Monday, February 25, 2019

Rolling Dice is NOT Playing the Game

I'm going through a review of a sci-fi RPG and the reviewer alluded to something I see a LOT in Space Opera RPGs. (I'm not going to mention the name of the game here because first, the way the reviewer mentioned this implies but does not state outright that this game is guilty of this sin; and second, I don't know this reviewer so I'm not sure how much I can trust there statements yet.)

The problem is starship combat. Designers want everyone to have something to do during the starship fight, so they try fall back on Star Trek bridge stations and try to come up with something everyone can do every round. What usually results is something extremely uneven.

If you're using minis and some sort of hex grid or the like, usually the most avid wargamers will pick the ship's course and speed. Then everyone rolls dice to see if their character's station succeeded that round.

If there's no grid and you're playing theater-of-the-mind, the course of action is usually pretty obvious: flee, chase, whatever. The group might decide together at the beginning of the encounter what they want to do, and they might revisit that choice as the situation changes, but generally that's the last important decision made. After that, everyone rolls dice to see if their station performs a function that contributes to the goal.


I suppose rolling a die to see if you can squeeze extra speed out of the engines or get a better targeting lock or put a torpedo up someone's tailpipe is better than nothing, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this is fun. If the player isn't making an interesting choice, they're not engaged with the game. If the choice of group goal dictates their action for every round until the goal is achieved or changed, all the player does is roll the dice and note the (usually marginal) adjustment this causes to the situation. You don't even get much of a gambling thrill since the stakes are watered down by being spread across four to six stations.

I realize that the starship duel presents a serious challenge to RPG designers. You want this to be an epic moment, you want everyone involved and sitting on the edge of their seats. But you've got to actively engage the players if you want that to be the case. You have to stop falling back on Star Trek as your model. If the gunner's only interesting choice is between "shoot" and "don't shoot," what the hell kind of choice is that? Make it interesting, or it's dictated by circumstances. Give your GMs help crafting interesting starship duels that require players to do something more interesting than just roll dice, that allow the players to be clever, that invite them to use their skills and tools in creative ways.

And don't give me another cockamamy attempt to make the communication station important and "exciting" in combat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

And the (Spam) Hits Keep on Hittin'

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This one was a comment on (appropriately enough) Creepiest Spells in 5e:

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Are You Tired of Being Human and Good Posture?

Pruning spam from the comments is damn near a daily thing. It's not unusual to wake and find some ad for Australian limos or alternative utility companies speckled through my posts.

On occasion, however, I get a real doozy. This one combines poor English skills with an insane, whack-a-doodle premise to rise above the rest:

Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture.

I will admit, I am intrigued by the idea of posture as integral to being a vampire.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Daniel Horne Looking to Return to Fantasy Art

And he's started a gofundme towards that end:

Although I feel that my skills as a classically trained and apprenticed Brandywine School artist are sharper than they have ever been, I've found that there is little engagement among art directors to work with me and thus the ability to inspire fantasy enthusiasts has become nearly impossible. It is my hope that with the support of the fans of fantasy art that I've built up over the past four decades, I can have the opportunity to paint a piece, or even pieces, of art that might reopen doors to various publishing houses. But as I live paycheck to paycheck, like most artists, having the time and piece of mind to take on an inspirational cover isn't something I'm allowed.

This isn't a Patreon or anything like that, nor is it kickstarter with a specific product at the far end; it does appear, however, to be an excellent opportunity to say "Thank you!" to a great of the you-are-there school of fantasy art and hopefully get him back in that game.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Patrick Reviews the Memoirs of Usama Ibn-Munqidh

In days just recently gone by, I would have posted this to G+. Not quite sure what to do with this now, so it goes here.

This sounds like an utterly fascinating read:

The cultural situation is equally incoherent. It is a time of cosmopolitan prejudice and cultural-exchange murder-fests. If you picked out one half of these stories you could have a nice low-rent twitter link about how the period of the Crusades was a time of "wonderful diversity and cultural growth", which is true, so far as it goes. If you picked out the other half you could have a nice alt-right article about how Muslims and Christians are destined to endlessly muerderise each other. But all of these things are happening at once, all the time.

To me the randomness is baffling, strange and frightening. It feels very realistic and it makes it seem to me as if the world is a stupid place...

This is simply a great book for anyone who wants to spend an few days with a crazy Islamic grandad. I would strongly recommend it.

The past is a foreign country, and the Middle Ages is, quite frankly, an alien world at times, even if you're reading about the western parts of it our culture descended from. A deep, day-in-the-life sort of read like this can only boggle the modern mind, but it's a fascinating boggling all the same.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Encouraging Exploration

I somehow managed to poison myself with food. I feel like crap but you win because now I've got nothing better to do than make posts on my blog. Yay!

This question came from Facebook:
DMs: how do you inspire exploration in your games?

