One Fireball…

…and everyone dies.

So my ACKS game came to an abrupt end the other week. The players took on a serious stronghold of bugbears and goblins (even a few ogres). They were actually doing pretty well – they had wiped out the bugbears and were on their way out of the dungeon with a boatload of loot (literally, the group had a boat waiting for them). Then a wandering group of goblins with a witchdoctor ran bumped into them and one fireball – and a few failed saves – later and the party was wiped. A sad but appropriate end to an old school gaming group.

We decided to take a break from ACKS for a while. I’m actually looking forward to trying something new. The ACKS experiment was a ton of fun and I’ll definitely be going back to ACKS the next time I want to run a version of D&D. It’s a really great old school clone and it’s everything I wanted.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Houses of the Blooded lately and I’m really thinking that I’m interested in the challenge of running a FATE style game. I know I’ve often written about how FATE really isn’t my cup of tea (or whatever) but the world of Houses, the Ven and Shanri really appeal to everything I love to do in games and I have no problem with a game that is all about players building the story. It’s a strange dichotomy but Houses really appeals to the tragic side of my personality. Talk about a game full of Drama.

We’ll see where this goes… I’m also thinking about running some Fantasy Flight Star Wars. Too many episodes of the Clone Wars on Netflix will do that to you.

Ugh, this post is really just empty rumination.

More to come… I just wanted to get back to writing.

Emergent vs Established World

My last post and some other things I’ve been reading lately have been running around in my head. I’m also considering something that might surprise those who know me well… but I’ll get back to that.

The thing that is running around in my head is this… the difference between established world play and emergent world play. I was thinking about this with my last post about how it is so much easier to get player interest and investment into worlds that they are capable of grabbing onto. I think the reason so many D&D worlds are practically carbon copies of “medieval world with magic” is because it is so easy to grab on and build a character concept. Heck, my homebrew world that I’ve been running for something like 15 years I pretty much describe as, “imagine the time of Charlemagne.” It’s just a really easy short hand to, “it’s this kind of medieval world.”

Same thing with Star Wars and Amber, etc. Everyone (okay, maybe not everyone) identifies with some character from Star Wars and knows about Rebels and Jedi and the Empire and Wookies. Heck, I always just wanna play Lando. And Amber is this powerfully evocative fantasy world that allows players to have a wide range of backgrounds while still fundamentally existing in a universe that just makes sense.

It just seems to me that the wealth of information and easily accessible hooks really aids player engagement. Players can go to the places they’ve seen in the movies, interact with favorite NPCs, be a part of the Rebellion, etc. And despite this they can also play a game which NEVER interacts with the mainstream story told in that universe.

This vexes me though because I think about games like “Houses of the Blooded” which is meant to create emergent detail as the game is played and my current ACKS game which I started a new game world for and which has this problem of, well, if the details are being invented as we go then there is a lot of freedom but… it comes with an inability to predict or plan ahead because you don’t have stable points of detail to build on.

And all of this comes down to the fact that despite my difficulties with FATE and my difficulties with entirely emergent play (because emergent play is a big part of most of my Amber campaigns) I find that I really want to run Houses of the Blooded and have players who are interested in the game. So I need to think more about this, more about how to make such a thing sing… because I want to run the best game I can and I want my players to feel good about it, but I’m fundamentally a planner, a thinker, and it’s tough for me to say, “I don’t know.”

Encounters and Play/GM Style

This is a small post and I’ll say up front, I’m covering some well trod territory here… but it’s something that was on my mind recently as I began thinking about how to put together a toolkit for encounters.

At the con this past weekend we had several conversations about the difference between old school play and more modern “D&D” play, specifically thinking about how frustrating encounters are to create in a game like Pathfinder. It can take hours to plan a single encounter in Pathfinder. More importantly, we were discussing the idea of planned/balanced encounters vs. story-driven encounters.

I started thinking about the games I’ve played the most and how I GM, how I create encounters. I find that the more rules-light and the more well-defined the setting, the more capable I am of improvising and feeling good about it. I think back to running Star Wars D6 system in the Rebellion era and it was incredibly easy to run on the fly. I could improvise details and encounters easily. Amber DRPG works the same way for me.

