Friday, December 20, 2013

Expanded Thoughts: Unabashed Gaming Ep. 6 (Part 1)

So, I've been podcasting with my good friend (and GM) David Larkins, and our most recent uploaded episode is regarding the merits of running published material, compared to writing your own. My commentary was verbose, as always, but my preparation was even greater, and because I have this handy blog I thought I'd share some of my unabridged thoughts with everyone.

Merits of Running Published Material

There are a lot of positives to running published material, whether through ease of preparation or a catering to a GM's own occasional laziness or ambivalence towards game preparation (we've all been there). It's important to note, going in to this post, that there is no right or wrong way to prep for a game, provided the end result is that the table consensus at the end of the session is some permutation of "Good times were had by all; except for that asshat Richard. He never has a good time. I don't know why we keep inviting him to games."

1. You don’t have to write anything, you basically read and take notes.

The best reason to run published material. If you're in a creative slump, or on short notice, or were violently ill the week before game time, it's super easy to pick something up and read it, compared to trying to write out a balanced game for players in a super-short period of time.

2. With luck (Or you paid for it) it’s been edited and playtested for balance.

Another great reason! Have you ever spent hours poring over different sourcebooks or .pdfs, trying to find the perfect way to create encounters or play sessions that involve all the players and don't utterly drag in execution? Well, most paid products have already had that lucky benefit of playtesting and tweaking, so unless you're reading from a text file you copy/pasted from some Angelfire website, chances are the writer put some thought into making the game coherent and interesting for players!

3. Takes substantially less prep, even to include in an original setting

This is sort of obvious. When someone else does most of the work for you, there's less to take your mind away from thinking about how to run your game, compared to what you're running for your game. And if you're in an ongoing campaign, you can copy/paste names of your original NPCs or locations into appropriate places in the adventure. What's easier than copy/pasting, I ask you? A lot of things, I'm sure, like calling a player and telling them it's time for them to put on big-boy pants and run a goddamn game once in your life instead of complaining about mine, Richard.

4. Can give you ideas for where to go next if your group is in a rut

An under-appreciated gem, this one. There are so many things that can put some malaise into your weekly game, whether through player infighting or a new system release, or just plain summer laziness kicking in. Or GTA Online finally releasing their content creator. Or a really good Steam Sale or Humble Bundle. You get the point. Inspiration is low, players are losing focus. When you get to this point, a great place to turn to is published material, where they come up with some really deadly ways to get players back on their toes, or to really inspire a GM with a memorable villain or dangerous situation. This isn't a sure-cure, as players who want to stop playing a game generally already have an idea of what they want to do instead, but if the rut belongs to you, GM, this tactic can get you back on track.

5. Fantastic for introductions/one-shots if they are short

What if I'm starting out as a GM, you ask. What if my players are new? Or the system? Or someone wants to break in a new set of dice? Or perhaps an old gaming friend is coming in from out of town and wants to roll some dice for an evening?
One shots, baby. There's nothing like them, and if you can make them fast-paced enough or deadly enough, any complaints by long-time angsty players named Dick or Rich or Richard will be constantly drowned out by other players asking why the hell a rusty bed frame just knocked them out of a window onto the concrete path below for 3d6 damage. Because Call of Cthulhu, naive new player. Because Call of Cthulhu.
Tune in again for Drawbacks of Running Published Material!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Iron Kingdoms RPG: Creating a Family Tree

Recently I've begun an undertaking of colossal proportions: creating a fictional Cygnaran house for an Iron Kingdoms RPG.  This process has become very much akin to creating a family in Pendragon, except I'm certifiably insane, so I decided that instead of just making a current family, I'd go back about four hundred years and start there.  And because I'm really certifiably insane, and because Iron Kingdoms is a feudal society, I decided that most people begin breeding in their late teens to early twenties.  And because I just bought a really sweet Warmachine Cygnaran d6 dice set, I figured I'd use them to generate the family.
The character I made for that Iron Kingdoms game is 18th generation.  18 generations in 400 years.  So I thought I'd share my methods, in case someone else out there wanted to hurt their brain.

