Friday, August 30, 2013

RPG Genres I Wish I Liked

Do you think publishers have done some games to death? Do you have a kind of game you’d avoid even if you trusted the GM? I’ve done a number of game surveys to pick a next campaign and I’m always surprised at what people avoid. Until I stop and consider some of my hang-ups about games. To be clear, I don’t think any of these are bad games to play- they just don’t appeal to me. Some used to, but these days they don’t work for me. Some of these I wish I liked since smart people I respect have talked about their love for them.

1. Pirates
I like the era and the whole swashbuckling milieu, but for some reason pirates don’t really work for me. I’m a fan of Musketeer bits and the whole Elizabethan pageantry. I even love the idea of sea battles- with wooden ships wheeling for a desperate shot. I loved that from GW’s Man O’ War and many naval miniatures games. But pirates…meh. It makes me more ambivalent than I ought to be towards 7th Sea. There’s a ton of interesting material in that setting, but I hit the pirate stuff and I turn off completely. That sub-genre’s what made me do this list. I watch yet another Pirate-themed board game pop up on The Dice Tower- with Tom Vasal praising the genre. Yet other, more interesting themes get commented on as overdone…

2. Zombie Protagonists
We had a conversation about post-apocalyptic games the other day. I like the idea of them- but usually tied to unusual or more interesting disasters. I’m also fond of building games- where the players have to find a way to build and survive. That can be tough in that kind of game- on the one hand you want to have a threat, but on the other you don’t want the group to feel like they’re on quicksand. Ideally there’s some kind of turning point after which they manage to find some kind of semi-permanent shelter and have to protect it. So I’m not opposed to zombies in that context. I think they might be a little overdone in board games of late.

In rpgs, I’m not really interested in the zombie as PC sub-genre. We see this in a few games which offer a switch up. Even in something like Monsterhearts, I don’t dig it. Some of the various AFMBE Deadworlds also take this approach. Of course, as I write this out I realize that I spent a chunk of time working on a campaign premise that did exactly this: Tokyo Indenture.

3. Wild West 
I’m not exactly sure what I think of Westerns. I mean I love many classic western films, but the wider genre doesn’t do that much for me. So in the plus column we have True Grit, TGTBTU, Unforgiven, Have Gun Will Travel, Wild Wild West (TV), The Cisco Kid/Lone Ranger, and Once Upon a Time in the West; in the minus column we have Deadwood (I know), various John Ford classics, Sliverado, and most other TV Western shows. Yet I pick up Western books from time to time- Deadlands, Owl Hoot Trail, and This Favored Land. I put together the basic list of a History of Western RPGs and their sheer number struck me. But I haven’t gotten the inertia to move beyond that basic outline. I think that best describes my feelings about this. I’m curious about weird takes on the genre- but more straight-forward ones I have a hard time picturing.

4. The 1920’s
This seems weird to me, even as I think about it. I love the concept of Call of Cthulhu- the battle against a corrupting, confusing, and ultimately unknowable foe. A desperate struggle against the dark where we know they ultimately cannot win. But the 1920’s don’t do anything for me- the period doesn’t excite ideas or possibilities, even with the interesting chaos of the Great Depression at the end. I’m much more interested in modern versions of CoC or even Trail of Cthulhu’s 1930’s. Both create more ideas and inspiration for me. The only drawback to a modern game comes from the access to technology, but even that can be controlled.

5. Cyberpunk
Speaking of technology…why doesn’t cyberpunk grab me more than it does? We played multiple campaigns the classic CP 2020 game and I’ve enjoyed some of the early foundational stuff from Gibson and company. Part of the problem may come from the dominant flavors I’ve seen of it. On the one hand, there’s a kind of style fetishistic approach, focused on stuff and guns. I like the social implications of technology- that’s always a fertile source for stories and interesting bits. But cyberpunk often seems focused on the chrome: the weapons, the bikes, the heavy metal modifications. I think that ends up obscuring things which actually interest me. Some of that’s about style and presentation- it doesn’t have to be that way at the table.

But the other strain I’ve seen over the years that hasn’t grabbed me is the nihilism. This differs from the darkness of other games: there’s often a sense that pretty much you’re screwed from the beginning. You’re bits in a machine, waiting to get smashed down. CP as I often saw it played- put you on that quick-sand I mentioned before. Anything you built would always be fair game for the GM: devices, networks, friends. It echoes the darkness of the setting, but ultimately seems just too much. Another irony given that I like CoC which has that as a basis. But there the inevitable loss comes in the end game. We can now fight back against the foe and gain a moment’s peace, save our friends, and restore stability. Cyberpunk makes breakdown a low-level constant feature.

6. Hard Sci-Fi
I picked up Traveller when I was a kid. But except for Snapshot mini battles and sessions spent playing push your luck with character creation, I don’t think we ever really played it. That’s despite being a fan of Clarke, Asimov, and Niven at that age. Something about hard sci-fi felt closed off- I preferred super, fantasy, and spy games instead. I did try to run Ringworld when it came out, but ultimately couldn’t find a hook I liked. Since then I’ve steered away from most games of this genre, with exceptions for those doing interesting or new things I could steal (like Diaspora).

7. Vampires
This probably applies to some of the other stylish monsters as well. Years ago I played in a Vampire game where I played myself and the GM made sure to show me how horrible life would be. My fellow players, also playing themselves, bought into the power fantasy which made it worse. That cured me of the desire to play as one again. I’ve done it, it was eye-opening, and I’d rather try something else. On the flip side, I ran a Vampire game several years ago that…well, I think I hit all my marks. It wasn’t perfect, but I did what I wanted to- with a full redemptive arc that force difficult choices on the players. So I’ve done that story and I don’t think I could match it again. I’d rather just leave it there.

8. Playing as Villains
Been there, done that, watched the players get furious at each other in real life (three times). 

Any genres you have less interest in- from a meh to an "I hate that"?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Icon Kingdoms: 13th Age Warmachine

There’s a lot to love in the new 13th Age game- and a lot to steal for other games. That’s especially true for the concept of Icons it presents: a tool worth borrowing for many different settings.

