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.


FATEful Thoughts

FATE has, without a doubt, been one of the biggest games of the past year in part due to a massively successful Kickstarter. It’s taken a while to get in some decent time with it but I’m finally at the point where I feel like I’ve spent enough time with it to form some opinions. I’m going to preface this with the comment that while I’ve run enough sessions to get comfortable with the game I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it.

  1. It’s easy to learn but difficult to master. This is the biggest thing that I’ve learnt over the course of running Dresden Files, that while I came into the game with a technical understanding of how the system should work applying that knowledge was a completely different kettle of fish. Aspect, which are at the core of FATE, really do need to be constantly present for the system to work to its fullest. During the first few sessions of our campaign we simply didn’t introduce enough of them or use the ones that were present as frequently as the system expect. This in turn led to complications as compels weren’t introduced as frequently as expected for the game to really function. While we’ve upped the frequency with which we use the aspects I’m still not 100% sure we’re using them to the extent that is required.
  2. I’m not a fan of paying to invoke EVERY TIME an aspect is relevant. Generally if you want to get a bonus from an aspect you need to either pay a FATE point if you want to apply it to a situation, which I’m not sure I’m a massive fan of. Now sure there are ways of getting free invocations on aspects but generally they are used when the aspect is created. If you create an aspect such as “blinded with sand” you’ll probably get a free invocation to use it but after that it’ll cost you to invoke it. After that it’ll cost you FATE points to use, even if the character is narratively still wandering around with limited vision. I’m not quite sure how to alter the game without breaking the core mechanic but I’d prefer if mechanical bonuses / penalties didn’t require repeated invocations to use.
  3. The flat +2 bonus doesn’t sit well with me. This follows on from the above but the fact that aspects can only every provide a +2 or reroll intuitively bothers me. It means aspects of “everything is on fire” and “stubbed toe” mechanically always have the same effect even if they are massively different on the level of the narrative. I much prefer the Cortex Plus approach of dice sizes indicating the severity of the asset / complication with the description reworded as required. So that “everything is on fire” might be represented by a d12 but started as a d6 “burning table” etc.

Anyway that’s just a few thoughts on FATE, yes they’re mostly issues with the system but that’s note to say I’m not enjoying it, just that I’m finding it challenging to run. As always if you have any thoughts or ways to handle said issues please do let me know.

D&D 5th Edition Basic Released

So after their protracted open playtesting WOTC have begun their release of D&D 5th Edition, or D&D Next as it’s been known until late. The Basic rules, which include the main system and a core set of options for the classic class / race options are available for download, for free, from the WOTC website. Doing so is a bold move and one that’s probably required in order to push interest in the release, especially given the rise of Pathfinder since it appeared on the scene.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really a D&D fan but having skimmed through the rules the first thing that struck me was simply… this is just D&D. Sure there’s been some streamlining but really the only thing that strikes me as new is the advantage / disadvantage mechanic. Everything else is just the same old same old, which I guess is fine for the target market but I think I was just hoping for something a bit more of a radical departure from the d20 formula. Something that brought in more of the ideas and approaches that have developed in gaming over the last decade, let alone the last couple of years.

All in all the release of the new D&D can only be a good thing, especially given this initial release makes it look like they’ve learnt from the mistakes surrounding 4th Edition. In the end though this first release just reinforces one thing for me, that D&D isn’t the game for me and probably never will be. Yes I’ll probably play it, but it’ll never be my go to system or even on my top list of games.

I just hope somebody does, D&D started this hobby and it would be a shame if 5th Edition was its final iteration.

On games not having to be fun

I’ve written in the past about the fact that I appreciate stories which build an emotional connection in order to create a compelling experience, even if this is done so at the cost of ‘fun’ in the traditional sense. With that in mind it’s heartening to see that the concept is starting to gain ground with mainstream, triple AAA developers as evidenced by this recent article over at IGN regarding Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry. While I’ve only dabbled with the Assassin’s Creed games so far the fact that the writers of the game have deliberately included aspects they knew would leave players conflicted is, to me, a big step forward.

One of the missions that the article discusses is a deliberate no-win situation, where the player is confronted with a sinking ship full of slaves and is unable to rescue them all. In doing so the writers aimed to strip away player agency in order to make them feel what the character is feeling. While this approach works when the players are receptive in similar situations it often backfires, with players instead feeling cheated by the fact the situation was set against them. The problem is that players have come to expect that the game will show them what they can do and then expect that every situation put in front of them can be solved in that manner. Or to put it another way when all you have is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.

The problem though is that not every problem is a nail and even when it is not every nail needs hammered. Especially when that nail is in your foot.

Ok that analogy didn’t quite work. But you know what I mean. Hopefully.

RPG Blog Carnival (March 2014): Online RPGs

This months RPG Blog Carnival topic is focused upon online gaming and having literally just finished playing in one such game (as part of the online convention Jackercon III) I felt it was a rather fitting time to discuss the topic. What I’m not quite sure of is where to start so instead I’d rather start with my conclusion:

Online gaming is great but it requires a significant shift in your expectations.

Continue reading “RPG Blog Carnival (March 2014): Online RPGs”