Part of this comes from the fact that the whole group of players are very comfortable with those settings. They know the details and so they are not thrown off when encounters are not “balanced” because the expectation exists that they could run into odd but appropriate stuff at any time. Some other games really emphasize the encounter-mechanics-based method over the idea that encounters make sense for the setting. I think this is why my return to old-school, open-world style gaming has really been a boon. Sure, it’s sometimes a pain to make up treasure hoards and I am still getting my players familiar with the setting I’m running in, but the feeling of freedom has invigorated my desire to GM.

I’d never really thought about this from the player side before, and how it affects the play experience. I’m going to keep ruminating on this more, but it’s a thought that might show dividends at my table.

Thanks.

Madicon 23 After Action Report

Spent the weekend at my hometown con, Madicon. This was a fantastic year at Madicon – Chris and the Guild did a great job putting the event together and it seemed like everyone had a really good time. The weekend was full of Mechs, owls, confusion, old school gaming, headshots, and partying.

‘Mechs and Headshots
I ran two Battletech games this weekend. Friday night I ran one of my favorite old scenarios – Graduation Day – where three light ‘mechs are chasing down a wounded heavy. This is a fun scenario that always surprises me and this year was no different. I tend to use this as a teaching game and I got to have a great time watching a new player get extra excited about facing down the heavy and beating it.

On Saturday, we played again and this time it was Inner Sphere vs. Clans. Two lances of Inner Sphere against a star of clan ‘mechs (fairly balanced by BV). I expected the battle to be pretty brutal but it was, yet again, a surprise as the clans lost two ‘mechs in back-to-back shooting phases to headshot kills. It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen as it was so improbable given the to-hit numbers and the chance of rolling back-to-back head shots. The fact that both kills happened to the same player is even crazier.
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Here we see the aftermath of the first of those headshots. That poor Thor never stood a chance. The especially sad part to this story… the player who took both of those headshots was the person running the heavy in the scenario from Friday night and his ‘mech in that game was reduced to nothing but a completely pristine head. So, that was a thing.

Old School Gaming
I got to play Labyrinth Lord this weekend. This was pretty exciting for me. Even though I’m running an old school game right now and I have old school roots, it’s been a long time since I played anything other than Pathfinder. So getting a chance to be a dwarf and run off into the Barrowmaze (what he was running) this weekend was a ton of fun. I ended the game being carried out of the dungeon by my party after I was paralyzed by ghouls. We did pretty well though and came back with a load of treasure and some good stories. Most importantly, we played for a solid four hours without a casualty! That part, I admit, did surprise me. My recent experiences with old school D&D play have cemented for me how much I enjoy this play-style and how much I was missing what I didn’t even know I was missing…

Owls and Confusion
WP_20140315_14_14_42_ProI did a little simple cosplaying this weekend. That’s me below in the Court of Owls get up. That said, only one person all weekend caught the Court of Owls thing – everyone else thought I was Slender Man. This was okay – it lent an unexpected extra edge of creepiness to the whole thing. And I really did enjoy spending Saturday with a mask on. Also, check it out – Court of Owls… and I found an owl. That’s a friend of mine in the actual owl mask and he was participating in a fae LARP of some sort but it worked out for me.

Roundtable
For the second year at Madicon I ran my “Being an Engaged Player” roundtable (I don’t call it a panel because I run it alone and I encourage it to be more of a conversation than a presentation). Both times I’ve had a full room (despite my expectation that no one will be interested) some excellent questions, comments, and discussion. We spent the time this year exploring the different kinds of mechanics games use to encourage engagement. The conversation turned to tips and ideas for building engagement right from character creation. I am very thankful for the opportunity to run this session and I appreciate the wonderful insight I get every time I get the chance. I meet some many interesting people this way with all kinds of gaming experiences.

Partying
Madicon is never complete without some great partying. I won’t tell stories but I got to attend two gatherings with two fine groups of people (mainly since the first one was shut down by the police…) and I met some new folks I hope I have the chance to game with in the future. It’s a theme running through this post but I can’t overestimate how much I enjoy visiting cons for the chance to just interact with gamers I would never have the chance to meet otherwise!

