December 18, 2012

JRR Tolkien, The Retcon and Your Campaign

As I was watching the Hobbit movie this past weekend, I realized how much of a retcon J R R Tolkien did in the Lord of the Rings vs the Hobbit. Retcons (retroactive continuity) have been a staple of comic books for years. Essentially they take the history of a character and change it. They do this by keeping much of the established history but use that history as a spring board to reveal new bits of that character's history that alter facts and assumptions. One of the most famous retcons was Sherlock Holmes and his "death" at Reichenbach Falls and the subsequent reveal that it was all faked.

When Bilbo initially finds the One Ring, it was not the One Ring. It was just a ring of invisibility that was used as a plot device to move Bilbo out of his danger with Gollum and for later in the book so Bilbo could actually do his his job as burglar. Maybe Tolkien had some ideas of using the ring as more than a simple magic ring, but that did not show up during the Hobbit. Instead, the importance of the One Ring was revealed in the next book by way of retcon. When Gandalf casts the ring into the fireplace and the eleven script is revealed, that was a retcon. Suddenly the ring was more than a magic ring and transformed by plot into the One Ring.

And you can do this sort of retcon with our own campaign. If your players have moved off your plotline, you can use a retcon to move them back. If you want to introduce a completely new plotline, a retcon can be used as well. Here are a couple of ideas...

-The object. The players have something in their possession that is more than it seems. They have an object that is an artifact or other plot device to move the players into a certain direction. This object could be something as simple as an innocuous item, such as a belt buckle, or something waiting to be important, such as a plain sword. Such items can be revealed to be more than what they seem to be. Much the same way the ring of invisibility became the One Ring.

-The person. A person's background can change as well. A character may have been adopted (or found on a doorstep) and never been told the truth by their "parents". They could have had a "curse" placed on them as a child, which no one ever spoke of. Thus they could have any lineage your plot needs to move forward; they could be a lost prince, the scion of a line of seers that can see the hidden parts of your plot or have the unique ability of wielding a needed artifact. While Tolkien doubtlessly knew Aragorn was the King, no one else did. Aragorn's lineage was revealed much later in the books, something a DM can do later in their own campaign.

The next thing to consider is how the players find out about this retcon. While a DM could simply state the retcon as new fact, it is best to reveal this during play in a manner that makes sense. Often this means dealing with a rare or unique situation that causes the new fact to be revealed. Here are a few of ideas...

-Reactant. The object reacts to a catalyst such as being placed in fire, brought near another object or person. This would have to be something the object has not come in contact with thus far in the campaign. The object, or person, could begin to glow, make a noise, sparkle or anything noticeable.

-Reaction. Something rare reacts to the object or person. Maybe a newly met creature howls when the object or person comes near. Maybe an NPC recognizes the object or person as being more than it is. If your campaign can afford the time, you could have the reaction remain mysterious; the characters know something is reacting to them but they don't know what is causing it.

-Chain Reactant/Reaction. Maybe the object/person causes a reaction, but not until it has come in contact with a reactant. For example, a sword begins to glow when it around orcs, but not until after it has been bathed in flame. This method can be used if you want the object to react to something that is fairly common but that the party has already had contact with.

Of course, one question to ask is, why even bother with a retcon? Why not simply have the characters find the special plot device in the treasure pile of the next monsters the party kills? After all, Frodo could have found the One Necklace in the back corner of a closet. The quest then becomes one about destroying the One Necklace before Sauron can get it back and rule Middle-Earth forevermore. And is so much cooler that Frodo got the One Ring from Bilbo and an earlier adventure. It builds continuity, even if there was none before. After all, a retcon is the rewriting of history to allow for believable continuity. Players will think their past actions have consequence and meaning for what is happening currently in the campaign and what will happen in the future. Players like that level of empowerment.

We can learn from JRR Tolkien and his retcon.

December 11, 2012

Transitions in a Campaign

An rpg campaign has the obvious transitions. As player characters move from being level 1 to level 20 there are new abilities, more hit points, new spells and new monsters to fight. However, there are more subtle transitions that a good DM needs to be aware of. Doing so allows a DM to let these transitions occur naturally without trying to adhere to earlier methods of campaign management that no longer effectively work. In addition, these transitions can be utilized to highlight the progression of the player characters.

As an example of this there is time, specifically how it affects food. At level 1, food is an issue PCs need to be aware of; food is usually kept track of very carefully. It is a tension mechanic; will the characters have enough food to be able to continue? This is because at level 1, the characters' main resource is time. After a battle the PCs use their resource of time to heal up. They also use time to regain other tools such as spells.Without the expenditure of time the PCs are ineffective. Food plays into that time constraint. It is a visible consequence of spending that resource of time. The longer the party rests, the more food is used.

However, as PCs gain levels and more resources, the resource of time becomes supplanted by those other resources. Spells, potions, and magic items replace the need to spend time to recover after a fight. PCs have more spells to cast in a given encounter and thus by sheer volume will be able to continue to the next encounter without being depleted of spells; the need to rest does not occur as often. The need to rest to recover hit points becomes negated by potions and magic items (the ever popular wand of cure light wounds) or just by dint of having a much larger hit point pool. Time no longer is resource in as high a demand and thus other considerations, such as food, become trivial.

And that is where a transition comes into play. The PCs should no longer need to keep tracking food. If a DM continues to require the minutia of food tracking at high levels, it has turned from a tension mechanic to a mechanical annoyance. The tracking of food will quickly becomes tedious at these levels and that feeling of the tedious will begin to pervade other aspects of the campaign keeping it mired in the past instead of allowing it to change into something better.

