is going to be a hell of a contrast to Wild Talents - I definitely think it'll work better than WT because I'm much more of an abstract spacey type than the other players...and most people I know).

Anyway, I'd sure appreciate any feedback our readers. You know, in the name of trying to become a better GM and all.

Fantasy orcs and the stormtrooper syndrome

There are two types of orcs in fantasy roleplaying: the kind that PCs routinely slaughter by the dozens, and the kind that offer an unexpected (and thoroughly deadly) threat to players who were expecting the aforementioned variety. Which type you meet in your campaign depends largely on the stormtrooper syndrome.

In the d6 Star Wars RPG, players coined this rather hilarious observation to describe the notion that stormtroopers -- described in game material and official canon as elite soldiers armed with the best weapons and equipment-- couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. They were little more than scrubs whose flashy armor couldn't protect them from the heroes' blaster bolts; it took just a single shot to drop them, both in the movies and in the game.

Now, this worked fine for Star Wars players who wanted to emulate the best space-opera moments from the original trilogy. But a small subset of GMs chose to make stormtroopers powerful and rare, more like the intergalactic special forces they profess to be. In these games, regular Imperial Army troops filled the drop-like-flies stormtrooper role, and players quickly learned to dread seeing a flash of white armor in the distance.

It warms my heart when lowly fantasy orcs get this same treatment. I've modeled my own orcs on Fantasy Flight's Midnight campaign setting, which sees these brutes as the garrison troops of a victorious army, lording over the cowed populace and striding with confidence across the ravaged countryside -- kind of like how Middle Earth would have looked, had Sauron won.

Midnight's orcs got a stat boost, sure, but they got a much more subtle treatment in the fluff of the game. Simply put, they're terrifying, and everyone knows it. To the average commoners, orcs embody the horror and savagery that lurk just outside the town walls. A hero of great renown might be remembered in songs for facing down three or four of these monsters -- and dying in the process, of course.

These are the orcs of my campaign world. There will be plenty of low-level encounters populated by goblins and kobolds, sure, but the orc will be special.

[Image credit: ~Geistig, deviantART]

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Post-auction writeup: Loot, glorious loot

Yesterday was the fall gaming auction at Games Plus in Mt. Prospect, IL. I attended with an eye toward snatching up some useful and/or nostalgic items for cheap. In that respect, I was thoroughly successful. Here's what ended up in my adventurer's backpack at the end of the day:

  • Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition- $6
  • Dungeon Worlds: Catacombs - $1 (didn't really need it, but the price was right)
  • Wondrous Items of Power - $3 (terrible editing, but if I can rip even one good campaign idea out of this book, then it was worth the price)
  • Wreckage - $8 (small, quick board game of Mad Max-style vehicular combat; I've coveted this sucker for a long time)
  • Zombies!!! - $5 (waited and waited to snag this game for a decent price...success!)
  • Agone core book - $5 (OK, I thought I was bidding on Agon, and I didn't realize it until I'd already won the auction for this game. Eh.)
  • AD&D trading cards - $2 (couldn't say no, plus they'll be great for Everway)
  • Cracken's Threat Dossier - 50 cents (again, couldn't pass it up. I'll play d6 Star Wars again...I swear it)

And I didn't even hit my carry limit.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Of game stores I've known: Valhalla's Gate in Columbia, MO

Most gamers, if they’re lucky, can relate stories of the local gaming store that helped foster their participation in the hobby. I’m no different, and Sir Larkins’ recent post bemoaning the slow decline of brick-and-mortar retail shops has inspired me to write about my first (gaming) love.

For the first four years of this decade, I lived in Columbia, MO while attending the University of Missouri. College helped rejuvenate my gaming appetite, but it wasn’t until the end of my tenure that I discovered Valhalla’s Gate, then a newcomer to the Columbia gaming scene (which is actually quite vibrant, having birthed several game publishing companies and nurtured many burgeoning designers).

