Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hamlet's Hit Points [RPG book review]

I've been buying very few actual gaming books lately, but have been slowly adding books about RPG's and GM techniques to my library.  The latest is a book called Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws.  For those who don't know, Laws is one of those game designers who has had his thumb in the pie of so many different RPG's out there he didn't even bother listing his bona vides in the back of the book.

The core thesis behind Hamlet's Hit Points is that in movies and plays (and their descendants radio shows and television programs), there are nine identifiable "beats," specific moments in the narrative flow with a purpose.  There are two major kinds of beats: procedural, which either move the protagonist towards or away from an external goal; and dramatic, which move the protagonist towards or away from an internal goal (such as a personal relationship).  The movement towards and away from a goal creates two emotional responses from the viewer: hope and fear, which Laws illustrates graphically as up and down arrows.

The other seven kinds of beats are minor in nature but also create a positive or negative response, or on rare occasion a lateral move.  These minor beats are things like "Question," which poses an unknown element to the protagonist and viewer, or "Gratification" which is usually a positive bit of fan service, or "Pipe" which is an apparently random or pointless element that will have greater significance later.

To illustrate how this works, Laws painstakingly goes through three works--Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the movies Dr. No and Casablanca, and highlights every beat, scene by scene.  There is a graphic layout of the movement up and down and the beat involved across the top of the pages as he does this.  It is an impressive bit of research on his part, and effective in its execution, although on rare occasion I noticed that the graphic didn't always match the text when it came to up- and down-arrows.

When the rubber hits the RPG road isn't until the very end, when Laws talks about how this whole concept can be incorporated into running a game.  It's interesting that after 186 pages of introducing the concept and giving three examples, the chapter on how this works in an RPG setting on a practical level is six pages long.  That's because what Laws is mostly doing is trying to get GM's to be aware of the dynamic, to teach how to identify and observe, and then manipulate as necessary.  Most of the practical notes suggest things like finding a useful way to track ups-and-downs in gameplay and then documenting afterwards.  I could envision myself creating two vertical charts, almost like a barometer, and moving a token up and down the chart as events unfold.  The goal is to prevent too much consistent movement in either direction, because that can produce apathy and disengagement for the players.

That makes a lot of sense to me.  I've watched my group steamroll through encounters without a sweat and while it is fun to indulge in that kind of adolescent fantasy power trip, I can also tell when they start breaking out their smartphones and surfing the web.  By the same token, on the rare occasion everything goes wrong, I can also see their glowering and sulking and pulling back as well.  I'm going to try to see if being mindful of the ups and downs helps with this.

I also could see myself outlining RPG sessions differently, structuring them according to possible procedural and dramatic turns, and salting them with the other seven.  It probably isn't anything I haven't done before, but not as intentionally with this vocabulary.

Anyways, a fascinating book, even if it is just to recount two movies I like a great deal with new insight.  Recommended.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More Tiles

With my not running anything these days I have time to just cast and paint and make more dungeon tiles, like these. 

Campaign Distictions

I've been kicking this post around for a while, but it seemed like a good time to go ahead and publish it.

One of the real frustrations that I have experienced when running RPG's is when the players, for whatever reason, create Player Characters that just don't fit.  Maybe it is ego.  Maybe it is a belief that discordant PC's are better PC's, or will have more advantages, or more of a story.   Maybe they just thought it was a good fit, even it is wasn't.

As an example, when I first ran Vampire: the Masquerade lo those many moons ago, I was planning on doing a pretty typical V:tM campaign with internecine plots and Machiavellian politics.  I had two problems.  The first was the player who wanted to play a werewolf (this was before there even was a werewolf RPG from White Wolf).  The second was a player who wanted to play Batman.  Seriously, his PC's concepts would be that he would wear a mask, fight crime, and drink the blood of criminals and blood banks.  It was like Red Rain.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't work.  The werewolf PC was excluded from most of the action because it took place in vampire enclaves.  The superhero PC ran into trouble when he unwisely chose to break into a police station and steal a bunch of crime-fighting gear (turns out Obfuscation 1 doesn't work on security systems).