Loot
It was a good weekend in the loot department too. I picked up the Spartacus board game (which is surprisingly excellent – I got to play this weekend and loved it), Robin Laws’ Hillfolk, the Pathfinder Bestiary 4, and Cosmic Patrol from Catalyst. I’m really looking forward to diving into Hillfolk. It seems like an interesting game and though I don’t think I’ll get to run it any time soon, I think I can learn something just from the reading. Cosmic Patrol is just old-fashioned fun in a shiny new wrapper and it’s such a pretty little book I couldn’t pass it up.

A Brief Memorial
Someone that I am used to seeing at Madicon was not there this year. A friend of mine, one of the first people I played Battletech with and someone I spent many, many hours talking Amber with died yesterday and his loss is a huge loss to the local gaming scene and to lives of the people who knew him. You will be missed Linwood. I have many fond memories of the time I knew him and I am sad we didn’t get to play together more.

Like I said, I’ve met a lot of interesting people through cons and gaming. It’s a new thing to start losing them. Here’s hoping you all get to enjoy many more cons to come.

Thanks for reading.

Backwards Design

I want to talk about backward design. It’s an interesting concept we discuss in Higher Ed pedagogy that involves deciding first what you are going to assess, then how you are going to assess it, then working backward all the way to “and this is what we do each day in class.” This is, in so many ways, a gross oversimplification of backward design, but it makes the point I need to move forward.

When I read Houses of the Blooded for the first time I was struck by the section where John Wick discusses Jared Sorenson’s three questions. I’ll quote them here:

* What is my game about?
* How does my game do that?
* What behaviors does my game reward and punish?

Now, it’s interesting to me because I often find myself struggling when designing to stay focused. I’m often caught up not so much in “what do I want the game to do…” as I am “how can the game work smoothly for the largest audience?”

I suppose that’s the other side of the education coin… differentiation. But that’s an entirely different post.

I game design terms I suppose, “what do I want to assess?” would really be a question about end-results at the table. How much fun is it? Does it work well? Do the mechanical bits feel right? I suppose there are a million questions I could ask along this line but those three seem pretty vital.

The concept of how to assess this – I suppose – would come down to playtesting. You can’t be at every table that plays your game (though wouldn’t it be nice) but you can engage with those who are trying to play your game and get their feedback. Playtesting is a pretty crucial piece of the puzzle when designing a game, even if you don’t have the means to do it large scale, there is a lot to be learned from engaging with players and GMs and hearing what their interactions with your system (in whatever form it currently takes) went. It’s even better if you can observe some of these sessions.

The important point here though is that this is one area where backward design is difficult to translate… I have run many, many Amber DRPG campaigns, some quite long, and I can honestly say that we are “not doing it right” most of the time. That’s said in jest but honestly, when I run Amber, I tend toward keeping the group together, building actual trust among the younger generation (the failures of their parents as examples and all that) and having external threats to kingdom and beloved NPCs shape much of the early game.Then it tends to evolve into the drama of the lives of characters in the Amber universe…

How do we assess a game’s success at achieving its goals? Does it matter whether it sells a ton of copies or gets x many downloads? What about if it manages to survive 40 years in a variety of incarnations (well, many of us won’t ever have the luxury of knowing if one of our games has this kind of success)? What about spawning imitators?

Notice that none of those criteria have anything at all to do with “is it fun to play?” or “do the people playing it enjoy themselves?” See, while those things might go hand-in-hand, they don’t necessarily. After all, not every prolific set of rules is great. And some otherwise great games get lost to time as publishers die out, etc. And of course, some “dead” games continue to be played by groups all over the place no matter the status of their publication.

I’m drifting a little – but it is another valid question to ask… how do you measure the success of a roleplaying game? If it seems murky and like there are competing answers… well, Higher Ed feels that way too about assessment.

But let’s move on. I think the great question is the last one. What activities will support the stated outcomes? In a classroom, I want to create a set of activities – suited to my students – which allow them to reach the outcomes the professor will be assessing. This part of game design, the boots-on-the-ground, practical, what happens at the table, part is the stuff I’m most interested in. Leave the theorizing behind and just play!

As a designer though, that is incredibly hard. How do you differentiate the experience for different kinds of players? How can you ensure that your system supports its setting in a faithful manner? How do you avoid combat grind, and grappling debacles, and player arguments over who shot first?