I’d skipped on 13th Age originally because I’m not much of a d20 or OSR guy. I’ve played and run both, but these days when I pick products up from these lines I’m looking to adapt them. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed most Pelgrane products. So when I started to hear more and more buzz about the system I became interested. Then I had the chance to play in one of Aaron R.'s online demos. I saw enough new and cool stuff- presented well by the GM- to make me pull the trigger on a Gen Con purchase. I’ve read through it a couple of times now (and so has Sherri, my wife) and I’m not disappointed. My friend Derek’s moving his existing Legend game over to the system. I’ll write up a full reaction piece in the next few weeks, but you can already find many solid reviews online. What has grabbed me is that 13th Age plays close to the way I run.

I don’t know how true this is for other GMs, but there’s often a gap between the rules as written and the game as played. In play we drop the complicated and chrome bits, we simplify systems, we forget modifiers, and leave out odd corner bits. It isn’t so much a question of house-ruling, but the play style we become accustomed to over time. Our 'at table' versions of GURPS, Storyteller, and Rolemaster grew from years of play. I'd be surprised when I went to reread the rules and realize how much we’d unconsciously filed the serial numbers off. 13th Age feels like someone said "let’s write a game that fits with how we actually play and really care about."

In the 13th Age setting Icons represent key figures controlling the destiny of the world. In some cases, they’re specific and literal figures (such as the ancient Great Gold Wyrm), but in most cases they represent a role (The Archmage, the Crusader, the Emperor). They’re tied to a set of ideas and ethos, often with particular cultural connotations. The role Icons may differ depending on who or what currently occupies that position. Having the High Druid as a gnome may feel distinct from an dark elf there. The book shows how these figures can be mapped to an alignment chart, if desired.

The Icons help define the setting- something I didn’t pick up on at immediately. They’re the first concepts presented in the book, which looked out of place to me since I came looking more at system than setting. But I soon realized how well those Icons helped to explain the place, offer a sense of history, and set the stage. More importantly characters build relationships with those Icons, right at the start. Each PC begins with three relationship points which they can apply to different Icons. These can be Positive, Negative, or Conflicted.

The key idea here isn’t that your character necessarily knows “The Dwarven King” personally. But instead that you have a connection to the King and his faction. Perhaps you’ve been of service to them. Perhaps you’re known as a staunch foe of them. Positive relationships mean that the Icon and associated agents consider you a good guy. Negative relationships mean you’re an enemy. Conflicted mean that you might be seen as ambiguous. Perhaps some see you as good, and other members regard your actions as suspicious. 13th Age offers a great table discussing these relations and how they might apply to heroic or villainous icons.

(I should mention a couple of other, smarter people than I who have been doing some useful readings of 13th Age. In particular I recommend Rob Donohue’s series. I also suggest looking at Wolfgang Baur’s work. He drafted Icons based on his own setting, Midgard. Keith Baker's done the same with Eberron).

Each point in a relationship offers a relationship die. Some of the classes (notably the Bard and Sorcerer) have talents which connect to these Iconic relationships. When a relationship die’s called for, the player/GM rolls 1d6 per point. A “6” result indicates a positive or supportive response. A “5” indicates aid or intervention but with an additional complication. It’s worth noting that the GM calls for these rolls- the player might suggest they’re applicable, but the GM decides if it happens 13th Age uses these relationship dice in several places:
  • At the beginning or end of a session to serve as a keystone for the present or next session
  • When the players encounter representatives of a particular icon. 
  • For discovery and surprise, which seems more of a catch-all
As a GM I like this concept. I often fall back to a more sandbox approach- with open-ended session prep sheets and the “Three Things” technique. The first use fits well with that. The second use offers a nice way to remind and connect the players to the world. The second use gives the GM nice way to develop a scene and as importantly acknowledge a player’s background and backstory. For example, if the group runs into a set of demon hunters, and the one player has a positive relationship with The Crusader, the GM might roll. On a six, perhaps one of the hunters knows the character or perhaps there’s a link to the PC’s origin. On a five, the hunters might lay and obligation on them- asking for help. In either case, there’s a nice opportunity to tell the players that their character matters and that the GM remembers it. The relationship dice offer a "story" sub-system. The game has a few of these but overall still feels like a classic game. 

Beyond this, I believe the Icon set up offers a supremely easy way to help players grok a complex setting and immediately connect to it. They buy in and can mechanically show what things sound cool to them. It reminds me a little of the commodifying of the history and setting in Weapons of the Gods. Often the start of a campaign can involve either an info dump or a long period where the GM slowly doles out concepts about the setting. The Icons approach gives a rich, but relatively simple framework to help the players. Just from the one page on each of the Icons, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the 13th Age World.

So I’m wondering how well this could be used to break down and get at other settings. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Iron Kingdoms: a game where I love the concept and feel, but end up overwhelmed when I try to read and parse out what’s going on. Doing this with IK would mean a slightly less mythic approach. Most Icons would stand for a nation or faction- but I think they’d have the same weight. For example, we might have Hierarch Severius as the Icon representing the Protectorate of Menoth. On the other hand the evil dragon Everblight makes for an awesome and fantastic iconic presence. I’m still working through and trying to figure out who the important Icons would be and what roles they would fulfill. I'm going to do more but here's a first thought.

For any particular Icon, I’d try to give a fairly minimal write up: who they are and what values they stand for. So I’d focus less on the history of Khador, than how they’re seen. Who are their enemies and allies, what do they value? More importantly, for each Icon I’d want to give suggestions for the three kinds of relations and what they look like. So for example, the key leader figure for Khador is the Empress Ayn Vanar—so I’d probably identify her as an Icon representing her philosophy, but more broadly the idea of Khador in the setting. Ideally I want to give the players a good sense of what those relationships mean on the ground. Right now my write up feels a little more generic. Ideally I'd want some details more heavily drawn from the setting:

POSITIVE: If Khadoran, perhaps you come from one of the noble or notable families. Or you could have had a great victory or deed of honor drawing the Empress’ attention. Your time in the military built you bonds with significant and influential people who have risen to power. If non-Khadoran, you saved the life of an important person in the Empire. Perhaps you served as a mercenary or adventurer and managed to impress someone. Or you might simply have a fast friend who has risen through the ranks and spread your name.

