Sunday, 31 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 31 - Favourite game of all time

Well now, here's a doozy of a question to finish on. I've talked about my favourite campaigns and systems and moments, but I actually don't think that I have an overall favourite RPG because no RPG is complete in itself. There are those with better or worse material in them, but when push comes to shove it isn't until you take the book or books containing the system and the setting and sit down with a bunch of other people that you actually have a game.

With that in mind, I'm going to look at a few of those elements and what I think makes for a good game.


We've already looked at this, in some depth, on day 18. Following from that, what I like in a system is flexibility, tactical - but not over complicated - combat and some kind of dramatic narrative system so that you are never entirely at the mercy of the dice, yet still in their shadow if not their thrall.


A good setting has space to move. I think that's critical, because unless you feel you have the world to play in, then there is always a danger - especially with licensed products - that you will end up feeling constrained by obedience to canon, especially in a licensed product. The necessary space can be achieved either with a vast setting, or a loosely defined one. It gives the PCs the freedom to wriggle, to pull a fast one or slip a mickey without upsetting a defined world history.

In James's A Song of Ice and Fire game, I went to some length to try to have Jaime Lannister offed while in Robb Stark's captivity, just so that I would be on a level playing field with the people who had read the book; especially since I already knew our side wasn't going to win (unless I could manage to field a force of devastating dire-boar cavalry, as was my secondary plan; not that my family were supportive of my efforts.)


A good gaming group is a strange work of alchemy. It needs between four and eight individuals, each combining qualities of motivation, individuality and cooperation. They need to be on some level on the same wavelength, so that what makes sense to one makes sense - with a little explanation - to all, but diverse enough to come up with lots of different ideas. And they need to be available at the same time on at least a semi-regular basis. That last one is a bitch.

As you'll no doubt see, my ideal gaming group is a tabletop one; that's just how I roll. Many people prefer a fest LARP vibe, but I'm not much one for camping.

So, all-time favourite game... That I ran, probably Boomtown, the WFRP game I referenced on day 29. To play in, Enemy Within or Rose Crescent (referenced on days 17 and 12 respectively.) It's not coincidence that James played in or ran all three of those, that Boomtown and Rose Crescent had a 75% player crossover, and that Enemy Within ran with a group of three years shared experience. I'm not saying you should always run with the same group - I'm currently in a game with three friends I've never TTd with before and it's going swimmingly - but it can help.

So, that's been #RPGaDAY on Out of My Mind. I hope that if you've found your way here via the hashtag you'll consider sticking around for my more irregular and unstructured gaming thoughts.

You can also check out, and even follow, my other blogs:

My Life as a Doge - Movie and TV reviews

The Iconomicon - Thoughts and reviews on books and comics

Food of the Blue - My food blog

#RPGaDAY: Day 30 - Rarest game I own

This one is actually quite easy. As I don't own many rareties, then unless Maelstrom is rarer than I think, it's got to be Allansia, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy wilderness adventures and massed battle core book. I picked it up for about £35 to complete my set, and they now run for £70-£110 on Amazon, which was a bit of a surprise.

I did used to own the original Changeling: the Dreaming sampler, which would probably have trumped this, but I think that vanished two moves ago.

That's pretty much all I have on this one. Last, and by definition anything but least, we'll cover 'my all-time favourite game' later today.

Friday, 29 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 29 - It's all fun and games until somebody loses a Fate point

Today's topic is 'most memorable encounter', and I'm drawing a bit of a blank, as I've never really been in many games which played out in discrete encounters. Instead of a single exemplar then, I'm going to run down two memorable incidents and talk a little about what makes them work.
And then this happened...

Here There Be Monsters was the 13th session of my epic WFRP game, 'Boomtown', and took the action to a whole new level. The PCs had previously fought bandits and small packs of beastmen stalking the woods near their village of Heortwald. In this session, they took a trip into the deeper woods to aid their barbarian friends - actually a group of dissident academics who have adopted a barbarian lifestyle, although there is an actual barbarian tribe living in an abandoned mansion nearby - against a massive (by their terms at least) Beastman horde.

In the end, the session involved the PCs rallying the actual barbarians to aid their new neighbours by capturing a beastman for them to fight, then dressing in beastman skins to mask their scent (eww) to rescue captives from sacrifice, and finally leading a massed battle at the neo-barbarian camp. This last was an almost note-perfect mid-game climax, and a huge step up from some of my earlier efforts at large-scale combat.

It worked because the PCs were intimately involved in the combat, battling major opponents at pivotal points in the fight; it worked because they made a major strategic and tactical contribution to the fight, and because they had to work their arses off not to get mashed into a paste by a minotaur or acid-burned by the shaman. There was threat and consequence, and as a result, there was triumph. I think it is still the best battle I've ever run.
Evil, right. Right?

My second example is from a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. We - being a college educated bull-man, a martial arts trained badger-man and a trailer trash bobcat-man - were tracking a group of mutant weasel archers (led by a wolverine and a psychotic bat) who were raiding meat storage facilities. We tracked them down and captured them, and we established that they needed to eat more than their own body weight in meat every day to survive. I'm pretty sure that the scenario's ending options were 'fight to the death' and 'turn them over to the authorities to be returned to the military lab that made them'; possibly, allow them to go to Alaska and try to live free.

Instead, we figured that given their unstoppable digestive systems, we could set ourselves up in a business partnership with them, collecting and disposing of condemned meat. Apart from the bat; because fuck that guy, he was a crazy, giggling killer.

This was a notable incident, because we turned the expectation on its head and were able to find a left-field solution that really worked.

Just two more days left, but I may end up doing both on Monday. The topics are rarest RPG owned and favourite RPG of all time. Not sure what's going to go into that, but I guess we'll find out.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 28 - Scariest game played

It's hard to be truly scared playing an RPG; at least the way I've tended to play them. There's tension, if the game is a good one with plenty of risk and consequence, but fear - even horror movie, ghost train fear - is hard to generate.

LARP does it better, and my friend James explains that better than I can, having run many more LARPs and in particular a load of Cthulhu Live games. I've never quite managed that level of horror in my Geist games, in part I suspect because I no longer have the commitment to run a graveyard slot and it's really hard to do scary in the midday sun.
The game uses locks and keys as major
symbols, but the art is more about the chains.

The game I have played that had the most intention to be scary is Wraith: the Oblivion, one of White Wolf's more conceptual efforts. In it, each player takes on the role both of their own PC - like a classic ghost, but part of a neo-feudal, highly predatory society of dead people and still possessed of a complete set of human desires and drives - and of the darker impulses of another player's Wraith, the Shadow.

The idea was that as the Shadow you would tempt the Wraith to act within your Passions, rather than their own, strengthening your control over them. You did this both by goading and by offering bonus dice in exchange for complicity. Each offer accepted moved the Wraith closer to a period of Catharsis in which the Shadow became briefly ascendant. The fact that Catharsis happened due to a build up of Angst, and that your energy reserves were called Pathos never really helped people to take the game seriously, and the problem was that it would only ever be scary, or indeed compelling in any way, if you took it very seriously. Wraith was not a game that could realistically survive a Monty Python reference, and was so unremittingly serious and grim that it was hard to want it to. It was like the RP equivalent of poetry written on black paper in silver ink.