The Gate, as it’s affectionately known, was then an upstart competing with the Danger Room, which occupied an enviable spot in downtown Columbia just across the street from MU’s campus. Despite all that, neither the Danger Room nor its successor entity could gain any real traction, and the downtown storefront closed around 2003 or so. From then on, Valhalla’s Gate was the only game in town, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The Gate had a lot going for it, starting with a huge retail footprint. This was key in a lot of ways. It let the owners take advantage of the store’s high ceiling heights to craft a well-lit, clean interior setup stuffed to the gills with merchandise. Every major element of the hobby got attention, some more than others. RPGs were huge, as were Games Workshop games. Clix-based games had their boomtime too, but they took up far less shelf space. Hobby supplies were next to terrain racks, and even less-popular miniatures games usually had a shelf or two.

What all of this meant was that the store offered a bewildering array of products distributed in a logical, well-organized store setup — as opposed to the pile-it-everywhere approach that smaller stores are sometimes stuck with. It didn’t hurt that the owners were fastidious about cleaning the place, which no doubt contributed to any number of impulse buys from impressed parents of young gamers.

And talk about game space: at any given time, the Gate had at least four fully prepped 8’ by 4’ wargame tables ready to go at a moment’s notice. Another three could be pressed into duty in 10 minutes. RPG and card gamers could pull up a chair to any of the dozen folding tables that populated the dedicated gaming room, which was separated from the retail salesfloor by a short hallway. Add in a (always clean) restroom and a couple vending machines, and it’s easy to see how this place was designed with the gamer in mind.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to land a job at Valhalla’s Gate as one of three part-time employees in the summer of 2003. In doing so, I had the opportunity to understand the store from the other side of counter. I saw how the owners made buying decisions, set up the monthly tournament schedules, organized the special orders and balanced their own personal/family lives in the process. The owners were/are all married couples with children and full-time jobs elsewhere, so life was hectic and they came to rely on the small staff of part-timers who crewed the place.

During my time there, we routinely hosted tournaments that drew gamers from as far away as St. Louis, Kansas City and Des Moines. We even had a father-and-son duo that made a weekly 180-mile round trip to play in the our Lord of the Rings CCG league.

I’ve not been back to the Gate in about three years, but it remains (in my mind, at least) the ideal model for game store retail operation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Breaking up is hard to do

I quit my Mutants & Masterminds game this past July after more than a year of reliable, bimonthly campaign play. I just wasn’t jazzed to play a superhero game any longer — and this ran contrary to the rest of the group’s members, who all wanted to continue M&M for the forseeable future.

So I quit — nicely, of course, but I still shocked the GM and a few players who didn’t know me quite so well. The rhetorical question I didn’t pose to them at the time was: What alternative would you have me do?

Do I stick with a game that’s just not my cup of tea right now, hoping that enthusiasm grabs me again? Do I bumble my way through the next few months of play, waiting for the GM to get the hint and start catering to me? In my opinion, that’s doing a disservice to the rest of the players — especially when they’ve expressed satisfaction with the direction the campaign is going and I’m the odd man out.

Luckily this wasn’t my only gaming group at the time, and I’ve since been able to play a bunch of new, cool games with friends new and old, to say nothing of my own impending fantasy campaign.

But what do you think? Is there some sort of unspoken gamer etiquette I trampled when I departed so precipitously? Would you have stayed?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Rations and record-keeping: Fun?

Question for you OD&D DMs out there: Do you make your players mark off rations or man-days of food during wilderness campaigns? I have a strong desire to do just that in Autumn Frontiers, my burgeoning Points of Light/Savage Worlds mashup setting — but I’m also conscious of the lameness of such record-keeping, especially in the casual group that I’m expecting for the game.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Days gone, that is

One thing I always keep an eye on when GMing is the passing of each day. Unless you’re gaming in a realm with dramatically different solar cycles, it makes sense that most days should start with a sun(s)rise and end with the reverse about 12 hours later.

This daily cycle provides delicious opportunities for detailed scene-setting and cinematic visuals, but it also tends to get ignored in a lot of games. The GM simply says “OK, you spend the day in the city researching the nobleman’s estate. It’s night out now — do you want to go to the tavern?”