Step 1) Begin with some kind of ancestor, choose what year they are born in, and determine their eventual spouse.

I chose to create my ultimate ancestor so that he would be active during the evacuation of the Orgoth forces, in an event called the Scourge.  Therefore, my character's ultimate grandfather was born in AR162.
Once you have chosen this, determine where they marry in the hierarchy of nobility.  Roll 1d6, and consult the table below.
Marriage Roll:
1 - Roll again
2 - Viscount/Viscountess
3 - Earl/Countess
4 - Margrave/Margravine
5 - Marquess/Marchioness
6 - Roll again
If you roll either a 1 or a 6, your ancestor has married either above or below a certain station.  Consult the tables below for each.
Rolled a 1:
1-3 - Knight/Dame
4-5 - Baronet/Dowager Baroness
6 - Baron/Baroness
Rolled a 6:
1-3 - Duke/Duchess
4-5 - Prince/Princess
6 - King/Queen

Step 2) Determine the age at which the selected ancestor first had a child.

To accomplish this, roll 2d6.  If the chosen ancestor is male, add the 2d6 to the age of 20.  If the ancestor is female, add the 2d6 to the age of fifteen.  Dice can ace (a nifty mechanic from Savage Worlds/World of Darkness), so if you roll a six on one or more dice, roll them again.
Not only will this determine when your ancestor first breeds, but also when the next generation possibly begins.  I say possibly, because...

Step 3) Roll for survival for the mother/child.

Roll 1d6 once each for both the mother and child. If you roll a 1 for the mother, she dies in childbirth.  If you roll a 1 for the child, it is born sickly, and you must roll another 1d6 to determine how long it lasts.  This die can also ace, and if it aces enough times that the child reaches at least 15, he or she has overcome their childhood illness and can now bear/produce children of their own.  If you roll a 1 for this survival time, the child is stillborn.

Step 4) More info on child survival roll.

The 1d6 roll for the child's survival also indicates its gender and aptitude.  Consult the table below for information on the results.
Child Survival and Aptitude Roll:
1 - Child is female, but sickly.
2 - Child is male, but sickly.
3 - Child is female, and healthy.
4 - Child is male, and healthy.
5 - Child is female, and superior.
6 - Child is male, and superior.

Step 4b) Determine Superiority of Child

If a superior child is born, it has the potential to accomplish great feats.  In game mechanic terms, this means the child could possibly be a Player Character, and so they need to choose an archetype.  If you so desire, you may choose the archetype for them or roll 2d6 and consult the chart below.
Child Superiorty Roll:
1-3 - The child has been Gifted with the ability to manipulate arcane forces.
4-6 - The child is to be an Intellectual, with a quick wit and discerning mind.5-9 - The child is Mighty, displaying great physical strength and endurance at an early age.
10-12 - The child proves to be Skilled, showing a flair in combat training and great dexterity.

Step 5) Determine successor for family.

In classic medieval settings, only a firstborn male child could be heir.  However, in the Iron Kingdoms, it's not unusual to hear about female heads of households, so simply choose the first surviving heir to determine who will continue the family's line.

Repeat steps 2-5, until you just can't anymore.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Playerwoes: Why I Don't Reroll an Imperfect Character

