Goodbye G+ – Where else you can find me

So it looks like Google+ is finally going the way of the dodo. As a general service it’s been on life support almost since its inception. It never built the user base that would a company like Google would require in order to continue maintaining it, but where it did succeed was with the gaming community. The communities, circles and collections allowed for a level of granularity that was ideal for sharing advice, thoughts and work in progress.

While I was never a heavy poster to G+ I use it frequently as a reader. There are multiple communities I follow, such as those for The Sprawl and Cortex Prime that have been invaluable. What will happen to them now is unknown. Discord, while popular, just doesn’t suit slower, in depth discussion and Facebook is just… Facebook.

Until that question is answered the best places to follow me are:

My blog – http://www.lunarshadow.net (which redirects to WordPress)

Twitter – @whodo_voodoo

I’m whodo on the HappyJacks Podcast forum – happyjacks.proboards.com and discord – happyjacks.org/discord

I’m also whodo on the Zombie Orpheus Entertainment / Dead Gentlemen discord – discord.gg/fhPckP7 and can mostly be found in the Demon Hunters sub-channel.

And as always you can find everything I release on DrivethruRPG

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RPGaDay 2018 Round-up

RPGaDay has come has reached its end once again. Having completed it on twitter this year I thought it would be worth collecting my answers together into a single post. So, here they are:

Day 1: The social aspects. I can sit down at a table with strangers and know that there is at least 1 common thread between us that will be the focus for the next few hours. For somebody that finds mixing/socialising difficult having that focus is liberating. Then there’s the social aspect of gaming with friends, again it allows you to be social without the normal pressures. Bad day but don’t want to talk about it? Dive into the game. In a great mood? Dive into the game and make it more enjoyable for all.

Day 2: Honestly I don’t know any more. The Expanse Kickstarter has left me unsure by failing to get me interested in a property that I already enjoy. I wonder when it comes to a new game if it is the sell, whether I need to see some real excitement from the developers

Day 3: Setting and writing are perhaps most important. I need to enjoy picking the game up time and time again outside of the sessions. Rules are second to that, which is odd given my interest in game design. Prime examples: @CorporationRPG has an amazing world and writing I go back to but the rules are a hot mess. Fate Core is the opposite – great system but dry writing meant it wasn’t until Atomic Robo that I really appreciated it.

Day 4: Memorable for all the wrong reasons but during my first Firefly campaign had an annoying, whiny NPC who had been promised berth on the ship by somebody that didn’t own it. The players hated him. I hated him and while he was only present during a single session he made an impact of how not to do it.

Day 5: I’m going to cop out on this one because I’m struggling to think of a good answer. So instead I’ll go with one of the alternate prompts: Most memorable character retirement, which goes to a player in an L5R game I ran last year. It was her first ttRPG, she had no knowledge of the setting and picked the disadvantage that she was a brainwashed Kolat sleeper agent. I explained the likelihood she would die dishonourably.

She went with it.

During the wedding of another PC2 (who was marrying this PC1s true love) there was a murder. The suspect was the Kolat handler, who triggered her programming. She was a shugenja and all hell broke loose before she was ultimately captured. She was ordered to commit jigai to cleanse her family honour. The Scorpion governor gave her a choice – die or fake her death and become a scorpion. She chose the latter, not knowing her loyalty would be enforced by PC3 by addicting her to opioids. In the climactic battle, knowing she was going to die she redirected her final spell to target PC3. He drowned in the middle of the battlefield seconds before she fell to the spectral horde. It was epic and all because a new player went all in with their choices

Day 5: Wait, I want to also answer the original question! Am I allowed an NPC from an AP? If so then most memorable NPC has to be Ueda from @happyjacksrpg first L5R Inukai campaign. The PCs helped him redeem his honour and he spent his life literally repaying their trust.

Day 6: Help to build it. Introduce details at both the high level (NPCs, factions, background) and the low level (scene details). Both encourage buy-in, the first provides depth to the world and potentially grounds the PCs by giving them existing connections. The second gives players buy-in to individual scenes and helps build a consensus mental picture of what is going on. The fantastic @Upto4Players provided a great recent example of the latter with their Crystal Hearts comic:

http://www.uptofourplayers.com/comic/heart-of-stone-page-11/

Finally, they can put some effort into learning the setting background. Some games (such as L5R) have detailed settings and I wish more players would invest just a little time outside of sessions to learn the basics of them.