Sometimes that’s a necessary step to keep the game going; other times, it’s a missed opportunity. Cities and wilderness locales can undergo pretty substantial changes in flavor as the day transitions to evening and night. I’ve put together a brief list of “actionable” details that can be easily inserted into fantasy campaigns to better describe the passing of the day.

Urban environs
  • In the morning, streets might be empty save the vendors setting up shop in the market district. It’s often unnaturally quiet, so any disturbance would be magnified manyfold and would likely wake nearby sleepers.

  • Noon is usually the hottest part of the day in non-polar climates — a town might shut down during the afternoon so its denizens can retreat to cooler refuges.

  • In the evening, there’s often an influx of people, as farmers and laborers head into the village after a long day in the fields. Traveling merchants arrive after many days on the road, eager to rest and relax.

  • At night, there’s often a changing of the city watch, as the daytime soldiers head home to the barracks and the nighttime detail moves in. This would be a time of relative disorganization for all but the most disciplined brigades.

Wilderness environs
  • In temperate areas, dew accumulates overnight in grassy areas. Footprints from travelers passing in the night are easy to discern in the morning dew.

  • In the evening, nocturnal predators come out to hunt, and prey animals hunker down to await dawn. Flowers often close up, too, and mist can develop in humid, lowlying areas as the ground cools.

  • After nightfall, the temperature can drop dramatically, and travelers without proper shelter can left to the mercy of the elements. Trees creak and groan as they cool in the night air. In very cold regions, water can freeze, leather can crack and metal blades become brittle with frost.

  • At night, a slight elevation can give travelers a sweeping, panoramic view of the countryside. From there, it would be easy to pick out the flicker of campfires that might indicate other wayfarers in the area.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A new name and a campaign intro

All great campaigns need a name, right? I actually didn't know this until I read Ben Robbins' post on the topic (written in 2006, stumbled upon by me yesterday). It got the gears turning, though, and I think I've finally settled on a name for my Points of Light fantasy campaign, to be run using Savage Worlds. Here's the intro I'll be distributing to the players:

The Autumn Frontiers

The world is an unforgiving place. We forget this sometimes. A well-honed blade can safeguard a man's family. Strong walls can hold back invaders. And a disciplined army can protect an entire realm. But what would happen if these mainstays of civilization should falter?

This is the world of the Autumn Frontiers. After decades of bloody conquest, the high lord's army is pulling back, ending an ill-fought campaign and abandoning the frontier to the barbarians and savages. But even in defeat, an enterprising few can find opportunity. Soldiers returning home whisper tales of ruined fortresses filled with plunder unimaginable, of foul raiders that stalk the moors at night, of windswept mountains that hide the armories of kings. Evil has crept back into the world, nipping at the heels of the fleeing soldiers. Will you venture forth into the wilderlands?

Autumn Frontiers is a fantasy game for Savage Worlds, set in an untamed land that has shaken off the trappings of modern civilization. Exploration, discovery, and survival are the game's key themes, and every major decision will be left to the players. This style of roleplaying cuts both ways: If the players choose not to rescue a convoy of traveling mages, for example, then the wizards' arcane plunder will no doubt fall into the hands of fiendish outlaws — and these foes will almost certainly use their newfound power to exert greater control over the lawless lands. Similarly, rumors of a loot-filled dungeon may prove to be little more than conjecture if a rival band of graverobbers raids the catacombs first. Decisions have consequences.

Since there's no linear plot in this game, you shouldn't feel compelled to react in any particular way over the course of the game. You won't hurt my feelings. Every choice you make is one more chapter in the unfolding saga of the Autumn Frontiers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Game supplements I will buy: Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion

Last weekend my group made characters for our Savage Worlds sandbox fantasy campaign. Chargen was quick and easy, but the core book is not really written for traditional fantasy gaming. Among other things, it's missing a more robust spell list and genre-specific edges and hindrances.