I believe there is a sort of maturity that comes with extensive playing of tabletop RPGs, a hard-learned lesson that players more familiar with computer/console games needs to learn before they truly enjoy themselves in true roleplaying.  Something even I've only recently grasped.
Tabletop RPGs are designed to allow you to create an avatar for yourself, unfortunately there is often the assumption that this avatar is a perfect creation, even when dice rolls dictate otherwise.  I mean, it makes sense.  Why would you want to pretend to be a fallible being in a fantastic setting?  We've all read books or watched movies where the main character never loses, or at least never loses for long.  And in games, the only time the player loses canonically is when control is stripped from us.
In Final Fantasy VII, any time a party member dies, you can use an item called a Phoenix Down to resurrect them.  Unfortunately, you're unable to do this very simple, system-canon approach when Aeris is killed.  Every other time, you are in control, and you win.
Tabletop RPGs are different, though.  Because they depend on dice rolls and chance instead of automatic success or infinite retries, you can never make a character that can hit a target at one hundred paces, one hundred percent of the time.  Your expert marksman will, eventually fail horribly.  He'll also likely be terrible at other things.  Those skills he attained to become a crack shot mean nothing in delicate social situations, where saying the wrong thing could have far worse repercussions than missing a target at a competition.  Your circus strongman will not be able to make heads nor toes of the Dewey decimal system.  But those are to be expected.  What isn't expected, when you make this character, is that the marksman will miss, or the strongman will be unable to lift something, or that the mathematical genius will be unable to figure out a simple Sudoku-style puzzle that is locking a door.
Let me tell you the story of Sir Blaen of the Pendragon RPG.  Sir Blaen was an able horseman, strong with the lance, better at hunting.  He 'graduated' into knighthood, assumed control of his heritage household, and was sent to various tourneys, where he was utterly trounced in the joust.  After perhaps ten to twelve sessions of playing as Sir Blaen, he ended up having the absolute worst tourney record in the game setting.  Sir Blaen is the type of cursed character that would have failed in a joust against a small child armed with a piece of driftwood and a toothpick, seated on a rocking chair.  He was routinely trounced in the melee, and in his only duel he lost all will to fight before his opponent had even drawn his sword.
Sir Blaen was a knight of constant sorrow, is what I'm saying, and I occasionally had a horrible time playing him, because when I created him I was envisioning a master horseman, unparallelled with the lance.  He could track a hawk on a cloudy day, if he could only roll well enough to.
Which brings us to the issue.
With dice rolling, there is no 100% success rate.  No one stays on their horse 10 out of 10 times at the lists.  That gallant knight I created, ended up being covered in shame (and likely horseshit) by the time our campaign finished.  The times I arrived for the game, I came for the story, because I knew what would happen with Sir Blaen.  He would fail, and I wouldn't have any enjoyment from his failing, because I desperately wanted him not to.
This hope was different than other types of hoping for good rolls.  Occasionally there will be something important in a game, and you'll need to roll.  And you'll want that roll to succeed.  Imagine arriving to a game, and rolling, and hoping that any roll will succeed.  Sir Blaen was a fun character, and I got some enjoyment out of roleplaying just how much of a failure he really was, but I still wanted him to win, because that is what I created him to do.
Let's talk about another character now.  A portly, dorky, uncoordinated virgin named Jordan Antimonius Baxter of the Solar Patrol.  Jordan was born-or created, if you will-to be an utter failure.  His back-story set him as a middle child of a military family, underachieving in his life, and being a disappointment to a father who, in desperation, sent him out to die in the Solar Patrol.  As a black sheep, I had no expectations for Jordan to succeed consistently.  In fact, I had set up his character in such a way that I deemed it a success every time he lived to the end of a play session.
His occasional successes suddenly became points of pride for me.  Every time he failed to fail at a task, I was enjoying myself.  Every time he failed, I enjoyed myself, because the dice were roleplaying to the character.  This character was an absolute success for me, because I never expected him to succeed.  My conceptions about him colored the bad rolls and skill checks in an understanding light, and every time he exceeded my expectations I felt like I was watching a Mighty Ducks film.
However, neither of these characters was ideal to play.  First of all, no one wants an aspiring loser like Blaen as their character, or even a whole party of Blaens.  And likewise, no one wants an entire party of Jordans.  Or an entire party of Eeyores.  Or Chris Farleys.
With characters like Blaen and Jordan, you never get your hopes up during play.  You're always expecting failure, and being "pleasantly surprised" when you get success instead.  Gameplay needs tension, and risks, and that hope that this dice roll will succeed.
There needs to be a balance, not just in dice rolls, and not just in character traits, but in the player's perception of his character.  Perfection is, without cheating, impossible in tabletop games.  Therefore, creating a character that is meant to be perfect is an exercise in self-induced slow burn insanity.
Instead, think about creating characters with realistic flaws, similar to what exists in the real world.  You'll be better off for it, I think.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. Quickstart: A Listed Preamble

Having just received Chaosium's 7E Call of Cthulhu Quickstart rules, I've been reading through them in order to see the modifications* to the system.  Thus far, things feel very familiar, but there are some distinct modifications to the formula, which may result in improvements or disappointment.  I'll go through a few of them here, giving my first impressions as a Keeper, without having run anything on the revised rule system yet.
*Note that these are Quickstart rules, and as such, any modifications are subject to the same revisions that Call of Cthulhu's 6E Quickstart experienced.