Day 7: Make it personal and build on day 6. When a player introduces something use it. Put it in the middle of the action and find out what the player will risk to protect it. And if they fail, make the consequences reflect its importance.

Day 8: Make it accessible and diverse. Twitch and APs are a great tool for this and we’re already seeing a boom thanks to it. Now we need to build on the momentum and promote more shows with diverse casts to really show that gaming is for everybody.

Day 9: I don’t know why but anytime a game hits me with the feels it surprises me. It’s not like I don’t expect it to happen but the ability of games to unexpectedly sneak past emotional barriers always gets me and I love that they can do that. Even though I’ve not had a chance to play as many of them as I’d like I love the fact that there are now a broad range of games where that’s the intention, that aim towards that intense emotional experience.

Day 10: I’d like to say that it has made me more confident and outgoing but I’m not sure that’s the case. It has, however, helped me find who I am and provided a constant grounding when times have been tough. I wouldn’t be who I am now without it.

Day 11: Blade Terrell from an early BESM 2e game. Carried a final fantasy type oversized sword but refused to use it unless he felt his opponent was enough of a challenge to be worthy of him drawing it.

Day 12: Easy answer, Doyl my @DG_DemonHunters caffeinomancer who also happens to be my favourite character to play.

Day 13: I was really stat and gear focused when I started with RPGs, a carryover from my time as a wargamer (seriously, 40K 2e allowed each space marine in each squad to have a unique loadout, a bookkeeping nightmare). I slowly realised it wasn’t the stats that I enjoy, it’s the descriptors and options that the gear opened up in the narrative. It’s why I’m a big fan now of descriptive tags as opposed to 10’s of pistols with negibly different range/damage/cost combos

Day 14: I made the mistake of describing offhand an interesting location to a group of @DG_DemonHunters players finishing with ‘and it’s off-limits for reasons you don’t know’ thinking that would be it and we could start the actual adventure. Of course, the players had other ideas and went to explore. I literally screwed up my existing notes, threw them away and called a beer break 5 minutes into the session so I could quickly rejig. I was upfront with them, they had completely thrown me off. Thus we started my first entirely improvised adventure. It was amazing and later ended with a player led near-TPK as the paranoid PC sniper attacked the newly turned PC vampire. Under attack, she gave in to her urges and turned 2 PCs before we faded out.

Day 15: Difficult question. Best example would be a playtest of Project Cassandra @Dragonmeet – I received a lot of critical but valid feedback that at the time was difficult to hear but extremely valuable and caused me to go back and redo the entire skills system.

Day 16: My next scheduled game is a #Firefly one shot using my Niska’s Race scenario. I’m looking to promote more non-D&D games where I play (@sugaranddice in Liverpool) starting with some well-known franchises before I broaden out into smaller indie games.

Day 17: This is easily having my original Demon Hunters adventure Channel Surfing used as the demo scenario at #GenCon this year. It’s available as a PWYW download from here:

Channel Surfing

Day 18: I actually wrote a whole mini-series of blog posts about inspirational artwork which are at: https://lunarshadowrpg.wordpress.com/category/inspirational-artwork-2/ … but in typical fashion haven’t actually ever used any for the basis of a campaign.

Day 19: Nothing that comes to mind. I’m not a big music person and really don’t enjoy music at the table. One of my pet peeves is when GMs bring portable speakers to con games and conveniently forget they’re sharing the space with other tables.

Day 20: Complications on success, such as in Cortex when you roll a 1. Really like the ‘yes and…’ element and way that it can add an unexpected twist, especially when you get the players to narrate it.

Day 21: I’m going to go with something I’ve yet to actually try out – Resource dice from The Black Hack (and spin-offs such as @cthulhuhack). An elegant and simple way of dealing with limited resources that doesn’t require too much bookkeeping.

Day 22: Non-dice system eh? Hell 4 Leather, a great pick up narrative game of supernatural revenge by Prince of Darkness games. The tarot system provides great flavour and its just so much fun to watch characters get hunted down scene by scene. In terms of a non-dice mechanic then the pathways and relationship map of Smallville, such a great way to set up the relationships not only between characters but also the environment by highlighting places of significance from the outset.

Day 23: How long do you have? Seriously, my play again list is almost as long as my yet to play list but to pick just a few: Smallville, Dresden Files, Torg, Demon Hunters, L5R

Day 24: Again I could provide you with a long list of games here, especially given that here in #Liverpool #DnD just seems to swamp everything else. I’d also love to say Project Cassandra but given that’s still not out (one day!) that feels like a cheat.