Well, one way to do that is to give the GM tools to differentiate at their table. You may not need to create everything because a well-armed GM can overcome many obstacles. In many ways I think this supports the “rulings over rules” philosophy of Old School play. At the same time though, I get into my head the Sorenson question, “What behaviors does my game reward and punish?” and I’m left shaking my head a little because, if the old school has a significant flaw, it is the possibility of paranoia that develops at a table because everything is so deadly. And you can’t just roll a D20 Perception check to bail you out.

It’s that balancing act again.

So maybe I’m focusing my efforts in the wrong direction. I tried out a backward design exercise on my current system project and found it to be incredibly frustrating. Thinking about Jared Sorenson’s questions leaves me equally flummoxed though because I – speaking as a long-tenured GM of many systems (too many) – find that my best gaming experiences have only come when I’ve left the “game” behind and transcended that into the weird homebrew-stew-space that is, “the game works well for us like this.” And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters and the game, as written, is allowed to just, work one way and every group will figure it out for themselves.

But it’s a terrifying thought.

That’s enough rumination for now. Time to get back to the actual planning and writing bits.

As always, thanks for reading.

Everything Is an Argument

When I was teaching writing a few years ago, we would get approached by vendors from various publishers – hoping that we would adopt their book for our classroom use. One such book that I got a sample copy of and used a few times was titled, Everything’s an Argument. The fundamental idea is that everything is persuasive. Students were exposed to the idea that they were surrounded by argument in their lives and attempted to prepare them to not only analyze arguments but to write their own effective arguments.

While I find some value in that approach, I find that overall I’m uncomfortable framing the world with the idea that everything is an argument. I mention this mainly because I think one of the things I find myself disappointed with in most of the conversations I read about gaming these days is the idea that the players and the gamemaster are in an argument-space when they are playing. Even if not specifically adversarial I get the sense that the belief is that the players and GM are in some form of opposing alignment. And I think that is a fair characterization of many games but I would propose a different perspective.

Everything is a conversation.

I know, before you ask, that I am splitting hairs. Sometimes the players and GM are going to work to persuade one another (and I’m completely okay with that) but I find that shifting the basic premise from persuasive argument to collaborative conversation is a small rhetorical shift which potentially pays big dividends. Characterizing the interaction as collaborative conversation – if everyone is willing to go in on that together – has often been enough to improve my gaming experiences.

Here at the Rhetorical Gamer I’ve made little secret of my love of the Amber Diceless RPG. Amber and 2e D&D are the games where I truly cut my teeth as a gamer. 2e D&D taught me a lot, but Amber taught me how to really be a GM. I didn’t have to supply adventure, didn’t have to worry about playing “DMPCs,” or feel like I was working at cross purposes with my players. Amber taught me to relax and just embrace the flow of the game. I learned how – or perhaps taught myself – to just be a part of the game at the table beside my players while still existing in a space where I was able to help them shape the game, adjudicate their encounters, and set stages as needed. Usually, in Amber, I was the most comfortable I ever am when running a game.

Because the game is a conversation. The rules are so light but so useful that I can improvise anything I need to. More than that though, the game creates an incredible space for just diving headfirst into the play experience without pulling up short. I am able to embrace the spirit of conversation with my players.

And while I don’t want to speak ill of rules-heavy systems – I am a very happy Pathfinder player – I can say with confidence that one of my favorite things about the old school spirit of Adventurer Conqueror King System has been the fact that I feel that same freedom to embrace the play experience and just immerse myself in the conversation of the game. When I was running 3.5 and 4e D&D I often felt constricted – like if I didn’t know the rules inside and out I was somehow letting my players down. But have you seen the Pathfinder rulebook? It’s hefty. And I know that my attitude about the game is my problem. But it’s a fair cop to say that Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, reward player skill in the form of system mastery over other values.

I find that small shift in perspective also makes a significant difference at the table. It changes and shapes the conversation at the table. And that’s a fair trade-off if that is the gaming experience you want. I try to embrace the spirit of conversation even when running a rules-heavy game but it’s harder. The weight of the rules tends to overshadow things and the desire to create argument tends to creep back in.

As I write this I understand (and kind of discover) how counter-intuitive this seems. It would seem to follow that a tight, comprehensive rule set would discourage argument more than a loose, interpretive rule set. But I find that my players relax more too when the rules are more open. No one is quite as tense to make sure that we are “doing it right” or taking advantage of every corner of the rules. Trust between players and GM is one of the hallmarks (perhaps the most important) of a good game in my mind. Framing the game as a conversation really makes that so much easier.

