Sunday, December 27, 2009

Against the In-laws (uh, I mean, Giants)

So, I'm hanging out at the in-laws place for the holidays, across the country from home, and my brother-in-law (let's call him Pear Bear) asks me if we can play D&D. Wow. I've taken crap from my in-laws for so long for my geek habits, and now, after some bonding over a skiing trip, he's ready to get down. He had never played before. We gather my other brother-in-law, who's played with my geek buddies once before in Chicago (let's call him Fartin Martin), and my 78 year old Dad (who's also in town, never played before, but has seen my play since I was wee).

I had just DM'd Against the Giants the night before I left town, and I had sufficient equipment with me to rock the game again. And rock it we did.

After using some pregenerated characters and a *very* brief explanation of their stats and items, we started the scenario. Against the Giants is a classic D&D module that kicks off a series of modules, and it's very "old school." Pear Bear, Fartin Martin, and Dad started at a cave entrance overlooking the Steading of the Hill Giants. They were basically supposed to check it out. After I described the scene, they automatically slipped into classic D&D mode without any prodding: Bickering over plan of attack. This lasted for at least 25 minutes. Persuaded by some of Dad's military tactics (he was in the army back in the day), they decided to let Pear Bear (the thief) skulk around to gather intelligence. He successfully did so, and upon returning, the group decided to have Pear Bear set a diversion with a fire to let the group sneak in. And somehow work in a pincer movement to trap the giants. Shit quickly hit the fan as Pear Bear climbed a wall, terribly missed a pack of dire wolves 4 times with flasks of flaming oil, and was then spotted. Pear Bear eventually used some dust of disappearance on himself, snuck around the other side, and opened the back door.

By the time we quit for dinner, giants and dire wolves were swarming everywhere. Pear Bear was still invisible but retreating. Dad was getting his butt handed to him by a horde of hill giants (especially after I rolled a couple crits), and Fartin Martin was levitating 25 feet up in the air and blasting down spells but pretty trapped.

The final reaction: Dad was completely engaged by the planning but bored by combat (and fell asleep in front of the tv shortly thereafter). Fartin Martin had fun, but longed for the fast insanity and character-based decisions that he experienced before with my buddies (we played a fast indie game called Cold City, which is about monster hunting in creepy post-war Berlin). And Pear Bear was hooked. I mean completely hooked. He couldn't stop talking about it. He desperately wants to finish the scenario, and he told me to bring my dice to our football fest tomorrow (which isn't happening, because the Eagles are playing a big game across the Broncos. Go Birds!!!!). So, he's now trying to schedule some time for Friday. And he even started talking about the possibilities of gaming in, say, a 30 story building with aliens.

Wow. I mean, Pear Bear is one of the most grounded people I know. It was pretty cool to be part of such a quick conversion. If we get a second game in, I'll keep you updated.

And I'll definitely post a picture that Pear Bear's wife took of gaming. Good times.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gaming a Villainous Bank Robbery

For many moons now, I've had the idea floating in the back of my head to play criminals engaging in a down and dirty bank robbery. As of late, our gaming has been somewhat sporadic, and due to player flux, we've been playing a handful of short, random games instead of our Savage Worlds fantasy campaign. Perhaps the time is now right to put the villainous bank robbery game into action.

The question now is: What setting or existing content (if any) and system should I use?

My first thought is to use the system A Dirty World, which has some neat little mechanics to model Film Noir. I picked this game up at GenCon a couple years ago, and it's just been sitting on my bookshelf. As Greg Stolze, the author of the game, explains:

"Your ability to get things done fluctuates depending on your mood and circumstances. Instead of a series of temporary modifiers, everything is in play all the time. If you want to retain your purity and courage, you have to work for them. If your character undergoes experiences that are going to turn him into a rat bastard, he gets rat bastard abilities whether the player wants them or not. The result is a game where character is always critical, because explaining your character's reactions to events is what builds his ability to change events. His struggles and discoveries impact your character directly. Drama and mechanics fuse."

That sounds pretty cool. But I'm still left at a loss for how to structure a game focused on a bank robbery, and because I don't want to devote the time to build a one-shot from scratch, I'd love some great published materials (in any system) as at least a starting point.

Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Player Skill vs. Character Skill and the Case of Social Encounters

All around the rpg blogosphere, I see the debate focusing on player skill vs. character skill. Games focused on player skill are often associated with old school games - players are encouraged to make the decisions that really matter, and what's on the character sheet is de-emphasized (except for traditional mechanics like spells and combat prowess). Games focused on character skill are associated with newer games - players can have their characters do wonky things, and the stats on the characters' sheet may allow for a pretty good chance of success. We've played both kinds of games recently, such as AD&D 1e (arguably player skill focused) and Spirit of the Century (arguably character skill focused). I tend to find games that focus on character skill more fun because they encourage the insanity, and I just love my insanity in rpgs. But I understand the allure of games focused more heavily on player skill as well.

Having just traveled to California for the holidays with the inlaws (in particular a place called Temecula that is in the desert sorta between San Diego and LA, and centered around a gargantuan mall), I've heard a lot of "Yo, dude!" in the past few days. This got me thinking, strangely enough, about the player vs. character skill debate as it specifically applies to social situations in rpgs. Because there are few mechanics for social interaction in old school games, player persuasiveness usually drives what happens in these games (use Charisma, never!). In newer games, there may be a variety of stats that address social situation, and these may carry the day with a couple die rolls.

Given this distinction, it strikes me that social encounters in rpgs exacerbate the problems that I have with games focused on player skill.

If I don't have to be good with a battle axe in real life to be a mega-damage destructo Dwarf fighter, why should I need to have good social skills in order to be a charismatic Paladin who can convert all forms of life and sway them to my cause? Why the asymmetry? Is it because we perceive physical skills to be harder to pick up than verbal ones? Given the population of folks I've gamed with and worked with over my life, I feel confident that this isn't the case. The ones with heavy verbal acuity are often heavily trained and versed in their subject area. And the gaming crowd doesn't have a tendency to be easy on the social ears.

So, is there a solution for this problem? A way to save the player skill focused game during social encounters? Here's my off the cuff solution:

Encourage players to explicitly use tactics in social situations and not just combat situations. There are several rhetorical moves and ways to structure persuasive arguments, and some are more or less effective given the social situation. If the player plays this tactical game well even though the player may stumble and mumble and show lots of butt crack, the GM in the player skill game should be more lenient. Though, we now face the problem of figuring out what strong tactics are and how we could be explicit about them.

Some games, like Burning Wheel (and allegedly A Song of Ice and Fire) address this problem - they list a variety of rhetorical moves, and they have explicit mechanics for social combat that play these tactics against each other. This seems better to may than simply saying, "Yeah, smart guy, whatever you say. Now make a diplomacy check." But as I've found, these mechanics can sometimes be unwieldy. They're almost too clever and involved for their own good.

This all makes me wonder if there's a mechanic out there floating out there in Platonic rpg space that can synthesize the old school and new school approach around the use of social tactics. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Check out Ben's homemade DM screen!

After an extended diaspora, we got the (gaming) band back together last night to play Against the Giants. It turned into a big ol' brawl in the stone giants' mead hall, and we ended up with a pyrrhic victory (literally). The highlight of the game was certainly Ben's homemade AD&D DM screen, complete with wacky illustrations and woe-to-ye-adventurers proclamations.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Song of Ice and Fire at first glance

A blog reader asked for a more substantive rundown of A Song of Ice and Fire—which I played last weekend at my local game store—and I'm more than happy to oblige.

Here's the game in a nutshell: It can be played like a typical D&D game, where you adventure around the lands of George R.R. Martin's Seven Kingdoms, defeating robbers, wenching at taverns, etc—but that's not really what the game was designed for.

Rather, the quintessential ASOIAF game is one that mimics the progression of Martin's voluminous book series of the same name: the players create a noble house complete with a coat of arms, a house motto and a physical castle somewhere within the Seven Kingdoms. This house gets a character sheet all its own, detailing defences, land holdings, population, geography, natural resources and more. None of these factors are very high, because the game assumes you're playing a "starting" house that's just begun to ascend in terms of influence in the kingdom.

Only when the noble house has been completed does the actual character creation begin. Players generally make characters based on specific roles in the great house: the lord's son and heir, the hard-bitten tracker, the master of the castle's hound kennels, the brash knight, the shieldmaiden, etc. Crunch-wise, the characters are your typical modern fantasy archetypes, with skills and specializations and feat-like capabilities. I was never a min/maxer, so this segment of the game is lost on me—I just speed through it so I can get to the actual playing.