That's no big deal, of course — we'll happily stat out our own weapons and spells as long as necessary. But I’m really looking forward to the newly announced Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion, which promises to fill in those gaps (and then some) in the swords-and-sorcery genre. As near as I can tell, the book was announced earlier this month, and it could be in stores by early 2009.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Hot War

Last week I spent most of a three-hour plane trip reading Hot War, the spiritual successor to the very excellent Cold City by Contested Ground Studios.

Set in Berlin just after WWII, Cold City’s crowning achievement was a spate of innovative “trust” mechanics that realistically modeled the intrigue and conspiracy surrounding American, German, French, British and Soviet operatives as they investigated horrific Cthulhu-esque monsters and dark occult happenings in the shattered urban cityscape.

Hot War took Cold City’s setting — teetering, as it were, on the brink of out-and-out war — and advanced it to its logical conclusion. But the war that Hot War chronicles involves more than simply atom bombs; this conflict also makes ample use of the so-called “twisted technology” that both sides were voraciously developing as a deterrent to traditional nuclear arms. So Hot War’s London was scourged with hellish mutants, otherworldly creatures yanked to Earth from alternate realities, and crude Soviet cyborgs powered by arcane technologies.

The result is an apocalypse, which creator Malcolm Craig chronicles through a chapter’s worth of diary entries, official memos and propaganda posters (including one shown here). This sets the scene for the game setting: a ruined London struggling to survive amid dwindling resources, even as the terrifying leftovers of the botched Soviet invasion stalk the landscape, menacing the cowed population with indirect terror.

In place of a trust mechanic, Hot War has each player describe two agendas: one representing their player’s personal motivations (ex: “Find out where my sister went after the war”) and another representing a missive handed down from whatever branch of the government they work for (ex: “Find the mole who’s selling Navy secrets”). This is especially important because the UK’s fragmented military factions are a source of great drama in the game; each branch is vying with the others for manpower and resources, which leads to intense behind-the-scenes struggles.

The agendas are rated in terms of how long it will take to accomplish them and given a die bonus that can be employed on all dice rolls associated with them. Longer agendas give fewer dice — but they can be used more frequently. Once they’ve been roleplayed out to their conclusion, agendas are fulfilled in some way and the player makes a new one — very similar to Burning Wheel’s belief mechanic, though Hot War’s agendas appear much more actionable on first brush.

The game revolves around encounters, not tasks, so there’s no “rolling to hit” in this game. Rather, players assemble a die pool for a particular encounter, adding in one die for various relevant abilities (a mechanic that’s gotten a lot of mileage lately in indie games). Then players roll the dice pool, determine a winner, and narrate the outcome of the encounter. It’s graceful, sure, but there’s a distinctive lack of crunch. Character equipment and environmental effects are all boiled down to a series of pluses or minuses applied to the die pool.

A very cool aspect of Hot War is that players can take over narration duties at various times during the game. Whenever a player wins a particular conflict scene, he or she gets to dictate the outcome (within reason, of course). The same goes for agendas: When they’re fulfilled, the player describes the outcome and its effect on the game. This is great, but it demands a very mature, involved group of players, since they’ll each serve as GM for about 20% of the game.

Hot War is among the most satisfying post-apocalyptic games I’ve read in a long time. It’s not campy; it’s stark and hopeless. While reading the description of the war itself (told via diary entries and government posters) I kept thinking about Threads, the made-for-BBC documentary that presented a similarly unflinching look at nuclear war and the immediate aftermath. Imagine my surprise, then, to see Threads listed as one of a number of film and TV shows that served as Malcolm’s inspiration for the game.

Up next: An actual play review, to be completed as soon as I can manage to assemble a group.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The glory of the gaming auction

One of the coolest things about living in Chicago is the twice-annual Games Plus Gaming Auction, held by the good chaps at Games Plus in Mt. Prospect, IL. Throughout most of September, local gamers can drop off their unwanted gaming merchandise, which becomes part of a veritable mountain of loot that dominates the rear of the store. Daily visitors to the store, of course, watch this treasure heap grow over the course of the month, which serves only to enhance the sense of excitement and anticipation for the auction.

