Tag Archives: ACKS

Against the Dark Lord (Always)

I’m back. Because I could not be silent. I know that I put the blog to bed a while ago but recent events have upset my ability to let it go…

On this blog, I have been a huge supporter of Adventurer Conqueror King System. It is an amazing game and incredibly well-written, designed, and implemented. Unfortunately, it is also in bed with the notorious internet troll and alt-right hack, Vox Day.

Without belaboring the point, here is the outline.

  • Autarch has a new kickstarter for two books for the ACKS line.
  • Autarch worked out an agreement with Vox Day to provide a “bonus” reward to Day if his followers took up the battle cry to include content, “for the Dark Lord.” This also might or might not include adding money to their pledge specifically for this bonus reward.
  • Vox Day advertised this by mentioning that one of the pieces of art he’d commission for his reward was, a picture of vile minions eating SJWs.
  • A few – and I admit it was only a few – of us who are fans of Autarch spoke up about our concerns about this.
  • We were very politely told that Vox is a big supporter and paid his money so that is it. The company (and owner)’s stance is strictly apolitical.

Before I go on, one thing is important to clear up… Alexander Macris, the man at the heart of Autarch… has always been excellent in my dealings with him. I worked the Autarch booth at GenCon last year because I believe in the product and wanted to be a part of sharing it with the world and gaming community at large. Alex has always been extremely straightforward and professional in our dealings and until this incident, I would not have believed that I would ever be speaking against Autarch. It’s a shame.

But life and business are not, in fact, apolitical. Providing Vox Day with a new soapbox is not a move I can support. He is abhorrent and espouses openly hurtful views under the guise of “rationality” and “standing up against the intolerant left.” His crusade – specifically against John Scalzi – borders on obsession. (Though even I must acknowledge that there is one area where Vox Day and I agree — Scalzi is a terrible writer.) Saying that you are being apolitical is a way to wash your hands of the other guy’s sins while still taking his money.

Alex and I then engaged in private communication. I will not delve too much into what he said as it was between us and not in a public forum, but there are two issues in his response which I feel compelled to take up.

First, Alex listed off to me a history of his business decisions which led him to his current stand on the issue of Vox Day. I understand the list he provided and the decisions he discussed. I appreciate him taking the time to provide such a personal response. That said, there is a fundamental difference and misunderstanding between many of his previous decisions and this current one. In almost every previous case, his decisions involved parties that were doing no harm and were simply, “objectionable” to one group or another. There is a fundamental difference between that and the active anger, disdain, and hatred propagated through Vox Day’s community and his own writing. Day has taken an active stand to be a troll and an extremist. He does harm by his actions. Alex said that the protest is about “who Day is, not what is in the book.” That is a fair point. But unfortunately, you can claim to be apolitical but you cannot claim that working with Day is the same as previously employing someone that others claim to be objectionable when they are harming none. That is a false equivalence.

Second, just briefly, I am going to quote one very small part of Alex’s letter to me. It is in the interest of speaking to it directly.

private economic boycotts over differences of identity and politics are harmful to civil society...  I know that many disagree with me, and believe it is better to cause those who espouse unpopular views to suffer for them because they deserve it.

This is important. I do not believe that it is better to cause those who espouse unpopular views to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. What I do believe is that my private boycott of a product (also, not so private as I voiced my concerns in the Autarch forum before writing to Alex privately) is about not being willing to associate myself with the objectionable person or content specifically because of their actions. I don’t care about someone’s identity or politics in the abstract. I care about how they manifest those actions in the world. Vox Day is an internet troll who actively chooses to take a harmful road with his words and actions. His site and writing are not merely “words” they are calls to action. To say that you are apolitical but still associate with him because he has money and has said nice things about your work is not apolitical – it is willfully choosing to endorse, tacitly or not – the messages that he spreads.

Again – Alex Macris has always, always been excellent to me and I have a great respect for his hard work and the product he has created. Autarch’s ACKS is, really, the best D&D style game I have ever played and I’d rank it one of the best games in the market. And again, to be fair, Alex has repeatedly stated that he is in final control of the content and will be certain that it is appropriate to the tone and mechanics of ACKS. I believe him completely when he says that.

But the fundamental disagreement here is not about politics or identity. It’s not about whether Vox Day is a “good person” or not. I frankly don’t care. I’m not always a good person. The issue is that Vox Day actively creates a hostile atmosphere in our community and acts to sow discord, disdain, and spite while frequently patting himself on the back for same. And that is not something that I can associate myself with. If you have reservations, I hope you will express them as well.