In ASOIAF, the characters' house is just as important as any other character. It is its own character. Everything the players do—defeating armies in the field or scheming in the royal court—has mechanical effects on the house and its stats. Characters can choose to invest their XP and their riches into their house, granting tangible improvements to various values, or they can keep their rewards and use them to improve their individual characters.

Moreover, since the characters are all integral players in their house, they call upon the house's resources at any time—but they should do so wisely, lest they squander them. In the game I played at my local game store, we were asked to head north and sort out a squabble between three minor estates. If this had been a typical game, we would have gathered our longswords and bows, mounted up on our horses and set off. Since it was ASOIAF, we mustered several hundred foot troops and some mounted knights and marched north en force. When we encountered raiders, we used the game's straightforward mass battle system to deal with the whole combat in maybe 30 minutes flat.

The game has a "social combat" system called Intrigues that is very similar in spirit to Burning Wheel. Characters can use social maneuvers to duel with friends and foes, hoping to gain the (verbal) upper hand and thus win the encounter. It's a bit crunchy for me, but I'm glad it's there, as you can really make characters to excel at this sort of play.

All of this works together to make the game feel very epic. I mean, I can say stuff like "OK, my character wants to scout ahead. I'll take 20 hand-picked horsemen with me" or "Well, I can't pay that retainer fee right now, but how about I offer to marry my house's firstborn daughter to your lord's heir?" I mean, that stuff is straight out of the books!

Here's the post-game writeup I posted on the game store's forum. I daresay it sounds like an excerpt from the books!

Anders Estermont, the third son of the Lord of Estermont, arrived at House Blacksun to deliver a request from his father, who rules from Greenstone Castle off the eastern shore of the stormlands. Three banner houses had fallen to squabbling with each other, and Lord Estermont beseeched the Bastard of Blacksun and his retinue to march north and set the matter to rights. Anders, for his part, was delivered as a ward to House Blacksun in an effort to forge a lasting friendship between the two houses.

Kerrick Sand, Ser Alric, Maester Dorian and Anders Estermont gathered the greater part of their infantry and horsemen and set off, marching overland for several days. They encountered evidence of wilding raids: burning farms, scattered lifestock and slaughtered smallfolk. They eventually arrived at a small town and met with Lord Tarbor (sp?), who commands the lands and owes fealty to a larger house to the north. After an attempted poisoning and a wildling ambush in the forest, the party figured out that Lord Tarbor's liege lord was dead, and that his sister had rallied the region's smallfolk in a bid to seize power. Even now she plotted her brother's downfall, no doubt, from some squallid hovel deep in the woodlands. Tarbor, however, was little better; he ruled with an iron fist and routinely terrorized his own serfs to ensure their loyalty.

Faced with the potential of a localized peasant uprising, the House Blacksun contingent mustered their resources and weighed their options carefully....

So all in all, it was a good start to the game. And it was very fun to actually roleplay alongside the storied characters and locations from Martin's books. The GM isn't as familiar with the source material as the players, so I forsee that becoming a problem at some point in the future as we increase our influence. But for now it's a fun counterpoint to the much more plodding progress of traditional RPGs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Scripted Adventures and Old School Sandboxes: Not So Different

Common rpg blogosphere wisdom says that heavily scripted adventures are the antithesis of the old school sandbox. In scripted adventures, characters are essentially railroaded from scene to scene and battle to battle, while characters in sandboxes can do anything they want and go anywhere their abilities allow, so long as the pre-existing design of the sandbox allows it. In scripted adventures, change in the world is predetermined by the writer, while change organically occurs in a sandbox as a result of characters' actions.

Gameplay of both scripted modules and old school sandboxes, in addition to some story-driven indie games, over the past few years have convinced me that this is a false distinction.

Last night, we played Death Frost Doom - a seemingly old school sandbox dungeon in many respects that is built for use with a D&D retroclone. The writer, James Raggi IV, exhorted the DM in the intro to be fair according to the way the dungeon was set up and let the characters face the consequences of their actions. The problem was, the dungeon was set up in such a way that the odds were stacked heavily against the characters, and the scenario was generally set up in such a way that there was one very likely conclusion. Indeed, a quick perusal of actual play reviews reveals that many others hit this conclusion upon playing it.

In other words, this "old school" scenario was set up in such a way that the characters were physically free to do what they wanted, but only in the narrow confines of a fairly small physical area. I think there are several ways that Death Frost Doom differs from traditional old school sandboxes, but this aspect remains right on. Given these narrow confines, the characters acted in fairly predictable ways.