CONFLICTED: If Khadoran, then perhaps you performed your service, but you have been known to question the decisions of the Empress. Perhaps a portion of your family was purged, and some of that stain has fallen upon you as well. Perhaps you secretly killed a fanatical tyrant officer and fear that secret coming out. Perhaps someone cheated you in the rough justice of trial by combat. If non-Khadoran, perhaps your family engaged in trade or commerce with the Khadorans, building up a network, but you found them more dangerous than reliable. Perhaps a family member has married into a Khadoran house and that makes you wary. Perhaps you have no enmity against them, but in the past you’ve crossed some of their operations and interrupted them.

NEGATIVE: If Khadoran, perhaps you have declared that the Empress needs to be overthrown. You may have allied yourself with the Llaelese Resistance. Perhaps you tried to bring new ideas, philosophies or technologies to your homeland and became outcast. If non-Khadoran, you had your village burned by marauding Khadoran forces and have taken revenge. Or perhaps your family struck a potent military blow against Khadorans- or even simply betrayed them in a trade. Perhaps you’re a heroic Cygnaran, fighting against the rise of the red hordes.

I’m going to write up more of these Icon approaches to Iron Kingdoms- more fleshed out than this. It’s a setting I like, and this offers me a good entry point to figure out what’s going on in that world. I first probably have to make a solid list of who would serve these roles. By coming in looking for those figures, I’m hoping it will make the material feel less overwhelming. I’m wondering if an Icon approach to other settings might be fruitful: would it help showcase a complex fantasy world like Glorantha (The Red Emperor, the Arkat, Argrath, The Only Old One, The Pharaoh) or L5R’s Rokugan (the Clan Champions, Fu Leng, The Emperor, The Emerald Champion, Yoritomo, the Masked Ronin, etc).

Perhaps it might be a way to craft an interesting approach to other genres. Could Fading Suns or Dune benefit from this kind of breakdown? Icons seem like a logical fit with Microscope used to create a fantasy (or other setting). Drop the concept of Legacies from Microscope and instead have the player create an Icon. In a typical game, the players might create five and then the GM can figure out the rest. My friend Art pointed out that the concept scales: for a single-city urban campaign, you could use Icons to define the various factions and groups. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

On Rolled Damage

Last week I touched just on the fringes of the “Does System Matter?” question and this weekend we recorded an episode on the topic for Play on Target. I’ve been trying to figure out if it does matter to me- and if perhaps that’s just a GM position. because I usually run and set the rules, perhaps the system has more of an impact on my experience. Maybe system and mechanics seem crucial because I run the game.

But then I remember how much I love rolling damage.

A lot. There’s something supremely satisfying about hitting and then being able to grab up a completely new set of dice and roll. Everything’s going to pay off now- maybe I’ll crap out and just twing the bad guy or maybe I’ll roll huge and blow a PC out of the water. I love rolling and counting damage, regardless of which side of the screen I’m on.

I ran and played Champions and HERO for many years (twenty, I think). When it arrived, it offered the most controllable super-power system out there: elemental but complex. A few others tried to match it (DC Heroes and GURPS Supers) but none really did. But Champions had a 15 point disad in the length of time even the smallest of combats took. And we’re talking with people who ate, slept, and breathed the system. A fight could drag out for hours before the tide turned. But man, no other game matched damage rolls in Champions. You had a choice. Go the conventional route of standard damage and roll a fistful of dice. Count the pips and the Body to get a total. Smart players worked maneuvers and pushes in to get even more dice to thrown. There’s nothing quite like doing 50 points of Stun on a 12d6 roll. Or you could go for the gamble that was the Killing Attack- first you roll the Body then you let loose with the Stun multiple to see what you got. Pure joy when it went off with max effect.

A few other systems managed to match how that felt for me- high powered D&D for example. But early on, our group shifted away from AD&D and went down the Rolemaster road. Rolemaster seemed like a collapsed system- to hit and damage rolled into one, but in reality the hits you did in the initial roll didn’t matter. Crits ruled and you almost always rolled crits if you played smart. That’s where the gamble hit, the chance for a big pay-off. As a player, if I calculated my attack well and managed to use Ambush, I could take out the biggest foes. As a GM, I could have a group in terror of Tiny Criticals. We had one player get his eye bitten out by Tiny Crits from dogs...twice. Bloody, awful, over-elaborated and silly. I loved that damage.

Probably my favorite combat came from a Werewolf the Apocalypse short campaign. I wasn’t sold on the setting, but others loved it. Once I got to playing, I bought in just because I loved slinging so many dice around. We had a final fight where I threw out massive piles of damage- and took huge amounts. I got knocked out twice, the second time being hit by a flying bus. But I got back up again. Stupid and silly, it stands out for me. I have the same fondness for first edition Exalted, for all of its flaws.

I recall the first time I hit a game that didn’t use a standard damage system: James Bond 007. At the time I couldn’t wrap my head around the wound system. It seemed like players could get taken out horrifically easily. I was only fourteen and had always played games with big HP tracks. I ended up reworking the damage wounds system to make it more liberal- with rolled damage and players needing multiple shots to put a foe down. Not realistic, but more appealing to my Middle School sensibilities.

Over the years, I’ve played and run different damage systems- certainly with a move to tighter ranges and compressed mechanics. GURPS, of course, only has the players rolling a few dice for damage. But those dice can be lethal, given how little health anyone actually has. Easy to use criticals and the crush/cut/impale damage distinctions give a little more weight and dynamism to the system. We played GURPS for many years which changed my take on things.

