Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Shoepixie On Games I Like And Games I Hate

I like to watch videos of people playing games that I don't want to play.

I have this intuition that they are looking for a totally different thing from a game than I am. then I watch and it seems like: yeah, they are.

Then, of course, you say that and all the people who play that game jump on your ass and howl that you're senselessly promoting division within the embattled hobby of roleplaying.

So then you think "Perhaps I was senseless bending observation to fit my hypothesis...or perhaps all these people are fucks".

Because of all that, I was pretty excited to see, during the Contessa on-line con, a video of one of the players in my weekly online players playing a game I would never play.

So afterward, I asked her about it: Do you see these games as different? In what way? Do they scratch different itches?

And so Shoe wrote this, which was a pretty cool thing for her to do.

Shoe's an unusual player: she plays in my game, but she's terrified of dying. Like if she died, she'd be pissed because she has plans for her character. And, no, it appears fear of death does not spur her to greater heights of invention, it just makes her freeze. This may be why Shoe thinks weapon restrictions are silly: she doesn't see the challenge in working with limited tools. I don't have too many players like that. But she keeps coming back, so I guess we're doing alright.

Some things Shoe notes:

The storygames provide a reliable experience, the trads (plus Apocalypse world) provide one that varies wildly based on who is playing and running.

The storygames are more like acting and more like writing a story.

The storygames require a lot more mental participation in the genre. The trads you can just show up and roll in whatever state

Monday, July 29, 2013

I Like It

I like when players get captured.

I like when new players have to be recruited to rescue old players from ingenious goblins.

Severen (elf druid), Miloux (elf cleric), Laney (halfling ranger)

I like when beastmen show up.

I like when everybody thinks they won but then the last beastman standing drags an unconscious PC into the forest saying "Any closer and I cut her throat".

I like when the new players let the beastman go because they don't want her to die but then think to have their animal companion cobra bite the beastman while he's distracted by another players' flying squirrel animal companion.
I like being there when it's the first time a girl casts Summon Monster and she closes her eyes and reaches down into the box full of dozens of monsters and pulls out a fucking unicorn.

I like getting to describe Cobalt Reach to people for the first time.

I like getting to show people this map...

I like when they save the pope of Vornheim from a cage and I get to do his voice.

I like when they get to the shores of the Sea of Ignorance and Pain and I roll to see if there's a ship and there is, and it's full of bards and they get them drunk and they steal their ship.

I like when everyone recognizes bards suck.

I like when the party fights an aspidochelone.

I like when the druid turns into an octopus.
I like when people are like "THIS GAME IS SO COOL!"

i like that.
I like the after-action reports.

I like the videos the girls made...

I like it all very much.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

More Alice Art

More art from "A Red And Pleasant Land", the upcoming Alice-themed project for LOTFP.

EDIT: Here's a better picture of these guys...

This one is REALLY big so you kinda have to click on it for the full effect


Saturday, July 27, 2013

This 'Qelong' Book Is Out There Operating Without Any Decent Restraint, Totally Beyond The Pale Of Any Acceptable Human Conduct

Fucking tiger, man! Look at this fucking shit we're in, man!

This stupa seems burned from the outside, but intact from the inside. It contains nothing but a scroll, which constantly reads itself in echoing and sonorous tones, unrolling slowly across the lectern with no hand turning it.
        It takes four hours for the scroll to read entirely through itself. The language is unfamiliar and ancient  (-3 to Language checks); it deals with the nature of Time, a god who slowly smothers the other gods to death and drowns their bodies.
        The smell of frankincense and the sound of bells are thick within. Characters inside the stupa who step outside emerge at a different time from the time that they entered (centuries, weeks, hours, back or forward, it is up the Referee); characters outside notice only a few minutes passing.
        If characters leave at exactly the place in the scroll’s reading that they entered, they return exactly to the point when they left from; outside it seems that they only ducked into the stupa for a fraction of a second. Picking up the scroll stops the reading and possibly unleashes a Symbol on all within.


And check out the map:
This is only part of it because, like, I don't want to be giving away all the best parts of the book for free
Right? RIGHT?

After how many years of computer-generated maps we finally get one done right.

So yeah, Qelong is fucking good and stuff.