Putting the Focus on Percentages. (Mixed)

The first thing I looked at in the Quickstart was the new Investigator Sheet.  On it, what popped out to me immediately was the way that skill and characteristic entries were spit into three parts, a larger section for an entry, then two more to its immediate right, split into two, one stacked on top of the other.  Essentially, everything is now focused on a starting percentage, then half that, then 1/5.  Those familiar with BRP know that success with rolls traditionally falls into three categories:
a) Regular Successes (Less than or equal to skill percentage)
b) Impale (Less than or equal to one-fifth of skill percentage)
c) Critical Success (01 showing on the dice)
This revision means that we're focusing on difficulty of skill challenges, rather than level of success.  A hard skill check is usually one made at halved ability.  An difficult skill check is one made at 1/5 ability.
What this means for veteran BRP players, is that when you create an investigator, he will no longer have a STR of 3-18.  It will now be a STR between 15 and 90.  When someone asks me, as a keeper, how attractive a character is, I'll have to respond, "Oh, he/she is an APP 75, rather than an APP 15."  I'm of two minds about this.  Obviously, the higher number really only has to do with skill checks, which makes things a bit easier on the player end, as they no longer have to know what an Effort roll, or a Stamina roll, or an Agility roll is.  I can just ask for regular DEX rolls, and they already have that percentage without multiplying by 5.
On the other hand, I'm really going to miss rolling a 3d6 in front of players and saying, casually, "Oh, she's an APP 18.  You all now have the hots for this random, smelly, beggar woman in the street you've been accosting."  I now have to multiply that by five.  I just don't like it.  Though, I may just modify it to fit my own ends.  An APP 18 is basically a 9/10.  Which works out semi-well.  Still.  On the fence.  Mechanically it works well.  For flow...I'll have to see.
From the look of the investigator sheet, this focus on the three numbers is not likely to change, however, I'm hoping they reinstate rolling for characteristics, as it adds a more intimate thought process in creating investigators.  It's likely, though, that they will stick with choosing starting percentages and add rolling as an alternate form of CharGen.

Additional dice for rolls (Approve)

As something that was described to me months prior to this release, I was very excited to see how the mechanic developed.  I'm happy to see that things haven't changed.  Essentially it is an evolution of the d100 dice roll mechanic, this time including bonuses for player ingenuity or lack thereof.
Essentially, if an investigator needs to make a skill or characteristic roll and their player has set up a way to give them some kind of advantage, they are given an extra 'tens' die as an advantage die to roll along with their standard skill roll.  The player is then able to choose the lower dice roll from the two 'tens' dice.
Of course, along with advantage dice, there are also disadvantage dice.  If an investigator is experiencing a situation where they would be handicapped somehow in their actions, an additional 'tens' die is rolled, and the player must now choose the higher 'tens' die.
I'm a fan of this mechanic for a few reasons, but primarily it encourages players to strategize beyond "I shoot this guy," or "I interrogate this woman."  It adds incentive for gameplay beyond dice rolling for the storyteller players, while incentivizing hardcore dice-rollers with a bonus should they try to think around corners or outside the box.
It's also ambiguous whether or not a player can roll multiple advantage or disadvantage dice at once, but for Call of Cthulhu, I'm seeing a likelihood of multiple disadvantage dice.  I'm looking forward to them, personally.