Recommendation 1 – Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors by @deadgentlemen and @boymonster. An amazing game, with a great setting and my favourite implementation of Fate like rules (I’d place it as somewhere between Fate and Cortex)

Demon Hunters

Recommendation 2 – Remember Tomorrow by @gregorhutton / BoxNinja – A lightweight cyberpunk game focused on the needs and wants of the characters and their desire to escape the bonds that define their lives

RTfco250

Recommendation 3 – Another @boymonster game, Smallville RPG. The Drama iteration of Cortex Plus didn’t get the recognition that I feel it deserved and I’d love to see some non-supers uses of it, its perfect for hospital dramas or over the top soap opera.

Day 25: Part of me want to hates that this is my answer but #Dnd 5e. My gaming has been rather sparse over the last year and it’s only through the fact that D&D is having such a surge in popularity that I’ve been able to game at all.

Day 26: Is a regular non #DnD game aiming too low? Because I’d be happy with that. Aiming higher? Publish Project Cassandra and more Demon Hunters material plus attend some conventions.

Day 27: There’s only one AP I regularly listen to: @happyjacksrpg though I limit myself to 1 game at a time (currently the #L5R Inukai Saga). Seriously don’t know how they manage to fit so many games in! #rpg

Day 28: This is another question where I could reel off a long list so I’m going to cheat a little by saying the members of GUGS during my time there.

Day 29: Again too long a list, the vast majority of my close friends since finishing school I’ve met through gaming of one sort or another. Hell, my twitter list is almost exclusively made up of gaming people which is probably why I post here far more than on FB. I flew to the other side of the world to attend @StrategiconRPG in 2015 with people I’d only ever interacted with online. Absolutely amazing experience, forget GenCon, that was the best 4 days in gaming for me and I’d do it again if I could afford to. And when I got married earlier this year many of the attendees were friends I’ve made through gaming, including my best man @emzyesque who I’d have never met without this crazy hobby of adults playing make-believe.

Day 30: I mostly GM so in terms of NPCs – that they’re often the weakest part of my games in terms of characterisation. Something I’ve been working on since the start. In terms of PCs – Often my characters are very reliant upon the mood of the table around me. For example Doyl, my DH caffeinomancer, really needs an upbeat group for me to play him as the painfully cheerful character he is meant to be.

Day 31: Why do I participate? Like podcasts it keeps me engaged with the hobby on a day to day basis, which is important to me given how much my actual gaming time has varied over the last few years.

Your sandbox sucks

Most sandbox games suck. Why? Because all too often the idea of player led, follow what interests you type campaign leads to complacency on behalf of both the GM and the players. GMs feel like because the plot is in the hands of the players they can’t do any prep while players… well players rarely know what motivates them. So the game lurches from one random encounter or fetch quest to another, never adding any depth to the world until the campaign dies from a severe case of the blahs.

I say this from experience. I’ve attempted to run games that have fallen foul of it and I’ve seen it happen almost every time somebody suggests a sandbox. It even happens in video games. For example Skyrim, one of the best-selling open world games ever sucked.

Why?

Because its world was shallow and unconnected. Major quests had almost zero impact on the wider world while the procedurally generated quests made it seem like you might end up being sent to each and every mound of grass to fight the ghost/skeleton/cultist/bear that had stolen the favourite spoon of meaningless NPC #1,234,799. You could be the archmage in one town but a peasant in the next. Plot threads by the dozen but never weaved together into something more.

And because it was open world if you decided not to stop pursuing a quest part way through it would just sit there. Waiting. Tired of the civil war? We’ll just go away for now. Bored of dragons? They’ll wait to complete their plans while you go and explore another loot filled cave just outside town that somehow nobody knew about.

Now apply that to a tabletop RPG. But with even less depth because the GM didn’t want to force their plot on the players so hasn’t added any detail to the world.

It should be the opposite.

If you’re running a sandbox then you need to know so much more about the world or be able to wing it. You need factions and NPCs galore that all have their own motivations and goals before the PCs are even on the scene. Plot hooks should be abundant, to provide PCs more options than they could possibly deal with and when they resolve one then there should be consequences for leaving the others hanging. Take out the gang harassing the neighbourhood? Fantastic, except now little Jimmy’s cough has put left him six feet under because you didn’t get him the medicine he needed in time.

