Monday, October 20, 2014

Prehistory Fantasy Setting: As Open as One Can Get It

Lately I've challenged myself to conjure up game mechanics that test my players' abilities to improvise and innovate within a particular game setting. Most of my recent game ideas have sprung from the concept of a prehistory fantasy setting, and this conjecture is no different.

I'm curious, to say the least, about what players would do in a setting that asks them to move forward in a four-dimensional campaign, rather than through the traditional three. What if players not only have to solve local temporal issues of 'find this' or 'kill this' or 'save this', but are actually responsible for a culture's progression, technologically-speaking? What if-and this is where my brain starts actually overheating-players were the ones who decided how gods and magic appeared in the world?

What does this mean for players?
Well, obviously it represents a drastic shift in the objectives of the players themselves. They can't be passive receptacles for plot; at least not all the time. Players have to look at their game world not as something static, but as an evolving machine that they do not have all the schematics for.

Obviously there must be strictures in place, because despite our best intentions, there's going to be a type of player that 'decides' he's going to discover that magic comes from his farts. It's important to have the requirements of your world in place, what you might call the world's natural laws. Perhaps the manifestation of magic requires a substantial sacrifice by the user. Perhaps it requires an appeal to a god, who may or may not even exist yet. Having these canonical and physical restrictions in place draw the line between the campaign where players refill their mana by eating beans (god help you, poor GM) and the campaign where one mostly-annoying PC spends a few days in a cave farting and (hopefully) realizes that maybe something else needs to happen first, or in addition to his own flatulence.

There is also the concept of need-based innovation. Fire was invented (or brought down from on high by Prometheus, depending on your worldview) because humanity needed something to keep the chill of night away, or to keep the monsters at bay. Wheels came about due to the need to transport quantities of goods that a normal human couldn't carry effectively on their own. But what if your players don't ever encounter that problem? What if they could bribe a giant into doing all their heavy lifting? The need for innovation drastically decreases when that first 'want' is already alleviated by a historically unorthodox solution (in terms of the real world).

What does this mean for GMs?
As already stated, you need a set of guidelines as to how players will interact with and develop technology; however, this is only for your purposes. The last thing you should be giving players is any kind of handout detailing exactly what, step for step, they need to do to accomplish what they set out to do.

Instead, what you should do is ask your players what their goals are: short term, mid term, and long term. Obviously you should have some quest lines for them to follow while you're plotting out how to incorporate what they want to do in the story BUT - and this is an important but - after finding out what your players want to do, start incorporating some of the how into that generic session. So, for instance, if a player wants to invent or discover wizardry, bring in an NPC character that is old and wizened. Have them be a master in some kind of wizardry (preferably not all wizardry), but also express in their description and dialogue exactly how long it's taken them to master this tiny aspect of the arcane.

Thus, without providing your players with some kind of generic checklist, they get an inkling of the concept of sacrifice and determination that is required to achieve their goals. It gives intuitive players an idea of where to start with their objectives, but allows them to connect the dots without handholding, so they can take the concept of what you've presented and maybe put their own unique spin on it.

Now, obviously, this puts quite a bit of work on the GM in the front-end. You'll be crafting concepts and natural laws in addition to NPCs, quests, conflicts, etc. However, once players get the hang of the concept you're trying to impart onto them, it's likely they'll use the laws you have in place and come up with their own solutions.

Just some food for thought.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cinematic Combat: Replacing Passion with Intuition

GM: "There's an orc guarding this storeroom. He's armed with a shield and a battleaxe."

Player 1: "I attack him with my sword."

GM: "Roll to hit."

P1: "Ugh, 12."

GM: "That misses. He retaliates, attacking you with his axe., too. Next round?"


People are probably familiar with this type of exchange. It's what combat tends to devolve into after the first few (or even one) round of combat. An exchange of blows, followed by another and another. Like a round of Rock'em Sock'em robots. Except more dull, because even if you're using miniatures, all they do is stand there while you constantly lament how much your dice hate you.

This is something I've dealt with on a continuous basis when running combat games, and it's a drag. Combat becomes a slog, players who aren't up start yawning and checking their phones. The only interesting thing happens when you strike the killing blow, and all of a sudden, "You plunge your sword into the orc's trachea, and he falls to the floor, gurgling and drowning in his own blood."

Now, I'm not objecting to GMs providing flavor text to combat, it's the natural first step to something better, something more interesting than a static boxing match.

I've been playing, for this last year, in a long-running Pendragon game, and being immersed in this system means I've had plenty of time to think about its pros and cons. One of the most highly-touted pros is the combat system. Standard knights deal about 5d6 damage with a regular swing of a sword, and double that if they manage to Crit, which happens a lot more frequently than 5% of the time with the Passion mechanic in play.

