Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State of the Campaign II

Waaaaay back in February of this year, I wrote a quick "State of the Campaign" post, discussing the Labyrinth Lord game I was running with OpenRPG. A lot has happened in the intervening eleven months, and while it may be a touch premature to write a year-in-review (since it's not quite 2010 yet), a critical inventory is long overdue. So here are my thoughts, not quite a year on into the campaign. Er, campaigns...

Yeah, multiple campaigns. See, when I started, one player was there every week, but for a while we had new "costar" every other session, a player who'd last a game or two, and then drop out. Such things happen, due to scheduling conflicts, tragedy, the shifting nature of life, and the fact that I run a not-quite-normal campaign that isn't a perfect fit (or even a good fit) for everyone. I don't take it personally, and so far almost everyone has been incredibly polite about it when an issue has come up.

Anyway, when a new group was coming together, the character my regular player was playing had developed in interesting ways and we were experimenting with some neat ideas that we didn't want to have deflected by bringing in new players. So that game turned into a solo campaign, the player created a second character, and now I'm running two games in the campaign in kinda-sorta parallel. That means more gaming for me, and gives the campaign a cool Westmarches vibe, with the two groups hearing about each other's exploits. Luckily, the player who is in both is awesome when it comes to keeping player and character knowledge separate. In fact, she seems to really enjoy it when her two characters learn things and fashion opinions about each other that are not quite accurate or true.

Labyrinth Lord
So far, the rules continue to deliver. The gaps have been especially useful in the solo game, where things have taken a strong social turn. Dungeon delving isn't just in the back seat to more social and cultural aspects of play; right now, it's in the trunk, with duct tape over its mouth and a blanket thrown over it. I'm certain that won't last, but the flexibility of the system is really serving us well.

Primarily, what's really working great is what Labyrinth Lord doesn't do. It doesn't dictate how romance should work, or give us mechanics for "social combat" or anything like that. It gets out of the way and allows us to RP that stuff the way we want it. So far, it's working great, and entire sessions can pass without anybody rolling any dice.

When I do need rules, Labyrinth Lord doesn't suffocate. When a character got swallowed by a chaos creature and transformed in its gullet, it was a matter of maybe an hour to create a nixie class. [Note to self: post this to the blog.] I've also completely thrown off my original, self-imposed limit of only using stuff from Labyrinth Lord and have embraced monsters and magic from the full range of D&D, from the little brown books all the way into 2e. There's some 3e stuff that might show up later, specifically from The Book of Vile Darkness, but that's going to take a bit more tweaking to get right. Best of all, I can use stuff from Taichara's Hamsterish Hoard without any tweaking at all. I'm also looking forward to including stuff from JB's Companion addition to the Moldvay/Cook line.

There are a few nits that I've been picking at, though. First, the addition of more armour classes seems unnecessary. Leather, mail and lamellar, and plate would probably serve our needs just fine. Maybe, maybe a separation between mail and lamellar. Maybe.

Also, things have been moving veeeeeeeery sloooooowly when it come to leveling up. It's taken about six months of steady, weekly play to get character from 1st to 2nd level. That seems a bit too slow to me. I'm not sure if the problem is me, or the players, or what. I need to investigate this more closely and make certain that I'm giving enough treasure. I suspect the real culprit is a lackadaisical attitude towards tracking the treasure. Everyone's having fun with the social and exploration aspects of the game, but nobody is really into tracking every coin or jade disk they lug out of the ruins. Part of me is tempted to just let things go as they have been, and let the players take a more proactive attitude about it, but I suspect that this path leads to frustration and social friction that I'd probably better head off before it becomes an issue.

The setting continues to delight and thrill me. The players seem to really enjoy it as well, and people repeatedly tell me that I have got a fun world to explore and play in. I'm not sure it's quite as flavorful as I wanted it to be, but that may be because my original conception of it was kinda out there, and it's best to let player settle slowly into the aspects of the world that are most unfamiliar, to avoid any "Tekumel-shock syndrome."

Most of the action has taken place on the island of Dreng Bdan, and that hasn't changed much yet, but I know that won't last. The solo campaign has already shifted its focus to the Elemental Planes. There are opportunities for such a shift in the group campaign right now as well, including the potential for a move into an Underground Wilderness campaign.