Instead of making the players keep track of how many rations they are carrying, simply require a a weekly or monthly food expenditure...or go the extreme route and simply state that meal purchases come out of loose change the characters carry; after all, at higher levels characters have access to thousands and thousands of gold and requiring them to spend their gold in such miniscule amounts becomes burdensome. Instead of requiring Outdoor Survival rolls to find food for the party, the DM can hand-wave the roll and simply state, "Because of your much greater experience in the wild, you easily find enough food for everyone while you travel."

The side benefit of allowing for this sort of transition is that the players now have a visible sign of progression. Where before eking out food while traveling was a challenge in itself, now the players can see how they have tamed that aspect of the game. The feeling of epicness begins to enter their sphere of play...and that is a good thing.

Hopefully, I've given you some...(/puts on shades) for thought.

November 30, 2012

5E Friday

- A couple of weeks ago Stan! wrote a few articles about his exiting WotC (again). While the posts were insightful into the process that runs WotC and Hasbro, I took several things from it about the upcoming 5E that were uplifting. The articles can be found here, here and here.

Stan! made mention that 5E was not something he was himself working on, though he did get to participate in some playtests. However, he did mention that he had a lot of respect for the designers...

"There isn’t anyone I worked with over the past twelve months that I don’t respect and that I wouldn’t work with again if the opportunity arises."

To me, to have someone of Stan!'s history in the rpg community show such enthusiasm for the designers speaks well of the potential for 5E. One of the fears some people have expressed about 5E is a trust factor. Will WotC mess up D&D yet again? While it could still end badly, I am slightly reassured that at least the design of 5E is in competent hands.

- And taking another look at Stan!'s articles I am even more nervous about Hasbro and their tightfistedness as it pertains to open creativity. I have long stated that for 5E to succeed and rival the rpg explosion of the the launch of 3E, they will need an OGL similar to the one that came with 3E. I fear that in their desire to control 5E, they will not release a robust OGL and thus they will kill any momentum 5E may be able to build upon release.

November 27, 2012

How to Fail at Supplements

What is the purpose of supplements? To provide a gamer with something they do not have time or desire to create on their own. Admit it, after a core rule set, a gamer does not ever need another book again (and some would even say that a person could create their own game system if they wanted to). If you want to add Blood Mages to your game, you can create it on your own. If you want a city for the the players to explore, you can create it on your own. But there are many times that myself and others do not want to create something on our own; that is when we buy supplements and that is why designers and companies can stay in business making us supplements.

But not all supplements are created equal. What do I want out of a supplement? To provide me with something I do not want to create - and that is the key thing - something I do not want to create. This is where many supplements fail at their purpose. For example, if I buy a supplement describing a city, I want a city I can use without requiring me to create anything for it. All too often I will get such a city book and they will give descriptions of the various buildings but then leave some without descriptions. They do this "so the reader can add in their own ideas". If I wanted to add in my own ideas I wouldn't have bought the supplement in the first place, I would have just written it myself. And if I did have something I wanted to add, I would simply replace one of the supplements descriptions with my own. To me "so the reader can add in their own ideas" is the same as the designer saying "I ran out of ideas so I'm leaving this blank".

So, if you are working on a supplement or are thinking of writing one for public consumption, remember what the goal is for such do what I don't what to do.

November 20, 2012

Reason # 21 – Why I like Published Material

Some people complain about using published adventures/settings instead of using homemade materials. Now, I could go into the other reasons of why I feel it’s ok to use such products, but today I’m going to give you only one good reason and I think it is one often overlooked.

I find that when I am writing up an area for my world setting or writing adventure #56 for my campaign I tend to do the same thing again…and again. Sure, I try to keep things varied but there is only so much I can do with one brain. Even if I can come up with something unique, I still use much the same words and writing style as I have for every other thing I’ve written.

Using someone else’s product means my campaign/adventure is using someone else’s words and style of using those words. Their descriptions of areas include things I normally would not. Their NPCs react and say things differently than the ones I write up. This keeps things fresh for my players, both in content and context.

As an example, I tend to have a formula when writing adventures. I happen to think my formula works well, which is why I use it. Basically, for every combat encounter I throw at the characters I will endeavor to include one puzzle in the adventure and then I add in one role-playing situation to the overall adventure. While I try to keep the encounters interesting and new, the overall expectations are often the same. However, if I use a published adventure they will take different approaches. Maybe they use no puzzles in the adventure; maybe they focus more on role-playing. By utilizing such an adventure I will have strayed from my formula and given the players something unique, something separate from myself. In a way, it’s like having a guest DM for the night.

November 16, 2012

5E Friday

-The Monk class came out for 5E this week...and it came out of nowhere. This was not part of a new playtest package. Instead it came out all by itself (you still have to download the whole package). I like this move on WotC's part. It means they have finally figured out that they don't have to put everything into one lump package to impress us with how much they've done so far. If this is a new precedent that means we can, hopefully, expect to see more of these mini releases.

I think this works well a couple of ways.
First, it actually allows for more focused testing. Instead of getting feedback on numerous options from a large playtest package, they can solicit feedback from just this one add-on. Plus, the feedback will be more current. Players can test the most current add-on.

