Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.
But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?
The Amber Diceless Roleplaying game is the greatest diceless RPG of all time. That is a statement of opinion but one that I will joyously discuss with anyone to explain the virtues of this most excellent system. To say that Amber DRPG changed my life would be a bit melodramatic. To say that it changed me as a gamer and a game master, not so much.
I had not even read the Amber novels when I was drawn into the game by the spectacular Phage Press ad which ran in Dragon Magazine. I was sold without even knowing the setting. I wanted to play this game with a “mature and demanding” character creation system and its weird auction rules that forced character creation to be both collaborative and competitive. As someone whose gaming life up until that point was dominated by D&D and GURPS, I couldn’t even imagine how profoundly I would be shaped by the ideas presented in that book and then explored through years of campaigns.
Around the year 2000, my girlfriend was going away for the summer. In order to stay in touch, I planned to write her a series of letter-style short stories which would seem to come from a fantasy world based on the city we lived in and its surrounding areas. I only did a few of those – but the planning for that project led directly to the creation of my longest-lasting homebrew world, Irona, which became the setting for my 3rd edition D&D games and later was adapted to work with Warhammer Fantasy RPG, second edition, 4th edition D&D, and even Barbarians of Lemuria as I tried out all of those systems.
Over the last 14 years, Irona has grown and changed quite a bit. I’ve tinkered, jiggered, added in suggestions from players, built histories and delved back into the past. Ultimately, it’s become a big place with a lot of information written about it.
As I started my 5th Edition D&D game, I went back to Irona and my creations there. I decided that I was going to start over – in a way – and begin the game with the same timeline and set up which originally shaped that first 3rd edition campaign. After all, only one of my players had ever played in Irona before – this is an almost entirely new group with no history or connection to this world.
And as that presented a problem of its own, I dug into my DM toolbox and pulled out another old tool I hadn’t used in a long time – the Campaign Newsletter – an information sharing technique I’ve used with several games before and that I find very helpful. I thought I’d take a minute to explore my way of structuring one of these, show an example, and offer my insights about what works and what doesn’t. I’d also love to hear anything any of you are doing in a similar manner.
So far, my admiration for 5e D&D has probably been pretty obvious on my blog. I’m really enjoying the game I’m running and overall, my perception of the way the game plays is very positive.
But I do have, I suppose, one complaint. It’s a really personal complaint so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone… But it has been a stark moment for me.
I’ve been tinkering with Fantasy Flight’s newest takes on the Star Wars RPG quite a bit lately, transitioning from Edge of the Empire to Age of Rebellion with a group that ranges from fairly new roleplayers to old hands. We’ve been having fun and despite a few oddities, the game is well put together and fun to play. One of those quirks came up recently and I’ve been running over it in my mind a lot trying to think through my feelings on the issue. The issue of course is blind difficulties.
To try and explain what I mean, let me set the scene of what happened in game. So I was using an idea from an old SW adventure as a starting point for my new game and this involved a droid that the party meets who is in the employ of a really impressive slicer. The party’s computer expert (who is really good) wanted to check into transmissions being sent by the droid but these transmissions are being overseen by the droid’s employer (the slicer). So it’s an opposed roll. And I didn’t consider when planning things out that I was going to come to that moment when the PC looked at me and said that they wanted to check this out and I had to assign them a difficulty pool.
Of course, the whole point is that the droid is undercover so by assigning this huge difficulty pool (5 difficulty with 4 challenge dice), the party learns exactly what the computer skill of their opposition is. More than that, they learn – no matter what else happens – that the droid is definitely not what he seems. Not that they suspect it, they know it.
Admittedly, only the players know, not necessarily their characters, but it’s no longer a point of suspense or conflict – it’s clear knowledge.
And with this roll, I realized that in this system it is nearly impossible to “keep secrets.” This was such an odd moment for me that I actually did something I’m usually loathe to do and paused the game to discuss and consider the issue with my players.