Efficiency and Pacing
We're still not communicating between sessions as much as I'd like us to be, and this is causing some social friction in the group game. I'm hoping we've got most of that behind us, but frankly, I suspect there are some issues in play style that will continue to trouble us off-and-on. On the one hand, these issues have interrupted valuable playing time and have flared up into open animosity between the players on occasion. On the other hand, having players with divergent styles has pushed the game in interesting directions. So far, I think it's been worth the added stress.

In-character, however, things have been awesome! One of the players is practically brand-new to RPGs and he has done an amazing job of really getting "stuck in" to the world and his character. Honestly, if you want to really improve your RP, the best thing you can do is forget how these games are "supposed to be" played and go back to that little kid who waved a stick in the air, called it a sword, and just had adventures. The magic of Labyrinth Lord is that it makes this very possible, giving us just enough to keep the world consistent and to adjudicate exactly who shot who when it becomes an issue.

In the solo game, things have really gotten to an amazing level where the RP so overshadows the rules we hardly ever roll dice much anymore. I think we're more comfortable with a level of free-form play than many, and we're wallowing in that right now. The RP in both campaigns has me really jazzed to get back to playing as soon as our short break for the holidays is over.

If there's one thing I'm not happy about, it's the state of my blogging. The honest truth is, I'm having so much fun actually playing, and prepping to play, that I haven't felt a strong desire to blog. I'm also a bit at a loss for what to blog about; the deeper down the rabbit hole both campaigns go, the harder it is to talk about them. I'm sure you've experienced something similar, where the experiences and assumptions of a campaign become so particular to that campaign, that it takes hours of back-story and explanation just to describe the simplest things. That's a triumph for any campaign, because it means you've really made the game your own. But it sucks for creating bloggable material.

I'm not sure what to do about that. I'll probably start by being less hesitant to throw up some stuff from the campaign and see what you, the readers, respond to. There was a far stronger response to the post about noble hierarchies among efreet than I was expecting. It's likely that I'm thinking too hard about what is fun and useful for you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar Review: OUCH!

"Avatar" is an incredibly lazy movie. I don't mean you'll fall asleep during it. It's got a good number of action beats and they're filmed in a competent manner. But still...

I have amazing amounts of respect for folks who make movies. I'm the sort who enjoys watching the commentaries on DVDs, and my favorites to date are those that go with the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies. Just seeing all the effort that went into the writing, filming, costuming, prop-making and management... Frankly, it was an amazing undertaking that leaves me in awe.

You don't really see that in Avatar. Ok, sure the effects and the world are amazing, but haven't we seen all this before? The critters with multiple eyes and fan-like projects that wave like palm-fronds when they are startled, the floating mountains, the combat walkers, the glow-in-the-dark plants, etc, etc... Haven't we seen all of this before in various incarnations of the Final Fantasy franchise? Sure, it looks great, but I couldn't help but feel that, as gorgeous as it all is, it felt horribly derivative.

And that's the high point of the flick. The writing is probably the nadir. I should warn you at this point that spoilers follow, but seriously, after the first five minutes you could outline the rest of the flick in perfect safety. You've seen this film a dozen times at least.

This film has a blatant "as you already know" speech in the first act. While the words "as you already know" are never spoken, it is a conversation between two people who know everything that's being said. And the coup de grace is that they word "unobtanium" is used, blatantly, to describe the mysterious super-mineral that has brought humans to the planet. At that point, it became impossible to take the movie seriously.

What follows is stuff you've all seen before. The science fiction elements exist solely to justify the tropes you expect, once you know you're watching a kiddy-fare environmentalism film: the amoral corporate geeks, the hard-ass military guys who can't wait to unleash their toys and hapless soldiers on the noble defenders of nature, and the attack of the animals that shifts the momentum of the climactic battle. It even ends with a mano-y-mano duel between our hero and the bloodthirsty colonel. At least Cameron had the writing chops to give his military maniac a plausible excuse for wanting to drop a nuke in "The Abyss." Here, the colonel's desire to kill and destroy is simply who he is. It's almost too bad he didn't have a mustache he could twirl.

