Sunday, September 30, 2012

On Setting: Four Last Fragments: RPG Blog Carnival

This month’s Blog Carnival looks at gaming in established settings and is hosted by the excellent Dice Monkey blog. You can see my other post on the topic- “Getting the Setting Right” here.

When I first started thinking about this topic, I realized what a hypocrite I was. I thought, “Well, I don’t run in established settings because I build things myself…” with a certain amount of smug satisfaction. Then I actually paused to consider what I’d run over the last decade. An Exalted campaign, a Vampire: the Masquerade campaign, Star Wars, Changeling the Lost, Grimm, Fading Suns, Legend of the Five Rings, and Scion. Those were all premises that I wanted to run in. Even when I run my own games I usually go and raid from existing material for ideas and inspiration. There’s more than a little Mystara, Shadow World, Glorantha, The Old World, and Sundered Skies in my various fantasy campaigns. I like reading new setting materials. More than core rules; more than rules supplements; more than bestiaries; more than modules, adventures or ‘paths’- if I see a good and solid setting sourcebook that’s what I’ll buy.

But at the same time when I go to run, I hesitate. Here’s the root of my problem and it may sound stupid. In the back of my mind is always- maybe I’ll do something so cool that it will be worth publishing or doing something more with. If I’ve run using an established setting or world, then my options are limited. I could either try to get it published there or rework it heavily so that it isn’t clear where it comes from. It is a little dumb, but sometimes I feel when I run in another setting I don’t really have ownership in the broadest sense. And what I’m creating is, in some ways, work that could be more productively put into a project of my own. Yet I really love some of these worlds- and running in them makes things easier. It means not having to do so much prep work- and being able to point players to an easy set of references.

In the back of my mind too is the problem of bottling lightning. I can usually tell when a new game, more often small press or independently published, has come out of a campaign. Sometimes the authors have barely filed the serial numbers off. The other day I saw a game and assumed it was a parody of a popular horror game featuring bloodsuckers. But no, they’d just changed a few terms and concepts to make a new game. It looked more like a heavily house-ruled campaign. Then there are games that describe themselves but don’t really say anything. They have a setting they played in- but what exactly the players do or what makes it new isn’t clear. It probably worked at the game table for them, but somehow they haven’t figured out how to convey that to a buying audience. I’m afraid of falling into that trap…

I love that we’re in a time where different settings can be published and translated over to multiple systems. I’m not a Savage Worlds player, but I’m cheer by the fact that so many new settings have had SW versions produced. We’ve seen that with other systems like FATE, M&M, and Hero System. However, not all systems work equally well for all settings. Horror games don’t work as well where players can more narrative control or the opportunity to spend currency to avoid risk. Call of Cthulhu is a game where your characters ought to be constantly on the short end of the stick. To paraphrase Ken Hite it is not a game about personal development or advancement. The CoC rules reflect that. So I’m a little skeptical about d20, Savage Worlds, and True20 versions which take that on. On the other hand, lighter settings don’t work as well with crunchy systems. That’s why I wouldn’t run a Ranma ½ game using GURPS 4e. It is worth looking at the core values and purpose of a setting. You can really see that in the sweep of comic books. The same game system than can adequately emulate the Marvel Universe might have problems with Watchmen or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It might also have problems with something as over-the-top as The Authority or Supreme Power. All games have certain assumptions about the world built into them- and when those don’t match the setting, you get a problematic experience.


Most smart freshly created rpg settings build in room for multiple characters as “the lead.” But fewer established fictional licensed worlds have room for that. Even those which seem to allow for it- Buffy or Harry Potter for example- have a key character and sidekicks. They may be capable, but they’re not on the same level or connected to the key destiny of the story. Game systems then have to work to get that somehow balanced between player parity and faithfulness to the tone of the setting. Of course there’s the even more extreme case of something like Dr. Who. Some settings which seem to offer lots of strong multiple protagonists- Star Wars, Heroes or A Game of Thrones- split those characters up significantly. The actual “band of heroes” happens more rarely than flipping to a scene with a couple doing their thing. But the majority of classic Hollywood-style properties focus on a central character- with the story being one of transformation for them. In this case, one of the tasks of the GM emulating the setting is figuring out how to run multiple films in parallel, each with their own protagonist and somehow meshing together at the end.

I’ve talked before about the connection between video games and rpgs. I put together a list of VGs I’d like to see a tabletop rpgs. For each of those I had a pretty good idea of what a story/campaign set in that world would look like. Most of them offer some depth and story. I know what the players would be doing in that campaign setting. They have an openness to the world even if the track you’re playing is fairly narrow. Some games are cool and suggest a rich and vibrant world, but I have a hard time picturing what kind of tableop campaign you could run within it and remain at all true to the narrative- take for example Shadow of the Colossus. That’s an awesome game with a heart-tugging story, but how would you actually play that with a group.