We've started to see more games which brought together attack and damage in a single mechanic. FATE does this- with margin of success as stress done, sometimes modified by a weapon value. The new World of Darkness made successes into damage. ORE and HeroQuest do so as well if I recall correctly. I’m sure there are others. Mutants & Masterminds, my go-to system for supers reverses the damage approach. There’s no damage roll, only a check to resist damage dealt. It works quickly and fits with the genre. The game puts staying up and continuing to fight in the hands of the players. Still I’ve had a few people who didn’t care for it; they wanted to roll and have a shot at a bigger hit. Some systems keep attack/damage distinct, but narrow the damage ranges- like GUMSHOE. You give up something in granularity in favor of speed through easy to recall mechanics or a reduced number of rolls. When I first came up with our card-resolution based homebrew, Action Cards, I had a distinct draws for attack and for damage. Eventually over the years I shifted that to an easier success margin = damage result. Easier, faster, and vaguely unsatisfying.

Our group had a mixed reaction when I decided to bring back dice for damage. I changed nothing else but that- we still do all tests and conflicts with the cards. But when you hit, you get to pick up a pile of d10’s and roll them to see how much damage you do. And the game’s better for it. The players love their character decks, but they also love the sensation of flinging dice and counting wounds. Best of both worlds. I put off that change for a long time because I worried it would break the “concept” of the system- the diceless nature. But eventually I realized I wanted the thing that I loved most back in the game.

Because I love rolling damage.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

RPG Hacks: Threat or Menace? aka "Stop Me Before I Port Again..."

I can’t leave well enough alone. And judging from the posts I see on “The Interwebs” other GMs can’t either. A couple of weeks ago I played 13th Age in an online demo run by Aaron R that sold me on the game. I loved the bits and pieces I saw, especially the Icons. These significant figures anchor the details of the setting and also have practical mechanical effects in the game. So immediately I started thinking about how you could rework them- port the concept to another system, rewrite the Icons to build a different game world, or modify the system for interacting with them. This before I’d even finished reading the rule book. I’ve seen posts up already for Owl Hoot Trail with new races and roles, likely before those GMs have actually sat down and played the game. 

What’s wrong with us?

I’m considering this because our next Play on Target recording will tackle the undying gaming debate: Does System Matter? In the last week I’ve seen posts on both sides of this issue- from "Joe the Lawyer’s" suggestion that game design’s a fraud to "Walking in Shadow’s" assertions that system is crucial. Bouncing around I’ve realized that hacking games necessarily buys into the premise that system, at the very least, does something. Rules revisions, reworkings, and reskinning isn’t a question of Rule Zeroing the game, but rather retooling the system before we even get to the table…often before we’ve even finished reading the book. I recall Ken & Robin podcasting about the odd responses they’d get from draft materials. More often than not, these came from people who’d read but not played. They hadn’t seen the actual dynamics of the game. When Laws asked for best practices articles for the DramaSystem supplement Blood on the Snow, he had to specify he only wanted submissions from those who’d actually played the game.

I’ve been trying to think of another form of entertainment where I start deconstructing and revising right out of the gate. Non-interactive media like novels, movies, and comics don’t and can’t elicit that reaction. I can decide to stop watching/reading it maybe and come up with a lovely idea about how the rest of the story ought to go. I can write fan-fiction about it, but that feels different. Some people do rework/recut these products later- and I think that’s the closest. But usually that comes from a love of the core ideas rather than the knee-jerk “hmmm…I’d do that mechanic differently” I engage in. I don’t do the same thing with board games- reading rules and immediately deciding that won’t work and changing it. In fact, single-play suggestions that something’s broken bug me. My gut says you need to play a board game several times to come to an assessment like that. But I don’t follow that with RPGs. I guess the closest analogy would be Legos. There’s a cool model with instructions, but maybe I really wanted the set to create something else. So I don’t end up building the model or playing the game I’ve bought.

For example, consider my weird relationship with Legend of the Five Rings. I’ve always loved samurai stuff. When the CCG came out in ’95 I convinced many in the group to buy into it. I stayed with it for the first several expansions, trying to collect complete sets more for the chance to figure out the world than anything else. I worked on how we might play the setting with GURPs or another generic system. Eventually I developed a set of miniatures rules to play out L5R skirmishes. That became Ge Koku Jo, the first thing I published.

Then the Legend of the Five Rings rpg came out (and later the Clan War miniatures game). I liked having the setting details in one place, and appreciated the splat books, but the system didn’t grab me. So rather than sitting down and trying it out and working with it, I went an entirely different direction. I completely rewrote the material to make a Rolemaster Standard System version of the rules. And I ran a full campaign with it. It wasn’t a great fit, but the game ended up with a nice arc. Some years later I decided I wanted to run L5R again. By this point AEG had moved on to the 2nd edition rules and the d20 Oriental Adventures version. I picked those up and read through them. And then I completely rewrote the system as a Storyteller hack. And I ran a long campaign using that which was pretty fun. But it wasn’t great and some interesting bits about the original setting didn’t work through as well. Last year the group decided they wanted to play L5R again. I’d picked up most of the lovely and striking L5R 4e books. So of course I decided not to run using that. Instead I opted to work with the homebrew we’d been playing for over a decade, Action Cards, combined with some elements from FATE. That’s what I’m running right now.  There's a cost: AEG keeps putting out interesting supplements for L5R, each now requiring translation into the system I’ve settled on.

What sickness is this?

Based on what I’ve seen, I suspect this syndrome has infected many GMs. But at the same time, I read posts on Reddit and other places from DM’s terrified about a scenario they’ve come up with or fearful about changing the least little detail in their world. They’ve made an ancient curse the heart of their story but the cleric’s going to level and get Remove Curse which "will break their story." They see the rules as written, with any slightest deviation as a violation. So we have gamers on both extremes- does one approach dominate? I blame my upbringing for my endless desire to cut, snip, and rewire. We moved away from D&D pretty quickly, with the few instances heavily modified or done with extra 3rd party books. Our fantasy system of choice for many years was Rolemaster. RM might seem like an elaborate and rules-dense system to the outsider, a massive and gothic structure. In truth it offered a ramshackle, sprawling, and leaky construct closer to the Winchester Mansion. Even the core books had tons of optional systems. Each RM Companion added new rules, meant for the GM to pick and choose. By the third volume they had to have checklists printed so playgroups could track with of hundreds of often contradictory mechanics could be used. Outside of fantasy my formative experience came from systems which encouraged hacking at restructuring: HERO and GURPS. The lack of a strong default setting meant we could twiddle and tool endlessly.