On the few occasions where I have managed to elicit a fear response in game, it hasn't come from anything outrageously grisly or bleak, but from subverting expectations of the ordinary. It has also come more from implication than overt statement. On learning that the water in a small town was contaminated with Mythos-stuff, my Delta Green investigator definitely would have got less reaction by warning people not to use the toilet than he got by bringing in an ice bucket and a waste paper bin and announcing: "Number one, and number two." (Although I'm not sure if that works for an American character at all).

Tomorrow, we continue the downhill tumble towards completion with Day 29 and Most Memorable Encounter.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 27 - Game you would like to see a new/improved edition of

This is quite the hot topic at the moment, what with Onyx Path rolling out the All-New World of Darkness Second Edition Show (formerly [apt and/or pretentious title] the [iconic antagonist] Chronicle), and D&D (ostensibly) 5th Edition now fresh off the printers and allegedly smelling of fish (literally, and I've certainly had gaming products which had that particular ink-smell problem before).
Angel sarcophagus ON THE MOON!
Sign me up!*

The God-Machine Chronicle release for nWoD is a truly massive overhaul, involving pretty major alterations to every aspect of the game's design. The basic resolution mechanic is the same, but there is a lot more focus on intrinsic abilities, and the 'Condition' mechanic, which basically borrows a page from Fate's playbook and allows a great many powers and effects to pin a description on their target which either gives them penalties or gives other characters advantages against them until they can resolve the Condition in some way.

It also links experience and character progression directly to in-play action rather than raw game time clocked, and decouples morality and sanity. There are a huge number of changes that I really like, and in particular the preview material for Mage and Forsaken suggests that the writers have a much, much stronger handle on what they are actually trying to do with the game than they did with the first editions.

Of course, it's a tabletop game and I mostly (only) play WoD in a LARP setting where about 50-75% of the changes would be a massive headache to implement, but I can hardly criticise the games for that; it would like complaining that hammer is no good for whisking eggs, or at least that my frying pan is too shallow to make sauces in. National-scale LARP societies is not what the game is written for (and given White Wolf's history with the Cam, you can see that they might really not want to go there again.)

This one is newer than mine; I don't know if
there is a yet-newer one.
On top of the announced games, I'd like to see them take a revised run at Geist, which is the game I run and - as we work in a much smaller arena than the big four (Requiem, Lost, Forsaken and Awakening) - it would be something I actually could implement. It's needed as well, as there's still a lot that doesn't entirely tie together in the game as is. I'd like to see Synergy function as a balance mechanic rather than being shoehorned into the linear, unidirectional morality system (they are apparently doing something of the sort with Werewolf's Harmony, so I might just nick that when it's unveiled).

This (or Unisystem cinematic) is
basically my new edition of anything I
don't like the system of.
I hear that there is a new Feng Shui out/due, which would be interesting to take a look at, although my ideal wuxia RPG would be one more removed from the Shadowfist setting. There is also Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition, which intrigues me strangely. Onyx Path, again, is revising the Aeon series (Adventure!, Aberrant and Trinity) and that intrigues me, especially the first two (I was never really taken with Trinity, although a closing down sale at the game shop means I have, like, all the material knocking around at home).

But this is all tangential to the point, which is what would I like to see revised, rather than what is being revised. I have to admit, this question is complicated by the fact that I realised recently that I can pretty much run anything I like the setting of, but not the system, in Fate Core with a little prep work; possibly less than learning a new system would take.

I suspect that there are games I would get excited about a new edition for. Hell, I was mad keen when I heard there was a new AFF, wasn't I? But I don't think that there is anything that I think 'man, if only they would revise that', in part because I'm now an experienced enough rules hacker to be confident changing anything that doesn't make sense, and I haven't felt bounded by 'canon' setting since Kung Fu Vampire Hunters at the latest.

Look for the #RPGaDAY hashtag for more on new editions, and check back tomorrow when I'll talk at you about the scariest game I've ever played; or something like it anyway.

* If there are no angels in sarcophagi on the moon in GMC, please tell me; break my heart clean.**

** I would totally accept Mars as an alternative.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 26 - Coolest character sheet

What is the measure of a man? Or woman? Or dwarf, or for that matter cyborg killer afflicted with a deep and unremitting melancholy fugue as a side effect of his intra-cranial armour plating? In an RPG, that measure is the character sheet.

I have no particular dog in today's fight, so I've just gone trawling through a Google image search for some prime examples. Most of the examples below are stock sheets; where I can see that they are otherwise, I've credited the creators as best I can.

D&D: Lowering the common denominator since 1974
We begin with the daddy of them all: Dungeons & Dragons. Just look at that thing; it's huge and cluttered and... I think the best thing I can say for it is that it's comprehensive. I guess that the tabular layout is clear, but it's not visually appealing (although in all honesty the teenage me would have been excited by the multiplicity of apparent options, however irrelevant). I guess it does at least not have a space in which the artistically inept can self-consciously not draw a portrait of their PC and feel kind of like a failure each time they look at the blank space where they know they could have drawn a portrait if they were any good. I disapprove of RPGs making their players feel even more wanting than most of them already do. It's not like the cool, confident kids tend to find their way into roleplaying, especially not as teenagers.

Overall, I include it here as an example of what is not (to me) a cool character sheet.

If anyone knows what this is actually for, drop a note in the
By comparison, here's another sheet purporting to be for D&D; I guess for 5th edition, although the necessarily chaotic and complex nature of my high-dimensional data mining exercise (search terms: character + sheet) means that it may be mislabeled and not a D&D sheet at all. The presence of a 'Tec' attribute and the 'Augments' section argues for the latter somewhat.

I much prefer the layout on this one. The curves are visually appealing, and the information is clustered according to use, and the whole thing is on a single side, including a reference list of favoured combos. The combination of form and function makes this a strong contender.

Some folks will always go the extra mile.
One of the hallmarks of a good character sheet is how easy it is for the financially and tech impoverished to replicate using a piece of paper and a pencil, and in fairness the D&D sheet above would be easy to copy, given its tabular layout.

The hand drawn sheet on the left (created for Dungeon Crawl Classics by The Earthlight Academy) is proof, if it were needed, that not everyone considers such simplicity to be a virtue. Despite the visual elegance, however, the layout of this sheet remains clear and concise. D&D could learn a bit about structuring a D20 character sheet here. On the down side, being of an obviously artistic bent, the maker has left that great big character portrait space in the centre to tease those of a more literary or mathematical persuasion.

This one also represents the PC as
the Vitruvian man, so Da Vinci props.
Speaking of simplicity, here's a couple of fair examples. On the left, Tunnels and Trolls, and on the right, no less than two character sheets for In Nomine; one for an angel and one for a demon.

Each has a straightforward design; tabular, but broken up by images so that they don't look like an unalloyed accounting spreadsheet. They contain all the information needed for a character, and don't take up pages and pages of paper.

On to the Fate system now, and the Fate Core character sheet.

Again, it's a beautifully simple and elegant layout, and no taunting portrait space. It's got pretty much everything it needs, although if I'm honest I find it a bit stark. Aesthetically, it works for me as a sheet for a modern or futuristic game, but I'd find it odd looking at that style and layout for a fantasy or historical game.

It is dead easy to copy into your own variation if you so desired, but in and of itself is all function and no form.