On the other hand, we've been playing a heavily scripted Planescape module (Dead Gods) on and off for a while. The scope is epic and crosses several planes. There's a heavy meta-plot built into it. But given some meaty story hooks in addition to just physical ones and the simple lure of treasure, players have made some very unpredictable and wacky decisions around the back story. Needless to say, I've had to heavily modify the module on the fly. In essence, the module has become more of a sandbox than not. And in ways that I never could've predicted in advance.

We've played other more story-driven games more recently as well - like Fading Suns using the Spirit of the Century (SoTC) system. Fading Suns has a crazy amount of source material, and SoTC has mechanics based around story-like attributes of characters, like Haughty Noble (or whatever else one comes up with). Using these mechanics has allowed for unpredictable and organically driven play as well, in ways that just don't emerge in the traditional sandbox.

When I look at all these types of games together as a GM, a conclusion starts to emerge for me: There are lots of ways to allow characters free reign and meaningful choices. Sometimes, an open physical environment works. Sometimes, GM or module-provided story hooks can provoke unpredictable choices that require GM responsiveness and flexibility. Sometimes, explicitly written character traits can serve the same goal. These are all just different tools that the GM and players can bring to bear. Including such tools in game content or game mechanics simply emphasizes and reinforces that aspect of the game. As a GM, I try to select the right tool at the right time because it's not just the content of the module or sandbox that matters; it's also the group, with all their strengths, weaknesses, and mood shifts. It's all about using just the right tool and bringing the cool at just the right time.

And that's really the bottom line for me. I'm not so concerned about remaining true to source material I may have prepped 3 hours before a game as much as providing interesting and fun situations for my players to which I need to respond flexibly. Sometimes, these situations are hard to manage, because a truly open world, with a range of story and character hooks AND mechanics can end up about anywhere. (This is actually my biggest weakness as a GM - that I end up putting myself in situations that are too unpredictable and tough to manage on the fly.)

But it just goes to show: Sometimes the sandbox feels scripted and the script wide open.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dying a Cold Death with Death Frost Doom and the Old School Plus

Four of us played Death Frost Doom (DFD) a couple hours ago on a snowy night in Chicago. It was either that, or continue a long dormant Planescape campaign. But I downloaded DFD today, and it seemed fitting, so we went with it as a one shot.

As with some others who have discussed DFD, I won't review it in whole (though I will include some SPOILER details), because others such as Grognardia have done this well. But I will give some overall impressions and some broader thoughts about Old School Gaming (or whatever).

Bottom line: DFD was fine. But the hanging out with friends was the best part, and I think we should've resurrected our Planescape campaign instead.

DFD is very atmospheric - it's a creepy, location based scenario at a shrine with no active monsters and a bunch of ways for PCs to hurt themselves if they do the wrong things at places like water basins. There are a lot of old, creepy rooms with things like dried blood, torture instruments, and endless crypts. There are a lot of weird magical things, like a cuckoo clock that warps time. Again, there are lots and lots of crypts. And there's a way to make all the corpses in the crypts wake up. This is an endless horde of undead that pc's will likely run from or get killed by eventually.

One character (out of 6, because the 3 players had 2 characters each) escaped after waking up the horde of the dead. This was only because all the 5 surviving characters that ran from a zombie horde locked a door to a creepy chapel and snorted trippy purple dust that they found way earlier. One of the characters went deaf. Another went blind. The one that was best off rolled a 70 on a huge percentile table and was "Safe from Harm!"

In the end, there was a lot of wandering around empty, weird, creepy rooms. And frantic running at the end from a zombie horde and then through a horde of ghouls. There was little for the PCs to figure out, and the scenario naturally ran toward what strongly seems is this intended conclusion. The one where the undead horde spreads out over the fantasy globe causing DOOM! Except to the tripped out magic user who was Safe from Harm!

I think we all felt disappointed. I rate my GMing as average at best, but conjuring up a creepy atmosphere certainly doesn't play to my strengths (for example, I tend to laugh with my players a lot about stupid RPG stuff, like when the Halfling found a ring that turned her invisible). We especially laughed about how the randomly generated characters were all female except for the Dwarf. Because we're all guys and haven't gamed with females for a while. Probably like most of you reading this.

The players were frustrated that there wasn't much for them to do (I found myself saying a lot of things like "ok, you bash the cuckoo clock"). And then they died because of an event that didn't absolutely need to happen if the players didn't trigger it. But c'mon, the scenario seriously pushed the characters in that direction.