It was a mess.  But what can a GM do to avoid it without being too heavy-handed about PC creation?  To avoid this, I'm experimenting in my proto-campaign for Prowlers & Paragons with something I invented from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, namely the idea of Campaign Distinctions.

In MHR, Distinctions are like FATE's Aspects which can describe a PC (e.g. Captain America has "Sentinel of Liberty" and "Man from another time").  Distinctions can also describe locations (a SHIELD base might have "high tech security" or "Hydra double agents") which can be invoked to the player's benefit.

Over at the Plot Points blog I saw a contributor float the idea of having superhero teams have their own XP triggers, which means the players get XP when the PC's act in a stereotypical manner of that particular superhero team.  For example, when the X-Men face prejudice, or when the Avengers disband and reform, the PC's get an XP bonus, because they are emulating the genre.  ICONS had a similar idea, but applied their own Distinction/Aspect mechanic to superhero teams instead.  For example, the Teen Titans might have the Distinctions "Sidekicks with something to prove," "Adolescent Drama," and "Please for the love of God keep Cartoon Network away from us."

So as I was thinking about kicking off a superhero campaign, and all the ways discordant PC creation could make a hash of it, I thought, why not create campaign Distinctions as a way of illustrating to the players what they should expect?  So for my own campaign, I came up with the following:

High Cape-and-Spandex Quotient.  Translation: keep your giant shoulder pads, gritty action, and crypto-fascism at home.  This campaign features heroes with colorful costumes, secret identities, and villains with a tendency to monologue a lot.

Reactive Heroes and Proactive Investigators. Translation: while a lot of stories will feature the plot mechanic of the heroes getting word of some problem and rushing to the scene, the players will also be expected to do some bird-dogging when it comes to figuring out what is going in the campaign.

Everything can be explained with Pseudo-Science (for now).  Translation: when it comes to the "how" of superheroes and villains, I'm curtailing the origin options to those which are grounded in sketchy science, rather than introducing magic and other far-out concepts just yet.  Partially this is to keep the "cosmology" of the campaign contained to the point of being manageable, and to make it easier for me to massage the PC group into a whole.

I could see this being used to help give players a quick overview in other kinds of campaigns.  A Star Wars campaign using Edge of Empire or Traveller mechanics (*wink, nudge*) could have "Rogues and Scoundrels," "Aliens Everywhere," and "The Darkness Between the Stars."  A megadungeon D&D campaign with gonzo monsters and resource management could have "Descent into the Depths," "Not your Father's orcs," and "Keep track of the torches."  You get the idea.

Thoughts and comments welcome!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Friday night game recap: the end of (my) D&D campaign

I'm I had decided this would be the last time I would run 5E for the gaming group.  That meant they had to take out the last gang in Grimfest, the Parliament of Bone.  It also meant I needed as GM to do two things: have it go out with a bang, and navigate ten players (as it turns out, I only had nine).

So I came up with a plan, one I will admit made the game session seem more like a gaming convention than a typical home-based RPG session, but I had a big challenge.

First, I asked one of the players to co-GM for me.  Rob S. (not to be confused with me) had been running a mini-D&D game with his wife Rachel for a few months, so he had learned the tricks of the trade.  Then I devised a series of linked scenarios through which the PC's would move in two groups.

Scenario A had the PC's protecting lizardmen children (they had befriended the tribe awhile back, and the lizardmen were frequent NPC's) from an attack from the Parliament.  Succeed at the group would get a scroll of protection from undead.

Scenario B had the Parliament attacking the brewery the PC's had built in Grimfest in hopes of destroying the first batch of booze the PC's had created. Save both batches and the group gets a potion of hill giant stretch.  Save only one and the group gets a scroll of mage armor.