Alright, lemme put on the helpful, insightful hat:

So Qelong is written by Kenneth "I did more research while I ate breakfast this morning than you did the whole time you were in college" Hite and the rest of the team is mostly kids--rock & rollers with one foot in their grave--the art's by Rich "remember that crinkly crawly sweet art in Carcosa? I did that" Longmore, laid out and cartographied by DIY D&D Designslave #1 Jez Gordon and published by James "I own a machine that turns internet hate into production values" Raggi's LOTFP. It is compatible with all TSR-era-D&D-style games.

It is about like a kind of Apocalypse Now-y Southeast Asian setting with mist and rivers and magic-poisoning and locals at war who want to kill you and take your stuff.

Formatwise, it follows the template of the old '80s TSR setting books and many setting books since:
  • Background info with some plot (in this case The Thing That's Up The River)
  • List of distinctive features--some exactly what you'd expect given the cultures its modeled on, some intriguingly weird
  • Rumor table for the area
  • Name generator
  • Under-illustrated list of new monsters--some exactly what you'd expect given the culture its modeled on, some intriguingly weird
  • Random encounter tables disaggreggated by terrain type
  • Nine (unmapped) specific sandbox locations, with details on who's important where
  • A couple maps
  • All conscientiously statted out and written in expansive paragraph form
  • Hideously drab, lurid, rigid cover by an artist capable of much better, though in this case it's Jason Rainville instead of Keith Parkinson
7 bucks, 52 pages, about one usable idea or tool per page, so that's 13 cents per idea. Plus the art is cool.

Personally, I'm packing all this stuff up and sending it to Drownesia by way of Yoon Suin.

Other things you could do...

-Print out the map and start putting settlements using the tag system from Red Tide on it

-Replace the locals with Warhammer goblins who are totally happy that everything around them is poisoned with chaos magic

-Run a domain-level game of mass combat and conquest here over a terrain of ghost-haunted swamp and toxic mist. Because land wars in Southeast Asia always work out well.

-Next time the PCs crash a space ship in your sci fi game, send them here: they're at the mouth of the river, they hit a time filament, and the mcguffin in the Heart of Darkness ruining the water and air is their own warp core, which they're probably wanna get back.

-Fucking just put Colonel Kurtz up there. Make him a naga with 9 Kenneth Hite heads buried up to their necks in mud. Have a ceremony where they're chopping open a big tusked hog.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Some Guys I Know

"We don't explore characters, we explore dungeons"

This Old School mantra is wrong in an interesting way.

I have a bunch of characters in a bunch of games and they're all the same and they're all different and none of that is on purpose.

They are all impatient schemers and sneaks who, nevertheless, try to make sure everybody in the party gets out alive. In the first hour it'd be almost impossible to tell them apart. All of them.

But Baron Blixa Von Apfelsaft (Thief lvl 8) is laid back, wary, and confident, Gorgut the Weasel (Elf lvl 2) is high-strung and boastful and likes to boldly announce "I am GORGUT! The WEAAAASEL!", Floyd Nine (Petty Call of Cthulhu Thief) is a self-pitying drunk, Sir Xyre of the Barrens (Pendragon Knight) is quick-tempered, prone to lawyerly evasion, and, when his fellow knights go courting, a fine wingman.

None of that was by design. Each one got there because they just shook out that way.

It probably goes without saying ('cause this is my blog) that all these characters are from Old School games with no personality mechanics or mechanical rewards for role-playing. This is just how Old School characters work: You get your PC a name, you get a few characteristics, you think of a voice, a few good things happen or bad things, and they suddenly seem competent or incompetent or skulky or brave and, without you doing anything, they begin to have a personality. Yet, because you're playing them, those personalities all have something in common.

Gorgut is Gorgut because (of necessity) he uses Unseen Servant and spare torches to trick gnolls and henchmen into thinking he's a great wizard, largely by shouting*, Floyd is Floyd because he's a Call of Cthulhu character so (of necessity) keeps getting the crap beat out of him, Blixa is Blixa because he's been around a long time--he started as a cynical Archeresque drunk, fought some fights, wised up, lost a beloved pet, got revenge, chilled out a bit, got micro famous for being in a lot of D&D games, etc. Their personality is either formed or revealed by circumstance--and the revelation is slow.

I think games with extensive personality mechanics expect that your character starts one way, undergoes Character Development in play (like they teach you in creative writing courses), and emerges another way.

With most games I like, the character starts no way at all, undergoes experiences which reveal character and then are proved to have been a certain way all along. Then, maybe, if they survive, undergo some character development.