This sheet for Spirit of the Century is almost the opposite; very visual, but not necessarily convenient in play. I do like the fact that you could absolutely draw a portrait in the centre circle, but because it's the hub of the sheet rather than an obvious picture frame, there's no pressure to do so.

Moving on quite quickly, I like the cog design of the Tephra sheet on the right, and it looks pretty usable.

On the left, a D20 Star Wars sheet. Much prettier than the D&D sheet, but I have a feeling that this one is incomplete, to the level of there probably being at least one more sheet.

And the final instance, and winner of the coolest character sheet award is this little beauty:

Why? Well, it's about Vampire Pirates; what's cooler than that?

Check back tomorrow for the game I would like to see an improved or expanded version of, and in the meantime check out the hashtag, #RPGaDAY, for more cool character sheets.

#RPGaDAY: Day 25 - Favourite RPG that no one else wants to play

I really don't think I have an answer for this. I've never yet been faced with the situation that I couldn't put together a group for a game due to lack of system, or even concept, enthusiasm.

Time is another matter, and is - together with geographical distances - what has stymied me time and again, but it's not about people not wanting to play. Unless all of my so-called friends are liars, just making excuses to avoid getting involve in games with me, but I'm pretty sure that isn't it.

As I've mentioned before then, I'd love to play some more Warhammer, either my Dirty Dozen-styled Only War campaign, or Pies Across the Ocean, which would be like the Hobbit, but with more scurvy. I also want to run some version of The Crown of Kings for new AFF, and I'd like to play some Fiasco! sometime.

Sadly, not much to add on this one. Next is... man, 'coolest character sheet'. That's going to take some thought.

#RPGaDAY: Day 24 - Most complicated RPG owned

The game which had a skill called 'Do', which
seemed a little broad.
I don't own many mechanically complex games. Easily the worst offender is Dark Heresy, which as I've noted before took five or six rolls to resolve a single combat hit from the psyker's Force staff. If I had 'Lost, in Space' to do over, I'd just have said "Okay; add Psi-Rating to Strength Bonus and Armour Pirecing; have fun with that."

However, I've already talked a lot about Warhammer in various forms, so instead I'm going to look at a game whose complications were metaphysical rather than mechanical (although it's a White Wolf old World of Darkness game, so it has its share of rules complications, from endless lists of secondary skills to a four stage resolution for each and every basic combat roll): Mage: The Ascension.

The central premise and conceit of Mage: the Ascension is that magic is a point of view. All reality is fluid, determined by the consensus beliefs of the mass of humanity. Most humans are unconscious participants in the system, Sleepers; the Awakened are the Mages whose enlightened condition allows them to impose their will on reality and say: "No, you work like this."

Magical ability was determined by Spheres - nine branches of magic, which determined what you could do - and Arete - degree of enlightenment, which determined how well you could do it. Within the dominion of your Spheres, you could basically do anything. There were some sample effects, but basically there was no spell list, no power set; if you could conceive it in terms of your Spheres, and make the Arete roll (the tricky part, as casting pools tended to be the lowest dice pools in the game), you could make it happen. The fundamental simplicity of this system was the source of its complication, because in the absence of a spell list, every casting was up for debate: Can you do this, or are you just blagging it? Nuclear blasts are the preserve of the Forces Sphere, but what if I use the Matter Sphere to create a critical mass of fissile plutonium? (Official ruling was that without Forces, the material would not be fissile, as the inherent instability of plutonium was a function of the consensus reality that you were bypassing to make the plutonium out of thin air in the first place, IIRC.)

The debate was further complicated by Paradox. When a mage tried to bend reality too far, reality could push back through a little-understood force called Paradox. Spells that worked cleverly around consensus reality were coincidental, while those that punched the consensus in the nose and called it chicken were vulgar; vulgar spells generated more Paradox, which built up inside a mage until it was either bled off, exploded, or sent a manifestation around to take you out back and give you the business, so every casting involved a measure of debate over whether something 'could have' happened.

Of course, that was all hunky-dory compared to the Technocracy issue. The Technocracy were the morally ambiguous bad guys... Sort of. They were mages who, rather than harking back to a mythical golden age of wonder, sought to create a perfect world of ordered reality... through SCIENCE! They were so succesful a sympathetic antagonist that later material on them did everything short of slapping swastikas on all their iconography to make them more obviously baddies, before giving up and making them a playable option.

The thing of it was that the Technocracy truly believed in 'enlightened Science'. They didn't see themselves as wizards monkeying with technology; they were scientists and inventors and surgeons and explorers who used Sufficiently Advanced Science (TM) to shape the future scientific paradigm of the consensus reality. And the metaphysic being what it was, they were right. Wrap your head around that, if you please; at least until the 3rd edition showed up and was all: "Nah; they're wizards monkeying with science, but now none of that consensus shit applies and the world is as it is." 3rd ed was weird in its efforts not to be weird.

Next up, in a few minutes really, my favourite RPG that no-one else wants to play. I have literally no clue what to talk about for that.

Check out the hashtag for more overly complicated RPGs.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 23 - Coolest looking RPG product/book

There are a number of interpretations of 'coolest', but I cover most of the bases in today's video entry... in a narrow strip in the centre of the picture.

It's a learning curve.

This is the other book I was talking about, and a sample image, which I take to be an homonculus bottle of some kind. I need to make more use of shit like this in games that I run.

I think that this is the same Secret of Art and Science/Nature that I have/had. It's a facsmilie reprint of an actual 17th Century digest of the 'entire' canon of natural philosophy, which is what makes it way cooler than the modern collection in the Medieval Miscellany. A local bookstore got hold of a big stack of copies almost at random and a bunch of us bought them. It's full of references to and extracts from people like Cornelius Agrippa, and has a chapter on 'the secrets of sciences, as natural magick...'

Oh. Yeah.

Friday, 22 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 22 - In which I change horses mid-stream

Okay, so this - best secondhand RPG purchase - is a bit of a toughy, as I don't buy many games secondhand. Back in the day I used to get them new on my way home from work (I was paid in cash on the far side of the games shop from the bus station; it was a fit up!), and when I've not had the money to do that I've never possessed enough of a collecting bug, not enough prospect of playing random purchases, to go for things secondhand. As a result, pretty much all I have are books I've talked about before, specifically Maelstrom and Allansia, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy wilderness and mass combat guide.

I think that's a remora, which always
confused me because a remora is also
a small fish that attaches to larger fish.
So, let's talk a little about Allansia, since I've covered Maelstrom quite a bit.

Advanced Fighting Fantasy was Steve Jackson (the GW one, not the Steve Jackson Games one) and Ian Livingstone's first shot at an original RPG, based in the world shared by most, but not all, of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I'm pretty sure that by this point their names were just on the 'present' banner and they weren't writing all that much, but...

Holy shit.

So, looking up who wrote the books (Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn) I have discovered that there was a new edition (published by Cublicle 7) a few years back, which included a campaign book called The Crown of Kings, for running the Sorcery! campaign in new AFF. Oh, man, if I had money I would be spending it right the fuck now!

Okay, fuck second hand purchases; we're talking about Sorcery!

Sorcery! was the first attempt to do something really different with a Fighting Fantasy book, and featured an epic quest stretched across four volumes. Your hero, 'the Analander', was an agent sent from the Kingdom of Analand into the chaos of Khakabad, through The Shamutanti Hills and Khare - Citiport of Traps, over the Baklands in pursuit of The Seven Serpents, and finally through the fortress of Mampang to confront the Archmage and recover The Crown of Kings.