The PC's divided their eight members into two groups of four, and each group went through scenarios A and B both, with Rob S. running B, and I running A.  In the first rounds both group managed to win both scenarios, although one group only saved one batch of booze.

Then we had a bit of a roleplaying interlude in which a lieutenant in the Parliament of Bone comes to PC's to negotiate save passage from himself out of Grimfest in return for telling the group Marcellus' master plan.  The group agrees and learns the Marcellus has turned himself into a vampire and will be creating a whole new aristocracy of vampires in the city.  The lieutenant tells the PC's where to find Marcellus' tomb and then departs.  True to form, Sign the assassin escorts the lieutenant out of town, kills him once they are alone, and then makes it look like bears did it (a stunt she pulled on the very first session of the campaign).

So the group divides up in half again.  One half with launch a frontal assault on Marcellus' lair in an attempt to draw off as many of its inhabitants (Scenario C).  The other will sneak in the back, so to speak, and destroy Marcellus' tomb (Scenario D).  If the PC's succeed in Scenario C, they will automatically get a surprise round in the final boss fight.  If they succeed in Scenario D, it will have a significant impact on the end of the story.

At this point, I think it would be fair to say that everyone in the gaming group believes that they made a mistake.  The group in Scenario C had both "divine" PC's, a paladin and a cleric, and one of the secondary healers, a druid.  As a result, the group sailed through Scenario C thanks to a lot of uses of the ability Turn Undead, which is a heck of a lot more powerful in 5E than in earlier editions, since it is a Wisdom saving throw to resist it, rather than based on hit dice.  Add to that the wizard as the fourth PC in the group (meaning their "nuclear option"), and they were done in mere minutes.

The PC's stroll through Marcellus' front door.
The group in Scenario D, on the other hand, had a couple of close-in damage dealers (a fighter and a rogue), the other secondary healer (a bard), and a warlock.  This sub-group had a really difficult time in the encounter, especially dealing with the zombie beholder.  Some of the players chewed me out for how difficult the encounter was, but I pointed out that Scenario C had the exact same monster line-up, and that a lot of it came down to party composition.

In the end, the group hit the one-hour time limit I had set for each scenario, so it was a failure.

A long, difficult encounter. 
The group rolled into the final encounter on a mixed note, but felt good about getting the drop on Marcellus and his two thrall sidekicks.  It turns out that was all they needed.  The wizard dropped a twinned fireball on the trio (failed saves all around!).  The warlock tagged the vampire with chill touch, which does nominal damage but shuts down an undead's regenerative abilities for one round (surprisingly effective).  The cleric cast sunlight on a terrain feature in the area, and the paladin and assassin ran in and ground down the vampire's hit points to zero.  Normally a vampire would then turn into mist and slink back to the tomb, but on the vampire's first action in normal initiative order his mist form took 20 points of damage from the sunlight and that's that.  The other PC's had targetted the vampire spawn, so the entire encounter was over by the end of one turn.

An NPC hireling's stats written down on the back of a paper plate.
Ending my campaign on a big bang went pretty well.  We had a bit of a denouement at the end where everyone talked about what their PC's would do after liberating Grimfest and installing a new government (made up of members of the thieves' guild, but it was still an improvement).  The other Rob is strongly considering taking over the game and continuing to run it with the same PC's, which the group was enthusiastic about, and I'm glad to take a break and just play for a while. 

The victorious group

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ah, the Iron Age (of comics) returns

Is there any person who exemplifies the Iron Age of comic books better than Rob Liefeld?  Now I am a pretty critical person when it comes to the Iron Age, but I will admit that I bought the comic books (along with a gazillion other people) in hopes that it would lead someplace interesting.  It didn't.  It led to over-indulgences like foil-covers and bagged comic books hoarded away by collectors thinking the comics would put their kids through college in twenty years.

But hey, Rob Liefeld apparently got enough people to back his Kickstarter to start publishing Bloodstrike and Brigade again.  I'm suspecting ironic hipsters may be to blame here.

