On XP and character loss

Following the most recent session of Legend of the Five Rings game I’m playing in I’ve found myself in that dreaded situation of needing a new character as Dojo Okimoto, the Oriole Crane Lion Bushi Courtier fell in battle while protecting the group Shugenja. For a samurai it was a good death, fighting for an honourable cause and it also fit with the tragic romance angle of samurai stories as Okimoto was due to marry his true love who was already pregnant with their child. Probably the only way I could have tempted fate more would have been by being a day away from retirement. The game is on hiatus for the moment and when we return will have jumped around six months down the timeline with the surviving former magistrates having travelled to the Crab lands in order to learn about combating the Taint (Corruption has been a running theme of the game so far). This leaves me in the position of bringing in a new character and at the end of the session the GM told me to build him using 115xp (which includes the starting points plus ronin bonus).

Which is about 30xp less than the group as a whole is on and just under half the XP earned during the campaign to date.

I’ll be honest, this irks me. Not because I’m worried about being underpowered compared to the rest of the group, if it makes sense story wise I’ll often chose to take that approach. Jimmy is a classic example of this, built to be deliberately weaker than the rest of the Deadlands Noir group due to where he fits in the genre. Likewise by choosing a ronin I’m actively opting to make my life difficult. It irks me because it goes against my personal approach to XP, which centres around the notion that it is a reward to the players. Thus to lose XP because I died in game feels like I’m being penalised for dying which is, in my opinion, wrong. Especially in a game such as Legend of the Five Rings which has a reputation for being deadly.

I know my GM enough to know he’s not doing it to be vindictive or punish me for dying, he’s merely running the game his way and I know if somebody else died he’d apply the same rule to their new character. It’s for that reason alone that I’m willing to accept the situation; I trust my GM. Despite this I’m curious, is this approach common to other gaming groups? Is it something encouraged by particular games? I’d be interested to hear what everybody else does, even if it’s unlikely to change my own preferences.

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Putting it all together: My gaming kit

This post was originally posted over at Nearly Enough Dice.

As you’ve probably realised the various contributors to Nearly Enough Dice love gaming accessories and a number of the products we’ve reviewed for the podcast now form the core of what constitutes my gaming kit. With that in mind I thought I’d share my approach and invite the readers to chip in their suggestions or ideas.

The General Kit

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For Science!

At the core of any gaming kit is (IMHO) one thing, dice and like most gamers I have collected a considerable number over the years. When I’m playing, however, most of those dice are unused. In an attempt to streamline my kit I’ve, therefore, cut down the number I carry to 4 polyhedral sets which covers me most games and can be rapidly altered should I join a game that requires more of a particular type.

But what to carry them in? How about an All Rolled Up (ARU), which Liz reviewed recently for the podcast? Having just purchased the one pictured I can also now attest to both the quality of the product and the service (I ordered Monday afternoon and received it on the Thursday).

As well as dice my ARU stores a number of other important parts of my gaming kit. First up are pens, a basic component that people forget on a regular basis. Second is my noteboard, another recent purchase and which Liz reviewed for the podcast (and Mike put to good use for the War of the Dragons game). Although the noteboard really falls into the GM kit category it’s simply far too useful an item for me to leave out so it’s got a semi-permanent place in my ARU. Finally to round out my players kit is a selection of extra whiteboard markers in multiple colours, there just in case the noteboard gets used.

My basic gaming kit
My basic gaming kit

The GM Kit

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Hiding in plain sight

The basis for my GMing kit is, unsurprisingly, that of my player kit but with some notable differences. First is more dice, because it’s apparently up to the GM to have spare in case players forget their own. If required I then add in my GM screen. I’ve tried multiple system specific screens but these days I default to the Savage Worlds Customisable Screen (see my review for more information). The ability to add to or alter the panels as required makes this screen indispensable, I find it particularly useful for tracking characters disadvantages so I have a ready list of hooks I can tap during the session.

Most of the other additions are system specific, poker chip tokens or a deck of cards are added as needed, stored in my ARU or dice bag in order to keep it all together.The final essential component of my GM kit is my moleskin notebook. Between games it lives in whatever bag I’m using that day so I can jot ideas down at a moments notice, which often turns out to be on the train during my commute to work. While I’ve tried digital approaches such as Evernote my approach to note taking is too haphazard for a digital approach, mostly due to my frequent use of multi-directional connections and non-sequitur notes.

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All together now.

The Online Kit

Obviously the vast majority of this kit is only of use when playing together as a group in a single location. Online gaming is, however, a growing market and probably accounts for half of the games I’ve played in the last year. Three websites really provide me with all I need on that front, Google Plus, Roll 20 and Obsidian Portal. Google Plus, combined with Roll 20 provides both the table around which players assemble and the tools such as dice roller, initiative tracker and battle map for playing on. The quality of the Google Plus video hangouts astounds me each and every time, sure lag is an occasional problem but thanks to it I’ve been able to join regular games with players spread throughout the globe. Between games Obsidian Portal serves as a centralised location to store notes and game progress in a convenient wiki format which is currently undergoing a redesign. While an extremely powerful tool I’ve found that the majority of use is by the GM and it predominantly falls into a planning tool and place to keep notes that can be revealed to players as they experience the world.