So I’m a little surprised by the video games which have had pen & paper versions. Take for example Alternity: Starcraft and GURPS Myth. They’re both based on RTS games. They don’t immediately suggest to me a group of PCs- and I have a hard time picturing what a sustained campaign would look like. On the other hand I said the same thing about HALO and then discovered there was an extensive back-story to the world. It still didn’t offer great room for anything but war stories, but there was depth. Then there’s a game like AD&D's Diablo II: The Awakening. The point of the games beating things up as fast as you can and getting loot- can you really emulate that at the table? Then there’s Street Fighter the Storytelling Game. How does that translate into a viable campaign setting and remain close to the original? I can see playing out something like Soul Caliber because it offers travel, alt history, side stories, and characters that team up. But the tournament stylings of Dead or Alive, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken don’t do that; even though we have generic games like Fight! that aim there. So here’s my question- how much do can you change the basic premise of a setting, before it becomes not that setting? What elements need to remain intact to make it work? In the case of Street Fighter it seems to be hyper martial arts, world police, and Cammy’s shapely legs on the cover. But have we seen adaptations that have completely switched up the basis of the world? 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

60 Shades of GM

From time to time in doing reviews I hit the problem of naming the Game Master. Also known as the GM. Aka Gamesmaster, Games Master, Game-Master, Games-Master, and Gamemaster. That's always been my preferred term.  On the other hand, to me a DM or Dungeon Master, is someone actually running Dungeons & Dragons. That's a matter of taste and experience I suppose (or I'm just plain wrong). Below I've tried to assemble a list of the many 'alternate names' RPGs use to name the GM. For each I've listed just one example system, even when that name appears in several games (Storyteller, Narrator, Director). Many were suggested by my excellent colleagues on the original list at RPG GeekFeel free to suggest any I may have missed.

With GM as #1 and DM as #2, here are 58 others:

Adventure Master (Dragonraid)
Animator (Toon)
Bartender (Tales from the Floating Vagabond)
Big Mac Daddy (StuperPowers!)
The Boss (Low Life)
Cannibal-in-Charge (Cannibal Contagion)
Castle Keeper (Castles & Crusades)
Chill Master (Chill)
Continuum Master (TIMEMASTER)
Control (Agents of S.W.I.N.G.)
Cryptkeeper (The World of Tales from the Crypt)
Director (Night’s Black Agents)
Dorn Keeper (Dorn)
Editor (Pandemonium)
Fate (The World of Synnibarr)
Fixer (Leverage)
Galaxy Master (Starfaring)
Game Control (Spycraft)
General Management (Time & Temp)
Ghostmaster (Ghostbusters)
Grey Eminence (Agone)*
Guide (Don’t Look Back)
Hand of Fate (The Secret of Zir’An)
Hollyhock God (Nobilis)
HōLmeister (HōL)
Host (Ironclaw)
Interrogator (InTERRORgation)
Judge (Marvel Super Heroes)
Keeper aka Keeper of Arcane Lore (Call of Cthulhu)
Leader (Shadows of Esteren)
Loremaster (The One Ring)
Magister/Magistra (Kata Kumbas)
Marshall (Deadlands)
Master of Ceremonies (Apocalypse World)
Mayor (Kobolds Ate My Baby)
Meister (Das Schwarze Auge)
Moderator (Blue Planet)
Mythguide (Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth)
Mythmaster (Mythender)
Narrator (Houses of the Blooded)
Navigator (Mermaid Adventures)
Overlord (Descent)
Producer (Primetime Adventures)
Prophet (The Seventh Seal)
Referee (Traveller)
Seneschal (The Riddle of Steel)
Sholari (Skyrealms of Jorune)
Storyguide (CthulhuTech)
Story Master (Dungeons the Dragoning 7th Edition)
Storyteller (Vampire: the Requiem)
Superuser (Freemarket)
Timemaster (TIMEMASTER) see above
Umpire (Lace & Steel)
War Master (Weird Wars)
Watcher (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying)
Watchtower (Smallville)
Wulin Sage (Weapons of the Gods)**
Zargon aka Morcar (UK) (HeroQuest)
Zombie Master (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

Suggested Additions:
Administrator (Top Secret/SI)
Antagonist (ΑΓΩΝ)
Campaign Master (Star Ace)
Consul (Super Dungeon Explore)
Corpse Master (Rotworld)
Dawg Master (Dawg the RPG)
Dolphin Master (Everything is Dolphins)
Everyone Else (Everyone is John)
Excursion Master (Excursions into the Bizarre)
Fairytale Teller (Wiedzmintrans. from the Polish)
Gamekeeper (Tales from the Wood)
Game Moderator (Wild Talents)
Game Operations Designate aka GOD (The Legend of Yore)
Grand Master (Witch Hunter: The Invisible World)
Game Sheriff (Dzikie Pola- trans. from the Polish)
Kennel Master (Woof Meow)
The Man (Starchildren)
Mutant Lord (Mutant Future)
Operations (Wilderness of Mirrors)
Overseer (Catacombs)
Puppet Master (Puppetland)
Runner (Rune)
Sherpa Guide (Sherpa)
StarMaster (Space Opera)
StoryHost (Enter the Shadowside)
*Eminence Grise in the original French
**If I were to run Weapons of the Gods, I would require that the players address me as the Wulin Sage at all times.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Seven: 2008-2009)

It makes a strange sense that as we draw closer to the present, I hit more and more games I wasn't aware of. Some of these games sparked briefly and went out, but some sustained themselves- I just hadn't heard of them. I could be wrong, but it feels like as the RPG industry has increased in volume, it has splintered. RPGs are already a niche and we have niches within niches. That's not a bad thing, but the tyranny of choice means I'll never have a chance to play or read many of these cool games. 