But the thing that brought a real smile to my face was Liefeld's "homage" covers that he drew for Bloodstrike.

On behalf of every comic book store owner who ever got burned by Liefeld's spotty work ethic, I would joke that these two comics took him eight months to create, except that apparently he just traced over work he already did.

Which is why I guess they are "homage" covers...

I am wondering if Liefeld's doesn't have some weird "Zardoz" like quality where his work is so bad and so campy that people actually love to read it and savor all the bizarreness it has to offer.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The D&D door flung open

So if you want to write your own material for the Forgotten Realms and sell it in the online D&D marketplace, you can do that now:

Caring too much

Recently, a member of my gaming group named Rachel started running her own game, a zombie-apocalypse campaign using the FATE rules.  Initially I thought this would like "the Walking Dead" but Rachel has interposed weird cults and alien minotaurs (all of which are excellent) which is far afield of what you'll find on the TV show.

I asked Rachel at the onset why she chose a zombie game, given that I had never heard her express enthusiasm for the genre, she said it was exactly because she didn't care for the genre very much.  She doesn't care for brutality in entertainment, or a proliferation of firearms in gameplay.  Her argument is that she would not want to experience the world as a player, but could somehow tolerate as the GM because she knew the players would enjoy it.

It seemed really cockeyed to me, because I would think that if you didn't love the game world you were creating, it would become burdensome to continue to be the navigator and adjudicator for people in it.  But I also understand at some level where she is coming from as I kick around a side-campaign in a genre I love more than any other--superheroes.

Right off the bat, I have been grinding my gears with the players about this.  If I were to describe my usual sweet spot of superhero RPG themes I would say "Silver Age with an edge."  Give me capes and spandex and villains to battle but spare me the crypto-fascist brutality (I'm looking at you, Mark Millar).  I like icons (not ICONS the RPG, although that's okay too), I like heroism.  I will throw in the odd bit of drama and conflict that transcends the simple "villain of the month" format, but nothing too outside the plate.

My players, on the other hand, don't always walk the line.  Right off the bat I had a PC whose monstrous appearance precluded a secret identity.  Another revealed his identity and powers to the first NPC authority figure he came across. The players don't seem to be looking to gel the group into a team right off the bat.

So this is the part where I basically have to let go of the fact that I am, truly, in the words of the immortal Aaron Allston, a "Genre Fiend," and that this really is collaborative storytelling.  So if a players wants to explore the ups and downs of being a hideously mutated metahuman in today's world in a semi-realistic manner, I'll do that.  Or if a player consciously or unconsciously wants to experience the implications of having a public superhero identity, I'll do that.  Or if a player needs more of sense of why relative strangers who have a shared origin but little else would form a group, then we'll figure that out together.

Which is some ways means I let go, just a little bit.  Which is hard, but doable.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Reflections after year of Fifth Edition

A friend recommended that I write about what I think about D&D 5E, having now run it pretty consistently for a year now.  What I initially thought about the game still really stands, namely that it has this quality of feeling like the "mode" of Dungeons and Dragons.  Not the average, not the median, but the mode--the most common example in the sample set.  There are, I know for a fact, people who play D&D in some pretty innovative and creative and pretty gonzo ways out there that might skew a sense of "mean" or "median" when it comes to some hypothetical sample pool of what people play fantasy RPG's, but if we look for how likely the game is to be played by everyone, this is probably the ruleset for that play.

 To wit: elves, dwarfs, and humans; classes and spell slots; kobolds and copper pieces.

I do not feel like that is a criticism, that somehow the game is lessened by that quality, but merely that it is an observation.

In fact, the players in my group love this game.  They actually invested in buying copies of the Player's Handbook (more on that later).  They want me to keep running it, even if I am losing steam.  Why?  Because it feels like what they think D&D should feel like.