This attitude is also why I can’t frequent gaming forums anymore. The contentious nature of most boards is painful to observe. I have to wonder if those people are even having fun at their home tables. If they are, good for them.

But I suppose for me the game only really works when I work to remove the sense that Everything is an Argument and re-frame the table space as an ongoing conversation larger than one session, one fight, or one character.

Thanks for reading.

Superhero Movies and Female Superheroes

I want to talk about female superhero movies for a moment. This is not a gaming related post – it’s definitely “off-topic” so if you want out, there’s your warning. I’ll make my next post extra “gamey” to make up for it, but I need a moment. A friend of mine posted this article today about 5 superheroes who should have gotten a movie before Ant Man… and while I can’t fault him for his choices (because, you know, there should be a solo female superhero movie). He also does a good job of displaying his “geek” cred with some pretty obscure choices (Rescue, anyone). He also makes a really solid point in that superhero movies shouldn’t be just one genre. But all those pale in comparison to the face that for now, they won’t be. And basically for one really good reason…

1. Big studio companies own Marvel (Disney) and DC (Warner Bros.) at the movies and…
1a. Those big studios are fairly risk averse (and growing moreso all the time with “untested” properties, look at John Carter and Battleship and… well, I could keep going but you get the point).

First, as is the nature of these things – less break down his choices and then I’ll propose a solution of my own…

5. Armor
First of all, let me say that I’m in complete agreement that Armor is the best thing to happen to the X-Men in a long time and if they wanted to introduce her and make her important in an X-movie then I’d certainly appreciate that more than a character like Jubilee or Shadowcat. But she’s too much of an unknown. Pacific Rim – a blockbuster summer-type movie – with all its amazing special effects, scary monsters and kick ass robots struggled at the box office (by today’s standards) and struggled to connect with main stream audiences. Armor presents the same problems for a studio. I think she would be an amazing addition to the X-movie franchise and could even be put in the forefront of a movie storyline the way Rogue was… but she’s really not a solid choice for, “front-runner” for cracking the female superhero movie wall.

4. Rescue
Obscure enough that I think it makes the point all on its own. That said, even with the connection and profile that Pepper has from the Iron Man movies, you still have the “Nightwing Problem” which basically is – even though this is a cool character in their own right, the typical moviegoer spends the whole film asking, “Wait, so where’s Batman (or, Iron Man)?”

3. Oracle
As cool as Oracle is – and she is one of the coolest characters DC ever created – this ship has sailed. Not only did the Birds of Prey already crash and burn as an awful TV show but Barbara is Batgirl again in the comics. I could be wrong, but just between those two points this seems less that productive to speculate on.

2. Black Widow
I would say this idea has serious merit. Scarlett Johanson has been pretty good in the role, she’s firmly established as a character now, she’s actually interesting, and you could tell awesome stories with her… but I feel like, you know, if they were gonna give her her own movie, they would have by now. And she’s still probably not Marvel’s best choice.

1. Wonder Woman
Now, I love Wonder Woman and I’ve been a fan of her solo comics for a long time… And I think that Marvel’s success with the first Thor movie should really put to rest any worries that “mythic” supers can’t work in their own right. That said, Wonder Woman is going to be – more than Superman, more than Batman – a proposition where you will just never get it right. (Okay, maybe someday, but no matter what tack you take with the character, half of everyone will be disappointed). I know what I would do with a Wonder Woman movie if I were given the shot, but I’ll bet every one of us thinks we know how we could do it right. The other problem with Wonder Woman is that there have been so many lackluster or abandoned projects that I would imagine it becomes increasingly difficult to get such a project off the ground. I just don’t think WW is going to be the first big one. It’s almost like how Buffy waited for Dawson’s Creek to do the “gay kiss” before they would take the plunge. We’re going to need a female superhero movie to succeed to get Wonder Woman a green light. That’s how it feels.

So… I’ve talked down all the choices above, so who would I choose? Well, it’s actually fairly easy.

Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers is the best choice for a female superhero movie. She has so much going for her.

First, she’s a strong woman in her own right, a military officer with the Air Force. She’s more than just her powers. Second, you can start the story with her as a normal human, do some military stuff first and then – ALIEN SPACESHIP CRASH – and the story kicks into superhero mode.