Once again, I've left some interesting titles off this list. For example, New Wave Requiem is one of the coolest ideas I've heard of. I don't think I could actually get that to the table, but I love the idea. WW's created more in that spirit, Mage Noir and Victorian Lost. Just as a concept I like those a little better than the straight historicals. I bent my rule on pdf-only products because it becomes increasingly harder to draw that line in this era. On the other hand, I left off the worthy Horror20 and Dead Reign- for reasons which made sense at the time. There's also my favorite, Adventures into Darkness, which has Lovecraft writing superhero comics. Fiasco also appears in this era and I wonder if I'm wrong to leave it off. It isn't exactly a horror game, except in the sense of personal horror. But really smart players have developed horror-based playsets like The Bookhounds, Objective Zebra, and Camp Death.

1. Trail of Cthulhu (2008)
Trail of Cthulhu takes the GUMSHOE concept and applies it to classic Lovecraftian gaming. If it just did that, I would be pretty pleased. That system for handling clues and investigations fits well with this kgenre. I've even heard rumors that CoC 7 will borrow a little from that. 

But ToC doesn't stop there. The ever excellent Ken Hite gives us his spin on Call of Cthulhu here. His approach is both erudite and playable. the monsters are handled more abstractly- for example, with an emphasis on atmospherics and suggestions on how they can be presented. The rules explicit address and build for the "Purist" and "Pulp" divide in these games. That's a refreshing change from glossing over the split. Hite also moves the timeline and history forward into the 1930's- to my mind a welcome change. I know some people love the 1920's, but the next decade offers so many darker elements and opportunities for secret and alternate history. Trail of Cthulhu sets the standard for presentation and layout as well.

If you love Call of Cthulhu, what's not to love about more lines and settings available for it? Nearly all of the material can be easily interchanged between the two. ToC has a remarkable track record of amazing sourcebooks and modules, including Hite's Bookhounds of London and Laws' The Armitage Files. For my review of ToC, see New Paths to Madness. For more, see Trail of Cthulhu: System Guide for New Gamers.

2. Zombie Cinema (2008)
This is a strange little game I hadn't heard of before researching this list. Nominated for a couple of Indie Game awards in 2008, Zombie Cinema came in a VHS box. This is a story game which might also be seen more as a board game by some. The game box contains short rules, cards, and some tokens. Players create characters and collaboratively design the story for the zombie movie. It takes its cues from the films, with players arguing over authority and the lead cutting from scene to scene. It looks interesting- a story game not unlike Fiasco- which also means that it requires the right group to play out.

A line for the new World of Darkness which splits opinion. On the one hand many hate the discarding of the supernatural elements and overarching metastory from Hunter: The Reckoning; on the other hand players like the open-ended approach of this form of Hunter. The families and archetypes for this game line are examples, rather than set and determined by the backstory. That gives it a flexibility missing from some of the other line. In some ways it fits more closely to the old VTM product- The Hunters Hunted which many expected HtR be. Hunter the Vigil has many ideas (group teamwork benefits for example) useful for other modern horror games. It is a limited series game, like Changeling the Lost and Promethean the Created.

This game has perhaps my favorite vague publisher blurb, "Ghost Stories is predicated on tales of horror and the supernatural as found in movies, comics, and books from the last several decades." Thanks for narrowing that down. This uses the genreDiversion rules to cover horror games- from classic to modern. Now if they'd said that were targeting ghost stories as a limited sub-genre, that might be interesting. But this aims to provide the bolt-on systems to run horror games in this system. That includes psychic powers, simple archetypes, and adversaries.

On my last list, I mentioned my frustration with many of these "strange new reality" horror games. These had the players observe some secret of our world and become caught up in something. Some games presented and sold their premise clearly (like Don't Rest Your Head). Others essentially said "Look, Spoooooky!" and didn't bother to clarify their hook (if they had one). Exquisite Replicas falls into the former camp. An alien reality has begun to invade and corrupt our world- replacing people, places, and things with imposters from that reality. The PCs can see these 'replicas' for what they really are. That's a simple and clear pitch- and one that invites multiple interpretations and right away suggests stories for the players. It is creepy- and I really like the cover art for the book.

Apparently Dread was originally released in 2002, but had its big publishing push in 2008. It is a modern horror game with lots of demons, black magic, and crazy occult symbology. It looks pretty metal. The back cover of the book has lots of colorful blurbs, but it isn't easy to say what the game's about (besides demons). I think you might actually be playing demon-worshippers or at least servants to demons, based on the flavor text there- but the review suggest the opposite, that you're actually hunters against those demons. Most of the reviews invoke phrases like ass-kicking, gritty, stylish, demons. It has a number of supplements out for it, Pent: The First Gospel of Pandemonium, Dire: The First Creed of Pandemonium, and Crux: The Pandemonium Scriptures Volume 1.

Also, demons. 

7. Brain Soda 2 (2008)
A French horror rpg I had to include because of the awesome name. It seems to be a tongue-in-cheek look at cinematic worlds, especially including those of horror. Supplements include a history book (for doing what looks like Clash of the Titans) and a "redneck" book (which seems to cover everything from Deliverance to Children of the Corn to Tucker and Dale Versus Evil). I don't expect an English edition of this.