I remember doing this with many other games over the years. I spent a couple of months working out a GI Joe comic book adaptation for Danger International. The same trying to figure out a way to get Ninja HERO to simulate the epic martial arts of the Jademan Comics. We crafted a fantasy framework for Champions before Fantasy Hero came out. When I first ran Changeling the Lost, I used our house system instead of World of Darkness. That was a bunch of work, but I wanted to run it with a system I enjoyed and thought could handle the game better. I ran a Scion campaign with the original system, but the next campaign I did a FATE hack.

Is this pretty common? Do most GMs find themselves reading a new game book and immediately think: nope, we’ll need to change that; this’ll never work at my table; or I could steal that concept to use somewhere else? Is that a shitty and arrogant response on my part to the text?

I mean here’s the thing: clearly these games have some viability. The authors have played and playtested it and gotten something out of it. I take that as a basic assumption for any professionally published game. And yet my first instinct going in is a critical one. Not the classic reviewer critical one, but like someone walking through a house with an eye to refurbishment. Sometimes I’m walking through the rooms describing to someone who’s lived in there for years all the walls I’m going to knock down. I had this experience the other day with 13th Age. I’d only played it once so by rights I shouldn’t have had an attachment. Yet when Derek, reading through the book for the first real time started talking about how he didn’t care for the backgrounds mechanics and might tweak those up…weirdly, my reaction was a defensive one. That’s karma I suppose for the times I’ve ripped the guts out of a game someone likes to get a different effect. Or perhaps they didn’t care…I’m not sure.

Note here that I’m not necessarily talking about the games meant to be eminently hackable- the rules light and modular games available on the market. The most archetypal those today would be FATE. Now FATE Core’s the new default, but consider all the other flavors of FATE (and its predecessor FUDGE): Legends of Anglerre, ICONS, Diaspora, and Strands of FATE. They’re radically disparate reworkings of the basic DNA of a standard system. Apocalypse World’s the other new hack of choice for gamers as well- generating completely new approaches. These aren’t just about coming up with a new setting using the base rules- but really retooling the system or else porting over completely a game from one system to another.

Of course sometimes you need hacks to make the game work for you. My Changeling hack came from loving the concept, but wanting a streamlined game. The way we played GURPS for years- dropping options, cutting the modifiers, discarding reaction rolls, and other sub-systems- came from a desire to speed things up. I’ve mentioned my players’ split reaction to GUMSHOE: love the investigation side, hate the standard resolution one. That means I have to figure out how to split the difference- hopefully while maintaining some elegance to the game itself. My group likes many of FATE’s concepts, but they hate the dice- so I have to figure out something to solve that.

On the flipside, if I’m running with people online, my instinct is to play as straight as possible. I mean I might pay less attention to the crunchy bits of the system, but I’m not going to do a radical rewriting. I’m not going to present a large-scale cobbled together new game. That scares me a little- hence my choice to run Changeling online with pretty straight WoD (for better or worse). When I ran M&M I made modest changes- mostly to accommodate map scales. Because we’re not in the same room, I don’t want to slow the game down with rules explanations. And perhaps I’m a little afraid that hacks open me up to “why would you do that?” arguments at the table. I’m not sure if it’s a question of courtesy to the players or fear of having someone spot the lynch-pin of my cobbled together system and yanking on it. I can get away with these hacks at the f2f table mostly because I have a group of non-purchasers.

I should stop there. I got the new Iron Kingdoms recently and I’ve been looking over it. I like the setting and the options, but the system doesn’t quite work for me. Maybe I could do it with FATE, but with a different set of dice, like 2d10. Or perhaps I could completely rework things and use 13th Age as the basis…national leaders could be Icons...backgrounds could be further developed into a skill list…

Tell me I'm not the only one doing this...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tabletop Deathmatch: After Action Report

I enjoyed the sweaty, exhausting, and sometimes aggravating Gen Con of 2013. I didn’t get a chance to say hi to as many people as I wanted to. As I expected, I picked up a ton of Pelgrane Books 13th Age, Double Tap, Owl Hoot Trail, Eternal Lies, Hillfolk, and Blood on the Snow. I’ll probably write about some of those in the next few weeks- I’m generally really pleased by them. I think one of the most amazing things about Pelgrane is that each line has a unique and distinctive graphic presentation, all of amazing quality. The Hillfolk books look completely different from the Night’s Black Agents volumes- but they don’t feel like they share a house style. White Wolf does striking layout, but you can tell when you’re looking at one of their books based on the shared design elements. I picked up a few other new things- a couple of figures from a new Bushido line of samurai miniatures, Monsterhearts, FATE Accelerated,  and the Warbirds rpg (imagine Crimson Skies with the serial numbers filed off). In the Chimera shop buy one get three free I bought two bundles including This Favored Land, some Star Wars books, the revised Grimoire for Ars Magica 4e, and a couple of old Mayfair Role Aids sets.

But all of that was mostly a distraction to keep myself occupied until the final showdown.

The actual TTDM process went well, broken into several slices. I had to do an interview for the first part late in the day on Saturday. I played in an rpg, Trash Planet by Shoe Skogen, for the first three hours and then had to duck out. Unfortunately that meant that heading back to the main building I crashed straight into the costume parade which locked me up for about thirty minutes. I stopped by where I’d stashed my copy of the game and then headed over to the meeting place- but then I got a text that they were running a little behind. Luckily I managed to find a free comfy bench and sat down- trying to let the adrenalin burned gently off rather than completely crashing.

When we finally went to the interview, my hopes were confirmed. I’m an unabashed fan of LoadingReadyRun- I started watching everything they did after I saw they started Unskippable on the Escapist. I watch all the videos- even the MTG podcasts and the "Loading Time" Behind the Scenes stuff. So when Graham from LRR walked up I went pretty much full fanboy. I also met Trin from Cards Against Humanity, and a nice camera operator who’s name I either didn’t catch or went out of my head. We had to wander around the convention for fifteen minutes to find a place of relative quiet for the interview. I thought that went pretty well- though trying not to look straight at the camera’s a talent I clearly haven’t developed. 