Second, it keeps 5E up front and in people's minds. Releasing small add-ons gives the potential audience more to discuss, more often. One thing about this long playtest is that people's interest will wane as time goes on...unless there is new and exciting playtest content released. This will help keep people talking about 5E. Especially for something like the Monk class which is outside the expected playtest area.

-One of the "features" of the Monk class is that it is restricted to a certain alignment. I fully expect this to change as the early feedback is almost universally negative (as seen in various forums). However, I like alignment to play an important part in character play, but not to the extent of restricting certain classes or races to specific alignments. Rather, I would like to see alignment handled in a positive manner instead of a negative one. Right now restricting class/race to alignments is a negative response - "no, you can not play a monk with that alignment".

One option is to provide a bonus for playing a class/race with a specific alignment. Monks who are Lawful gain benefits/options that playing a monk of a "non-standard" alignment do not have access to. The only problem is that players who choose the "non-standard" alignment will feel slighted. A bulky solution to that is to provide alignment bonuses for each class and each alignment, but that will quickly get too cumbersome. Which leads me to my more radical idea...

Move alignments from where they are right now (something extraneous) to a game mechanic such as a Background. Imagine a Monk taking the Lawful Neutral Background, or a Paladin taking the Lawful Good Background...or Lawful Evil for those who champion evil gods devoutly. No longer is alignment tied directly to class, nor is it left to hang nebulously outside of game mechanics. It now becomes a role-playing choice with benefits.

November 13, 2012

Random Tables - What Are They Good For?

A few weeks ago the blog, Unofficial Games, put out an excellent random table 'What did you land on?' Basically its 6 things that a character could land on when falling from a roof, out a window, etc. I like the list, its imaginative and could be useful for adding a good bit of detail to an adventure. I love detail, I think it adds to the immersion of role-playing. However...

Would I ever use this table? My initial thought was to print it out and put it into a folder. My imagination ran big. Wouldn't it be cool to have a folder with all sorts of tables that I could pull out for whatever special occasion just happened to the characters. Think of all the nuances, detail and the unexpected I could throw at the players. It would be awesome! And then...

I began to imagine myself flipping through a folder with all sorts of cool tables...trying to find the exact one I needed. A character gets throw out a second story window and I'm looking for the right table. And I find it...eventually. I could have taken 2 seconds to come up with something myself that would not have been as cool or I could take 2 minutes to flip through my book and make the roll. As I think about it, I'd rather take the 2 seconds and move the adventure and excitement (a character just got thrown out a second story window!) along rather than spend the time needed to find the right table.

Would I ever use this table? No. However, I still like that it was written up. I can read it and maybe, just maybe, I'll remember one or two of the results and that will be my 2 second response...and that would be awesome!

November 6, 2012

Using Techology as Part of the Game

Games already use some technology at the table - projectors for maps, computers for rules and PDFs, electronic die rollers, Google+ and other chat systems to play online. But I am not talking about using technology at the table, I am talking about using it as part of the game. I am talking about integrating it into the actual game play, using it as a game mechanic. I have already written about this in part in my Use the Internet IC, which dealt with allowing modern day characters to use the internet as a resource and tailoring adventures to make use of the internet.

However, this idea can be expanded and has been in this latest Kickstarter, Magicians: A Language Learning RPG. As background, this RPG is a modern day fantasy in a Korean setting placed at a school for gifted children, similar to the Harry Potter books. It looks to feed on the Korean mythos in depth, which by itself sounds interesting. However, the real interesting thing is that spells are cast by speaking Korean, the real-world language...and a smartphone app (which is free to download) checks to make sure pronunciation is correct. Correct use of the language means the spells goes off correctly. You can check out the Kickstarter to see this in action as they have some in-play videos there.

This Kickstarter promises that it can be used to actually teach a player how to speak Korean. Spellcasting has levels of usage from the simplest (limited use of selected words) to the most difficult (full use of Korean sentences) and the app checks the process...which is good because if I was running the game I wouldn't be able to check the spellcasting. But the more the players play the game the more they will learn of the language, or so the Kickstarter promises.

Either way, I like this use of technology. I think technology should be used more, not to replace game play or decision making, but rather to get players to try a different approach, to add a higher layer to a game. Do you know of any other uses of technology in game play?

October 30, 2012

Halloween is for RPG Players

I call Halloween the Beast Holiday (from the Beauty and the Beast TV series). It's the holiday that the Beast could freely walk around without being bothered. And it is much the same for us who play role-playing games.

This is especially poignant for me as I play LARPs (live-action-role-playing) almost every weekend. There are often times when we'll hit a restaurant after one of our events and most of us will still be dressed as our characters (or NPC monsters - makeup is hard to get off). Most of the year we get second and third looks...and sometimes negative comments. However, during the Halloween season we get positive comments about how good our costumes look; people are not surprised by how we are dressed.

This also works for tabletop rpg players. It's the holiday where pretending you are a fierce warrior or clever mage is acceptable. People understand the desire to be something else, to be heroic. Carrying around an rpg game book is not frowned upon as it may be during other times of the year. Halloween is a commonality between rpg players and those who are not gamers.

October 23, 2012

Modern Day Pickpocket

Recently I was thinking about what "normal" people carry in our modern-day. Suppose someone "rolled" a person or picked their pocket, what can they find?

