Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Escaping the Railroad

Over at the Alexandrian is a new article about the long-term effects of railroading on players and GMs of RPGs. It’s largely about the frustrations of trying to run an open-ended campaign based on conflicts for players who are conditioned to look for and ride the plot-train.

I’ve long considered the way I run D&D to be non-standard. My experiences in campaigns run by others have largely been of the sort where the DM preps a dungeon, the players go to that dungeon, they go through the front door, they clear out a few rooms, they retreat, rest up, then go back in. The dungeon does not react much to the PCs incursions, nor does the wider world. It’s fun, popcorn gaming and I know folks enjoy it. I like it every now and then, but it’s generally not what I’m looking for in an RPG.

So when an experienced player shows up at my table for the first time, I assume that even if they do understand intellectually what I mean when I talk about sandbox-style play, once the dice hit the table they are likely to default to old habits. So I throw a blatant choice in their path and I openly discuss the consequences of the potential choices.

Sometimes I’m pretty overt about this. I’ll have a conversation with the players, as the DM and with the actual living humans around the table, about what the choices are and the likely outcomes of each choice. This not only allows them to make an informed decision (and tell me, the DM, what their priorities are), it blatantly shoves in their face the reality of meaningful choice. Some folks still won’t get it, end up frustrated and give up. Which is fine; my games are not for everyone. But eventually most players come to expect this sort of decision gate and start looking for it everywhere.

When I can, I prefer to have this conversation in-game, in order to preserve the immersion. I call this NPC arguments, and my players frequently call it “Brian has a conversation with himself.” Generally, two or three NPCs (adding four or more often makes things too confusing to follow) will argue about the choices the PCs face. Each will champion a different choice, and will point out the potential pitfalls and opportunity-costs of going with their rival’s preferred option. And then, to make it blatant, one will turn to the PCs and say something along the lines of, “Well, what are you gonna do?”

Keep in mind, these are sandboxy scenarios, so while I’m presenting two or three choices, those are never the only options. And nerds being nerds, they’re going to want to Picard these scenarios and find a better plan that mitigates the bad (or, at least, pushes all the bad on people they don’t like). And I’m totally cool with that, because, as I said: sandboxy. If the players want to Yojimbo between the Castellan and the Caves of Chaos, I’m totally down for that. Whether their motivation is a thirst for freedom, a desire to screw with me, or just because it sounds like more fun, I can roll with those punches. Especially if they’re creating their own option because it sounds like more fun!

Art by Jim Roslof.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Lost and Wandering Vagrant Queen

The opening scene of Vagrant Queen is a God-awful mess. It’s supposed to invoke the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy (itself attempting to invoke the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark). But we don’t get any cool, imaginative dungeon-delving and trap-thwarting. Instead, we see our heroine dismember and toy with a pair of would-be robbers before brutally shooting them both in the head.


Listen, I get it; they wanted to show us our main character being a badass survivor. The problem is, she comes off looking cruel. Trying to leaven that cruelty with some post-modern banter would have been cool and edgy in the ‘90s. Now it feels de rigueur and forced.

A lot of this show feels de rigueur and forced.

Take Isaac. He’s supposed to be a loveable manchild a la Starlord. But without Starlord’s competence, because that would threaten the status of resident-badass not-a-queen Elida. So he’s a stupid, not-a-badass manchild. So what makes him loveable?

Er… he’s from Canada?

The show really doesn’t know what to do with Isaac. In the opening of episode 2, much is made of his inability to hit what he’s shooting at. By the end of the episode, he’s sniping baddies through the brainpan with his pistol. He’s all over the place. He’s a jerk from Elida’s past, only he’s sweet (kinda sometimes), he’s stupid and inept except where the script needs him to actually hit what he’s shooting at. Since they don’t even try to justify the mad swings, it just comes off is disjointed, messy, and distancing. He’s clearly intended to be comic relief, but the show doesn’t need him for that because the baddies are all comic relief (even when they’re supposed to threatening). So he’s basically reduced to needing to be rescued and providing the (again) de rigueur post-modern pop culture references.

The heart of the show (and by far the most interesting character) is Amae the mechanic, who wears her heart on her sleeve, believes strongly in the Power of Friendship (and a good plan) and risks her life to do the right thing with barely any hesitation at all. She’s your classic Alan Dean Foster hero and the show really wants to be about her, but its not, so it feels horribly unabalanced.

But it can’t be about Amae because the principle hero is supposed to be Elida. But she’s really, really hard to invest in. When she finally does “save the cat,” about halfway through the first episode, it feels, once again, de rigueur. Her principle virtue is loyalty to a fault. Kinda. Because she feels absolutely zero loyalty to the partisans of her conquered homeworld. I mean, I kinda get it, but it comes off as very selective and even kinda selfish.