Much has been said about how the blue-skinned, vaguely feline natives are pseudo-Native Americans. Even that's giving the film too much credit. These are tree-hugging noble savages from Rousseau. If you want to seen Native Americans, rent "Apocalypto" or "Dances with Wolves." What you see in Avatar is milk-toast pap that Native Americans are rightly insulted to feel attached to. It is a white man's delusions of what he wishes Native American's were, without any respect for or even knowledge of their traditions, history, or culture.

Things just get worse as the film unspools. Laziness abounds: the amazing secret of the natives is never really exploited or played with, because that would mean deviating from the model. The final battle involves a military force attacking with short-ranged weapons, in spite of being written and directed by the man who gave nerds the phrase, "Nuke 'em from orbit; it's the only way to be sure." Both sides use ground forces in the battle without a tactical explanation as to why. The infantry and ground-cavalry units on both sides seem to have no reason for their involvement beyond a bloodthirsty need to kill each other (all to a heroic but forgettable Horner soundtrack). Or hero has to be rescued in the mano-y-mano fight with the colonel because he momentarily forgets that he has arms and legs.

Lazy, lazy, lazy... Sure, fun spectacle, but of the sort that demands you turn off your brain before things begin. It's hard to not feel the effort is half-assed in a world where you can rent far better films with great spectacle, excellent writing, compelling, complex characters and far more respect for the beauty, danger, and power of the natural world such as "Princess Mononoke." That's the film Avatar should be compared to, and it's one that it can't help but look wanting next to.

AICN offers an interesting look at the science of Avatar. And I just noticed that this is my 666th post.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

For Taichara: Historical Settings

Taichara's asked for some input on what people want from an historic setting for RPGs, in her case specifically Red Box D&D. Again, I find myself pressed for time, so instead of writing something pithy and quick for her comments, y'all get a whole blog post. ;p

My chief interest is in how this setting can shake up my game. Whether I'm going to use it as a brief jaunt for a change-of-pace in an existing campaign, or the setting for an entire campaign in itself, I want to know pretty early on how this will be noticeably different (and, hopefully, better) than your bog-standard Middle Earth clone.

This really is the bedrock, from whence all the rest should flow. Who are the folks that live here? What's important to them? Where do their assumptions differ from ours?

Granted, this is the area most likely to be ignored in the heat of a game. Players often bring their cultural baggage to the table, and that's fine. But there's a good chance I'll want to let them play strangers in this strange land. So show me how these folks are different from the people I know. At the very least, let me know what they eat, what they wear, what they love, and what they fear. I'd like to know how they celebrate the stages of life, and if their ideas are different from ours on that score.

Politics would be useful as well. Who wields supreme executive power and upon what mandate? Who is likely to hire the PCs, and what are they likely to want done? Who might try to thwart the PCs? Who's in charge of maintaining law and order, and what are their methods and tools?

If you give me nothing else on their culture, I do want this. How do they measure time? What days are special to them, and how do they celebrate them?

What do the people of this setting worship and how? This is where you can really shine and be useful to the DM, since D&D generally gives you next-to-nothing on playing and adjudicating clerics. Let us know how clerics interact with the temples and the gods. What worldly and organizational resources does the cleric have to draw on? What sort of behavior is likely to get a god's nose out of joint? Does the religion of this setting necessitate changes to the clerical class, or the creation of entirely new classes?

The D&D equipment lists tend to be a bit anemic as it is. Feel free to flesh them out with all sorts of setting-specific goodies.

I'd not go on too long about weapons. Yeah, they can be cool, but D&D's combat is so vague it really can't tell the difference between a viking's broadsword and the pharaoh's khopesh. If it's important, go into metals and materials and how they make a difference, but most things can be mentioned briefly (“they make their shields from woven wicker” or “their helms are fashioned from the tusks of boars fixed to leather caps”) and then you can move on.

You'll probably find it's more interesting, especially for folks who enjoy hex-crawling, to talk about mounts and beasts of burden. Ancient India has elephants, and ancient Egypt will have the camel. Such beasts can make a big difference in combat, logistics, and wilderness exploration.