Both of these ways of doing things show up in good movies and good books and real life. The first one you hear about more because it's tied into classic 3 act dramatic structure (a structure that serial fiction doesn't naturally have).

When people talk about remarkable moments in games with personality mechanics I often here them saying "Oh wow, I remember when you took that character there, I didn't see that coming, that was amazing." Moving the character along is a sometimes-conscious act on the continuum between writing and improv.

In the second model, you're not so much writing a character as performing an experiment on it and one of the many byproducts is finding out who the character is.

And that character is usually, unless you make an effort to do otherwise, an extension of a weird alternate you that comes out when you play games. But different parts of you depending on tiny factors  This Alternate You + Elf + Blonde turns out different than This Alternate You + Cleric + Fat + Lost An Eye.

I like the artlessness of it. I'm not choosing a character to play. I am, literally, exploring the character, as one might a dungeon--going into it to see what is there. Not pushing it along, just knowing that I can dip a toe in at any time and see who somebody is.

*Hellwheel the Moonslinker has had 2 adventures, and is so far a lot like Gorgut The Weasel, but when he goes "I am Hellwheel the MOooONslinker!" there's, in the pronunciation of name alone, a level of irony that would go right over Gorgut's head.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Loser's Guide To Boss Murder

Ok, so, thanks to the wonders of old school random spell generation you got:

A dwarf missing a foot.

A second level elf with a 4 Dex, Unseen Servant, and Tenser's Floating Disc

A second level wizard with 4 hit points, Read LanguagesMending, and, on account of a run-in with the Death & Dismemberment Table, no penis.

How do you kill a giant flaming boss monster cobra with more hit points than the whole party put together?


Step One: Purchase 20 pigs.

Step Two: Tie pigs together.

Step Three: Survive random encounters triggered by noise pigs make going down into dungeon.

Step Four: Have dwarf use stonecunning to figure out how to crack 1000 lb statue in antechamber to Giant Flaming Cobra Room in half.

Step Five: Have elf cast Tenser's Floating Disc twice.

Step Six: Have dwarf and henchmen lever each 500 lb half of statue onto a Disc. Remember: Discs  float 3 feet above the ground but otherwise can be moved around by elf (at least in Labyrinth Lord).

Step Seven: Maneuver Discs onto either side of door to Giant Flaming Cobra Room.

Step Eight: Open door, send in hogs.

Step Nine: Wait for cobra to surge toward hogs.

Step Ten: As cobra moves between statues, have elf move Discs as close together as possible while have wizard casts Mending on statue, thus crushing the snake between the two mating halves of statue.

Step Eleven: Remind DM that even if cobra makes save, it will have a 1000 lb labret piercing.

Step Twelve: Watch cobra fail save.

Step Three: Mock fleeing necromancer whose god you just killed.
It's true, this man has no dick. And killed a giant cobra with Mending

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Quick Seclusium of Orphone Review

The Seclusium of Orphone is a book about wizard's tower style dungeons.

It is full of really good and often original ideas about rooms, items, creatures and NPCs.

These are, unfortunately, organized into fairly poorly designed tables and lists and multiple choice locations that make the creation of these dungeons harder and slower than they need to be while not gaining a lot from being presented in that format. And this is coming from a guy who loves tables and lists, and multiple choice locations.

So, as a compendium: Awesome!

As a tool: It needs a lot of work.

Most of this is because of stuff I said here or here. But the TL;DR is below:

Basically dungeon creation is set out here like character generation, and as a wise man once said character creation should be slow but interesting or functional but fast. Seclusium swerves violently from the mundane to the magical and (unfortunately) back again over and over--I can see most readers starting off going "I'll use these rules to make a dungeon, that'll be a fun way to kill some time!" then after the first one, or (more likely) a quarter of the way through the first one, taking scrupulous notes on whether the guest rooms are "spartan and bare" or "tiny and cramped", going Fuck it and skimming for ideas and then putting it up on the shelf next to The Dungeon Master's Design Kit and the Central Casting books and every other GM tool you wish someone would read, scrape, and Abulafia-fy to save you time.

When the options on the tables are interesting (which is gratifyingly often) the separate versions don't usually have a pressing need to be in a table or list and don't seem to use that format to their (or the GM's) advantage.

When the options on the table are mundane but essential, the formatting of the tables is too slow for the time it takes to roll on them or choose them off the list to be worth it.