Adventurer Conqueror King System is a Domain of Madness

So, first, a few disclaimers:

  1. I love ACKS. I’ve played every edition of D&D, AD&D, and D&D again along with Pathfinder, Castles and Crusades, and Dungeon Crawl Classics and nothing comes close to how much I enjoy ACKS. I’ve written about this before when I started my first ACKS campaign and I have to say that the Autarch team has built one heck of a game on the old school base.
  2. I’m not a math-oriented person. I mean, I’m not one of those people who can’t make change in my head or needs a calculator to do division… but I don’t “think in numbers” the way some people can.

Those two disclaimers were important because I want to follow them up by saying that for me, I find the domain creation system in ACKS (touted by many as its greatest strength/innovation) to be a nearly unworkable mess as written. It is clearly working for some players, so I’m happy to admit it might just be me, but as I embark on my second ACKS campaign, I am once again confronted by the fact that I can’t make heads or tails of how the domain system is supposed to work. The fundamental math is very confusing to me and the book provides scant and contradictory examples of the different parts leading to even more confusion.

I’m going to try and outline my issues and then we’ll see if anyone out there can help me tumble my way through them…

Continue reading →

Monday Morning DM: Can Murder-Hobos Belong and Other Thoughts on My 5e Experiences.

I used the term “murder-hobo” in public the other day and I realized that to anyone who does not play D&D, they might seriously think I was endorsing lethal bum fights. I was on a college campus, so this seemed extra likely.

The context of my comment though, as it would make sense to gamers, concerned the idea that even though I – ostensibly – enjoy a sandbox, hex-crawling style of play – I wonder if sometimes I only think that I enjoy that. I worry about this because it doesn’t just inform my fun as a player but it affects my thinking when I’m planning and running a game.

If I may take a brief aside into video games, I really struggled to enjoy Fallout 3, but I very much enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. The difference being, for me, that New Vegas included this whole layer of civilization which was lacking in F3. In New Vegas, I was able to connect with different factions, have recurring enemies, build a storyline around my exploration and I didn’t just feel isolated like I did in Fallout 3. I make no objective claims that one is better than the other – it’s just that New Vegas satisfied my need to be a part of something in a way that the purely open exploration of Fallout 3 could not.

This difference really affects my enjoyment of playing an RPG at the table too. I enjoy old-school play to the extent that I really enjoy fragile characters and having to make tough choices and the mystery of a wide-open map with a million stories to be told. But out of the OSR movement, I naturally gravitated right to Adventurer Conqueror King System because of its emphasis on civilization (especially in sharp contrast to the great wilderness). During the explosion of settings surrounding D&D, Second Edition, while everyone was raving about Planescape and Dark Sun, I was quietly sitting in my corner running Birthright (and I would love to see a Birthright revival in 5e). The domain rules appealed to me precisely because they inherently connected player characters to the setting. You were a regent (or if a non-regent, then connected in some way to survive the world of regents). When I was running Warhammer Fantasy, I unbundled the “blooded regent” rules from the domain system and used it in conjunction with my homebrew world. That was a seriously fun game.

Taking another example, out of all the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, the only one I was ever pulled toward was Kingmaker. The whole concept of getting a hex-crawl which was explicitly tied to the idea of building a domain was fascinating to me. It served both purposes and we had some very memorable roleplaying based around the council the team put together to run their budding kingdom.

Amber – my gaming crush from way back – is another example of finding this freedom. Characters created for Amber games are intricately and explicitly tied to forces larger than themselves which will demand their allegiance (or rebellion) and with which their interactions are vital. That said, during the course of any given session it is likely that the players will roam all over Hell and half of Georgia (as my Granny used to say) because they can literally go anywhere. But they still have important, inescapable social ties which are as much obligation as they are sanctuary.

So why is it – as I am running my second 5e game – that I find myself falling back on the habit of treating D&D like a set of disparate adventures thrown together in episodic fashion and not able to find my footing in building a sense of community and continuity? It’s a question that keeps me up at night.

There was an announcement that Green Ronin is going to bring back the Blue Rose RPG. I was excited about this for two reasons. First, I’m a huge fan of romantic fantasy. Second, I’m a fan of the AGE system and I am interested in seeing it supported outside of Dragon Age. That said, I was not enamored of the world/setting of the Blue Rose RPG which shares much more in common with Mercedes Lackey than Tamora Pierce (or new writers like Rae Carson). Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy Mercedes Lackey’s Valdamar stories – and I certainly respect their longevity – but even for a civilization-loving gamer like myself I find everyone just a bit too reasonable for my tastes. Everything is just a bit too ideal. I mean, I wish the world worked like that. At the end of the day though, I appreciate the complexity of motivations which often seem to drive the characters from the later waves of Romantic Fantasy. That said, I am happy that Blue Rose is coming back if for no other reason than it had a beautiful aesthetic and presented a very different kind of fantasy – which is almost always a good thing.