So there you have it, the basic kit that I make use of on a regular basis and a question for the listeners / readers, how do you do things? Am I over prepared or maybe missing out that one item you consider indispensable to gaming?

Disclaimer: This is not a product placement post, I purchased each of the items described here and none were received for the purpose of a review. I merely happen to think that they’re all awesome.

Project Cassandra – More characters

Until I started working on Project Cassandra I don’t think I fully appreciated how difficult it was to write ‘normal’ individuals for use as player characters in an RPG. While Agent Sarsin was relatively easy to write I now suspect that was because they fall into a more typical PC role, that of the special agent. The rest of the characters are more normal and hence more difficult to write, so I’ve fallen behind my tentative schedule to have a first draft of each ready by now.

The other aspect I hadn’t counted on was how difficult the skill trees would be to generate, keeping the higher branches sufficiently broad yet also making them logically flow to the lower levels has been quite the challenge. While I may alter the approach later on I like the concept enough to keep them in until I’ve playtested them. So without further rambling here’s v0.2 of Agent Sarsin and in addition to v0.1 of Brian Whitford and Karen Jones.

Agent Sarsin v0.2

Brian Whitford v0.1

Karen Jones v0.1

Project Cassandra: Veteran Sarsin

sarsinSo progress continues on Project Cassandra, to the point that I’ve now got the basic rules pinned down and thus have been able to put together a draft of one of the five characters that I’m planing. Working on this has really made me appreciate the elegance of the Lady Blackbird characters, which manage to get both character stats and a rules summary on a single page. While I doubt I’ll manage to get it down that far due to the skill trees the layout definitely needs work.

Oh and obviously playtesting, which will require the rest of the characters.

Playing Fair: Combat Consequences

Now that I’ve started running Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) rather than just playing it I’ve been thinking about trying to challenge myself when it comes to GMing by stepping out of my comfort zone. L5R is, from my limited experience with it, the ideal system for doing this in because it can easily throw many of the conventional gaming tropes out the window, replacing the black and white Good vs Evil of Western fantasy with complicated situations that can often boil down to no win scenario’s. The driving force behind this is the code of Bushido, the principles that are meant to guide every samurai but which often come into conflict with one another. Perhaps the best description I’ve heard is that L5R is a game where everybody is trying to be a paladin despite the fact that they’re just normal (and thus flawed) human beings. We’re only two sessions into our campaign but the group has already been placed into a sticky situation, investigating the destruction of a monastery on the (disputed) edge of their territory. I’d say more but I know some of the players occasionally read this plus it wasn’t really the point of this post.

The other aspect of my GMing style that I’ve started to reconsider is combat, namely the challenges that I put up in front of the players. Over the years I feel like I’ve worked myself into a position of holding back too much and rarely placing parties into a position where characters are going to die. The logic behind this has always been that I don’t want to kill PCs outside of dramatically appropriate moments but I’m beginning to wonder if by holding back in the combat I’m also preventing the creation of those dramatic moments, the ones where the death of a character forces the group to completely change direction, retreat in a panic or decide that they’re going to abandon their mission to hunt down the bandit group that killed their friend.

My second motivation to change is that I want my players to spend a bit more time considering whether they should be getting into a fight. I’ve had some experience with this during a past Firefly campaign. The group, on their way to deliver cargo they’d been smuggling, were ambushed by a small gang who, in an attempt to intimidate the party, drew weapons. Wanting to keep things a little tense I had the players roll initiative, with the three more combat capable characters all beating the gang members. So come the first round the players, assuming they were already in a combat, opened fire and killed or downed almost all of the gang. As I pointed out to the players afterwards they had initiated the combat, fired first then disappeared leaving a number of bodies in a densely populated space port, all because the gang had drawn weapons to try and intimidate them. Not exactly something they could explain away as self defence.

So to conclude this rambling post I think I want to achieve two things, more even and challenging combats but also situations where leaping into combat provides consequences and the players need to think more about why they’re fighting, not merely that they an. As always I’d be interested in hearing the solutions other GMs have found for this issue, especially given the deadly reputation of the L5R system.

Savage Worlds: A Few More Thoughts

As I discussed in an earlier post I’ve been playing in a Deadlands Noir game recently, powered the by Savage Worlds system and have come across a few issues with certain mechanics, namely high toughness scores and Shaken.

Having had some time to think on the issue I’ve come to the conclusion that my derision of the toughness scores was a bit harsh, after all many other games have similar situations with monsters that are easy to hit but difficult to wound. The issue in our game lay not with the mechanic but with the fact that our group was not built to take on such a monster. Had we been full of characters with a better combat build (we have two, one of whom was hampered by the natural armour the croc had) then we’d have faired much better. The second issue, that of the shaken rules, still irks me. It seems, however, that I’m not alone and it’s a fairly common complaint. With a bit of research I’ve come across a few ways to houserule shaken, the simplest of which is to replace the no action portion with a -2 penalty to actions; thus players can still try and do something on their turn while maintaining the feel that being shaken causes issues.

While I think that change will shift the game back towards one I enjoy I still doubt it’ll shift it to one of my favourite games and when it comes down to it I think I’ll probably be sticking with Cortex Classic most of the time.