We kicked around a few ideas – that the GM just make the difficulty pool and roll it “behind the screen” – and compared it to other games such that, “hey, I rolled a 30 and still failed, there must be something going on!” This was good brainstorming, and I’ve considered these ideas more fully since then but honestly, it’s still a difficult piece of design to navigate. Sure, in a game like a d20 system rpg, a roll like the one mentioned above does make a difference – but the player is still in the dark about the bits “under the hood” of that difficulty check. Why a 30 failed is a different question than, “why does this robot have a 5/4 stat/skill split when that doesn’t jive with his story at all?” It’s a different level of information being presented in a very straightforward manner. The other idea about hiding rolls is untenable as well – as the game engine is so built around the very transparent nature of dice pools and the resultant narrative-shaping symbols.
Information is powerful and shapes decision-making even when we try to ignore it. More importantly than metagaming, this type of information creates a situation where very straightforward revelations are made that do not exist in other aspects of the game. Combat, for example, uses standardized difficulties with upgrades for NPC qualities like “Adversary” but as my group has learned, combat is another quirky bit of the game where the margin between the PCs winning easily and the NPCs wiping the floor with them is very swingy. Even so, combat still contains surprises because even though you might suddenly learn who is a nemesis versus a rival… you probably already had some indication of that going into the fight from other in-game information that had little to do with stats. This same issue exists with any area of the game that could benefit from “hidden information” from Stealth rolls to Social Interaction rolls.
Of course, my last paragraph suggested a possible “halfway” solution to this. It is possible that I could just come up with a system of standardized difficulties – such as with combat – and then upgrade the dice (or use setback dice) as modifiers based on the opposition. While this still reveals the caliber of opposition, it is less directly revealing than providing the opposition’s dice pool exactly. So, creating a talent similar to Adversary for different types of NPC actions such as awareness or slicing, etc. It’s a step but not necessarily a solution.
I’d love to hear any thoughts about FF’s Star Wars games, the idea of blind difficulties, or navigating this terrain in game. I think my follow up post to this one will discuss how I let the PC’s set their own difficulties on a recent occasion and how ridiculous space flight is in this game. But all that is still to come.
As always, thanks for reading and comments are welcome.
This is a post about expectations and the interaction of reality and fantasy at the table. I don’t want to bog myself down thinking too much about the extremes of reality in games where people can throw fireballs and routinely get attacked by undead creatures. Overall, that dichotomy doesn’t bother me too much, I genuinely enjoy fantasy. But I’ve noticed that certain expectations are dictated as much mechanically as they are narratively, and the interactions are sometimes jarring for me.
This is a follow up to my last post concerning the nature of character skill vs. player skill at the gaming table and the various interactions that entails. Several comments on my last post raised specific points I intend to address as I write this, Part Two, and I have some additional ideas I hope to develop here.
This one is a little personal. If you aren’t interested – that’s okay. There’s a little gaming in here but it’s mostly reflective. Fair warning. This one’s about work, lack of work, and a desire to do things a certain way… it’s about management and leadership.
I haven’t been posting a lot for a while now. This isn’t an apology post – I either post or I don’t – but my goal is to get back on a regular schedule starting with this post today.
I wrote a while back about the way I like to GM. Read it if you like but here’s the short version – I like to be a reactive GM. I prefer when my players take control of the campaign and I just have to occasionally give them a little push. And I really enjoy winging it. I’m a big fan of just improvising whole sessions and seeing what happens.
But I got into a conversation about railroading again the other day (I really hate those conversations – so unproductive) but in this case it wasn’t just about railroading it was about villains. It started with Caine. It always starts with Caine – stupid Amberite.
I know he’s not as fashionable now as he was a few years ago, but there was a time when people were listening to Dane Cook. One of his skits rambled out of my ipod the other day as I was driving around and I realized that it was a really accurate depiction of how I GM. Well, it was an accurate depiction of how I GM when I feel like I’m doing it well… No, when I’m doing it the way I really want to be doing it.
Dane tells this joke about going to a party and going into the ruum (it’s just how he says room, I guess) where everyone is stashing their coats and just taking a dump on the pile. The joke is – that at some point – someone is going to wander out of the coat room and announce…