Normally, I'm not a huge fan of additional magical goodies, but they can be evocative and this is Taichara we're talking about here. ;) If you are going to give us new magical items, make sure they are both new and evocative. A bag of holding with feathers stitched to it is still a bag of holding.

Architecture and Maps
Most historical time-periods have evocative architecture that immediately brings them to mind. The Egyptians, of course, have the pyramids and their great, giant columns in post-and-lintel architecture erected on a grand scale. The Romans had their arches and the Colosseum. The Japanese have their sliding paper walls and nightingale floors. Show us how these things work and give us some context for them.

Give us maps of the homes and shops of the average folk, and at least one tavern, inn or similar place where adventurers are likely to congregate. Maps of temples would be useful, especially if there are competing faiths in this setting. A map of a village or a city where adventures can start or take place wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

Think also about common locations for adventures. Tombs, forts, jails, palaces, temples, houses-of-ill-repute, seedy taverns, and inns are all places where adventurers might practice their trade. Maps are something we don't often see enough of in books like this.

You can do a lot to make a setting feel special by changing the rules for how magic works or creating new magic. One place D&D is historically lacking is in daily-use spells, the sorts of magic people used in their homes or in their work, and yet it's the what we have the most examples of from real history.

Again, normally I'd say don't go crazy here, but we're talking about Taichara, and such things don't apply to her. :D Some creatures just scream to be made over (the mummy, for instance) while some are missing all together. Keep it flavorful and remember that this is D&D, so we don't need giant stat-blocks or great whopping lists of powers.

I'd rather not see amazing re-imaginings of the traditional monsters. The scarab-swarm lamia of 4e, for instance, does nothing for me. I'm quite happy with the traditional monsters as we see them in folklore.

Sample Adventures
Please include at least one which highlights how adventures in this setting can be different. I'm just as capable as the next guy of replacing the King's daughter with the Pharoah's daughter. Give me something that really highlights, for me and my players, the possibilities of the setting. Give me something that only this setting and no other can deliver.

And heck, if you want to give me a book of adventure locations that, over its pages, reveals a setting to me, that'd be great. It doesn't necessarily have to be a tightly-linked adventure path, but maybe five “locations” that include an introductory adventure, some tomb-like areas to plunder, a city or town that can supply both a base-of-operations as well as adventures in its own right, the headquarters of a powerful antagonist, and maybe a wilderness area suitable for exploring and building a stronghold on.

Player Handouts
Finally, steal a page from Monte Cook and do a player's PDF. This should help explain the setting, lay out the basics of the culture and any rules changes the players will need to know to make a character in it. If you're going to spend money on art, it should show up here. Art is a great way to make a setting come alive, and to communicate the style, themes, and feel quickly. If at all possible, it should help the DM sell the setting to the players.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts on Game Design: 7th Sea

As I mentioned earlier, I've gotten involved in a 7th Sea game. So far, due to things like finals and the general vicissitudes of life, we've only just built our characters. Still, that's given me some insights into how the game's mechanics work, and there's some interesting stuff to see there.

First, 7th Sea is very modern in its design. It's a point-buy, skill-based system which uses a lot of dice-tricks in its mechanics. It only uses 10-sided dice. The basic mechanic is fairly simple: the GM gives you a target number, you roll your 10-siders and try to come up with a sum that's equal-to or higher than the target number. Simple enough, but 7th Sea throws in an interesting quirk: some of the 10-siders you rolled you get to keep, and some you don't count.

When you try to do something, the number of dice you roll is based on a Trait (just like the stats in D&D, only there are five of them) and a Knack (which is basically an ability or bit of knowledge your character has). For instance, if you're trying to parry an attack, you add your Wit score to your Parry Knack, and that would tell you how many dice you roll.

However, when you're counting up those dice, you only count a number of dice equal to your Trait, in this case your Wit score. So, for instance, if your Wit is 3 and your Parry is 1, you roll four dice, but only count the score on three of them. Since you're trying to get a high score, obviously, you count the highest three. So if you rolled a 7, 4, 3, and 2, you'd drop the 2 and your score would be 7+4+3=14.