1) Aspirin
2) Backpack
3) Book (fiction)
4) Book (non-fiction)
5) Bottle opener
6) Camera
7) Candy
8) Cellphone
9) Change
10) Comb
11) Compact mirror
12) E-reader
13) Gun
14) Handkerchief
15) Headphones
16) Jewelry 
17) Keys
18) Laptop computer
19) Lighter
20) Lip balm
21) Music device 
22) Pack of chewing gum
23) Pen and paper
24) Penlight
25) Pocket knife
26) Snack bars
27) Sunglasses
28) Wallet w/cards
29) Watch
30) Whistle

October 18, 2012

Extra Life - Charity Through Gaming

While this is only tangentially connected to rpgs (there are some video games games based on rpgs), this is about a friend of mine who is part of a charity drive that will be video playing games for 24 hours straight. Basically its like sponsoring someone for a marathon, only he'll be playing games instead of running. A person donates a certain amount of money and they can watch him as he plays. At the end he is even giving a free Steam game as a raffle prize to those who donated.

His chosen charity is Boston Children's Hospital. He will be doing this starting on the 20th, so if you want to help out you'll have to do so now. For more information, you can check it out here.

October 16, 2012

Players and DMs vs Settings

Not all game settings are created equal, this we all know. However, some bring an added level of complexity that goes beyond simple personal preference. Some settings require more from the players or more from the DM than your "typical" setting. I have a few examples of what I am talking about; to best illustrate we'll be looking at some of the 2E settings, specifically Birthright, Dark Sun, Ravenloft and Al Qadim. They all use the same core ruleset (2E D&D) but the settings themselves and their approaches are all different from each other.

I view this setting as fairly "typical". If you've played any other sort of D&D this setting is easy to get into. It does not require much from a player or DM other than some different rules for the entire domain/blooded actions. It does not require the players to play any differently or the DM to run things in any different sort of manner. If they had played Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms before coming to Birthright they would not have to alter their play at all.

Dark Sun
This is very similar to Birthright. The players can play it and the DM can run it much the same as any "typical" setting. The only slight difference is the scale of character level and their abilities and the lethality of the setting that can take some getting used to. When the Dark Sun setting came out it changed the perceptions of character ability and danger, but ultimately it can easily be run as any other setting without diluting the setting. It is more about getting used to the setting as opposed to requiring anything special from the players or DM. 

Here we start to diverge from the "typical" setting. Ravenloft is designed to be a "horror" setting. And this requires more from a DM than the "typical" setting. If a DM were to run Ravenloft as they would any other setting the goal of Ravenloft is lost. The setting requires more from a DM than other settings. For myself, I know I can not run Ravenloft effectively. I am not good at subtle hints of danger or a slow build up of fear and terror until it reaches an explosive climax. Therefore, I would be a terrible DM for a game in the Ravenloft setting. Ravenloft requires a DM that can bring these skills to the table. To do otherwise negates the goals of the setting. Ravenloft requires a skilled DM.

Al Qadim
This setting is all about a culture. It is probably the most intensive setting that D&D has ever produced when it comes to providing a cultural setting. It is full of grand and small mythology (as seen in the stories told throughout all its source material). It is full of cultural mores and ways of interacting with other beings. And it is these expansive cultural references that require the players to play "properly" in order to make effective use of the setting. As an example, the setting sets up bounds of how a person acts when confronted with a stranger at their home; in this case it is to provide aid and comfort to the stranger at their door. In a "typical" approach to such a situation the player characters will often simply kill the stranger and take their stuff. The culture puts restrictions upon the player characters that the players first need to know about and then embrace. To not do so negates what the setting is about and turns it into something else; at that point they might as well be playing another setting. Al Qadim requires skilled players.

Can you think of any other settings that require more from the players or DM then the "typical" setting?

October 9, 2012

New ENWorld Column

A short while ago ENWorld began looking for some more columnists. The goal is for ENWorld to provide daily content throughout the week. I put in a sample piece that takes a weekly look at the PDF market. ENWorld acepted the concept and the first article went live today.

Will the weekly series stay up on ENWorld? Who knows, that really depends on how many people read it and like it (and how interesting I make it).

You can check it out here.

The Dice Must Learn

Many of us have our own peculiarities when it comes to dice and die rolling. I wanted to pass along what one of my players once did in the past. Some may find it borders on the edge of eccentric unto the bizarre, but I find it amusing nevertheless.

Mike was having a bad night of die rolling, really bad. Now Mike actually usually has bad luck with die rolling, but this night it was too much for him. The game concluded and he went home...and went straight to the shed. He opened up his dice bag and set all his dice in a circle...around the vice. This was so they could all "see" what was about to happen. He then took the offending d20 and put it in the vise, and turned and turned and turned until the die shattered.

That was horrible enough but then he carefully picked up the pieces and put them into a small, clear container. And now whenever he starts to roll bad he brings out the container and places it near the dice he is rolling that a reminder of what could happen to each of them.

Have you ever done anything similar or extreme with your dice?

October 5, 2012

5E Friday

-Stealing WotC's Thunder
When news of 5E was released to the media it was a big thing. While it hit the mainstream outlets, it really had its impact within the forums and blogs that follow our niche hobby. There was various speculation, both hopeful and fearful, as well as people who felt the need to write that they had no interest (which seems contrary). 5E was a big thing. And now WotC has stated they expect 5E to be released in 2014, two years from now. That is a lot of lead up time. A lot of time for the enthusiasm to wane.

And there are plenty of other companies and games ready to step up and steal the thunder.

13th Age is currently in closed testing and generating a buzz all its own. The Kickstarter for its first expansion made over twice it's goal and this is for an expansion for the core rules which aren't even out yet. There is a positive feedback on 13th Age that is stealing some of the excitement of 5E.