It also had an awesome spellcasting system, which required the player to memorise a book of 48 spells, each with a three letter name and a crucial ingredient. In combat, you would have the option of casting one of three spells, one of which was usually a dud, one hopelessly inappropriate and one useful. If you picked the right one, actually had the right ingredient in your backpack, and paid the Stamina cost, you got to feel like a fricking Wizard for a few minutes, until the next time you tried to cast YOB without a giant's tooth in sight.

And it was tough. Dear lord, it was difficult. In Khare you had to collect parts of the password for the gate by completing what certainly seemed like fucking Mensa-level IQ tests. I don't think I ever completed either Khare or Crown of Kings, and not for want of trying.

Sorcery! was an eye opener for me; the first thing that showed me that fantasy games could be more than just a single book. The idea of character continuity was a revelation, and was I think what really hooked me into the idea of roleplaying. It's certainly what attracted me to Dungeoneer when it came out.

So, yeah... Wow, the idea of running The Crown of Kings for a group is pretty tempting. The wild beasts and vicious tribes of the Shamutanti Hills, the cutthroats of Khare, the Seven Serpents and the Archmage. I know it's probably just the nostalgic haze talking, but I am practically salivating at the thought. It's such a wonderfully rich setting and I have such fond memories of the books. Of course, ideally I wouldn't be killing off all of my PCs at the Baklands Gate of Khare, so it wouldn't be just the way I remember it.

£19.99 for the core book from the publisher, and I can get the campaign for £11.99 on Amazon...

No! Bad blogger! No biscuit.

Apparently, I could shift my old AFF books for about £500, and the new ones are only £100 or so all told, but... I guess I don't roll that way. One day, I may sell Dungeoneer to buy something awesome for my daughter, but not for me.

Still, I feel better about paying £30 for Allansia now.

Come back tomorrow - or possibly after the weekend, which may be Tuesday, because bank holiday - when I will still be wrestling with my desire to spend money I can't afford on books I will likely never use, and also talking about my coolest looking RPG product/book.

Man, that Crown of Kings campaign looks pretty cool to me right now.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 21 - Favourite licensed RPG

Technically, this is a licensed RPG,
although the licensed property is -
or was, at least - also an RPG, making
this the game of the game, or the
game of the game of the game, since
the original WFRP was built on the
I tend to be a bit sniffy about licensed RPGs (see yesterday's blog, for example), but the truth is that this is because my mind tends to focus on a few specific examples, and in particular the rash of D20 licenses for SF properties such as Stargate, Farscape and the big daddy, Star Wars that ensued from the first flush of the Open Gaming License.

The problem of these licensed products is threefold. Firstly, D20 is a shockingly poor choice for a game attempting to recreate a dramatic setting. The games attempt to hack this - with greater or lesser degrees of success - but ultimately if you're playing Star Wars, you really don't want to start off with a level 1 Fringer who's getting pwned by Stormtroopers, and while it's an easy fix, if you have to ignore the first 5-10 levels of character progression to make the game work, you're playing with the wrong system.
Umm... adventure? Wow; this is a cover
that screams 'we don't give a shit about
this product.'

Secondly, D20 is intrinsically class based, which means that you need to define classes in a setting which is not class based (even Call of Cthulhu D20 had 'Offensive' and 'Defensive'). Stargate flailed particularly horribly in this, creating a not-entirely-convincing divide between 'Soldier' and 'Guardian' (alien soldier/barbarian), while at the same time failing to make the fairly obvious - I thought - distinction between 'Scientist' and 'Scholar', or even 'Engineer'. Creating the highly-competent lead characters actually required prestige classes, which feel like they ought to be an extra, rather than standard.

This brings me to thirdly, which effects all licensed products: When push comes to shove we all have our own ideas about how a fictional setting works, and by locking down fictional history and trying to reconcile the available information without actually being a canon source, the licensed RPG often becomes a source of contention, even resentment (Ra was a Goa'uld possessing an Asgard possessing a human, puh-leese!). Even one of my most level-headed friends* was drawn in to note that the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG (which will be covered more in the second part of this article) gives Angel a higher Strength than Buffy (who is also strong, but ultimately is statted as a Dex monster), despite the opposite being explicitly stated in Angel (the show, not the RPG). Blasphemy.

Of course, there are also games licensed from other media, including books (MERP and The Lord of the Rings RPG draw on the books as well as the films, regardless of the heavy use of movie photos in the latter, Call of Cthulhu is not exactly licensed, but is subject to a whole mess of legal and quasi-legal brouhaha, and if The Dying Earth RPG isn't mentioned in today's Gonzo History Gaming, it will only be because it turned up on Day 17), computer games (World of Warcraft is the RPG of the CRPG of the RTS), and wargames (the assorted iterations of the WH40K and WFRP, it least once away from Games Workshop's direct control and into the licensed sphere). If nobody has ever hacked out an RPG based on Hamlet, I would be amazed (and indeed, here is Forsooth!). All are subject to similar limitations (although wargames and especially CRPGs are probably better modelled by D20).

ETA: I completely forgot comics, from Judge Dredd to Mouseguard.

I am struck by how much better this
cover is than Stargate's, despite still being
just a bunch of faces.
Which brings us to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Easily my favourite licensed product (discounting anything Cthulhu as being far more complex than that), BtVS addresses all three of my main concerns (that minor point three thing aside for now). Of course, Eden Studios lost the license for Buffy in 2006, but the books that were published are still available.

BtVS runs on the Unisystem Lite/Unisystem Cinematic engine, which divides characters into 'Heroes' built largely on attributes and skills, and supporting characters (for BtVS 'White Hats'), who have less raw ability, but a larger stock of Drama Points, making them more wild cards than the dependable Heroes. One of the key features of this system is the great swathe of Qualities and Drawbacks available for character customisation, including packages (such as 'Watcher', 'Werewolf' or 'Slayer') which can be absolute game changers. What this does mean is that, while the system is absolutely perfect for dramatic settings, it does require a substantial amount of prep on the front end for anything that doesn't have published material (and I know that Buffy does, but when I ran a Watcher-focused game I still had to create a run of tailored packages so the PCs weren't all functionally the same).

Heroes and White Hats is a good split for the setting, and no further class-based division is needed, which is just as well. I can't imagine that the game would be helped by having to split Buffy's levels between Slayer, Student and Cheerleader (let alone those prestige levels in Fast Food Wage Slave).

Finally, the game avoids the problem of canon and fanon conflict by being totally and irreverently upfront about the non-specific nature of Buffyverse history and cosmology, which is largely whatever works for the drama of the episode. Getting way too involved with the cosmology is part of what didn't work with Season 8 (also the artwork and the fact that by the time they did the time-shift episode I pretty much disliked Buffy to the point of wanting Fray to punch her lights out), and the RPG is perfectly willing to put its hands up and say 'it looks pretty much like it works this way'.

I've only actually run one game, but it worked well enough except for the bits that weren't entirely the system's fault (I underestimated the degree to which the mook rules would render a heavy-hitting adversary truly monstrous and almost managed a TPK with a giant scarab beetle, and the sorceress would only use the single sample spell from the book and so tried to solve every problem in the game with a magic missile).