Second, despite a wealth of ridiculous stories and continuity nonsense that has happened to Carol over the years, at the core you have a very simple superhero story that also works nicely as a three movie arc.

Really, three movie arc? Yep. Here’s how it would go. Carol is a rising star officer… She’s young, competent, in control of her life and her career. She’s promoted to a posting with the space program after some sort of opening scene of heroism as a normal human. Spaceman falls to Earth, he bonds with Carol, falls in love – which would be a nice chance to have her not reciprocate allowing for the guy to be unrequited for once. This doesn’t have to be belabored, just a fact of the story. Something happens (accident, alien dies, etc.) and Carol gets powers. Stuff happens, aliens show up looking for first alien, original alien, Carol defeats them with powers and gets called Captain Marvel for the first time. End of first movie… sorta. After the credits we see Carol, a wreck, a tank blown up, and her coming to in the desert.

Movie two – we do a nod to Carol’s substance abuse issues without going down the “Tony Stark alcoholism hole” and have the military keeping her all hopped up on drugs to control her powers. She mostly has a normal life now but is depressed, has a councilor, and a liaison officer (spying on her, of course) and her whole life plan has been completely taken over by being “Captain Marvel, military secret weapon.” We could get a cameo from Captain America (or not) and we get a “I need to regain control of my life” story. This one is a little darker, a little more government is dangerous and such. Carol finds a way out and solves a big enough problem that she gets to have a little more control over her life again. Paranoia could be a strong theme of this movie, chemical control, experiments even. But at the end, Carol is in a better position.

Movie three – Now in control of her destiny again and outed to the masses as a Superhero(!), Captain Marvel has beaten the drugs, works for SHIELD, gets to have great scenes with Maria Hill, and overall just gets to end her story being the BEST EVER – a nod to her later storyline where she attempts to cement herself as an A-List hero. This also mirrors the whole phenomenon of a female superhero driven franchise.

Overall, this is a good bet because she is recognizable (Marvel in her name), has the military connection, has “real-people problems” and also has the general paragon/superman power set meaning that she can have the wild car-throwing, bodies flying action scenes, she’s believable (again the military connection) as a trained warrior, and you get a very “traditional” superhero movie experience with shades of other things – starting with the fact that your lead character is woman.

So that’s my vote for how to get the first big budget female superhero to work… what’s yours?

Thanks for reading.

The Captain and the Witch and What Happens Next

Sometimes, in games, things happen that come out of the just… nowhere… that is the process of play. And sometimes those things make a game really awesome because players pick up on them, run with them, and then all kinds of weird shit happens and the idea actually had some merit to begin with and it’s all a thing.

And then sometimes the players don’t pick up on an idea (or the idea was just terrible) and nothing happens. This was the case with the captain and the witch mentioned above. The party went somewhere I wasn’t expecting and I started improvising – just to have something to say, you know – and I ended up with the party in this little hunting/trapping town on the edge of a great wood and they had a river pirate captive (long story that) and they wanted to turn him over to the local authorities…

So I had them meet two fairly lax guardsmen who explained that their captain would disappear into the woods for days at a time and go “hunting.” Really though, everybody knew he was actually visiting the witch who lives in the woods (and well, they’ve got a thing going on) away from town. And as they spent a night in this town (they’re starting to be a little weirded out that the only place they meet halflings is as the owners of Inns) the owner of the inn tells them the same thing, in almost the same way. “The town’s fine, the captain just goes out every now and then and spends a few days with the witch.”

And the thing is – I was just trying to come up with something to make the town a little interesting. The party already had a goal they were working toward so this potential side-trek just sat there, totally made up on the spot because I needed something, anything, since I wasn’t prepared.

But since then I’ve been thinking about the Captain, the Witch, and this weird little town out beside the elf-wood. What the hell is really going on there? Is the captain just smitten with a lady who lives in the woods so everyone assumes she’s a witch? Is a witch actually controlling the town and is her lover, the captain, the mouthpiece through which she works? Something else entirely..?

It’s probably for the best the party didn’t pick up the trail at that point, I’m not really sure where it would have gone. But I can’t stop thinking about them.