Fantasy Flight Games has released a playtest for a license many gamers have been eagerly waiting for...a Star Wars rpg. While they have received some criticism for charging for the playtest materials, it still has a buzz among fans of the setting. This buzz will continue to grow as the release date gets closer; in fact, it is likely to release before 5E.

The newest set of excitement is with the venerable Rolemaster system. They have released two playtest documents (Character Law and Spell Law) with more to follow. They readily admit they are doing this to generate interest in their system and thus far it looks like it is working. They are also looking at a publish date of less than 6 months, which means this will give gamers something other than 5E to take a look at.

Who is to say what other new products will come out in the next two years. The OSR continues to chug along just fine and there are other companies looking to make their own marks in the rpg industry. We can see with the initial excitement WotC generated with their 5E playtest, there are now others stealing their thunder with their own playtests. Will it diminish WotC's own goals with 5E? Time will tell, but the longer the 5E playtest goes on, the more "distractions" there will be.

October 2, 2012

The Myth of Character Death

One of the rallying cries of the OSR, and old-time gamers in general, is the subject of lethality in a game. They state that the fear of death, and the actual killing of characters, adds a layer to an rpg game that more modern games have lost sight of. I'm not so sure that adding lethality really creates what they are looking for; I am starting to think that Lethality and Character Death are a myth.

When Lethality and the fear of Character Death is working correctly, a player makes decisions for their characters based on this knowledge or fear. They are more careful with their characters; they "prepare" better. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, the player has his character act "irrationally" or in role-playing terms "heroically". And this is because Lethality is a myth.

When a character dies, the player does not have to stop playing in that campaign. Instead they simply roll up  a new character. Sometimes, the DM will even go out of their way to provide that new character with ties to the dead character or at the very least with the other members of the adventuring party; all done in the name of easier integration into the campaign. The player is not even constrained in what type of character their new one will be; if they want, they can go ahead and create another dwarven thief. There is no real penalty for having a character die.

Even if a "hardcore" DM forces a new character to begin at starting level, without any of the magic items or other materials of an advanced character, the new character will be coddled by the higher level characters. The DM will avoid targeting the new character with attacks that can one-shot the new character while only lightly injuring one of the advanced characters. Play will be altered until such a time as the new character "catches" up to the rest of the party.

I had one campaign wherein the party was surrounded and outnumbered three-to-one. The enemy had weapons that could kill with one shot as the party already knew as they had seen the enemy use these weapons before. And yet when the party was asked to surrender, one of them went all "heroic" and tried to fight his way out...with the expected result of character death. If there was a real fear of character death, the "smart" thing would have been to surrender and work on an escape later. But there was no real fear of character death because the player knew he could simply roll up another character and continue on with the campaign.

I am currently working on a game setting that is a closed world. It is a lost worlds series of adventure wherein the only characters are the initial ones. Transition to and from this world is virtually non-existent. As I am working on the design I had to ask myself, what happens when a character dies? The normal response is to simply bring in another character. But then I also realized that be allowing this, it completely undermines the core concept of being lost and alone in a strange world with no one to rely on except themselves. If a character does something "stupid", like charge a dinosaur with a spear, then that character should die. But by allowing the player to simply roll up a new character it diminishes the fact the player made a "foolish" character decision with their last character.

Part of me wants to not allow the player to roll up a new character. If a character dies, then the player must suffer the consequences of his poor judgement and must sit out the rest of the campaign. Now that would put a real edge on playing their characters. If that was the rule, players would play things much more carefully; every decision would be weighed and be of the utmost importance; game play would reach a new height of intensity. But, of course, that is not a real option. My group plays together because we like hanging out together and the rules we pick to play with facilitate this.

However, players are able to completely ignore the concept of lethality and character death because they are allowed roll up another character to take the place of the previous character. Players are allowed to make "foolish" decisions and ignore the "reality" of a situation because they are allowed roll up another character and continue on as before. Lethality and the Fear of Character Death are a myth.

September 18, 2012

Puzzle - Cards and Words

Here is a puzzle you can throw at the players...

Cards and Words

The players come across a door that will not open or a force field that protects an item they want and can not be dispelled. Lying on the ground before the barrier are a set of playing cards and some writing on a plaque:

Take the first of each,
to gain its name.
The first part is the same as quick,
the second is the same as reptile.

The barrier will drop when the correct word/phrase is spoken out loud.

Click to find the answer and variations on this puzzle.

September 11, 2012

Why the D&D Movies are the Worst Thing for D&D

The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies have made the fantasy genre cool. The characters are believable yet bigger than life. They pull off exciting things the viewer wishes they could do themselves. They make the viewer want to be a part of what is happening up on the screen. D&D and RPGs can thus reap the residual reward from potential customers looking to experience those movies for themselves. Those movies can bring new customers and a new generation of gamers to RPGs.

And then we have the actual D&D movies. This is how you kill any momentum the better movies have created. A non-gamer seeing the D&D movies will think D&D is cheesy and lame. Why would they want to become part of this world called D&D? To them it would appear as if it’s cheap and goofy, not cool and exciting; something to be avoided, not embraced.

WotC is actually doing a disservice to the D&D brand, and RPG games in general, with these movies. They are doing more harm than good. They can actually drive people away from D&D, and that is the last thing they should allow. I know they have no control over the movies, or at least limited control, but it would actually be in their best interests to make sure this upcoming movie does NOT happen.