It’s just clumsy and poorly written. And before we even get to that point, we see Elida torture-murder a pair of scavengers who, admittedly, were going to rob her and leave her stranded, but they were clearly not going to murder her. (It doesn’t help that their bumbling comic-relief shtick and the ease with which Elida dispatches them completely undercuts any sense of threat that might have justified her cold-blooded reaction.) And then we see her putting up with getting ripped off by the buyer for the thingus she’d been scavenging.

And I get it. We’re supposed to empathize with her plight. But that’s not easy to do. This works for Rey in The Force Awakens because Rey is clearly trapped on a dying world on the ass-end of the galaxy. She has to take the buyer’s quarter-portions of food because she’s got no choice.

But Elida has a starship. And it’s made clear she’s been cheated by this asshole before. So why is she still doing business with him? Why didn’t she fly somewhere else to sell her salvage?

That level of worldbuilding is something the show can’t be bothered with. There’s a lot of WTF worldbuilding in this show. Like the way no spaceships have weapons. I’m serious. Not only do we never see a weapon fired from a spaceship, there are at least two situations where our big bad evil Space Navy guys could easily destroy Elida by shooting her out of space, but they don’t. So we can only assume they don’t have guns on their ships. Which is so very WTF.

It’s cute and silly in the way we expect a TV show starring Bruce Campbell to be. And, on that level, it’s entertaining. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer (every flashback involving Elida’s mother ends with the woman saying, “You can never have friends!”). It’s surprisingly gory. It’s internally inconsistent and soooo much happens because the plot needs it to. That said, the leads have charisma (even when their characters don’t) and the set and prop design is fun (the costumes are so generic you’ll hardly notice them but for a few stand-out outfits of the otherwise eyeroll-inspiring villain Lazaro). If they release the third episode on YouTube I’ll probably check it out to see if it gets better. Otherwise…

Sunday, March 22, 2020

If Failure isn't Interesting, Skip It!

We’ve all seen 5e DMs do it; a player asks a question and the DM reflexively asks for a skill roll. Prof DM over at the Dungeon Craft vlog says, “Don’t do it!” and wisely brings up the Garden of Eden problem. This happens when a plot or adventure can’t progress unless the PCs successfully take a particular action. (It’s called the Garden of Eden Problem because until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, nothing can progress. There’s no tension, no drama, no conflict; the happy couple remains in paradise and nothing dramatically significant happens, which is awesome for them, but sucks if you’re trying to tell an entertaining story or run a fun game.) I believe it’s Dyson Logos I’ve seen repeatedly on Facebook saying something along the lines of, “If you don’t want to accept what the dice tell you, why are you rolling the dice?” This is the flip side of what Prof. DM is saying; if you’re not willing to accept failure, why invite it by invoking random chance?

I’m going to take this a step further: if failure isn’t potentially fun, don’t bother rolling. If the players are attempting to pick a lock in a dungeon, and there’s no reason for them to rush, no chance for a wandering monster to interrupt their efforts or the dungeon’s inhabitants aren’t taking the time to lay ambushes or sneak up on them, I just say they succeed. This goes doubly so if the PCs are back in their safe base, and have uninterrupted hours to inspect and work on the lock without fear of ninja ambush or the like.

Conversely, if I can make failure interesting and the roll is otherwise unmomentous, I’ll ask the players to roll. No, I’m not rolling to see if the bard can successfully sing Scarborough Faire, but I might roll to see if someone in the audience knows it’s used by a secret rebel group that they believe is responsible for the kidnapping of their sister and so decides the PCs need to be ambushed, or possibly pointed out to the Iron Baron’s secret police. Or maybe extreme success is interesting; you might shave a few gold pieces off the price, but if you demonstrate superior haggling skills, the merchant will decide you’re the perfect spouse for her ne’er-do-well son.

And yes, this goes doubly so in combat. Most rolls are interesting in combat, succeed or fail. But there are fights that are just foregone conclusions, and there’s no chance of anyone else intervening no matter how long the matter drags out. There’s no point in suffering through the string of misses that’s just going to eat up valuable gaming time. If there’s no chance of failure being interesting, I just let the PCs succeed.

In the best fights, and the best dungeon delves, every second (or, at least, every six-second round) counts. But not every encounter or adventure pushes such exacting standards. If the most interesting thing that happens from failure is that someone else tries instead, or the PCs rest and try again, just let them succeed. If the fight’s gone on long enough, and the outcome is absolutely going to be PC success, just let them win and move on. Your game will be better for it.

Monday, March 16, 2020


I'm still alive, just dealing with some stuff that's eating up all my spare time. Hopefully I'll be through it soon; there's so much fun bloggy stuff to talk about.

