Friday, July 31, 2009

Gaming and music: Firing on all cylinders

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Savage Worlds fantasy sandbox, session 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 24, 2009

The doom of us all

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2009

Speaking truth to power

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nobody's ever done me any (gaming) favors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Character Levels and the Sweet Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blitzkrieg Commander: Breakthrough on the Dnieper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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