These seem like the kind of random tables that work the way people who hate random tables think they work. "Door opens: 1- In 2- Out 3-4 Pick one".

Also, if it was going to take this slow step-by-step approach, it could've used a worksheet or some other original graphic device to help take all the dozens and dozens (and dozens...seriously) of answers you'd have to give in order to go through the dungeon-making process into a thing with a map that the GM could actually look at and use at the table. If you're gonna hold my hand fucking hold my hand, guy.

(UPDATE: The book claims one of the multiple-choice-dungeons can be done in a half hour, so I tried it. No way. That's not even enough time to answer all the questions, much less draw a map and key it with your answers. And I don't write slow.)

I could go on and on about the format but this is actually a pretty cool book so I don't want to spend much more time bitching about it than I have to.

It also contains some quick rules for making LOTFP (or any other old-school D&D or D&D-like game) less trial-and-error and player skilly and more about character skill and some good but fairly blog-standard dungeon-running advice, if you're into that.


If you want dungeon ideas, you should buy it and you should read it, but afterward you'll probably want to raid it more than use it.

Which is fine and good but a bit of a shame--there is so much worth raiding in RPGs and so little worth using.

Footnote: I've seen a draft of Jeff Rients' "Broodmother Sky Fortress" and it looked to be this format of fill-in-the-blanks walk-you-through-it dungeon done right. Though in terms of raw number of usable ideas, Seclusium is perhaps its equal or better.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Notes From The Echo Palace

Name of dwarf pirate leader who entrusted his henchmen to you: Albrecht of the High Seas

Number of dwarves he kept with him: 7

Number of stubwolves they keep: 10

Number of dwarven prisoners they have: 4

Name of human prisoner: Rose Red

Dwarven henchmen left in PC party: Dopey and Bashful (conjoined twinned together), Doc and Happy (conjoined twinned together)

Elf henchmen left in party: Smart, Extroverted, Sickly

Name of Unfrozen Omnithroxian-Era Human In Party: Epicaste

Name of Dryad Malice is Trying to Mack On: Eidothera

Monsters released by Malice When He Encountered Vomiters: Galeb Duhr, Fire-Breathing Stone King, Gargoyle, Stag Demon, 3 elves, Mountain Giant (deceased), Drider (deceased)

Hex where Malice Aforethought's Father is: 440

Doors In Portal Room Which Still Currently Have Runes On Them: Hexenbracken door, Far (faerie) Lands door


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tiefling Cleric, Level 12

Did this drawing of Mandy's PC, Tizane...
click it and it will be bigger

- - - -

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Everyone Called They Want Everything Back

Dear Guillermo Del Toro,

Genre fiction is forgiving. It's like the penny jar next to the cash register.

You're allowed to steal your street scenes from Blade Runner and Bill Sienkiewicz's New Mutants.

You're allowed to steal your gangsters and their hideout from Shadowrun.

You're allowed to steal your Tokyo apocalypse from Akira.

You're allowed to steal your weapons from Soul Calibur (who stole it from this guy).

You're allowed to steal your mad scientists from Ghostbusters and Reanimator.

You're allowed to steal your lighting and shitty jock jumpsuits from Mass Effect.

You're allowed to steal your giant robots from the rejected bin at the Battletech, Transformers and Iron Man offices.

You're allowed to steal your set up from Evangelion.

You're allowed to steal your climax from Avengers.

You're allowed to steal your monster designs from Godzilla Unleashed and Star Trek and Monster Hunter and Wayne Barlowe (oh wait, Jez informs me Barlowe was on it? I guess Barlowe's allowed to steal from himself 25 years ago).

You're allowed to steal your style from Roger Corman.

You're allowed to have a bunch of white guys you can't tell apart be major characters.

You're allowed to have a script with a grand total of zero memorable lines.

But you have to leave something in return.

What did Pacific Rim leave?

That scene where the little girl walks out into the ash-covered street and those weird lampsuits the black market monster dudes wear when they're walking around inside the monster, and the one fight in the middle during the parts when it wasn't obscured by videogame blur.


P.S. How did you find that many people who don't like giant robots to design your giant robots?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Murdering A Dragon

Ferox The Incinerator, god-dragon of Cobalt Reach--the only dragon that, in four years, the party has ever seen--is no more. It took about a year.