And I think I know why. Adventurer Conqueror King System is a great game and it has a great “build your wilderness map” section which I followed. I placed dungeons, and settlements, and fixed lairs, and dynamic lairs, and it was fun. I’ve always enjoyed making maps and putting stuff on them. It was also amazingly creative – as some of the random rolls really forced me to consider the world from another angle and I made some crazy encounters from the beginnings of these placements. There is one placement on my map that the players have already shown interest in that I’m super-stoked for the time they get there and it all evolved out of rolling a ridiculous treasure hoard for a set of monsters I didn’t really have an explanation for and then it all came together. And it was pretty much the result of me needing to explain this set of random stuff in a way that made sense. I’m hoping they wait a few levels though because this area would mop the floor with them as they are right now.

But I got off on a tangent there… As much fun as stocking the map was, and as much fun as anticipating a preset encounter area that you really like is – nothing compares to the experience of just winging it. Some people hate winging it – my wife is that way – and you know, that’s okay. Some people are planners. But my greatest thrill – as a player or DM – is just shaking the boat, throwing stuff out there, making stuff happen, instigating, and then seeing what comes next.

That’s the part about RPGs that makes them so amazing, the thing that keeps me coming back for all these years, the reason I always find myself chasing the questing beast of a great game. In an RPG, you never really know what comes next. TV shows, novels, video games – they can surprise us, have twists and turns, but at the end of the day an author writes, a director directs, and a finished product gets delivered that ultimately shows the world one vision. RPGs are always unfinished art – even when a campaign ends you can still ask, “What happens next?”

The Amber RPG attempts to answer a question from the novel, “what would the next generation of Amberites have been like?” I got to have an amazing experience when I ran an amazing campaign with the best damn bunch of gamers that I’ve ever played with… And when that game ended we started a new one, where they played the children of their previous characters (those who wanted to, of course). So we got yet another generation of Amberites following in the footsteps of those who came after the elders. And it was glorious.

I’ve never lost that sense of wonder. I hope you haven’t either. I mean, sure, sometimes it’s been a little frayed around the edges. We all get burnt out from time to time. I always find it again though, because I always want to know just what is going on with the Captain and Witch…

Experience is a Strange Teacher

I’m finding a lot of inspiration these days from reading other blogs. I hadn’t realized how much I’d really missed reading some of the other great blogs out there until I came back. So I read a great article today at Fear of a Geek Planet about how XP are a serious problem.

I pretty much agree with everything he says – I’ve been chasing my tail about XP for a long time and I feel pretty strongly that some genres just have no place (or a very limited place) for advancement mechanics at all (like superhero games). The poster mentions the “tick a skill” style of advancement in BRP, which I’ve always been a fan of. It’s been pointed out to me the weird lengths that some players will go to in order to subvert that system and make it work for them in warped ways.

But I’m coming to a bit of a re-imagining in my gaming journey. Having started playing Adventurer Conqueror King (a really, really excellent game) which is built around a core of the old school D&D experience, I’ve started to remember some of the genuine joy I derived from those old games. And experience points are an interesting part of that.

I’d forgotten, playing 3rd ed, 4th ed, and Pathfinder, how much fun it is to have PCs leveling at different rates. My party right now has a 1st level fighter, a 2nd level wizard, and a thief and bladedancer (cleric variant) at 3rd level and it’s working out great. Their henchmen are also at different levels and their adventures are shaped somewhat (in a good way, in my opinion) by the oddity of having characters of different levels in the party.

It’s time for me to admit. In the games of my childhood, we didn’t understand XP for gold so we just didn’t do it. We basically did, “level when the GM says so.” That worked for us at 11 and 12 years old because we just wanted to be ridiculous and fight goblins and shit.

I’m also somewhat fascinated by the ways different DMs treat and deal with XP and leveling. Some give XP on a rolling basis, some only at the end of the session – heck – there are probably as many ways of doing this as there are games. I love running Amber Diceless RPG and in that game you only do advancement at the end of story arcs and the player has no idea how many XP they actually earned… which is one of the coolest things ever. As a long-time Amber person, on both sides of the screen, I can’t explain how much fun this part of the game has been. You just have to experience it (Jesus, no pun intended).

Ultimately, I guess my point is, I’m completely in… treating XP as a purely mechanical bit that acts as the carrot to go with the stick of, you know, playing the game (insert eye roll here) then it is just an awkward, buckled-on bit of awful paperwork. But when it can actually shape interesting play bits then I find that I enjoy the way XP works in the tapestry of the rules.