Then we went down to the board game hall when they shot an unboxing video of Right of Succession: setting up the board and walking through a turn of play. Finally I had to stand there while they shot me making a “Grrr” face for the Deathmatch promo materials. It had the wiff of the absurd. I did hand off copies of some of the books I’d done to Graham, so I was pretty happy when all was said and done. The TTDM contestants had arranged for a small gathering at one of the bars later Saturday night, but I was exhausted by that point and others in our party were as well, so I unfortunately skipped out on that.

The next morning I had the actual pitch before the judges. I think I was the absolute last person to go. I took along Mark and Derek for moral support. I wasn’t sure how the pitch would be structured- if it would be a good idea to have a team in the room. As it turned out, it wasn’t set up for that so they waited outside. I did have a chance to meet a couple of the other contestants- Robert Huss who created The Shadow Over Westminster and Mark Major and his partner (another name I blanked on) with Jupiter Deep published through Game Crafter. It also turned at that time that our pitch would be five minutes, not ten or fifteen as indicated in the earlier emails. I wasn’t expecting that would be too much of problem- I’d practiced a ten minute pitch, but that was a lot of time to fill. We talked for a few minutes and I was pretty calm.

…Until I actually walked into to give my presentation. It looked like something out of Shark Tank, with fifteen (I think) judges arranged in three rows. Heavy, bright lights, and no A/C in the room. I can’t imagine how wearing that must have been for the judging team over four days. I set up my game on a table in the middle, and then launched into my spiel, trying to keep an eye on the enormous red timer ticking away. My voice cracked, I repeated myself, I don’t think I hit everything I wanted- but you’ll see all of that when they actually post the video.

After the pitch (I think I did it in 4:30), I moved the game board up to the judge’s table, distributed extra copies of the rules and one-sheets and then went to the Q&A portion of the program. There I felt much better and more confident. I know and love this game and enjoy playing it. I didn’t get any real curveballs. Probably the strongest knock against it would be that we haven’t yet done any blind-testing. We’ve played it would probably four dozen people, but we hadn’t yet had the chance to give the final version a run through to get that kind of feedback. One judge asked an interesting question about the scoring logic for some of the end-game bonuses. That pointed out a piece of theme that I had in my head but hadn’t made explicit in the rules, i.e. why do the players actually get these bonus points? But the best part of the Q&A came when one judge asked if I’d heard of Blood Royale, which as I mentioned in my previous post, had inspired me to create this game. It was really satisfying to have someone spot what had been a thematic inspiration for me: at least I’d done that job well.

After that I went out and we did a brief exit interview. And then I was done. We gathered up the crew, did a final buy of product and then head out. And I pretty much collapsed on the ride home. We stopped off to eat BBQ and after that I desperately fought just falling asleep for the next two hours. Eventually I landed on my couch, my sweet delicious couch and slept for two or three hours. 

I don't know what my chances are- some of the contestants have already published and marketed the games they've presented and they look quite nice. I built my prototypes myself- with the exception being the cards I recently had done up through DriveThruCards. I'll be curious to see how many of the others have done blind testing, as that could be a serious black-mark against me. I'd have liked to have played some of the others' games- I think several of us suggested they arrange a get-together room for that next year. I'm looking forward to the video though- in some ways. It will be a great tool for exposure and publicity  provided I don't look like too much of a buffoon on screen. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

RPGs: Where to Start? Play on Target Podcast Ep. 16

This week Play on Target hits our first actual requested topic: how to actually start in rpgs? I suspect we come at it from more of a GM than player perspective, but there's some useful advice for players as well. We live in the golden age of gaming, but that can be more than a little overwhelming. I wonder how many actual new people get added to the hobby each year? Do things like Wil Wheaton's Tabletop episodes on Fiasco and Dragon Age drive traffic? Does a new edition of D&D? I should also mention another great resource for people thinking about getting into gaming, Reddit's RPG subreddit has a very cool Beginners' Guide to RPGs

I’ve still been turning the question around in my head since we recorded the podcast. I’ve been playing for a long time and the industry’s vastly different from when I started out. That makes it hard to reference that experience. I was very young, and we only had a handful of systems and genres available to us. I’m a gamer, though, because people were patient enough to teach me games. And not kids games, but a particular brand of D&D with dungeon-crawling and then later superheroes and then still later Call of Cthulhu. Over the years I’ve introduced a number of new players: some well and some badly.

But the majority of people I’ve played with came to the table knowing games. They’d played something else a few years before- perhaps a failed D&D campaign, some sessions of Rifts, a Vampire LARP, or even an MMO. They get the basic idea of rpgs and the system. What they don’t necessarily know is the genre. For example superheroes requires a certain mindset- and an appreciation for tropes. The player who had come to play in a supers game after mostly fantasy ended up torturing and brutalizing bad guys because that was the mode she’d operated in for the previous campaign. There’s a big difference between people who’ve read comic books and those who’ve picked it up through movies or television. That’s not a bad thing, but it means the GM needs to be aware of their own reliance on references and conventions. Some people don’t know swashbuckling, Hong Kong Action flix, or even Fiasco-style tropes. That means the GM has to make room to teach those- and not laugh or be shocked at a player’s genre mastery.

To give an example, I had a couple of players I’d run a short fantasy game for. They loved it and really wanted me to run a Vampire the Masquerade game. They’d played in one before and loved it. I warned them that it might not be what they wanted. I’ve always seen VtM as a darker game about consequences and choices. But they convinced me to run. And it wasn’t what they expected, or perhaps even wanted. Eventually they bought in, but it took some time and we had plenty of miscommunications. Their previous VtM game had made them powerful pseudo-superheroes, kicking ass and taking down names. Mine didn’t do that. Should I have shifted the campaign tone? Should I have been clearer about what the game would be like? I suspect the latter would have helped. But it took me some time to realize the gap between how they saw the genre and how I did.