  • The party landed in tropical, radioactive, Cobalt Reach last June.
  • By the end of the summer, after various chicaneries, they'd entered the dragon's fortress and had a look around.
  • In December, they met the dragon, spent a handful of rounds in her presence, survived, and found out the treasured Antikythera Device was in her hoard.
  • Since then, they've been roaming the Reach, chasing rumors of lost weapons from the ancient wars.
  • In the following months, they collected: a void sphere,  a bolt that could paralyze anything for 2 rounds, and a space-warping hypercube.
  • Meanwhile, my online group managed to blunder into an ancient tomb, accidentally releasing the long-forgotten reptilian Archbishop Sarpedon and his death knight, who marched past the party to seek out their dragon goddess and once more take up the crusade to cleanse the earth of mammalian life.

That's the situation as the session starts.


Cody the thief sneaks to the summit of the mountain beneath the floating fortress of Ferox.

She sees the knight and the bishop.

The rest of the party arrives. Their position is given away, initiative is rolled.

The reptilian archbishop commands Mandy' cleric to leap from the mountain--she falls, taking 7d6 damage. Being 12th level, she lives.

The wizard casts Evard's Black Tentacles.

Connie's thief, Gypsillia, with her pig's head helmet, is like "I'm gonna hide" but Mandy tells her to chuck the hypercube.

She does. The high-level ancient fucks are now at least temporarily inside a cube of inscrutably distorted escherspace. With tentacles.

The sudden emergence of a large extradimensional pocket realm just beneath her home has naturally drawn the attention of the dragon.

I enlist the aid of Chewbacca the Puppy to demonstrate scale.

The thieves hide, the wizard turns invisible and gets incidentally smacked by the dragon for 4d6 as it settles to the ground, the cleric lies in a pool of her own blood at the bottom of a sheer drop and then the ranger walks in all "Oh, hey guys, there was traffic on the 101".

The dragon spends exactly one round looking into the spacewarping cube in which his her highest primary ecclesiast is currently encysted.

The invisible wizard, staring at a wing the size of a frigate, knows that, basically, if Ferox notices him, he will die.

He moves on tiptoe. He chucks the void sphere.
An absolute nothingness 10' around opens up in the wall of the dragon's chest. Digestive juices as old as time spill out, everybody saves for half damage, except the wizard, who's knocked unconscious.

The cleric, from the base of the cliff, fires the paralyzing bolt into Ferox's head. The void grows a twin.

The ranger climbs toward the paralyzed dragon and stabs it with a wiggly knife, picked up in august from some jackalmen, that inflicts cursed wounds.

"So ok, this round I have to roll for the voids. (roll roll) They split again. So now I gotta roll to see where they go. You're here. It's here. I'm rolling an o'clock: if I roll noon, you're just annihilated, if I roll 11 or 1 you get a save, I roll anything else it just goes that way."


"...6! The voids continue to tear into the dragon, still paralyzed. One of them hits the hypercube, the blackness starts swirling across it like ink in milk, and a side of the cube rips open and starts gushing out bubbles like lava hitting air and freezing into hematite."

"Bubbles of what?"

"Solid unreality."

"Oh, ok....I'm gonna run."

They run. The dragon is toast, metastasizing vortices and negadimensional plasm cover the mountain summit.

They get a lot of xp and spend the rest of the game almost getting Total Party Killed by some goblins.

The ranger gets captured by one.

Atop the mountain, beneath the dragon's fortress, the fabric of being convulses. There's still a lot of stuff in there. And the pope in a gibbet.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013


There's improv theatre, which is fine, but a different thing. Infinite possibilities. But then we go and add numbers to games. We choose to give ourselves less than infinite possibilities, on purpose.

The ultimate reason for numbers and scores and tracked things like torch oil and number of spells and hit points and ability scores is to allow the players to feel desperation.

The purpose is that they feel how fucked they are in a minutely detailed way, with subtleties. A complexly textured desperation--unique to that situation. Against the wall and out of rope, against the door and out of strong people, against the giants and out of spells, against the grues and out of light, against the ghouls and out of clerics.

Too much crunch--too many things to track--and you can't see the fucked for the trees. You were attacked on a stat you didn't even know existed, you run out of something you didn't know you owned. You didn't get to feel desperation at all. This makes for an amazing chess game, or a typical first-go at Super Mario, but it's only fun if you immediately get to play again.