The best we can hope for is that they never get a wide release and no one ever sees them…and that is a sad statement.

September 7, 2012

5E Friday - The OSR and 5E

What is the single biggest thing to enable the OSR to succeed and continue to succeed?

Is it a core philosophy of streamlined mechanics?
Is it a retro feel that hits the heartstrings of our youth?
Is it designers that bring insight, enthusiasm and creativity?
Is it that it is different from the other rpgs out there?

No, none of those things.

What is the single biggest thing that will allow 5E to grow and find its foothold in gaming consciousness and tables?

Is it a fusion of game styles that pleases everyone?
Is it modularity that allows gamers to craft their own version of D&D?
Is it designers that bring experience, insight and creativity?
Is it slick, glossy products that raise the bar?

No, none of those things.
The single biggest thing that allowed for the growth of the OSR movement and will allow for the growth of 5E is the OGL.This is not simply because it gave a legal opportunity to the OSR designers, but rather because it allowed then to join together. Even with divergent designs between the various retro-clones there is still a core system of mechanics that bind them all together. The OGL allowed the curious to understand what was going happening and to join in...and it is that ability to join in that gave the OSR it's life.

If the OSR was just a single entity producing product the OSR would have died long before it grew to where it is now. It is the fact that multiple people can join in on the design and production that allows it to grow. Even if a person never releases a new retro-clone and just puts out a small bit of free material they feel ties to the OSR movement. The OGL allows people to become a part of what is happening.

And that is what 5E will NEED to find its own feet and its own growth. If it is just WotC dictating the game from on high it will never reach its true potential. Already people are producing adventures, backgrounds and other material for 5E and it is still just a playtest. People want to be a part of 5E...will WotC let them?

September 4, 2012

Why Tabletop RPGs Will Not Die

Some people have been talking about the decline of tabletop RPGs for years now. They say Magic the Gathering and CCGs have eaten dramatically into the market to the point where it will never recover. They say gamers can get the same thing with MMOs and other video games, but without the hassles of the tabletop. They say the interest in tabletop RPGs has reached its peak and is now a has-been form of entertainment.
I say ‘No’ to all of that. This is not wishful thinking on my part, wherein my love for this form of entertainment is blinding me to the realities of the industry, but rather an understanding of what tabletop RPGs bring to entertainment and the way we live as humans.

The reason why tabletop RPGs will never die is that – At its core, RPGs fulfill fundamental needs that no other medium can.

People need human social interaction. There have been numerous studies on the subject of human contact and the end analysis is that human interaction is one of the most important things to living a healthy life, on par with the physical needs of food and shelter. And at each person’s core, at an instinctive level, is a drive to fulfill this need. Some examples of the importance of human contact can be found here, here, here and here.

While the need for human contact is universal, there is a secondary need that RPGs fulfill and that is the need to take in and express imagination, to keep the mind active. The reason fantasy is such a draw is that it provides the greatest form of imagination, brings us furthest into our imaginations. D&D, and RPGs in general, tap into that need for imagination. And they do a superior job fulfilling this need.

Tabletop RPGs are a fusion between these two primal needs, human contact and imagination. By sitting across from another player and expressing self imagination (through the imagination invested in their character) and social imagination (through the imagination of a shared world) both needs are fulfilled.

Magic the Gathering, and others of the “tabletop destroying” CCG genre, is a static game. It has some elements of human contact and some elements of imagination, but it is not as all-encompassing as an rpg. The human contact is adversarial, which is not as powerful as an rpg wherein working together brings the players together and reinforces the social interaction. The immersion into the imagination is not remotely as deep.

MMOs and video games are excellent at tapping into that need for imagination and they create the illusion of human contact. This is done through interaction with digital human constructs and even with fellow players, but again, this level of human contact is not remotely as in depth as at a tabletop game. The subtle messages a human sends with body language and speech tone are lost over a computer line. The best times in an MMO is when a player is interacting and working with another player and they are working well together. Better times are when they can share voices over a voice chat channel wherein they actually hear the other person and the inflections therein.
In addition, the imagination of a tabletop game is substantially more intensive than that within a video game. The ability to have the game react to the player helps to create a greater immersion and attachment to the form of imagination.
Video games are a good substitute for human contact and imagination, but tabletop simply does it better.

RPGs have not reached their peak. As with all things, it goes in cycles. People may enjoy something, but human nature means looking for something new and fresh. People forget the joys and strengths of tabletop games. But there is a primal draw to tabletop rpgs that brings people into this form of entertainment. The only reason our favorite form of entertainment is not as prevalent is a lack of exposure (and some misconceptions as to what it can provide). While I firmly believe that rpgs can fulfill fundamental needs of us humans, it does no good if no one knows it exists or that it can provide what is needed.
While this is no statistical evidence, I see people much younger than my older self playing and enjoying tabletop games with much the same passion as myself. The genre of fantasy as found in media, such as film (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the super-hero genre and science-fiction), is one of the strongest forms of entertainment these days, generating billions of dollars. And tabletop games do it better. While the exposure of actual tabletop rpgs is weak, those individuals that find it are drawn in and stay.

RPGs will not die because nothing fulfills our needs more.

August 31, 2012

5E Friday

-Should we trust WotC with 5E? One of the things coming out of WotC is that we should trust them with this latest iteration of D&D, that they are working their hardest to produce the best game possible that will bridge a variety of game play styles.