Faster combat (Approve)

The most surprising aspect of the 7th Edition rules update is the way combat is being streamlined.  The DEX system is still in effect, even the way it's now utterly bloated by changing DEX ranks to reflect your percentagized Dexterity, rather than the standard lower numbers.  This, however is an easy homebrew fix.  No, what I'm loving about this update is the way that combat exchanges have evolved.
It used to work that each turn you were attacked, you had a chance to dodge the attack.  Now, you can either attempt a dodge, thus avoiding the attack entirely, or a counterattack which, if successful, negates any damage that would be dealt to you and deals damage to your attacker.  There are some issues with this, specifically that most players will now utterly ignore the dodge skill in favor of their chosen combat skill.  It seems like there needs to be some sort of incentive to avoid attacks entirely, rather than simply parry/counter all the time.
I can see this becoming an issue more in combat-heavy BRP games rather than Call of Cthulhu, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed.  It's also ambiguous if the counter ability is a hand-to-hand option only or is applicable to long-range/firearm attacks as well.  The way it looks right now, it's something that is going to be one of the most house-ruled new options being presented in this update.  It's also something I'm going to test tonight in my BRP game, because it has the ability to speed combat up drastically, which is something I am always 100% in favor of.

Revisions to Luck (Mixed)

The Luck roll has become one of the most popular mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, appearing in a multitude of scenarios, and is one of the most important rolls to make in the game, along with Sanity, Spot Hidden, and Dodge.  The way things have changed, is that Luck is no longer based off a character's POW attribute.  It is rolled at the end of investigator generation, a [3d6]x5 roll, creating a percentage that is recorded much like SAN in previous iterations of Call of Cthulhu.  On the positive side, this serves to create a variation between characters, in the sense that a high POW investigator can now be unlucky or lucky, a decision before which made every veteran player interested in survivability choose POW as their highest attribute, as it was indeed, and with no pun intended, overPOWered.  Ouch.
My only issue with this, thus far, is that while Luck is now recorded like SAN, the Quick-Start rules do not list ways for Luck to be reduced, only used.  This seems like a significant oversight on Chaosium's part, as Keepers now have to homebrew rules for Luck reduction, as well as having the option to give off Luck rewards at the end of campaigns as well as SAN rewards.

Credit Rating and Income Elimination (Approve)

Compared to Luck, in most of my Call of Cthulhu games, a Credit Rating check almost never occurred, despite many of the games occurring in the 1890's/1920's settings.  Most players simply rolled exceptionally well on their income d10 and ignored Credit Rating.  It seems now that the two have merged in a beautiful, synergistic way listed on the left.
I'm unsure how the actual rulebook will associate dollar values with this table, but most of the time, players ignored their numerated cash in favor of their wealth levels, anyway.  I think that looking at it this way, giving players the option to choose their wealth level through skill points, rather than blind luck, is a more meaningful choice.  Adding it to class skills is another good move.  Do you want to be a better Author/Professor/Scientist, or do you want to sacrifice some of your initial skill for wealth and recognition?  It's just another way of forcing potentially unconscious players into making informed choices in investigator creation, which is always a plus in my book, as it adds to immersion, and puts stories in the player's head.
Why does my policeman have a 60% in Credit rating but only a 20% in Law?  Oh, it's because he's crooked as all hell.

Going Crazy (Approve)

Ah yes, the ultimate destination of any investigator: the loony-bin.  The overall mechanics have changed very little, and it's likely we'll see a return of the d10 Temporary Insanity chart with the official rulebook release, but I'm liking the concept of what the Quick-Start rules have written down.  When a investigator suffers 5 or more Sanity Point losses at once, he is given a temporary insanity in 6E.  A d10 was rolled, and the investigator had to act out how they went crazy.  The problem with this was that players never wanted their avatars to do something suicidal or too dangerous with this roleplaying.  Now, the Keeper takes control of the investigator for a certain period of time, acting out the insanity.
At the same time the system has been streamlined by possibly eliminating the 1/5 sanity loss - indefinite insanity ruling.  Now, whenever you suffer a temporary insanity, you gain a phobia.  These will obviously stack, and I'm looking forward to homebrewing a tic system where multiple phobias of the same type stack to give investigators extra disadvantages while exposed to their fears.  This will hopefully eliminate some of the scrambling through rulebooks my group experiences when dealing with insanity.