I have another, potentially unfeasible suggestion. If you’re a new player trying to join an existing or experienced group, make sure you’re not alone. By that I mean: don’t be the only newbie. There’s a certain isolation that comes from being the only one who doesn’t yet have buy in to the game, genre, or setting. And I’m not saying that the other players will isolate or mock you- far from it. Instead, they may be overly helpful: flooding you with options, making suggestions, offering advice, crushing you with info dump. Having more than one new player will a) spread that helpfulness around and b) generally reduce the ratio of experts to beginners. The side effect of this is also that it’s easier to extricate yourself from a bad game if you have a buddy with you. GMs should also take this into consideration when bringing new players in.

Finally, if you can, I suggest new players/gamers who want to get into the hobby try it out with a group. IMHO experience playing at a table’s the best way to get a sense for how a game operates. You’ll pick up all of the basics you need to then read and figure out most games. You don’t even need to play a session of the game you really want to start with- any will do. See if you can go to a game store demo, find a convention, or look for a chance to drop in on a group with posted openings. Online gaming can also serve this function, but a little less well. At the very least, you can watch some actual play videos online. In that case, I’d recommend watching a game which is being played online over watching a taped f2f session. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tabletop Deathmatch: Right of Succession

August is the cruelest month for blogging- with the daily pressures, the tidal wave of Gen Con information, and schedules up in the air. I think we’ve lost at least half our monthly play sessions to the whirlpool. Today I want to mention/shill for a game project. A couple of months ago Cards Against Humanity announced their Tabletop Deathmatch competition. On a whim I submitted the board game I’ve been working on and playing for the last couple of years, Right of Succession. To my shock, I managed to make the cut for the final sixteen.

Seriously, shock.

So I get to go down to Gen Con and pitch the game to a panel of judges. I think I’m going absolute last on Sunday, which hopefully won’t mean people are too punch-drunk and burned out. I’d showed the game last year to a couple of people- which was a learning experience. I spent a number of years as an acquisitions editor for an academic publisher. That meant I took pitches and worked with authors, which gave me some expectations about that process. In any case, I’d planned on going down to Gen Con this year already- if only to pick up my stuff from Pelgrane. We may have a kitten arrive this weekend, so Sherri may well be acclimating that new beastie in while I’m gone.

Apparently they will be taping the Deathmatch process, with an interview plus the pitch session itself. They’ve gotten LoadingReadyRun to do the production on that for a web-series. I’m really, really hoping some of the LRR people will be at the con itself. I’m a huge fan of their stuff and it would be awesome to actually meet them.

I’m glad you asked, fictitious voice in my head. In Right of Succession you take the role of a noble house, trying to rise and gain influence over several generations. You do that in a couple of ways. You add new branches and key leaders to your house, eventually marrying and creating new lines. Each key person has an area of expertise and a rating- so you might have a branch with a Grand Dame (Society 3) and a Pamphleteer (Activism 1). Those roles allow access to different actions which can be used to modify your house, gain influence, generate money, or affect other player’s houses.

More importantly, you’re trying to build up values in the different areas to match the agendas of the current “Real Power,” the figure within the royal household who actually has power. That may be the king, a sneaky vizer, a young prince, the grand inquisitor, or even the royal consort. Each has differing interests. By matching your house’s development to that, you gain more influence (aka VPs). But the trick lies in the way those royals operate. In each generation, one of three people may be the “Real Power”- and through actions and money you can affect who has command. A generation lasts for two turns, and then another rises and takes its place- forcing you to calculate how to match their desires. You can see a couple of turns ahead, allowing for strategic planning.

I enjoy board games, but I’ll admit I can get burned out of even a good game after a half-dozen plays. I’m hugely biased, but we’ve been playing this game for the last couple of years pretty much every week and I’m not tired of it. I still find new approaches and I still look forward to playing. I’m managed to build a game that really hits the sweet spot for elements I enjoy when I play.

Right of Succession came out of two distinct game elements I enjoyed. The first came from classic board games which had better ideas than execution. GW published an epic kingdom-building game called Blood Royale in a giant box. We played it, I think twice. It ended up too long and too boring. It had some great ideas in it- I loved the concept of the goods and treaties. I used that to craft a "Model Feudal Council" at an academic summer camp. It allows me to bring together some fantasy elements with training in Robert’s Rules of Order. I figured that would serve them well if they later wanted to do Model UN, Arab league, or the like. The more interesting idea from Blood Royale was the creation of a lineage- with marriages, family evolution, and the changing of generations. I wanted a game with more of that. I picked up Avalon Hill's Down with the King, hoping it would do that, but it was just a weird hyper-long and detailed game. (That’s one that needs to be reworked and rebuilt for a new era).

So I knew I wanted a game with multiple generations of families. To that I brought another mechanic that I really loved: Demon Fusions from the Shin Megami Tensai video game series. In that, you can merge two demons to create a higher rank one. What you get depends on what you combine. More importantly, there’s a game to trying to carry over the right skills to the new beast. When you play, you try a merge and if it doesn’t exactly give you the right combo of abilities, you back out and try again. And again and again. It’s a weird grind that’s strangely satisfying. I worked trying to figure out how to use that mechanic elsewhere. In the end, I used it as the basis for the marriage system in Right of Succession.

Which I hope doesn’t say anything bad about me.

So we’ll see how this goes. I’m looking forward to being able to show off the game. Maybe I’ll even get a chance to play it with some new people at the con. I hope I run into some readers and fellow bloggers.

Wish me luck. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gen Con, What Game Companies Need to Do & Apologizing to Rifts

I will be at Gen Con next week, Friday through Sunday. That should give Sherri plenty of time to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf and possibly deal with the new kitten. I’m looking forward to picking up my Hillfolk Kickstarter and some other things from Pelgrane.