Tune in - some day soon that idiom is going to be replaced with 'log on' or something similar - tomorrow, when I may be talking about my best secondhand RPG purchase, if I can find something else to say about it, because I don't buy many games, let alone secondhand, so I've already covered most of the options quite a bit.

* Actually a friend, not code for 'me'. I already told you I had a PC who was Drizzt Do'Urden's cousin; do you really think I'd be ashamed of a little nitpicking?

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 20 - Will still play in 20 years time...

I'm not keen on that ellipsis in today's prompt. There's no call for it, and the only thing it could realistically stand for is a pause before some sort of sass.

"Will still play in 20 years time... bitch."

I mean, I know that none of these prompts are grammatically complete sentences, but this one niggles at me like the themes from Live and Let Die (which does go 'in this ever changing world in which we live in' and not 'in this ever changing world in which we're living') and Mystery Science Theatre 3000 ('just repeat to yourself it's just a show, I should really just relax', apart from the first series, which had 'then repeat to yourself...'.)

Which is a pretty long winded way of saying that I have no idea what I'll still be playing in 20 years time. I suspect that I will still be gaming, but what I'll be playing escapes me. Maybe something using Fate Core, but probably not the current edition and certainly I don't think any of the other systems I currently use will last unchanged. Setting wise, I have even less of a clue. Maybe I'll finally write and sell my own game, based on my bestselling novel, retire and give up this life of crime.

Okay, actually... I don't know about 20 years, but here's my plan for 15 years in the future, which may or may not come off in the end.

Sometime between 2025 and 2029 I'm going to teach my daughter about tabletop. She's been LARPing since she was a twinkle in her parents' eyes, but I'm going to teach her about small-group, tabletop roleplaying, and I'm going to do it with Call of Cthulhu (since I'm pitching her the setting good and early). My plan is to run a session for her and any interested friends set in the unimaginably distant and romantic past of the early 1990s, with all those half-discredited tropes like MiB conspiracy theories and other Delta Green goodness. My own past will be retro, and I plan to use that.

Tomorrow's topic is Favourite Licensed RPG, and I'll talk about that if I can stop laughing at the concept. There must be something; is CoC a license?

Meantime, check out the hashtag and talk about your future gaming prospects. Catch you on the flipside, as all the retro investigators will be saying in 2029.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 19 - Favourite Published Adventure

A cover that promises a tense, horror-
themed adventure... for those who really
care about Frugelhofen.
Man, fuck published adventures.

Okay, I shouldn't say that there are no good ones. The Enemy Within for WFRP (see Day 17) is a classic for a reason, an epic campaign consisting of a series of interlinked adventures that take your PCs from wandering ruffians to badass heroes of the Empire in a time of tumult and turmoil, taking in most of the major themes of the game along the way. I talked about it as the funniest game I'd played in, but that wasn't to say that Slagdarg the Mutant Ogre Torturer wasn't a tense fight in which Sven the Glass Dwarf almost got his head staved in, or that we didn't have moments of intense and slightly misty-eyed concern for the Graf's lovable lunk of a champion, who was acting all possessed, and just when he wanted to retire and buy a farm with his sweetheart.

The flip side of the coin is something like Lichemaster, one of my least favourite published scenarios. It's a WFRP adventure that was adapted from Terror of the Lichemaster, a Warhammer Fantasy Battle campaign, which thus consists of a series of the kind of massive combats that the roleplaying game is so bad at. It fails mostly on the grounds that, unlike its original version, it needs - and fails to - provide a reason for the PCs to give a rat's ass about the fate of the little town of Frugelhofen, rather than just punking the fuck out when the Army of Darkness comes to call. There's a whole section where the PCs are supposed to persuade the people of the town to make a stand against the horde of the undead rather than evacuating, then in the end you have to flee down the river in barrels or some such shit because you're overrun. The real problem is that there is no reason for this; not even that if you don't make that stand the undead will overtake the retreating children and other civvies (because then the villagers would be persuading the PCs, which wasn't what they wanted, I guess).

In an oWoD scenario, you're the one in the middle. Not the
one actually firing a gun at someone; the one behind that
On the up side, it doesn't have what many White Wolf adventures have, which is cut scenes. The average WW scenario contains at least one moment when the PCs are basically obliged to watch as a couple of NPCs do their thing. Maybe Sam Haight murders someone, or Baba Yaga eats a Niktuku child-vamp and asplodes, or a werewolf and a four thousand year old ghoul fight to mutual fatality, while the player characters apparently watch and do nothing. This is specifically an old World of Darkness problem, since that was a game line which had a serious crush on its metaplot, and often forgot that even if they aren't the movers and shakers of their society, the PCs are still who the game is supposed to be about.

In between these extremes, the bulk of scenarios that I've seen - especially the short-form versions, which as they appear in the back of core books I have seen most often - suffer from the problem that they are railroads. This might make them a useful aide to a novice GM, except that the nature of a railroad is that it leaves the driver without any useful tools in the event that the train jumps the tracks. They often assume a single solution, whereas as a friend once put it: "If you devise N ways for the PCs to solve a problem, they will come up with N+1, so I just set N as 0."

The best published adventures I've found are more like setting guides in which something is happening. The Enemy Within is a very open adventure, especially as it moves up to Middenheim and Power Behind the Throne (which is in fact often packaged with the Middenheim setting guide), an adventure in which the PCs could conceivably just profit as best they are able from the fall of the city to Chaos infiltrators and run off to the Border Princes to live like dissipated kings.

So, a bit of a non-answer today, and I can't promise better for tomorrow's topic 'a game I'll still be playing in 20 years time'. In the meantime, check out the hashtag for more #RPGaDAY.

Monday, 18 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 18 - Favourite Game System

I got the original core book and ran my
game within a few months of first
publication, I still had about six sides
of errata stuffed in the back. This revised
edition was badly needed.
I haven't yet found my perfect system, so instead I'm going to talk about some bits and pieces that I like.

I'm a big fan of dramatic system design. While I feel that there ought to be a random element, or at least a risk element in RPG design, I don't feel that the purpose of RPGs should be competitive, but rather collaborative, and that this is easier to achieve when the players and the GM/ST/Ref share a degree of control over the world, usually through some form of drama or fate point system.

I first came across this concept in two very different implementations: Eden Studios' Buffy the Vampire Slayer licensed RPG, and White Wolf's Adventure!.

BtVS used Eden's Unisystem lite - Attribute + Skill + roll + mods vs difficulty, IIRC - to model the world of the TV show. Perhaps its finest achievement was in its implementation of the stake through the heart: Roll a penalised attack and calculate damage, then triple it. If that's a kill, the vampire is dust; if not, untriple it and use the penalised damage. Why is this so awesome? Because it provides a mechanic that supports combat as it is seen in the show. Against a fully healthy vamp, a stake is a very long shot indeed, but it's an excellent finish after a few rounds of kickboxing.

That action is one-fisted; one-
and-a-half tops. I want my money
Buffy's Drama Points were used for bonuses and rerolls, or to absorb damage, and in character creation a player could chose to play a Hero - lots of skills, not so many Drama Points - or a White Hat - not as skilled, but the story loves them. Drama Points did not refresh or recover automatically, but were gained by doing cool and awesome things without spending Drama Points, or by taking a throw for the story (a player could allow their character to be knocked out, captured or otherwise hurt or imperiled without resistance in exchange for Drama Points).