Game Mechanic Blurb:
Pendragon is a d20-based system, where skills, attributes, traits, and passions are (generally) rated between 1 and 20. You succeed when you roll below your skill, fail when you roll above it, fumble if you roll a 20, and crit if you roll exactly your skill.

HOWEVER, this is only the base mechanic of Pendragon, because there are ways to increase your skills above 20. The most common (temporary) way to increase a skill above 20 is with a successful Passion roll, which adds 10 to a single skill for the duration you need it for. And for any skill above 20, the critical threat range is increased by however many points it is above 20, and fumbles become impossible.

So, say, your base Sword skill is 15. Under normal circumstances, you would succeed on a roll of a 1-14, fail on a roll of 16-19, fumble on a roll of 20, and crit on a roll of 15. However, if you successfully impassion your character's sword skill, it gains a temporary 10 points and becomes a 25-rating skill. This means that you succeed on a roll of 1-14, never fail, never fumble, and crit on a roll of 15-20. Or perhaps you crit your passion, gaining 20 points in your sword skill, bringing it to a 35. You now succeed on a roll of 1-4, and crit on a roll of 5-20.

Suddenly it becomes quite easy to get double damage, doesn't it?

What does this mean? Basically, it means that combat has the high chance of moving speedily along with Pendragon. It's an unlikely and unusual situation for a player to be squaring off for multiple rounds against the same foe. This past week was the first time in ages that it took us more than one or two rounds to dispatch our foes, due to a series of hefty penalties, and instead of creating a depressing slog, we were more engaged than ever, because it was an unusual situation.

So, looking at a system already has mechanics to move combat along speedily, why do anything more? Well, Pendragon is a system where you're supposed to mow through enemies like a scythe. It's also super deadly in the fact that some enemies may also gain bonuses from their passions, and mow through you.

But where does the cinematic flavor come in? How about just before the GM tells you that you stab an orc in the throat? What if, rather than attempting to gain bonuses from a Passion, there was instead a substituted mechanic called Intuition? Instead of thinking really hard about who your player characters are striking their next blow to protect, or how much this really hate this one asshole and his entire culture, the PC discerns the fighting style of his opponent the orc, or realize that his foe's bulky armor prevents him from defending effectively against overhead attacks, or that certain predatory animals have difficulty sensing danger above them.

Try this:

GM: "There's an orc guarding this storeroom. He's armed with a shield and a battleaxe. Is there an Intuition you can utilize?"

Player 1: "I roll my Tactics: Hand-to-Hand...14, success."

GM: "You gauge that with the bulk of his weapon, it's unlikely the orc will be able to utilize it well in extreme close quarters. His use of a shield indicates that he will fight more defensively, and will likely not make the first move. What's your action?"

Player1: "Alright, I charge forward and slam into his defense, forcing him back against the storeroom door, wrench the shield down, and stab, aiming high. With Intuition, my Sword skill is now a 26, and I roll a 16: a crit! 49 damage!"

GM: "The orc fails his roll outright, so your tactic works, the shield drops enough for you to force the end of your blade into his throat with a satisfying crunch. The orc gurgles and slides to the floor, dropping his axe with a clatter."

Now, this sounds like a lot of work, and to be honest, it likely will be the first few times you try it. However, make sure you include your players in this mechanic. Chances are they'll jump at the chance to do something other than stand toe to toe and wail on something for hours on end.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Prehistory Fantasy Setting: Tribes

I've been reading through the Kobold's Guide to Worldbuilding, and one of the articles that really resonated with me was regarding the creation of Tribes, City-States and Nations (a short blurb is also included regarding Empires). They list a tribe as a single community sharing language, race, traditions, etc.

The concept of a tribe's solidarity through race creates a difficulty when running a Fantasy setting: namely that players usually wish to create a diverse spread of characters, so when starting such a game, one must either hamper the players in their choices during CharGen or manufacture a reason for a diverse array of races to come together in what are likely to be seriously xenophobic times.

Now that I've brought this issue up, I'm considering a few methods to solve the problem.

The "Shut Up and Do What I Say" Method:

Obviously I'm not going to word it this way during actual CharGen, but this is basically the method where you (as a GM) inform the players the strictures of the setting, let them know that their choices are either restricted to what you decide for them, or they can try to agree on a mutual race between themselves. I'm kind of liking the idea of the second choice, because it means that after they have argued for an entire session about what race to play, the players will hate you a little less and each other a little more. Don't get me wrong, they'll still hate you a little. You are trying to kill their characters, after all.

The "Do What You Want, I'll Try To Make It Work" Method:

This is, obviously, the opposite of the SUaDWIS Method. Here, you give players the setting, and let them run (mostly) wild with their character choices, and then work the campaign around those decisions. Perhaps they are some kind of fellowship (centered around some kind of mystical engagement jewelry), or perhaps they have been enslaved and have been forced to travel together (like every Dark Sun game ever). Perhaps you can create a more original reason for their diverse group of adventurers to buddy up.