Obviously a Quick-Start guide can't be all-inclusive: that's what a Core book is for.  However, there are some aspects of Call of Cthulhu I'm hoping experienced some modifications.  The Magic system, for one.  It's pretty bloated as-is, and hopefully some of the streamlining taking place in 7E will carry over.  A better listing of Mythos Tomes is also something I could stand to see.  The bestiary can pretty much carry over, it's got a good system already, but I'm guessing it will see a similar revision to its numbering system as the investigator sheets are.  Lastly, I'm hoping to see a new Scenario at the back of 7E.  The Quick-Start has the Haunting, a solid Call of Cthulhu introductory game that has been a series staple, but I definitely want to have some fresh meat in the new book.
Overall, I'm definitely looking forward to the updated rules, and I'm going to see how some of them play tonight in a non-Call of Cthulhu setting.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Roleplaying: A Listless Preamble

Of all my addictions, the things that make me stare off into space when I'm around other people or look blankly at wall tiles when I'm in the shower, role playing is the one that figures most into those situations.  As a relative newcomer to the world of RPing, starting with the partially-vilified D&D 4E in mid 2008, it surprised me how excited I was to get into the lifestyle.  How it fit me so well, and that I engaged in it with such enthusiasm.  Rolling dice was great, playing a role was better.  It wasn't long before I started taking pen to paper and began home-brewing races and classes for 4E.  Shortly after that, I moved to a new city and started writing with the intent of running a game.  DMing.
It was only until a year ago that I realized that I've wanted to be a DM almost all my life.  My first experience with Dungeons & Dragons, if it even was that, was in a summer camp.  One of the counselors was a bespectacled blond guy with what I'm assuming was bad acne, but he was a big kid, and when he started talking about character sheets, or that you could pretend to be Dwarves or Elves or humans or Half-Orcs in this tavern he was telling you about, I had to listen in.  No dice were rolled, I never touched a character sheet, but I sat entranced as I, and four other people who I didn't even necessarily like, destroyed this bar after the town guard came in because of a noise complaint.  The next day, for some reason I was out of the game.  I think my character drank poison or something.  So I found two other kids whose characters had been killed off and started them off in a game of my own, set in feudal Japan, as understood by a ten-year-old kid who'd only seen Johnny Quest go there, or the American Ninja reminisce about his time there.  There were sensei and ninja and samurai, and ninja magic.  And potions that I gave out at first level that turned the players into fire-breathing scorpions.
I went home, and somehow forgot about Dungeons and Dragons.  I started playing more videogames.  Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage filled my life until I got my own PC and Blizzard released Diablo and Starcraft, respectively.  Diablo was the hack and slash fantasy I'd lived out (and forgotten), in my summer camp childhood.  Starcraft had a map editor, where people converted games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy into half-hour versions, shooting Zerglings that were turned into Reptites in my mind's eye.  The Map Editor was a powerful tool, where you could tell your own stories, turn them into bite-sized RPGs, and unleash them on the rest of the gaming world.  I never completed any, but I started more than my fair share.  I got the furthest with South Park RPG before Brood War arrived and I began editing together a Fallout map, having been a fan of the series from the original to Fallout: Tactics.  Eventually a new game arrived, but I kept writing stories meant for other people to play.  Some turned into embarrassing fan-fiction, where my Mary Sue character would be a cool, collected NPC that, in all likelihood, my players today would Sneak Attack into a shallow, unmarked grave set in Golgotha, right outside New Reno.
Now, with this new year, I have twelve months to run games.  My first long-term game expired last year with a brutal TPK, and I've been treating my itch with mini-campaigns.  Four-session resolution games.  Finding the right system.  I'm sitting in front of what is likely half a grand worth of Rule Books for various systems, and my mind swims with concepts for games.  BRP Land of the Lost, Weird West, Post-Apoc Fallout, Zombie Uprising, Return to Dark Sun, Monsters and Other Childish Things.  Invictus.  Whatever I end up writing, because it will be something I write, I imagine it will be played.  Because I'm not a lonely angsty teenager sitting in front of a desktop with my boxer shorts caked with old microwave burrito farts.  I'm a DM now, and I'm wearing big-boy pants.  And sometime soon, my players will sit in front of me, and I will roll dice, and someone's PC will die.
And it will be the best joke of the night.