8. Ghosts of Albion (2008)
This took some time to actually see print, but it has received a warm reception. It uses Unisystem to emulate Ghosts of Albion, a property created for the BBC. It offers a Victorian setting with magical intrigue and battles. Adversaries include demons, faeries, and cult members. Players can chose to be mundane or more magically connected.

9. Demon Hunters (2008)
Like Ghosts of Albion above, this is another adaptation from a licensed property. Also like GoA above, I'm not familiar with the source material. This game's based on a pair of "cult-hit" movies from Dead Gentlemen (better known around these parts for The Gamers movies). Apparently the game itself came with a special 30-minute DVD. I have to say, from the cover and blurb it is hard to tell how serious or how tongue-in-cheek this game is meant to be.

10. Cannibal Contagion (2008)
That's a great name- or at least one which makes me look twice at the game. It has survival horror with a slight twist, with cannibal lunatics instead of zombies. There are been a number of films (The Crazies) which take this premise. The recent dark and supper gory Crossed comics from Avatar also use this. Cannibal Contagion focuses on the mental & social stress and breakdown among survivors. It uses a competitive card game mechanic to play that out. That's based on a simple trump mechanic from a playing-card deck. Trumping another player's card allows someone to add narrative to the scene. That's a clever idea and establishes some flow. The longer an exchange goes on, the more damage which must be distributed. The game includes a couple of campaign set ups, including handling it as a traditional zombie game.

11. Realms of Cthulhu (2009)
Savage Worlds finally meets the Cthulhu Mythos (unless you count the various Lovecraftian lifts in Deadlands). The earlier Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu d20 demonstrated a market for the material adapted to other systems. Of course Savage Worlds showcases itself as Fast! Furious! Fun! so does that fit with nihilistic horror? It does for a certain pulpy approach to the genre- pretty popular in many circles. Realms of Cthulhu adds sanity and corruption to the rules. It keeps the 1920's setting and generally sticks to the CoC playbook rather than mixing things up too much.

12. Shadows of Cthulhu (2009)
While I knew about Realms of Cthulhu, Shadows of Cthulhu using True20 somehow passed me by. Our group tried True20 for a couple of campaigns. Some quite liked it, but it never hooked the majority. It again sticks with the base 1920's setting and essentially aims at two audiences: True20 die-hards and those who perhaps want to gently bring over hardcore d20 players over to Call of Cthulhu through a gateway system. As with RoC above, Shadows of Cthulhu is not a complete game, but requires the True20 core.

And then there's this, which calls itself Lovecraftian, but it isn't clear how much they're actually using the Mythos and how much that's become a weak adjective for horror. Dark Aeons is a diceless game which uses a substitute randomizer- cards. The threat seems to descend from old Atlantis- and the world has sorcerers, psychics, and faithful- but the blurb doesn't make clear where the PCs fit into this conflict. There seem to be conspiracy elements to the setting, but I had a hard time pulling out the premise from the publisher material. There's a weird near-future alt-history high-tech vibe to some of the material which isn't suggested elsewhere. It feels like a homebrew campaign setting people played and wanted to sell to a larger audience. However, as sometimes happens, the authors haven't figured out how to pitch what was cool about that to a larger audience.

When I see John Wick's name on something, I know I have to check it out. He always manages to add something I hadn't considered when I read through his designs- from the bizarre detail of something like Thirty to the excellent advice of Blood & Honor. Shotgun Diaries is Wick's rules-lite zombie apocalypse game. You get a simple, fast, and frantic game here. When you roll- you're killing zombies. Everything else is unimportant or the path to get to killing those zombies. Players try to accumulate dice to roll. If they fail to get a success, then the Zombie Master gets to say what happens. It is simple and effective. The game is brief but has a number of innovations, including a zombie clock which ticks by building up the next horde to face the group.

I find it interesting when we get thematic coincidences in rpgs. Exquisite Replicas presents a broad horror setting with a world being replaced by another reality (perhaps thematically borrowing from Grant Morrison's work like The Invisibles). On the other hand 44: A Game of Automatic Fear takes a narrower approach. You discover someone you know has been replaced by a robotic doppelgänger leading you into the heart of a conspiracy. It is more Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Invaders from Mars. This is a short, story-focused game. The players collaboratively build the story, with each having a set number of scenes. There's a resolution mechanic- where players can use their characters' bonds and anxieties to affect their rolls. A very cool game and freely available online. It was nominated for a couple of Indie RPG awards.

16. Vox (2009)
There are a lot of games about madness and questioning sanity in this decade. In Vox you play a character who hears voices, voices which tell you things- all kinds of things. At the table you control your own character as well as one of the voices in the head of other PCs. There's a weird meta-sense to that. One detail I appreciate is the game's flip-book design- splitting up player and GM material. Vox comes with four settings, including sci-fi horror and Lovecraftian mad science. It feels like an interesting story sandbox for more cerebral horror games.

I think one of best developments for rpgs, and horror gaming in particular, has been the rise of smaller, independently-developed games. These usually have a striking concept, simple rules, and the ability to easily pick up and play. So we've gotten ashcan, pdf-only, Lulu published, and other approaches. Rather than putting out a Big! book with detailed background, these games invite you to experience something in a short period of time. Some, like Fiasco, have taken off. The advent of 24 Hour RPG contests, Game Chef, and free rpg advocates like 1KM1KT means that we'll see more. 