So that's the basic mechanic: roll as many 10-sided dice as your Trait + your Knack, but only keep a number of dice equal to your trait. Obviously, this makes your Traits very important.

(When explaining how many dice to roll, 7th Sea uses the following nomenclature: xky, where x = the full number of dice you roll and y = the number of dice you keep. So in the above example, it would be described as 4k3, and you'd describe the roll as “four-keep-three.” So when the game says the damage your musket does is 5k3, that means you roll five 10-siders and add up the highest three to see how much damage your shot did.)

Here's another interesting bit: like in most modern games, the folks in 7th Sea worked very hard to make certain that all the Traits are useful. In combat, for instance, you use Finesse when trying to hit your opponent and Brawn when calculating how badly you hurt them. When you're on defense, you use Wit to avoid the attack, and if they do hit you, Resolve to limit the damage from the attack. That means the skilled warrior is going to need good scores all across the board in all four of those stats. Since the average target number is 15, you want 3s in all your important Traits. And 3 is the max starting score characters can have.

As you might guess, most characters are only going to have a few 3s and a lot of 2s. Which means you need more dice. Luckily, 7th Sea dice “explode,” meaning if you roll a 10, you count that as a ten, then roll again and add the next number to that 10. If that roll again is a 10, you add it and roll again. So if you roll a 10 on a die, then roll a second 10 on it, and then roll a 7, the total score of that one die is 27.

However, you can't always count on rolling a 10. If you fail to meet the target number, you can choose to roll extra bonus dice called Drama Dice. The really cool thing about Drama Dice is they count as kept dice. Here's the other cool thing: while you only start with as many Drama Dice as your lowest Trait, you can earn more by being dramatic or cool or doing something very much in the spirit and theme of the game.

Obviously, starting characters are going to need those Drama Dice to survive and overcome, especially in combat situations. Good players are going to be looking for every opportunity they can find to earn some Drama Dice.

This puts a heavy burden on the GM, however. The GM can make or break a game based on how they hand out Drama Dice. Too few, and the players will get eaten alive. But the Drama Dice are the GM's best way to reward excellent play that fits into the themes and style of the game, so it best for the GM not to give them out too often and certainly not for actions she doesn't want to see repeatedly frequently in the game. By rewarding Drama Dice, the GM has a powerful influence on the tone and shape of the game.

Art by Howard Pyle.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Review of Captain Blood

I've recently gotten involved in a 7th Sea campaign, and I've been poking around for proper inspiriation. "Captain Blood" released in 1935, is a classic of the pirate movie genre. Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and Olivia de Havilland in all their black-and-white glory with a soundtrack provided by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Unlike movies in the current uptight and pretentious age we live in, a fun flick like "Captain Blood" could be, and was, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

The story is based on a romantic action novel in the style of Dumas. Our hero, Peter Blood, a man in the prime of his life whose done a bit of everything, has finally settled down to practice medicine in the sleepy English countryside. Unfortunately, that countryside boils over into open rebellion against James II, the last hurrah for Catholicism in England. Dr. Blood is caught doing what he sees as his christian duty for one of the wounded rebels. Narrowly escaping the hangman's noose, the king's justice ships him and other rebels to Port Royal to work as slaves in the sugar plantations. He and the other rebels escape, capture a ship, and set to wreaking havoc on English shipping throughout the Caribbean.

"Captain Blood" is the sort of movie that filled my lazy summer afternoons: a pre-70's flick with larger-than-life heroes, exotic locales, a dash of romance, and a lot of swashbuckling action. It lures young men in with the promise of action and adventure, and then proceeds to give them a sermon on proper manly behavior in the person of the nearly flawless hero. That sort of thing can be cloying after a while, but Blood's thirst for vengeance and his openly thieving ways keep it from getting too thick. The action is very much of its time, with the clash of epees and the back-and-forth swish-swish-clatter-swish of old-style movie swordplay.

