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).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Meet the magnificent bastards

For a long time, I resisted the idea of morally gray characters — those self-serving scoundrels who would just as soon ransack the crypt than save the curator, for example. To me, they were the crutch of unimaginative players. Twas infinitely better, I thought, to dig deeper into the game’s source material and craft a nuanced character festooned with plot hooks and ulterior motives — red meat for the GM, in other words.

Gradually, though, I’m coming to appreciate the idea of the “magnificent bastard” — the magnanimous, perpetual ego trip of a character whose only goal in life is to leave behind a handsome corpse in some lonely, forgotten dungeon. These adventurers have as much of a place in today’s fantasy gaming as the Tolkienesque Dwarf fighter and Elf ranger. Right now, at least, I'd like to see more of them.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sandbox Play vs. Quicksand ... Box Play

All these recent posts about sandbox play around the rpg blogging community got me thinking. The posts about sandbox gaming are pretty much all positive. My first reaction is the same - I've read and played enough indie/story games that I get (and like) what they're about, but I've really been grooving on the old school lately. It's not just about nostalgia; it's also about the raw fun that these games facilitate. Pat's been talking about running a sandbox game for a while, and I'm definitely down. I have this image of a larger than life paladin burned into the back of my brain, and I want to play him dammit! But there must be some issues with this style of play too, right?

The main issue that I worry about is that such a game won't keep my attention for too long. My chronic gaming ADD aside, sandbox play tends towards the modular - visit the wizards tower here, clear the caves of chaos there. Level up. Like Pat said, sandbox play thrives on taking one's time in long journeys across a land. In practice, this means random encounters and a slew of events unconnected to a larger arc or to the characters. Instead of enjoying wandering around the sandbox, I worry about getting mired in portions of it.

I never played Grand Theft Auto before GTA IV. I expected the best when I shelled out 60 big ones for it. But despite its popularity, I really don't like it. The car chases are fun and the city's big as hell, but I just get bored trying to explore every nook and cranny of the city. There's just so much to do that doesn't matter. I'm impressed by the scope of the world, but once my awe fades, boredom kicks in.

So, I love the idea of sandbox games, and I don't know what the ultimate solution is. But it has something to do with the GM managing to highlight plot and character and those themes that connect game sessions while still managing to bring out the glory of the scope and detail of the world. Sounds like, well, just good gaming to me.

Taking the long way home

In the last couple of days, Joshua over at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers has offered up a couple posts about sandbox-style roleplaying that bear repeating. Today's entry in particular hit on a key theme.
In Sandbox play, it’s important not to gloss over travel with “And three weeks later, you arrive at the gates of Port Autumn.” If you do that, you’re robbing the game of one of the chief features of Sandbox play, the chance to interact with all the tiny details that make up the texture of the world.
Or, to put it another way: The party doesn't move at the Speed of Plot. Rather, the plot moves at the speed of the characters. Which is something like 6 miles per hour on foot, barring injury. Heh.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cheating — in a pen-and-paper RPG? For real?

I ran across an offhanded reference recently to cheating in RPGs that stopped me dead in my tracks.

Cheating? In a pen-and-paper RPG? For realz? This is only, like, the complete antithesis of roleplaying itself.

I’m not talking about GMs fudging a few numbers here and there. That’s part of the social buy-in that we all sign up for at the outset of the game. No, I’m talking about a player changing the damage bonus on his sword, or neglecting to keep track of ammo in games where that matters, or “misremembering” his toughness save during the heat of the battle. Does this stuff happen?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

West Marches via Savage Worlds?

If I ever get around to sketching out my West Marches-style sandbox fantasy game, I’ll probably run it using Savage Worlds. When it comes to crunch, Savage Worlds and D&D 3.X are about the same (despite SW’s claims to the contrary). But for my money, SW is so much more fun, what with its exploding dice and playing cards and hyper-intuitive character generation. Plus, with the $10 Explorer's Edition, it's cheap and easy to equip your group.