Too little crunch or description or time and you fall frozen without even seeing the mercury drop--you die and didn't even know things had gotten that serious. Full tank--empty tank.

Desperation is not the best emotion in games--triumph over desperation is. But it is the most necessary and useful--because without it you can't get to any of the best ones.

If you feel desperation, you can be sure of two things:

-You care about their character.

-You care about the outcome of the game.

If your GM's done all that, the rest is bonus points.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Our Thief Drew This (PLUG PLUG PLUG)

So Satine Phoenix...

...who actual play report readers and I Hit It With My Axe fans may remember from such incidents as "I Got Killed By A Bunch Of Goblins On A Crappy Bridge"and fans of hot interracial action will remember from such films as "My Hot Wife Is Fucking Blackzilla 7" drew all the stuff in this game....
It's weird:
Yeah, I don't know either.
Check it out.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Two Guys Walk Into A Bar...

Actually, for the purposes of this example, they haven't walked in yet, but they can peek through the window unseen.

First Guy 

GM 1: The bar is completely empty except for the bartender who is behind the bar, looking at the door, holding a shotgun.

Player 1: Ok, I got Sneak at 25% so I'm going to Sneak in and (roll r...)

GM 1: Hold it hold it hold it. The room is empty, the bartender is looking straight at the door. There's no way you can just sneak in there normally.

Player1: Ok, I'm going to set a trashcan on fire out on the street, then when the bartender comes out to investigate, sneak in.

GM 1: Ok, the trash can is on fire. The bartender (roll roll) does indeed go out to investigate after about a minute...roll to sneak...

Player1: Did it!

GM 1: Alright, you're in. And outside there's a trashcan fire. It's (roll roll) actually kinda getting out of control.


Second Guy

GM 2: The bar is completely empty except for the bartender who is behind the bar, looking at the door, holding a shotgun.

Player 2: Ok, I got Sneak at 25% so I'm going to Sneak in and (roll roll). Did it!

GM 2: Alright, you're in. Now the room was empty and the bartender was looking straight at the door. How'd you do it?

Player2: Mmmm...I guess I set a trashcan on fire out on the street, then when the bartender comes out to investigate, I snuck in.

GM 2: Ok. So she's out there and outside there's a trashcan fire. It's (roll roll) actually kinda getting out of control.


Some games work one way, some work the other way, some work both.

In D&D, for instance, a to-hit roll can work either way. You can describe exactly what you hope to do in an ambush, set it up, get modifiers, then roll it and then, bing, it goes off or (typically) you roll to hit an unlikely target and it works anyway because you rolled high and the GM or player then explains how it happened.


The 2 games above (and/or people playing them) look at the Sneak number on their character sheet in different ways.

GM 1 sees the Sneak number as representing how often the PC can sneak under typical conditions in the fiction.

GM 2 sees the Sneak number as representing how often the player gets to say "My character sneaks" and have that happen in the fiction.

GM 1 sees the Sneak number as a measure of PC aptitude.

GM 2 sees the Sneak number as a measure of direct player control over the fiction.


Both fictional situations are equally realistic (the same thing happens in both fictions).

Both fictional situations required the same amount of creativity (the same things were invented).

Both groups are visualizing the situation in the same amount of detail. (This is an ability distinct from just creativity.)

There is a difference though:

Player 1 is playing a game where she stakes her PC's life (that is, her right to play the game with that PC) on that creativity and that ability to  visualize the situation in detail, plus an in-game decision (go in sneaking) plus a 25% die roll gamble.

Player 2 is playing a game where she stakes her PC's life solely an in-game decision (go in sneaking) plus a 25% die roll gamble. The creativity and ability to visualize are there, but they are not gambled on.
(Player 1 is, also, staking her PC's life on her ability to communicate effectively with the GM. I've heard of adults having serious problems with this in their games--I've never seen it happen in real life.)
A big question in game design is, largely, what, if anything, do your players want to be gambling their players lives on?

Saturday, July 6, 2013


Basic Role-Playing, the system which underlies Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Pendragon, Runequest and a buncha other games has this mechanic: you have a stat, you try to roll equal or under it.

For head to head contests, there's this system: both parties try to roll as high as possible without going over their stat.

Here is the first point I want to make about this system: it's awesome.

1. It can be explained immediately and easily to new players.

2. It requires no charts to look anything up.

3. It requires no addition or subtraction.  (Here it beats my go-to spot mechanic: both sides roll the same die and you add your whole score.)