The pirates don't show up until nearly halfway through the movie, but they arrive with a vengeance, storming into Port Royal in-mass, overwhelming the garrison and demanding two-hundred thousand pieces-of-eight from the governor. Flynn gets to square off against Rathbone's beastly French pirate in a duel on a beach over Ms. de Havilland's character, of course, and stirring speeches are made about the value of freedom. Dr.-turned-slave-turned-Captain Blood and Ms. Bishop spar and scratch at each other throughout the film, only finally confessing their love in the final moments, to nobody's surprise.

All in all, a fun little flick if you can look past the 1930's era special effects, costuming, and plotting. It does what it does very, very well, but what it does isn't quite what you and I today might ask for in a pirate movie. If you're in the mood for a light little bit of playful fun, with excellent acting, good music, and stirring speeches, you could do far worse than the movie that launched Errol Flynn's career as a leading man.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Phasors! They Burns Us!

This... looks less than promising.

This isn't the whole game; they promise you'll have away missions where you lead a team of up to five NPCs, plus you can join together with friends on joint missions. Still, the emphasis seems to heavily be weighted towards combat and shooting things. When all you have is a hammer...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

For Zak S.

Mr. S asked a handful of questions over at his blog. I wrote up a response but blogger or my computer won't let me paste the answers into the "Comment" field, so they're going up here. (Computers sometimes make trolls very CRANKY!!! @|{ )

Chad: This would fly like a lead brick in my campaigns, but that's because my games are very thematic and verisimilitude is my highest good. But I've been in games where that would be cool and add to the wacky fun.

AC: Typically, what it means is that low-level PCs are hard to hit, but have glass jaws. It means they can take some risks, but once they start taking damage it's time to panic. I rather like that. It works well for my games.

Spells: Er, never have had this problem. Not sure what to tell you. The tables on how many spells a PC can cast in a given day seem pretty clear to me: a single first level spell when at level 1, two first level spells at class level 2, etc. There are bonus spells for clerics in older versions of AD&D.

If you're using 3rd edition, I think even magic-users, er, I mean wizards, get bonus spells they can cast for high intelligence.

As for how many spells you can know, for magic-users, that is based on intelligence, and always seemed fairly clear-cut to me, but I usually ignored it. If the PC found it, and rolled well enough to add it to their book, I let them have it.

Which version are you playing now? Maybe we can help you puzzle it out.

Hexcrawl: Yeah, I usually have a few notes about what's in each hex, though most hexes are empty other than their terrain. If a wandering monster roll turns up something interesting, I'll add it to my notes. But for the most part, I have maybe only one hex worthy of notes for every ten or twelve, I think. I make it fairly easy for the PCs to know which hexes are points of interest, and rather difficult to find out details about what, exactly is in those hexes. Rumors and local knowledge tend to be full of half-truths and misleading gossip. True info is available, but costs. Sometimes coin is enough, sometimes it requires a small quest to earn what you want to know.

Anachro-anarcho-anachrids: Hmmm... noted, and thanks. ;)

Vampires/Medusa: I think you did just fine. I routinely throw monsters at my players that they have no hope of defeating... in a fair fight. So my players don't fight fair. Figuring out how to defeat a foe is a lot more fun, to my way of thinking, than going toe-to-toe in a flurry of dice-tossing dueling spreadsheets. ;p

Monty Haul becomes an issue when the players can simply banish, disspel, eviscerate, decapitate, or otherwise discombobulate whatever stands in their way with little effort on their part. When the players can stop thinking and can expect to win just by tossing dice and modifiers at a problem, you're in Monty Haul territory.

Fear of Death: Yes! Yes-yes-yes-YES! Fear of death focuses the players, makes them be clever and sneaky, and just improves the game all around. Though I honestly think that death is kinda boring, especially when you consider all the other wonderful things you can do to the PCs, like curse them in imaginative ways, saddle them with quests, smear their reputations, transform them into cute, fluffy animals, etc...

Stick: Mostly, yes. Part of the problem is that some GMs will simply not let their players be awesome. They'll shoot down any good idea, ruin any plan, and rain on any moment of glory the players try to create. There's a fine line between challenging the players and being a dick.

That said, just about every plan has some flaw in it, and no plan survives contact with the enemy. Adjusting on the fly, overcoming unexpected obstacles, and sometimes narrowly escaping are lots of fun for the players and prevent combats from turning anti-climactic.