My enthusiasm for running a character-driven sandbox game got a big boost this weekend, when I got my hands on the Savage Worlds Fantasy Bestiary Toolkit and the free 11-page PDF preview of Goodman Games’ Points of Light. Really, that 11-page preview is about as much as I need right now; it includes a detailed hex map and several dozen three-sentence entries for various map denizens. Combine that with a handful of critters from the Bestiary and the game pretty much writes itself. Which is the point, of course: the GM shouldn’t be doing much planning. Rather, the players should be driving the game forward by looking at the vast, empty, unpopulated map and making decisions as to where to go and what to explore.

I’m thinking I could get somewhere between 6 and 10 players to make characters for this game, then I’d run a session whenever any combination of three or more of them could get together.

Anyone else tinkering with a West Marches-type game right now?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Importance of Robust Settings...Or Not

Over the past couple years, I've played (or at least read) several games with varying levels of setting detail. Games like Planescape, L5R, and Mutants & Masterminds are chock full of detail that the players and GM can devour. Games like Burning Wheel and Wild Talents...not so much. With these latter games, I've generally created the setting during the first session (or over email) with the other players in the group. So the natural question is: Which way is better?

The games with robust settings have a lot going for them. They significantly decrease the work load for the GM, which from experience, can be a huge boon to maintaining an ongoing game. Given that a lot of players have tendencies toward the bad-ass Wolverine type player (brooding loner), settings give every player something shared, especially if they are encouraged to dive into the setting at the onset of the game and connect their characters to it in some way. Some players also love reading through the setting and figuring out where their characters fit in it. One of my fellow players loves the Mutants & Masterminds setting and gets jazzed whenever a familiar but unused face shows up. Also, robust settings can really help explain the tone of a game with an unfamiliar world, like Dark Heresy or L5R, to players.

But these types of huge settings can sometimes lead to problems. Even if warned that the GM has license to pick and choose, players can get upset when the setting isn't precisely translated in game. When I GM, I often feel that a well described setting is more constraining than enabling. I like the ability to flesh out the setting as the story demands - in a Wild Talents game I'm GMing right now, I've changed various setting elements on the fly that seemed hardwired in to me when each session started (like the underlying physics of the universe after our resident scientist, Dr. Epistemic, investigated the origin of a rift in space). And I think that players have more buy in from the outset if they've actually had a hand in creating the setting themselves.

In the end, I favor less setting rather than more. But as with all things rpg-related, it all seems to come back to the makeup of each group. Go with what your group needs to give you the best possible game.

Bringing the party together: the odd-man-out approach

As GMs, we’ve all spent countless hours trying to devise clever ways to bring the party together at the start of the game. Characters are individuals by nature, and even if you foist some story framework onto them — they’re all from the same village, for example, or they’re the children of a well-known noble — there’s still a good chance the first session will revolve around the characters sizing each other up, forging alliances and generally exchanging basic game information. Sometimes this is a great avenue for storytelling, but other times you just want to the get the story moving!

I had an idea recently that I’ll call the “Odd Man Out” model. In this scenario, all the characters are connected in a simple, convenient way — except for one PC, an outsider who sticks out like a sore thumb. With this setup, it’s possible to co-opt players’ suspicious tendencies by casting one particular character as an obvious interloper.

For that one outsider character (who should be [a] a volunteer and [b] one of the more experienced roleplayers in the group) the first session will be spent explaining himself, integrating himself into the group and leaking important game information (via the GM) to the players. For the other players, they’ll instantly be able to bond over this outsider. They are on one side of the story; he is on the other. Oh sure, they’ll probably be suspicious — but not of each other. What’s more, as they introduce themselves to the new character, they’ll inevitably divulge important details about their own characters — info the players themselves almost certainly don’t know, but must needs share to kick-start the game’s common narrative.