Thanks for reading.

GM Constraints… Wait, WTF?

I’ve been chewing on writing this post for about a week now. I feel like a spend a lot of words/energy talking about why the GM/DM/Judge is significantly, uniquely important to the experience of a role-playing game as opposed to the experience of any other game. I feel like it’s one of those weird intersections of the gaming populous that leaves me thinking that – to me – it feels self-evident but clearly it isn’t.

This rumination started with reading Rob Donoghue’s post, GM Constraints which is focused on FATE games but it led me to a weird place. I’ll admit, when I see a post with the title, GM Constraints, it’s almost irresistible bait for me. I’m only a little ashamed of that. Ultimately though, his post didn’t rile me up and get my nerd-rage flowing. It just confused me.

Of course, I admit freely that I don’t understand the appeal of FATE games anyway (that’s a lie – I understand their appeal at a cognitive level, I just don’t really see the payoff). It’s possible that my overall confusion stems from that fundamental disconnect but I don’t think so. I’m going to put two statements out there…

    1. GM constraints don’t make a game better.
    2. That said, the best GM constraint is the players.

Here’s where my confusion starts with the post:

I have been chewing a bit on the mechanization of GM restrictions. Often they take the form of things that the GM cannot do, but such restrictions are usually designed to curb abuses. While that’s admirable, it often has elements of fighting the last war, which feels wasteful.

But what if you begin from a position of high GM trust? It’s the position I like to take – I am happy to empower any GM who is good enough to know when not to use that power.

Do you see my confusion? Beginning from a position of high GM trust. Connect this next statement to my above statements:

    3. If the players don’t trust the GM, the game has already failed.

If you don’t trust your GM, why are you playing with him/her?

The rest of the post goes on to discuss creating a set of mechanized GM choices which restrict the available actions to attempt to push some different kind of creativity out of the GM which he or she might not be able to achieve in a completely freeform environment. While I’m all for thought experiments, I find the entire concept of mechanizing “gamey” restrictions to be an odd choice for trying to make a better RPG experience.

He continues,

The trick, of course, is to make the direction useful. If it’s merely random, then it’s likely to produce random results. The constraint needs to be something that moves play in rewarding directions. This is, on paper, what a GM is often trying to do when “railroading” players, but in that case it is based on the GM’s decision to trust her sensibilities over the organic direction of play.

I’m not entirely certain that I agree with his definition of “railroading” in the above paragraph but that is a word I think we – as a community – have used so poorly and so often in our anti-GM rants that it has lost all useful meaning. Railroading is another of those intersections of ideas in our culture that seems to have taken on a magical life of its own that ignores the necessary role of the GM as gentle director of the action. A GM can railroad as effectively by simply describing a scene a certain way as they can by only putting one door in every dungeon room. I didn’t even use sarcastic quotes when I wrote that… be proud of me.

The point I’m dancing around here is that the GM is not the most important player of the game at the table but he/she is the one that the other players place the most trust in. Everyone is working together to make the game good (one assumes) but the GM is burdened with everyone else’s fun along with assuring their own. And as someone who is the GM for 90% of my gaming experiences, I can say that there is a skill to it. You practice making the little tricks and nonsense work to ensure that everyone (including you) gets to have fun. But that also comes with the group as a whole agreeing that the GM gets a little more latitude than everyone else because you know, it’s necessary.

Forcing the GM to work toward some arbitrary (even if well-defined) end creates far more problems than a GM forcing the hands of the players. Sure, it might be fun for the GM to take on a challenge like this in a specific, limited context once in a blue moon but it probably only works well if it is kept from the players.

In the post he comments on the difference between the GM acting based on some imposed order of action vs. simply trusting his or her own sensibilities. For me, that’s precisely the wrong tack to take. What we need to be teaching our GMs to do is be better at using their sensibilities and interacting with their players to protect the organic growth of the game while also preserving the unique nature of the RPG experience which is only truly achieved when the GM is unfettered. That’s why I’ve devoted so much of my life to playing these games versus any other hobby I could have picked up… because they are unique experiences, and the role of the GM is the most interesting innovation of RPGs.

Just my two cents.

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