Some say we should trust them. That they are full of new staff and thus have a new vision and direction., That they have learned from past mistakes and from past successes. That they should not be judged by the past because they (the designers involved) are not the same as those who made the mistakes of the past.

Some say we should never trust them again. They have proven again and again they can not deliver that which they promise. "Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me". They have had plenty of chances to gain our trust and each time they have failed that trust.

I say we should look at them with an attitude in-between the two extremes. Yes, the designers have changed and with it come new ideas and approaches on how to do things at all levels. Yes, they have a proven track record of dropping the ball. Personally, I will be giving them a chance to prove themselves, but without ready and blind acceptance.

Should we trust WotC? No. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Yes.

August 28, 2012

RPGs and Real Life Politics

There is a saying that you should never mention politics or religion in a social setting. It always leads to heated debates and ill-will. Both are highly personalized things where rarely, if ever, do two people have identical beliefs. That said, have you ever brought up real world politics or religion at the gaming table?

I have been gaming with some of my players for over 20 years and some for only 5 years. I could not tell you what political party any of them is a part of. I could not tell you their stance on abortion or government sanctioned healthcare.

Most of our table talk, outside of the game, runs to video games, movies, books, TV, the recent Olympics and, of course, rpgs. While it has not been discussed, its like we have made an unconscious decision to avoid the topics that could lead to dissension and heated arguments. How is it at your table?

August 24, 2012

5E Friday

-Daemon over at Thief on the Flats asked the question "D&D Next-Saving the Industry or Killing it?". I think there are actually three possible outcomes for 5E and 'Killing It' will not be the outcome that will happen. The three possible outcomes are...

Saving the Industry. By this I mean that new players will flock to the game, pick it up in droves and RPGs receive a sustained boom of sales similar to the early days of D&D and when 3E launched.
Nothing Happens. The industry continues on as now; it remains a niche market with the occasional spark of interest in an rpg that comes out strong. Some will continue to make money at it, while others do it simply for the love of it.
Killing It. The player base continues to fracture and less people play rpgs.

I can see outcome one or two happening, but outcome three can not happen...

Saving the Industry. This might happen. 5E could become the entry point for the rpg industry. People might be curious about "that game everyone is playing" and give it a try. The more people that play one system the more word is spread and non-gamers would get a more concentrated message being sent to them, which would lead to more new gamers playing. And from there people would branch out into other game system and genres.
Nothing Happens. Herein 5E is released and is greeted much the same as any other new rpg system. I think it will do much better than the "average" release but as for its effect upon the overall industry it will have minimal effect. It really comes down to if the industry buys into it. If the industry supports the system much the same as when 3E came out (which is highly dependent on how much WotC allows 3rd party publishers to participate in 5E) then 5E will indeed invigorate the industry. However, this is an unknown at this point and dependent on more unknown factors.
Killing it. 5E can not kill the RPG industry. If there is no industry buy-in, no one supports the system, rpgs will, at the least, continue as they already do. 4E didn't kill the industry, it just spread out where the money is going. People do not stop playing rpgs because they do not like a particular D&D edition. Instead they move onto another game or stay with their own preferred edition.

So for me the real question is ""D&D Next-Saving the Industry or Having No Effect?"

August 14, 2012

The Morally Easy to Kill Monster

Killing stuff is a mainstay of role-playing games. And while there is a barrier between a player and their character, at times the morality of a character doing such killing is a factor for the player. Often times (except during specifically "evil campaigns") players go out of their way to not have their characters kill non-evil creatures. However, it is open season on "evil" races such as orcs, trolls and undead. And that is because they are morally easy to kill monsters.

The morally easy to kill monster is not a new idea. History is full of the concept. The dehumanization of the enemy is a long standing practice during wartime. It is easier to kill an enemy if he is not the same as ourselves. In WWII the enemy was not the Germans, it was the Nazis or "Krauts". This is done in RPG games as well. In modern-day setting games, the enemy is something evil, something alien from ourselves; drug dealers, terrorists, even Nazis and space aliens. It is "okay" to kill such enemies.

Fiction is also rife with them. The Cylons are an evil race of machines; they are not even human. Likewise, Star Wars featured a war between clones and robots. In fact, there is a reason Stormtroopers are always seen in their full helmets. It is another way to dehumanize them. The audience can cheer at their deaths without feeling guilty about it.

This brings us to the fantasy genre wherein the dehumanization of monsters is done at the outset. Most adventurers will end up fighting goblins, rust monsters and manticores. These have already been dehumanized simply because they are not human. They easily fall into the same category as killing space aliens. When humans are attacked, they are necromancers, cultists and bandits; easy to handle characterizations.

And players like this moral freedom when killing stuff. They like to kill imaginary things with no twinge on their conscious. Which is why it is a good idea for a DM to include such creatures in their setting and in their adventures. The dehumanization or humanization of an adversary should be a conscious choice on the part of a DM.

Because it is possible to humanize a monster. If a DM introduces orcs that have been “humanized” with such techniques as letting the adventurers encounter some orc babies or a good-aligned orc it removes them from being “morally easy to kill monsters”. From then on the players will need to question if they can kill such opponents indiscriminately. While this is an excellent method to get players to role-play in-character or give then another type of choice to make, it should be used sparingly. Players need their characters to kill stuff; if every kill spree is mired in moral choices it “kills” the fun of…killing.

August 7, 2012

System Death

Should a game system kill a character or should the environment/monsters/setting/adventure kill a character?