Granted, there’s no guarantee that the game will go down this way, but it’s certainly an interesting thought experiment for GMs to mull over.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Social codes and caste systems: Looking back at L5R

Last fall, my group took a break from our current campaign and played through a three-game arc from Legend of the Five Rings. It was my first time dabbling in L5R, a game I’ve resisted mightily due to my general disinterest in Asian-themed gaming and pop culture.

It proved to be a terrific experience and a high-water mark for me in terms of game immersion. I was initially put off by the rigid structure of L5R’s playstyle, with its emphasis on clan traditions and social codes. About 20 minutes into the character generation, however, I realized that (after months spent playing a free-form superhero RPG) I actually craved a little direction for my character.

It’s fun to create a brand-new character with an innovative worldview, but sometimes you want to feel part of something more. That was L5R for me — I felt like my character instantly stepped into a complex society and became a part of it. I spent less than an hour flipping through the rulebook, but I got a solid handle on the game and setting. My samurai had an extended family and a ready-made place in Rokugan. I wasn’t being pigeonholed; rather, the game made me feel like I was stepping up, ready to draw upon a rich clan legacy and take my rightful place in history.

What’s more, the emphasis on custom and clan expectations really served to homogenize our group of players, who come from a fairly wide variety of gaming backgrounds. L5R’s clan setup ensured that no matter how we crafted our characters, they’d all be bound by the same sense of honor and duty that drove samurai of old.

Where’s this post going? Well, earlier this week I got my hands on a copy of Legend of the Five Rings — the second edition, I think, but the price was right. So although I’ve not played L5R since that three-session arc last year, there may yet be room for one more Rokugan visit in the future.

Photos from Warmachine night at Black Sun Games

Here's photographic proof from the first Warmachine night at Black Sun Games. These were taken with my Sony Ericsson W580i WHT...light was a little dim, but you get the gist of the game.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Let's hear it for low-level PCs

For our Wild Talents game, our group consciously decided to reach for the stars and play ultra-high-level characters: trade envoys, planetary ambassadors, billionaire playboys and super-scientists. Good stuff, yes, but it's got me thinking about the other end of the spectrum, the low-level characters who have to scramble for every gold piece and make hard decisions about whether or not to leave the two-handed broadsword back at camp because it might put them over their carry capacity.

Part of the fun of low-level roleplaying is that little successes are amplified a hundredfold in the scope of the game -- and what's more, players tend to shoehorn these minor victories into the campaign itself, with admirable results. Bob over at The Dice Bag puts it nicely.

That was until the 3rd or 4th session we played. We’d picked up a mission in The Yawning Portal to help out some local merchants who were being pushed out of the market after refusing to pay protection money to a local gang. After a few hours of gaming we came across a building that used to be a brewery that just happened to be where the gang had set up shop. After a rather successful battle I came up with a bright idea to use the equipment to make up some homebrew. It certainly wasn’t easy to set up but within a few levels I had a rather successful business venture going on.
Dude started brewing up his own dwarven grog with little more than a throwaway skill and a generous DM. It doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Warmachine night at Black Sun Games

Tonight I’ll head up to Black Sun Games for my first Warmachine game since the store opened last month. I’ve enjoyed Warmachine for about four years, but support for the game in Chicago has been centered around Games Plus, a decent game shop in far-flung Mt. Prospect. It’s quite a haul, considering Chicagoland’s abyssmal traffic, and I just can’t get enthusiastic about driving out there. All that’s changed, though, with the advent of BSG; it’s a 10-minute drive from my place, and I can bike there on days when I’m not lugging miniatures and rulebooks.

Tonight I’m trying in earnest to get a Warmachine community started at BSG. As I’ve mentioned before, they seem to be doing everything right to nurture a thriving game shop in Chicago proper. I’m glad to have a part to play in that effort.

Interested in meeting up? Chime in on BSG’s newfangled Web forums!