4. (Therefore) You immediately know if you succeeded or failed.

5. It can work on ability scores scaled to any die (You could build a game where your stats ranged 1-10 and roll a d10 and it'd still work). Which means you could use it in any system that rates abilities in numbers of any kind.

6. It respects high scores in detail--for every pip your score goes up, your chances get a little better. So you can use it in a campaign-oriented game where PCs slowly improve by steps.

7. It has a degrees-of-success system built in: there's fumble (rolling the max score), failure (rolling over), weak success (rolling under but not better than the other guy or--with a slight hack--a static opposing target number), success (rolling under), mega success (rolling exactly your score).

8. It requires no derived numbers. Like a score of 17 is a score of 17, not 17 (+3) or 17 (+1). (Like, ok, a lot of non-D&D systems.)

For some reason, despite all the intertalk you hear about folks clinging to various old D&D rules purely out of nostalgia even when the rule in question is patently useful, folks rarely bring up the fact that this rule pretty much beats the hell out of D&Ds: d20-add-derived-numbers-roll-high-meet-a-target-number (and sometimes also roll under or roll a d6 trying to meet a derived number instead).

Why? Because nearly everyone who would make it is either still using the d20-roll-high system (WOTC D&Ds keep it) or is using some other less-elegant system that, if we're honest, is probably only still being used (if it was invented before BRP) out of nostalgia or (if it was invented after BRP) out of pure neophilia or just a desire to avoid a lawsuit from Chaosium.

The system has, for all the parameters above, never been beat. Lots and lots of games don't use it--very few don't use it for any kind of good reason.


It does have two drawbacks I can immediately think of:

1-You don't try to roll as high as possible. People like that 00 or 20 means something good. Or at least they seem to.

2-Not every player is trying to hit the exact same set of numbers when they roll, so you can't add bonus fun where you key the die roll to a table where, say 1 always means This and rolling your score always means That and rolling 15 always means The Other Thing.


(Here's a roll-high variant that solves both of those problems: you try to roll as high as possible. If your roll is lower than your score in the relevant stat, you get to roll again, once. It creates new problems--the most obvious one is possibly having to roll twice. It'd work well for something like DCC spell checks.)


(Some of you may be eyeballing "Roll as high as possible or take your stat, whichever is highest" but that's a drag because basically if the GM wrote the adventure, the GM knows in advance if the PC will win any contest with a static target so you're basically just deciding what will happen when you write the adventure.)

Another observation:

I've played games that work the BRP way, and then, hours later, played games with less elegant resolution systems. Y'know what? You don't much notice the difference in play. At a certain point these things just don't matter that much. I mean: if you were building a language from scratch you probably would spell "would" differently---but it works out alright anyway.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

We Will Indulge In Your Meatpies

So the company that makes D&D released a video of their R&D team playtesting a game, with one Mr Mike Mearls GMing.

So what do we learn about the internal gamer culture at the company charged with keeping D&D alive from this?

First, and this is just about the video: they just play and make no attempt to entertain the internet audience and that's really really nice. None of the cringey forced nerdjokery you get with some recorded games.

Second: This looks like a bunch of nice people playing D&D as I know it and not some jarringly skewed ivory tower gamewonk frenzy. While it isn't as chaotic as my average at-home game, it is quite recognizably in the ballpark of what I see when I log on to play a Google + game with some folks I've never played with before and have fun doing it.

Third: It is obviously short on razzle and/or dazzle (no improvised props or lush descriptions, not too many voices, Mike Mearls announces the first real fight of the game at 1:32:12 with "two humanoid creatures leap off the edge and leap down upon you…" and that's that), though there are some good reasons for this:

  • They're testing, so Mike's clearly trying to get them through a number of different kinds of situations relatively quickly
  • This is a game where all the players already like D&D so much they made a career out of it. So Mike doesn't really need to "sell" them on the concept of a ghoul or an orc city. They know what those things are and are already engaged.
  • With experienced players and a vanilla adventure (like, say, a tournament module you're playtesting with) sometimes dealing the cards fast and getting the hell out of the way so the players can just play is the best thing you can  do. there's probably people out there watching this thinking of all the things that their favorite GM does that Mike doesn't, however what they aren't noticing is how well he nails the underlying basics
that so many GMs miss.