To return to my problem which prompted this think aloud session… What is it about running D&D which shoves me back into module mode? Why do I find it so hard to create, in D&D, the same kind of free-floating wonder I am able to capture in Amber or other games? Why are there so few opportunities in the D&D realm to mix sandbox-style play with a world full of connections? Is it because the nature of sandbox style play (the freedom to roam) is conflicted by the need to have connections which, by their nature, tie your PCs down?

I struggle with this. As a DM/GM of over 30 years, with many successful campaigns at my back (at least, based on feedback from my players… I am often my own worst critic) why is it that I still struggle with a game I genuinely enjoy? It vexes me.

Let me close with this. I was reading some of the introductory material to Silent Legions and I found the discussion of sandbox play there refreshing. Specifically, the idea that “the stories it produces are all in retrospect – the tale of the choices the PCs made and the consequences that came of them.” This is a well-crafted thought and explains precisely what it is that makes me love the idea of sandbox-style gaming. It captures the spirit of what I have done in my best games – the ones I have run that even I love looking back on – which involves a give and take between the setting and the PCs such that sometimes they will have to accept consequences for choices not made; the road not taken and all that. If I can capture that again – if I can capture that sense of freedom and wonder compounded by a living, breathing world – I think I’ll be happy. Until then… I’m not sure what comes next.

Thoughts, feelings, reactions, stories? Feel free to share.

As always. Thanks for reading.

Character Class as Goal Setting

I’ve been writing long posts recently and I thought I’d take a breather and explore a small idea I had today.

Character classes are a strange thing. Some people absolutely hate class-based systems, some people love them. I fall into a bit of a middle ground. I find class-based characters to be interesting but I also enjoy the ability to make a completely freeform character.

At the heart of a lot of complaints about class-based systems (at least that I hear) seems to be the unnatural manner of “leveling up” which involves just spontaneously having new abilities when you hit the appropriate level and the oddity of being locked into a class progression for a whole game/campaign/whatever.

When I was playing Adventurer Conqueror King a while ago, I was really enamored of the classes and as I’ve been thinking a lot about domains for my current campaign (I’m back to messing with Birthright again) I find that there is another small angle that old school puts on character class which I’d never considered before.

What would happen if we viewed character class selection through the lens of goal-setting?

That is to say; what if we looked at a player’s choice of class as a series of goals which are accomplished as the character levels?

Suppose, for example, that I choose to play a fighter in ACKS. I’m saying something immediately with this choice. I want to be tough, fight on the front lines. strength is probably my best stat and I intend to use it.

But I’m saying more. I’m also saying that I want to develop certain abilities across my career. I’m saying that my gold is going to get saved up to buy a certain kind of stronghold and that I might have dreams of conquest. I’m saying that I want to grow my character into one of the best warriors in the world.

These things happen as a natural part of leveling. I get better with weapons, I gain certain abilities, and eventually, I attract the followers I need to staff my stronghold. But instead of seeing these things as part of a rigid progression which forces my character down this path, what happens if I start down this path with the thought that the end is actually where I want to be? It’s a very small perspective shift really. I imagine that some players always make their characters this way.

Try it out the next time you are considering what class to play and see if it changes your thinking about your character. Let me know if it does.

Thanks for reading.

D&D 5e, Part Two

So this is part two of my observations about 5E started in my last post.

I’ve spent a little more time with the Starter Set box contents and the free D&D 5e PDF – which you should take a moment to download and read if you love RPGs and haven’t done so yet. Let’s not call what follows a review… let’s call it an exploration of my perceptions as I move through the material. I’m mainly going to focus on the Starter Set and occasionally reference the more complete PDF rules.

A disclaimer: I did not follow the playtest very closely. I kept it at the edge of my awareness but I did not play any games with rules, etc. I mention this only to say the new material was very new to me and not tempered by the playtest experience. Also, what follows is my own meandering ruminations and should be considered in that light…

The Short Version (again)
If you just want the really short version… I like it. I enjoyed reading it and think that some of what has been done here is amazing, some of it is derivative, and some is “meh.” But overall, I really like what I’m seeing so far.

Character Creation
Honestly, I don’t yet fully know how I feel about this. I like the new character sheet – it feels like an old school character sheet but with some notable differences (like prioritizing the stat bonus over the stat) which I find interesting and useful. Many d20 system-style games have simply done away with the base stat and gone to the bonus but I think keeping the 3-18 range is nice. 4d6 drop the lowest is probably the most common version of “roll your stats” and with a solid point buy option in the rules as well I think they covered everything.