If you’re going to be at Gen Con, hunt me down. I haven’t signed up for anything, planning on mostly seminars and shopping. I hope to go to the podcasting seminar on Friday. I have an appointment late Saturday afternoon and late Sunday morning, but otherwise planned nothing out. I’ll have a copy of my board game Right of Succession and the homebrew rpg, Action Cards, we’ve been playing for the last decade+ if anyone wants to see those. I’m going to try to keep my kit otherwise to a minimum, with maybe Microscope and some other stuff. Anyway I hope to run into some people I know. If you’re going to be there, leave a comment or email me at edige23 (insert obligatory symbol here)

My Gen Con hunting list includes:
2. 43AD
3. The Justice Trade for Ashen Stars. (maybe…there's a bunch Pelgrane stuff on this list…)
4. DragonMech (If I can find a bundle of this stuff for a decent price)
5. The Edge of Midnight (They had a bundle deal on these last year that I passed on because of the weight. I might try again. Another maybe.)
6. The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (maybe- if it is available)
7. Eternal Lies (The new ToC campaign. Even though I'm not sure I'll get a chance to run it, I want to read it. Another maybe.)
8. FATE Accelerated (The one thing I didn’t get a printed copy of from the KS).
9. Iron Kingdoms (I’d like to find some older stuff cheap perhaps? Someone contacted me that they have some to sell, so I might hold off.)
10. Monsterhearts (Sherri wants a printed copy of this.)
11. Double Tap for NBA
12. Over the Edge (2nd Edition) (Another one someone offered to sell me. If I see a really cheap copy, though).
14. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island (The one board game my wife insists I buy if I see it).
16. Strongholds of the Empire (I'm hoping AEG might have a POD copy of this at their booth.
That’s a wishlist, so we’ll have to see what fraction the budget can support.

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to play a demo game of 13th Age via G+Hangouts/Roll20. I had fun and importantly it closed the deal on my decision to pick up a copy of the game. It occurs to me that online demos, done regularly could be an effective supplement to f2f conventions. They reduce the overhead costs of travel and create an AP video which can be pointed to. Companies could tie participation perhaps to a coupon or discount.

To really do that well, companies need to step up the kinds of tools and packages they have available for online play. Demos specifically created for online play- with an interactive packet. For example, pre-generated characters but with form-fillable sheets to mark damage or conditions. Create a set of tokens to match those characters. That would be enough to allow GMs to easily use those with their own scenarios online. Going a step further, maps from the demo could be put together and made available on these services- in this case I’m particularly talking about Roll20. Tokens for opposition and NPCs could be possible as well. The maps and extra tokens could be a nice touch, but not necessary.

Roll20 has made a nice cottage industry for artists creating general tokens and maps. For a number of years smaller companies have been creating token and map packs, particularly for VTT but often useful in jpeg format for other applications. Savage Worlds in particular has been great about providing image and token support for their products. However many of these still appear on sheets, requiring the GM to cut, paste and size to create them. I think companies need to be really looking at how to support online play by providing ready-made tokens (and maps) suitable to these kinds of games. That’s true even for games which don’t require a fully tactical map. It would be nice to have a set of tokens based on the art work for games like Night’s Black Agents or Ashen Stars. The GM could use those to show relative positions and groupings. Use the art assets from the books. One company who really ought to be doing this is Privateer for Iron Kingdoms. They have great art assets- for face-on tokens. But they also have the various overhead icons and silhouettes they use for the rpg and miniatures game diagrams. I’d love to run Iron Kingdoms online- and if I could buy several packs of those, it would make my life easier.

Games with odd or unusual tracking systems or set ups really need to think about how someone will play their game online. I’ve seen various approaches to Fiasco. We played using a shared Google Doc, but I’ve also seen some lovely set ups that create a board space and make writing and placing the detail cards really easy. In the near future I want to run Microscope online- and to do that I’m going to have to figure out the best way to have the players write up and arrange the cards. I’d love an interactive app for that that displays nicely in Roll20. The same thing holds for similar games like Last Best Hope and Durance. Ideally I should be able to pull up simple tools that recreate some of those visuals onscreen.

That’s one of the challenges facing DramaSystem aka Hillfolk. I really hope that they’ve already developed the best and most attractive methodology for playing online using Roll20 or something like it. I’m not talking about just screen-share and a document, but art or tool bits to handle the several oddball stages of the game. For example, we need an easy way to build the relationship map. That should be possible with those tools- but a template would be helpful. We also need a means of tracking the various expendables. Finally we need a guide for how to easily set up the card resolution system with the Roll20 tools.

Because here’s the thing- my best chance for trying out these new games and sharing them with people lies in online play. Maybe I’ll be able to try them out with my f2f group, but we’re likely deep in our campaigns. Maybe I can get to a convention, but I only go to a couple each year. But if there’s a well set-up and attractive option to play online, I’m likely to take it these days.

I posted about running Hollowpoint last week. We had a moment during the break when Nick, glancing at my gaming shelf, spotted Fantasy HERO and commented “somebody likes math.” That turned us onto a brief discussion of systems and history. I’d played HERO for about twenty years before setting it aside. The same thing with other clunky systems like Rolemaster. I made a joke about all games being worthwhile, except Rifts. At which point a couple of people said that’s where they’d started and they’d had a great time playing it. Consider me properly schooled. I thought back to the predecessor of Rifts and the whole Palladium canon, the original Mechanoid Invasion. We’d played and loved that. The system was a hot mess, but we had a good time playing it.

In the monthly board gaming group we have a couple of people who loudly and angrily decry Worker Placement and Deck-Building games. That seems weird to me, but then again I’m not a fan of race games. I have to remember a system may not be something I want to play or run, but that doesn’t invalidate it. For example, I don’t particularly care for Dungeons & Dragons 4e- but many people do. I thought I might want to try a classic game so I picked up a copy of Dark Dungeons. But man, I do not want to work through that. It doesn’t do anything for me…but lots of people talk about the Rules Cyclopedia fondly. OSR has no particular appeal to me, but many smart and creative folks embrace it and I've tried. The same with pure story games.

That’s a lesson I have to relearn every few years. There’s sometimes the pressure, especially in the high social media age, to rise to defend vigorously anything you like. I don’t think that’s a bad instinct, except that people carry it too far. Someone’s dislike of your favored system isn’t a crime to be vilified. Someone suggesting alternative approaches isn’t an assault on your game practices. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Shoepixie has a great postconsidering what she gets out of radically different games. She contains multitudes, as I hope do we all.