Escape from Tentacle City is an independently crafted comedy-horror game nominated for an Ennie and Indie RPG award. It is a survival horror game with a focus on the bottom rungs of society. Players choose a disenfranchised group to come from; the wealthy and privileged have the resources to fly away. The game plays out as comedic social critique with the horrors of the End of Days as a backdrop. It is a collaborative, GM-less storytelling game. The Hopeless Gamer has a good review of it which you can find here.

18. Ghost/Echo (2009)
There's another interesting movement in small game development where complete games are also scenarios- like The Mountain Witch and Lady Blackbird. The game establishes a clear premise, characters (or simple creation system), and a basic resolution mechanic. Ghost/Echo begins with this idea, "While hunting for loot in the ghost world, your crew was sold out. You've walked right into an ambush, with hungry Wraiths on your heels." You have to figure everything else out from there.

19. Ocean (2009)
Another set-premise, GM-less complete system and story rpg. You could easily put together a very cool game-con built on these kinds of games. In Ocean, players take the role of amnesiac survivors on an abandoned undersea research station. A classic set up, echoing Grace Under Pressure and the films Leviathan & Deep Star Six.

I also have to point out how smart some of these indie publications are. They have a handle on graphic design, presentation, and layout. They value economy over endless detail. They trust players and GMs to make fun with relatively modest tools. They offer a clear hook they show right away to potential readers. They also have some amazing covers- knowing how important that is to getting attention. As a result you get some of the coolest cover images in this period.

20. Slasher Flick (2009)
You also get some of the worst cover images in this period. The game may be great, but I'm likely to pass it by just based on that image. Most of the reviews I've read of it have been positive- suggesting that it does what it sets out to do. Slash Flicker is just that, a game where you play the victims in a Slasher film. The system increases the body count by allowing players to control more than one character. For a quite positive review of this game, see Review: impressive and fun horror movie genre emulation.

21. Roaring Twilight (2009)
Ok, I think I owe Slasher Flick an apology- this may be a worse cover. I'm not sure what to make of this game. Roaring Twilight is set in an alternate 1920's populated by supernatural beings: vampires, werewolves, naga, demons, etc. You can play a supernaturals or just a human. Exactly what the game's about isn't clear from the blurbs- is it a hunter game? monster game? slice-of-life in a weird world game? I so strongly associate the 1920's with Lovecraftian gaming that I have a hard time picturing the point of this. Is it embracing that period for a reason? I'm imagining a mash-up of The Great Gatsby and Twilight. But I suppose that if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sells, then that's not too far a leap. Still, wow, that cover.

22. Terror Thirteen (2009)
Ok, I owe Roaring Twilight an apology- this is a worse cover. Terror Thirteen is another broad-ranging generic horror rpg intended to emulate all periods. The publisher suggests, "...While other games have focused on adventure horror, this game focuses on supernatural and cosmic horror as imagined by masters like Shelley, Stoker, Hawthorne, Poe and Stevenson as well as those stories told by modern masters in film and literature." I'm not sure that actually narrows anything down. It uses a basic system with an emphasis on relationships- bonds- as a means of defining character.

23. Zombacalypse (2009)
In a smart move companies have begun to publish RPGs in multiple editions across several systems. Easy DTP, POD and pdf technology have made this process easier. It still requires experts in each system, but it significantly increases the potential audience. So we get great products like Ken Hite's Adventures into Darkness & The Day After Ragnarok, the new edition of Earthdawn, and The Kerberos Club appearing in multiple forms. Zombacalypse shows up first in a version for the Aether system, and later for Savage Worlds. It offers a zombie sourcebook with advice for how to introduce the concept into any setting. It has the drawback of being the game name I'm most likely to mangle while pronouncing.

So...yeah...Geist. I read the publicity materials when it came out, and it sounded like a version of the older Mummy: The Resurrection premise with Voudon names. I could be wrong. All I knew was that it didn't hook me when I read the blurbs for it. Let me go and check Wikipedia...hold on. 

OK, so it still looks a little like Mummy, with a different cosmology. The characters have died and been given a chance to return but bound to spirits of death, the 'Sin-Eaters' of the subtitle. The grid here for the PCs is based on Thresholds, relating to manner of death, and Archetypes, based on the spirits views on their experience. It doesn't seem to have too much voodoo connection, except perhaps for the term krewes as a group of Sin-Eaters. While there are some other adversaries, the central PC purpose seems to be finding and putting to rest lost souls. There's a lot of new terminology flying around in this setting and system, symptomatic to the new World of Darkness' approach. I'd hate to run a cross-system game and try to keep things straight.