So, is this Old School Gaming, as many seem to perceive it to be? My first impression is NO: It has many trapping of the old school. There's a sandboxy dungeon, and players aren't forced to do anything. But there is a one big story trigger looming over the whole thing. I generally like "story" in my games, but I like it when character decisions are much more meaningful - when the odds aren't so heavily stacked to trigger one event, and where there isn't such an emphasis on DMing as just atmosphere for a couple hours - I really like the unpredictability of character decisions that have impact in a more wide open area.

Maybe DFD is Old School Plus. Old School on steroids, where the decision to explore a dungeon for an evening is stupid in itself. Because you're probably going to die in one of the fairly limited ways the writer intends, and perhaps exactly the way the writer sets up as by falling on, by far, the most impressive and overwhelming chopping block. I don't know. But I'm kind of disappointed. I read so much about this scenario on the blogosphere and there is some legitimate excitement. Maybe I just couldn't bring the scenario to life. There's definitely truth to this, and it is a well written book with lots of creepy content.

But I also think the scenario just wasn't right for our group. Which is ironic, given that we've been playing through the Planescape module Dead Gods (a wacky and heavily scripted adventure that I've really had to alter significantly on the fly due to player decisions). DFD is supposed to be wide open. But even compared to scripted modules, it feels surprisingly narrow.

So, Death Frost Doom is good fun for an evening. It got us together around the table on a snowy night that 4 people couldn't get to. But DFD is just not set up to enable player choice or impact in a way that I think was very meaningful to any of us.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Getting down to (gaming) business

I joined a new campaign at my local gaming store this weekend; we're playing A Song of Ice and Fire, the RPG of George R. R. Martin's Westeros fantasy setting. And even though we played for barely 2.5 hours, it was a substantive session—we got more done in 2.5 hours than my current group gets done in 5 hours.

Paradoxically, one reason why we got so much done is because none of us are friends. I mean, we're jovial and polite around the table, but we don't gossip about girlfriends or the latest movie we just saw, and we don't go off on crazy tangents about unrelated stuff. Now, these things are the staples of many a game group, and truth be told I wouldn't want to go without them—but this session was a really interesting glimpse at what can get done when the group focuses solely on the task of gaming.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The D&D Endgame is a Game of Thrones

Think about it: the PCs have made 20th level, scoured the realm of humanoids and bestials, opened the frontier up to trade, established strongholds, invested their treasure, sired a few heirs...what's left but the complex intrigues that fuel George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire? The endgame of D&D and other fantasy games is the beginning of an entirely new game...the game of thrones.

Yes, a couple weeks ago I made the mistake of pulling my own battered copy of Martin's "A Feast For Crows" off the shelf. Now I'm once again helplessly embroiled in Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms that form the basis of the series' tales. I spent today scouring Wikipedia, reading up on Robert's Rebellion and the Targaryen dynasty when I should have been working.

Being back in Westeros once again has got me thinking about how to properly render Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire as an RPG. Earlier this year Green Ronin's iteration of the game came out. I don't have that, but I do have a copy of Guardians of Order's seminal book--the first and sadly last that they were able to publish before folding.

A proper Game of Thrones game, to me, would see the player as characters at the zenith of power in a typical D&D game--commanding a medium-sized household, perhaps, and strong enough to make alliances with similar lords. Then, of course, the machinations of power and intrigue, coupled with the highly volatile nature of Martin's Seven Kingdoms, would present successive scenarios to drive the game forward. In this sort of game, the gamemaster has a lot more to do, since he must be actively pursuing the agendas of many powerful NPCs. Sometimes these agendas will be at odds with the PCs and their burgeoning fiefdoms; other times they'll be allied.

I could see this playing out a lot like Birthright: players make long-terms decisions that might take weeks or months or years to bear fruit. Thus the game must be very farsighted in nature. The GM shouldn't hesitate to say things like, "OK, so that's where we stand. Three months pass, now what do you do?"

Anyway, I'm just starting to think about A Song of Ice and Fire. There's a group that's running an irregular campaign over at my local game store; from reading their Web forum, it sounds like they're playing it similarly to how I'd play it. I'll probably sit in on a session or two and see how it feels. Honestly, I'd rather be a player at this point. Taking the reins as GM of a world like Westeros is a tall order indeed.