In the meantime, enjoy this public service announcement.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Consider Phlebas? I'd Rather Not, Thanks.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

I’ve been hearing about Banks’ Culture novels for some time now. Whenever someone brings up neat future cultures or anthropology in sci-fi, Banks gets mentioned right along C.J. Cherryh, so I’ve been meaning to get to these for a while. I’ve also been warned that the first one, Consider Phlebas, isn’t very good. It’s Banks’ first sci-fi novel, and pales considerably next to the other books in the series. I’ve been told it’s more “Culture adjacent” rather than a true Culture novel itself. I’ve been told I can skip it.

I was told I should skip it.

I should have listened.

It starts off promising enough: a shape-shifting secret agent is chained to the wall of a dungeon after having been found out while impersonating an important member of a planet’s ruling gerontocracy. Looks like a great opening to a rollicking Planetary Romance, right?

Only the dungeon is built beneath the privies of a great feast, and he is sentenced to be drowned in the poo of those attending the feast. It’s a death as impractical as it is juvenile. Just how many people are attending this feast?

It doesn’t get any better. You’d expect the special agents of dueling star empires to ooze competence, if not a certain savoir faire (especially since one is from the magical and amazing Culture). Nope, everyone in this story is a bumbling incompetent. One character attempts to disguise themselves by doing nothing but changing their hair color. Another character nearly manages to escape. I can’t remember if that failed escape attempt results in any deaths, but nothing is done to prevent further attempts, which do lead to the death of a handful of characters.

Nearly everybody dies gruesome, ugly deaths. Even the “victor” of the novel’s events is so disgusted with the whole mess that they commit suicide.

The world building is pretty meh as well. Twice, Banks throws up his hands at attempting to explain why the characters are behaving they way they are and just blames it on religion. What these characters are doing is, in one instance, stupid, self-destructive, painful, and literally counter to basic biological instincts, but hey, it’s ok, because religion makes people that impossibly stupid. And what in the world does retirement even mean to a nigh-immortal AI living in a post-scarcity society?

The result is a long, rambly mess that feels like an attempt to write Heart of Darkness as a sci-fi novel. Yeah. It’s that bad.

I will eventually get to later Culture novels, as I’m still curious. But this one put me off my feed enough I’m going to wait a bit before I do so. Blah.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Witcher Series

I was going to call it a TV series, but since it's on Netflix is it really TV? I suppose the format is very similar.

The series is ok. I've not played the games or read the books, so it might be goring sacred cows left and right. I've watched six of the eight episodes. The tone is all over the place. Bits are so baldly comedic they feel like they were lifted from that old Wizards and Warriors TV show. Other parts have that ugly darkness you'd expect from the IP's reputation. The CGI ranges from nicely subtle to laughably bad. Ditto for the casting and for the costuming. It keeps trying to have emotional payoff without actually earning it. I fear fans are going to be horribly disappointed, but I'm enjoying it (though chiefly as fun but disposable entertainment).

Henry Cavill's a bit one-note as Geralt, but he oozes charisma. He's not nearly as interesting, however, as either Ciri or Yennefer. Though watching Yennefer flail about with sword and dagger seems a bit meh after you've seen her do all this. I mean, how the heck is Netflix supposed to top death by magical raven punching its way through someone's skull?

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Stat Blocks and Table Space

On a post from 2015, Ruprecht recently asked:

I'm curious what people think about the way the modules are handled. They just say Knight (for example) and the DM is expected to look up the Knight statblock in the back of the monster manual. This is brilliant to save space but seems less useful at the table.

This is easily one of the areas where OSR publications stomp all over WotC's stuff: ease of use at the table. An A5 size book with a good binding is easy to use and doesn't eat up nearly the table real estate that 5e's core books and adventures take up. Plus, in the best OSR stuff, the stat blocks and maps are all there on one page for you.

Compare to trying to run an official 5e adventure. You'll have the adventure itself, a big coffee-table tome with the adventure itself. And you'll be flipping back-and-forth because the maps are pages away from the keyed descriptions. And, as Ruprecht points out, you'll also want the MM with you to look up any foes the PCs might encounter.

But wait, there's more! Because you'll also need the PHB so you can look up the details on the spells everyone is going to be casting. And maybe Xanathar's as well, if someone is using stuff from that book. Luckily, you'll only need to flip back and forth in the MM if the encounter includes more than one type of monster. You'll be flipping a bit in the adventure book, and a LOT in the PHB. (Gift idea for the DM in your life: a pad of post-its they can use to mark important pages in all these books!) Which means your DM is going to be taking up twice to three-times the space of a player. Oh, wait, but we forgot about any notes the DM might have written down. Or space to roll dice!

This is extremely sub-optimal, but unlikely to change. Current RPG tastes dictate the complex stat blocks and rules, as well as the honkin' big books as the standard for AAA RPGs (and this is after WotC made a big deal about simplifying D&D).

Due to the extreme unwieldiness and generally meh contents, I've not felt the need to run one of the official adventures. But I do know people who are, and I can probably get some more info from them on how they're finding it.