This being Buffy, emotional pain also netted one Drama Points.

BtVS was all right. Unisystem lite I loved and used to run a Star Wars game. The only problem is that there is a system of advantage and drawback packages, which requires a fairly substantial piece of front-loading on the part of the Director.

Adventure!'s aim was to model the pulp heroics of the early twentieth century. It featured almost-superhuman Stawarts, psychic Mesmerists and exceptionally skilled or lucky Daredevils, all of whom used their Inspiration pool to activate different abilities. Inspiration could also be used to improve rolls, to further the plot by gaining hints, or to make small alterations to the scene (such as adding a chandelier to swing from).

Fate is setting non-specific, rather than
trying to work in secret agent wizards,
swordswomen and cyborg gorillas. If
you want that, however, see Feng Shui.
Ultimately, the White Wolf system remained too clunky and mechanics heavy to really do the concepts of Adventure! justice, although it was better than the D20 system version, but the idea of altering the scene was one of the first I'd seen which brought the collaborative nature of gaming to the fore.

Collaborative is pretty much the watchword of Fate, a system which has been through many iterations, including Spirit of the Century, a pulp adventure game which by all accounts knocks Adventure!'s spirited effort into a cocked hat. The Fate system is one I touched on in Day 9's discussion of dice. Fate Core is the most recent variation.

In Fate Core, everything is collaborative, from world-building upwards. Character creation is part of play, and adding features to the world isn't even a function of Fate points; it's a standard action.
Horns on ma hat, and I don't care

The system is basic and generic, and any non-standard mechanics need to be devised as part of a front-load, but even this can be collaborative ('you want to play a wizard? How do you see that working?') I like the system a lot and it's currently one of my favourites. I use it for my campaign Operatives of CROSSBOW, which is about to get a darker, edgier, sexier reboot.

We're very serious people
Rune takes the collaborative play thing a step further. I've not played it (I have played the PC game, but this is a different beast), but the concept is interesting: All players have a character and take it in turns to be the Runner, who GMs for a session. I'd be interested if anyone has played it to know how - and if - it words.

Finally, a favourite mechanic that I came up with myself. I've mentioned before my habit of assigning a campaign a theme tune and getting people to narrate their characters' credits montage (c.f. more or less any credits sequence ever, but especially Buffy and Angel, cop shows and The Tudors).

In my Dark Heresy game, Lost, in Space, I added a mechanical hook: As part of the credits sequence, there would be a 'this week on...' section. I narrated a few likely scenes, and based on this - or on character traits - the players would narrate a brief scene including a line from their PC. If they managed to use this in the game, they got bonus XP. This was of course inspired by the catchphrase mechanic which James references in his description of the Dying Earth RPG, with my own twist.

Come back tomorrow for 'favourite published adventure', although having kind of covered that in 'funniest game', I may do something a little different.

In the meantime, check out the hashtag for more RPGaDAY stuff.

#RPGaDAY: Day 17 - Funniest Game You've Played

Hello again, WFRP
The Enemy Within is a classic of 1st edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the published campaign that actually worked. Mostly. The concluding chapter was not so well-received and was later replaced by Hogshead Publishing.

The current (boxed) edition of WFRP has its own Enemy Within campaign, written by several of the same authors, but I can't speak for that at all.

The campaign consisted of several linked adventures:

  • The Enemy Within/Mistaken Identity
  • Shadows Over Bogenhafen
  • Death on the Reik
  • Power Behind the Throne
  • Empire in Flames (redone as Empire in Chaos)
My University gaming group played Death on the Reik and Power Behind the Throne in the twilight days of the best roleplaying time of my life. Honestly, there is nothing like university for roleplaying; when else can you get away with those sudden all-nighters without care or consequence (for me at least; as a solid 2:1 I have the comfort of knowing that all the hard graft in the world likely wouldn't have tipped me over to a first)? I was playing the game with a group who had been together for two years, as of Death, and three by the tie we played Power, and it was one of those things that just clicked.

There were a couple of other players in the first part of the campaign (taking on the elf and the druid), but the core group that carried through was:

  • X, The Dandy Highwayman, whose name I forget in part because we spent most of our time ribbing him for being 'the Chosen of Sigmar';
  • Gregor the even dandier illusionist, who didn't have more taste or flair than the Highwayman, but did have more money;
  • Sven the Dwarf, see day 8;
  • Ambrose Tully, Halfling thief-turned-honest trader.
This game was the funniest - and most fun - I ever played in, simply because the group dynamic was by then near-perfect. Highlights included:

  • Everything Sven, including his absolute umbrage at being given a 'drinking allowance' after Ambrose took control of the group's finances, despite the fact that he could have handily drunk himself to death with what he was given.
  • The group egging the Highwayman on to romance a princess for information, including everything from pooling resources to buy a ring of invisibility to briefing him on his lines ("Tell her 'you're the only one I can trust,' she'll love that.") The fact that we OOC fully expected (incorrectly) that she would turn out to be a murderous Slaaneshi cultist, and not a hopelessly drippy damsel after all, just added to the fun.
  • Gregor insisting on splashing out to dress everyone 'suitably' for the Graf's ball, resulting in the party turning up like a pack of peacocks in the ever-so-serious City of the White Wolf.
  • After the third time his enquiries at the Temple of Ulric received the same response, Ambrose decided that it must be the cult's ritual greeting, and thus opened his interview with the high priest (the gist of which was to tell the leader of a cult of storm-worshipping, wolf-wrestling battle-priests that we knew he was being blackmailed for sleeping with a serving girl) with the words 'don't make me hurt you'.
  • The highwayman, seeking to rally the people, leaped onto a table, brandished the magical blade Baracul, which marked him as the chosen of Sigmar (less of an achievement since the field from which Sigmar had to select his chosen human warrior consisted of him, a halfling, a dwarf, an elf, a druid and a wizard), and declared: "I have Baracul!" Ambrose immediately leaped up next to him, drew his dagger and declared: "I have bugger all!" HELPING!
  • The day after the highwayman's super-seekrit romancing of the princess, being greeted by her sassy handmaiden in the pub with the words: "Chosen of Sigmar, huh?"
It's moments like these that make a game fun, and funny, for me. Moments like the Tunkin manouevre (faced with armed goons on the far side of the door you just opened, close the door again) and deathless quotes (everyone who played in my Star Wars campaign, Beyond the Fringe, seems to call back to the almost-dead ace pilot's assurance that "I'm fine," every once in a while).

In short, rules and setting are props, but games are people.

With that in mind, the next entry is 'favourite system', so that should be interesting.

#RPGaDAY: Day 16 - Game You Wish You Owned

I'm playing catch-up today, so the entries may be a little brief. First up, a game I wish that I owned.

Nobilis 2nd Edition is like the ur-want RPG. It was published briefly by Hogshead Publishing in the last months of its first life as an originator of exciting new concept games and home of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The game, written by Rebecca Sean Borgstrom (now Jenna K Moran), is about ex-mortals invested with a fragment of power which enables them to control an aspect of creation and by doing so to defend creation against hideous outsider gribblies.

It is everything that you could covet in a game: Hard to find, slightly obscure and very, very beautiful; and to cap it all, it came out at a time when I almost had a chance to get it at the selling price, but opted instead to wait for an unlimited edition that never materialised.