As for the PCs well they should be just as detailed as the world. They need lives and families, wants and needs if they’re going to have some real motivations. They should know why they’re in the world and what’s driving them and it should be established in collaboration with the GM so that they don’t exist in a vacuum.

Do what you want is meaningless if you don’t want for anything.

Thoughts on: The Expanse RPG Kickstarter

With two weeks still to go in the campaign the Expanse RPG Kickstarter by Green Ronin is on track to be a massive success. It’s blown through one stretch goal after another, having funded in under an hour and is currently nearing $300,000 in pledges. Yet despite being a big fan of both the novels and TV series I find myself struggling to build any enthusiasm for it. Spectacularly underwhelmed to be exact, enough that I felt the need to dig into why.

So lets start at the start: The pitch for funding. It’s professionally put together, contained achievable and realistic stretch goals and even had a short word from the creative force behind the novels, James S. A. Corey (yes I’m aware it’s a pen name for the two authors but I’m going to refer to them by that name as it’s the one they chose to use). It is, however, very light on the pitch. If I wasn’t already aware of the franchise then I don’t think I’d give it another glance, there is simply nothing that grabs me and screams PLAY THIS GAME! Or even that sells me on the setting beyond standard space opera.

One thing that I was very happy to see was that from the get-go they provided a free to download quickstart rules document. It has been professionally produced, looks great and provides both a breakdown of the core rules and a sample adventure. It’s the sort of release that I think all of the bigger RPG companies should include on their Kickstarters – it shows that they have put in the work beforehand. Rules are written, character sheets designed, artwork and layout styles selected. While it’s not achievable for most of the smaller indie companies it shows that they are serious about this game.

Despite this I was, once again, underwhelmed. There’s a similar lack of setting information, I could pick up what was included and drop it into a generic space opera game without really having to tweak anything.

Then there’s the system, which feels… generic. I can’t really put it any other way. Now don’t get me wrong, it looks like a solid and serviceable system but nothing about it stands out to me. I’m totally willing to accept that this may just come down to a matter of preference but overall the mechanics feel like they have barely iterated on design ideas from a decade ago. Stunts (one of the most exciting aspects of The Expanse RPG according to the quick start) are interesting and provide special bonuses but the non-combat variants seem limited with their value restricted to very specific situations. I was also disappointed to see that one of the stunts was ‘Knock prone’. Given much of the setting is in zero or low-G environments it felt like quite an oversight to not reword this. Simply renaming it Offbalance would suffice and it makes me wonder how much the system has been tweaked to fit both the setting and genre of the novels. The added Fortune and Churn mechanics also failed to impress (seriously, spending the equivalent of your HP to change dice results? Even if they recover quickly people will hoard them). They’re ok but they don’t set my world on fire.

So that’s my rambling thoughts on The Expanse RPG and its Kickstarter. I don’t know if I’ve really got across my point and I understand it comes across as excessively negative (which wasn’t my intention but I needed to write this to work through why I felt so uninterested in the game). It’ll probably be an ok game but only that, ok. Will I back it? I seriously don’t know, I’m leaning towards yes just to get the setting material but I don’t know if I’d ever run it which disappoints me immensely.

Not ranting about D&D

I’d been planning to make this a rant about D&D, about how frustrated I am with it and the fact I’m struggling to find a group playing something else while D&D games fill within minutes of being posted.

But then on the bus this morning I started to think should I really be ranting about this? My answer was no. Does it annoy me that a game I’m not overly fond of is popular? Yes, immensely but right now it’s popularity is part of a resurgence of the hobby I love. The combination of D&D 5e and actual play streams have raised the visibility of tabletop games to a level I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see. I still don’t know if I would call RPGs mainstream in the way that board games might now be but certainly, the level of awareness is reaching that level. I didn’t roll my first skill checks until the mid-2000’s, so I never directly experienced the stigma that was often associated with RPGs during prior to that but as a minis gamer during the 90’s, I knew what it was like. I knew what it was like to have the nerdy hobby, to be labelled as a gamer at an age when I wasn’t confident enough to truly embrace it.

So no, I decided I’m not going to rant about D&D today. It will never be my preferred system, I find the rules clunky and I’ve had one too many negative experiences with gamers that propagate the worst stereotypes of the hobby. But I’m not going to bash the people that have joined the hobby because of it, that enjoy it and flock to it. If it’s the only gaming that’s available then I’m going to damn well step forward and give it a try. I’m not saying I’ll stick with a game or group that I don’t enjoy but I’m tired of holding myself back just because it isn’t exactly what I want.