The basic 4 races are covered well and each is pretty exciting. The use of subraces is awesome and really evoked 2e for me as I was reading, while still feeling like a new game. This makes me excited to see the full PHB and the treatment of some of the newcomers to D&D. One of the great innovations of 3e/4e was the fact that you could make effective characters (maybe not optimized, but effective) with almost any race/class combination. I’m a huge fan of this and happy they continued this trend.

Classes look solid. They all have something and the clever implementation of advantage/bonus actions seems like it will be a big part of 5e design. Obviously, with smaller design space it may become an issue at some point but if they are planning to keep the splat books to a minimum this may not be as much of a problem anyway… time will tell on this front. I like the idea of Backgrounds.They seem well-integrated into the system and to provide evocative, helpful choices without being all-important decision points. That’s a good thing. Yes, some of this stuff doesn’t need mechanics but these seem to be well considered and I think they are going to become a fun part of the new game.

We don’t know a lot about multi-classing or implementation of options like “feats” yet but from the little clues we have in the PDF, I’m happy with the direction I see this going in. It looks like a real trade-off and a genuine way to expand the design space without overwhelming the core choices. Again, we’ll see as it grows, but the initial implementation looks very well thought out.

I haven’t run a combat yet. I’m still trying to process how I’ll fit in time to play 5e around my Star Wars game and everything else I do during the week but… it says something that I actually want to do it. I’ll freely admit to being predisposed toward not wanting to play this edition. Now, I’m intrigued. Other than that, I’ll say that I like what I see about the combat chapter. It seems straightforward. I’m a fan of removing tactical/map & mini based combat as the core option (though I’m sure it will be supported as a play-style, which is good) and the focus on simple actions again feels like they learned real lessons from their previous iterations and really worked to keep the good stuff. I look forward to trying this out for the first time.

Magic and Spellcasting
I’ll start this by saying that I’m not really sure why the Fireball needed a base 8d6 damage (I get it, because they changed the scaling, etc.) but it feels really strong now at level. On the whole, I really like the “cast it in a higher slot” as an alternative to all the metamagic craziness of previous editions. Again, tough to say how it will grow and change across the life of the edition but just the basics we see now are very encouraging. Not sure yet if this will change but… I did love the discussion of “Spellcasting Services” in the equipment chapter and how no prices were attached. It was more about whether or not you could find someone willing to do it and what they’ll want in return.

One thing I’m still missing is the fact that spellcasting is still so simple. One action, no chance of failing for most spells. I get why, really I do, but after playing Adventurer Conqueror King with its system of asking you to declare spells in advance of initiative and then a chance that they get ruined before you go… that’s good stuff. This is fine, and probably “fun” but it seems too consequence free considering how overwhelming magic gets pretty quickly.

Something I’m wishing for…
So, this is just a little tidbit from me and my own wish list. I get why they are using Forgotten Realms as the default setting. I get that this makes sense for them from a product standpoint and a game standpoint. I do. But as they go forward with this edition, as they dive into the next incarnation of D&D I have to wonder… why not bring back Birthright? This incarnation feels like it would be perfect for Birthright (with the subrace rules and the focus on offering options through backgrounds) and its vaguely 2nd ed feeling. But more than that… we live in an era of geekdom practically ruled by Game of Thrones (btw, Birthright had a novel of kings and tragedy title, The Iron Throne, just sayin’). Birthright is the dark fantasy game of kings and armies with a vibrant, well-detailed world and history that D&D already has sitting right in front of it. Sure, it’s not really the best choice for the “core” setting experience but it seems a shame not to revisit this wonderful world perfect for the tastes and environment of the now. It’s always been a personal favorite and I’d love to see it come back.

In closing
Again, this is long enough. I can say without reservation that I’m heartened by what I’m seeing and I really think the new rules have a chance to be a great D&D, that feels like D&D and brings the community back together again to some extent. That said, we still know very little and we’ll have to see more when the full PHB comes out in August.

Thanks for reading.

The Tip of the Spear

This is a little random but I have a question which often vexes me. Why are spears the oddballs of weapon charts and rules in almost all fantasy games?

I’m going to start off by saying that I know just enough about the historical evolution of melee weapons and real world fighting techniques to admit that I don’t know enough. So I have no intention of attempting to dive down the rabbit hole of “but this and that exotic historical point!” If anyone with expertise wants to chime in in the comments, I’ll be happy to learn something but know that I’ll be taking your word for it for the most part…

Continue reading →

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.


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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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…