I really wish I liked the Cortex system more- I own Smallville, Serenity, and Leverage. I'm not sure what doesn't hook me: presentation, multiple die types, or something else. What I really need to do is play or watch a well-run session of one of these games. Perhaps then I'll appreciate how it works; many smart people love the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system using Cortex. Supernatural uses these to simulate the ongoing TV show. That suggests one of the difficulties facing licensed games. On the one hand, if the show is over and complete, you have access to everything that's been done (Babylon-5, Army of Darkness). But you also have an audience which may have moved on to other series. On the other hand, if the show/product's ongoing then you potentially have material which can change things slightly and require updating (Buffy, Angel) or completely invalidate what you've done (DC Adventures). Several seasons have broadcast since this book appeared. As with most of the Weis licensed products, the publishers have produced a couple of support books, enough to run a solid campaign. But I'm not sure if they still have the license or if they plan to publish a "yearbook" covering more recent developments.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Getting the Setting Right: RPG Blog Carnival

This month’s Blog Carnival looks at gaming in established settings and is hosted by the excellent Dice Monkey blog. That covers a lot of ground- from licensed properties (Star Trek, Firefly, DC Comics) to game company created lines which have developed a life of their own (Deadlands, Pathfinder’s Golarion, World of Darkness). There’s an interesting mirror created in these two approaches. On the one hand, veteran game settings which branch into other mediums have to figure out how to stay true to their mechanical roots while crafting a compelling fiction. Or they have to give up entirely and throw the rules and premises of the original game out in favor of story or pseudo-story (see the Legend of the Five Rings novels for varied responses to this challenge). On the other hand, licensed products have to figure out a way to mechanize the elements of a setting. They have to manage to make that playable and interesting, while at the same time capturing something of the feeling of the original. Does that work? Or does applying a game framework bleed out what makes a story work?

In 1984 I went to the opening night of Ghostbusters. I couldn’t get anyone else to go with me, so I went alone. I still loved it. At the time it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen, and I went another half dozen times before it left town. As a diehard role-player, my immediate response was to try to figure out how to run a game like that. Of course I went to the two horror games I knew- Call of Cthulhu and Stalking the Night Fantastic. From those I crafted an unholy hodge-podge with a dozen characteristics, a hundred skills, and a bizarre weapon chart. I ran it once- barely making it through the complexity that I’d carefully crafted.

Two years later WEG came out with the Ghostbusters rpg. I picked it up and was a little lost. Where were the stats and details, where were the rules for detailed ghost entrapment, how could you have the players define their own skills? Just a few d6- that could never possibly work. But, of course, it did. It not only ran smoothly, but the game lent itself to the setting it was trying to emulate. Some of that came from the goofiness of free choices for the players. Some of that came from changing the stakes of conflicts- less life & death- and more simple success and triumph. Most of it came from the game getting out of the way of the players and offering them permission to play out the funny. Ghostbusters was both the first real rule-light/storytelling game I played and the game which showed me that game systems mattered- and they could be tuned to emulate a setting.

I’ve been listening to Ken Hite and Robin Laws’ podcast, Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff. A while back, Robin made an argument that Call of Cthulhu was the first rpg to really attempt to emulate a literary style- Lovecraft’s particular take on the horror genre. That stuck with me and made me put together my history of horror rpgs. In a more recent podcast, Ken Hite declared once again his love for Call of Cthulhu as the greatest rpg of all time. He made a point that hadn’t really occurred to me. CoC, as opposed to most rpgs, isn’t about personal empowerment and success. Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t win and progress. They’re destroyed- win, lose, or draw. Hite cited several details of the system which help emulate that. The apparent capriciousness of the percentile roll helps simulate the fickle nature of the universe. You don’t get to add anything, you just desperately hope that the dice will roll under your skill (along with any modifier the Keeper applies). Also requiring players buy separate combat skills for just about everything- punch, kick, pistol, rifle, fireplace poker- constrains the players. Making a ‘combat monster’ is both against the spirit of the genre and incredibly difficult in the game. Consider as well the incremental and tiny nature of advancement in CoC.

But I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of Call of Cthulhu players don’t play the rules as straight as they could. These Keepers offer small mercies, pull back on the sanity rules, and allow the PCs to be more effective than they ought to be. Hence the split in Trail of Cthulhu between “Purist” and “Pulp” approaches. The former sticks to the letter of the rules and aims to emulate the deadly and inevitable feeling of a Lovecraft story. The latter puts Tommy Guns, dynamite, and grimoires into the players’ hands. They have two righteous fists against the darkness. That’s not a bad direction, but it means the setting isn’t exactly Lovecraftian anymore. Instead it emulates the Mythos as presented by many of Lovecraft’s pulp successors- Lumley and Tierney for example. A solid table will have some kind of agreement about which genre they’re emulating.

Consider the difficulties inherent in two of the most important licensed setting: Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Both of these face the traditional problems of playing in an established setting: relative knowledge and story inevitability. But both offer accessible and easy entry points- and GMs can narrow things down to a clear set of sources. In contrast consider Forgotten Realms or A Game of Thrones, with dense required backstories and multiple sources that make it difficult to boil down to a couple of key texts. As well they’re generally known by most groups. But both present the same challenge: magic. In particular Wizards & Jedi.

I really enjoyed Middle Earth Role-Playing. It was the crazy younger brother to Rolemaster which I was heavily into at the time. With streamlined tables that still offered complexity, it seemed like a great compromise. Most of the modules were excellent and well-crafted (after you got past some of the insane early ones like Ardor). However, for many, MERP has a basic flaw- the ability to play many types of magic users- Animists, Bards, Magicians, and Rangers. Mages in MERP could look like classic D&D wizards- with access to fireballs and lightning bolts. Given the small number of classes, many of the NPCs then possessed magic. If the GM ran the world strictly as given in the MERP supplements, then Middle-Earth was a fairly high magic setting. Decipher’s The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game also had magic using classes, but much more reduced.