The CRPG Method:

I say CRPG because it's easy to place videogames and computer games under a single umbrella. CRPG could stand for computer RPG or console RPG; regardless, the expression here is in regards to the occasional mechanic of having players 'unlock' various races/classes/etc for later play. This concept really only works if I'm planning on running a game where alternate races are not only slowly introduced to the players, but the ability for the races to coexist is also slowly implemented. Of course this also creates a tension between players and GMs as you may be constantly introducing cool races, while at the same time putting a gameplay block between players and mechanics for...reasons. However, what stands in favor of this method is the idea that players will encounter these races, and so will have an idea of their makeup, their cultural values, and how they interact with others before they choose to play them as a race. This has the ability to cut down on players playing themselves rather than playing their characters.

I'm honestly unsure which tactic I'm going to choose to roll with (or even if I'm going to use any of these), but I thought I'd get my brain in the game again.

Also, as a sort of post-script, I seem to have a really tough time coming back to blog posts after I've saved them, rather than knocking out an entire post in one go, which is actually super easy for me. Just a random thought.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Actual Play: Call of Cthulhu - The Fall Without End

So a few weeks back my good friend Susan Steward introduced us to Caleb Stokes' No Security one-shot, "The Fall Without End." She, being a fantastic GM, converted the skill checks on the fly quite seamlessly to the Call of Cthulhu system, and we had a jolly time getting to know the setting and backstory of the scenario.

...Unfortunately, what Susan experienced on that day was a perfect storm of willful players twisting character motivations in such a way as to entirely derail a plot. If you want a perfect example of exactly the types of players you don't want at your table come one-shot day, listen in.

You see, sometimes players hit walls in your campaign, and you are eventually given a choice. You can either run with what idiotic decisions they decide to make, potentially ruining all your carefully-laid plans or you can be a good sport about it and let them dig themselves into a hole so deep the schadenfreude alone is enough to keep you warm at night.

Susan, I applaud you for letting go of the reins and allowing us to make a memorable game out of a catastrophic train derailment.

And if you're Caleb Stokes, we're really sorry.

Crit This: Call of Cthulhu one-shot: The Fall Without End

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Prehistory Fantasy Setting

I've been lax in posting on the blog, I blame my own laziness, my wanting to hang out with a good gaming buddy before she leaves Santa Fe forever, and my own laziness. And anime, and videogames.

Regardless, when I've made time to write gaming stuff, I've focused on a few themes, all of which I've discussed as campaign pipe dreams in my talks on the Unabashed Gaming podcast, but today I'm going to try to word-dump about the game that intrigues me the most about writing/running:

Paleolithic D&D, or more specifically, Prehistory Fantasy Setting. Because there's no way in hell I can mesh this setting with traditional D&D.

What initially drew me to this concept was the realization that players who engage in fantasy roleplaying tend to know all the tropes. They read through the supplemental material, and if you throw a floating many-eyeballed creature at them, they instinctively know it's a Beholder. And that line between player knowledge and character knowledge is super thin, because in the D&D world, a lot of it has been explored and recorded.

Now, looking at my more embraced roots with Call of Cthulhu, even if your players know what a Shoggoth is, their characters have no idea what this protoplasmic mass of bubbles flooding its way toward them is. They don't know what a night-gaunt is. Maybe it's a vampire, or a gargoyle. Or a demon! Call of Cthulhu is all about describing what creatures look like, using sweeping generalities, because characters are not sticking around to draw detailed anatomies of them, unless they're Richard Upton Pickman, and fuck you no one is playing Richard Upton Pickman.

Regardless, this line of thought (coupled with a few sessions spent playing the world-building game Dawn of Worlds) brought me into thinking about the origins of races in D&D, and how they tried to survive in their earliest days. I decided it would be interesting to try to take a party through a hypothetical wooly mammoth hunt, or an encounter with a migrating family of sabertooth tigers. Taking the concept of assigned quests to be exactly that; journeys into the unknown, encountering unfamiliar sites, sounds, and creatures, and returning back to their homes with new stories, trophies, and scars.

I won't get into the minutiae on this post, but I'll drop some future post ideas here for my own personal use later on. Topics such as:

-Which system to use/base this setting off of?
-What fantasy races to include, what unconventional fantasy races to use?
-Whether to incorporate interaction between the fantasy races, or should xenophobia prevail?
-How to incorporate migration, agriculture, etc.
-Whether to include civilizations that are (somewhat) more advanced than those of the player characters.
-Ideas for the types of quests players would embark upon.

Hopefully I'll return to these concepts later.

For now, I'm out.