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.