Now here is my problem with D&D5E.  It doesn't feel like what I think D&D should feel like.  It feels like what D&D should feel like to people who came in at Third Edition or Fourth Edition and who have read some earlier edition books and a few dozen OSR blogs think it should feel like.

For me, the issue is the question of player skill, and what player skill is.

I have always liked the author of the Hack & Slash blog's definition of player skill:
It's your ability to gather information by asking questions and make decisions to survive and succeed at encounters.
This definition of player skill awards attention, creativity, and roleplaying.  What this definition doesn't include is knowledge of the rules. Why is this important?  Because in the former, what makes a good player or a poor player is how invested they are when they sit at the table.  In the latter, it is what the player invests outside the game: reading the rulebook, combing RPG forums and websites, and generally spending time trying to figure out how to use the rules to be more successful at surviving or succeeding at encounters.

For games where player skill is knowledge of the rules, ultimately players who don't have that time to invest in plumbing the depths of class builds or massive equipment lists or power frameworks or whatever iteration of that particular style of RPG design are penalized for spending their outside-of-game time working jobs or raising kids or pursuing other hobbies or interests.

There's a moment when the guy who is the single dad raising two kids and working as a college professor and who plays in a Celtic instrumental group says to me "my PC feels really underpowered in comparison to everyone else" and he understands that in order to fix that he needs to spend more time reading his copy of the Player's Handbook so he can pick more effective spells and maybe switch which class career path that his PC is on and that's the moment that I stop liking the game.

And that moment happened while playing 5E.  And I get that my disposition in a matter of personal preference, and that some people like games where really drilling down into the rules is part of the fun.  But I'm not that guy, and maybe that moment was a poison pill for me, and maybe why I still look at other Fantasy RPG's like Fantasy AGE that have simpler mechanics.  Because I don't want to penalize people who don't know the rules, but are clever roleplayers who have a lot of what I consider to be player skill.

Comments welcome.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Fox and Howl: Villains for Prowlers and Paragons

What's this?  Actual content?  Here are two villains that have appeared in my side campaign using Prowlers & Paragons, the duo of Fox and Howl.

art by Phil Cho
Fox began her career in a special forces unit before leaving to pursue a career as a private mercenary.  She was hired on by the Secret Empire, and now has been tasked with locating passengers from TransGlobal Flight 246 who may be manifesting metahuman powers.  Fox has no powers herself, but relies on her training and cutting-edge gear.

Edge 12
Health 16
Athletics (Martial Arts) 8D
Command 4D
Stealth 7D
Streetwise 4D
Thievery 6D
Armor (Item) 5D
Blast (Item) 10D
Dazzle (Item, 3 charges) 8D
Ensnare (Item, 3 charges) 8D
Strike (Blocking, Item) 10D
Ally (Boss, Secret Empire)
Lightning Reflexes
Gear: armor costume, blaster pistol, flash grenades, tangle grenades, shock gloves

Flaws: Secret (Identity), Serves Secret Empire, Wanted

art by Phil Cho
Howl remembers nothing of his past life before becoming an agent of the Secret Empire.  Howl has been extensively surgically altered, including dermal implants and an sonic amplifier weapon onto his voicebox.  Unfortunately Howl is unable to speak normally and can only emit the shattering blasts that give him his name.  His sonic attacks can also stun a person into unconsciousness.  Howl serves as muscle for Fox in her mission to capture possible metahumans for the Secret Empire.

Edge  18
Health 14
Athletics 5D
Blast 8D
Perception 7D
Running 6D
Stealth 7D
Stun 10D
Toughness 8D
Will 6D
Super Senses (sonar, ultra hearing)
Gear: none
Flaws: Secret (Identity), Mute,  No memory of his past

Author's Note: one thing I like to do with not just a superhero RPG but any RPG is look at artwork that other people have done as use it as an inspiration for my own stories.  For this superhero mini-campaign I've been mining the work of graphic artist Phil Cho, whose website is and definitely worth a visit.  He even has more artwork on his DeviantArt page.

Over at Strange Vistas