The problem is that as presented in the LotR trilogy, magic is rare and potent. So these games don’t simulate that. They could- and I’m not sure how The One Ring rpg handles this. The problem is that some players like to run magic users. Game designers recognize this and have to strike a balance- as does each GM. They have to figure out how much they aim for emulating the setting, invoking the atmosphere, and how much they want to give the players access to the cool. Could/should you run a Middle-Earth game where none of the players can cast magic? I’m sure you could and it would reflect the series, but I think you lose some opportunities for fun.

The opposite problem comes in the Star Wars setting. Everyone accepts that we have to have Jedi as an accessible player-class. But how do you balance that with the other PC types? How do you make other classes as interesting, as cool, and as powerful as the other PCs? I’m not saying that there must be game balance- but drastic game imbalance is worse. No one wants to be the sidekick- unless you’re playing Ars Magica or Dr. Who. The problem is that several games have deliberately hobbled the Jedi in favor of that balance. That approach might make the table general feel equitable, but the Jedi player who has something quite cool in their mind will find themselves frustrated. Or you could take the option OF THE original Star Wars MMORPG- no one starts as a Jedi until they’ve gone through many different learning experiences (until they nerfed the game with the “Jedi for Everyone” build). Both of these approaches favor the mechanics over emulation.

When I ran a homebrew Star Wars game, I tried to figure out a happy medium between these approaches. I let a couple of people be Jedi- and have access to a couple of power tracks. They could only overlap a little, making each unique. Other players had roles which gave them access to their own powers. They could pick from those or the general advantages. The point and pick based nature of the game created the illusion of balance. More importantly the game was a short mini-campaign, aimed at emulating a story about the length of a movie. Because of that player imbalance never reared its head, because we didn’t play long enough. Setting emulation through starvation, as it were.

Next time on this topic: hypocrisy, generic systems, multiple protagonists, and video games as rpgs. 

L5R: The New Dragon: Family & Clan (Two)

As I said in my previous post, The New Dragon: L5R Campaign Planning, I'm working on planning the new L5R campaign. I want to give the players plenty of room to build a family for their characters- with a strong personality and some history to it. The Dragon represent the easiest clan to build onto, especially if we assume a shift from the pre-Scorpion Clan Coup period, to one where the Dragon move to be involved in matters of Rokugan. That's another item I have on my list (among many)- written up a brief history of events following the last campaign. I'm still focused on the mechanical aspects- that's usually the majority of my campaign prep work. When I finally sit to think about the campaign itself, I'll sketch ideas lightly, come up with hooks, and mostly write up NPCs. For now I'm still reading through many flavors of FATE, since I want to get the balance of that right with our homebrew system. For the family building stage, though, I'm turning to John Wick's excellent Blood & Honor.

Blood & Honor’s Clan Building step has the players working collaborative through a set of decisions. I’m largely going to parallel those, but with some additions and changes.

1. Daimyo
The daimyo of the family will have a distinct personality, which offers a benefit but also confers a penalty, usually in the form of an aspect which can be compelled. For example, the Clever Daimyo means that his retainers have good-quality equipment; but they also receive the “Non-Traditionalist” aspect which can be used against them. I will probably be changing/refining some of the details of this- depending on how I present other mechanics.

Blood & Honor has seven daimyo personalities: Ambitious, Clever, Cruel, Cunning, Dangerous, Kind and Mad. This last one means that the player randomly determines their benefit and drawback each season. I’d like to come up with a few others for them to choose from, not too many as it is a single choice at the beginning, but enough that I can vary their neighbors as well.

Enigmatic: The daimyo speaks in riddles. This confers no benefit, but also only a slight penalty. Getting things done takes slightly longer as people have to work out what the daimyo actually means.
Scholarly: discovery, rumors, lore- perhaps regarded as impractical.
Lazy: Retainers gain great freedom, but others regard their master badly- or it is difficult to get support for matters?
Mystical/Spiritual: Bonus for shugenja/monk affairs- perhaps access to nemurani, but a good deal of energy and wealth is spent on ritual matters.
Worldly: Daimyo can entertain very well and impress others, has courtly pull. Significant resources get diverted for their luxuries.

2. Virtues
Blood & Honor has you pick one of the virtues as the ideal for your clan. I’ll have the players set one as their lead, and two others as the second most important. Perhaps even set one as least important. This will affect the personality of members of the family and be used for determining honor gain/loss.

3. Holdings
In Blood & Honor, holdings cover the basic resources of the province. These are used mostly for the seasonal actions. I will be modifying those rules a little- and giving some of the holdings general game use. I will likely borrow ideas from Legends of Anglerre for building groups, cities, etc. so some of that will impact how I define these. What I picture is that a province has the basics of most of the standard holdings (like rice farms or geisha houses) but these are the bare minimums or the most common/rudimentary forms. If players select something as a holding, it means the province has a decent or largish version of that. Holdings can be increased in ranks through play. Since I’m increasing the number of options, I’ll probably double the number of picks- and allow players the options of spending a pick to increase a holding’s rank at the start.

Blood & Honor has the following holdings: Blacksmith, Temple, Dojo, Gambling Den, Garrison, Geisha House, Rice Farm, Shrine, Stables, and Sumo School.

