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.

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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.

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”