I have seen game systems that penalize a character for doing cool stuff, for playing their character. Specifically the use of magic. If you cast a spell there is a chance the character will go insane or lose stats that eventually causes the death of the character. Every time a player rolls a specific number, such as a 1, when using a specific character skill or item they move one step closer to character death.

There is a delineation between System Death, when system mechanics lead to the death of a character, and environmental effects or monsters that kill a character. I also do not mind putting in system mechanics to limit the use of certain powers and abilities; this is often done for the sake of balance. What I do not like is System Death, especially if said power or ability is part of the core concept of the character. I prefer a character death that comes from making bad choices, from ignoring the warning signs of impending doom. I would prefer a player says "My character was killed by a Balrog" or "My character was killed by stepping into a Sphere of Annihilation" rather than "My character died because I rolled a 1 on my spell casting".

I can understand that System Death is often a mechanic to add tension, but it is not my preference. Let a character die from choices the player makes, not from some arbitrary system mechanic. How do you feel about game system mechanics that send a character into the downward spiral of character death?

August 3, 2012

Dwarven City of the Black Mountains - Level 4 & 5

This is a 5 Level dungeon and former dwarven city. It has over 155 rooms. I'm not sure how long ago it was written but it is for 1E. My dungeon design has come along way since those early days, but the overall design still makes for a good layout of a dwarven city...even if the actual encounters don't work. I think the original design was that a dragon had taken over the city and allowed various denizens to inhabit it as well. I'll be posting the entire dungeon over the course of the week.

Level 4
137) Stairs to level 2, #35.
138) Stairs to Level 5, #145
139 Soldiers Quarters. Contains 3 Umber Hulks- 45, 52, 47, 7 gems, 202 pp, 1 jewelry, Bow +1, Ring (free action), Shield +4, Scroll (protection from lycanthropes).
140) Prisoner's Cells. Empty.
141) A Crazed Orc- 1 is chained to the wall here. He will accept no help, attacking w/teeth. He is beyond help.
142) 2 Giant Trolls- 34, 39, 650 sp, 160 cp, 3 gems, 1500 cp.
143) 4 Galltrits- 2, 2, 2, 2. 2 gems lie in the center of the room. The Galltrits will attack undetectably. Use random chance to determine who they attack.
144) Black Pudding- 44.

Level 5
145) Stairs to level 4, #138. All torches are lit.
146) Receiving bin for the ore chute from Level 3. A 10x10x10 pillar of debris goes up into the ore chute. If the debris is moved more will fall to take its place.
147) The floor is made of stones put together. Each dark spot is an arrow release pad. If stepped on an arrow comes whizzing out doing 1-8 hp damage. If hit by an arrow there is a 35% chance of the person falling and touching off another arrow. Once activated the arrow never misses. It takes about 100 pounds to activate these pads.
148) Spear Pit Trap. If one falls in they receive 2-12 hp damage.
149) The pit is activated by touch. If someone falls in they will sustain 1-8 plus 10-Armor Class. If someone goes down they will notice a button. If the button is pushed the southern wall of pit opens upward and stairs appear (see map). If any are standing where the steps will appear they will fall sown the stairs suffering 1-10 plus 10-AC. Stairs go up where the southern wall opens.
150) Counting Room. Nothing of value.
151) Guard's Room. Contains a Purple Worm- 73, 4000 sp, 1000 ep, 1000 gp, 10 gems, Potion (speed), Sword +4.
152) Ore Smithies. Contains 4 Displacer Beasts- 26, 23, 32, 24, 10000 sp, 2500 gp.
153) Gem Sorter's Room. Contains 6 Ghasts- 8, 7, ,7 ,8 11, 7, 1000 gp, 3 gems, 1 jewelry, Potion (plant control), Potion (delusion), Potion (invulnerability), Potion (fire resistance).
154) Treasure Room. Contains an ancient huge Red Dragon- 88, Pallinstamros. It speaks and does magic. It knows the following spells:
1st- protection from good, ventriloquism; 2nd- scare, knock; 3rd- protection from normal missiles, lightning; 4th- remove curse, wall of ice. She is awake. Also in the room is 68000 cp, 68000 gp, 59 gems, 52 jewelry, 4500 pp, 50000 cp, 20000 sp, Potion (gaseous form), Potion (giant strength), Potion (extra-healing), Scroll (7th- simulacrum), Scroll (1st- nystul's magic aura, shield), Scroll (protection from lycanthropes), scroll (protection from petrification), Scroll (5th- contact other plane, stone shape; 6th- reincarnation, stone to flesh), Scroll (3rd- haste; 4th- plant growth), Shield +4, Sword +3, Morning Star +1, Platemail +1, Scalemail +2, Rug of Smothering, Dagger +4, Ring (protection +1), Ring (feather falling), Axe +5, Wand (magic missiles), Wand (fire), Scimitar +2, Ring (protection+4, +2 saving throws),
Gem of the Mountain- (color spray-3/day; detect invisibility, hypnotic pattern-3/day; light-1/week; charm monster-2/day; charm person-7/week; dispel illusion-2/day, phantasmal killer-1/day; true seeing-1/day; gems decrease in value, hairs turns white, lycanthropy of alignment of possessor. User shrinks 1/4" each time the following are used: meteor swarm-1/day; prismatic spray-1/day; time stop-1/week. All abilities are raised 3 points.) Once touched the gem sticks to the hand. However, things go right through the gem so that the user can still use his hand.
155) This passage leads to a secret opening in the side of the mountain.