And who knows, maybe I can introduce a few more people to the joys of other systems while I’m at it. Nothing says anybody has to just play D&D…

My #RPGStruck4

The latest gaming tag to do the rounds on Twitter is that of #RPGStruck4, where people post up images for 4 games that define them, my own post for it was this:

and while most people have been posting without explanation I wanted to briefly dig into why these four games are personally significant.

  1. Torg – Long after it had gone out of print this was my introduction to tabletop gaming. I’d LARPed before, I’d participated in freeform play by posts but had never rolled dice or filled in a traditional character sheet. As an introduction to ttRPGs I couldn’t have asked for more. I was hooked and before long was itching to run my own game, largely thanks to how well Snap, our amazing GM, had run that first campaign.
  2. Serenity – My first foray into GMing was… disastrous. A massive Firefly fan I’d eagerly picked up the game on its release and dived into learning the system which was very different from what I’d experienced up to that point. I’d prepped heavily, with a focus squarely on all the wrong things and the first session was a catalogue of errors. Somehow it didn’t put me off running games and Cortex quickly cemented itself into one of my go to systems, which neatly leads me on to…
  3. Demon Hunters – As is evidenced by the plethora of posts about it you could say I’m a bit of a fan. While I knew of The Gamers it was the original Demon Hunters that made me a true fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions. It’s my go to light hearted setting, perfect for both one off sessions between campaigns as well as campaigns themselves. The setting can handle over the top chaotic slapstick as or serious urban fantasy (I tend to drift toward the former) and the writing is just as fun, to the extent that it’s almost as good to read as it is run. The second edition builds on the first with a new system, refreshed lore and brand new comic book look based on the short lived webcomic. Oh and a few adventures by yours truly.
  4. Legend of the Five Rings – When it comes to games with hefty reputations few can compete with the world of Rokugan and it’s samurai society. The setting clearly defines not only the role of PCs within that society but sets out clear expectations for their behaviour and consequences for going against those very expectations. Framed by the tenets of Bushido and an honourable ideal it’s a world where doing the right thing almost always has consequences, in stark contrast to the kill, loot, profit style espoused by many D&D games. It’s not only a world that I love returning to but once that has influenced my wider thinking on the positioning of PCs within wider settings and idea of lasting consequences.

NPC vs NPC – narration and the unexpected

Earlier this week a panel on the latest (and excellent) Up to Four Players webcomic got me thinking about NPC vs NPC actions, specifically during combat. A short discussion over twitter inspired Eran to put out the following today:

That article got the wheels turning a bit further though. In general, when it comes to NPC actions I try to minimise the amount of time involving a second NPC. I hand wave rolls, narrate overall outcomes rather than detailed actions and actively try to avoid lengthy discussions.

Primarily this comes from wanting to minimise the amount of time where the players are sitting waiting. Nobody likes to sit and listen to the GM monologue, especially when they’re trying to portray multiple individuals (doubly so when, like me, you’re bad at accents so NPCs rarely have distinct voices). I also want to avoid having to reference multiple character sheets/abilities, especially with games that are more complex than the Savage Worlds system used in the comic.

The second reason is that of narrative. As a GM I want to keep the PCs front and centre, not being overshadowed by a minor companion who just happened to roll well that session. I speak here from experience. The first campaign I ran was Torg, using published adventures. During one particular section, the group had encountered an over the top superhero who was meant to obtain what they were after while in the Nile Empire. During their daring escape in a plane they came under attack from fighter planes and throughout the resulting combat their NPC companion was useless. Right up until he rolled amazingly and stole the final kill from the PCs.

If it had been a PC in that position, of constantly missing then rolling big right when it mattered it would have been an amazing moment. Instead it felt, to me, like a let down. As a new GM I wasn’t at the point of knowing when to fudge the rolls (a debate in and of itself) so instead I worked to minimise the chance of that occurring again by avoiding NPC vs NPC rolls.

The Up to Four Players strip got me thinking though – do I sometimes take things to far. In trying to keep the PCs in the spotlight is it to the detriment of the game. Gone are the unexpected moment, such as where a weak and feable King gets the upper hand against the expert assassin or a trusted ally is unexpectedly convinced to take up arms against the PCs. Dice add randomness to the game, not only for the players but for the GM as well and maybe it is time I started to add that back in to my games.

So long as it doesn’t take too long.