Again, a question that wouldn't even occur to me since D&D has always been about exploration when I played. This is the principle reason why 4e fell flat with me. But if you only started playing after 2000 (or, heck, possibly even after DUNGEON magazine started to become a bunch of stories the PCs were lead through by the hand, somewhere in the mid '90s) this might not be an obvious thing for you. So here are my suggestions for making exploration a central pillar of the game:

  1. Mysteries: I give the PCs incomplete information, teases, or just straight up have an NPC tell them, "This is the way it is, and it doesn't make sense." Mysteries are an invitation to look for clues, and if they're compelling enough, become more important than levelling up.
  2. Meaningful Options: it's not enough to just "Jaquay the dungeon". When you give players a choice, whether it's left or right, vanilla or chocolate, Zhent or Harper, make it immediately meaningful. By that I mean, in the passage to the left, you can feel a hint of a fresh breeze while the passage t the right has marks in the slime and dust of the floor that show something heavy was dragged that way recently. That gives you a mystery *and* a meaningful choice right there together.
  3. Context: I'm very, very generous when giving information. Even when the players botch the knowledge skill rolls, I tell them something useful. To make decisions, players need information to base their decisions on, to gnaw on and argue about. There are almost always NPCs available that they can ask questions of.
  4. Rewards: by the numbers, they might not be able to slay the rakshasa grand vizier, but if they know his weakness for smoked salmon, they might be able to bribe or distract him long enough to accomplish their goals. Getting an audience with the king is impossible, until you know his daughter has a collection of knives by one particular school of dwarven smiths. There's no way they can get to the Golden Mask of Zom by going across the volcano's open mouth, but if they explore some they'll find a way around, or a wounded aracokra who might fetch it for them once healed.
  5. EXP: yeah, you can do this too. The earliest versions of D&D did this, for instance. It will mean contemplating what the PCs are going to do with the massive treasures they acquire (especially if you go with 1 gp = 1 EXP system but keep the EXP numbers as they are in the books). Traditional solutions include building and staffing strongholds, and carousing tables.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Recognizing the Best of the Best

Hanging out on Quora has been an interesting experience. I generally assume that most of you readers here are experienced RPGers with more than a few campaigns under your belt. I’m not entirely sure why I assume that; many of my players these days are brand new to D&D, and that doesn’t appear to be an unusual thing. Over on Quora, I see a lot of topics asked about that it would never occur to me to write about. Like a recent one asking, “What does a mature tabletop players character look like?”

Of course, the answer is: the character looks like exactly what the campaign needs.

Playing an old-school game where life is cheap, survival is difficult, and death likely? The mature tabletop player’s character fits on a 3x5 index card, and there’s probably two or three in reserve.

Playing a storygame where the bulk of the action is supposed to be about the interactions of the PCs, including conflict, reconciliation, and relationship growth? The mature player’s PC is going to be built with ties to all the other PCs, or with a personality trait specifically chosen to create drama with at least one of the other PCs (and probably crafted with the help of those PCs’ players for ultimate buy-in and effectiveness).

Playing a game of 4th edition D&D where most of the action takes place on a battlemat? The mature player’s character has a specific role it’s designed to fill to help the PC team achieve victory. Most often, they’re going to be playing a support role that requires them to be in the thick of things, creating synergies that make the actions of the other PCs more effective.

If you’re playing a “standard” game of 5th edition D&D and you’re wondering who the mature, AAA player at the table is, here are some hints:

  1. They worked with the DM to create a character that is deeply tied to the setting from day one. They’ve got a background that invokes the setting; that is, they’re not just a scholar, they’re a scholar from Candlekeep, or they were a soldier during the Northern Troll Wars. There are specific names in their background that can be invoked during play to provide contacts for the PCs or hooks for the DM.
  2. They worked with the other players to create a character that will play off and with the other characters in fun ways. If you’re playing a dwarf who’s biased against orcs, they’re playing the half-orc paladin. If your character has the street urchin background, they’re playing the character who helped yours escape from the guard way back when, or possibly even got your character off the streets. If you’re playing the noble paladin who’s always first into the fray, they’re playing the scoundrel rogue with a heart of gold who is always talking like a self-interested jerk but just can’t bring themselves to abandon your character in a fight.
  3. They’re not afraid of their DM. They have a sweetheart in town, a younger sibling who’s always getting into trouble, and a pile of similar hooks the DM can use to create drama for their character.
  4. The DM isn’t afraid of them. The DM is happy to make the character a relative of some reigning noble, the (apparent) focus of a prophecy, or the grandchild of the ancient hero of legend. The DM considers letting them play that weird homebrew race or proposed subclass from Unearthed Arcana.
  5. They’re looking for ways to push the other characters into the limelight, or share the spotlight when it’s on them.

We’re all there to have and share fun. The mature player keeps that in mind and tries to be a force multiplier for that fun, so that everyone at the table has a great time. What makes RPGs so awesome is that they’re shared make-believe; getting the most from the shared part means actively engaging as many folks at the table as possible. And that’s what the best of the best do. I’ve been very blessed to play with many folks who deserve to be called the best of the best.