So there's craft here, check it out...

-First and least obviously:

This is the most important thing in GMing and it's done so well you don't notice: there's never a single moment of "Ummm, let me see here, ok..hold on....". I don't care if your adventure's got 9-dimensional jewel towers made of solid mutant algebra and random spell fumbles written by Phillip K Dick himself, if you don't have the basic dexterity to keep the game a game every second of the hours we're playing, go practice.

-Info drip feed:

The beginning of this adventure has an investigation/reconnaissance element. For this kind of thing you want players to have as many puzzle pieces as possible (their plans will be more interesting the more information they have) but you also don't want to overwhelm them by backing the infodump truck up to the table edge.

Mearls controls this carefully: he gives the players just enough information in his opening spiel, then gets out of their way so they can play D&D. Then when they ask questions, he thinks "Ok, what I said has sunk in and they want more" so he not only answers the questions but dribbles out a little extra information, too. This way he's slowly building a bigger understanding of the situation up from digestible chunks.

-Turning mechanics into useful details efficiently:

It would be easy to criticize Mike for just having the info-gathering players roll dice rather than role-play out the process and doing funny voices for all the city freaks who divulge useful lore or fail to, but remember: this is a playtest and even at this pace without random NPCs giving out info via eerily accented roleplay, the party isn't fighting anything for real until about 3/4s of the way through the session. However, notice how Mike manages to give the players some texture even while treating the info-gathering section of the adventure as strictly preliminary. It might be short on entertainment value for us at home, but it gives the players the idea that taking the time to find out new stuff is worth it. 


"Why don't you give me a wisdom check?"

James rolls a natural one. Mike still has information to feed out: the orcs seem tense. James gets something for putting out the effort to do reconnaissance. 

James asks "Like they're expecting an attack?" 

Mike: "No, like they don't trust each other."

This gives James one more thing to think about, which snaps into focus when James later deduces (well, infers, but induction is cool) from the ransacked orc that dopplegangers have been killing the orcs and stealing their clothes to get inside the complex.

Now you coulda gone another way with it: made the 1 a fumble and just told James some bullshit, (which is what I would've done--and I also would've rolled the check myself secretly) but the point is there is deliberate decision and method here, though it's subtle.

This is GMing: not always telling a thrilling tale of intrigue and romance, but standing on the edge of the swimming pool tossing in toys for the players to kick around-- "Here's's this...and..." 

(The actual kicking around process is hard to film. Thinking doesn't look like much on camera--that's why quiz shows always have a weird tracking shot set to music during Final Jeopardy or whatever.)

Note also how he uses what the player actually does to direct the story outcome of the die roll result in the Meatpie incident (below). Beginning GMs trying to figure out how charisma stat rolls and actual in-character persuasion attempts interact should take a look.

-Notice at 59:00 Mike chucks in an event--there's some kind of rumble going on off screen. Again, one more tool to play with. The players decline, but it's there. A lot of GMs get so tied in knots trying to follow what the PCs are up to they forget to keep the world rolling on behind them. More toys is good.

-Around 1:40:00 the ghoul tries to drag the cleric away to devour, rather than just keep slugging it out with the PCs. Good. That's what a ghoul would do. And if he'd made it back to the ghoul air that would've been fun. GMs who don't know what they're doing just have monsters show up and act like combat robots until the players die or they do.

-If the life of all those I hold dear depended on successful survival of a D&D adventure and I had to choose one WOTC staffer in this video to be in my party, I'd take Rodney Thompson (far right) no doubt. He asks smart questions (Wait, I thought this is a wretched hive of scum and villainy--there are murders? How is anyone even noticing?) he's proactive, he makes plans that keep the game moving, he thinks on his feet (inventing the "meatpie" gambit around 59:23 and saving everyone at least one encounter) and on top of all that he's metagame aware enough to help out the GM (noticing at 26:57 that Greg and Peter haven't gotten to do anything since Mike asked "Ok what's everybody doing?" ten minutes ago). That is a sharp player. I want to take a look at everything this guy's ever written now. I also suspect his tattooed halfling with the sunken riverboat is a refugee from Warhammer's Enemy Within campaign so he probably has good taste.

-Greg Bilsland (the one without the beard) is the other MVP here. How much worse would this video be to watch without Greg? Every party needs that player who can take it easy for all the sinners. "Oh, we're fighting..." (42:06)