The thing of it is, I don't even know if the game is any good. It's run now to a third edition, so I guess it's got something to it, but what I don't know. It's a setting with possibilities, but has a potential to be too alienating to make for a satisfying roleplaying experience, and I have no idea how the system works having never read, let alone played, any version of the game (the third edition is currently available, I believe).

I think that Nobilis really exemplifies the nature of my material covetousness, in that I tend to want things that I don't know much about but that look shiny. I also have a tendency to get hung up on things I had a chance to get but missed. It is for this reason that I own a copy of Allansia, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy wilderness adventures book, which is a large paperback like any other AFF volume, but cost me £30 on Amazon marketplace.

Nobilis 2nd runs for about £250, which is too rich for me to spring for anything that isn't in some sense a sonic screwdriver*.

Next up, the funniest game I've played.

* A more up to date check shows it to be selling at closer to £75, but the same applies.

Friday, 15 August 2014

#RPGaDAY - Day 15: The benefit of hindsight

Today's topic is 'best con game', and for the same reasons as yesterday I'm going back to my readers' suggestions:

This is me in the future. Possibly the very near
Stephen suggests: Game you wish you could run again, with more experience now

Oh, man, like... all of them.

Of course, I don't have that much more experience now than then, since most of the games that I've run that would be worth running again are fairly recent. Well, I say that; actually some of them are pushing about 5-8 years past. Damn; I got old.

I think the game I would most like to be able to guide my younger self through is the Dark Heresy campaign I ran, which I entitled 'Lost, in Space'. The set up was great; I didn't particularly jam on the idea of running the party as Inquisitorial lackeys, so instead I gave them a back story based on the little-considered nature of an oft-neglected aspect of the WH40K universe: No-frills space travel.

Basically, if you're not the Imperium of Mankind, the Adeptus Mechanicus or some other galaxy spanning operation able to afford your own mighty fleet of starships to tear through the Warp, or at least a Rogue Trader or minor merchant house, you're reliant on whatever is available. Since Warp travel is expensive and dangerous, and starships are a hot mess of gothic architecture, precision engineering and faith, Johnny Passenger isn't going to be chartering one. So instead, he puts himself in cryo with a tag on the cabinet and gets passed from ship to ship, at each stop being passed to someone heading in the right direction until finally, voila! You're there. It might be thirty years later, it might be a century; this is why tourism in the Imperium is limited to small areas.

The set-up for 'Lost, in Space' was that the PCs were all travelling and had ended up aboard the same freighter when it came down over a mysterious planet. With the crew dead and everyone else in cryo, they became the de jure owners of the downer ship and the campaign was them exploring the planet, recovering cryopods and trying to build a crew, while fighting other factions, local wildlife and Satanists.

There are a couple of things I would like to have done differently. Firstly, I only got the starships supplement once we'd started, and realised that the crew compliment of the ship should be closer to 50,000 than the 500 I'd pitched. That was minor, but secondly, I did a lot of rejigging as the game went on to strip out some of the more canon touristy elements of the original plan and replace the original xenos camps with other human factions. I'd like to have had that in place to start with.

Finally, I would have liked to have done something with the psychic rules, which were complex as hell. I've not looked at the Rogue Trader version in detail, but I know they are different and anything more streamlined would be good. The worst was the psyker's force staff, which required up to six rolls on a successful hit (roll to hit, roll damage, confirm critical if you rolled maximum damage - the six rolls ignores the fact that the damage can then continue to explode, I'm calling this part of the damage roll - roll Psychic activation, roll Willpower, roll bonus damage).

I was pretty happy with the way the game went, but for that reason I would have liked it to be better.

Hatty suggests: Antagonists

It's very hard to sustain an antagonist. Essentially, with any major antagonist who actually wants the PCs dead, there have to be pressing reasons why a) the PCs don't just roll up and whack them and b) they don't just throw main force at the PCs until they run out of hit points. If the antagonist - or their organisation - is too strong, why would they tolerate the continued existence of an obvious danger; too weak and the PCs will simply roll them*.

Moral consequences are a possible solution that can be used, but that's a matter of system design rather than a function of the antagonists themselves. A few possibilities include:

1) Antagonist of the week: Perhaps the simplest solution. The PCs kill - or otherwise resolve - each antagonist, then face another. Common in old-school games, provides for a limited external arc. The cunning ST of course will engineer it so that all of these minor encounters lead back to an ultimate big bad, who probably has...

2) Vast, cosmic power; itty-bitty living space: In his house, the Dark Lord is unassailable, but he can't leave his house and so has to rely on minions.

3) Fear: Give the players something other than the antagonist to worry about. If you kill Jimmy the Fingers, Knuckles McGurk will bring his boys round to call on you. Or your family. Provide pressure for the PCs to box clever, be subtle, make Jimmy look bad or set him up so that Knuckles takes him out instead. Depending on mechanics, they may just opt to hit Knuckles first, of course.

In this case, it is vitally important that you let the players know of this outside pressure before they encounter the antagonist.

4) Quest death: Lady Evilpants is not unassailably powerful, but she is immortal and unkillable, unless you employ the seekrit method that only she knows and which requires a spear forged by the smith god, a bow carved from a limb of the world tree, three hundred feet of copper wire and a rhinoceros called George. She's going to get you eventually, because she has all the time, money and low-level goons in the world, but she can neither one-shot you nor be one-shotted (or even worn down).

These are neither the only methods, nor infallible, but they are - honestly - all things I've wished I'd thought to do as the six session running antagonist lay bleeding their last seconds away in the first hour of session one.

Tomorrow I am back on track with the game I wish I owned, or possibly that will come in an epic catchup post on Monday, also covering Funniest Game I've Played and Favourite System.

Look out for the #RPGaDAY hashtag and I'll see you then.

* This subject was covered in some detail by Joss Whedon in his commentaries for Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I totally cribbed option 2 from there.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

#RPGaDAY - Day 14: Your guest requests

Today's topic for #RPGaDAY is 'best con purchase'. I have never significantly been to a con, nor less bought anything there, so I have not much to say.

Come back tomorrow for...

No, wait! I've got a better idea! I'll ask my friends to suggest some alternate topics:

The dynamic of this party is about to go badly, badly wrong
Stephen suggests: Worst mistake you ever made GMing

That's easy: Trying to adapt a game to the characters, and I've made that mistake plenty of times.

A game works one of two ways, in broad terms: Either the GM sets out a vision and the players create characters to participate in that game, or the group as a whole creates the game and characters together on a broad, generic template.

So, for type one, the GM might say: "Crime-fighting capers; create a character with low-level powers, an investigative skill and a motivation to fight crime in a team." If one of the players presents a character who is a moody loner with no defined moral code, the good GM says: "That's not going to work."

Too often, I've said: "Okay, we'll try to make it work."

My advice to my younger self is: "Don't; it never will."

Type two is a much more complicated process, and one I might talk about more another time. It's the approach built into systems like Fate Core and its post-FUDGE siblings and while I like it, it feels to me like a system that is highly reliant on a strong interplayer dynamic.