Artisans: Silk, Gold, Tattoo, Ceramics, Jade: a master and apprentices of significant skill.
Castle: like a fortification, but perhaps with less strategic value. It trades some of that off for amenities and the security of the daimyo.
City: I’m assuming the province will have a significant town or two, but this represents an actual city with walls and commerce. More ranks in this at the start will indicate a large city.
Fantastic Gardens
Farm (Other): essentially food supplies, but non-rice.
Fortification: a significantly placed fortress with high strategic value. While will obviously be smaller ones, this should be a key defensive position.
Master: Retired General, Go Master, Sensei, Famous Poet- let them decide. Useful for impressing, getting advice or perhaps even swaying the daimyo.
Mine: the lands they hold will be formerly of the Lion, so probably a copper mine, but I’ll let them decide.
Monastery: for training of monks, perhaps not classic Dragon Clan monks, but another order.
Mountains: strategic value but also places of mystery. Players can decide how they want these- ravines which make it hard for invading armies, places of retreat, secret passes for high mobility.
Rich Forest
Sake Works
Silk Works: including a silk farm
Tea House

4. Meibutsu
The group picks something that the province is known for, like the best miso, most striking chrysanthemums, or strongest bamboo.

5. Aspects
Blood & Honor has the group selecting four aspects to represent your clan, with one being the default “None of Us is as Great as All of Us.” Players later pick two of these for their character- I suspect I’ll do the same, except I’ll probably just have the players pick one of the four as their Clan Aspect. Wick offers 17 aspects which seems pretty good. I might go through the various L5R cards with phrases and see if I can find a few others which fit.
For my money the most important part of this is that it helps define the character of the other retainers of the family. Between that and the virtue choices above, it should be pretty clear as to how these people behave.

6. Name
I’ll let the players come up with this. Since it is a new family I’m going to set a convention. Within the province and the family, the people will likely refer to one another by their old pre-adoptive name (i.e. Mirumoto Kenji) as an honorific. For outsiders and non-familiar locals, they will use the new family name. I don’t think that will be too confusing and it will allow the players to maintain some ownership of their identity.

7. Giri (Duty)
This is part of the character creation process, rather than family creation. These are the roles which players will take on. Instead of being your typical starting samurai characters, the PCs are expected to have some experience and take on duties within the family. Of course it is something of a cheat here since the family is so young and everyone’s relatively inexperienced. I’ve been doing something like this in the Last Fleet campaign and it has really given the players something they can sink their teeth into and play with. Each player will also have a valued “second” so that affairs can be in solid hands when they go off adventuring and the like.

B&H has seven giri. I probably won’t make them quite as “high level” as that system does. For example the first one is Hatamoto aka General, meaning that they lead all of the daimyo’s armies. For the PCs in this setting, it would instead mean they had a senior military rank, with control over a segment of the military. Each of these offers an ability and a benefit which I’m going to retool a little.

Hatamoto (General) Command of one of the divisions of military within the province
Karo (Seneschal) Rather than being the absolute advisor, the PC would be among the inner small council and have strong control over finances.
Kaishaku (Executioner) This probably works as is.
Oniwaban (Spy Master) Master of the intelligence network, probably works well as a PC role.
Onmyoji (Spiritual Advisor) Another one suited for the PC, a shugenja or monk could take care of this. Beyond casting predictions, also probably in charge of dealing with questions of maho.
Takumi (Courtier) Advisor for arts and culture, master of entertainments. In charge of making sure everything runs well. Useful when dealing with visitors, access to the arts, and a behind the scenes look at what goes on in the province.
Yojimbo (Bodyguard) Oversees the protection of the daimyo and from time to time serves as the personal protector for the lord.

I will also allow the group to pick two roles for which the clan will have a more senior and experienced NPC. Here are the new roles I’m generally thinking about.

Diplomat: Deals with persons from other clans within the borders of the province. Oversees trade and trade contracts to insulate the daimyo. The face of patronage from the family. Has authority to negotiate.
Records: Oversees the records and notes for the family. This grants the character access to all current accounts and also allows them to fudge them as necessary. Also provides access to historical records, legends, and lore.
Dojo: The character is the senior for the most important dojo in the province. He’s responsible for maintaining the training of retainers and young samurai. He also oversees any tournaments held in the province.
Industry: If the province has important industries- mining, lumber, silk works, sake works- the Minister of Industries oversees that. He makes sure that these remain stable and productive. A good minister increases the output of these places and protects them from sabotage and corruption.
Clan Magistrate: The senior local magistrate or judge for the province. He oversees all the local magistrates who report to him. He, in turn, reports to the daimyo but can also make judgments. Defers to Emerald Magistrates should they be present and active.
Ritual/Ceremonial Master: This depends on the role of the Onmyoji- if that’s filled with a shugenja, then this should be a Monk, given the importance of both those roles for the Dragon Clan
Cartographer/Scout: I’m not sure exactly what to call this- surveyor? forester? This person would have the responsibility for keeping the maps of the province, knowing the secret routes, and having a sense of what is where. They would also be in charge of the roads and the barricades. They would have staff throughout the province keeping these things in line.
Master of Taxes: The person who handles tax assessments and tax collection. They try to strike a balance between burdensome and reasonable. If money needs to be raised quickly, they know which purses can be pressed. They also have the responsibility to know the tenor of the populace, and the potential for rebellion. Given that financial demands on a daimyo remain one of the most potent weapons, a reliable and effective Master of Taxes is vital.