The auction itself spans a long weekend, with each day dedicated to a particular gaming category: Friday for the board games, Saturday for the RPGs and fantasy games, and Sunday for the miniatures. Make no mistake: these are long days. There’s no rhyme or reason to the auction; cartloads of material are wheeled up to the auctioneer’s table all day long and sold in the order they arrive. A barely-used copy of Zombies!!! might be auctioned off right after a much-loved edition of Keep on the Borderlands, for example.

What this means for customers is that you have to sit through the whole thing to make sure you won’t miss a particular item you spied in the treasure heap. There’s no way to be alerted when an item you want goes up for auction. The upshot of all this is that Games Plus is clogged with gaming geeks lounging on chairs, reading books or eating lunch pretty much all day long. As the day progresses, these folks are generally quite vocal, sending up a chorus of “ooooh!” whenever a particular gem commands a hefty price, or chuckling when another customer nabs an oddball item for cheap. In truth, it’s a fairly festive atmosphere, sort of a cross between Medieval Times and a football game.

Last year I snagged the Eberron core book ($5), Panty Explosion ($3) and Fluid Mechanics ($5, a supplement for Blue Planet). This year I’m hoping to attend both the RPG day and the miniatures day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Help me make monsters scary again

So I'm busily populating my Points of Light hex map with encounters and threats, and I'm having a really hard time with monsters. Gryphons and harpies and werebears...they're all so quintessentially fantasy, but they don't scare me -- and I worry they'll have a similar effect on my players.

Oh sure, they're threatening and all. They can maim and kill characters, and in a pinch the PCs can rally together and bring 'em down in a hail of arrows, lightning bolts and fancy swordplay. But they're not scary, not in the sense that they inspire the PCs to do much more than simply slay them. And it ain't like I can't pull off a terrifying scene setup -- I can don't worry 'bout that. But I see more storytelling potential in "monsters" that stand on two legs: corrupt nobles, death cults, warmongering orc raiders, nefarious highwaymen, etc.

I think it's because monsters aren't smart. With a few notable exceptions, they don't plot or scheme or try to worm their way into positions of power. They react to stuff and defend themselves if attacked. That's about it. I've read James Maliszewski's treatise on Gygaxian Naturalism, and it's a very cool way to think about monsters -- but that still doesn't solve their innate lack of smarts.

Anyone have any suggestions about how to plop a few full-on monsters in my map -- without having them simply become speed bumps with hit points? Or, a better question might be: what are some monsters that are genuinely intelligent and could offer a real, perennial threat to the campaign?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Putting Points of Light through the creative meatgrinder

This past weekend, I went ahead and put Goodman GamesPoints of Light through the ringer. I gutted the setting, redrew the map, discarded a quarter of the content, reworked another quarter, inserted my own goodies — and had an absolute blast in the process. In retrospect, I think the Goodman team would be proud of my efforts. After all, Points of Light is nothing if not immanently gameable, as Jeff Rients so eloquently put it.

Most of this weekend, you see, was spent sitting in a coffee shop in St. Louis, killing time while my fiance busied herself as a bridesmaid for her friend’s wedding. I had no role in the wedding, which meant I had huge blocks of downtime while the bridal party shuttled around the city for photos, hair appointments, champagne brunches, etc. So I plopped myself down in a coffee shop, pulled up Points of Light on my laptop and started hacking.

As I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts, I’m hoping to run a sandbox-style fantasy game using Savage Worlds as my system of choice. I took the Wildlands map from Points of Light and dumped it into Photoshop; an hour later, I had the beginnings of my setting: a savage frontier punctuated with crumbling castles and keeps, the population reeling from a recently-concluded military campaign that ended in defeat for the invading empire. The army has retreated, leaving a shocked populace that now has to deal with invading orcs, hobgoblins, ogres and more.

I tried really hard to avoid scripting plots or connecting too many dots — that’s for the players to do, after all. But the seeds are definitely there.

Update: Goodman Games may be the best game company on the planet. I was planning to write an email asking for blank maps of the various kingdoms for my players to draw on. They pre-empted my request by releasing said maps last Wednesday. Wow. Get 'em here (PDF).