Hatty suggests: Diversity in your characters/NPCs

For the last few years I've mostly been playing and GMing live, so my characters have almost universally been white males with dark hair, beards and glasses. Most of them have been in better shape than me, but that's the main distinction. Only one of them has been gay, in main part because I am almost as reticent about portraying a gay character as I am about playing a black or Asian character; it's something that I'm not and it feels odd pretending to be that in a way that pretending to be a wizard or a millionaire doesn't.

I think the key thing is that, as a middle class, white, cis-gender, straight, industrial European man, I am only really comfortable playing groups more privileged than me, and that is pretty much millionaires and wizards.

My NPCs are more varied, but you'd hardly know it, because I can create NPCs of all races, creeds, colours and sexes, but when push comes to shove I'm only bringing the white men into the room, because there's a limit to the disbelief I feel able to ask my players to suspend, and because I am concerned about my own ability to portray anything more divergent from my self.

I've played women in table top, and I've been told that - by the standards of male gamers playing women at least - I do it well, but I'm not comfortable doing it live, because I'm concerned it will lapse into drag queen parody. I also played a black character once; again, without needing to portray the physical appearance and physicality, I am less reticent. 

Matt suggests: The definition of "superhero"

Not specifically game related, and I think if I were going to hit this one I would want to take a big swing, so perhaps this is one for another post at another time, possibly on The Iconomicon.

Check back tomorrow for more wildcards, as obviously 'best con game' is another non-starter for me, and browse the hashtag for some actual con purchase stuff.

Mentioning The Iconomicon reminds me that since I'm putting these RPGaDAY posts out more widely than my usual circles, I should push my other blogs a little:

The Iconomicon, where I talk about books.

My Life as a Doge, where I talk about movies and TV.

And of course The Bad Movie Marathon, where my friends and I talk about bad movies.

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

#RPGaDAY - Day 13: Most Memorable Character Death

Sadly, this claim was only partly true
Mort - aka Mortal Wombat - was my first Changeling: the Lost live character, a big, chunky brawler and self-taught political agitator (although the fact that most politics happened on the interwebs and I had made the character illiterate somewhat limited that side) who had been turned into a wombat to work an inexplicable haematite mine (working theory was that it was not actually producing iron, but just something which served a similar narrative function, which would have meant that the child-beast miners were working a rich seam of irony - in fairy land. He had grown up there, married, seen his wife turned into a pit prop and killed, and then made a club out of her body to beat her abusers to death with.

As my first kit-heavy live character (my first was a perfectly normal psychologist), I went a little overboard, and both his club and his shield (a folding shovel) probably counted as offensive weapons under the terms of the act.

He was around for about a year and a bit, and then got murdered as part of political shenanigans which he had no real stake in apart from having the wrong friends.

What makes this death memorable - apart from the fact that I don't have that many terminal characters, with the exception of the Rose Crescent TPK - was the reaction. The Lost game was part of the national Isles of Darkness chronicle, and I heard from people in Scotland who were sad that Mort was dead, where I hadn't even realised that they might have heard of him. When I later ST'd the same game, I took a straw poll of people's greatest regrets and it turned out that the guy who ordered the hit on Mort's friend was sorry that Mort got caught in the crossfire.

It turns out that your effect on a game is more than the mechanical sum of your actions.

Tomorrow, Day 14 brings you a wild-card topic, as I have never bought anything at a con, having never really been to a con to speak of. If there's anything in particular you'd like to see me write or speak on, drop me a comment. I've got nothing for 'best con game' either (apart from a few amusing variants on the Nigerian scam), so I need at least two topics.

Meantime, check the hashtag for more RPGaDAY.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

#RPGaDAY - Day 12: Magic Concerned Citizens

This is a toughie. The prompt is 'old RPG you still play/read', but I don't actually play that many games these days, and I only really read on the train; a situation barely conducive to mass market hardbacks, let alone game books. That being the case, I'm going to reminisce about a campaign that I occasionally like to relive through the GM's game reports and still point out to people as that thing that I did that was awesome and actually, you should read this stuff.

Greg Stolze and John Tynes' (thanks for the catch, James) Unknown Armies is a game about power and consequences. It's set in a world of deep occult conspiracies, where power is achieved by embracing contradictions with insane dedication, or by pursuing one archetypal aspect of humanity to the exception of all others. It has probably the best system for modelling dramatic psychological breakdown ever published, and if there are places where the elegant 'one-roll' mechanics break down and get weird (specialist combat characters, we're looking at you here), it's not the end of the world.

My first real introduction to Unknown Armies was a game that James 'Gonzo History' Holloway ran way back in '04-'05 (fuck me; this November is the 10th anniversary of this game's kick off). It was set in and around the Rose Crescent, Cambridge branch of McDonald's, with the characters a chapter of the Occult Undergrounds most naively optimistic conspiracy, Mak Attax. The Rose Crescent McDonald's is an oddity in itself, a low-key place which you might not spot for a McDonald's at all, if not for the succession of miserable looking employees who stand at the Market Square end of the crescent mournfully displaying a sign which fails to convince anyone that they are, in fact, lovin' it.

They didn't have that in '04, or I would have played the fuck out of that character.

As it was, I played Roland McDonald, an avatar of the Listener whose aversion to violence had been dangerously eroded by an abusive and hardcore Weird upbringing. His best mate was the crew's wizard, Jack, an American student whose practice of Personomancy was both an expression of and cover for her fundamental lack of self-identity (from the first, she was Jack as an employee and Jill as a student, since Cambridge students aren't allowed to work in term). Nigel was an avatar of the Merchant, but Tim could only make one game. Eventually we added Simon to the mix, a former city banker who screwed up and ended up working at McDonald's and who didn't believe to start with.

The game was a blast. We battled self-actualising adepts who were pioneering a school of magic based on manipulating others into self-harming behaviours (man, we really hated her), evil fathers possessing their sons (pushing most of Roland's buttons) and time-locked Nazis, and ultimately participated in a contest to redefine reality which played like a mixture of the Grail Quest and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The game reports are still on LJ, and I think are public.

Why do I hark back to this game with such fondness? Well, lots of reasons.

First, it was a chance to get back to gaming with James, which I have always enjoyed (I could also have talked about his World of Darkness: Mortals live game, but that lacks the re-readability), and I think the first real chance I had to game with Allison - James's other half, and a good friend - and with Jon, whom I didn't know before, but who is now also a close friend.

It was a game in which the characters were competent and effectual, not by being some sort of badasses, but by getting their heads into the right game. The different characters, with their varied approaches, clicked beautifully as a unit with no pre-planning and the interplay between them - and the back and forth with James's NPCs - was quick, light and somehow real. As a group, we were on fire - in terms of plot and memorable badinage - and James just kept on passing us charcoal briquettes. We found ourselves in the US at the end of a ritual and instead of going home we went on a road trip, and James ran with it; we never went back to Cambridge again.

It was also one of the first long-running games I'd been in that meant something, in that it had overarching themes and an endgame, in which we won, but kind of died, or not, but won! (Go us.) We were the kind of slackers who held power-meetings at the Baker's Oven over sausage rolls and coffee, but we made it, ma! Top of the world!

Overall though, it was just a game that clicked into place and was a thing of joy at a time when, frankly, I really needed one. Sometimes, I find gaming to be a stressful hobby, when really it shouldn't be. In particular, I find that large-scale LARP can mediate the needs of its various players poorly, with the result that most weeks someone isn't feeling it.

Looking back over Rose Crescent's run reminds me of why I roleplay.